Over the last few months, professional esports organizations have treated being relegated to the Challenger Series as a death sentence. Both NRG Esports and Team Dignitas disbanded their League of Legends' divisions when they got relegated (though the later has since re-entered the scene), and several orgs banded together in the offseason to try and remove the threat of relegation from harming their investment. But after being relegated, FC Schalke 04 doubled down instead.
Schalke hired Michael "Veteran" Archer as their new head coach and essentially gave him carte blanche to build a team that could re-qualify for the the LCS. But like Schalke, Veteran took something of a step down to head up Schalke's roster. Veteran was previously an analyst for H2k-Gaming, a team that made it to the semifinals of the 2016 League of Legends World Championship. Both Veteran and Schalke went from LCS to Challenger this offseason, but it's not as much of a step down as you might think.
"It's not really about where you start, it's about where you end," Veteran told theScore esports. "And if I thought if I'm going to be developing an entirely new roster, starting in Challenger Series is going to be the best place to do that."
Veteran said that since the Challenger series gives players more time between games and has lower consequences for losing one or two games overall, he has more time to develop teamwork and communication instead of just continuously pushing for results. Veteran identified a couple teams in the LCS, like Origen, that are struggling with that problem right now. With so many games in a week, making sure your team wins the next game is the only thing there's time to focus on.
In fact, Veteran says he picked the players for the current Schalke roster based on how well their personalities would mesh together, so they could keep working on that while playing their one game a week. And even though Schalke's roster is packed with LCS veterans, the players he wanted more than anything are the ones that didn't just leave the LCS.
"SELFIE was very lucky," Veteran said. "I didn't expect him to ever be open when we were making the roster but I'm very glad that he became available... For SELFIE everything has to be about the game. That's the type of player that I want. So when he became available, at last minute as it was, I was like, 'Oh my god, okay, perfect.' Because I was going through a lot of other rookie mid laners at the time, many of whom I thought were very talented but it was difficult to find one who was the right fit for the team."
Veteran worked with SELFIE briefly when he substituted for Ryu "Ryu" Sang-ook on H2K during the 2016 EU LCS Spring Split and says that he noticed SELFIE's work ethic and desire to improve even then. But Veteran wasn't watching out for Upset quite as long.
"I'd had my eye on Upset for a good few months since around October, I basically knew that he was the AD carry that I wanted," Veteran said. "I already knew that he was good but he had a turn in talent in the last few months that genuinely made him what I consider to be like the next great AD carry to come from Challenger scene. So I absolutely wanted Upset as my AD, pretty much since before Schalke even offered me he was on the list."
Veteran says that he only found out exactly how committed Schalke was to rebuilding itself as a strong League of Legends brand once it came time to sign the former LCS pros he wanted. Veteran says he had something of a say on H2K's roster, but the direction the team took wasn't the one he wanted. He wanted to focus on Europe's upcoming talents and forgotten players, which put him in direct competition with LCS organizations looking for the same kinds of players.
Schalke was ready to pay whatever it took to secure good players, and even give them better contracts than they'd get elsewhere. The organization put the team up in an apartment complex across from Schalke's soccer stadium in Gelsenkirchen and gave them access to all the facilities that the organization's soccer team uses. This included medical checks that revealed to Veteran and the team that they're all deficient in Vitamin D, but also let them play their recent game against Paris St. Germain in front of 200 fans.
"They definitely, upon getting relegated, decided to double down rather than anything," Veteran said. "It's actually really refreshing to see. One aspect that's often overlooked is that they were really, really positive when it came to changes to the contract other than money. I think that's one of the aspects that actually ended up getting a lot of the players that we got and it's something I hope a lot of other orgs will do, because Europe, at the very least, has had a history of organizations in Challenger scene not doing that."
And while the current European orgs in Challenger don't have that shady reputation, they do have an overabundance of talent beyond that of most CS splits. Between Fnatic Academy, Misfits Academy, Paris St. Germain and Schalke, many have called this the most stacked split the European Challenger Series has ever seen, and Veteran agrees. But he's not worried.
"I saw a lot of instances where a roster had clearly been put together with the idea of individual strengths but they hadn't looked into player personalities," he said. "They hadn't seen how a team would actually end up functioning in a game before they fully recruited all of them. There are a lot of teams in Challenger right now that are still trying to find their identity in that regard or learning that certain decisions they made before hand actually prevented an ease in that aspect."
Veteran points to Fnatic Academy as an example of a team that had a strong roster that meshed well, but after moving jungler Mads "Broxah" Brock-Pedersen to their LCS roster, the challenger team has struggled to find their identity. That's not the case for him, his roster or even for Schalke, who have been thriving in Challenger Series. They've all found a new identity there, but Challenger obviously isn't the end.
"This isn't a roster that I designed or wanted to just qualify for LCS and just have that be our satisfaction," Veteran said. "I want to go a lot further than that, and I think this is a very strong roster that can go a lot further than that."
Editor's Note: Michael "Veteran" Archer was a freelance writer for theScore esports in 2015.
Daniel Rosen is a news editor for theScore esports. You can follow him on Twitter.