MechWarrior Online hosted its first ever world championship series last weekend during MechCon 2016. While the announcement of might've stolen the show, the competition was an riveting battle as the world's greatest MechWarrior teams fought for an $86,000 grand prize.
Team Empyreal (EMP), representing the North American bracket, took the finals by storm, destroying the European EON Synergy (EON) in a devastating 3-0 blowout. I caught up with Empyreal after the match to talk tactics and get a better insight into the unique world of the burgeoning MechWarrior eSports scene.
Getting to know MechWarrior
If you've never played or watched MechWarrior Online, know one thing: this isn't your typical shooter. Each player pilots a massive, lumbering mech into combat and rounds are won by teamwork and discipline. Being accurate is important, but mechs can take a serious beating before going down. There's no quick one-shot kills, meaning every fight is a tense back-and-forth as teams try to whittle down and out-position one another.
Making things more complicated is how mechs are built and handled. Each mech—of which there are over 100 variants—has their own shape, size, and movement speed affecting their tactics in combat. The , for example, has two arms that are often functionally useless, so pilots use them as shields to block damage to valuable components. You can tell a good Hunchback pilot by how many arms they're missing.
Mechs are categorized by their weight, which loosely determines their role on the battlefield. Light mechs are incredibly fast scouts and skirmishers who don't pack a punch but provide valuable intel on the enemy team's movement and composition. Medium mechs are the main fighting force, either brawling up close or hanging back for ranged sniping. Heavy mechs are slow-moving and often serve as artillery platforms. Assault mechs are 100-ton indomitable titans, slow as hell but the rock that tides of smaller mechs will break against.
The world championship is a best-of-five match using the conquest gamemode where teams of eight battle for capture points on the map to earn resources over time. The first to reach 750 resources (or have the most when time runs out) wins. There's no respawns either, killing the entire enemy team is a viable strategy.
Let's see how Empyreal used all of this to become the world champions.
Round One - Canyon Network
Carved up by twisting canyons that essentially divide it into two levels, Canyon Network is a dynamic map that allows for both up-close and ranged fights. Canyons can be your best friend or worst enemy, either allowing you flank enemies unseen or trapping you in a cauldron of laser fire. Going into the round, Empyreal had spent weeks studying Eon's tactics and knew one thing: "Their [team] was focused on mechs that were going to trade kills with us," says Nick 'Heimdelight' Poplawski. "They were going to whittle us down over time and then focus on taking the capture points."
As the round started, EMP spread out across the map and made establishing an early resource lead their first priority. Within minutes, they had captured three of the five control points, working to hold them against EON for as long as they could.
Though EMP prides themselves on marksmanship, EON proved the more consistent shot and EMP mechs suffered heavy damage early on. When EMP light mechs , EON's superior aim ultimately forced them to back off. But by this point, EMP's strategy was gaining momentum, with them establishing an early resource lead despite losing in damage.
The match took a nearly-disastrous turn when EON team captain 'Da Red Goes DA FASTA' (Da Red) in what can only be described as a suicidal charge. Normally, light mechs aren't seen as much of a threat, but EON Da Red's push caught EMP Imminent out of position and he quickly circled around him to his less protected rear armor, bringing him down as the audience went wild. EON Hardoc, a second light mech pilot, follows his lead, chasing down EMP Solitude for a kill and then focusing his efforts on killing EMP's Kodiak-1. The loss was devastating to EMP's ability to dish out a beating, as Kodiaks are an assault mech.
But just when that momentum began to spell defeat for EMP, EON called off the charge to regroup. That's exactly when EMP's strategy paid off. "At that point during the match we decided to run the clock out, we needed to just spread out, take very choice shots, and live just so that we could stop them from capping points," EMP Heimdelight tells me.
While EMP was losing mechs faster than you can say alpha strike, EMP Celyth had slipped away from the action to retake the Kappa control point, tipping the resource gain back in their favor for just a moment before dying to EON. With a 90 point lead, EON couldn't swing the momentum of the match back in their favor, despite clearly outplaying EMP.
"EON really let it get away from them—they let the momentum get away. They let the game slip away by slowing it down and regrouping. EMP did the right thing, they scattered," says commentator Mike 'Mdmzero0.'
Round Two - Canyon Network
Though Canyon Network isn't their most practiced map, EMP Celyth tells me that their team was confident that they had EON off-balance. Returning to this map allowed each team to attempt their strategy a second time, and if EON could double down on pressure instead of backing off, they stood a good chance of EMP buckling under their assault. "You can't change now, you got to keep going," says Mdmzero0.
EMP Celyth tells me that, again, their strategy was to spread out, control the map, and then begin to tighten around EON's throat and rely on their superior accuracy for kills. But they also had a secret weapon.
In the opening minute, EMP again spread their pilots across the map, with EON investing in the South before eventually turning their attention towards Kappa in the North and pushing EMP back. After capturing Kappa, EMP responded with an aggressive, and almost foolish, push.
Two light mechs with EMP Celyth in a medium-class Hunchback , managing to kill EON Hardoc but taking a concerning amount of damage across all three mechs. One wrong move or perfect hit could've spelled disaster for EMP that early in the round. "I knew we would win a straight up fight," EMP Celyth explains, noting their damage was much higher than EON's. "But it was definitely pretty scary."
"That was a very, very painful trade," Mdmzero0 comments.
At this point, EON had secured a healthy resource lead over EMP. Knowing that they needed to keep the points relatively equal, EMP pushed on both the center and south-most capture points, losing another mech in the process, but here their sleeved aces
EMP 'TwinkyOverlord' had been hanging back for the entirety of the round in a , a hulking assault mech that could single-handedly wipe any of EON's pilots off of the map. Now, with the battle well underway and both EON and EMP hurting, a fresh, undamaged Kodiak presented a deadly threat. "We put our best players in Kodiaks," EMP Celyth says. "They have the most tonnage, so they have to carry the most weight. We can't risk losing them for nothing."
Assault mechs are an important backbone of any team, but EMP's gamble to leave them out of the fight until now was as risky as it was daring. And it worked. EMP TwinkyOverlord's push caught EON Dungeon Keeper unaware, pinching him against EMP Proton who scored the kill. At this point, EON was still in a solid position with a heavy lead over EMP in resources.
And then second ace came into play.
Luring two EON pilots into a trap, EMP Celyth so that EMP Proton, in a second Kodiak, had time to close in and deliver a devastating kill. Down to only three mechs against EMP's six, EON's inability to repel the Kodiak left them with few options. Without map presence, EMP Celyth tells me they were quickly able to establish dominance and finish off EON.
Match commentator Mdmzero0 sums it up perfectly, talking about how most teams are forced to put their assault mechs on the frontlines to help soak up incoming damage. But Empyreal isn't most teams. "With EMP, they trade [kills] so well, they peek so well around those corners, they don't need to do that," he says. "So they have their Kodiaks in the back where they're not as focused, [EMP is] not as aware of where their position is. They don't take as much damage. And then you get that sort of situation where there's tons of damaged mechs on the field, both sides really hurt, and here comes a 95-percent [health] Kodiak walking around the corner and it's game over."
Round Three - Canyon Network
The choice to revisit Canyon Network for the third round was likely a move of desperation for EON. Do they go to a new map and risk an untested strategy bringing them victory, or do they continue to grind it out and hope that they get the lucky break they've been needing? In the end, their strategy was a mix of both, and it ended in disaster.
Before the match even started, when both teams had chosen their mechs, EMP noticed something odd. For the past two rounds, EON had a total tonnage of 500, but for this final round it had jumped up to 520. Without being able to see which mechs they'd be piloting, EMP Heimdelight tells me the team quickly ran the math and figured the most likely scenario was that EON had opted for two Griffin medium mechs fitting short ranged missiles—deadly brawlers that could shred teams to pieces if they got in close. With their shot of first place slipping away, EON was going to fight like a cornered animal—and EMP would be ready to put them down like one.
At the outset of the round, EMP Solitude quickly established an overwatch position and spotted one of EON's Griffins. "Once we saw one Griffin, it confirmed everything," EMP Heimdelight says.
EON pushed forward hard, rushing EMP's side of the map. It was likely that they were banking on taking EMP by surprise, but EMP Solitude's lucky spot was about to turn it into a bloodbath. As they moved in, EMP fell back and each pilot coordinated to form a 'C' shape concave—where each pilot would have a line of fire on the incoming EON mechs. One after another they began to fall beneath the rain of EMP fire. It's a maneuver EMP Celyth tells me they had practiced hundreds of times. As soon as Solitude made the spot, instincts took over for the team.
Two minutes into the round, before it had even really started, EON lost every pilot except a single, slow-moving Kodiak. Seconds later, it too fell and with it EON's hopes of becoming the world champions. When I ask EMP Heimdelight what he thought of EON's last ditch effort, he shrugs. "It felt a little desperate."
With that crushing finale, Empyreal became the first-ever MechWarrior Online world champions, netting a hefty $86,094 for their efforts. With superior map control, practice, and a reliance on good old fashioned aim, they were able to turn what many hoped would be a clutch finale and turn it into a devastating blowout.