Is It Time For fnatic To Get Evil?

We all know fnatic. They are e-sports staples. Everything they have touched has, eventually, turned to gold… Usually before fading into silver, bronze, then black as the requisite drop kicks in as market forces shift. They’re smart like that.

They brought in a working academy system that worked for players and managers alike, the teams being progressed into salaried spots once the game was big enough to sustain it and the players could justify such expense through results. They picked up a team in the early days of CS:S that was the first ever European team to have a dynasty and did so back when the game was worth a damn. They fought of CGS and stood steadfast in the face of corporate bullying. Then, when the game hit its decline, they ditched it and only looked back once before realising they were right all along.

Now I have to wonder, following the announcement of another change to their fading 1.6 team, are they missing the opportunity to walk away at the right time, reputation intact, freeing up resources for the future of e-sports as opposed to clinging to what is clearly now becoming part of the past.

At least, that’s what my gut would tell me to be the case. Recently the 1.6 squad has made more headlines not for its running battles with SK Gaming, who poached their crown jewels, on the server but rather they way they sling mud at each other through the e-sports press. Both pretend to be paragons of virtue, while the reality is far muddier – both sets of management have ultimately engaged in practices that they have openly decried as somehow being wrong. If you doubt that, watch aLive turn up in a fnatic jersey despite both organisation and player denying any ties… That alone would provide more twists and turns related drama than anything that happened in the weekend’s royal rumble. Any doubt as to how SK Gaming like their eggs in the morning can be answered by looking at their “transfer” policy – poached is very much the order of the day.

The death knell of 1.6 has already began to chime. It’s amazing it has come so late in the day but we’re about there and you’d only have to look around you to see that writing on the wall. Sure, there are the enthusiasts who have a hard drive full of screenshots with the spectators circled as if that somehow means something, and there’s probably even more who would say that 1.6 will live forever. Still, those who don’t have their heads in the shifting sands can look around and see how attitudes have changed towards the game.

Recently Scott “SirScoots” Smith went public about Evil Genius’s decision to release their 1.6 team, and indeed step away from the game. He declared that there was little future in it, certainly in the North American scene and alluded to the fact that they kept on their loyal servant and star player Jordan “n0thing” Gilbert on the books just in case CS:GO actually did something worth talking about.

Evil Geniuses are no slouches when it comes to matters e-sports. They are usually ahead of the curve and in the games they recognise as being worth their attentions – namely SC2, WoW, DotA 2, SF IV and Quake – and have snapped up some of the biggest names available at every opportunity. Clearly, if they decide to walk away from a game, one where they had easily the best team on their continent and had dominated for some time, then something has changed. You don’t need to be a genius, evil or otherwise, to figure out what it is but let’s just sum it up with a question – do any of you believe for a second that an e-sports star like Gilbert has the same bankability as someone like Lee “PuMa” Ho Joon, Isaac “Azael” Cummings-Bentley or Jimmy “DeMoN” Ho?

People will say that 1.6 remains a “big draw” if we look at sheer numbers. People will point out that those numbers mean little if you consider where the bulk of them come from, which is true. Yet even if it wasn’t, it makes no odds when there are e-sports titles out there that are played by millions of players as opposed to tens of thousands. Hell, even if EVERY 1.6 player in the world were to sit down and spectate the game, the numbers would still be eclipsed by LoL and SC2. There’s no escaping that fact and saying that you’re a better game than CS:S is kind of like trying to comfort yourself by taunting a quadraplegic after you’ve had both your legs amputated… “At least I can still use my ARMS fucker!”

There’s still some small value in having the top 1.6 team around for the last run around with the game. It adds plenty of hits to your website, it adds some gold to your achievements page and it gives you a percentage of the winnings that should cover the salary or thereabouts. It makes sense. But really, if you can look at the team and know in your heart of hearts you’re going to be laying out serious money for them to travel round the world picking up chump change and mediocre finishes, what’s the point?

And there’s my main contention. Fnatic did the right thing by sticking with their loyal players when the great split occurred. They backed the players who were the foundation of the team and it’s rare managers will do the right thing, all too often seduced by the bigger names and the dollar signs, the same way they criticise the players for being. But long term, it hasn’t really worked out, and while SK Gaming have been contesting finals, fnatic have been lucky to see the semis in most of the big competitions they’ve attended, putting them on a par with the other mediocre line-ups Sweden throws up, safe in the knowledge that an “average” Swedish line-up can still attend an event and be guaranteed a 5th/8th finish.

The problems within the fnatic line-up are many and it’s not going to be resolved by adding one player, no matter how talented. The team were successful for so long because they were solid, stable, drilled. None of those apply now as once again the leaky ship is patched up for another voyage that will see the players spending more time syphoning water out of the vessel rather than enjoying the cruise. Indeed, that metaphor is longer than the average life-span of a fnatic line-up these days, so what is the point in it all?

I can lay no claims to knowing the inner workings of the fnatic organisation. I know that generally I admire them for what they do and whenever I’ve interacted with the management team they have seen to be right on guys, solid people. But it’s clear that, right now, the organisation is going through some changes. A main sponsor switch has left some people asking questions (in the eyes of many Raidcall is something of a second prize to MSI’s lead sponsorship) and the complete overhaul of their SC2 division will come at great cost.

No room for dead weight then? Well, that definition isn’t so cut and dry. Sure, they do still have a CoD 4 team on the books, an inactive team playing an inactive game, but I can’t believe for a second that they eat up that many resources anyway – No jokes about my good friend Johan “miRACLE” Gärtner here please. I know first hand 1.6 teams don’t come cheap and right now the organisation is losing ground in League of Legends, settling on a DotA 2 team and ignoring other games with wide appeal completely.

Even if none of this were true, even if you thought me mad, let’s just look at it from a fans point of view. E-sports is replete with examples of players and teams that just kept on going, that had at one time scaled the heights but now made you sadder and sadder with each outing, limping to finishes that would have shamed them in their heyday. Fnatic were a dominant force in 1.6 but no longer and each day that continues it taints the legacy and it costs money for the privilege. A team of impressive individuals they may still have but fnatic were always much more than that, back when they had even more impressive individuals than they do now. What hope a return to even close to the top spot?

So, with the game set to be dominated until the end by names that have had their fair share of success already, the sound advice would be to get out and look to the future as opposed to taking a blind punt on replicating the past. If it’s good enough for EG, then it’s good enough for anyone. It just goes to show that no matter how good you are at something you can still learn a lesson or two from other people out there.