With a disappointing finish in their first major tournament as a potential winner, questions began to revolve around NiP. Were they only onliners? Overhyped by scrim results? Was their time over almost before it had begun? Perhaps the meta had outpaced them already?
Their period of online dominance after the Overwatch Open answered the latter two questions with an emphatic “no”. Immediately after returning from Atlanta, Ninjas in Pyjamas won a spree of tournaments, placing first in the MSI MGA qualifier, the DreamHack Winter qualifier, QPAD King of Nordic Season 1, and November’s Alienware Monthly Melee. It was crushing.
Every available tournament was used as an opportunity to prove how utterly dominant they were, additionally wrecking Misfits in four separate revenge matches for a combined map record of ten wins to four losses. There had been no meta switch since the Overwatch Open, but Misfits couldn’t find the spark that had allowed them to get the edge over Ninjas in Pyjamas at LAN. NiP’s stifling consistency was too much.
“They basically tried everything but nothing really seemed to work,” zappis remembered. Ninjas in Pyjamas hadn’t been rattled by the Mei Reaper composition when it was thrown at them in the Overwatch Open and their interpretation of the results was simply that their composition’s consistency was bearing out. “I think the only way to break [triple tank] was to run mirror and run it better at the time. Even the Mei/Reaper comp”, zappis explained, ”it was pretty good, and I think at some points, at some parts of some maps, it was a counter to [triple tank] but not like a direct counter.”
Fragi chimed in. “Yeah, not at all. People deemed it as the counter comp after Misfits beat us with it in the Overwatch Open but you can check the vods from the series, it was a really close series and we kinda messed it up ourselves. I think the triple tank comp was still stronger than the beyblade...and it was counterable with the triple tank.”
Against the rest of the competition in Europe, Ninjas in Pyjamas were dominant in both matches and scrims, a pattern repeated for months that made them the most feared team amongst their peers. Fragi described their performance as “untouchable” in scrims, and - in online cups at least - the results were reflected.
As Ninjas in Pyjamas refined and polished their style further, it seemed almost impossible to find a weakness. Their coordination was clinical after months of constant practice and the hero pools fit their comfort zone perfectly. According to zappis, the uncanny matching of skilled hero ability to form a powerful combined composition was the main reason NiP were so strong.
For the majority of this time period from the late summer to late autumn of 2016, Ninjas in Pyjamas had a number of the best players on their individual heroes and excellent support around them.
hymzi spent a large portion as the stand-out best Roadhog in the world until players such as Taimou and birdring picked up the hero at APEX. Though there was fierce competition in many top teams for the title of best Reinhardt, Fragi was consistently among the best in the world with many resources given to him and results reaped from his aggressive playstyle. zappis never quite hit the heights of other more focused DPS players in top teams of the time but had a hero pool depth which allowed NiP to switch their style up around his hero choices; the amount of heroes played never seemed to detract from the quality of his play which could always go toe-to-toe with powerful opponents.
Zuppehw and mafu were two very solid team players on Ana and Zarya respectively, both ranking highly amongst the most mechanically skilled in Europe but also very comfortable using the utility of their heroes to great effect in the team. Rather than both playing to maximise their own heroes to deal damage and make impact, the two along with kyynel played perfect support roles for the team and were the backbones of synergy within NiP.
“Everyone had a character that they were really comfortable to run, so it was just the playstyle, the coordination and the hero pools - everything clicked with us, and that’s why we were so strong with the comps,” zappis said. “We didn’t need to learn, it came naturally to us, and that’s why we were so strong with it.”
Ninjas in Pyjamas were not racking up wins in useless tournaments despite the period not including any LANs. The MSI MGA qualifier victory was a huge win for the team, securing their participation as the only European side in a four-team UK LAN, denying Misfits, Dignitas, and melty a chance at the $75,000 MSI MGA tournament that has now become legendary in Overwatch for all the wrong reasons. They also came a dominant first in the DreamHack Winter qualifiers, again over Misfits and this time beating upstarts NWA as well to secure another spot at a major LAN. Alongside these wins were gold medal finishes in medium online tournaments: QPAD King of Nordic and the only European Monthly Melee hosted, not dropping a map the whole tournament to FaZe, Misfits, and mousesports among others.
The Monthly Melee also marked the beginning of adaptation for Misfits. After being systematically destroyed by Ninjas in Pyjamas for months and internal conflicts within the team, they experimented by dropping Kryw to the bench and bringing Zebbosai into a flex role, pioneering a new form of triple DPS dive and even adding Sombra into the mix. Once again, the incredible pressure of matching up to NiP’s single unstoppable style forced changes on the other elite team in Europe.
There are caveats to this period of domination from Ninjas in Pyjamas however. Their success can only be measured against Misfits as they were the only two elite teams left in Europe after the Overwatch Open. After FaZe’s run through the European portion of the tournament, the team had decided to identify as a North American side while Dignitas fell into a serious slump. As for Rogue and REUNITED, the two were off gallivanting in Korea’s APEX Season 1 after the former had also been invited to (and won) the APAC Premier.
It created a weaker depth of opposition for NiP to play against and limited the opportunity to prove their ability. With the focus already shifting to Korea and North America for serious competition, Ninjas in Pyjamas were left struggling to demonstrate their ability against the best teams at their peak.
No APEX at their apex
Ninjas in Pyjamas are one of the better teams to never be invited to an Eastern tournament. While EnVyUs, Rogue, REUNITED, and NRG were joined by Misfits, Cloud9, and Fnatic in Korea (some attending multiple times including IEM GyeongGi) and other teams such as Immortals were given invites, Ninjas in Pyjamas were not offered an opportunity to prove themselves on the largest stage in the scene.
It’s hard to argue they deserved an invitation based on their results, but a calculated risk to involve them in APEX could have yielded incredible results. At the time APEX Season 1 invitations were handed out, Ninjas in Pyjamas were respected by their peers and the community on the ground floor of Europe, but their results in tournaments hadn’t borne that out yet. By the time Season 2 invitations rolled around, again their big tournament results looked lacklustre but this time due to ambiguous performances in the Overwatch Open and DreamHack Winter.
“It’s too bad that we never got into Korea. I think during our peak we would have had a pretty good run,” said zappis, “I remember some Korean coach - was it Lunatic-Hai’s coach? - mentioning that if we came to Korea in Season 1 we would have won it, or had a good chance to win it. I think it’s true. On our peak, when the meta was really favourable for us, we were unbeaten if we played to our normal standards.”
While zappis’ memory and expectations may be rose tinted, it does seem likely that Ninjas in Pyjamas would have been a favourite to run deep in APEX Season 1. Before the dive meta of December 2016, the Koreans were behind the Western teams; tank play did not seem to suit them and the gears in the Korean war engine had only just been oiled and started turning.
If Ninjas in Pyjamas lived up to their potential, the Finns would have been a powerhouse of a team in APEX Season 1, though the Korean dedication to strategic preparation and the meta shift which threw the playoffs into disarray would have sent them into the realms of true unpredictability.
Looking back on the missed opportunity to compete in Korea though, Fragi and zappis candidly accepted that they should not have been a first choice invite to APEX. “We didn’t really bring the results on LANs so we didn’t deserve the invite,” Fragi said, “it was kinda unfortunate.” zappis agreed, saying: “If we had won DreamHack and not got invited [to APEX Season 2] then we would have been a bit salty maybe, but we failed at DreamHack as well, or couldn’t perform.”
In the approach to that underperformance at DreamHack Winter, which came later in the timeline, Ninjas in Pyjamas had to maintain focus with almost all of their quality competition away in Korea or North America. Many wondered if it was difficult for such a dominant team to keep focused and improve. “It’s just about polishing your own gameplay. Even if you’re wrecking the enemy team you focus on playing as clean as you can,” Fragi explained, “as little mistakes as you can make.”
“And we still had things to work towards too, like there was DreamHack and the MSI event. There was things to look forward to, it’s a lot easier to keep on with the practice,” zappis added.
“Yeah,” Fragi nodded, “we had two big tournaments to win.”
Coming into the first of those, DreamHack Winter, Ninjas in Pyjamas was once again the team to beat. This was their time to prove that they were not onliners. Their time to take a championship.
Two weeks before the tournament kicked off, a massive patch hit Overwatch. Ranking as one of the most game-changing patches in the game’s history, it sent enormous ripples through the meta in every region. Every ultimate’s build speed was slowed by 25%; Nanoboost no longer sped up targets; D.Va was buffed in terms of health and mobility; Soldier: 76 was given a large boost to his damage; and Sombra was released into live play.
In APEX, this patch hit right before playoffs, utterly changing the standings of the top teams. Every team moved to a triple tank with D.Va, Roadhog, and Soldier:76, working on set executes with their Reinhardt and empowering the two newly buffed heroes to do serious work. In Europe and North America things changed a little slower and teams were more open to experimentation, with no major tournament to force their hand, but the shift affected everybody.
Everybody, it seemed, other than NiP, who were quite happy running the same composition they had been plugging away with for months.
DreamHack Winter started well for the Ninjas, seeded into the easier group by far. They took an easy win over UnWanted, who had qualified through the BYOC tournament, and then took down compLexity in a nightmare of a series that saw Hollywood be played innumerable times due to crashes. After an exhausting first day, Ninjas in Pyjamas had reached the semifinals to play against Fnatic, who finished second in their group behind Misfits.
The seeding from qualifiers and groups had created NA vs. EU matchups throughout the tournament, crucially meaning that Misfits had avoided NiP on their route to the finals. They had carried on with a triple DPS plan that was as explosively spectacular as it was unstable. With excellent individual performance and coordination, they ripped through Fnatic and compLexity to take their place in the finals. It was impossible to tell how it would match up against Ninjas in Pyjamas, but the rematch of the two European titans seemed an inevitability - and Ninjas in Pyjamas were heavy favourites.
Fnatic were playing a different style again to both teams. They had followed the general trend of the new patch in Overwatch, integrating the buffed D.Va into their composition to form a triple tank style that was significantly different to NiP’s. With a D.Va instead of a Zarya, and a fixed Soldier: 76 damage source, Fnatic had verticality and mobility in their composition that NiP sorely missed. custa also had some tricks up his sleeve as support, throwing in Zenyatta at a time when most teams were sticking rigidly to Ana.
Even before the tournament, NiP had identified Fnatic as an issue. Fragi described them as the only team that they had been troubled with in scrims, as the Zenyatta and D.Va caused a roadblock to their usual method of play.
The Zenyatta was applying massive pressure to Fragi’s Reinhardt, shredding him as he dropped his shield to do damage. Reinhardts normally plan to take damage while swinging, helping their Ana generate Nanoboost, but against a Zenyatta with Discord such risks are amplified. “At crucial times when the Reinhardt is pushing forward,” zappis carried on, “the D.Va can block the Ana heals as well. And if Ana ‘nade gets blocked, then it’s like GG. You can’t out-sustain it.”
Fragi continued from his point of view as the main backbone of the team. “The problem is that in pre-fights you get so much poke damage and damage into the Reinhardt comp,” he explained, “so you can’t really run Reinhardt because there’s too much damage before the fight. You can’t win the fight if the enemies just stay far back and spam at you, you can’t do anything as Reinhardt so it’s kinda tough.” Additionally, without the speedboost component of the Nanoboost, Fragi was struggling to effect his will on the game in ultimate fights. The team relied heavily on hymzi’s Roadhog hitting peak performance to generate picks regardless of high ground or Defense Matrix blocks.
The combination of D.Va and Zenyatta formed a new challenge for Ninjas in Pyjamas to adapt to in the approach to the semifinals. They knew what Fnatic’s strategy would be and the pressure it would apply, but the struggle to adapt to the D.Va and Zen whilst also dealing with high-ground disadvantage proved too much for them in the server.
The match was ferocious, one of the best series of the era, and pitted the titans of the old style against a team fluidly using the new ‘meta’ composition. DreamHack’s map draft system provided an incredible stage for the duel as well; captains banned and then picked maps before the series to land on Anubis, Dorado, Numbani, Hollywood, and Volskaya. The map pool was shared excellence across the board but the clash of styles made each one vastly different, and preparation allowed Fnatic to reap rewards with their ‘brain over brawn’ approach.
It was a match of awesome defenses, with no map reaching completion for either team. Ninjas in Pyjamas had always been fantastic on defense with their triple tank composition but they now found themselves stifled on their attack, required to pull out godly defenses for map wins.
Temple of Anubis was a lightning-fast opener to the series. The calculated tanky style of NiP converted the four minutes of attack time into only four pushes: the first was set up perfectly but saved by a clutch hook spree from buds; the second saw mafu’s Graviton countered by a Transcendence as most ultimates were exchanged unfavourably for the Finns; the third was stalled and almost saved by clutch plays from Hafficool’s D.Va; and the fourth was a retake by Fnatic as they entered with another Transcendence and stole the show with their two defensive ultimates. Though the fights felt like they had been saved by clutch Fnatic plays, it was the defensive setup’s work minimising opportunities that allowed them to be rescued in the first place.
Fnatic had full held NiP on the first point, at that time a rare feat on Anubis. They blew kisses over to their coach roflgator, clearly happy with the map draft and gameplan, and counter-attacked with a Sombra Genji strategy to EMP their way to a first map win. It took under 10 minutes for Ninjas in Pyjamas to feel the pressure.
Though NiP looked shellshocked by the outcome of Anubis, they didn’t show it on Dorado. A total mental reset saw them come into Dorado playing their game, beginning on defense and utterly locking out Fnatic at the first arch. Whereas Anubis felt unusually strong for Fnatic and a product of their preparation, this was classic NiP. On attack, they farmed the Nanoboost and popped it early to overwhelm Fnatic and reply with a fast 1-1.
On Numbani Fnatic held again NiP on the first point defense. It was clear already that this would become a feature of the series, with Fnatic’s map choices very deliberately designed to incorporate the height of first points. This time buds made the swap off to McCree, setting up a dual-hitscan highground crossfire; the damage was too much for zappis to deal with even when Nanoboosted on Winston. Their sole hero with initiation and verticality melted without hymzi finding an opportunity for picks, and the plan unravelled quickly. mafu even attempted D.Va as the situation became dire but it was too little, too late.
Hollywood was a turning point in the series as Ninjas in Pyjamas began to make small adaptations. Their defense was another classic performance, winning most fights on the defense with their aggression and holding Fnatic outside the jail. On attack, the team began with zappis on Hanzo, a popular strategy with NiP for the ultimate combo with zappis and mafu, but it failed to get the point win due to a poor setup. mafu then switched over to D.Va, as NiP replicated the new ‘meta’ triple tank composition with zappis on Soldier: 76. They took the point and rolled to victory, making the series 2-2 and sending it to Volskaya as a decider.
So far the team that had attacked first had lost every map as the defenses overpowered them. Fnatic began, determined to break the curse, again showcasing their Sombra Genji strategy. It took multiple pushes with a range of ultimates but eventually they cracked through the first point.
NiP put up a reasonable performance on the second point, holding B as expected from Volskaya at the time. It was their attack which lost them the series and their hopes of the DreamHack Winter trophy.
Ninjas in Pyjamas, try as they might, could not keep an organised front against the dual-hitscan threat of Fnatic. Their supports, particularly Zuppehw, were picked repeatedly as Fragi struggled to shield both directions at once against the Zenyatta, McCree, and Soldier: 76. The NiP attempts at a Hanzo Zarya combo failed as well, giving them only 35 seconds to crack A and force a draw at least.
mafu switched off to D.Va, the final scrawl in the NiP playbook. With such little time, pushing into a Tactical Visor and a Transcendence, the writing was already on the wall. Ninjas in Pyjamas were held for the third time on a first point and watched as their hopes at a championship slipped out of their grasp.
After two major tournaments entered as favourites, Ninjas in Pyjamas left Atlanta and Jonköping with a record of two losses in the semifinals. It was a heartbreaking finish for NiP, who had failed to make the most of opportunities in their prime.
While their first semifinals loss at the Overwatch Open could be excused as two teams on fire, clashing at their peaks and demonstrating incredible Overwatch, NiP’s performance at DreamHack Winter could not be painted in the same light. They had been systematically read and countered in a fairly simple manner and failed to react or adapt sufficiently.
“The main problem was the high ground,” confirmed Fragi. “On Numbani, our strat there was always kinda sketchy, so I don’t think we really deserved to get through that. In Volskaya, we had a really good chance on taking the first point, as well as on Anubis. All three maps that we lost we got held on the first point. I think if we got through the first point on any of those three maps we would have won the series. We were really confident on all Anubis second point, Volskaya second point and so on - their attack and their defense.”
When considering the semifinal afterwards and the strengths of Fnatic, the North Americans appeared to require maps with high ground on defense. The map elimination process of DreamHack Winter allowed Fnatic to apparently outplay Ninjas in Pyjamas in the draft and bring the fight to their turf, but Fragi disagrees. “It might have looked like that because we got first point held, but we were quite happy with the map pool that we got,” he said, despite losing Anubis, Numbani, and Volskaya on the first point.
“I did the pick ban thing,” Fragi said, “I remember that only the last map I could have done a bit different, so Volskaya could have been King’s Row I think, that was the only difference that I could have made that would have made it better on paper.”
“The problem in that series was that we just got held on first points and on King’s Row we always had a really easy time on first point attacks - we had a Hanzo Zarya strat back then, and we got it at the latest with the Hanzo Zarya combo.”
The series exposed some serious weaknesses in NiP’s style that other teams had previously not had the tools to exploit. Fnatic had laid out a gameplan for countering Ninjas in Pyjamas that teams with discipline and an understanding of the new meta could follow. Hypothetically, if NiP had been in APEX at the same time, it’s likely that their downfall would have been swifter and more emphatic.
If we are to consider hypotheticals, then the greatest hypothetical of DreamHack Winter is the European rematch that never happened. If Ninjas in Pyjamas had been able to win one extra map against Fnatic and make it to the final against Misfits for another epic match of styles, how would the phenom of Misfits’ triple DPS have clashed against NiP’s triple tank?
Predictions seem impossible for this imaginary final. Ninjas in Pyjamas had won the previous four encounters but the new patch had neutered their style somewhat and Misfits were on the cutting edge of triple DPS. Though Fragi admits, with hindsight, the match was no sure thing, NiP had confidence at the time. “Back then, we were really confident against Misfits and I don’t think they would have had a chance, but thinking back, after the tournament we had so many problems against triple DPS stuff,” he said, “so maybe it wasn’t really a surefire thing against the triple DPS comp but I feel like, at the time, we were really confident running against dive so we were feeling like it would have been an easy time.”
From the outside, it felt like another crumble from the Finnish team. They had come so close to glory twice now but were steadily building a pattern of underperformance in big LAN games. Their potential was clearly demonstrated in online games - why couldn’t they bring that form and dominance into the championships?
Choking at LAN
A prevalent question among analysts and fans after Ninja in Pyjamas’ losses at DreamHack Winter and the Overwatch Open was whether they had ‘choked’ at LAN. That they had underperformed compared to expectations appeared obvious; their win record online and their legendary scrim dominance were not reflected in finals appearances or wins over major teams at either event - in both situations Ninjas in Pyjamas had pushed a top team to the ropes, but they never landed the final blow.
Individually, there was little evidence of choking at LAN. Their star players in hymzi and Fragi both had incredible performances on many maps, and occasional slumps from hymzi were to be expected given his ‘feast or famine’ approach to Roadhog. There was no obvious underperformance from mafu or zappis either, while the support duo seemed solid if mostly unobtrusive. Fingers could be pointed at players for not picking up D.Va earlier or for thrown away ultimates in certain fights, but these were more down to team decisions and communication than individual choking.
“I guess it’s kinda hard to tell for every player,” Fragi replied when asked about the controversial topic of NiP choking at LAN, “at least myself I think I play really good at LAN usually, like personal performance, but maybe our communication or some of the others were affected by the LAN environment.”
“Yeah I guess,” zappis sighed, reflecting back on his team’s performance in the LANs, “maybe a little.” He then thought for a moment and backtracked somewhat, unconvinced that choking was the correct terminology. “I don’t know, I don’t think we performed that badly. It’s just some small things that made the results what they are now. Maybe you can call it LAN choking, I don’t know,” he finished with a wry laugh.
Small moments utterly defined the Overwatch Open semifinal, and the series against Fnatic had key opportunities for a Ninjas in Pyjamas win as well. In the end, Fnatic outplayed the Finns in terms of their strategy and composition, setting themselves up for the win, whereas NiP had to rely on clutch moments to rescue and steal the series for their own.
Another aspect of the LAN atmosphere, related to choking, is the propensity for other teams to step up in the moment. With everything on the line and the pressure mounting, some players are able to hit a new level. Misfits had players like this: Hidan, SoOn, and ryb all rose to the occasion and performed above their usual level at the Overwatch Open, while Fnatic seemed tighter, more focused, and more coordinated at DreamHack Winter.
Ninjas in Pyjamas were one of the most consistent teams in the scene online, able to maintain their unreal win records by treating every tournament as important; on the big stage, however, they didn’t seem to have another gear. The LAN losses were close and always winnable - Ninjas in Pyjamas let them slip through their fingers.
Mental fortitude, on the other hand, never appeared to be an issue for Ninjas in Pyjamas. The stolid, dependable Finns forged on after each defeat, worn down or made rugged only slightly by each heartbreakingly close loss. “Obviously we were bummed out,” zappis said about their DreamHack Winter elimination, “but we still had MSI to prepare to, and it was just like - shrug it off, we couldn’t perform but it’s not the only tournament there is. I don’t think we’re ever too depressed if we failed, it’s just like - try to fix these things and just try to look on the bright side.”
“Of course though it always affects you,” Fragi countered, “it’s not fun - you’re performing so well and then you’re not quite making it to the finals or winning the whole thing. It wears down on you a bit I think.”
If watching finals opportunities run through their fingers was wearing on NiP, watching an entire tournament slip away into the ether must have been torture. One of their primary successes in the online circuit had been to earn a place at MSI MGA, one of four teams to qualify for the $75,000 tournament alongside Kongdoo Panthera, Rise Nation, and the invited Fnatic.
North America and Korea had not sent their best teams. The APEX participants had, broadly speaking, chosen to focus on the premier tournament rather than travel to London for a standalone cup and as such only Kongdoo Panthera, Uncia, and LW Blue (before adding Fl0w3R) were notable teams taking part. This was before APEX Season 1 as well, making these teams middling rosters at best when Panthera qualified, though all three had developed into monsters come mid-December.
North America had yet to wake up as a region, and with EnVyUs in Korea the teams attempting to qualify were Cloud9’s Swedish reboot, Liquid, FaZe on high ping, and compLexity. A series of upsets, including Rise Nation beating Cloud9, left Liquid against Rise in the finals to qualify. Rise proved they deserved to be considered a top team by annihilating Liquid to take the spot, but they were not considered favourites coming into MSI MGA against the other three.
Fnatic were also in the position of having beaten Ninjas in Pyjamas once before at DreamHack Winter but with a very specific composition, strategy, and map draft. Without all three in place, and with the time NiPhad been given to craft adjustments and adapt, it seemed unlikely they would be able to repeat the win.
Unfortunately - incredibly - the entire tournament was cancelled after days of technical failures. Only a single map was played, with Rise Nation attempting to begin the tournament against NiP to find their laptops overheating and the internet dropping out.
“It was our tournament dude!” Fragi half-jested. At the end of the tournament, Ninjas in Pyjamas were certainly the most upset at the lack of games. They had turned up to win - to get revenge on Fnatic, to show they could compete with Korean teams, to prove they didn’t choke on LAN, to finally win a major tournament. They felt robbed of the opportunity to even play.
Looking back on the tournament’s legendary flop half a year later, Fragi seemed to remembered it with more amusement than frustration. “It was kinda sad that it seemed like we lost the King’s Row game,” he said, referencing their failed attempt to battle Rise Nation, “when everyone was dropping out. Zuppehw as Ana was disconnecting every fight, he was like ‘I can’t do anything!’”
“I couldn’t move half of the fights as well,” confirmed zappis, “then it seems like we lost it when half of the players couldn’t play,” he laughed.
“Then it’s still like a half-serious meme - even now - that Rise won it,” Fragi continued incredulously, “it’s a bit annoying, people didn’t realise how laggy it was.”
Seriously assessing NiP’s chances is hard, but they did have another strong chance of a LAN victory in London. Their most difficult opponent likely would have been Kongdoo Panthera, though they were a very different beast to their current APEX silver medalist roster. Only three of the current roster were active at the time, in the midst of a roster shuffle. Though reports of their strength emerged from scrims just after MSI MGA, their next tournament showing ended immediately in a 0-3 loss to IEM GyeongGi champions LW Purple.
It’s quite possible that Ninjas in Pyjamas entered three out of three of their 2016 LANs as favourites to win.
If you missed the first part of the series, read it here. For the final part of this epic saga, covering their fall from the top, adaptations to dive, and decision to make roster changes, stay tuned to over.gg