100 Thieves’ road to their first-ever LCS championship wasn’t easy. From their first taste of North American glory in a terrific debut season to a lack of stable footing in between then and now, the organization has pursued glory for years.
A franchising founding partner of the LCS, 100 Thieves made one of the biggest statements that any new organization could ever make — a split finals visit and a Worlds trip. But it took the org three years of rebuilding, the signing of general manager Christopher “PapaSmithy” Smith, and numerous roster swaps to actually get a trophy in hands.
2020, in particular, stands out as an unstable outlier and one that ushered the rebuilding phase in an attempt to get 100 Thieves to where it started: vying for titles. 2020 was also PapaSmithy's first year as a GM — formerly a caster on the LCK desk — and he had a ton on his plate.
“I come into an org that is one of the best in esports — it’s an org that’s got so many different areas that they’re killing it in. And when I joined, League of Legends was one of the few things in the business that wasn’t at the top. While we had started strong in 2018, by the end of 2019 there was a lot of rebuilding to be done,” PapaSmithy tells Inven Global.
“I looked at our roster in the LCS and [it] needed quite a big facelift in order to start the push to where we wanted to get. The goal when I signed my first contract was ‘let’s get back to Worlds’. We were kind of eyes open as an organization, so that’s leadership, myself, coaching staff, everyone. It wouldn’t be one offseason to reinvent our situation. I had a lot to learn about the North American scene, what talent was out there and the role of general manager and we didn’t have a lot of assets that offseason to sign that quality of player that you want to challenge for the title.”
Even though PapaSmithy's arrival did bear fruit in the form of an LCS title in 2021 Summer, it took surviving the horrible 2020 — a year only overshadowed by 2019, when 100 Thieves finished last and 8th in Spring and Summer, respectively. And it was on the eve between the two seasons where the true turning point for the organization lay. In PapaSmithy's eyes, the end of 2019 put 100 Thieves between a rock and a hard place, forcing them to make one very difficult decision about the future facelift: which star player do they rebuild around. The other had to go.
“The original facelift was around the roster we closed out 2019 Summer with before I joined. That roster was FakeGod in LCS, Ssumday in Academy, Amazing and Ryu had come back into our lineup because of import positions and things like that, Bang at AD Carry, and Aphromoo as support and a lot of those contracts were expiring.
"We were looking to make some changes on that roster — we had to start somewhere. The central decision I had at the time was will we rebuild around Bang? Or will we rebuild around Ssumday? Because there wasn’t really scope for both. We went with Ssumday.”
With that decision, the team went ahead with the 2020 season, which didn't give them a lot to be proud of. A good placement in the 2020 Spring Split ended in a disappointing top 6 ousting in Playoffs. Summer was even rougher. 100 Thieves qualified for Playoffs as 7th seed, only to endure a blank 0-3 loss to Evil Geniuses in the first round.
It was a "learning year", as PapaSmithy, puts it, but it still called for immediate changes for the 2021 season.
“We started work on the 2021 offseason the day after we were eliminated by EG last year,” PapaSmithy says. This change, although it might appear fortuitous from the outsider’s point of view, was one of the most shocking moves in what was a historic LCS offseason. The team managed to land the core of a surging Golden Guardians roster. Can “Closer” Çelik, Tanner “Damonte” Damonte, Ian Victor “FBI” Huang and Choi “huhi” Jae-hyun all joined the 100 Thieves heist. And with Kim “Ssumday” Chan-ho at the helm, this proved to be a solid roster.
There was a lot of talent on the roster, but it was far from a plug-and-play solution. It was the second round of makeover, but this time, it gave 100 Thieves a much-needed structure.
"We put down a flag and we just kept trying to build and build with good processes, with good people, with an eye towards amateur and Academy and strike when the iron was hot"
“I think from the outside, it looks like a package deal, something that we just bought all four players and that’s like our ‘facelift’. The actual negotiations were very different. Huhi’s contract had expired at that point; FBI, Closer, and Damonte were still contracted so that were separate conversations with Golden Guardians. Damonte was the final piece there where we were looking at a couple of other mids and then Damonte struck through as the best choice.
"It definitely wasn’t as simple as just what it kind of appeared at the end. It definitely looked like we had a really easy offseason but we went in a lot of different directions before we ended up with what we ended up with. It was nice to pick up players that had played with each other before, who had some in-built synergy, and who were excited to play with each other and move on to an org they were excited to join.”
The new 100 Thieves started off strong, and in the Lock-In tournament, it showcased aggressive dives — conclusive and decisive early games, overall strong laning presence, and supportive mid-lane picks. And even with the sudden revere-sweep defeat by Cloud9 in the semis, it was a good place to start, something the team could build off of. There were just a couple of missing pieces.
GM PapaSmithy filled the first of those in March, replacing Damonte on the starting roster with FC Schalke 04's Felix “Abbedagge” Braun — a talented, mechanically skilled mid-laner who was a central cog to Schalke's Miracle Run in 2020 Summer. The second was legacy LCS coach Bok "Reapered" Han-gyu, who had parted ways with Cloud9 at the end of 2020 after failing to qualify them for Worlds, and who joined 100 Thieves mid-April.
“I think we started somewhere — we put down a flag and we just kept trying to build and build with good processes, with good people, with an eye towards amateur and Academy and strike when the iron was hot. And I think that final piece of that was definitely bringing in Reapered and Abbedagge between spring and summer and we felt like we had the foundation to really look for those final pieces in order to challenge, It’s been methodical, and it’s been tricky and there’s definitely been a lot of hard conversations.”
In the summer form of 100 Thieves, Abbedagge was the much-needed mid-laner who could do it all while Reapered became the voice of reason and someone who the players could look up to when facing any doubt. In 2021 Summer, 100 Thieves finished second in the regular split, just one win below leaders TSM, and swept Team Liquid in the Playoffs finals to win their first title, despite constantly looming doubt about the roster's potency.
“Feels really good and really refreshing for me, too. My first time with 100 Thieves wasn’t pretty for either side. For me, after one split I got kicked and for them, they had higher expectations of me, huhi says, remembering his short stint with the org back in 2018, then playing mid lane. “When I got the offer from 100 Thieves as support, I was kind of scared that it might happen again somehow. It feels really good that the relationship got better and that I’m giving them the first trophy — it means a lot to me.”