The first season for new esports organization Phoenix1 last year in the North American League of Legends Championship Series couldn't have gone worse. The club started out the split with a string of losses and exited the opening round-robin stage without a single match win to its name. And yet, here we are, almost a year since its announcement of entering the league, and the team has found new life with savvy signings and smart scouting, currently sitting in a tie for third-place in the spring split standings with an overall record of 6-4.
Derek "Zig" Shao has been there from the dark early days. A veteran of the scene but a relative newcomer to the major leagues, Zig bounced around various minor and amateur league teams before finally getting his break on P1. What could have been a one-and-done season for the top laner turned into a learning experience as the club bounced back after a winless start to upset the then-undefeated Team SoloMid in the second half of the season. They proceeded to string together a few match victories and eventually survived the relegation tournament with flying colors.
In a league where half of the top laners are from the country of South Korea, Canadian-born Zig can sometimes be lost in the pack of current and past superstar players from the world's strongest region. For his first year as a pro, Zig has been considered a solid role player, a top laner that doesn't necessarily win you games from his individual performances but also doesn't lose you games, either. Regardless of the opponent, Zig knows how to play different top lane matchups and end up at least somewhat even with his opponent, not often finding himself down in experience or in too much CS in the laning phase.
"I think the [Gangplank], Rumble [and] Kled I played this weekend are all counter-picks for me, and I think they all do well versus tanks, for the most part," said Zig, speaking to ESPN following his team's victory over Cloud9 to close out the fifth week of regular-season play.
"We've always been practicing everything in scrims, but if Maokai is open and it seems like the best blind-pick decision, we usually go for it. But all these [champions are in play] and we'll play them if the opportunity arises," he said.
"Ssumday, I think I had a really bad series against him. I feel like I really dropped the ball that set, and he crushed me. He was all over me with his Fiora." Derek "Zig" Shao
Although Zig has a flair for offbeat champions like Kled, the safe choice of Maokai, whenever open, has found the biggest success for P1 this season thus far, with a 7-1 record. When not playing Maokai, everything is fair game, and Zig has tried the likes of Sion, Gragas and his beloved Kled with varying degrees of prosperity.
"[The best top laners in NA] are probably [Kevin "Hauntzer" Yarnell] and [Kim "Ssumday" Chan-ho]," he said, mulling over which players he had faced off against this split were the most challenging.
"Ssumday, I think I had a really bad series against him. I feel like I really dropped the ball that set, and he crushed me. He was all over me with his Fiora. In the weeks after, I've been trying to make sure s--t like that doesn't happen again," he continued.
One of the major reasons for P1's and Zig's rapid development this year has been head coach Kim "Fly" Sang-chul, formerly of Royal Never Give Up and the Team Impulse club that almost made it to the World Championships in 2015. A former StarCraft II pro under the ID "Ensnare," Fly brings a wealth of knowledge not only for League of Legends but esports as a whole, having experienced the same issues and problems his players are now going through.
"[Fly] is great," he said. "His English needs some work, since he never learned it in grade school like a lot other other [South] Korean imports and [South] Korean staff I've worked with, but we have a full-time translator Celine whenever we need her. Of all the coaches I've worked with so far, he's definitely the best. His attitude is really good. He never causes conflict in a [negative] way. He also [frequently plays] the game. I think he has more solo queue games this season than [Adrian "Adrian" Ma] does. He was in his Masters promos the other day, so it really helps."
Not only a former professional in a different game and highly ranked in League, Fly also brings a calmness to the team, explained Zig. While the team also has a performance coach on staff, Fly is a multi-tooled coach that not only can help his squad strategically but mentally as well, getting along with the team and getting them on the right page when need be. That was the case in the fifth week of games for P1 when starting jungler Rami "Inori" Charagh couldn't play and was replaced by former C9 jungler William "Meteos" Hartman who filled in on emergency notice.
Meteos, a wildly different player than Inori, brought a more calculated, experienced style to Summoner's Rift, and gave Zig, a player usually on Maokai or Shen, the chance to step out into the spotlight for one of the first times as a pro. Zig subsequently defeated three South Korean top laners, Team Envy's Shin "Seraph" Woo-yeong and Cloud9's duo of Jung "Impact" Eon-yeong and Jeon "Ray" Ji-won, in consecutive fashion over the weekend.
For his team's own South Korean imports, Zig couldn't be happier, playing with veterans Yoo "Ryu" Sang-ook and No "Arrow" Dong-hyeon. The two, not only elite players at their position for the NA LCS, are also two of the best English speakers out of any of the South Korean imports ever signed abroad and can communicate with their team with little issue. Ryu had already played for two years on H2k-Gaming in Europe, but Arrow, who played in his home country for his entire career, has picked up the language like a sponge. In addition, Arrow is one of the leading candidates for the MVP award in the league right now.
Zig, though, doesn't need individual accolades like MVP or All-NA LCS to satisfy him. All he wants to do is to keep on improving with his teammates and maybe, if things work out, make a trip to his home country of Canada for the NA LCS Finals this upcoming April.
"I've never been one to try and put myself in the spotlight," he said. "As long as we're winning, I don't really care how the public perceives me. I just want to do what I can to help my teammates win and team win. It'd be really sick if we could go from relegation [last year] all the way to Vancouver."