Last weekend, OpTic Gaming accomplished something they never had before.
Facing an in-form Echo Fox squad that beat them twice in Spring Split 2018, OpTic overcame long odds and won. While best-of-one upsets aren’t uncommon, it was the nature of OpTic’s win that turned heads. How could this team, just months removed from occupying the league’s basement, unseat someone from the penthouse? The answer will reverberate around NA LCS for weeks—if not months—to come, changing the current power structure of the league.
I spoke to OpTic’s head coach Thomas “Zaboutine” Si-Hassen after his team’s shocking result. Though confident in his players, there’s a note of awe in Zaboutine’s voice when he explains OpTic’s winning method, as if he just stumbled upon El Dorado. Once Zaboutine became convinced the strategy was for real, implementation became a full organizational effort.
“We tried it in scrims and won in 15 minutes,” said Zaboutine, “And we were like ‘Holy moly, this thing is so powerful.’ So we kept playing it…And then I pulled the Academy guys like, ‘Guys, I don’t care, cancel your scrims, everything. You’re not going home tonight. We’re going to play you pick that, you play it like that, and if we beat that, we can win.’ We were working super hard—I think we finished at midnight or 1am yesterday—just grinding everything we could about this to make sure nothing was missed. We did warm up games even this morning, and we ended up winning. We won against what we think is the hardest comp against us, so no matter what Echo Fox does, we will win today.”
OpTic beat Echo Fox using the new League of Legends strategy called gold funneling, and it has burned through the professional scene like wildfire. You can find a better description of the strategy here, but in brief, gold funneling involves the centralization of resources on to one hyper carry via aggregation of both mid and jungle farm. The carry who is being funneled gold and experience takes Smite and rotates between killing neutral camps and mid lane minions, while the jungler helps leash and manage the mid wave. Power farming one player in this fashion creates its own win condition: Boosted far enough ahead, the funneled champion has no equal in teamfights, effectively deciding the game itself.
Though OpTic were the first NA LCS team to attempt gold funneling on stage, they had come late to the party. Nearly two weeks beforehand in South Korea, bbq Olivers and MVP opened the LCK Summer Split with dueling funnels, stunning all onlookers. Watching Nunu/Karthus and Taric/Master Yi race to overpower the other seemed incomprehensible at first, but the compositions did follow a sort of grim pragmatism. With standard AD crit marksman dulled by a series of crippling patches, teams needed to find a sharper tip to the spear. Thus came gold funneling, a system designed to create that necessary carry elsewhere, satisfying a compositional need in the most brute force way imaginable.
In the two weeks since MVP swept bbq Olivers, every region has had to grapple with gold funneling. In EU LCS, G2 Esports are undefeated after funneling starman mid laner Luka “Perkz” Perković three times in four games (much to their jungler’s chagrin). In the LCK, upstarts Griffin recently proved they could funnel with the best of them against SK Telecom T1, sweeping the struggling three-time world champions 2-0. The LPL has fallen in love with some combination of Braum, Taric, and a hard carry like Kai’Sa or Lucian, with the comp already having appeared in three out of the eight Week 3 matches (a fourth involved a funneled Xayah). It’s now getting banned more regularly.
Yet as gold funneling proved itself viable in other regions, the NA LCS remained married to standard comps after one week of play. Before OpTic defeated Echo Fox in Week 2, no team had attempted the funnel, a stark contrast to other region’s experimentation right out the gate. When I asked Team Liquid bot laner Yiliang “Doublelift” Peng about NA’s seeming hesitancy to rock the boat with explosive gold funneling strategies, he didn’t mince words (as usual). In Doublelift’s mind, risk aversion was to blame.
“It’s not because the gold funneling strategy isn’t good,” said Doublelift. “It’s because North American teams aren’t willing to take that risk and look foolish. If they lose, it’s like, ‘Why are they doing that? Why are they the only team that’s doing that, and it’s not working, why don’t they just take the hint?’ It’s clearly a strong strategy. I think when every other region is doing it, then there’s some merit to it, and the fact that no one here’s done it just means that they’re not practiced enough on it, they’re not confident enough that it’s a good strategy, or they’re just not creative enough…and I’m not saying that I’m the most creative person in the world, like I got all the answers and stuff. But cumulatively in NA, I just don’t think we have that level of insight.”
“In other regions,” Doublelift continued, “People are more willing to take risks because they’re more confident, and they’re also just better players. Here, it’s ‘Oh it didn’t work, okay let’s just go back to what we’re used to.’ I definitely think those other champions are viable, and actually very strong in some situations, but it’s kind of like everyone unanimously agreed in NA that none of the teams are good enough at executing this right now, so we’re just going to go what will win us games right now. Which is what’s important, racking up regular season wins.”
If playing standard gets the job done, why take the risk of trying something new? Team Liquid hasn’t touched the funnel strategy on stage and they’re atop NA LCS at 3-1. That lone loss? A game dropped to Golden Guardians when Doublelift played Vladimir, the sole instance he’s deviated from standard AD marksman. If you’re Liquid, and your goal is Worlds, what’s the benefit of switching up your playstyle after winning Spring Split with standard compositions? “It’s not like we’re playing against LCK or EU right now,” said Doublelift. “We’re playing against NA LCS teams. That’s the reality right now.”
Zaboutine has a different theory as to why gold funneling compositions have been slow to catch on in North America.
“I think American players from NA especially, I think they’re more lazy than the rest of the world,” said Zaboutine, a proud Frenchman. “I think NA is a lazy region, because all the players are living next to the beach, in Santa Monica! Los Angeles! They have an insane life. Everyone knows they are well paid. Why would they stop just chilling, enjoying the daily life of being a pro? You just play your Xayah/Rakan, play your standard thing, and that’s fine man. As long as everybody does that, it’s sustainable. The thing is, if someone tries hard to grind, then it might be a problem.”
While Zaboutine later admitted that lazy might have been too strong a word, his point underscores the differing mentalities between teams who won in Spring and teams that lost. Key phrase: If ‘someone’ tries hard to grind out new compositions, and they work, standard play might be endangered. In NA LCS, that ‘someone’ is quickly turning out to be teams that missed playoffs last split. OpTic, Golden Guardians, and FlyQuest missed the postseason last Spring, and all three have secured a win in Summer by gold funneling. Their motivated grinding will finally force NA to reckon with the world’s innovation, especially in a best-of-one format that can reward well-considered cheese.
“We’ve been practicing [gold funneling] for a little while,” said Golden Guardians support Matthew “Matt” Elento after his team successfully funneled bot laner Matthew “Deftly” Chen’s Kai’Sa to victory over Cloud9. “We have a bunch of strats prepared, and this was the one we felt that was most correct to pull out. With Kai’Sa, we kind of imitated some things we saw from EU because they played Kai’Sa as well, but our own spin was having really strong sidelanes, really strong support for our Kai’Sa, not just picking the supportive Lulu/Janna you saw in EU. I think today we had a really solid draft, and it showed.”
New strategies like gold funneling can act as an equalizer between teams of different calibers. After two weeks of NA LCS play, six teams are 2-2, no one is undefeated, and the meta is still hasn’t settled. The parity in LCS is a boon for fans, with so much uncertainty creating an atmosphere where anyone can beat anyone on the day. But being a player in this whirlwind is a different proposition. For veteran CLG top laner Darshan “Darshan” Upadhyaya, gold funneling has already worn out its welcome.
“The gold funneling particularly, I think most players find that un-fun,” said Darshan. “I think even the players that are gold funneling themselves don’t find it too fun, because I think it just gets to the point where you’re doing the same, most efficient thing every game. You’re not reacting that much, you’re mostly focusing on how can I farm most efficiently, and if they push the mid wave then we have to go get the mid wave. Besides that, it’s all about farming. It’s noninteractive and the gameplay is pretty straightforward. I think other unique strategies are great, and I’ve enjoyed a lot of other things in the game. Gold funneling at first was an interesting, unique thing. But very quickly, I realized it isn’t going to lead to the game being more fun and interesting to watch or play. It’s not going to get more strategically intense than it is now.”
But isn’t gold funneling just a repositioning of the old 4-Protect-1 that teams used to run around their AD marksmen? Haven’t we just upgraded “Protect-the-Kog” and placed the carry in a different part of the map? Darshan disagrees.
“It takes away from the laning phase of other lanes,” he says. “I agree that in other metas, it’s been all about your AD carry getting strong. But I also felt that other lanes were able to have a stronger impact on the game, and it wasn’t just about one person getting fed. Even if your AD carry wasn’t the strongest, if you had a tank that did really well in lane, or someone who had really good pressure, then they could still carry the game. But I feel like now it’s only about the funneling person. Are they ahead? You win. Are they behind? You lose.”
Darshan isn’t wrong. Gold funneling requires a team’s jungler to act as a babysitter for the funneled champion, sacrificing his farm to build a boosted carry. We’re seeing explosive, mechanically-gifted junglers reduced to mobile wards, shining sporadically in teamfights but losing their agency everywhere else. Bot and top lane remain relevant only insofar as they can provide map pressure for the funneler to farm while not feeding themselves. The impact of other lanes has been lessened, and some players have struggled to adjust this new reality.
Patch 8.13 did nerf some of the gold funneling champions, but it left the strategy itself untouched. The balance team could have changed to the way jungle experience is received—thereby destroying the farming efficiency gold funneling is predicated upon—but chose not to. What we are left with is a widely unpredictable game state that utilizes the deepest champion pool in years, but one which many players actively dislike playing and find boring to watch. Zaboutine, for one, suggests we all strap in.
“Everybody thinks that the meta is going to shift back to normal,” said Zaboutine. “Trust me, the meta will never shift back. Nobody understands that lane priority and lane pressure is more important than anything. Having Aatrox top has nothing in common with Caitlyn being nerfed. There will be Aatrox, there will be Heimerdingers, there will be Teemos if it’s necessary. You want to win lane, this is what’s most important. So even though I dislike this thing, and it’s harming the players, we need to stop bitching, just move on.”
In their second game of the weekend against FlyQuest, OpTic found themselves up 5.4k and pressing into the enemy base after breaking mid inhibitor. With two FlyQuest members already dead, they sensed that the game could be won and began sieging Nexus turrets as five, daring FlyQuest to engage. FlyQuest obliged, mounting a defense so successful they secured Baron, Elder Dragon, and eventually OpTic’s Nexus off the ensuing kills. Key to their comeback? The clutch play of bot laner Jason “WildTurtle” Tran, and with good reason: FlyQuest had been gold funneling his Lucian all game long.