It was all going according to the script. Gaimin Gladiators, the serial winners of 2023, were 2-0 up in the grand finals. Azure Ray — changing out three players after TI12 — were not expected to be the favorites.

But one game by one game, the revamped Chinese squad clawed their way back. And at the end of the day, there was a new champion crowned: Azure Ray are your ESL One Kuala Lumpur champions, completing an epic reverse sweep with the most off-meta of picks.

Azure Ray wins US$300,000, along with 4,800 EPT points. Runners-up Gaimin Gladiators walk away with a US$175,000 purse, plus 3,600 EPT points.

Ace’s Broodmother secures game one for Gaimin Gladiators in the ESL One Kuala Lumpur grand finals

Gaimin Gladiators' Ace at TI11
Credit: Valve

Gaimin Gladiators opted for a Marcus “Ace” Christensen classic — an offlane Broodmother, his first of the tournament. The hero was unchanged in the new 7.35 patch, but the new Bloodthorn, now dealing extra static damage for each unit’s attack, seems to combine solid utility and DPS for the hero.

Rounding off the team with an aggressive Alchemist from Anton “dyrachyo” Shkredov, as well as a Silencer that deterred all aggression from their opponents. Combined with a fantastic laning start — especially from Quinn “Quinn” Callahan’s Pangolier, who impressively outlaned his opponent’s last-pick Queen of Pain — the Gladiators ramped up the pace with no answer from Azure Ray, culminating in their first barracks at 22 minutes.

The Western European team did not let up. Despite small hiccups, Gaimin simply reset, then went again when all five of their heroes were up. Azure Ray could do nothing but roll over in the face of the rampaging Gladiators, ceding game one in a 28-minute stomp.

It’s still a real hero: Quinn rides Pangolier to another victory in game two

Another game, another Pangolier pick — Quinn’s signature hero has served him well over the past year, and there was no need to change something that wasn’t broke.

Azure Ray, in response to a game one stomp, instead picked up a radically different draft, including pulling out the Abaddon safelane, a Windranger support, and the Doom offlane. The laning stage went better for the Chinese team, but come mid-game, it was Quinn that once again took over. Roaming all over the map to set up for his two aggressive cores, Primal Beast and Slark, Quinn was able to secure an insurmountable advantage for his squad.

Even with the early stages going a bit better for Azure Ray, it simply wasn’t enough. Somehow, Gaimin managed to claim game two even quicker than game one, claiming a 2-0 lead after less than 28 minutes.

Azure Ray finally wakes up in game three stomp

Azure Ray at ESL One Kuala Lumpur
Credit: ESL

Azure Ray opted for a heavy teamfight lineup, with all three cores — Faceless Void, Storm Spirit, and Centaur Warrunner — having a way to start fights by themselves. Phoenix and Shadow Demon rounded off their roster for a good blend of healing, damage, and saves.

The decision seemed to pay off in spades. Instead of allowing their opponents to dictate the pace, Azure Ray looked much better when it came to controlling the tempo in the mid-game. Having so many different initiators meant there was always a way to start a fight, and despite another dominant laning stage from Gaimin, Azure Ray cut into the gold lead with several skirmish wins.

The Gladiators, faced with their first real challenge in a one-sided series thus far, began the familiar routine of splitting the map. With their heroes all over the place, Azure Ray did a great job at claiming the necessary objectives like Roshan, before leveraging Guo “Xm” Hongcheng’s Storm Spirit to great effect, zipping onto key targets again and again.

Gaimin, desperate for a turnaround, Smoked out of their base to contest Azure Ray head-on. Unfortunately for the team on match point, Azure Ray showed off their team’s full teamfight potential with spells beautifully layered one after the other. The Chinese team gave their opponents a taste of their own medicine — with yet another sub-30-minute game to make the series 2-1.

Finally, an even game: Azure Ray evens out ESL One Kuala Lumpur grand finals with strong comeback

With Azure Ray finally gaining some momentum, Gaimin was quick to slam the door on any potential comeback. The WEU squad was no less terrifying in the laning stage to kick off game four, and all three of their cores — Slark, Pangolier, and Timbersaw — were able to constantly link up with their supports to constantly take down Azure Ray heroes.

Azure Ray found themselves in a familiar, if undesirable position. Unlike in game three, the team’s carry, Lou “Lou” Zhen’s Luna, felt like he was unable to contribute early, instead focusing on farming up. This left the rest of his team trying to pick up the slack in any defensive efforts, with XinQ’s Nyx Assassin, Xm’s Puck, and Lin “Xxs” Jing’s Primal Beast bearing the brunt of Gaimin’s aggression.

XinQ’s Nyx Assassin was a huge nuisance, constantly grabbing information — and getting some solid core pickoffs — with his Vendetta invades. Both teams found themselves going into the mid-game relatively even, for the first time this series, with Azure Ray securing themselves the first Roshan of the game. Lou’s Luna started to look like a serious threat, taking down several buildings to open up the map for his own team.

All this extra space gave Azure Ray more breathing room, and more manoeuvrability in taking fights. The Chinese squad made good use of it, baiting Gaimin into unfavorable positions and swiftly capitalizing with quick counterspells.

Any fight that Gaimin lost proved costly. With a farmed Lou finally able to join his team, Luna tore through buildings the moment he got to the base. And Gaimin, with some poor initiations, were unable to get any good defences going.

In the end, Gaimin was unable to find that one teamfight to turn their fortunes around. Azure Ray, with Xm and XinQ leading the pack on some brilliant initiations, were able to shut the door on Gaimin Gladiators, evening out the series 2-2.

Truly off-meta: Azure Ray picks tournament-first Outworld Devourer to complete reverse sweep

For the first time in this series, it was Azure Ray with a clean win in the laning stage. A last-pick Outworld Devourer pick from Xm — the very first of the tournament — against Quinn’s Pangolier certainly helped. But their supports — XinQ and Jiang “天命” An once again back on Shadow Demon and Phoenix respectively — outlaned their counterparts to help their cores get off to fast starts.

Both supports used the space to set up some great defences, all while their cores had free rein of the map to farm wherever they did. AR held onto a solid gold lead heading into the mid-game, as well as shutting down many of Gaimin’s moves.

The Gladiators were down but not out, however. The team poured resources into Ace’s Beastmaster, a direct counter to Naga Siren, in hopes that he can win out in the core-to-core matchup. A patient Roshan fight, in which they took their time to set their positions, paid off in spades against an overaggressive Azure Ray.

It was still Azure Ray getting the better of most exchanges, however. Gaimin, even with Aegis in hand, fell once again to some fantastic defensive spellcasting from their opponents, who set up a fantastic defence of their bottom tier two tower.

An emboldened Azure Ray continued to move with impunity around the map, daring the Gladiators to fight into them. Whenever they did, Azure Ray’s long list of defensive spells were more than enough to delay the fight just enough for Gaimin to run out of steam.

Though Gaimin tried desperately to hold on, there was nothing to be done. Azure Ray had become an unstoppable, unkillable juggernaut, breaking through their opponents’ defense to complete the reverse sweep.

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