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APAC North Stage 1 Recap — Giants Loom Large, Cloud9 Stuns in Mini-Major

Ahead of the resumption of the 2020 competitive season for the APAC North Division, here is a recap of all that happened in the first stage.

After years of anticipation that was only satiated over a brief two days every season in the old format, the new format of competitive play for Asia finally came together in June. The changes meant that the top 12 teams in Asia came together to play in a formal, season-long league for the first time ever, instead of just the top-two from each of the four subregions playing one to three games at the seasonal APAC Finals.

Part of the 12 was Fnatic, set to move to Japan to play in the league, but invited anyway after COVID-19 lockdowns forced the team to stay in Australia. Despite that dampening spirits somewhat, as Fnatic would have to play while kneecapped by high latency (ping), excitement was high to see the best Asian teams playing each other week-in and week-out.

Dominating the league would be Giants Gaming, hailing from Singapore and firmly laying down the law despite being from the "Little Red Dot". Starting with a nervy win against Fnatic, heavyweights such as Cyclops Athlete Gaming (CAG), GUTS Gaming, Cloud9, and Qconfirm all fell against the Giants' might. The team's only loss across 10 games was to Xavier Esports, but it was a devastating 1-7 on Coastline.

Chief to this dominance was Jeremy "HysteRiX" Tan, topping the charts in Rating, K-D split, and KOST. His rating of 1.36 was a comfortable 0.16 ahead of second, while his K-D split of +54 staggered belief as it was not only 21 higher than the next-best in APAC North, but it was also the best across any region in Stage 1.

Cloud9, on the other hand, marked a stunning return to form missing for almost a year-and-a-half since the Six Invitational 2019 -- before the roster had even signed with the organisation. Despite losses to GUTS Gaming, Xavier Esports, and twice to Giants Gaming, the close natures of the games and wins over Fnatic, Qconfirm, and FAV Gaming solidified that the Koreans were back. Weeks after the end of Stage 1, they proved that the increased competition had saved the team, as it won the Six August 2020 Major in a 3-1 upset over Giants Gaming.

The Japanese trio of GUTS Gaming, FAV Gaming, and CAG performed largely as expected, making it into the top-six in that order relative to each other. However, CAG was somewhat of a disappointment, having won the Japanese Pro League in Seasons 10 and 11, as well as other domestic tournaments. However, with three of the four losses being close ones (and to other top-six teams), only a little more is needed for a large leap up.

The Thai squad of Xavier Esports was perhaps the biggest surprise of the season, however, shooting straight to fourth across all of Asia despite only having had a third-place in Southeast Asia as its previous-highest top-flight finish. Three losses in Phase 1 were overturned by a flawless Phase 2, including absolutely dominant wins over CAG and Giants, as well as close wins over Cloud9 and FAV.

Right below the top-six, though, was Fnatic. Missing out on making it to the mini-major by some margin behind CAG, it was clear the Australian squad had a tough season so far. Forced to play from Australia after being barred from leaving due to COVID-19, high latency meant that the squad was often on the backfoot for gunfights. What's more, with close losses from superior positions against Giants, Xavier, and (in particular) SCARZ in Phase likely rattling the team's confidence, Stage 1 was likely the hardest the team had to fight to keep its morale up.

Phase 2 did not get easier for them, as more closes losses to Talon Esports, Cloud9, and FAV followed, but the season was largely rescued after two strong wins that seemed to hint towards many of the demons being successfully exorcised. With morale seemingly back up, and Jason "Lusty" Chen tied for second in terms of clutches, it remains to be seen if Fnatic can play more to its potential in Stage 2, though the latency remains as a large obstacle.

The Thai squad of Qconfirm disappointed, however, only finishing eighth despite having won the Southeast Asian Pro League for four seasons straight. SCARZ similarly disappointed, finishing dead last despite having won Season 11 of the Korean Pro League over Cloud9. Comparatively, Talon Esports and Electrify Esports performed somewhat as expected, thrown into the deep-end of the absolute top in Asia and coming out a respectable ninth and 10th, respectively.

The biggest disappointment was, however, Nora-Rengo. By far the most famous Asian team, the Japanese looked a hollow shell of the squad that had burned a path into the semi-finals at the Six Invitational 2019. The two members that remain from that squad, Tsukasa "Merieux" Asano and Toya "Papilia" Miyazawa, were not only the worst performers on their team but were also in the bottom 10 in terms of player ratings for the whole league.

The Japanese team's struggles were not limited to in-game, however, with owner, manager, and ex-coach Yasuhiro "kizoku" Nishi being accused of not paying his players and forcing players to stay on against their wishes. Kizoku has since resigned from the organisation completely, but it remains to be seen if the players' fortunes improve. The team has steadily slid backwards after its last success in Season 9 and despite having had former Ninjas in Pyjamas coach Arthur "Ar7hur" Schubert since the start of the year, had its worst results.

With the APAC North Six August Major complete, the power structure at the top will see an exciting swing between the league champions Giants Gaming and Major champions Cloud9. Meanwhile, Fnatic will look to announce a return to form in style, Nora-Rengo will try avoid relegation the best it can, while the other teams seek to take the lessons from Stage 1 and apply them to tomorrow's Stage 2.