Proving Grounds: A week with North America's next generation

by theScore Staff Dec 1 2016
Thumbnail image courtesy of Riot Games/lolesports / Scouting Grounds 2016 / Riot Games

Five young men clad in the white and cyan of Team Ocean Drake take the stage. Above them are the banners of five teams — Team EnVyUs, NRG eSports, Team SoloMid, Phoenix1, and Team Liquid. None of these teams are onstage today. One of these organizations, NRG, isn't in the league anymore.

A technician leans down next to Team Ocean mid laner Aleksei “rjsdndgod” Zatorski, who lifts one ear of his headset for a moment to murmur something. His teammates chatter excitedly in the background while Samson "Lourlo" Jackson smiles, pacing behind the team. Today, the Team Liquid top laner takes the role of onstage coach. Maxime "Maxtrobo" Delangis Gallichand sits in his place, smiling and leaning back in his chair.

On this smaller secondary stage, and a larger arena down the hall, the trappings of the North American League Championship Series are everywhere. The banners, the stage setup, the prying cameras, and theater walls adorned with photos of iconic moments from the past year in the LCS. In one of them, legacy mid laner Henrik "Froggen" Hansen screams, eternally ecstatic over a hard-fought victory. Now he's seated in the audience, along with five charges of his own who have spent the last few days as part of Team Infernal Drake.

Team Ocean is not composed of professional League of Legends players. Neither is their opponent of the day, Team Cloud Drake, or Froggen's Team Infernal. These players are not even in the Challenger Series, the feeder league into the LCS. They're all amateurs, plucked from the competitive ladder thanks to their solo queue rankings, who have been brought to Riot Games headquarters for a week in an experimental event titled Scouting Grounds. The aim, according to Riot, who oversee the LCS in NA and Europe, is to scout undiscovered domestic talent.

North America has a talent development problem. Of all major regions, North America appears to struggle the most with developing native talent that can compete at a higher level in the few international competitions dotting the League of Legends landscape.

Korea produces the largest amount of imported players to other regions, followed by Europe — the aforementioned Froggen, whose victory scream is now an iconic image of the 2016 NA LCS, is a recent import to the region courtesy of Echo Fox. Both Korea and Europe have proven that they can train their solo queue players into top-tier competitors on homegrown teams. In China, an over-prioritization on importing Korean players often holds domestic talent back, but there is an undeniable wealth of talent on the Chinese competitive ladder. The cream immediately rises to the top even in Taiwan's LoL Masters League, which produces one or two internationally strong teams a year.

North America faces a sparser, thinly-spread player base and its own endemic problems. Despite a few notable exceptions since the birth of LoL as an esport, North America is widely regarded as the weakest for developing and nurturing talented native players who climb their way through solo queue. Five of these players now sit in place of their professional counterparts for one day. Riot’s hope, and the players' fervent wish, is that someday, this will become more than a one-off experience to look back upon when they’ve long-since transitioned into a steadier, more common profession.

"Yesterday," Team Ocean's jungler, Ray "Wiggily" Griffin, sings as they wait for the game to start, shaking his blond bangs from his eyes. "All my troubles seemed so far away." A few of his teammates join him. All of them grin widely. "Oh I believe in yesterday."

The audience, made up of other amateur players who failed to make the finals, professional LCS players, team owners, investors, and coaches, begins to laugh.

Wiggily speaks of becoming a professional player with a distant look in his eyes and a crooked smile. "I saw other people I had played with in the past go pro and, I dunno, it made me really want to try as well," he says. "I thought, 'If other people can do it, what's stopping me from doing it?'"

The first pick for the Team Liquid-backed Ocean and the overall fourth pick in the Scouting Grounds draft, Wiggily is already on a few teams’ radars as a potential pickup for a practice team or possibly a Challenger team, if all goes well.

After Team Ocean's first few scrims together, Wiggily desperately turns to one of his coaches, jungler Joshua "Dardoch" Hartnett, in frustration.

"What does he do that I don't?" Wiggly asks. "What am I doing wrong?"

Before Dardoch can open his mouth to say anything, Wiggily continues. "Is he just better than me?" Dardoch smiles and shakes his head. Together, they begin to study the pathing and behavior of Omar “Omargod” Amin, one of the most highly-regarded players prior to the draft. Multiple teams will look at the amateur jungler over the course of the week. Wiggily, Dardoch affirms, has the potential to be every bit as good, if not better. Like all Scouting Grounds participants, Wiggily simply has a lot to learn.

"[Dardoch] is really straightforward with me and I like that about him," Wiggily says. "He's not going to beat around the bush. He'll tell me what I should have done and what I did wrong. We've known each other for a while so I don't take it the wrong way or anything like that."

Dardoch pulls his chair closer to Wiggily's computer and shrugs. He tells Wiggily that it’s a simple difference in nerves. Wiggily later tells him that of course he’s nervous, with everyone watching. That evening, the team becomes quieter while the scrim losses mount.

Team Ocean is an agreeable and relaxed group, yet inevitable pressure seeps in as the hours tick by. They have limited time to prove their worth beyond a solo queue account name and what others have said after encountering them on the ladder. “Each team here, they’re backed by an LCS team,” Team Ocean support Ryan "Whyin" Karaszkiewicz says. “And they usually talk to each other about certain players and stuff. If we play well on stage, they should be able to see how we play.”

“I’m just a young player trying to go pro. The classic gamer,” MaxTrobo laughs. The Team Ocean top laner is only 18 years-old and recently dropped out of high school to follow his dream of becoming a League of Legends professional player. Fellow teammate rjsdndgod has been living off his savings in pursuit of the same goal.

“I’m mostly a shy guy so, there was Dardoch, Lourlo and David behind me and that was pretty stressful at the start,” MaxTrobo admits. “After I played one or three games I started talking a bit more. Everyone was just a bit stressed.” He describes Scouting Grounds as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and wants to make the most out of the experience by learning to coordinate better with his Team Ocean teammates. Hailing from Quebec City, Canada, English is MaxTrobo’s second language, so strong communication is at the forefront of his mind at all times.

“Right now I’m learning to communicate with others, lane allocation, just talking in general. Knowing how to communicate with the rest of my team. Sometimes it’s a bit difficult because I want to focus on the game and I also need to think of what I have to say.”

As the player base of LoL has swelled over the years, so has an increased focus on making the game more team-oriented. Solo queue is only a measurement of a player's basic mechanics. “Individual play is set by the ability to climb the ladder,” Team Liquid Co-owner Steve “LiQuiD112” Arhancet says. “That in and of itself says that their individual play is good enough.” The difference between success on the solo queue ladder and success in a professional environment makes scouting a tricky endeavor from the start. Arhancet says that the bulk of scouting is often done through networking — asking their current players to let management know if they come across a player on the solo queue ladder who impresses them. “This is not something that scales,” he says.

Wiggily's jungle adversary Omargod was the unsurprising first pick of all 20 players invited to the Scouting Grounds event, chosen by Counter Logic Gaming's Team Cloud Drake. Prior to the event, he was cited as a sure thing. Seemingly regardless of performance, this event would give a chance for teams to talk to Omargod about upcoming opportunities.

Like a traditional sports draft, it's fairly easy for astute followers of the North American amateur scene to pick out the top draft picks. But, this is where similarities to a scouting combine followed by an eventual draft pick end. There’s still no way of knowing or testing will, drive, motivation, and how players react to stress — a myriad of psychological nuances that a team might not see in a player until they are plopped into a competitive environment. Where picks may fall in a traditional sports draft based on their attitude, past coaches of those players and teammates can provide some input on psychological intangibles.

These factors are already assumed, their information gathered, while scouts in the stands watch a North American football prospect run their 40-yard dash. That same prospect has likely been coached since their first football practice. For most players at Scouting Grounds, this is their first time with a coach who is not simply a more experienced player that they already knew from the ladder. “In sports, no one practices with 80 percent of your training being full five-on-five scrims,” Team Liquid Head Coach David “DLim” Lim says. “Even a high school varsity sports player will have gone to camps when they were younger, they were coached, they just are already in that kind of lifestyle and they know that the coach is an authority figure. There’s a different training culture. The more exposure that [LoL] players have to this and the more steps they have before becoming a pro the more they’ll be like a well-oiled machine when they become a pro.”

“We sometimes just coached ourselves,” Wiggily says of his previous teams.

“[Before Scouting Grounds] I had two different coaches,” Team Ocean AD carry Bradley “Vex” Miller says. “What they did and what DLim does it’s like, the Liquid coach is miles ahead of them. I think he’s really good.”

League of Legends as a game compounds the difficulty of transitioning from a solo queue player to a strong teammate. Vex had only played eight games of Caitlyn in his 100 games leading up to the Scouting Grounds event, yet spent the majority of his time on Caitlyn, Ezreal and later Sivir. “The solo queue meta is like, you play whatever AD carry, but the meta in competitive is just like a few AD carry champs — Caitlyn, Jhin, Ezreal,” Vex says. “Just learning how to lane and what bot lane means in a competitive scenario is really what I’ve learned the most here.”

Coach DLim is quick to dispense information to his five eager charges, but distributes it in quick bursts, followed by a round of questions a moment later to ensure that the most important pieces are retained. “[For Team Liquid] I already have my day fully planned out and my analysts/staff’s day fully planned out. It’s going to be a lot different coaching the LCS team who I expect when I tell them something that they’re going to learn it, they’re going to know it,” he says.

“Obviously there will be times where they don’t but I’m going to expect a lot more from them. These [Scouting Grounds] guys, I want them to enjoy it. If I can teach them basic concepts, then you can build on those concepts, you should be able to become a better player.”

Four professional teams offer their coaches and players to make this Riot-sponsored event happen — CLG backs Team Cloud, Immortals backs Team Mountain, Echo Fox backs Team Infernal and Team Liquid backs Team Ocean.

“For us, cultivating domestic talent is imperative,” Arhancet says. “We will continue to look for top-tier imports and continue to cultivate rookie talent.” Years of experience in the NA Challenger scene back up Arhancet’s words. By his estimation 20 percent of NA domestic talent has come up through some iteration of Team Curse/Team Liquid through the years. Arhancet adds that the relegation system is something that makes it tricky for organizations to invest in rookie talent. “Domestic talent can be taking on a greater risk in new players,” Arhancet says. “We need to get to a state where teams can take those risks.”

A recent letter from LCS organizations in North America and Europe, requesting a moratorium on relegating for 2017 and recognition of the upcoming year as a “bridge year” between Riot’s proposed charter membership looms, a shadow over his purposeful statement.

As organizations look towards the future, players are no small investment regardless of what region they call home. North America has settled into something of a rut, where teams are encouraged to use their two import slots as wisely as possible on Korean or European players while filling in the remaining three roster slots with competent enough North American talent. Of all 10 teams in the 2016 NA LCS Summer, CLG and TSM were the only teams that did not use both of their import spots.

League of Legends is now entering another transitory period of growth. Developing domestic talent in North America is only a small piece of solving a larger regional puzzle. “Obviously Team Liquid has their goals with what they want out of Scouting Grounds and these guys have their own goals,” DLim says. “But honestly I want these guys to not only have a great experience but to take away some of these concepts that I’ve taught them and try to apply it and try to build on it. I just want them to learn some of these core concepts of competitive play.”

Learning is certainly a primary goal, but being noticed, scouted or picked up by a team is the ultimate prize for the Scouting Grounds hopefuls. Standing out on a team is already difficult, especially if the player in question was a complete unknown prior to the event, without word-of-mouth already informing viewers and scouts of their gameplay.

“I feel like a few games that we lost, I made minimal mistakes but I still looked bad because we lost and I couldn’t do much. And then a few games I made a lot of mistakes and my team did good,” Vex says. “I do think it’s hard for them to scout out individuals.”

Vex is the last pick of all 20 Scouting Grounds players, unknown to nearly all of the participants. DLim, Dardoch, and Lourlo have difficulty believing that he was chosen last after they watch him consistently out-trade opposing bottom lane duos together with Whyin in scrims. "That's our worst player?" Dardoch says incredulously when the team leaves to eat dinner. He shakes his head and laughs. "If Vex is our 'worst' then we've got this."

Whyin takes to fondly calling Vex "a serial killer." This sentiment is echoed by Vex's other teammates and even his coach, Dardoch. "Where did this kid even come from?" Dardoch asks later that week, his eyes glued to the display monitors outside of the Riot PC bang where Team Ocean are about to sweep Team Infernal. "He's a stone cold killer." Only in an actual competitive environment will the mettle of these players truly be tested, and Vex passes the nerves test with flying colors.

Despite the overarching pressure that occasionally creeps into the room when the team is tired, hungry, or overwhelmed, the players of Team Ocean occasionally stop in amazement at various times throughout the week. Their admiration of the low ping and LCS practice room setups are a constant reminder that these are not professional players, but young and eager prospects.

"It feels like I'm running Attack Speed runes 24/7," Wiggily jokes. Moments later, the Team Ocean jungler finds himself without a working headset. Wiggily informs the Riot team prior to Team Ocean's first scrims, who admonish him for forgetting to bring his own. "I use earbuds at home," Wiggily says. The rest of the team laughs.

This is only the beginning of the members of Team Ocean marveling over their temporary conditions and PC setups. Despite multiple technical issues that affect their scrim time, the young men spend most of the week wide-eyed in awe, soaking up as much knowledge as they can.

"You called them 'little sponges,'" JT "Riot Tiza" Vandenbree, the Senior Esports Coordinator at Riot Games says. He parrots my own words back at me while he sets up the observers for Team Ocean's series against Team Infernal outside of the Riot campus PC Bang. "I think that's great. We want them to learn as much as possible while they're here."

Throughout their scrims that week, Team Ocean consistently accrue early leads during the laning phase, but lose due to poor lane allocations and disjointed teamfighting. With a 2-4 scrim record, they were a bit worried going into their first Scouting Grounds match, a 2-1 loss to their eventual finals opponent Team Cloud.

Later, after their finals-qualifying victory over Team Infernal, Whyin and Vex are all smiles. “We’re not playing scrims to win, we play scrims to learn and learn stuff about our opponents’ champion pools,” Whyin says.

“Yeah it’s just like my solo queue, that’s why my stats are so bad in solo queue,” Vex jokes. “But honestly, I don’t want to be solo queue obsessed. It’s all about what I can do in a real match.”

Before the Scouting Grounds finals, DLim tells his team to always plan on what to do next. "It doesn't have to be the best plan, just be on the same page.” The players grin, a few laughing quietly and nodding. “Play how you normally play and if the game gets bloody, with our mechanics, we'll be in a good spot." Immediately after his speech, the Riot documentary crew crowds the room. Tagging along with the team, they all exit, heading to the makeup room as they prepare for their first stage experience.

Unlike their scrims, Team Ocean fall behind in both games, but manage to come back each time due to their scaling compositions and opportune late-game teamfights. After they win, I ask if playing on stage, or falling behind made them nervous.

"This guy helps us not to tilt," Vex says, pointing at his bot lane partner Whyin. "Don't tilt, don't tilt, don't tilt, don't tilt." Vex mimics their in-game comms. They both burst out laughing. "This guy," Whyin says, pointing at Vex, "does not tilt." Vex shrugs and says that he felt more nerves during his initial promotion into Master-tier.

Scouting Grounds is not a traditional combine, nor is it a competent drafting solution. There are too many factors that go into a competitive player that haven’t been tested by mere solo queue prowess — a League of Legends draft would be disastrous. Yet, Scouting Grounds does provide a bit of a necessary bridge, giving amateur players a taste of a more structured competitive environment that isn’t built into the League of Legends landscape like a traditional professional sport. Simple communication between teammates seems to be the key takeaway for many of Team Ocean’s players, allowing staff members and organizations to learn how well they’ll adapt under pressure.

The perceived North American talent problem is not something that will be solved with Scouting Grounds. After Team Cloud congratulates Team Ocean on their Scouting Grounds victory, the players vacate the smaller arena only to have all 20 herded back to the LCS stage. With the lights up in the room and a dusty stage floor, the scene resembles backstage moments following a high school theater production. Players idly talk to each other, shifting their feet and chatting nervously while various organizations approach them, pulling them aside for interviews or possible offers.

Snippets of conversations can be overheard. In front of the stage, a group of three men eagerly talk to MaxTrobo after his impressive Gnar performances. Omargod is led offstage by various LCS organizations. In another corner a few more players surround Team Infernal's AD carry Matthew "Deftly” Chen. They speak excitedly in hushed tones, presumably about who could potentially approach him from the organizations present.

This is another goal of Scouting Grounds — pairing organizations with raw talent. Yet, the talent is very raw, and multiple team representatives are overheard lamenting about how it will be easier to go with Challenger Series mainstays, even if an amateur player from Scouting Grounds is perceived to have more potential. Most of the players approached by organizations that day were already somewhat known prior to Scouting Grounds. Yet some unknowns made viewers and potential organizations take notice.

No other story at Scouting Grounds is quite like the narrative of “Mr Irrelevant” Vex, who was drafted last and became MVP for Team Ocean thanks to the tutelage of DLim and his partnership with Whyin.

“It feels amazing to prove everyone wrong,” Vex says after Team Ocean wins the finals. “Everybody here probably thought I was bad based on my solo queue ranking I was probably the lowest so no one knew my name in solo queue, no one knew who I was. I watched Beyond the Rift, they all rated me fourth. Hopefully people know the name Vex now.”

In the weeks following Scouting Grounds, CLG announces their new Challenger roster. It's full of Scouting Grounds graduates including top laner Kevin "FallenBandit" Wu, Omargod, mid laner Jean-Sebastien “Tuesday” Thery, AD carry Osama “Zag” Alkhalaileh and support Hyo-won “Fill” Lee. All but Tuesday were on CLG's Team Cloud that faced Team Ocean in the event finals.

Above all else, Scouting Grounds certainly hints that the region isn’t as barren as teams had previously thought. It’s all about providing the tools to make the most of what North America has.

Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore esports. She hopes all members of Team Ocean receive opportunities to prove themselves again. You can follow her on Twitter.