Nydra's Minutes: Flexible Afreeca Blue show trophy potential after learning to share the burden
It might not look like it, but Afreeca Freecs Blue (AFB) is as fragile as porcelain.
This might sound a weird thing to say given their many stellar placements, including their second place from APEX Season 1 and top 3 at Nexus Cup, but the dominant Afreeca Freecs sister team is held together by thin threads. They are a team that will look invincible until it suddenly doesn’t feel that way at all.
Ironically, AFB’s biggest asset is their most glaring flaw. Synonymous with aggression almost as much as Lunatic-Hai, AFB were led into battle by Genji aficionado Weon-Hyeop “Arhan” Jeong and everybody would work around him, spending their resources: Zarya bubbles, Nanoboosts, everything. Returning the favor, Arhan would leave a trail of corpses or mortally injured enemies for Taek-Hyun “Recry” Jeong and the rest to finish off.
This strategy got AFB to the finals of APEX Season 1, but it was by no means an indication of their strength in a vacuum, rather a product of South Korea’s infant scene which hadn’t learned how to adapt and diversify. It was why EnVyUs were able to brutalize them in the finals and why they only got a single map at IEM Gyeonggi in their first and final match against Lunatic-Hai. The centralization of carry power was too heavy in AFB—a malicious trait which needed to go away if AFB were to make another grand final.
The centralization of carry power in AFB was too heavy and needed to go away.
This isn’t to say AFB were the only team suffering from that as it was a fairly common practice in Overwatch teams of that era. Even in the West, it was copied pretty faithfully by FaZe Clan and George “Shadowburn” Gushcha, something I documented during their struggles in the NGE Winter Premiere. Together, FaZe and AFB were textbook examples of why religiously leaning on a star player is as naïve as it is detrimental. If your star player is shut down, you are done. If your star player has a bad day, you are done. And, in the case of FaZe, if your star player plays on bad ping, you are done.
Even if those things were to never happen—and they always will at some point—players such as Arhan who worships extreme risk taking would require team-mates who can have his back 100% of the time, without a second’s delay, which adds another “if” to the equation. In early AFB days, Arhan notably lacked such team-mates, Recry notwithstanding. Yoon-Hik “Adam” Kim was a promising tank, but a Reinhardt main whose playstyle didn’t really match Arhan’s lunacy. The Zarya of Huo-Hin “J1N” Jo was instrumental to Genji’s survivability, but J1N himself never embraced the in-your-face style of Jae-Hoon “Hoon” Choi, who would’ve been a theoretical perfect fit for AFB. The support backline was also passive and lacked the hero-picking potency that the likes of Je-Hong “RyuJeHong” Ryu’s Ana or Benjamin “uNKOE” Chevasson’s Zenyatta would’ve offered, and which would’ve complemented Arhan’s perilous dives.
The extent to which the emphasis on Arhan's style made or broke AFB is further supported by first blood numbers. An article on Winston's Lab from March this year showed teams that would get first blood in a team fight would win that team fight up to 77% percent of the time. Additionally, Genji as a hero was rated as the fifth most valuable to kill first and the third best in terms of ultimates value, only behind the team fight deciding ults of Zarya and Reinhard.
Therefore, with their power centralized on such a polarized carry—who would either leave the enemy in shambles or be shut down in an instant—and with their back line unable to diligently follow the bloodthirst of said polarized carry to a T, cracks appeared in AFB’s gestalt. While those cracks were minor enough that lesser teams such as Flash Lux, Rhinos Gaming Titan and BK Stars in APEX Season 1 could not take advantage of them yet, more seasoned rosters hammered them wide open. APEX Season 2 was a big tell of AFB’s weaknesses, as the team scrambled through the Round of 16 with just one win, and lost in the quarter finals to nil.
To their credit, AFB has been trying to solve their predictability and playstyle issues since before Season 2. They signed Dong-Gyun "Mano" Kim alongside aggressive tank/flex Dong-Hyun “DongHyun” Bae, whose aggression fit well with Recry and Arhan. Before Season 3, they completely replaced their support line, signing ex-Uncia’s Jun-Seo “lucid” Yoo and putting Ho-Jin “IDK” Park in the driver’s seat.
These changes have balanced AFB’s power output away from unreliable Arhan spikes to better distributed potency and if the Genji gets shut down, there’s someone to pick up the baton. Recry is no longer the sole back-up plan for AFB, as Mano and DongHyun have been outstanding in the tertiary carry positions. Additionally, IDK's shot-calling has been the very needed voice of reason and restraint in AFB, holding Arhan’s hazardous dives on a short leash to the point we saw him play Orisa to support IDK’s Torbjorn, a situation that would’ve never happened in old AFB. They are experimenting with Sombra a lot, too, and have been playing triple DPS almost as much as 2/2/2, the latter being their predominant style in previous APEX seasons, even during the triple-tank era of Season 1.
Top to bottom: AFB's playstyle changes from Season 1 to Season 3. Data by Winston's Lab.
It is therefore no surprise to see AFB leading their group with a 2-0 record and yet to drop a single map, and theirs is far from the weakest pool in the tournament, especially compared to Group C, for example. X-6 Gaming qualified from challenger with experts fixated on their potential and RunAway are last season’s runner-ups, but neither could challenge AFB’s in their series. AFB are scheduled to play KongDoo Uncia next, a team which noticeably suffered from the inner KongDoo shuffle, which could very well result in a flawless 9-0 for AFB coming out of Group B.
It’s unlikely that AFB’s journey will end in the top eight either, or at least it won’t be in the humiliating head-bashing that was their Season 2 run. Diversifying their carry potential while reigning Arhan and building a strong support line-up which makes sense for the team has made AFB a championship-worthy roster, more than they ever were in their actual championship-contesting form in Season 1.