Yesterday's Smite grand finals made a strong statement about the game's legitimacy as an e-sport. The unresolved storylines of the first year of competitive play came together all at once. This was one of those endings that gestures forward, towards season two and the year to come.
The consolation match, COG Red vs. SK Gaming, determined third and fourth place. In any other tournament, this might have simply been an appetiser before the afternoon's main event. SWC's $2.6m prize pool, however, translates to approximately $130,000 of difference between the two places. Besides, you know - third place. It's better than fourth place.
This was a rematch. Red and SK previously faced each other on day one, when SK won convincingly - and aggressively. That was taken as a huge upset at the time, given Red's untarnished record over the past couple of months. My prediction going into game one was that the series would be close but that it would ultimately go to whoever could build momentum off the first game. I thought that team would be SK, and was wrong.
A surprise fondness for Aphrodite was the standout of SK's draft, played on the solo lane by Maniakk - a player normally known for his pushy, aggressive gods. They denied Thor by taking it for themselves, with a comfortable line-up elsewhere: Apollo, Ymir, Vulcan. With bans focusing on preferred individual picks, Red were nonetheless able to get a strong composition: Divios' Hercules, Hun Batz, Agni, Athena, Anhur.
Red successfully identified the weakspot in SK's draft: the solo lane, where Maniakk was locked into a far more passive god than he's used to. Divios managed to get a stunning first blood into double kill on both Maniakk and Zyrhoes' Thor under SK's tier one tower, a kill only possible because of Maniakk's willingness to engage in close quarters. This was the start Divios needed, both practically and emotionally. He ruled the game, Hercules' durability keeping him in SK's face throughout deadly rotation after deadly rotation.
SK's fighting spirit was visible in a run of pick-off kills enabled by Zyrhoes and Badgah, and - like Prime - they took advantage of Red's aversion to map objectives with a quick early Gold Fury. But it wasn't enough. Red had the momentum and were able to take the fights they needed to take, extending a kill lead that eventually became insurmountable.
The draft for game 2 was interesting, with a lot of similar picks. SK attempted to hold off the Bakasura ban by picking Aphrodite with the intent of running it mid rather than solo, but Red didn't bite - effectively locking Maniakk out of the match. Afterwards, in the press conference, he would suggest that somebody leaked the strategy to Red beforehand. Whatever the truth, the weakness in SK's plan going into the game was that their strategy could be taken apart with a single ban.
Once again, Divios had the time of his life with Hercules despite SK's early efforts to keep him bored and potentially force a mistake. Red didn't let that happen with a series of convincing rotations that built them a formidable lead - 7-0 by the 15 minute mark. SK wouldn't get onto the kill board until they managed to down Snoopy while defending their own Phoenixes, and even that small success preceded a total wipe that lead to the end of their tournament hopes. A delighted crowd welcomed COG Red into third place.
The grand final - Titan vs. Cognitive Prime
I'm going to be thinking about this series for a long time. This was, by some distance, the best contest I've seen since 2013's Dota 2 International grand final. Fairytales in sport are rare, and today stopped just short of Cool Runnings, but where it ended up - in the hinterlands of Rocky 1 - made it an incredible, emotional experience. Representing North America, Cognitive Prime arrived as the veteran second seed, the former kings ascendant once again. Titan, from Europe, represented the impossible dream of every amateur team everywhere: that somehow, within in the space of a year, you can go from the play-in leagues to the scene's biggest stage.
At the outset, however, Titan's fairytale looked doomed to curtailment. Prime's Barraccudda - the hometown favourite, being from Georgia - told the press yesterday that his team would take the final 3-0. In the first game, they demonstrated how that might happen. Allowing Titan to pick up Serqet in the draft encouraged a lategame mindset in the Europeans that Prime took advantage of. Titan overcommited to a first blood attempt in the jungle and ended up trading disastrously - 4-1 in favour of Prime, who expanded their advantage steadily from there. Thor, in the hands of Andinster, gave them control in the early and midgame that allowed them to rule the jungle and, through the jungle, the pace of the game. Zhong Kui, played by tournament MVP MLCst3alth, dominated teamfights despite opposition from PrettyPrime's Nox. Every time Titan managed to rebuff Prime's assault, the American team would simply regroup, take another map objective, and push again. In the end, that was enough to cinch the first game.
Game two was even more one-sided. Titan once again chose Serqet in the belief that they'd be able to dominate in the lategame. Prime got Thor again, a major roadblock in the path of that plan, and Nox for themselves in this instance. Ah Muzen Cab, an unusual pick in other circumstances, maintained steady pressure while the rest of Prime harried Titan across the map. Titan struggled to get a single kill on the board, being twelve down before that was a possibility. The game ended before the 25 minute mark, and almost everybody outside of Titan's locker room anticipated the series to end 3-0.
Prime's drafting strategy exploited Titan support player KanyeLife's strengths and weaknesses. He is arguably the best in the world on a number of support gods who are out of favour in North America, specifically Ares and Ymir. However, he's less comfortable with more traditional picks like Sylvanus and Geb. Prime targeted KanyeLife with an Ymir ban in every game, forcing him onto Athena (admittedly a strong pick) and Hercules (which did not work.) Going into game three, they kept up the pressure on Ymir - but undervalued Ares enough to let it get through. Titan matched that with a first-pick Thor of their own, along with Nox, and the difference was - pun not intended - night and day.
With Thor, Repikas was able to do for Titan what Andinster did for Prime. The very beginning of the match looked tense and relatively even, but a clutch snipe on St3alth's Scylla by Ataraxia set the tone for the match to follow and stands as one of the tournament's best single kills. As St3alth fled a teamfight in the right-hand jungle, Ataraxia (in the left lane) used Rama's ult to take to the skies and land a blind arrow from half-way across the map. It was a big moment for European Smite.
The rest of the game followed from there. Control of the jungle translated into not only a gold lead but the opportunities that Repikas, KanyeLife and PrettyPrime needed to show what they could do. Their victory was not only proof that Titan deserved their spot in the final, but also that they can play the early-game aggression game as well as anybody.
Nonetheless, Prime went into game four still a single match from taking the championship. It was clear, at this point, that the teams were closely matched enough for games to be decided on the draft - and, once again, the Americans set their sights squarely on KanyeLife. Even so, a gambit by Titan got both Athena and Ares through the draft. Baiting the assumption that an Athena pick would always denote KanyeLife's character, they chose her for Repikas and immediately followed up with the God of War.
This was the game that showed that there was still life in Titan's fairytale, and that - from a more general perspective - turned the SWC finals into one of the most memorable sets in memory. Best of fives rarely go to all five games. It's even more rare that they do so following a 2-0 lead from one side. Teams simply don't punch their way back into contention from a deficit like that. Except sometimes they do.
At the beginning of the game, a low-health Confrey on Osiris baited aggression from Omegatron's Hercules. A clutch save by Repikas using Athena's ult not only turned the fight around but secured first blood. This was another big momentum boost for Titan. Later, Ares' viability was proven with an enormous teamfight turnaround by KanyeLife that established a 6-2 lead for the European team. Then, minutes later, in almost exactly the same circumstances, he did it again: blink, chains, four-man ult. My notes for this moment read only: "HOW HAS HE DONE THIS AGAIN".
Titan's lead wasn't insurmountable - certainly not as convincing as Prime's in games one and two - and Prime, individually, fought back hard. A clutch dodge by Andinster's Serqet denied Repikas a knife-edge Athena snipe, though he fell shortly after to Ataraxia's Anhur. From there, the game became a reverse of Prime's best matches. With control of the jungle, Titan were able to trade favourably every time the teams came together. They could have pressured Prime out of the game slowly at this point, but a huge three-man Athena taunt during their base siege wiped half of Prime off the board and ushered Titan into, extraordinarily, a 2-2 stalemate.
Prime's backstage discussion before game five, they'd later say, boiled down to this: deny Ares, take the game on their own terms. They banned both Ymir and Ares - unthinkable, normally, in the North American scene - while Titan removed Thor, Nox, Serqet. This allowed Prime to double down and pick up both Scylla and Ao Kuang, the latter one of Andinster's best characters, almost always banned out. Titan got Athena, Apollo, Agni, and their pocket pick against Ao Kuang, Nemesis. From the start, however, the game looked like Christmas come early for Prime: as sometimes happens in long series, the number of personal bans had allowed them to put together a team comprised almost entirely of stars of the North American metagame.
First blood went to PrettyPrime, but the early fights usually resulted in trades that Prime were better able to translate into map control with the help of Ao Kuang. Andinster played the game of his life, here, earning a huge response from the crowd every time Ao Kuang's impressive dragon-form ult came to bear. St3alth, likewise, dominated teamfights on Scylla. Titan attempted to win back the game with a successful attempt on the Gold Fury, but they paid for it afterwards as Prime swept in and claimed another teamfight victory.
Prime's ability to harry Titan around the map extended their kill lead, and that in turn resulted in an impressive early gold and experience advantage. A desperate attempt to prevent Prime from picking up the Fire Giant buff downed Confrey and KanyeLife, and Prime knew that this was their moment. They closed in on Titan's mid Phoenix, giving the Europeans little time to muster a defense. Titan had come back from this point before in the European Regionals, but that was against a less experienced team - and, as it happens, it was with Ares. Prime had no intention of letting that happen again. St3alth's Scylla crushed Titan in that final fight, claiming a multi-kill and almost making it the full five. The crowd knew it was over. They were on their feet. Prime were on their feet, the world champions.
I was impressed by competitive Smite during the European qualifiers but it was this tournament that convinced me. The next year is going to be very important for this young game, and for the teams that made their names over the weekend. Prime's 'once and future king' story is, for the time being, done; they are, as they deserve to be, champions. But there's even more of a target on the Cognitive teams now than there was before, and when new challengers approach - likely from China - the North American scene will be tested again. Meanwhile, the European fairytale enters a new phase. Titan's extraordinary run from the bottom to the top came, in part, because they were so frequently underestimated. To a degree, they have that freedom again. With a year to resolve the gaps in their hero pool, they have the potential to be formidable.
If you've followed any e-sports scene before you know how this works. This is the honeymoon period, while the scene is still small enough to have amazing narratives but big enough for matches have import. Traditionally, games pass through these phases on the way to periods of change or instability, as has been happening with Dota 2 over the last year. I hope that Smite avoids some of that. On the other hand, that's another reason why now is the time to start paying attention to the game if you haven't before. This has been an incredibly strong first year.
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