Their first win came far earlier than anyone had expected. With a cobbled-together roster of unknowns, substitutes and ever-cheerful Austin “Gate” Yu, Team Impulse were not expected to win many games. After a poor performance against Echo Fox and a sub-20-minute Week 1 beatdown at the hands of Immortals, the question was not when would TiP win their first game, but if they could win one at all.
Then, in Week 2, the unthinkable happened. Not only did TiP manage to secure their first win of the 2016 NA LCS Spring Split, but they knocked off Cloud9, one of the region's top teams. The caveat was that C9 did not start support Hai “Hai” Du Lam — widely credited as the team’s shotcaller and brain — against TiP, so fans shrugged off the victory, placing a mental asterisk next to the game before moving on to the next series.
Yet it happened again the next day against Renegades, and then again in Week 3 against Team Dignitas. More impressive than their wins was the fact that they kept taking games with a constantly changing roster, seeing as the team was still in the process of getting visas for their foreign talent. Famously, jungler Kim “Procxin” Se-young and mid laner Choi “Pirean” Jun-sik arrived in the United States in the wee hours of the morning the day that TiP were set to take on Renegades. TiP won that game with no practice, and with Gate substituting in the top lane rather than starting in his usual role at support, which earned him the moniker "most versatile player" on the NA LCS broadcast.
“The first few weeks were as hectic as possible,” Gate told theScore esports in a recent interview. “There was no structure for us to start improving as a team, and we had to constantly swap players in and out. I wanted to get practicing with our core five players as soon as possible, but the issues we faced made it so we had to just wing it a lot of the times.”
Gate filled in at mid lane for TiP’s first three matches — taking on the role he played in 2015 when he was tapped to substitute for mid Yu “XiaoWeiXiao” Xian, who was banned — then moved to the top lane for a single game on Gangplank before finally playing his actual position.
“Mid lane wasn’t so bad, since I had prior experience playing it in the LCS and playoffs," he says. "I didn’t feel much pressure playing mid either since we were just trying to make do with our roster. Even the game I played top lane, I didn’t feel any pressure. To be honest, we didn’t practice with me playing top at all since I only had one day’s notice, and I just ended up watching a lot of top competitive VODs to get ready for the game.”
Gate admits that adjusting to support was actually the toughest challenge for him, since he had little time to practice his true position while filling other roles for his team. But once things settled down, other cracks began to show. TiP suffered communication issues and began a downward slide around mid-season, as other rosters predictably came together before TiP's lineup did. TiP finished ninth overall in the NA LCS spring regular season with a 5-13 record, and were forced to fight for their spot in the Summer Season in the Promotion Tournament.
“Going into the last two weeks of the season, the team atmosphere was at an all-time low,” Gate admits. “We argued a lot amongst each other, and we took quite a few steps backwards as a team. We took the two-week break between relegation [matches], which helped us a lot, and we really felt that we would crush any team in relegation.”
Team atmosphere improved following TiP’s 3-1 victory over Apex Gaming in the Summer Promotion tournament, which earned their way back into the NA LCS. However, Gate and company were about to be dealt another blow. On May 8, 2016, TiP was banned from further LCS competition for refusing to pay their players, in addition to not providing them with legitimate contracts. Knowing that Riot was investigating his team owner, Gate was still unsure how things would work out for both him and the team.
“We anticipated that we had to replace our owner and team,” Gate says. “Most of the investigations came from the starters and subs talking to Riot members about our chronically late or missing pay.”
Now, at the start of a fresh season, Gate has found a new home born from the ashes of Team Impulse, aptly named Phoenix1. Rob Moore, Vice Chairman of Paramount Pictures, his son Michael Moore and film producer Jack Giarraputo head up the new Phoenix1 organization with the goal of providing a more stable and comfortable environment for their players.
“I didn’t know if the new organization would try to pursue me, or I had to just take a different offer that was available to me. After talking and meeting with the Phoenix1 owners, I knew that it would be the best opportunity available for me to prove my skill in the LCS,” Gate says.
Phoenix1 not only offered Gate a better salary, but offered to cover expenses that TiP had failed to provide in the previous split. “So far, they have been the most kind to the players out of any organization I’ve been a part of,” Gate says.
This past spring, the NA LCS experienced a rebirth of its own, with an influx of both money and talent flooding into the scene. Cohesive teamwork as well as stronger individual talent paved the way for the Top 3 in North America: Counter Logic Gaming, Team SoloMid, and the new outfit Immortals. It looks like NA will continue the trend this summer, with organizations further adding to their rosters while keeping team dynamics at the forefront.
“We are trying to all get to know each other better,” Gate says. “I’d say we are making a lot of progress as a team. It isn’t so easy to come together as a team right before LCS starts, but I definitely would say we are doing well.”
Phoenix1 has spent as much time as possible practicing together in their new gaming house. Gate even forewent a personal trip to Korea to practice with his new team. Still, Phoenix1’s chances at a top spot are slim, and like TiP at the start of the Spring Split, expectations are low.
“To be honest, it is really understandable for people to put us at the bottom of the standings,” Gate says. “I don’t think a lot of people expect much from us, but I think that is a good thing as well.”
He likens Phoenix1’s in-game approach to that of his former TiP team in spring. Most of their stronger performances came from teams underestimating TiP's lineup, allowing them to play without much pressure, even with the constant roster shuffles.
“I want to win, and I want to push myself to playing at my best,” Gate says. “With this in mind, even though we are a new team, I want to show that we are not going to be a ‘pushover’ team at all. I want to take games off the best teams and compete in the race for playoffs. Something I am looking forward to is playing against my former teammates that are now on other teams. I don’t know what it is, but I just have a great time playing against them — and an even better time beating them.”
Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.