Ninjas in Pyjamas

hymzi - Zuppehw - kyynel - zappis - mafu - Fragi.

With these six Finnish brothers, Ninjas in Pyjamas formed the longest-standing top roster in Overwatch. They were known and respected worldwide for their creation and mastery of the triple tank strategy, a composition that allowed them to come tantalisingly close to three major trophies - each time ending in agony, with their dreams of glory crushed.

They are the only team who could claim to have owned an era of Overwatch’s history without taking a major championship win. They were always the team to beat, but they were never the team that won. After ten months together with the exact same roster, they were finally overtaken by the meta, dropped by the organisation, and forced to make roster changes. This is their story.

Gathering the Ninjas

The Finns got into the Overwatch closed beta in December 2015, granted invitations in a large group due to their history as a powerful TF2 team back in the mist of 2010 and 2011. As players involved in the original SG-1 roster were hooked in varying amounts by competitive Overwatch, a rugged core developed of zappis, hymzi, and mafu.

The support lineup changed frequently for this early iteration of the team. kyynel was on their roster in beta but had to step back due to long work hours, triggering a merger between SG-1 and the only other competitive Finnish team, Paragon. Former World of Warcraft players from the famous guild of the same name, Paragon’s duo of Seita and Fragi joined up with SG-1 in March 2016 to form a more recognizable roster.

kyynel quit his job to return to Overwatch in July, replacing hocz and Lazei who had both been occupying the flex support role since his departure. Throughout their time in early 2016, SG-1 had built their reputation as a team who could always challenge the top teams in Europe but rarely had upsets over them.

It was this roster, prior to adding Zuppehw, that joined Ninjas in Pyjamas and discovered the classic NiP style.

Colour of Pyjamas

Joining Ninjas in Pyjamas gave the players much-needed stability. “We got a six man roster, we could grind the game as a full time job,” zappis explained. “That’s why we are here now. It’s what enabled us to play.” The team knuckled down and started putting in more time and effort to improve. Their first step was to try and qualify for the ESL Atlantic Showdown, the first major LAN in the game’s lifespan.

The new Ninjas in Pyjamas were a solid team ranking consistently at around the fifth best team in Europe. The problem, however, was that ESL Atlantic Showdown only offered four spots for the region; NiP would have to come up with an upset to get onto the stage.

Their arm of the double-elimination bracket had one major sticking point, Creation eSports, thankfully the weakest of the top four in Europe. If NiP could get past the squad, who would later be known as Dignitas, they would only have to face ANOX for qualification. It seemed eminently possible, and NiP started well with a 3-2 win over WEUNITED (the precursor to FaZe), but they couldn’t quite beat Creation.

The loss saw them knocked into the lower bracket to face Rogue. “Rogue was doing really well at the time,” recalled zappis, “the meta was really favourable to them and we kinda got we didn’t get to play in Gamescom. That was really bad,” he continued with a wry smile. “Sad day for us.”

Despite zappis' dry understatement, it was a blow to the team. They had failed to secure a spot in the Atlantic Showdown for themselves and their new org, and missed an opportunity to compete in the first major Western LAN. Focus had to switch to the upcoming Overwatch Open qualifiers, and with time to prepare they decided to craft some new strategies, one of those being an experiment with new hero Ana and three tanks. They had discovered fire.

For Fragi the timing was bittersweet and seemed an opportunity missed. “It was straight after the Gamescom qualifiers,” he said, “we were kinda mad about that because we didn’t get through to the Gamescom Atlantic Showdown, and straight after we started playing the triple tank and started doing really good in scrims.” Immediately Ninjas in Pyjamas realised they had found a strategy that fit well in their personal hero pools and was strong from a macro standpoint.

The meta at the time was fairly random by today’s standards. Two supports, two tanks, and two DPS heroes formed the structure that almost all teams abided by, with Reinhardt and Zarya by far the most popular duo to form the core of a team. McCrees and Reapers were often features in compositions alongside Genji, while Ana was generally disregarded despite being available for weeks.

Looking back at the summer 2016 meta through rose-tinted binoculars, an argument could be made that the meta was more balanced. In all likelihood though, the variety was caused by teams not playing optimally in the game’s youth. “People hadn’t figured it out,” zappis agreed, “Ana had been released for a figuratively long time, and people just didn’t believe that Ana would be good. Obviously the meta changed a lot after Gamescom and people started to get into triple tank.” Triple tank was not the only composition that Ana facilitated and empowered. She defined the meta for months at the end of 2016 before receiving buffs, but to start out she wasn't alone.

Concocting the NiP strat

Triple tank began with triple support. Ninjas in Pyjamas had been playing the regular meta with Seita on Lucio and kyynel on Zenyatta, along with their tank core of Fragi on Reinhardt and mafu on Zarya. zappis was their designated flex DPS player while hymzi stuck to the more rigid picks, and it was their DPS players who changed focus first.

zappis had been playing Ana since release, trying to maximise the healing sniper’s toolkit in ranked. At that point it was an insanely powerful hero with strong healing, a wide range of utility, and a huge ultimate, but Ana hadn’t been worked into popular compositions yet. For Ninjas in Pyjamas it was the ultimate that swung her into viability.

“We started to notice you could farm Nanoboost so easily and just push in with Nanoboosted Rein,” zappis said, “it would be such a simplistic way to win the first fight - and then we started to spam it.” With fights in Overwatch won 80% of the time by the team with the first kill, and a large advantage overall to the team with the first fight victory, snowballing from such an early ultimate was a powerful strategy. “It just somehow came to us that this was the easiest way to secure the first teamfight kill and roll with that,” he continued, ”make the snowball from that.”

At this point in Ana’s timeline of nerfs and buffs, she charged her ultimate in around 30-40 seconds, aided by players’ habit of spamming as much damage as possible constantly at the enemy team. Simply absorbing damage and holding the frontline allowed NiP to quickly charge up an offensive ultimate as game-changing as the Nanoboost, with the speedboost allowing Fragi to reign terror on opponents.

With the huge amounts of sustain now on the team, and kyynel’s Zenyatta functioning as both a healer and damage dealer, hymzi could make the switch onto Roadhog and start unleashing his ungodly hook combos on unsuspecting foes. The triple tank composition was born: the 3x3 NiP strat.

Quad tank, triple tank, and the lonely DPS

As time went on, the Ninjas in Pyjamas strategy was forced to make small but crucial adjustments. The Zenyatta was the first to disappear, squeezed out of their composition due to his lack of survivability against dive, one of the prominent strategies used in an attempt to counter NiP. The removal of Zen necessitated changes in their roles; kyynel had been playing the omnic monk but the composition now required a DPS player, forcing zappis to switch as well. kyynel picked up the Biotic Rifle as zappis went back to flexing, broadening the versatility of the team’s entire style with his solo efforts.

Along with the 3x2x1, as triple tank with one DPS was known, Ninjas in Pyjamas added quad tank to their repertoire. Though it sounds familiar to those who lived through the North American meta in December 2016, the quad tank which developed later was a very different beast. NiP had their same core with Reinhardt, Zarya, Roadhog but added zappis in on Winston; his role was either to deny Genji and Tracer compositions with a passive playstyle and his shield or to engage aggressively on maps with high ground such as Numbani A.

Nanoboosting a Winston usually gave Ninjas in Pyjamas enough damage and time for the rest of their composition to relocate to challenge the high ground, displace their opponents, or get picks with hymzi’s Roadhog. Whenever Winston was used, it was as a reaction to the counters of their triple tank style. For regular play, the quad tank lacked damage.

While future patches forced further adjustments, for now NiP were set. They had discovered the strengths and weaknesses of their new style on the road, battle-testing their composition in the qualifiers for the Overwatch Open. The results spoke for themselves.

What results?

Outside of tournament matches the improvement was instant as well, Fragi affirmed. “That’s why we were so mad after the Gamescom qualifiers because instantly, the day or a few days after, when we started scrimming, we started winning against everyone pretty much with the comp.” Ninjas in Pyjamas played two sets in the Overwatch Open qualifiers against top teams, losing to Creation and REUNITED again, but they were making the elite sweat and battering those below them. NiP easily qualified for the top eight in Europe and were off to ELEAGUE.

To get themselves in peak condition, the team had a bootcamp at the NiP facilities in Sweden. Just before they were due to fly out, with days to spare and a huge tournament to prepare for, Seita informed the team that he wouldn’t be able to attend for personal reasons. NiP were forced to scramble for a sixth. On the very same day they were flying out to Sweden, Ninjas in Pyjamas picked up rough diamond Zuppehw, a Finnish Ana from ranked, and switched kyynel over to Lucio.

Seita started coaching immediately from the bench, but the biggest boost was Zuppehw’s individual skill. He had already attained a higher level than most pros with Ana and was just waiting for an opportunity to put her to use. NiP had the rest of the pieces ready to go. The bootcamp was all about polishing their style and integrating Zuppehw into the team, and opponents were already taking serious notice.

While at the bootcamp, Ninjas in Pyjamas played the Lenovo Cup to practise - an $8,000 warmup to the $300,000 Overwatch Open, with only Rogue absent of the European elite. They crushed their way through the group stage, trampling over Creation (who had just been picked up by Dignitas), as well as ANOX and LG.

In the first round of the upper bracket they lost 0-3 to REUNITED, a team who had decided to mirror the triple tank compositions and add it along with their dive to counter NiP. Ninjas in Pyjamas couldn’t be stopped once Zuppehw was integrated though and stormed through the lower bracket to knock out Dignitas, LG, Misfits, and then REUNITED. They only dropped two maps throughout the entire lower bracket run of four best-of-five matches.

It was a different style to every other team and forced major adaptations from every team in Europe. Ninjas in Pyjamas were the team to beat and all the other players knew it. Hours were poured in from all sides crafting counter compositions and styles to break the triple tank dominance they had witnessed in the Lenovo Cup and scrims. Despite their recent rise to challenge top teams in Europe, Ninjas in Pyjamas were afforded the respect of a championship team.

Overwatch Open

The Overwatch Open was the largest Western tournament in the scene, boasting a (still unbeaten) $300,000 prizepool, and as such was the sole focus for every top team in Europe and North America. Ninjas in Pyjamas had demonstrated their ability in the approach and the meta of the entire tournament was defined by their play.

Though some teams tried to match the triple tank head to head, Ninjas in Pyjamas relished the opportunity to beat them with experience and cleaner teamwork. Those who ran default compositions were also crushed as the meta shift overwhelmed them like a tidal wave.

Instead of either of these options, or the hard dive alternative which dominated in later patches, most elite teams switched to a unique counter composition that worked surprisingly well against every other lineup. Misfits concocted and pioneered it: as a result of their crushing loss in the Lenovo Cup, they had brainstormed a composition with Reaper and Mei, designed to isolate the tanks and shred them. It bled into the North American circuit via scrims with the middling teams and was picked up heavily by Rogue and EnVyUs.

Ninjas in Pyjamas were not bothered by the idea of a counter-comp emerging. It wasn’t a surprise that opponents were adapting after the constant battering they’d all been taking in scrims and the Lenovo Cup. During their bootcamp and preparation in Atlanta they had faced the strategy from weaker NA teams like NRG, and NiP were confident that their composition outshone it overall. The important parts? “Don’t get zoned out by the Mei wall,” Fragi explained, “and the second thing is to keep in mind where the Reaper is and don’t give him free kills with the beyblade.”

“It was mainly about evading the ultimate plays,” continued zappis. “During normal play we’d destroy them and then we’d just need to watch out for the beyblade combo and not get picked off by Mei walls. That’s basically about it.”

Firm in the belief that their composition was the theoretical best, if played well, they blasted through the group stages and shattered the dreams of REUNITED and Dignitas, set to face Misfits in the semifinals. The game was a slugfest: a gruelling back and forth between two teams playing incredible Overwatch. The first map, Gibraltar, set the pace for the series.

Misfits found it hard to crack the NiP defense in the first half of the map, dashing themselves over and over against the rock-steady Finns. NiP were eventually driven back to the edge of hangar and took up defensive positions on second, but time was on their side. With only 30 seconds left, Ninjas in Pyjamas were ready for the final attack; the Misfits’ Nanoboosted Death Blossom, so powerful against other teams, was utterly shut down by Fragi’s Earthshatter. It looked to be done.

But with overtime ticking and the map all but secured, NiP stumbled uncharacteristically. Nevix found a clutch pick onto Zuppehw and the rest of his team threw themselves fearlessly into the fight, managing to right the ship and take checkpoint two. It reinvigorated Misfits and NiP were on the back foot, suddenly staring at the wrong end of a completed overtime attack on Gibraltar. It was not how they had planned the opening defense to go, typically their stronger side, but there was time to recover.

They replied with a strong offense, stalled slightly on the home stretch but eventually wiping the floor with a synchronised Nanoboosted Earthshatter and Whole Hog. They mopped up Misfits and rode the payload home with thirty-six seconds on the clock.

Ninjas in Pyjamas, with the advantage in their second round timebank, chose to field zappis on Mei alongside their triple tank, aiming to flash-freeze the Misfits offense early on. Despite some excellent positional play from Misfits, who boosted up to blue box and attacked from the high ground with their own Mei comp, NiP locked them out at the top of the carwash. Their victory seemed assured once again.

In the kind of clutch performance that seemed to repeat itself throughout the series and the tournament, Misfits played incredibly to deny them once again. Misfits' Mei Reaper composition sped aggressively into the carwash, avoiding zappis’ Pharah and catching the tanks with a perfect Ice Wall; the captured prey was turned to mincemeat by SoOn’s Hellfire and converted to ultimate charge for the team. With the early ultimate advantage they snowballed the defense and clutched the map inches away from a loss, holding out NiP for a minute and a half in carwash.

Each map afterwards was similarly close. Hollywood fell to Misfits, opening up a 2-0 lead in the best-of-five match before NiP responded with a win on Eichenwalde due to their incredible defense. It was King’s Row that sealed the deal for Misfits. Like Gibraltar, both teams completed their attacks and went to added time - again Misfits finished with less time on the clock but were able to go above and beyond to batter NiP into submission.

It was an incredible victory for Misfits with their rag-tag new roster, overcoming a team that had flattened them only a week before. It clearly demonstrated the effectiveness of beyblade compositions, a strategy that Zebbosai’s team rode to a championship win after besting Rogue and EnVyUs. They were the conquerors of the West, and they left a trail of disappointed powerhouses in their wake.

For Ninjas in Pyjamas, it was a hard-fought defeat in their first outing as a potential elite team. The series had been incredibly close and their opponents had gone on to win the tournament; it was, all in all, a reasonably good performance from the Finnish side given their recent, accelerated growth. But a feeling permeated the scene nonetheless that they should have been able to go further - their dominance beforehand was so great that many felt they had underperformed to only reach the semifinals. This was already a team respected by its peers and expected to bring home trophies.

Showing their hand

The Overwatch Open results were made even more incredible by Misfits’ interview after the event. Zebbosai and SoOn expressed their strong belief that the team never would have won the tournament if NiP hadn’t trounced them in the Lenovo Cup. It was the overwhelming defeat that inspired the creation of their beyblade composition, they revealed. The show of dominance from Ninjas in Pyjamas launched Misfits into serious counter-strategy, leading them to a win and pushing forward the metagame.

It seemed from the outside that Ninjas in Pyjamas had shown their hand just a week too early. Their scrim win percentage and match dominance against the best European teams had given the top teams all the data they could possibly ask for. The threat was identified and neutralised a week before it had a chance to win NiP a trophy.

Could Ninjas in Pyjamas have won the biggest championship in the West if they'd simply hidden their hand for a week longer? The question is large enough to keep a player up at night, but zappis dismissed it with a lighthearted laugh. “We’ll never know!” A little more seriously, he continued, “I think it would have been stupid for us to not attend the Lenovo Cup or to practice during the week. We had just switched one player and we were just trying to polish our game. And playing those games, I think it really helped us to gain confidence and develop our comp.”

The attitude of top teams in Overwatch still sees them scrim against competition fairly regularly, but this was even more of a trend in 2016 when fewer top teams were around. “It’s really hard to say what would have happened - either way we would have practised against Misfits - but maybe they would have thought of this comp either way, even if we didn’t participate in the Lenovo Cup.” Keeping the team’s entire style a secret would have been an impossibility, and NiP felt that playing only against weaker opponents to hide their ability would have hindered their chance to gel with Zuppehw.

It’s impossible to predict when a team will suddenly get a read on your style. In a world where Misfits did not craft their Mei Reaper composition or Ninjas in Pyjamas took the semifinal, they would have been favourites to take the tournament. Though such fantasies are not often healthy for players to indulge in after a bitter loss, Fragi admits he thought about what might have happened if only Misfits had been an easier hurdle. “The only team that I wasn’t confident about beating,” he said, “was EnVyUs back then. Every other team I think we had the better chance of winning than losing against.” In this sense, it seems to have been NiP’s championship to lose.

Their loss in the Overwatch Open was a catalyst for many question to suddenly develop about the Finnish roster. Had they underperformed in their match against Misfits? Were the players or the team ‘onliners’, incapable of performing in a LAN environment? Had Ninjas in Pyjamas simply been overhyped by scrim results that nobody should have taken too seriously to begin with?

Or was their time of dominance over almost before it had begun, victim to another tidal meta change?

For the answer to this question and many you've never thought to ask, read part two and part three on