Welcome to my 2018 NA LCS Spring Split Preview Series! I’ll be releasing my thoughts on each team during the 10 days before the season opener on Saturday, January 20th.
Today, the #GreenWall finally comes to NA LCS: OpTic Gaming
Five teams were nominated for Best Esport Team at the 2015 Game Awards, the largest show of its kind in the gaming industry. Some categories were judged by a panel of jurors; others—like Best Esport Team—were decided entirely by fans.
Three League of Legends teams earned nods. After an uneven Season 5 where the promise of spring fizzled in the fall, Team SoloMid garnered their recognition mostly through massive fan support. Fnatic’s inclusion made sense after they stormed through the EU LCS for two Split titles (including a historic 18-0 Summer Split) and reached the semifinals of both MSI and Worlds. Similarly, SK Telecom T1 took home both LCK Spring and Summer trophies, and became infamous runners-up at MSI before winning it all at Worlds 2015. The fourth nominee was Evil Geniuses, arguably the most popular North American DOTA 2 team at the time, having just won The International (a first for NA).
The last team in contention was OpTic Gaming, and they won.
Think about that. OpTic, who played in the comparatively smaller pond of competitive Call of Duty, beat the best North American DOTA 2 team ever, possibly the best League of Legends team Europe has produced, the most successful organization in the world’s biggest esport, and TSM. Who were these guys?
If you’ve ever played an online First-Person Shooter, or scrolled through YouTube searching for cool FPS highlights, chances are you’ve seen videos like this. Back in the mid-Aughts, groups of friends would get together in games like Call of Duty, Halo, or Counter-Strike and form “sniping teams,” uploading trickshots with the eponymous rifle for views and fans. The best gained a following (plus revenue), and with the release of that first video in 2009, OpTic quickly became one of them.
Led by charismatic owner Hector “H3CZ” Rodriquez (pronounced “hex”), OpTic first fielded a Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 squad in 2010. They were immediately competitive, and, with the help of on-and-off captain Matthew “NaDeSHoT” Haag, won several LANs in the early years, initially breaking into the wider consciousness with a $400,000 First Place at Call of Duty XP in 2011. OpTic’s fanbase, many of whom had been following the organization since 2006, showed up en masse to their events, creating what someone at MLG Dallas 2011 dubbed a “green wall” in the seats. The name stuck.
After a tremendous 2015 season in which they won nine championships over 11 events (culminating in a win at MLG World Finals 2015), OpTic began considering expansion into other esports. They tested the waters with a Halo squad in 2014, but only seriously started approaching other games in 2016. First it was CS:GO, then in 2017, with the financial backing of Texas Rangers co-owner Neil Liebman, OpTic purchased a DOTA 2 team, a spot in the inaugural Overwatch League as the Houston Outlaws, and one of the ten franchised slots in NA LCS. In just eight years, OpTic grew from a single, scrappy Call of Duty team to fielding sides in eight different games.
“We’ve always, always been steady and true in our growth,” said H3CZ on a recent Visions episode. “We’ve never sacrificed our fiscal responsibilities for the sake of expanding. We’ve always expanded on viewership, and everything else came along for us. We never over-extended ourselves, overspent or been irresponsible with money that was coming in. We never sacrificed our job, which is to create content that brings in the ad dollars that allows us to pay for salaries that allows us to expand to other esports. We didn’t go out and raise capital early on just so we could get ahead of the game. We didn’t do that, we literally did it step by step, the way that it should have been done.”
H3CZ previously tried to enter the League of Legends ecosystem in December 2014. He expressed interest in acquiring Curse Academy’s LCS spot, but the price tag and threat of relegation were too high. Now, with franchising in North America and Liebman’s support, H3CZ and OpTic made their push for admittance into NA LCS.
Key to their application was the appointment of Romain Bigeard as General Manager, whose passion and familiarity with the scene H3CZ credited as vital to their final approval by Riot Games. The longtime Team Manager for Unicorns of Love, Romain has shed his iconic unicorn cosplay for an OpTic flat-bill, and been given total control of team affairs. He’s the expert in the organization after all, but that doesn’t mean he’s above what some would lovingly call “weird shit.”
Joining Romain is fellow Frenchman Thomas “Zaboutine” Si-Hassen as Head Coach. A former esports caster for the French outlet OGaming.tv, Zaboutine has no prior coaching experience at any level. He’s in good company experience-wise; Romain is a brand-new GM, and OpTic as an organization are completely unfamiliar with MOBAs, having grown their brand in the FPS community. This level of management inexperience alone might have relegated teams in the past, but with the new system in place, humbitious organizations like OpTic have little to fear at the outset. Zaboutine and Romain have publicly stated that they don’t expect to be great at the start, but with time and the backing of a strong organization, they’ll have a chance to thrive.
Given carte blanche to build their new roster, Zaboutine was immediately attracted to the former Echo Fox jungler Matthew “Akaadian” Higginbotham and made signing him a top priority. Akaadian broke into the NA LCS in Spring 2017 as a promising rookie, starting every game and favoring carry junglers like Kha’Zix, Lee Sin and Graves. But he never found a balance between his carry instincts and sacrificing for the team, partly condemning Echo Fox to a disappointing 8th place finish.
After starting every game in Spring, Akaadian spent summer splitting time at jungle with Jonathan “Grig” Armao in an unsuccessful effort by management to find a winning starting five. When he did play, Akaadian looked noticeably out-of-rhythm, particularly on on Rek’Sai (his third-most played champion at 12 games, yet only an 8.3% winrate). It was difficult for the young jungler to sublimate his carry tendencies in a tank meta, and the lack of regular stage time didn’t help. Echo Fox again finished in 8th place despite their roster moves, and Akaadian left the promise of his energetic debut season unfulfilled.
Akaadian will attempt to forge a jungle-mid synergy with another talented European mid laner, trading Dane Henrik “Froggen” Hansen for German Tristan “PowerOfEvil” Schrage. PowerOfEvil’s stock dramatically rose this fall at Worlds, where he and his Misfits Gaming brethren nearly upset SKT in the quarterfinals. He brings a stellar Orianna to the table, as well as a reputation as kryptonite for the best player in the NA LCS, but PoE’s rise to international prominence coincided with the outstanding growth of Nubar “Maxlore” Sarafian, making it difficult to judge each player without the other. Such a partnership with Akaadian likely won’t exist at the start of the split, but for OpTic to contend, one had better materialize.
Speaking of chemistry, two former Phoenix 1 starters find themselves together again under a different banner. Top laner Derek “zig” Shao and AD carry Noh “Arrow” Dong-hyeon reunite, but their inconsistent Season 7 leaves more questions than answers. What can zig excel on besides Kled? Which Arrow is OpTic getting, the 2017 Spring Split MVP or the relegated Summer Split ADC who constantly struggled in lane? Arrow and zig bring a wealth of experience to an organization in need of it, but until they can find a level of consistency, they don’t offer much else (certainly not Lord of the Rings knowledge).
With a coaching staff this green (no pun intended), it was wise of OpTic to enlist the services of Daerek “LemonNation” Hart. Notorious for his visible pick/ban notebook that he began employing during his days on Cloud9, LemonNation makes up for any mechanical deficiencies on the Rift with his planning off it. FlyQuest’s excellent gameplan against Team Dignitas in the NA gauntlet quarterfinals was no accident; nor was his creative usage of Stoneborn Pact on Morgana to additionally proc Ardent Censer. At 28, LemonNation’s playing days are numbered, but I’ll bet a coaching opportunity at OpTic waits in the wings. For now, Lemon will be the latest support to attempt to coax an MVP performance out of Arrow. I wish him the best of luck.
It will take time for the Green Wall to enjoy the kind of success in League of Legends that they’ve found in other esports. Every starter is a question mark individually, as is their chemistry together. But again, franchising provides time for development. OpTic’s management understands the marathon nature of professional League of Legends; it matters less where you are in spring than the fall. But one thing is for sure: While the team might not be ready to compete in the Battle Theater yet, the fans undoubtedly will be.
OpTic Academy Roster:
Top: Niship “Dhokla” Doshi
Jungle: Kadircan “Kadir” Mumcuoğlu
Mid: Christian “Palafox” Palafox
AD Carry: Andy “Andy” Foreman
Support: Olivier “Winter” Lapointe
Coach: Andrew “Veritas” Cooley
Tomorrow, Rick Fox mixes together a roster with explosive potential…