Image: Ubisoft/Kirill Bashkirov
SANDBOX Gaming should have had a much easier time in Stage 3 than they did. After all, they had come away with some valuable experience from the Berlin Major, which they had qualified to despite three personnel changes.
Yet, things started poorly when upstarts REJECT took them down on the first day in regulation time. The pressure was immediately on SANDBOX from that moment, as they knew they only had six further games to finish in the top two and still had to play perennial challengers for Major qualification, DWG KIA and CYCLOPS athlete gaming.
"We started out poorly," said SANDBOX coach Lee "Nova" Si-hun to SiegeGG ahead of the start of the Jönköping Major. Yet, he was surprisingly blasé about the loss and backed themselves to qualify for the Major anyway.
"When we practiced, our performance was good," he continued. "I thought it wouldn't matter if we won the next game."
Not only did SANDBOX win the next game, the won the one after that... and the one after that, until they had won five in a row and had secured their place at the Jönköping Major with an entire play day to spare. This included an impressive 8-6 victory over a marauding CAG, but also a close 7-5 call against Talon Esports.
As a result, they eventually finished in the top two -- just one point ahead of REJECT, who held the head-to-head over SANDBOX, which was the primary tiebreaker in APAC. Vital to this effort was Lee "GoodBoy" Ji-heon, who was the fourth-best in APAC North by SiegeGG Rating when considering the players who did not play the full stage.
GoodBoy was also third-best in terms of impact, measured in KOST percentage, while Han "Static" Chan-yong clocked in with the fifth-highest number of defuser plants. Curiously, Static was the second-best player on SANDBOX by SiegeGG Rating, despite primarily playing Thermite and Smoke. Conversely, the primary Ash-Melusi player Song "SyAIL" Dong-seon was only fourth-best by that metric.
Shockingly, the best APAC North player from Stage 2, Hwang "Arukaze" Hyeon-jin, was the worst player for SANDBOX in Stage 3 with a 0.90 SiegeGG Rating. His failure to hit his stride was likely a key reason for SANDBOX's struggles, as it had been at the Berlin Major.
At the Berlin Major, SANDBOX only managed to secure three points from four games on the first two days. Arukaze had been conspicuously poor in those four games and when he finally began to fire on the third day, his team doubled their points in half the games.
Nova shared that "everyone felt the tension" in their first Major as a team in Berlin, having just signed two players, a new coach, and moved himself to a coaching role. However, he clarified that his team had not only felt the heat figuratively, but Arukaze had felt it literally.
"Day 1 and 2 at Berlin, Arukaze had symptoms of heat stroke because it was too hot on the media shooting day," said the coach. "For this reason, it seems that his form was not good."
Thankfully, that will not be a problem in Stockholm, where the group stage of the Jönköping Major will be held. There, the temperature will range from 5 to -1 degrees Celcius (41 to 30 degrees Fahrenheit) across the duration of the event. Additionally, Nova is confident that SANDBOX have "gained experience" to a point where they can "expect better performance" than their third-place group stage exit in Berlin.
The Koreans are also confident that their practice will pay off internationally, which may be a worrying sign for their Group B opposition given how accurate their assessment and preparation was in APAC North.
"Except for Heroic, We've met them on the world stage, so we are preparing it by reconsidering the (past) experience (against them)," shared Nova. "Of course, their style has changed due to a lot of player changes, but (us) two coaches have been analyzing and preparing."
Good preparation may be key here to more than just a strong placement at the Major itself for SANDBOX, though, as is the case for many other teams as well. The experienced APAC team finds itself in 17th place in the Global Points standings, with the Top 16 set to qualify directly to the Six Invitational 2023.
Soniqs, Dire Wolves, and Spacestation Gaming are the only teams behind SANDBOX that can leapfrog them. Meanwhile, CAG and Group B rivals Team Liquid and Heroic are between them and virtually-guaranteed safety within the Top 16, and the Koreans are well aware that a good result will see them through to SI 2023.
"Of course we have the pressure about it, but I don't worry too much because I believe that our team can advance to the playoffs," said Nova of the battle for the Top 16. "(But) even if the results of this Jönköping major are not good, we don't care much because there is an Invitational Qualifier left."
Catch SANDBOX on the international stage once more at the Jönköping Major, which will start tomorrow and will run from Nov. 21 to 27.
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