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, how to take control of your own fate: FlyQuest
The North American Challenger Series is dead, buried with the removal of promotion and relegation. Yet franchising can’t erase the legacy left by NACS, or the teams that it forged.
The NACS concept was almost romantic: Gather a group of friends, win a bi-annual Open Qualifier, then a Challenger Split, then a Promotion tournament, and boom, you’re there. Professionals and amateurs already scraped elbows together on the same soloqueue ladder; why not give those talented enough a shot at their dream?
“Every sport has a pretty aspirational path for how you go from just a little kid playing a sport to a professional athlete,” Dustin Beck, former Head of Esports at Riot Games, told Polygon in a 2013 interview. “And when we were creating the LCS, we knew that we were satisfying that top level of elite gamers who could actually be professionals. But we had a pretty big hole in the middle that didn’t do anything to highlight what that path was going to be.”
The reality was less rosy. Instead of a clear path for talented North American youngsters, NACS was immediately abused by foreign entities looking for an easier route into top tier play. Even after the import rules, most struggled to find significant sponsorship. In the unlikely event that a team of unknowns did qualify for the NA LCS, the players rarely saw a moment of league play together, their contracts left unrenewed as ownership sold the qualified slot.
Eventually, consistent success could only be found by established NA LCS brands like Cloud9, Counter Logic Gaming, and Team Liquid. With their stockpiled resources, they could afford to buy the spots of less successful organizations and field NACS “sister teams” to develop their own in-house talent. Newer organizations forced to compete against these sister teams began at a significant resource deficit, further limiting their chances for promotion.
The most egregious example of this imbalance was Cloud9 Challenger in Summer 2016. Established via the purchase of Enemy’s NACS slot, C9 Challenger was essentially an NA LCS team, filled former starters competing well below their weight class. Top laner An “BalIs” Van Le, mid laner Hai “Hai” Lam, AD carry Johnny “Altec” Ru and support Daerek “LemonNation” Hart were all seasoned veterans, and—with the assistance of talented jungler Juan “Contractz” Garcia—had no trouble securing promotion into Spring Split 2017.
Due to LCS rules that prohibited organizations from owning two or more teams in a single league, Cloud9 were forced to sell their second NA LCS slot. The price tag? $2.5 million, paid in full by Milwaukee Bucks owner Wes Edens, who renamed the team FlyQuest and turned CEO duties over to his son, Ryan.
FlyQuest achieved modest success in 2017, earning enough Championship Points in Spring to make an appearance in the regional gauntlet. But by fielding a roster whose spine (Balls, Hai, LemonNation, and Altec in Spring) was entirely Cloud9’s design, which organization really deserved the credit? If you took away the big names, what was FlyQuest besides a rented vehicle for Hai and Co.?
Given the opportunity to apply for franchising in 2018, FlyQuest and Ryan Edens needed to prove that they could stand alone as their own organization, able to build an identity apart from inherited veteran talent. Their application was accepted after a period of serious introspection that revealed a possible solution: Increased fan engagement.
“For us, one thing we really honed in on was that we really weren’t giving our fans enough agency within our brand,” Ryan Edens told Blitz Esports last year. “We weren’t giving them the voice that they deserved, because at the end of the day, we don’t really exist without them. Their passion and commitment to the space is why it exists. So everything we’ve done planning for this year, revamping our brand, has been about showcasing fans, their voices, and frankly for us to do a better job at listening. Every decision we make going forward will be centered around that.”
FlyQuest revamped their logo in the offseason, and with a recently-announced sponsorship deal with Snickers centered around behind-the-scenes content for their fans, have begun to make good on their application promise. Gone are all the C9 Challenger holdovers; with the exception of AD carry Jason “WildTurtle” Tran, it’s an entirely new look.
Acting as cornerstone of the roster is Lee “Flame” Ho-jong, the former Immortals top laner whose legendary CS leads have their own term. Fresh off his first appearance at Worlds with Immortals, Flame brings impressive mechanics and a carry mentality to FlyQuest (not to mention one of the cleanest Jarvan IV’s in the league). But it’s one thing to CS well, and another to impactfully apply farm. Flame did so in game after game during Summer 2017, fueling impressive macro decision-making from Immortals that separated them from top teams like Counter Logic Gaming and Cloud9.
Flame isn’t the only former Immortals player to join FlyQuest in the offseason. Jungler Andy “AnDa” Hoang and support William “Stunt” Chen never saw playing time during their stint on Immortals last year, and while their performances on the Korean ladder during bootcamp for Worlds 2017 were impressive, there aren’t many indicators as to how that will translate in league play. Stunt last saw NA LCS stage time during Spring 2017 with Phoenix1 to replace Adrian “Adrian” Ma. While his partnership with AD carry Noh “Arrow” Dong-hyeon helped solidify the latter’s MVP win, Stunt was let go by P1 during the mid-season break in favor of Jordan “Shady” Robison, and rode the bench for Immortals behind Kim “Olleh” Joo-sung during Summer 2017.
AnDa has never started for an NA LCS team, bouncing around the NACS for years as top laner “Chorong” before signing with Immortals during Season 7. 2018 will be new territory for the 22-year-old Canadian, who has yet to display an onstage affinity for any particular jungling style. In the past, his top lane choices have gravitated towards tanks, though it might have been a symptom of Season 6 meta more than personal preference. AnDa’s familiarity with top lane could bode well for Flame, whose excellent synergy with Jake “Xmithie” Puchero last year was critical to Immortals’ success.
Stunt’s next bot lane MVP project is WildTurtle, a fan-favorite and fixture as an NA LCS AD carry since Season 3. After being excessively blamed for TSM’s mediocre performance at the 2017 Mid-Season Invitational, Turtle left the organization when it became clear Peter “Doublelift” Peng was rejoining the team. Turtle quickly found a home on FlyQuest, stepping in for the recently-departed Altec, but he struggled through the majority of the split as his favored Jhin left the meta. He eventually adopted the strong energizer-crit builds, finding intermittent relevance on Tristana and later Xayah in the regional gauntlet. If Turtle can continue the run of form he found towards the end of Summer 2017, FlyQuest’s bot lane will be able to hold its own. Oh, and Jhin might be meta again…
FlyQuest’s second Korean-imported solo laner is Song “Fly” Yong-jun, a mid who’s hopefully more than just self-evident brand alignment. A former starter for KT Rolster and Longzhu Gaming, Fly brings a versatile champion pool to NA LCS, having played 23 different champions across Season 6. Such flexibility in a best-of-one format likely ensures that FlyQuest will keep a few pocket compositions handy should the matchups line up. Though their paths never crossed at Longzhu, Fly and Flame’s similar team histories provide a foundation to build a productive partnership.
It’s too early to tell if the roster constructed by yet another Immortals survivor, General Manager Nicholas “Swaguhsaurus” Phan, can gel beyond the pedigree and potential of its parts. But the risk is in itself a step in the right direction for an organization eager to prove themselves among the big brands. FlyQuest will long be a monument to a dead league, the last team born of the successes and mistakes of Challenger Series. But now, they have a chance to create their own legacy.
FlyQuest Academy Roster:
Top: Alvin “Ngo” Ngo
Jungle: Lee “Shrimp” Byeong-hoon
Mid: Jang “Keane” Lae-young
AD Carry: Sang “Erry” Park
Support: Juan “JayJ” Guibert
Coach: Gabriel “Invert” Zoltan-Johan
Next, new rivalries between old friends…