The offseason is a fantastic time to analyze the strategic approaches of esports team owners. And, for the purposes of this piece, let’s look at teams, not organizations. This means we are emphasizing the building of a specific competitive team, rather than a brand or organization from top to bottom.
In the case of League of Legends, we often see roster building as an exercise in pursuing the hottest picks. The pool of players is almost exclusively set by contract status – who’s got an expiring term with a team, and who’s already a free agent? Almost never do structured trades take place between teams. In fact, when this does happen, usually collusion is drawn as the immediate conclusion as to why a player swap happened. Basically, the evidence leads us to believe that roster building starts at the point of players, rather than at problem definition.
Even organizations such as Ember, who claimed to have an amazing overarching vision for a team really ended up just picking up the best-in-slot Challenger players who were not under serious contracts at the time. In many ways, players are the ‘shiny things’ that organizations are oriented around; they are the virtual technology, cloud platform, or advanced analytics – they are instruments. By starting at the instrument stage, organizations are almost never successful, even in competitive sports and esports where talent is gold (is it though?). If you’re trying to buy a slurpee from your neighborhood 7-11, maybe taking a car is more pragmatic by every single measure than flying in a private jet, right?
The fact is, the problems that teams face often aren’t exciting. No one cares about going to 7-11 really, but taking a jet would be freaking sweet, right? Wouldn’t that get your juices flowing? Anyone looking at that solution would see a destiny of failure. So even when teams are able to define problems, discipline becomes key for managers and leaders: can they stay focused on the dull problems that drive sustainable success, or are they going to skip steps and try to buy planes?
The Franchise Player?
Many professional sports, especially in the era of tanking for draft picks orient their rosters around a single pillar. While yes, they do start with a ‘shiny thing’, it is only a single component through which a bunch of problems, and subsequent opportunities, arise. GMs actively look to surround that single pillar – a franchise player – with talent that compliments his existing skillset while mitigating his flaws (and yes, I say his, because the WNBA and female CS:GO leagues are, unfortunately, jokes).
Yet this model is hardly the most successful. As I have done in the past, alongside many others, I will point to the San Antonio Spurs. Sure, two decades ago they drafted Tim Duncan, sustaining the franchise’s success, but look at what they’ve done now. From the depths of the 2nd round, they’ve made Kahwi Leonard into a superstar. Even their bench-warming giant last year ended up signing a $21 million deal with another team.
Their success comes as a derivative of iteration. Instead of starting from scratch, which many see as a podium of opportunity, the best long-term rosters are founded through constant patching within a stalwart, yet innovative structure.
So back to League of Legends…
SK Telecom T1 recently announced their signing of ex-Immortals and ex-Fnatic top laner, Huni. While this was met with heavy critique across the board, especially on social media sites like reddit, there is most definitely a method to the madness. If we consider SKT’s current structure, we can identify a culture of winning that is underpinned by discipline which reflects in their playstyle. Despite Huni’s reckless play and unconventional champion pool, he fits into the existing SKT mold.
They are a team that does not have any glaring weaknesses, so the ‘problem’ that they will be tackling is that of staying ahead. This task, especially in the fast-moving environment of esports is not just an exercise of maintenance. In fact, doing nothing ignores the fact that there is a problem.
Doing nothing is very high risk.
And SKT has a history of these iterative improvements, trying out 1-2 new players with each season and experimenting with different roster setups. Their roster building design is a process that requires constant review and improvement, not deconstruction and rebuilding.
It definitely helps to have the best player in the world, but how come ROX’s Smeb couldn’t lead them to a championship? Why have a bunch of fantastic players grouped up in China, bought over by gigantic money, managed to fail so miserably year after year?
And it’s not any better in North America right now, but there’s hope.
Immortals have all but fallen apart. I think it’s an awful decision to not actively try to retain its players. They had a historically successful rookie campaign, and missing Worlds isn’t that bad at all when you consider their youth combined with regular season success.
Consequently, they’ve taken a ‘shiny things’ approach to roster rebuilding, which I just don’t see panning out. Top domestic talent Dardoch has been signed, but what does a volatile fire bring to a new roster that will need stability over all else? Worse yet, junglers need to be the backbone of the team. Pobelter has been brought back, but why pursue an onslaught of Korean talent who will have communication problems with the NA players?
Team Liquid is another historical example of talent grabbing without directly tackling the team’s dull problems. Everyone loves saying it’s about ‘talent’, but I don’t think former World Champion Piglet failed on the roster because of his mechanical skill.
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Conversely, let’s look at the top 3 teams: Team Solomid, Counter Logic Gaming, and Cloud9. Each of them has a significant history with some of their players, and their rosters have been a product of constant shaping over the past 3-4 years (though Cloud9’s efforts are constantly stifled by Riot). These iterative roster building exercises have proven to be the best way to become winners.
Who will be the organization in the West to grow up and finally learn how successful roster building is done? When will they stop trying to replicate some ‘Dream Team’ concept from the 90’s. I would love to expand on survivorship bias…
So next time you see a star-studded roster forming, think about why they’re being brought together first.