I've seen a lot of rankings and predictions for the upcoming HGC season and I consistently see GFE placed a bit lower on the rankings. While I can completely understand the logic behind these placements, I don't agree with them. I'd like to address a number of these points that I think people have in their minds as well as put a few of my own forward.
Lag Force roster pieces
It's no secret that Naventic, later Lag Force, were expected to perform very well and then did abysmally. Two of the new members of GFE are bigempct and bkid of Lag Force before they disbanded. However, I don't necessarily think that they will be a liability going forward. I think bige has shown that he is quite a strong player. I will admit that bkid is a bit more of a wildcard for me - he's mostly played tank in the past, which I don't believe he will in this roster though I could be wrong. He's played flex in the past and I'm interested in seeing how he does in the upcoming season.
I don't think the problem with Lag Force were the individual pieces (with one or two significant exceptions); I think it was just not a very good environment for them. The entire first season, the team suffered because it was easy to bully Kenma. When he dropped out, they didn't pick up a full support and instead just rearranged some roles to bring iDream on. Naventic was never known for their macro play, and with the rise of Astral Authority/Tempo Storm at the end of 2016, it was clear how important macro play was becoming even in the North American scene which was lagging behind Europe and Korea. There was also some instability from Zuna's occasional role swaps based on his need to 'carry' on different roles.
I think bige and bkid going to GFE will prove good for both of these players. I believe GFE will have the macro and game knowledge that Lag Force did not for these players to show their merits rather than just losing in ways they probably felt like they couldn't control and then getting demoralized.
Loss of Fan, KingCaffeine, k1pro
I'm going to come out and say it: I don't think Caff and k1 leaving GFE was much of a loss. As much as I've wanted these players to succeed, they seem content to sit on their laurels of a BlizzCon win over two years ago as if the game hasn't changed since then, which it obviously has. I don't think they've kept up with the scene.
Fan is another case entirely. He's an incredibly popular and beloved member of the community, but honestly, I'm not certain that losing Fan is going to ultimately hurt that much. I don't know if it was the environment or team incompatibilities, but I don't think Fan by any stretch 'carried' the team by himself. There were times last year that I was downright surprised at some of his play and decision making. Unlike the above two players, I don't think he has an inherent issue that requires a 'wake up call' of any sort. I think, or at least hope, we'll see a return of the old playmaker Fan with his new roster that he seems quite comfortable with. I can't guarantee they'll do well - NA has had a really bad history with 'rockstar' super teams in the past, after all, and I don't know how else to describe a team with Fan, Psalm, and Glaurung. I also think a huge factor for Tempo Storm going forward, one that many people don't talk about, is Kala - their coach. He's shown to be incredibly knowledgeable about the game in general and I believe he was a significant part of the success of the old roster, which I would argue for the most part wasn't as mechanically inclined as the new roster.
Fan could be considered a loss to GFE in the sense that another team, a major rival, is going to get an incredibly strong player. But I don't think Fan's last months on GFE were up to snuff for Fan in general so I don't think him leaving the team was a necessary downgrade for GFE themselves.
MichaelUdall's departure and return
A lot of conversation happened around this. I'm afraid I'm not really a member of Udall's community, so I don't really have that many details on what's going on in his personal life, but I've heard that it had a significant amount to do with his original departure. A lot of people are also convinced that Udall returned only because GFE needed him back or they would lose the spot. I can't say this is or is not true - Blizz has said they can make an exception in certain cases, and we can't be sure they wouldn't have allowed Udall to retire for personal reasons while other members of the team also left. However, regardless of if GFE 'needed' Udall to return, I don't think we'll see Udall on GFE playing half-hearted.
I think GFE last season may have been a bit similar to Lag Force - I think the environment near the end was not a conducive or positive one. He returned to GFE pretty willingly because (at least according to what I've heard about the situation) one of his major conditions that GFE refused to fulfill previously - they picked up a coach. I think a coach is something he felt like the team needed, and some members of the team were very against picking up a coach. It seems that those members left GFE (or at the very least are no longer with them) and as a result, they picked up a coach.
I also believe he had some issues in his personal life that were either sorted out or at the very least when he left it was a pretty significant thing and now he's able to manage it after having a bit of time to take everything in. I'm trying not to be too committal on my statements here because, again, I'm not an active part of his community so I'm mostly just going off what I've heard from people that sounded like they hang around him more than I do.
Having addressed the above points, I would like to put a few of my own views forward that explain, in my opinion, why GFE is currently underrated.
Fury's return on tank
I'll admit, I've had some issues with Fury's professional behavior in the past, but that was a while ago and there hasn't been any 'controversy' around him since then. He also returned to GFE so I think (or at least hope) that any beef there has been squashed. I'm just going to assume interpersonal conflicts will not be an issue with Fury in the upcoming season.
Despite my issues with Fury in the past, I can't disrespect how good of a tank player he is. Going into HGC 2017 he was a contender for best tank, and I think he pretty quickly proved that to be the case. There were times that other players shined pretty bright - Justing on Diablo, for example - but I think he showed to be a very strong, very consistent player in general. He may not have had as many incredibly big "This man is a living god" moments like some other players have, but I don't think I remember many times where I watched Fury's play and just thought "What are you doing?" or "You should know better than that." When Tempo moved him to the offlane/bruiser position, it ended up hurting them quite a bit - even though it put their shot-caller with the team so he didn't have to keep an eye on them from the offlane some games, Fury's strength as a tank over cattlepillar was pretty clear.
I think a lot of fans of the NA scene really undervalue the power of a strong, consistent tank. This was one of the big things holding GFE back last season - in the first half, they tried ”4 flex and a support” with a few members of the team sharing the tank role. That didn't work out so great. Then they picked up KingCaff, who I did not think was very impressive. GFE may not have the big name playmakers like Fan, Psalm, and Glaurung, but I think Fury on tank enabling Udall and bige is going to have a bigger impact than cattle attempting to do the same for Tempo Storm. GFE may not end up being the flashiest team in NA next season, but neither was Tempo Storm last year when they basically dominated the scene. I think their consistency is going to lead to their success.
CavalierGuest on as coach
CavalierGuest has been a bit of a controversial figure, with some debate as to how good he actually is or how much he knows. He certainly has a number of detractors, but he has his fans as well - including the aforementioned Tempo Storm coach Kala. Team Freedom's coach had similar thoughts and this was when Freedom was coming out as one of the best teams in the region. He's also been adopted as "an honorary EU player" which is a pretty significant honor in HotS right now as far as I'm concerned.
He's knowledgeable about draft and macro, he's done tons of analysis across all the regions. The new GFE looks a lot like Tempo Storm from the first season - a strong tank player, generally consistent damage players, and a knowledgeable coach - which is a bit ironic because the new Tempo Storm feels a bit like the old GFE to me - big, popular names on the roster but I'm not sold on their tank just yet. I think having a coach by itself is going to be a strong boon to any team, and I think that CavalierGuest is a strong choice. GFE has everything they need to do well next season, assuming that there are no issues with interpersonal conflicts.
I'm not going to act as if this roster is perfect. I don't know that they'll be the best team next season, but I think they have the potential and I don't think they're as low as 4-5 as a lot of people are suggesting. However, there are some things I worry might be an issue, which I will bring up here.
I mentioned earlier how important and often underrated the tank position is. Well, the support is another incredibly important role, and with all of the comparisons I've made to last year's Tempo Storm roster, it would be dishonest to not mention this. Jun has shown to be a very strong support, whereas akaface has had a few issues last season. I don't know how much of those are inherent to the player and how many of those had to do with the environment of the team. I'm hoping aka can show that it's more the latter and step up this season, but we've seen how much a weak support player can hurt a team.
This guy has been on tanks for a long time now, and either he's going to split that role with Fury, which I think might be to the detriment of the team given how strong Fury has shown to be on the tank role, or he's going to be the offlaner, which he hasn't done in a while. Hopefully they do the latter and he turns out to be strong at the role. This is just something we'll have to wait and see.
From what I've heard, Udall has had some serious stuff come up in his life recently. I wish him the best in regards to handling these things and hope he gets all the support he needs, both from his team and the org, as well as his friends and family outside of the HotS scene. Unfortunately, sometimes life kicks you when you're down and sometimes life pulls you down when you're trying to get up. I hope whatever he's dealing with right now is something that can be handled. The fact that he was comfortable coming back makes me hopeful.
Interpersonal and professional issues
Heretofore I've been assuming that this would not be an issue, but it can't be entirely ignored. There was definitely some shade throwing, in particular with regards to Fury, in multiple directions. Again, I think the hatchet has been buried but it's always possible it may get dug back up. Also, GFE has had business-side issues in the past. Of course these are things that can't be ignored but at the very least, it seems like all of their recent scandals were about things not too recent.
I’m not a professional analyst by any stretch of the imagination, I’m just a fan of this game and its esports scene. Obviously everything here should be taken with a grain of salt - it’s just an opinion piece, after all. Still, I thought that people were seeing the big names together on Tempo Storm, and riding the high of Freedom and Roll20 (now Team 12) doing well at the end of last season, and just disregarding GFE. As I said, I understand why this is the case - not as many people think a coach is a huge deal, Udall’s boomerang routine makes people skeptical, and people are probably skeptical of the less flashy additions to the team from Lag Force - but I think we’ll see them performing quite well. This weekend will be our first taste of how they’re doing.