When Fnatic was eliminated from the 2021 League of Legends European Championship Spring Playoffs in a lower bracket sweep at the hands of FC Schalke 04 Esports, it was a punctuation mark on one of the darker sentences in the organization's history. The last time Fnatic finished 5th in the post-season was in the spring of 2016, a year in which the squad go on to miss the League of Legends World Championship for only the second time in Fnatic's history as an organization.
The result was a roster shuffle that came under nigh-unparalleled scrutiny in the mid-season: top laner Gabriël "Bwipo" Rau would be swapping to jungle while top laner Adam "Adam" Maanane, fresh off of a EU Masters championship that spring with La Ligue Française 2021 champion Karmine Corp. The swap was thought to do little to restore the veteran members' of Fnatic's previous form, particularly in the case of support Zdravets "Hylissang" Iliev Galabov, who slumped in spring.
Bwipo thrived in his new jungler role and the rest of his roster seemed to reach new heights around him, LEC rookie Adam included. Fnatic had to settle for a lower bracket seed in the 2021 LEC Summer Playoffs because it lost its last four matches of the Summer Split, but Fnatic came alive in the post-season and defeated Team Vitality, Misfits and G2 Esports to qualify for Worlds 2021 as one of the LEC's three representative seeds.
Let's take a look at how Bwipo's roleswap to the jungle helped Fnatic reach previously unattainable heights, the characteristics of Bwipo as a player that suited a transition to jungle from top lane, and how these factors helped Fnatic in its lower bracket run throughout the LEC Summer Playoffs to qualify for the 2021 League of Legends World Championship.
Test of vitality
Fnatic's lower bracket run throughout the 2021 LEC Summer Playoffs has been nothing short of incredible. FNC won three back-to-back best-of-five series' to qualify for Worlds 2021, with each series going all five games, but its first lower bracket win against Team Vitality might have been its most important. Up against its former jungler from as recent as spring in Oskar "Selfmade" Boderek, Fnatic and Bwipo made a point to try and keep Selfmade off balance and hungry for resources.
Bwipo and the rest of Fnatic were able to form a game plan against VIT because of the organization's familiarity with Selfmade, who had joined Fnatic at the start of 2020 after an impressive rookie season on SK Gaming in 2019. Specifically, Bwipo's experience as Selfmade's top laner before slotting into the jungle itself gave Fnatic unique insights leading up to the series.
"In general, in my experience, I worked well with Selfmade because I was always willing to give to the jungler, in my opinion," Bwipo explained to Inven Global of his top lane style with Selfmade on the Fnatic starting roster. "To me, that felt very natural because that's how we played: give a little bit — doesn't have to be much — to make sure your jungler is comfortable."
Because Bwipo was confident in the rest of his team triumphing over their respective counterparts on Team Vitality, the Fnatic jungler's focus was entirely on squeezing Selfmade where it hurt. "I know that he is a jungler that demands resources from his laners in order to get what he needs to play and I tried to use that to my advantage to put them in some tough spots sometimes and get some value there," Bwipo explained.
The contentious series allowed Fnatic to not only triumph over VIT, but repeat the same feat against similar levels of competitive adversity in its subsequent matchups against Misfits and G2 Esports. Hylissang told Inven Global that he attributed the team's ability to continue gaining momentum in the lower bracket was a result of the nature of the team's series against Team Vitality.
"We got exposed a lot and still managing to win was very important because we are in the lower bracket," Hylissang explained. "That series against Vitality made us stronger.
Fnatic's post-season run has been impressive thus far, but none of it would have been possible with the improvements the team made following Bwipo's roleswap to jungle. So how exactly did Fnatic improve? A multitude of ways, in fact. Adam thrived in his LEC debut and his strong performance continued throughout the Summer Split, resulting in the French top laner netting 15 solo kills in his inaugural split and earning Rookie of the Split honors for the 2021 LEC Summer Split.
Fnatic mid laner Yasin "Nisqy" Dincer's performance also improved with Bwipo in the jungle compared to Selfmade — even though Nisqy's CSPM was slightly lower, his lane advantages, KDA, and damage per minute were far higher than they were on Fnatic's spring roster, and in Bwipo's skirmish-heavy style of jungling, the FNC mid laner thrived in providing consistent damage regardless of the chaotic nature of whatever match in which Fnatic was competing.
Fnatic's bot lane of Hylissang and AD Carry Elias "Upset" Lipp benefitted the most from Bwipo's roleswap. Not only did Hylissang come back from his spring slump, but he and Upset established themselves as the best bot lane in the West and arguably a top 3 bot lane in the world throughout summer. Hylissang spoke to Inven Global about how his synergy had adapted and changed with Bwipo over the years compared to his time as a top laner to now as a jungler.
"I would not say there is much difference in the synergy between Bwipo and I compared to when he was a top laner and now as a jungler. When he was a top laner and playing next to me in the river or something, we had a lot of time to find fights, picks, or just play for vision," Hylissang explained.
"Now that he's a jungler, even though it sounds weird, he needs to actually go back to his camps and kill them. Then he has a smaller timer where you can look for fights and picks. I thought that would be a bit more different, but while there are smaller timers, there are more frequent timers to play with him, so I like him as a jungler way more," Hylissang continued.
"He doesn't meet with me just once every six or seven minutes or whenever Teleport is ready, so I like it. The only difference might be on ranged champions, but when he's on melee champions, it's pretty similar in fights.
Breaking the game
There is no doubt that Bwipo has successfully transitioned to the jungle role on a professional, competitive level, but what about his style of play allowed this seamlessness. Bwipo was quick to name what came naturally to him as a jungler following his mid-season role swap.
"Killing people came pretty naturally," Bwipo said matter-of-factly, chuckling after the bluntness of his own answer. "Having a bit more time in the early game to move around is something that I felt pretty good about." Bwipo also mentioned how he approached his new role in a way that would let his bot lane of Upset and Hylissang thrive and reach a new level as a duo previously unseen in spring.
"When I came into the swap, I was very much in the mindset of trying to be available for them and trying to give them the space and opportunities they want and need to get the game going well for them," Bwipo explained when speaking of Upset and Hylissang's summer improvement. But outside of Fnatic itself, how exactly did Bwipo find a way to succeed in the jungle role? The answer is in one word in Bwipo's last quote: killing.
Bwipo, regardless of his deaths or even success in teamfights regardless of life or death, spends more time fighting than any jungler in the LEC thoroughout all stages of the game. This is often a result of Bwipo's competitive approach prioritizing unpredictability above else.
"I always try to break the rules of the game...there are a certain set of macro rules that professional League of Legends players follow...Recognizing the timings where people have a plausible reason for me to be somewhere, only for me to not be there, is what I pride myself on," Bwipo explained of his approach to competitive League of Legends. "I think when playing any role I just like breaking the game and breaking people's beliefs of how the game should be played. I'm doing it my way."
Bwipo's success in the jungle is symbiotic of Fnatic's success as a team, and while that doesn't mean Bwipo is the only player doing anything for Fnatic, it also confirms that the team, at least, in its 2021 iteration, is far better off with him in the jungle than the top lane. While his mid-season roleswap came under understandable scrutiny initially, Hylissang explained why he was confident in Bwipo being able to succeed in a new role despite a mid-season swap.
"I think he's just very smart as a player. I'm sure if he wanted to change to any role, he would do it and he would be great at it."
All images by: Michal Konkol/Riot Games
All statistics provided by Oracle's Elixir