The significance of the success of Counter-Logic Gaming in placing second at the Mid-Season Invitational the split after losing star player Yiliang “Doublelift” Peng is an important one. It highlights the reality that League of Legends has increasingly become more and more of a team game. Even though CLG have so far underwhelmed this summer, their triumphs underline that the departure of an individual headliner doesn’t have to kill the show in the box office.
While H2K-Gaming’s separation from Konstantinos “FORG1VEN” didn’t allow H2K to diversify the way they wanted, and he ultimately returned to the team, the departure of a different star from another organization had a much more profound effect. Isaac "xPePii" Flores Alvarado’s mutually agreed upon separation from Giants has likely been overlooked because Giants weren't particularly good in the first place.
During the regular season, I’ve published multiple discussions on how Giants work in-game in 2016: the value of Na “NighT” Gunwoo, how the team works to control a quadrant of the jungle, and their mid lane vulnerabilities. But understanding what makes this roster different from previous Giants rosters behind the scenes requires the perspective of someone who has been with the team’s rapidly changing roster throughout their stay in the LCS. David "Lozark'' Vicente, head coach of Giants for the past two years, helped me fill in some of the gaps.
When Giants Gaming re-qualified for the League of Legends Championship Series for the 2015 LCS Spring split, xPePii (then known as PePiiNeRo) was the player fans paid attention to. His flashy assassin play occasionally prompted comparisons to legendary Spanish mid laner, Enrique “xPeke” Cedeño Martínez. When Giants barely clung to their hope of an LCS spot in a tie-breaker at the end of the split with a win over Meet Your Makers, avoiding relegation, xPePii’s growing band of supporters bemoaned his lack of a better team around him.
Despite a somewhat stagnant pool of Tear of the Goddess stacking mid lane picks in 2015 Summer, xPePii continued to impress, and Giants squeaked into playoffs for the first time. “It is true that we were very lucky back then,” Lozark recalls. “The mid-game meta was entirely based on Azir or Viktor. Azir was the strongest champion, and we loved facing him with high range champions with a lot of poke... Pepii was extremely good on his mechanics with those champions.”
Lozark stated that, though they were able to understand their own style well, Giants didn’t adapt. Their first playoffs appearance didn’t result in a single game win, and their Regionals appearance was depressingly poor. From there, the situation only worsened, however, as the 2016 LCS Spring split’s record of 3-15 stands out as one of the worst LCS records to date. This time, xPePii didn’t look like a star anymore. After dropping extra letters in his name, he seemed to lose a little something else as his laning worsened, and he didn't display the initiative that made him impressive in 2015 spring.
xPePii had very different reasons to leave than either Doublelift or FORG1VEN. “Pepii was a little fed up with all the things that come with the LCS,” Lozark said, “(living in Berlin, the constant pressure, the rhythm of the competition…) and wanted to take a break or change of environment. Giants wasn’t going to oppose to that decision of not playing if he wasn’t going to be motivated enough to continue.”
While the loss of the most marketable name on their lineup could have destabilized Giants, the Spanish organization instead looked at it as an opportunity to rebuild. One of their first moves was to repurpose talent from their Spanish League team, Underdoges, in the form of support Morgan “Hustlin” Granberg, an adept Braum player, while the Spring split was still running. The team then chose to move Coach Adolfo "Fochi D" Biosca up as well in the offseason to provide out-of-game support for the players, allowing Lozark to prioritize more in-game work as Head Coach.
Retaining Lennart “SmittyJ” Warkus and Song “S0NSTAR” Seungik, Giants needed to secure a mid laner. Avid viewers of the Korean Challenger Series had their eyes on Na “NighT” Gunwoo from Ever8, and he was one of the most recommended prospects in the offseason. Giants’ acquisition turned out to be one of their most lauded, as NighT came away with 2016 All-LCS team mid lane award for the regular season.
Aside from a surprising lack of Twitter followers, NighT’s affable nature in interviews (“I’m not flame for EU, I’m not flame!”) and spectacular plays on a wide pool of champions set him up as another star mid lane for Giants. Yet in a lot of what makes the team function and operate well — what makes Giants different from xPePii’s iterations of Giants — NighT doesn’t come to the forefront. According to NighT, he has only recently been communicating more intently in the past weeks, which has helped the team rebound after a difficult Week 7, but doesn’t account for most of their system.
When Lozark looked for a jungler, he told theScore esports that one of the major factors in choosing Nubar “Maxlore” Sarafian was his friendship with SmittyJ, as he thinks friendship is an important factor in team performance. Outside the initial pickup, however, Lozark has been impressed by how well Maxlore receives information from his teammates and uses it to make decisions in games.
“If everyone sends the right information [Maxlore] needs during the game,” Lozark said, “the match plays itself. For me, communication is the key factor on our team performing at its highest potential.” Watching Giants games, Giants have the most success when Maxlore can control an area of the enemy jungle. His decisive plays on Nidalee make his quick thinking obvious. If SmittyJ and NighT can push out top and mid lane to accompany him in invades, Maxlore looks like the key factor in whether or not Giants win.
S0NSTAR, Lozark affirms, also plays a major role in team communication, and is one of the most vocal and helpful players when Giants prepare their picks and bans. While Giants were initially heavily scrutinized for their decision to retain S0NSTAR as their AD carry, Lozark insists that what spectators might not be able to see is his shotcalling on a macrostrategic level and his contributions to drafts, specifically when Giants managed to 2-0 H2K earlier in the season.
More broadly, Lozark objected to the idea that his bottom lane would be considered a weak point on Giants. “The mere fact that S0nstar and Hustlin know how to play without requiring any resources make them an essential piece in this puzzle. Without them, it is very likely that we couldn’t be playing around Night and Smittyj in the same way we do today.”
Outside just S0NSTAR’s contributions to draft, however, Lozark insists that a major strength of Giants is in the fact that his players understand champion strengths and weaknesses very well. Aside from NighT, who told theScore esports that his teammates often tell him that his “champion judgement is very bad,” and that he cannot tell when a champion change will make them strong or weak, Lozark says “one of the strengths my players have is that they understand very fast how strong a champion is in the meta.” In particular, he praised SmittyJ as a driving decider in what the team will choose when new patches arrive.
If Lozark sounds like more of a guiding coach who does his best to take cues from his players in a facilitating role, crediting them heavily with the decisions Giants make, that’s because he likely is one. “Most times, the players themselves are the ones who discuss a certain aspect of a game they just played," he said. "All of them are ready to talk about anything that happened. My task is taking notes about the moments in which something happened in game, and it would be interesting to review or replay. Other times I will limit myself to writing down my conclusions about the game.”
When Giants players speak about the game, most of them are able to easily articulate their points. Maxlore, despite being a new face in the EU LCS, has become a staple of the analyst desk already. The ability to talk about the game in front of a camera doesn’t always translate to be able to think and talk about the game during a match, but it does speak well for Giants' ability to make their points in team discussions.
Creating a driven team that’s ready to work together seems like a goal of the formation of the new Giants roster. Lozark pointed out both that he values the Giants’ communication and that SmittyJ and Maxlore got along beforehand. Giants’ Coach considers everything about friendship to be an advantage.
“I consider that friendship is important between partners as, in a lot of cases, makes you fight not only for your own objectives but for your friends' objectives too.” In particular, Adryh and xPePii’s relationship left a very profound impact on Lozark as a mechanism that drove the old Giants roster. “They shared everything. They supported each other every time and if they lost a game they would feel bad not only for themselves.”
Based on Lozark’s words, and his consideration in signing Maxlore, one can guess that Adryh’s departure from the old Giants’ team was a possible factor in xPePii’s declining motivation. The current Giants roster functions allegedly functions much like a team that motivates each other, making the staff take on a different role.
“I think that the current roster needs a coach that inspires or motivates the players to cooperate to work as hard as possible as a team,” Lozark said, contrasting it with previous Giants rosters with greater demands, stating they needed “more help in a psychological level, disciplinary [intervention], or even a person to talk with and find other ways to improve.”
Lozark’s discussion of how the team operates isn’t dissimilar to Joey “YoungBuck” Steltenpool’s depiction of G2 from last split. A lot of success in the EU LCS at the moment seems to be in finding players who are self-motivated and work together. While finding coaches who understand that and can facilitate these kinds of environments is valuable, it also speaks to more minimal infrastructural considerations for most LCS teams.
Difficult players can break teams without management designed to reinforce decisions, and if they lose their drive, it’s hard to get it back. Cooperation and communication are key. Motivation is king.
“We were one of the teams that started scrimming the earliest,” Maxlore confessed toward the end of the LCS regular season. “We started taking it a bit too easily at the beginning of the split after we were doing really good, and then…we got 0-4’d in one week, and then we got motivation again, and we improved a lot.”
If a player isn’t self-motivated right now, Giants have provided evidence that it may be the best decision for most European organizations to let him go. Through their current player-driven communication and strategizing sessions, with guidance from Lozark and Fochi D, as well as input from Giants’ remote analyst, the team has managed their second ever playoffs birth in the EU LCS — this time with an impressive third place regular season run.
“I don’t think seeding matters, really,” Maxlore joked. “I mean, if you’re going to win the whole thing, then seeding doesn’t matter.”
While Maxlore could hardly make this assertion without a straight face, Giants are far less of a dark horse than they’ve ever been. They still have to improve upon their last playoffs placement to truly call this regular season a success. Their quarterfinals opponent is Unicorns of Love, and Giants have an even record with them, but they aren’t deterred.
“Unicorns of Love aren’t playing that good compared to — we scrim a lot, and I think they play a lot better in scrims than they do on stage,” Maxlore said in his interview with Marcel "Dexter" Feldkamp. “Before the change to the AD carry, I would have feared Unicorns of Love more [than H2K].”
Statistically speaking, Unicorns have a much better record with standard lanes and acquiring gold leads, which is Coach Lozark’s biggest fear. “Recently I saw in the statistics that UoL was one of the team which closed their games faster and I wasn’t surprised at all. They are very good at creating advantages in the early stages of the game and that was what happened in their games against us in both games. I think that if we survive their strong early game we will end up winning our series against them in playoffs.”
Changes that will move games away from lane swaps will emphasize Maxlore’s decision-making as a jungler more, putting even more stress on Giants’ communication. Luckily for them, that’s something they’ve been focusing all split.
Kelsey Moser is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.