The season opener of the 2008 Pro Circuit is officially part of the past, which means we now have the first significant Halo 3 tournament to scrutinize. The Halo 3 competition at the Meadowlands was full of both surprises and completely expected results. Some unknown teams made deep runs, while many savvy veterans staved off upset bids left and right. When the battle rifles finally fell silent on Sunday night, what had we learned about competitive Halo 3 and the teams on the Pro Circuit?

Instinct played well en route to a third-place finish

From a reporter’s perspective, one thing that jumped out was the seeming balance in game types. Not one map or game type seemed unfair or out of place, which is a testament to the chosen maps and the hard work put in by League Operations to concoct the best rule set available. Not only were the settings balanced, but the maps almost seemed to be created for close games. Objective games on The Pit, Construct, and Onslaught allowed for exciting comebacks and high-level strategy. If I had ten bucks for every time I saw a flag stopped just before it would be scored on The Pit or Onslaught, I could have quit my job and moved to Atlantic City. The result was entertaining Halo, which constantly thrilled the audience. Rarely was there a boring game, even in blowouts. The only grumble heard throughout the weekend was on Guardian Team Slayer, where teams would often engage in long standoffs. Even those games, were thrilling, however, as they often promised close scores and exciting finishes. Overall, the maps and game types in play were well chosen and teams utilized them to the fullest.

Though competitive Halo 3 is in its infancy, the mark of well-rehearsed strategy and tactical play was all over the weekend. Top teams were able to extract every bit of advantage from their setups on The Pit King of the Hill, Construct King of the Hill, Onslaught Capture the Flag, and nearly every other objective game, especially. Some top teams were able to rout opponents thanks to their strategies, as evidenced by Final Boss’ 250-87 win over Triggers Down on The Pit King of the Hill in the Winners Bracket. But for every top-level implementation of strategy that led to dominance, there was a game that went down to the wire because both teams knew how to dominate a map and break the control of the other team. For such an early event, the level of Halo 3 strategy seemed very high, but, almost unavoidably, will still seem childish when we look back at the event years down the road. Still, I wager that Halo 3 strategy was more developed at its first event than Halo 2, due to the intense preparation of teams during the off-season and online events driving teams onward.

The start of a new game brings hope to unknown players throughout the world. What better time to break through to the pro ranks than the first event? Various new faces took advantage of the situation and showed they have the chops to cut it on the Pro Circuit. Teams such as Ambush, Rainbow Riders, DyNasty, and Phobia all posted Top 16 results with completely or largely unknown rosters. As mentioned above, the depth of strategy at the fist event was not lacking, so these teams did not simply make the Top 16 by luck alone. Each team was the real deal.

The biggest surprise of the event came in the form of Classic

While those lesser-known teams played well, the biggest surprise of the tourney was, without a doubt, Classic. Though some might not classify them as “new,” since they won the first Halo 3 online tournament held by MLG, they were still mostly green when it comes to deep Pro Circuit runs. Few predicted them to reach the championship match. The most shocking part about their journey through the event was not just that they went so far, but how they got there. After dropping a game to Believe the Hype in Winners Bracket Round 2, Classic impressively took down a talented Influence squad 3-1 before entering a totally dominant two-round stretch. In the Winners Bracket Semifinals, Classic whipped Carbon, who had just upset top-seeded Str8 Rippin, 3-0. Though that result shocked the crowd, the Winners Bracket Finals might have been more awe-inspiring. Instinct had just defeated Final Boss, a signal to many fans that they might be the team to beat at the Meadowlands. No worries for Classic, though. They absolutely breezed by Instinct in the Winners Finals, sweeping them to the Losers Bracket. Back-to-back 3-0 wins by Classic over huge teams suddenly had everyone wondering if Classic were not only the best team in the tourney, but perhaps the best team by a wide margin. As it turned out, that possibility did not come to be, but their accomplishment can still not be understated. They played one whale of a tournament.

The unknown teams definitely made some noise at the Meadowlands, but from this reporter’s perspective the biggest aspect of the event was the fact that the big names, the Halo 2 professionals, still ruled the roost. The eight teams that comprised the Winners Bracket Quarterfinals, with the exception of Classic, all featured all-star rosters or big name Halo 2 professionals. Though some of the team names were different, does a lineup of Str8 Rippin, Carbon, The Influence (Foulacy), Triggers Down (SK, FearItself, Hysteria), Final Boss, Fatal Images (Naded), Instinct (Victory X, Mackeo, Roy Lunchbox) look like 2007 to anyone else? The top names of Major League Gaming all proved, through one tournament at least, that their talents are not limited to Halo 2. The game is different, but the talent levels of MLG’s professionals is exactly the same. I would guess that the average fan probably thought there would be more new blood in the Top 8.

Of course, one could not touch on the tournament without getting to the champions, Final Boss. The official MLG poll conducted online throughout the weekend originally had 40% or more favoring Str8 Rippin to win the event, out of 16 choices. A somewhat distant second place was Final Boss. Str8 tore up the online portions of the Pro Circuit in advance of the Meadowlands, but looking back was there really ever a doubt as to which team would most likely take the crown at the Meadowlands?

Final Boss cruised in the Finals

Final Boss did not look flawless through the Championship Bracket. Their loss to Instinct showed they are not an unstoppable force and, actually, proved that the top teams are all vulnerable to other high-level squads. But when it came down to crunch time, when it was a do-or-die moment, time to stop a crucial flag run or create a dominant stretch of map control, which team has more experience and more intangible ability to perform in the tense moments? Even when Final Boss lost to Instinct and had to face Str8 Rippin in the Losers Bracket, most people in the crowd never seemed to believe any other team would prevail in the end. Classic took Game 1 against Final Boss and a few people covering the event shared glances that seemed to say, “can Classic really pull this off?” Those glances were premature, however, as Final Boss cruised in both series of the Finals. The men of Final Boss might not be leaps and bounds above the rest of the league, as they have been at various points in the past, but until they cease to be the must clutch team in the history of Halo, how can you bet against them?

The first Halo 3 Pro Circuit event was a rousing success. The depth of the teams in the tourney was astounding for a debut. New teams rose to show they belong on the Pro Circuit, while the talented veterans of Halo past showed they still have the desire and ability to reign. The matches were exciting and the drama was addictive, which can only point to better days for Halo 3 on the MLG Pro Circuit. Onward to San Diego and stop number two on the 2008 Pro Circuit.