Everyone loves a Cinderella story. In sports, as in other aspects of life, we like to cheer for the disadvantaged protagonist on their arduous journey from rags to riches. In 2016, no LCS organization lived out that narrative more closely than Splyce.
After a year of unexpected success, featuring a trip to the World Championship, Splyce’s management and players have made the rare decision to stick together in the offseason. With everything they’ve learned together and a year’s worth of momentum to carry forward, Splyce are looking to hit the ground running in 2017 and improve on their impressive summer performance.
Hitting the power curve
Splyce’s 2016 campaign can be summed up quite aptly by a single word: growth.
At the start of the year, Splyce were a rag-tag bunch with very little professional experience and low outside expectations. They had qualified into the EU LCS 2016 spring split by narrowly defeating Mousesports in the Challenger Series finals, but their all-Danish, all-rookie lineup wasn’t inspiring the same excitement as previous Challenger champions like Origen. They had some cachet because of having played under the well-known Dignitas brand, and their sale to FollowEsports and subsequent rebranding as Splyce garnered media attention, but there was no reason to expect that this team would become one of the best squads in Europe by the year’s end.
Splyce gained a bit more legitimacy when they signed the popular Jakob “YamatoCannon” Mebdi as their head coach and brought in Jonas “Trashy” Andersen as their new jungler, but the spring split was still a time of self-discovery that led to an eighth place with a 5-13 record. The team needed a spark. They found it in their first non-Danish player, Mihael “Mikyx” Mehle.
In the summer split, Mikyx’s aggressive mindset seemed to unlock the potential of the entire lineup, complementing Trashy’s more conservative, control-oriented style. Splyce saw more consistent performances from all three of their carries, top laner Martin “Wunder” Hansen, mid laner Chres “Sencux” Laursen, and AD carry Kasper “Kobbe” Kobberup. The team built enough momentum to finish second in the regular season and took out H2k-Gaming in the semifinals before falling at the hands of G2 Esports in the finals. The Regionals tournament loomed, and Splyce were able to take out the surging Unicorns of Love in five games and qualify for the World Championship. In the span of just nine months, Splyce had evolved into one of the three best teams in their region, and they’d done it with internal growth and minimal roster turnover.
October’s World Championship was a chance for Splyce to test themselves against the wider world, both to prove how far they’d come and to learn and grow even more. Every time a player or team attends Worlds for the first time, they talk about what they gain from the experience. Splyce’s players told theScore esports that while they did gain some knowledge about how to play the game better in technical terms, the out-of-game lessons were even more valuable. Mikyx said, “I learned how to be more comfortable and how to handle the pressure on stage since I was really nervous the first week, which influenced my performance.” Trashy added that he learned “how important pressure is on the big stage.” It’s one thing to know academically that you will face mental pressure in big games; it’s another thing entirely to live through the lights and sounds of the world’s biggest stage and discover ways to absorb and play through that pressure.
A firm foundation
After a year of so much progress, and with an international showing under their belts to cap it off, it almost seems like a no-brainer that Splyce would stay the course and try to keep the momentum going. A series of free agency announcements on social media caused a stir, however, with Splyce’s coach and players making themselves available for offers from other teams. Eventually, one by one, each member decided that the grass on the other side didn’t look so green, and Splyce locked down the return of their full roster.
That kind of stability is rare. In fact, Splyce and G2 Esports — the two summer finalists — are the only European teams in the continuity club this year, with others like Counter Logic Gaming from North America and Samsung Galaxy in Korea doing the same in other parts of the world. G2’s lack of change makes sense because of the chance to chase a three-peat after winning both the spring and summer EU LCS titles. But Splyce’s reasons for stability are less about replicating 2016, and more about taking the next step as a close-knit competitive unit.
Splyce’s players gave a few different reasons for choosing to stick together for 2017. Simple loyalty was a common theme. The players appreciate the organization itself, with Wunder mentioning how well the team treats its players and Trashy expressing gratitude that Splyce “made me the player I am today.” Staying with these specific teammates was also important: Sencux pointed out how much he enjoys “spending time trolling around in the house,” and Kobbe said, “I have a lot of trust in the people I’m working with.”
Comfort and familiarity weren’t the only things holding the group together: the players are also looking toward the future. More than one player mentioned their competitive ambitions as a reason for re-signing with Splyce. Mikyx summed it up best, saying, “I think we can accomplish even more if we stay together.”
Each player has grown over the course of 2016, gaining a year of competitive experience and tasting success through their international exposure. The best way to keep that momentum going is to keep the gang together. Trashy described it this way: “We know each other’s strengths and most importantly our weaknesses, so it’s easier for us to continue progressing.” The competitive benefits of maintaining synergy are clear, but Trashy’s statement also points to the value of continuing with the same coaching staff. Since YamatoCannon and his players are already familiar with one another, they know how to work with one another to communicate, learn, and grow. As Kobbe added, “Being used to working with the other players and coach makes it a lot easier [to succeed].”
Splyce in 2017
Splyce’s offseason stability is a feel-good story, especially after hearing the players talk about trust and loyalty, but the LCS is a competitive environment. If Splyce don’t find competitive success in 2017, those good feelings will dissipate pretty quickly.
Asked about their goals for 2017, every Splyce player pointed to either an EU LCS title, another appearance at the World Championships, or both. Those goals are definitely within reach.
Leading into 2017, the EU LCS has not necessarily gotten stronger as a whole. Unlike North America, which is gaining a fresh flood of Korean talent and outside investment dollars, Europe has shuffled some veteran talent between mid-tier teams, relegated one of their wealthier organizations, Schalke 04, to the Challenger Series and traded out some low-tier imports for mid-tier replacements. There are bright spots, with the arrival of players like Sin “Nuclear” Jeong-hyeon and Choi “Chei” Sun-ho and rumors around Nam “LirA” Tae-yoo and Ha “Hachani” Seung-chan, and promising developments like Paris Saint-Germain’s creation of a Challenger Series roster under the leadership of European legend Bora “Yellowstar” Kim, but there have also been some potentially questionable moves, like the Misfits’ signing of Lee “KaKAO” Byung-kwon, a Korean jungler who seems far removed from his glory days. The EU LCS’s competitive prospects for 2017 are uncertain.
On a team-by-team basis, G2 Esports are hoping they can retain their place as Europe’s best team through organic growth, which may or may not pan out. High-profile teams like Fnatic and H2k-Gaming are making larger changes to their rosters that are more about changes in style rather than strict upgrades. Europe’s middle class — teams like the Unicorns of Love, Vitality, and Giants Gaming — are making adjustments, some with more promise than others, but none have emerged so far as a clear championship frontrunner to challenge G2’s incumbency. The performances of bottom-of-the-standings organizations like Roccat and Origen and new qualifiers like Misfits are difficult to predict.
By comparison, Splyce are navigating this environment of change from a position of relative strength, as a known quantity with a proven ability to improve themselves over time. Splyce were able to achieve their summer success while working around observable weaknesses, such as Sencux’s relatively soft laning phase and Mikyx’s risky positioning, which bodes well for their future growth if they’ve been making good use of their practice time. There are no question marks, uncertainties or risks for Splyce, aside from their own ability to make good on their potential.
Around the world, change has driven discussion and excitement as star players join new teams and roster shuffles generate speculation. But sometimes stability is even more exciting than change, and Splyce are charging into 2017 with enough momentum to prove it.
Tim "Magic" Sevenhuysen runs OraclesElixir.com, 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.