16-17 November saw Cologne's ESL studio playing host to the EU Regional Smite Championships. In case you're unfamiliar, Smite is a lane pushing game with third-person camera view. It's like playing League of Legends except you're down on the map with the characters. The Jumanji of MOBAs, perhaps? Anyway - here's our report from the European leg of the eSports tournament.
It's the grand final of the European Regional Smite Championships and Aquila are about to face off against SK Gaming. The atmosphere is a strange one for a grand final. The majority of eSports events pile on the pressure as they near their big finale. With this one there's actually far less riding on this last match than on the two preceding semifinals. That's because both Aquila and SK have – in some senses – already won.
The reasoning is simple: the best two teams from Europe are going on to represent their region at the Smite World Championships in Atlanta, Georgia in early January. That meant winning the semifinal match was crucial to qualifying for Worlds. With that job done, Aquila and SK seem more relaxed. Some of the afternoon's pressure has dissipated and they're now duking it out for the regional prize money ($25,000 for first, $10,000 for second) and seeding for Worlds brackets.
"I think the finals are not going to be people playing 100%," Marcus 'Realzx' Vining had told me the previous day. He plays the hunter role for SK Gaming - it's Smite's version of an AD carry. "Obviously they're going to try hard but it's going to be in the back of the head of all ten players in that final, 'We've already qualified'."
But that was yesterday. As the first game of the match gets underway Realzx and his team look as intense and are as vocal as they have done in every game of the tournament. The only difference is that before the match begins both teams scoot up to the centre of the mid lane and line up for a surprise group shot. It's a really lovely moment... then the teams pull back and prepare for battle.
Aquila and SK both came to the Regional Championships as underdogs. Aquila were the top team in the Challenger Cup (the amateur competition which offers a wildcard route in to Worlds) and secured their spot via the wildcard playoffs. As a result they were clearly an impressive bunch and have been picked up by Cognitive Gaming, but they were also an unknown quantity in terms of how they measured up to the pro teams and came with virtually zero LAN experience.
SK started strong in the pro league with a victory at the season's kick-off LAN event but had a rough season which landed them second from bottom in the pro league and forced them to participate in the wildcards too. But the thing about SK is that despite technically being underdogs they also tend to come into their own at LAN. In the tournament so far that reputation had proven justified with SK not dropping a single game as they took out Team SoloMid and Mortality eSports.
Looking over at both teams as they face-off in this grand final there's an element of teen dance movie underdog about Aquila. Their official team jerseys didn't arrive in time so the squad has been playing all weekend in their own clothes with an Aquila bandana tied around their right arm. They're a curious rag tag bunch in comparison with SK and their neatly branded navy hoodies and polo necks. At one point Ataraxia, Aquila's hunter, notices his bandana has accidentally been tied on upside down.
The first game of the best of three gets underway and, frankly, SK look monstrous. I'm interviewing Bart Koenigsberg – Hi-Rez's eSports manager – as it plays out but we're both keeping an eye on the screen. At 19 minutes I look over and SK have 17 kills to Aquila's 6. Aquila have also lost 3 towers, which are the defensive buildings which help defend a lane, and are trailing by about 12 thousand XP and 9 thousand gold. At 22 minutes the kill difference has widened to 20-6, another tower is gone and SK have increased their gold lead by another thousand or so. Aquila have a late-game friendly lineup but it's really not looking good.
At this point, though, you can't help but remember their second game of the weekend. They'd just lost their first game to Cloud9 and the second was heading in a similar direction. In fact, the match was looking so "over" that Bart had leapt up from his seat nearby and headed downstairs to prepare for the next commentary section. Cloud9 were actually in Aquila's base attacking the end-game objective – the titan. But then KanyeLife happened.
"He never gave up, he was always saying we could do this, we could come back," says Nate 'Ataraxia' Mark of Aquila - he of the upside-down bandana. "We lost three phoenixes [the Smite equivalent of LoL's inhibitors], the titan was on 2HP and they had a Nu Wa who can get it down really quickly. [The comeback was] not luck but it was definitely unexpected."
"I saw everybody hanging out in the fountain, not knowing if they should continue the fight and KanyeLife just went in and used his ult on everybody," says Aquila coach Job 'CaptCoach' Hilbers. "Whenever we need to come through the guys come through – they just make it happen. I don't know why it always has to be at the end but they make it happen!"
It seems that Aquila has a knack for stressing their coach out as he watches the final from his front row seat and they go to two phoenixes down before getting their heads back in the game and forcing a victory over SK. The first time the latter have lost this whole weekend. "I'm not kidding – I have a disfunctioning heart and I think this is going to be the end of me at some point!" CaptCoach jokes later.
Ataraxia is more serious when I talk to him about the victory. He acknowledges that what Realzx predicted the day before is exactly what happened with Aquila. "I was so relaxed because there was no pressure. We'd done what we came to do," he says. "At the start of the game we weren't as serious as we should have been and it was unfair to SK to do that. We should have been more serious and my professional apologies [to them] because it was unprofessional but we switched on and Confrey got us back in line."
Confrey is Aquila's solo laner and CaptCoach echoes Ataraxia's praise of him. "They weren't doing their best except for Confrey – throughout the entire tournament I think we'd call him the MVP. Always on top of his game, always doing what he was supposed to – he pulled this guy [he indicates Ataraxia] back."
The second match of the best of three is far more clearly Aquila's and closes out just at the 22 minute mark, 22 kills to SK's 1. The team from the amateur league will be going to Atlanta $25,000 richer and with a hefty piece of silverware on their collective mantlepiece.
I speak to Realzx after the teams have finished with the prize-giving ceremony and ask what happened. With that second game it felt like SK tilted hard. Perhaps that knowledge they were already going to Worlds combined with the loss of that first game made it harder to galvanise the team - it had been an exhausting day and the major prize had already been taken care of.
"They had a really good late game comp which worked out because it got to that stage. After that it's hard to keep the mindset, you know? After that we had a really rough start to the next game and couldn't come back from it [...] You could say we tilted but it really comes down to one player's small mistake that cost us the first game, then everyone made small mistakes in the first part of the second game so we were just too far behind," he tells me. "I wouldn't really say it was a tilt – bad mistakes and a few bad decisions."
But even though they lost out on the trophy and the extra cash, SK are still going to Worlds and with $10,000 in winnings.
The money side of things is worth a mention because the previous day Realzx and Ataraxia both talked to me about their eSports career plans. Ataraxia studies psychology at the University of Liverpool but had already spoken to his tutors about suspending studies for a year if the team qualified for Worlds. "I'm ready to commit to eSports," he says.
Realzx recently quit his job in order to focus on Smite. "I've played high level in every game since I was eleven years old – Firefall, Counter-Strike, World of Warcraft – and to finally be in a position when I'm old enough and comfortable financially to leave my job and pursue this career..." He adds that quitting served as a kind of statement of intent and a motivational boost to the rest of SK. This is serious business.
The Worlds qualification shores up those choices for now, and the way that the upcoming prize pool will be split means all teams who make it to Worlds are guaranteed to leave with at least $16,000. But both players are keeping a (sensibly) wary eye on how the Smite pro scene develops to determine its ongoing viability.
In terms of representing Europe, I'm glad Aquila and SK are going through because I like their attitudes to the game. Aquila has more of a considered collective element to it – you can see that in the fact there's no single shotcaller on the team anymore. Instead, the players each have a general area they're responsible for – Ataraxia takes care of drafting, for example, while PrettyPrime is tasked with keeping an eye on the broader strategising of the game and KanyeLife ensures everyone keeps communicating throughout the games.
SK Gaming are vocal. You can hear them shouting commands and thumping tables from the floor above in the ESL building. It's an aggressive energy but one which, as far as I can tell, is constrained to the matches. Talking to Realzx in the interviews over the weekend he's far more reserved than he is while at the PC, his answers calm, measured and to the point. He tells me that when he's playing regular games at home he can be an angry player but that attitude is something he works on, not least because Smite is his job now. "I try to encourage it in the team as well. Not everyone's like that. I've been in eSports my whole life and it's just nice to see players not being idiots and being professional."
As for what happens between now and January, there's the switch into research mode. The North American regional championship took place over the weekend and the Brazilian, Latin American and Chinese qualifiers will be played out over the next few weeks. Watching those matches could offer vital clues as to playstyles and team weaknesses. SK will also be analysing what went wrong in that final match of the EU Championships.
"There's loads of stuff we can take away and look at it and improve ourselves," says Realzx. "Obviously you can improve yourself because you lost so you must have done something wrong. There are things we can do a lot better."
But before any of that, a bit of downtime for both; a breather after the stresses of the qualifiers. Well. A breather and an upgraded home internet connection for Ataraxia - "I won't have to risk missing practice – I can stop feeding and play properly!"
Photos by ESL/Helena Kristiansson