The 2020 League of Legends World Championship’s semi-finals is set to begin this weekend, with the clash of titans between DAMWON Gaming and G2 Esports, and Suning Gaming versus Top Esports. Inven Global was joined this week by Excel Esports’ Head Coach Joey "YoungBuck" Steltenpool to discuss the current state of the championship, the team’s season at the LEC, and more.
Before we start on the main focus of the interview, which is everything that’s going on around Worlds 2020, I would love some insight into this season’s Excel run.
We started the Spring Split thinking that we had a roster that could make it to the playoffs. We had the same feeling in the previous season, where we had a really good connection between the players and the staff, and we were doing quite alright. However, as time developed, I think we did not progress so much as a team, we struggled with the difference in culture.
We had two Korean players, and that brought a massive language barrier that hindered the in-game communication. Even outside of the game, it was difficult to work with feedback and to progress with the team as a whole. In the end, we finished in seventh place, and we concluded that if we want to do better in the next Split, we would have to make a change.
Our team had reached its peak and we did not see it getting better, while other teams were progressing more than we did. That’s when we promoted Special to the LEC team, and brought Kryze from the German League. The main focus was to get a fully english-speaking roster.
I am quite happy about our Summer Split. We had a fantastic team atmosphere, and progressed a lot as a team throughout time. Even when practice was not going well, we were all very communicative and talkative. Of course it was really sad we didn’t make it by Schalke having a fantastic miracle run, but it felt like a successful split regardless.
You mentioned the language barrier with import players, and I feel like at Worlds this year, we saw a lot fewer teams from several regions, like CBLol, or the LLA, making it to the championship without a single Korean player in their roster. Do you think the gap is truly closing and that causes teams to import less?
Up until right about 2017, Europe really relied on individual talent. There was not so much macro involved, or a lot of structure between players and coaches in reviewing games and working on macro decisions. The process started after IEM, where Mithy started to apply some tempo playstyle done by Flash Wolves, and back then, tempo was something nobody knew about. That was the first step to catching up to the Koreans because they had been already doing that for two-three years.
We had to catch up by being purely individually focused. I think that’s why we were importing so many players, just like the North American region. Now that tempo is widespread, there is a lot more macro game knowledge being pushed all over Europe. It’s more about the team as a whole rather than individual play. NA will catch up really soon, and once that happens, they will also stop importing players.
Fnatic was eliminated by Top Esports in a series that seemed to be under control... until it wasn’t. What are your thoughts on their performance?
They had a really good run, even though time needs to tell how tough their group was versus how tough Top Esports is. Gen.G got eliminated 3-0 and Fnatic is also eliminated, so there could be a storyline where Group G was relatively easy, and Group A, that everyone thought to be the “group of life”, we might see a situation where the final could be G2 versus Suning, so we really have to revisit our thoughts about Group A.
That said, Fnatic was consistent throughout the entire group stage, and I don’t think anyone felt like they were at risk of elimination. They put up a really good fight against Top Esports, and up until the fifth game, I thought they were better individually, better with their draft, macro decisions, and I thought they would take the series. They can be proud of their performance.
Analyzing the series, what do you think Fnatic was lacking the most?
This might sound toxic, but I think there was only one position where there was a skill gap individually, and that was mid. It’s an extremely important position in the game, and it was enough for Top Esports to overcome them. I wouldn’t say that jungle and top got overwhelmed when it comes to individual skill, I just think Bwipo and Selfmade did slightly better than the opposing team, and that should have been enough considering how well the Bot Lane played.
What about G2 versus DAMWON Gaming? What do you think we can expect going into the series?
That is the toughest one to predict. I think G2 has a similar story to Fnatic, they had a little bit of a shaky Group Stage, they didn’t look that comfortable. But what you usually see at Worlds is when the group stage ends, teams start to pull out really weird picks. They change the meta a little bit because you have seen the picks of all other teams at the tournament, so you kind of know what is going to happen and you can anticipate even more. If you start in the group stage, you’re going completely blind against all your opponents and G2 thrives in this kind of scenario.
If G2 knows what the opponents will play, they can easily adapt to their massive champion pools, and they are willing to play champions for the first time on stage to work with the draft.
As for the DAMWON series, it’s tough because both teams are coming from a 3-0 win, so I think it might be a five-game series.
It feels to me that there is so much criticism going around the LCK’s drafting style at Worlds 2020…
I think that throughout the years, the LCK teams have not been particularly innovative, while Europe is usually the region that tries new things out, followed closely by China. I think in this Worlds, there are a few teams with very different strengths, just by looking at how they do their drafts. Group C was scaling for a late-game draft, while DAMWON is very comfortable playing the early game draft and back things up with player skill later on.
It’s difficult to judge the LCK on its own. I would say that Gen.G did not have strong drafting, and thinking about the quarterfinals in 2018, the global meta really changed from scaling to having to be able to play the early game, is good enough to close out the games. Riot has supported that with play changes, Rift Herald changes. So if you think like Gen.G and end up playing for the late game in the group stage, you will butt your head against some teams.
Why do you think the LCK has been so comfortable about their drafting style?
I think any team gets comfortable when certain strategies work in their own regions. DAMWON is winning in Korea. Why should they necessarily change what they are doing if the patch doesn’t force a big change out of them? They must be winning in scrims if they are still maintaining that.
In some cases, like Gen.G, you might have a player that is your weakness, or a playstyle that makes you vulnerable. You have to commit to what you’re good at and you hope it works.
I think a lot of teams try to play fast-paced like in the LPL, but the moment it goes wrong in scrims, it becomes a very frustrating style to play in. It’s really frustrating to lose a game being 2-4K gold up, but still losing the game to a scaling composition. Usually when teams try and prep this, and it doesn’t work out, they end up going for the usual scaling for late game, and that is something that might have haunted Gen.G or Fnatic in the past. G2 Esports is fully committed to this playstyle, and probably has the mental fortitude to pull through those frustrations when things don’t work out.
You brought up G2’s mental fortitude. What is the biggest difference in a player’s mental state at Worlds compared to a regular season?
There are a few different stresses. The main one starts very early in the boot camp phase, where players want to prove to the entire world that they can play a different style than they did previously. Maybe X player gets criticized for not being able to play aggressively enough, so they try this approach at the boot camp just to prove something to people that shouldn’t really matter.
It can also be the other way around, in let’s say a team is very bot lane focused, but they decide to play completely top lane focused. This is something I had experienced with G2 in 2016 but still see throughout a lot of teams.
Another stress is managing expectations, which is really important for Worlds. Players work so extremely hard, and what it feels like is that players’ minds are telling their bodies to not give up and burn out up until the point that they reach personal goals. Once they reach it, their bodies tell them, “It’s ok, you can feel tired now”.
We need to raise really high expectations to push a little bit further, especially in the latter stages of the tournament.
Lastly, what are your predictions for the final stages of Worlds 2020?
3-2 G2 Esports, 3-2 for Suning Gaming, and G2 will win the finals 3-1 against Suning.
Looking for more Worlds 2020 interviews? Check out our official LoL Esports page.