(Credit: Otto Jahnukainen for ASSEMBLY)
By the time 2016 was coming to a close, Ninjas in Pyjamas had invented one of the iconic compositions of Overwatch and dominated months of online competition, but they failed to capitalise in one of the most fertile eras of LAN competition. They had fallen by the wayside, unable to lift the trophy at Overwatch Open, DreamHack Winter, or MSI MGA. They had failed to carve their names in stone.
After MSI MGA there were no tournaments to look forward to. While other regions had regular online cups and even LANs such as MLG Vegas, IEM GyeongGi and Winter Premiere, Europe was left in the dark. Ninjas in Pyjamas disappeared into the shadows for almost four months, surfacing only briefly to roll over some lower level Finnish teams at Winter Assembly and win their first minor LAN, a hollow victory after a disappointing end to the year.
Even in the relative isolation of the European scrim circuit, meta changes were unavoidable. Quad tank ripped through the North American scene while Korea was experimenting with dive, and then in early 2017 triple DPS began to dominate in the West. Ninjas in Pyjamas spent their time away from the public light, adjusting to the changes and altering their style to cope with the shifts in the tide.
Adaptations to the D.Va and Zenyatta were first on the list after their loss to Fnatic at DreamHack Winter, but it was difficult to find the right changes without a similar level of pressure from their scrim partners.
Early on, Ninjas in Pyjamas were reluctant to change. “We thought about countering the Zenyatta with D.Va and stuff,” said Fragi, “but always the problem with us is that the stuff we were running - it seemed quite one-dimensional but it was always working in scrims really well, all the time.” Ninjas in Pyjamas had a win record of over 75% in their scrims with the other top European teams at the time, so felt the correct path was to make small alterations in style and work on their own game rather than countering opponents.
At the beginning of DreamHack Winter, zappis had even famously stated that he thought D.Va was bad, even in its buffed state, and NiP would not be integrating it into their tanky compositions. They were forced to eat humble pie by the shovel-full after Fnatic’s Hafficool put on a masterclass and outplayed them with the hero.
“It felt like the D.Va was bad, but people didn’t run it well against us until Fnatic ran it against us,” zappis explained, “that was the main reason I didn’t see D.Va as that much of a problem against us. But after DreamHack, the main things that we switched is like - I played more different DPS heroes, and we diversified our playstyle with that, and I played some D.Va as well. But in a way we felt like we didn’t need D.Va that much.”
Triple tank vs. triple DPS
Europe wasn’t drawn into the quad tank meta which took over North America in the winter, never believing that the composition was better than triple tank with a DPS hero. The meta in Europe was still fairly set with Reinhardt compositions until January 2017 though, when Rogue and eUNITED returned from Korea, both with roster changes and the latter with a new name. They swept the region up in the latest craze: triple DPS.
According to zappis, Ninjas in Pyjamas had never seriously considered major compositional changes until the dive meta hit, with triple DPS at the forefront. “We didn’t really need to before that,” he said, “maybe we should have.”
For months the writing had been on the wall; one major meta shift, similar to the one that put NiP at the forefront months ago, could have forced drastic changes at any point from their players. In 2017 that moment finally arrived. Ninjas in Pyjamas were not ready.
Predicting a meta shift is nigh impossible in terms of timing and the heroes required, but the Finns had put little effort into expanding their hero pools and opening up possibilities to the team. “It was kinda our big downfall,” admitted Fragi. “Because we were doing too good with the triple tank, all the time in scrims, we just thought about perfecting it even further.” Hubris had caught up with Ninjas in Pyjamas hard, and they knew it almost immediately.
eUnited’s triple DPS dive composition smacked NiP around, causing their win percentage in scrims to plummet from 75% to around 15-20%. “They were just schooling us with their dive comps,” zappis said. “We started to notice that we’re gonna fall behind really hard if the meta stays like this - and it has stayed like that.” Over the period of a few weeks, Ninjas in Pyjamas realised that they had fallen long behind the meta and didn’t have the individual skill to recover and overtake teams.
eUnited, Rogue, Cyclones, and Movistar Riders were all advancing with the triple DPS compositions as Ninjas in Pyjamas tried to adapt and innovate to shut it down. As NiP took time adjusting their own style, the rest of the teams in Europe were simply getting cleaner and cleaner with their execution. It was impossible to bounce back.
“That eUnited era of getting wrecked by them was for two and a half months or something,” recalled Fragi. “They actually wrecked us even before the Ana nerfs, so it was kinda fun. Then Ana got nerfed and it didn’t really help us!” The nerf he spoke of was one of the final killing blows to triple tank, as Ana’s healing grenade was nerfed to half of its healing potential and the duration reduced 20% in January, followed by damage nerfs in March.
While explaining how eUnited moved through compositions in the winter - starting with tanks, moving to Pharah Mercy dive, then to triple DPS - zappis raised an interesting point about the evolution of the meta in recent times. “It’s actually funny,” he said, “we feel like the D.Va Winston dive that’s prominent now, it’s not that tough against triple tank. Only the triple DPS dive really counters triple tank. I don’t think the 2-2-2 is really that big of a counter.”
Fragi agreed. “Yeah, if the enemy has a D.Va instead of a DPS there’s just so much less damage pre-fight. And Rein is a really good hero against D.Va and Winston, it’s good to hit them with your hammer, they’re big heroes and they need to come close to you to do stuff. But when you have triple DPS jumping around in every direction it’s kinda hard to be effective with Reinhardt and Roadhog as well.”
RiP triple tank
With two of their major playmakers neutered by the triple DPS composition, Ninjas in Pyjamas already had their back against the wall. Eventually the team caved, giving up on their famous triple tank composition to try out the Selfless comp, other Reinhardt lineups, and even adding in Winston D.Va to their team. What made them eventually give up on a composition that they’d had confidence in for half a year?
According to NiP, the Roadhog hook change was the nail in the coffin. “Before the change, you did so much more pressure against the flankers with Roadhog because you could do those prediction hooks around the corner,” zappis said, “and the Tracers and Genjis had a really harder time against Roadhog before the hook change.” Perhaps not every team felt the same impact from ‘Hook 2.0’, as it was known, but for NiP, whose playmaking often relied on hymzi’s incredible talent with Roadhog hooks, it was a fatal blow.
hymzi’s proficiency with insane hooks, abusing the mechanic to its fullest, had made him feared and respected among all his peers. For a large period in 2016 he was untouchable as the best Roadhog in the game and could frequently spin a fight on its head with a spree of unbelievable picks. The patch, which broke hooks that went around corners, heavily hit his style of prediction hooking tiny timing windows. He very quickly seemed out of place in the carry role for Ninjas in Pyjamas.
Though Ana nerfs and the Winston bubble buff affected the wider scene arguably more, for NiP the reduction in hymzi’s pick potential was the biggest blow. “You’ve got the line of sight thing and even the hitbox. It was twice easier to hit the Genjis and Tracers with hook 1.0. So that was a really big reason, we couldn’t really keep the flankers in check any more,” lamented Fragi.
Even with the knowledge that their trademark style was going out of fashion, Ninjas in Pyjamas couldn’t leap headfirst into meta dive compositions. They simply didn’t have the players for it. Hero pools were insufficient for everybody except zappis, and their communication protocols were based around the slower-paced, coordinated tank play rather than the chaotic hivemind of dive.
“Many things didn’t work with [the former roster] to run mirror dive. Then we ran a bit of the Selfless comp,” said zappis, referencing a composition popularised by Selfless in North America which paired a Reinhardt and Roadhog with a Soldier: 76 and Tracer. With that composition, Ninjas in Pyjamas were able to beat eUnited 2-0 in the PIT Championships, a result which made them appear capable of contending with the top of Europe post-dive.
“It still depends heavily on your Roadhog to get a good game,” zappis acknowledged, “because if your Roadhog doesn’t hit hooks or get picks you’re gonna get run over. And that’s the main reason that we won against eUnited in the PIT group stages is that we had a good Roadhog game and they didn’t have that good of a game. But in scrims they were still just destroying us.”
Digging their way out of the PIT
At that time in the PIT Championship, NiP were still doing well against tier two teams in Europe but couldn’t compete with the elite dive teams in scrims. Teams such as Misfits and Hammers were in a similar position, still trying to make triple tank or Reinhardt compositions work, allowing NiP a foothold they were all too happy to make use of. It gave them a steady, if reduced, position among the top tier in Europe despite the advancing meta shift.
Ninjas in Pyjamas came out of the shadows to compete in their first top tournament and resembled their former strength initially. After several strong games, using majority Reinhardt compositions, they took first place in their group. It was a strong result, finishing the group over eUnited, Laser Kittenz, and Vivi’s Aventure having only lost two maps in five games. For a moment, it seemed like NiP would be able to muscle through this meta as well with their triple tank and Rein comps.
The playoffs told a different story however. After beating the Danes in Team Singularity, they fell to Movistar Riders and Dignitas, two dive teams who had found their fire in PIT. Though the games were close, Ninjas in Pyjamas were clearly not the titans of old; even the newer dive teams with their slightly sloppier teamwork or more reactive playstyles were able to crack through the NiP triple tank.
Again, rather than fling themselves into dive, Ninjas in Pyjamas tried to adapt.
“We started running Zenyatta instead of Ana, that was the big revelation,” Fragi observed. The shift gave Ninjas in Pyjamas their own damage source to pressure opponents in the pre-fights and, with D.Va on the field, the Zenyatta was no more vulnerable than Ana to a coordinated assassination attempt. The Orb damage and Discord were useful against tanky teams and divers alike, allowing Zuppehw to have more of a chance at eliminating flankers in crucial head-to-heads as well.
The switch to Zenyatta also gave Ninjas in Pyjamas an extra defensive support ultimate, a key reason that the dive comps were powerful with ultimates as well as without them. Nanoboost was incredibly difficult to get value from unless paired with a Genji, and the offensive ultimates could easily be countered by a well-timed Transcendence or Sound Barrier.
Now on somewhat equal footing in pre-fight as well as ultimate engagements, Ninjas in Pyjamas worked on ironing out the kinks before TaKeOver 2. Their aspirations were reasonable, tempered by months of crushing losses in scrims.
“We weren’t doing that good against the dive, even before the tournament. We saw the groups - we knew we could beat Cyclowns because they had the roster changes,” said Fragi. “But I don’t think we ever thought we had a good chance against Rogue or eUnited - we had a fighter’s chance or whatever - but maybe a top four was in the cards for us. Something like that is what we were aiming for realistically.”
Those roster changes ended up being devastating for Cyclowns as the European rising stars burned out in groups and died shortly after the tournament. Ninjas in Pyjamas took their opportunity to pass into the playoffs after losing to both Rogue and eUnited, set to face Cloud9 in the lower bracket. Though NiP felt good about their chances, Cloud9 were a more well-rounded team and had learned from their excruciatingly tight win over Hammers in groups, a team running similar comps.
Hammers had also moved to NiP’s Zenyatta tank comp, beating Cloud9’s Ana composition in the majority of head-to-head clashes. For the playoffs, Cloud9 added far more Winston D.Va into their strategy, denying Kaiser the opportunity to butt heads with Fragi and outplaying them with Genji Tracer dive instead.
Cloud9 took a 2-0 victory over Ninjas in Pyjamas and solidified the end for their roster. “If we beat Cloud9 we would have been OK with the result I guess,” Fragi revealed, “but even before TaKeOver we were pretty… - desperate is a strong word, but we were already feeling for like a month before that we need some changes to keep up with the dive meta.”
Winds of change
It was time for dramatic changes for the Finns. They had given their roster the time and room it deserved, but results were simply not being delivered. Players were not keeping up with the meta and the team was being outmatched pound for pound. After TaKeOver 2, Ninjas in Pyjamas had to reluctantly admit that this band of brothers had reached the end of the road.
Their journey had been one of outpacing or outright defying the meta, but the inexorable torrent of dive had broken their style with no end in sight.
Ninjas in Pyjamas had tried all the adaptations available, given their individual hero pools, including trying to match the dive teams with little success. “We knew that we can’t beat the dive teams in a mirror match, we just didn’t have the personal hero pools,” said zappis. “We tried to run the dive a little bit during the spring and we didn’t succeed at all. That was the main reason that we knew that we had to switch players.”
zappis continued, laying out the thought process for the team at that time: “If we wanna keep fighting at the top level of Overwatch, we need to do something. And we knew that we had to switch players to do something.” Having finally made the decision to flow with the meta rather than fight against it, Ninjas in Pyjamas knew that roster changes were required to bring their side up to a competitive dive level.
“It’s really hard to go in a match, a dive mirror,” clarified Fragi, “when you think about the player matchups. Where do you get the edge against the other team? How do you win the game? If they have a better Tracer player, a better Soldier player, then they have played the dive comp for longer, and there’s not such a big strategy element to the dive comp so you can’t really get a big edge out of that. It’s really difficult, you just need to have good players in this meta, it’s really harsh.”
Ninjas in Pyjamas had never had the most talented players on Zenyatta, Winston, Genji, or Tracer. They had never practised dive during their time at the top or refined these heroes in ranked. Their former style had always prioritised positioning and synergy over flashy DPS plays. Now they risked being torn apart as a dive team without high individual skill, a sudden and drastic switch in priorities for the Ninjas in Pyjamas roster.
“There’s some element of success linked to your teamplay and communication and so on,” qualified Fragi as he spoke about the shift to dive, “but most of the current meta comes down to players being good and grinding out on the ranked ladder, getting your personal mechanical skills up to par.”
Fragi, mafu, and hymzi’s trademark heroes were incompatible with their new identity as a dive team. While adapting over the past months, Zuppehw had become proficient as a Zenyatta, while Fragi had been forced to play Winston and was grinding to become more and more comfortable.
Throughout this time, mafu and hymzi had both been rotating through offtanks and DPS heroes to little effect in matches. Neither seemed to perform at old levels when outside of their comfort zones, and both players had slowly lost the necessary motivation to grind the game and master a new role. By the time Ninjas in Pyjamas realised they needed to leap into dive and have six strong individual players, it was too late to begin the improvement. That needed to have happened months ago.
In a meta that relied on every member grinding to a level of mastery in their niche, the time commitment had not been there. Ninjas in Pyjamas were already struggling to adapt to their new style, and players could not slow down progress with their own reluctance or inability to improve.
If Ninjas in Pyjamas had wanted to keep their roster, hero pool diversification would have had to start early in 2017, with players remaining motivated and improving throughout. “[We would have had to] really grind out the personal skill up if we would have wanted to keep the same roster,” Fragi explained with a sigh, “and it just didn’t happen even though we had talks about it through the spring of 2017, we had talks that we need to deepen our hero pools and so on but it never really happened properly for some reason.”
During Contenders qualifiers, Ninjas in Pyjamas experimented with LiNkzr on DPS, rotating out mafu and hymzi depending on the match. During groups, the team announced the addition of Davin to form a new DPS pair, with zappis moving to offtank and flex.
mafu and hymzi were both removed from the team, severing the roots of a Finnish core which had stretched back to 2010, spanning teams, trophies, and whole games. The tough decision had been made after ten months to bend to the meta, split the six, and bring in new blood.
Ninjas in Pyjamas were no more - in a more literal sense as well, as the organisation coincidentally dropped its support for Overwatch during the roster shuffle. The team continued Contenders as Rest in Pyjamas, with new players and a dive mentality.
Leaping in like Joona Puhakka
It could not have been a more fierce 180° turn from the new team. With a front flip and a splash they dove into playing triple DPS, transitioning to a more composed D.Va style halfway through Contenders. Though the style was unidentifiable and a stark contrast to their previous, Rest in Pyjamas qualified and competed with the tier two European teams immediately. “It just tells the whole story of the current meta. You just need to have good individual players on each hero and then you will do good. And that’s how it went, pretty much,” Fragi said.
Rest in Pyjamas had a strong run through Contenders, albeit with a shaky start as they integrated new players. With LiNkzr and then Davin on board, two fantastically talented Finnish DPS players, the team found success against a range of upcoming European teams in groups.
Though an upset loss against 123 in qualifiers gave the appearance that RiP were in trouble, few could have predicted the former’s excellent performance right out the gates. Further losses to GamersOrigin and Vivi’s Adventure did not bode well, but the introduction of Davin immediately afterwards gave a huge boost to the team. zappis moved over to D.Va and the new team found wins over Team Singularity and Vivi’s Adventure to qualify in second place for Group C.
Improvement happened live throughout the tournament with their new DPS duo as players became more comfortable with their new roles and learned the tendencies of each others’ play. By introducing a star Tracer in Davin and a strong Genji in LiNkzr, Rest in Pyjamas had captured some of the quintessential NiP magic - every player was comfortable on their hero and in their role, but now with more versatility.
Towards the end of Contenders, Rest in Pyjamas looked to be a top five team in the region, knocking on the door of the top three with only a few weeks of practice. “In Season One, it’s still gonna be tough to beat eUnited in their dive game,” said Fragi, “but we have the individual skill to back it up and we practise a lot so we have a good chance to even win it, but a top three, top two is easily achievable for us.”
“And Europe is gonna shake now,” prophesied zappis, “I think there’s gonna be a lot of switches going around so it’s really hard to say what Season One brings as the teams.” With one slot up for grabs after Movistar Riders disbanded and potential roster changes on the cards for many others, Contenders Season One is an open field. “We’ll see what the playground is coming into Season One. But I think we’re gonna have the advantage for sure now because we’re gonna stick together and we have a really solid plan on how we approach the game and I’m feeling pretty confident as well.”
Building to last
Versatility was a priority for the Finns when building their new roster. After the end of Contenders Season Zero, the team was signed by Team Gigantti and brought in their newest member, BigG00se from Alfa Squad. The addition of the former DPS player on Lucio typifies the approach for Gigantti’s roster: maximise individual talent and flexibility to prepare for any eventuality.
zappis and Fragi firmly believe that it’s possible to have a set roster exist and compete at the top for over a year. Though no team has managed it so far in Overwatch’s history, Gigantti is building for that kind of stability.
“Currently I think we have a really balanced team and even if the meta switches totally to tanks,” said zapps, “if you would play like four tanks...I think we’re really versatile in a way that we can run anything. You can have the easy way to success to recruit the one-trick Tracer in this meta and it will work out, it just depends how you build the team. If you want to build a team that sticks together then you need versatility and a lot of individual skill.”
Their first tournament together with BigG00se and under the new banner of Gigantti resulted in an emphatic win at Finnish LAN Assembly Summer. Though a minor event and not the first small LAN the core had won, the final saw them destroy GamersOrigin 3-0. It was a new beginning for Gigantti, reborn as a team with no doubt over their LAN performance, their versatility, their individual strength, or their place in the meta.
Even as experimentation around the East has fans heralding the death of dive - even as other teams are enjoying the return to Reinhardt Zarya or lamenting their one-trick Genjis - Gigantti are assembling and practising with a roster that they believe is the best that Finland has to offer, no matter the meta.
Flexible players, confirmed Fragi, with drive, motivation, and passion to grind their heroes to mastery - those are the keys to a long-standing, successful roster.
The Finns should know.