It can be tough being the leader of the most popular esports team on the planet, but it’s also rewarding when that team does well. Since joining T1, Joe Marsh has made many moves — some good, some controversial. But in the end, it seemed as though everything worked out fine as T1 reached the semifinals of Worlds 2021.
Shortly before T1 re-signed Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok, Joe Marsh joined Inven to talk about his experience at the helm of T1 and what’s in the future for him and his org.
Last year, T1 won the Spring Split, were the runner-ups this Summer, and also reached the semifinals of Worlds. As the person in charge of T1, how would you evaluate the org’s recent years?
I would say the past two years have probably been a bit of a mixed bag. We won Spring of 2020 and then missed Worlds. And then this year, the multitude of roster changes and then the coaching change ended up having much greater success. I think that’s a testament to what Polt and the coaches were able to accomplish from July and on.
I’m definitely proud of the trajectory and happy of where we’re going. Versus where we started, we have a good mix of the young pieces in place now that can grow. I’m excited to see what they can do in 2022.
You spoke about the young players. If there’s a player that stood out more among them, who would it be?
I think Keria was the most consistent, and I would say he’s the best at his position in the entire world. He’s kind of as advertised — came in and played every single game. The reason we wanted to get him so bad was that we thought that given the right lineup, he could do special things and we were able to see that. I would say Keria for his consistency for the whole year.
But in terms of most promise, I think you have to go with Gumayusi, given that he went from backup to overtaking Teddy. Everyone knows how I feel about Teddy and our relationship. But he overtook him, and he played really great. The one thing that impresses me the most about Gumayusi is his confidence. No matter what the situation in-game or even out of game is, Gumayusi’s always confident in himself, and I really love that attitude.
Source: Joe Marsh
Last season, you changed the head coach of the team in the middle of the season and drew a lot of worries from fans. At the end of the day, the change turned out to be rather successful. Tell me about the process and how it worked out?
For me, it was not wanting history to repeat itself. In 2020, we made a change late in the year, and I should have made the move earlier when I wanted to. But I let the season play out and unfortunately, we missed Worlds. This year, seeing how the environment was and how things were progressing, talking with Polt and John, before he passed away, it felt like we weren’t going in the same direction. We had all the talent and we weren’t maximizing it.
We just needed a change of voice. I know it’s not customary in the LCK to make coaching changes mid-year, and a lot of people were worried about it, but having seen the environment up close and being around it, I just thought that having a change in leadership, having Polt take over with Moment and Stardust was the right move.
It ended up being correct in terms of how we proceeded, but it’s all thanks to the work of the players and what Polt and the coaches put together. I think we went with a hard decision, but it’s their work from July on that got us to semifinals [of Worlds] and had us playing better. It was never easy to make those kinds of changes, and you never know how someone’s going to react, but the players rallied around each other with their coaches and did well.
Were there any players that reacted well, any players that were cool about the change?
I think they were all surprised, right? The coaches were coming off of a World Championship. They were looking for stability. But you saw that in-game, especially from Faker, who consistently stayed in the line-up and had young players rotating around him. I thought this was pretty important to have and made that known.
You saw the change in Faker and the game plan changing. You saw what they’re comfortable playing around and how they want to play the game. Before the change, we were so afraid of making little mistakes, and you could hear it in the voice comms, which is why I was concerned about things not ending well — because of the hesitancy.
We were making mistakes because we were afraid to get yelled at, or get corrected, and I think in League of Legends, you have to play free and quick. Once the change was made, you saw a lot quicker decision-making, a lot crisper teamfighting, a lot faster objective-gathering. I think that was one of the big reasons why I thought the change would work. I was hoping it would happen, and fortunately it did.
We’re wondering about how T1’s 2022 will be different. What kind of players are you looking to sign? And which players do you think ideally fit T1’s value?
I think going into this offseason, we’re actually pretty fortunate, because a lot of our players are on multi-year deals, so we’re not going to have too much of a shift like you’re seeing around in the LCK. A lot of movements I was actually quite surprised with. I don’t personally love the stove week — it’s actually quite nerve-racking. It made it worse that my flight was delayed, and I can’t even be in the country right now. [laughs]
I think for us, we felt pretty good about our young core. Obviously, with Faker being FA, we have to take care of that one. I’ll do everything I can in my power to hopefully make that work. [Faker has since officially re-signed with T1 — Ed.]
We’re looking for people who can handle the pressure of being a part of T1. When you have such a big fan base and global reach like we do, there are always eyeballs on you. You look at the viewership when we play, and it takes a special personality to be able to handle that. Some players can, and some players can’t. I think that’s equally as important as how skilled you are because if the pressure of the outside gets to you, it’ll affect your gameplay.
So finding players with that kind temperament — someone like Gumayusi is a perfect example of someone that you want. He doesn’t let things affect him like most others might.
As you said, being a T1 player could mean a lot of pressure. What kind of challenges do the players go through?
I don’t think it’s exclusive to T1 — I think it’s challenging to play League of Legends in any team, especially professionally, because the internet is so vast and wide. So many people play League casually. There are always opinions, second-guessing, and armchair-coaching or GM-ing about what we should have picked, or this and that.
Just having the ability to not worry so much about what the people are writing about you, and just focus on the team and getting better — everyone’s going to have good or bad games. You hope that bad games don’t happen at critical moments. When I go back and look at where we were, and the Summer finals versus where we ended up, we were a couple of plays away from going to a game 5 in the Summer finals.
That’s why we felt confident about where we were going to end up at Worlds. If things break a different way, we could be winning Summer. It’s just that razor’s edge there. I just think all the players feel the stress of wanting to win. They’re young, and they look at the internet. They look themselves up, read the comments — as much as we tell them not to do that or not focus on that, it’s a natural instinct.
When people are posting on your social media, it’s hard not to see those kinds of things. If you’re playing well, everyone thinks you’re the best, and if you’re not playing so great, some of the stuff could be pretty hurtful. It’s just about shaking that off, focusing on the outside, and focusing on the team in kind of your brothers in arms there more than the outsides. The players have a pretty regular schedule throughout the year with practice and just kind of making sure they can go through the grind of the season. We kind of limit their distractions the best we can.
What kind of efforts are you making to re-sign Faker?
I mean, ALL the efforts? [Laughs] Not just myself, but everyone’s working. It doesn’t help that for the first two weeks, most everyone was in quarantine, so we couldn’t really meet with anybody face-to-face. We’re just starting to get out of the quarantine finally this past weekend.
I would like to think that Faker and my relationship with his management team and his family is pretty strong these past few years. We have open communications throughout the year. It’s not like this is the only time we talk — on my last trip to Korea, I went to Faker’s house to see his family. I would see his grandma who holds a special place in my heart. I love seeing her and having meals with her. She wrote a book, so I was going to get my book signed by her. [Laughs]
We’re doing everything we can to sign Faker. I’m doing everything in my power to do it, but I can only do what’s in my power and hopefully, it’s enough, but there are limitations to even what I can do.
Source: Joe Marsh
What does Faker mean to T1?
I think Faker means a lot to the organization. One of the gaming superstars who came up at such a young age, even now, where he’s at in his career, he still kind of transcends the sport, and he’s truly an international celebrity. He’s certainly a celebrity in Korea. He’s very sought-after in the offseason with a lot of those in the entertainment space.
If you look at how his game plans evolved over these nine years, I think that’s what’s most impressive, because he’s been able to adapt and change his playstyle as the meta has been shifted to limit his powers. You saw the style of mid lane he played this year was a different style from the hard-carry mid lane style of 2015 or even 2016.
I love the fact that he’s able to adapt his style to what the team needs and the players around him. Having the best bot lane in the world, you don’t always need to carry, and I think Faker is very good at that.
Also, his mind is so sharp about the game and how it should be played. He kind of sees things before they happen — he’s very calculated in movements around the Rift, and I think it’s important.
For the company itself, he’s obviously very important. We’re very fortunate to have Faker be a part of T1 and be an owner of the company, everything he brings to T1. We have a brand-new nice building in Gangnam, because of everything Faker helped build. We have to continue winning and keep up our legacy, but that building is there due to the hard work and effort of Faker and his teammates before, and hopefully, we’ve done a good job to continue to build upon that and to grow it.
It’s a gift to have someone that brings all the spotlight to us when we play and have interest in our matches. We hope that we can continue to grow our fans around the world that want to see us do well, and hopefully, we can bring the fourth championship to Faker.
You’ve told us a lot about Faker. If you could put all that in one or two words, how would you describe him?
I’d say humble superstar? Faker is T1’s humble superstar. [laughs]
As you can see, a lot of players are moving around in a very short term time. As the players are signed for a short term, many organizations say that they need a franchise star. So what does it mean to have such a big franchise star represent the team?
It helps bring exposure to the team, it helps certainly bring in revenue to the organization, just given that people want to work with Faker at the team. It doesn’t change if you win or lose, though, you still have to put the work in to win or lose. If you win, the highs are high, and if you lose, the lows are low.
But I would certainly rather have a franchise beacon of light than not have one. Obviously, every franchise would love to have a star player that means so much to the organization. We’re fortunate to have a lot of players in our history that mean a lot to people and come back to T1 after their military or careers are over.
It’s all about how you cultivate and build those relationships while they’re here. How you treat them and how you take care of them when they play for you and when they’re not. That’s what makes the superstar be loyal and want to stay.
What are your goals for T1 in 2022 as the team’s leader in terms of management process, business plans, players’ welfare, etc.?
First and foremost, obviously, to win. I want to build off of the strong finish in 2021. With Worlds going back to America in 2022, that’s where we won two of our championships, so it would be good to get back there and compete. It’s more so building every single month toward Worlds versus trying to rush and build and win LCK championships — we already have nine of those. I think it’s really important to slowly build the team in cohesion for the summer and then to make it to Worlds. I think that’s what everyone’s endgame is.
With all the movement this year in the stove league, I think you’re going to see a lot of different teams. They’re going to be competitive. Even last year, even though four teams made Worlds, Nongshim RedForce and Liiv SANDBOX were competitive to the very, very end. It’s good to see that — hopefully, they can be competitive again.
From the business side, we launched our webtoon in September called the Challenger. It’s been doing very well in Korea and China. It’ll launch in Japan and America in February. I’m excited to see how that builds out, and I’d love to turn that into something that Netflix or Universal wants to make it into a TV show or movie, it’d be really cool. Our own Arcane would be nice.
Source: Joe Marsh
Just kind of building on our academy business, Sky and Untara are coaches there. We’re going to add more coaches next year. Training the next generation of casual gamers as well as kids that have high potentials to be pros is also kind of an end road for us to scout players even quicker. Even if they don’t end up in T1 or one of our teams, it helps build out for the other teams that might not be able to launch a business like this and put the resources behind it.
It gets more top-tier players as some of our older players get a little older and move on to the military or retire, we need that kind of new pipeline. You saw what happened four years ago with ShowMaker and Canyon, those guys came through, and now you’re going to see the next come through again with Keria, Gumayusi, and Oner. So I’m excited to build out our academy business in 2022.
As you said, there are already many players that were nurtured in T1 that have moved on to other teams in the LCK. If there’s a player that you’d like to meet again or have them play for T1 again, which players would it be?
I don’t know about playing for T1 again, but I’d love for Teddy to come back to T1 when he’s done playing — whether as a content creator, a coach, or academy or just to come by to say hi. I’d love to have Teddy back in some capacity. I think that would be cool.
I would love to have INnoVation, Gumayusi’s brother come back a little bit more. We have BoxeR around the building, it would be cool to see them interact. It will be nice, if he ever comes to visit, to have Scout come back, so we can thank him for avenging Faker at Worlds. I’d give him a nice steak dinner. [laughs]
You’ve been T1’s CEO for two years. How do you feel about those two years and what is your vision as the CEO?
It’s been pretty unique given that COVID happened pretty much right after I became CEO. These two years have been trying in their own right. I haven’t had nearly as much time as I want in Korea, given the restrictions, but even then, we were able to build out and expand so much. Build our HQ in Gangnam, which was really hard to do in COVID.
I think the vision’s always kind of to be the best team in the world, to do it the right way, to take care of our players and our staff, to operate in a manner that’s sustaining and lasting versus trying to win cheaply. Sometimes we get it right and sometimes we get it wrong, but trying to build the company and the program the right way, have a solid foundation so that when the next person comes in, they can pick it up and keep building, and maybe be even better.
Thanks for having this interview with us. Do you have any final remarks or comments to share?
I appreciate the way the fans showed the team so much love and respect after Worlds. I know we had a lot of tragedy this year, and a lot to deal with on the emotional side. Being stuck in Iceland for a month is always difficult for the kids. The fans really kind of lifted their spirits up. Obviously, losing is tough, but the team was really appreciative of the positive comments. They feed off the positivity, and they felt really good about it. I’m just really grateful that the fans saw the effort and work that we put in from July, where we looked lost, [laughs] to where we finished and had a special run there. Hopefully, we can continue to build upon that next year.