Having possibly the most confusing format in the new esports calendar -- a Swiss-system league -- the APAC North Division is one that wants you to pay attention. But it is not just the confusing format that will make you pay attention, for this will be the first time that some of the best teams in the region will come together to play all together in one singular league.
The 12 teams in APAC North will play in an online, double Best-of-One, Swiss-system league. This system is akin to Chess tournaments, where Round 1 matchups are drawn randomly, but subsequent rounds will have teams with the same win-loss record playing together. This also means that the next-round matchups will only be determined after the previous round is over.
Having previously split the APAC region into smaller subregions, this new format has allowed the best teams in Asia to play each other week-in and week-out. Previously, teams had to qualify as the top-two in their subregions and then wait for the APAC Finals. To help you understand it all, we will take a look at some of the key storylines that will be the most interesting to watch throughout the season.
Will Fnatic be able to avoid relegation?
With Fnatic's move to the APAC North Division supposed to have come together with a physical move to Japan, the current lockdown of emigration out of Australia and into Japan has created a fair few problems for the team. With the league obviously unable to hold off specifically for them -- not mentioning the impossibility in predicting government relaxations -- the Fnatic players will have to play from Perth while connecting to the nearest viable Asian servers.
These servers will presumably be the Southeast Asian servers located in Singapore, but playing with the distance will mean that the Fnatic players will be at a ping disadvantage. With the distance likely meaning ping of anywhere from 90 to 140 miliseconds, each gunfight will just become that much harder for the Australians to win. As such, playing against the highly aggressive set of four Japanese teams, two Thai teams, and Giants Gaming, it is possible that Fnatic will have to fight hard to avoid relegation with no end in sight to the COVID-19 crisis.
One silver lining for the team will be that Patrick "MentalistC" Fan is currently residing in Singapore itself, meaning that the team could look to him being on level ping with their Asian opponents as a spearhead for their attacks. Nevertheless, with the rest of the players being at a disadvantage through no fault of their own, it is possible that Fnatic will need to bring all of its experience and strategy to bear to avoid relegation.
Can NORA-Rengo return to the top?
Having signed former Ninjas in Pyjamas coach Arthur "Ar7hur" Schubert, the former APAC dominant NORA-Rengo may have been looking for a better uptick in form than it has got so far. After having struggled in the first few days of Season 11 of the Pro League, fans of the once-fearsome Japanese squad were concerned that NORA-Rengo could miss out on the then-scheduled APAC Finals.
At the mid-season mark, the team would sign Ar7hur in a bid to avoid that, but the roster would eventually only finish in third-place with a shocking seven draws and only six wins. While Yuta "YUTA INOUE" Inoue (aka ReyCyil) would leave the team and Tomohisa "Simotuki" Imoto would be brought in after the season, NORA-Rengo would still lose 6-8 to complete amateur side YOBAs in the Japan Nationals Season 1 Finals.
While Simotuki still needs time to gel with the roster and Ar7hur's history with Ninjas in Pyjamas demonstrates that his teams, too, need time to adjust to his coaching style, time may be a luxury NORA-Rengo may not have. The other 11 teams will certainly be hungry for NORA-Rengo's spot and the Japanese will face incredibly stiff competition.
Will the increased competition save or sink Cloud9?
Speaking of increased competition, Cloud9 will be a curious case to track throughout the season. The team's last appreciable success came at the Six Invitational 2019, when the team was still unpaid and played under the mantisFPS banner. Then, the team had pushed eventual champions G2 Esports to overtime on the first map and had also given them a good fight on the second map as well. Not only that, Team Liquid had also dropped a map against the Koreans at that event.
Since signing with Cloud9, though, the team's results have been highly disappointing. Once one of the best teams in APAC, the team was overall abject at the Season 9 and 10 APAC Finals. Even in Korea, where its shadow used to loom large, the Cloud9 dominance has begun to slightly slip. Season 11 of the Pro League saw the Koreans finish second in their subregion, while earlier in the year the team had very nearly failed to even make it to the Six invitational APAC Qualifier LAN.
Fans of the team will be hoping that the increased competition will be a rising tide that will lift Cloud9 as well, but if the Koreans are unable to learn quickly and apply their lessons, they could well be sunk.
What sort of an Electrify Esports will we see?
Finally, the complete dark horses of Electrify Esports will be closely watched as the APAC North Division gets underway. Electrify marked its entry into APAC with the signing of the merged 7th Heaven and Team Notorious roster, while already being in the Spanish scene as well. Hailing from Taiwan and having very little top-flight competitive experience across all the players combined, the APAC roster's journey with far more experienced teams will be a certain trial-by-fire.
Little is known about the Taiwanese as well and that might just be something they will look to leverage in their bid to stay in the APAC North Division for the 2021 season. Lots will be demanded of them -- the ability to see, understand, and apply all the new strategies they will be exposed to, the ability to counter teams at this level, and the ability to adapt on the fly. The team will thus initially be somewhat banking on the fact that not much is known about its play style, but will need to work hard to stay abreast of the competition.
With so many great matches and storylines to play out, these are just a few that you will be remiss to overlook coming into the APAC North Division and the new format. Tuesdays and Thursdays will be well worth the watch, starting from the 23rd of June at 5:30 PM SGT (UTC+8).