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From Anarchy to Zenith: Chronicling the Afreeca Freecs

by theScore Staff May 28 2016
Thumbnail image courtesy of KeSPA / LCK Summer 2016

The audience had mostly cleared out of the stadium, the majority of them NaJin e-mFire fans that still don’t quite know what hit them as they shuffle outside. Inside, rows upon rows of empty chairs face a well-lit stage and a confident-looking young man in a pressed plain white dress shirt.

Of the few that have stayed to watch OnGameNet caster Cho Eun-jung interview this young man only his teammates seem at all prepared for the interview. They occupy the entire front row of seats, holding up hastily-scribbled signs for their team, Anarchy, and the young man, Son “Mickey” Young-min.

“I still can’t believe it,” Mickey said in a later interview with Inven. “To be honest I totally didn’t expect us to win. I came here thinking that it would be a relief if we could take just one set, so I’m very happy that we won.”

Anarchy’s LoL Champions Korea Summer 2015 Week 1 victory over NaJin e-mFire was unexpected to say the least. A well-known entity in Korean League of Legends, one of the original organizations in the region, NaJin had money and loads of up-and-coming talent, including AD carry Oh “Ohq” Gyu-min and top laner Lee “Duke” Ho-seong.

By contrast, Anarchy was finally moving into a gaming house that Friday. In keeping with their namesake at that time, Anarchy still had no semblance of structure. Jungler Nam “LirA” Tae-yoo — the most experienced player on the team, formerly of the KT Rolster Arrows and CJ Entus Frost — scheduled scrims for Anarchy and players coordinated from their respective homes.

"To be a little cold-hearted, we thought it would be hard for our team to even get one win,” Mickey said. “Even in the online communities people said it would be a relief if we could take 1 set, let alone a win. But I’m very happy that we broke everyone’s expectations and secured a win starting with the opening match.”

This is now one of the more iconic scenes of the now-Afreeca Freecs — the near-empty stadium, happy teammates cheering on their mid laner from the front row in starched dress shirts that bear no logo or sponsor, a step up from where they were when they qualified clad in white t-shirts with the ironed-on League of Legends logo and a Riot Games patch on the sleeve.

Initially a loose collection of streaming personalities, Anarchy had no coach and no team house at the time of their promotional series victory. Little was expected of a team that had yet to scrape together enough money to live together in a gaming house — the bare minimum for a professional LoL team — not to mention the fact that they would be going up against the likes of CJ Entus, Jin Air Green Wings, KT Rolster, and SK Telecom T1. Even Samsung Galaxy, fallen far from grace and the 2014 World Championship title, had an infinite amount of resources when compared to Anarchy, as did the tight-knit Tigers, who struggled with similar sponsorship issues but had a wealth of experienced talent. What chances would a young team composed of primarily streamers have without a major sponsor available to pick them up?

Much to the surprise of everyone — including themselves — the Afreeca Freecs neé Anarchy battled their way through a myriad of hardships, earned a major sponsor in Afreeca.TV between seasons, and are now considered legitimate contenders for an LCK playoff spot along with the aforementioned major teams. Fresh off of their first, admittedly disappointing, playoff appearance in LCK Spring 2016, the Freecs are still hungry, with a spot at the 2016 World Championship surprisingly not out of their reach.

The Freecs' start as Anarchy was met with little fanfare. Upon defeating Winners 2-1 in the LCK Summer 2015 Promotion tournament, the members of Anarchy appeared more shocked at their own victory than anyone else.

“It’s true that it’s really hard to have a practice schedule without a team house,” AD carry Gwon “Sangyoon” Sang-yun told Inven following their LCK qualification. Call them self-deprecating or simply realistic, no Anarchy player thought that their team had a chance upon qualifying for the LCK. “In our current condition we’ll lose every match. First off, our top laner has a small champion pool, and our bot duo falls victim to ganks way too often,” Sangyoon said.

Mickey’s words echoed Sangyoon’s sentiments. “There’s absolutely no hope that we can win a set. But I think it depends on how much our team tries,” Mickey said. As early as the promotion tournament, it was unclear how much Anarchy wanted to apply themselves to being a top-tier team, immediately recognizing the massive skill difference between themselves and even a bottom-tier professional team like Incredible Miracle.

“I could really tell just how much they practiced,” Sangyoon said. “The level of communication between teammates was different. Everyone on our team was doing what they wanted to do individually because we just mainly played solo queue. I think we’re going to have to practice a lot more.”

Yet Anarchy did what even they thought would be impossible: win their first series. Bolstered by the victory over NaJin, the members of Anarchy threw themselves into practicing as a professional team, something that many of them were unused to. They acquired a gaming house shortly after their LCK debut yet, aside from that first win and their subsequent 1-2 loss to CJ Entus also in Week 1, Anarchy struggled mightily to compete with the rest of Korea.

Mickey became Anarchy’s one and only win condition. The team lacked coordination that even lesser LCK teams at the time — Samsung Galaxy, Incredible Miracle — possessed, and only Mickey appeared to be near the individual talent mean for his respective position. Scrims started to go south and Anarchy teammates argued with each other while losses mounted throughout the first round robin.

Tensions arise on every team, a byproduct of high-pressure situations, individual egos, and the overwhelming desire to win. Usually, the coaching staff diffuses these situations, but Anarchy didn’t have the luxury of a coach or even a regular practice schedule at times, resorting to watching VODs of stronger Korean teams or their own play in between scrims. Anarchy’s second victory came much later in the first round robin, an unlikely 2-1 win over Samsung Galaxy in Week 5.

"Our bot duo’s level improved a lot. And the teamwork is consistently improving as well. Honestly, the NaJin e-mFire victory was because I was good,” Mickey said with a laugh in an Inven interview. “But in this Samsung match, we won through teamwork, not because of just one player doing well.” Mickey recanted his previous statement that he could take on any LCK mid laner aside from SKT Telecom T1’s Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok and Lee “Easyhoon” Ji-hoon, acknowledging that he had erroneously judged them on their solo queue skills alone. Playing with a team in the LCK required a completely different skillset, one that Mickey and his team had severely underestimated after their Week 1 NaJin victory.

The humbling first round robin led to a more determined Anarchy. “LoL Champions is very different from solo queue,” Sangyoon later said in an Inven interview. “There were a lot of times in solo queue when I just fought mindlessly and won games, but there are so many things I need to pay attention to here because one kill is extremely important. To be honest, I used to watch LoL Champions and think, “I think I can play better than them.” But now that I’m actually playing here, it’s completely different. Expertise/experience is not to be taken lightly.”

Still far below the average level of play in the LCK, Anarchy doggedly made their way through the second round robin showing improvement by the week. Aiding them was their new coach, then-former KT Rolster support Ha “Hachani” Seung-chan and coach Lee Jae-gyun.

The second round robin of LCK Summer 2015 was equally, if not more, frustrating for the renamed Rebels Anarchy. While Anarchy was improving, so were the other teams of Korea, making any progression in the standings difficult. The unsponsored team still struggled to find stronger scrim partners, though this only improved after Coach Lee joined the team. Previously, Anarchy was forced to scrim Challenger teams only or simply practiced in solo queue. They additionally failed to find another cohesive strategy beyond Mickey carrying from the mid lane on one of his favorite assassins — which were often banned out, effectively neutralizing Rebels Anarchy before they even loaded up onto the Rift — placing a tremendous amount of pressure on their star mid laner.

“To be honest, I ruined the team atmosphere,” Mickey said in an August interview with Inven. “There were several somewhat pointless scrims where every lane got blown out as soon as we began. Whenever we tried to analyze the results everyone kept saying, ‘We lost because I was bad.’ So I got a little angry at my teammates. Right now, our atmosphere is good again.”

Anarchy won fewer series in the second round robin (two) than they did in the first (three). But together this was enough to propel them ahead of Incredible Miracle, eeking out of the season with a guaranteed spot in LCK Spring 2016. The toughest lessons for Anarchy to learn remained those associated with team play and macro coordination.

"I learned that that it’s better to choose to play a style where, though I may get disadvantaged, the situation benefits the team, rather than a personal-focused style where I am the only one to gain advantages,” Mickey said in an October interview with Daily Esports. “Before that, I thought that if I played well it would all work out.”

The 2015 KeSPA Cup marked the first time where Anarchy showed a strong dedication to moving away from a more Mickey-centric strategy, focusing their win conditions around LirA’s Kindred instead. It wasn’t perfect, and Anarchy fell 1-2 to eventual KesPA Cup winners Ever, but it was a start. Unfortunately, the rest of the 2015-16 off-season was particularly rough for Anarchy due to reasons well beyond their control.

One of the primary conditions in Korea’s 2015 restructuring was the abolishing of sister teams, cutting down on the major non-endemic sponsors in Korea that could afford a team. Where larger non-endemics like Samsung, SK Telecom T1 and KT Rolster had enough money for two teams, they could now only have one, and smaller sponsors were unable to pick up and sustain even a single team. Previously, bits and pieces of Anarchy would have likely been picked up. Perhaps Mickey would have landed on a major team, perhaps the entire team would have become the practice squad or sister team to another, more promising lineup. Instead, Anarchy had to survive on their KeSPA stipend during the season and streaming revenue.

Making the most of the fact that many of their members were popular streamers on Afreeca.TV, streaming became a major revenue source for the team. Due to KeSPA’s contract with Azubu, Anarchy signing with KeSPA would have likely meant giving up their streaming careers in the platform switch. Yet the lack of money increasingly became an issue and the team’s future became more uncertain than when they initially qualified for the LCK in Summer 2015. Mickey streamed under the name “Anarchy sponsorship pls” while LirA desperately tried to keep the team together. “We wanted the freedom to select our own streaming platforms in a situation where we couldn’t just sit here waiting for sponsors,” Mickey said.

Late December, Anarchy was saved by none other than the streaming platform they had made names for themselves on: Afreeca.TV. Announcing that they would begin to sponsor professional esports teams, Afreeca picked up Anarchy and the team became the Afreeca Freecs. More importantly, former CJ Entus coach Kang Hyun-jong joined the team prior to LCK Spring 2016.

“I saw a great amount of passion when I first met the players,” coach Kang said. “We are desperate to qualify for the World Championship, to become the champions, we will work hard to make 2016 a year where the players and the coaching staff move forward together one step at a time.”

Already an outspoken team full of comical but large personalities, the Freecs had a rough start to spring, dropping three series before besting fellow bottom feeder SBENU Sonicboom 2-1 in Week 3. Sangyoon admitted that they were still adjusting to their new coaching staff, but that their skill was far superior than what the Freecs had shown on the Rift thus far. “It’s pretty much amazing how we won any matches back when we were Rebels Anarchy,” he said. “We really played the matches as if we were just friends playing a game. It can’t be compared to what we’re doing now with the coaching staff.”

The Afreeca Freecs’ breakthough came in Week 6 of the first round robin, when they unexpectedly upset SK Telecom T1 2-1. Up until this point, Afreeca had still been considered as dangerous as they were in their Anarchy days — able to take a game or two off of a better team if they were sleeping on the draft, but not quite good enough to close out a series against a superior opponent. This series showcased a new, coordinated Freecs that were able to play around their aggressive bottom lane of Sangyoon and support No “Snowflower” Hoi-jong, or top laner Joen “ikssu” Ik-soo.

Spurred on by this success, the Freecs blazed through the second half of LCK Spring 2016 with a 7-2 record, only dropping series to SK Telecom T1 and the ROX Tigers. Gaining fans by the week, the Freecs won hearts with their energy off the Rift and increasingly strong performances in game. Coach Kang compared their somewhat miraculous playoff run to his Maximum Impact Gaming days when LoL was just starting to take off as an esport in Korea — the feeling of having a team for the first time. “My goal is to create a team that can consistently perform well moving forward,” he said. Any reported issues between Afreeca teammates were now solved with a steady hand and stronger coaching staff, harnessing their energy and steering the team in the direction of their own lofty goals.

But momentum could only carry Afreeca so far, and the team collapsed under pressure in the playoffs. Suddenly all of Afreeca’s earlier problems returned — an inability to spread the map correctly, Mickey joining up with the team or splitting off from the team at the wrong times — and the more experienced Jin Air Green Wings swept the Freecs 2-0. It was a disappointing and abrupt finish to a Cinderella season, where these teammates who had stuck together through the most trying of times had been gifted a sponsor and a coach and used those resources to the best of their ability.

The offseason was remarkably quiet for the Freecs, especially in comparison to their previous offseason woes. Still sponsored, still supported by a strong staff, and still together, the Freecs opened their LCK Summer 2016 season by sweeping a team that is in many ways their complete opposite: Longzhu Gaming.

A band of five, energetic and loud friends, the Freecs have often lacked resources to make the most of their talent. By contrast, Longzhu used their deep pockets to acquire a ten-man roster chock full of top-tier talent in the region and finished well below the Freecs in LCK Spring 2016 in eighth place. While Afreeca’s play was far from flawless, they were more of a unified team than Longzhu — a team that, even after roster changes in between seasons lacks any semblance of synergy.

Coach Kang’s words of wisdom seem oddly appropriate for the scrappy squad. Previously, he told the team to “become their own protagonists,” according to an Inven article. After their LCK Summer 2016 debut victory, LirA said that they continue to follow their coach’s advice and never give up. “One of our nicknames when we were Anarchy was “Surrend-chy,’” LirA said in a post-game interview. “I think we secured one win today thanks to that mindset of ‘never give up’. I’ll make sure I try hard until the very end next time, just like our head coach said.”

In a post-sister team Korea, the Afreeca Freecs are a heartwarming anomaly — a group of streamers turned friends turned formidable LCK underdog. The team still sits at the front of the stadium during post-match interviews, but now they wear the unified colors of Afreeca, surrounded by their coaching staff and ever-increasing number of fans.

All interviews taken from inven.co.kr, OnGameNet broadcast interviews, and FOMOS.kr. Special thanks to Bnununu and xoprestige for their invaluable translation work.

Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.

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