Phoenix1's home-grown game plan: Building a strong domestic core

by Tim Sevenhuysen Nov 29
Thumbnail image courtesy of Riot Games / Riot Games Flickr

Six months after joining the North American LCS, Phoenix1 finally have the time and opportunity to build the roster they really want.

The past experiences of Phoenix1’s management and players have shaped their perspectives on what effective roster-building looks like. There are no false expectations here: a difficult first LCS split proved just how hard it is to win at this level. Now, Phoenix1 are applying all of the lessons they’ve learned and the insights they’ve gathered to build their team from the ground up, according to their own values and priorities.

So far, that has meant staying close to home, prioritizing a firm foundation of domestic players before diving into the high-stakes import game. That’s a very different mindset from what some of Phoenix1’s key decision-makers have been part of in the past, and illustrates the organization’s desire to run their team the right way.

The Domestic Core

When they first purchased Team Impulse’s LCS slot in May 2016, Phoenix1 were forced to do the best they could with very limited time and a shallow pool of unsigned players. That meant no big-name Korean imports and no homegrown superstars, since players of that caliber were already bound to other organizations. The team picked up the best roster they could, battled with visa issues, and made minor tweaks along the way. The wins were hard to come by, but they ultimately retained their place in the LCS by defeating Echo Fox in the Promotion Tournament.

This time around, Phoenix1 have a full offseason and the chance to reach out to a broader pool of free agents, and their management is committed to following through on a clear game plan. The first step in that plan was announced on, Nov. 22, when it was revealed that former Immortals and Team Impulse support, Adrian “Adrian” Ma, would join Phoenix1 for 2017.

Adrian has made a name for himself as one of North America’s best supports, a defensive specialist whose solid vision control and clutch saves allow his aggressive teammates to take more risks and reap more rewards. He was a crucial component of the Immortals’ regular season success in 2016, backing up Heo “Huni” Seung-hoon, and anchored Team Impulse to a solid 2015 campaign by helping Lee “Rush” Yoon-jae in much the same way.

“One of the biggest things I looked at when I joined a team was the NA players they could build around,” Adrian told theScore esports after the announcement. That statement gives some insight into the team’s philosophy and their approach to becoming a long-term LCS success, which is centered around a core of domestic North American players.

Adrian added that, in his mind, success would be about “finding the right domestic players” since the offseason was “not going to be lacking in import options.” In other words, a team’s ability to succeed in 2017 will not be primarily defined, in Adrian’s mind, by which imported players — Korean or otherwise — they’re able to sign, but rather by how good their North American core is.

Alongside Adrian, Phoenix1 have jungler Rami “Inori” Charagh and top laner Derek “Zig” Shao under contract until November 2017, rounding out their three domestic players requirement for the spring. Inori was one of the summer’s breakout players, and while Zig didn’t stand out as much as Inori, he has lots of potential for growth, and plays an effective low-resource, team-oriented style. The trio of Adrian, Inori and Zig won’t turn many heads, but those three names are a solid, flexible foundation that can adapt around whatever mid lane and AD carry players the team is able to bring in, whether from the domestic or import markets.

Shaped by Their Past: Learning from NRG

Phoenix1’s apparent domestic-first mentality isn’t a brand new concept — Team SoloMid and Counter Logic Gaming both won championships in 2016 with lineups built around players with North American residency — but for Phoenix1 it’s a departure in style, compared to the their coaching and management staff’s history as part of NRG Esports. NRG focused their rosters around their imports, filling in their required domestic slots with whomever was available, from little-known rookies to veterans on their last legs. But even with impressive imported names front-lining their rosters, NRG lived and died by their domestic players.

Formerly staffed, for parts of the year, by current Phoenix1 Head Coach Charlie Lipsie and In-House Manager Chad “History Teacher” Smeltz, NRG entered the LCS with a bang, centering their inaugural roster on high-profile Korean names. They picked up Impact (who had just left TIP) and made a big splash by importing Lee “GBM” Chang-seok from the LCK’s Jin Air Green Wings. Those two pillars of Korean strength looked truly formidable, but the domestic pieces seemed to be a relative afterthought. AD carry Johnny “Altec” Ru looked like a good pickup, coming off a breakout summer split with Team Gravity, but Galen “Moon” Holgate and Kevin “KonKwon” Kwon were more questionable. Moon was a pure rookie, while KonKwon was the bilingual support who was supposed to facilitate the team’s communication. NRG’s results left much to be desired: all three North American players played poorly, and while Impact and GBM each had their moments, they showed clear signs of mounting frustration as the split went on.

A mid-season roster shuffle saw everyone but GBM replaced, with Impact’s import slot taken up by another high-profile Korean name, Oh “Ohq” Gyu-min, at AD carry. This time, the domestic players were at least relatively experienced, but Diego “Quas” Ruiz was returning from a hiatus, and Alan “KiWiKiD” Nguyen’s play had already been declining. Lucas “Santorin” Larsen did his best to carry the team from the jungle, but once again NRG received generally poor contributions from its domestic-status players, while GBM and Ohq struggled to deliver on their reputations.

Phoenix1, through their staff’s history within NRG, are well positioned to learn from that organization’s failures. Their philosophy of building a strong, flexible domestic foundation is a direct consequence of that lineage.

Finishing Touches

Phoenix1 have their foundation-building well underway with Adrian’s signing and Inori and Zig already contracted. Now their task becomes filling out the rest of the roster with a mid laner and AD carry, following through on Adrian’s promise that we should “expect even more good changes and announcements soon.”

More domestic players are certainly an option, with the import market also very much in play. Phoenix1’s ownership group may not quite match the profile of aXiomatic, the group that purchased Team Liquid, or the Philadelphia 76ers, who now own Dignitas, but there seems to be enough funding and stability to make a splash with a big contract or two. With resources unlikely to be a roadblock, it’s up to Phoenix1’s leadership to prove that they can do a better job of picking supplementary players than either Team Impulse or NRG Esports did before them.

Whether Phoenix1 sign two imports, find more North American players, or even add new players in the top lane or jungle to expand beyond a five-man roster, they are undoubtedly starting from a much stronger position than they were in six months ago. Long-term, if their domestic-first philosophy pays dividends, expect more and more teams to follow their lead.

Tim "Magic" Sevenhuysen runs, the premier source for League of Legends esports statistics. You can find him on Twitter, unless he’s busy giving one of his three sons a shoulder ride.