Mike "Hastr0" Rufail is not an arrogant leader, but he is self-assured one. Since creating EnVyUs almost a decade ago in 2007 as a first-person shooter organization, the brand has grown substantially through Rufail's hard work behind the scenes.
He's now the owner of various teams across a number of competitive gaming titles, and Team Envy has risen to the forefront of the esports boom in the western region. After conquering the world of shooters and proving Envy can build a winning team in that genre, Rufail is eager to prove that the "Boys in Blue" are capable of overtaking a podium in a new field of play.
"I've been playing the game myself for years," said Rufail. "I always wanted a team, but it was always financially out of our each, to be quite honest. It's really hard to keep up the pace within the biggest esports league in the world. But yeah, we were just able to keep growing our company and the business, and we were able to entertain [the idea] six months ago. We're even very open about it: we were already negotiating to purchase a couple teams before the bans [to Renegades, Team Dragon Knights, and Team Impulse]. The bans actually make it tougher for us to buy the spot, but we actually reached an agreement with Renegades and made it happen."
Generally, when an incoming organization buys a spot from a selling team, the identity of the former squad is almost completely washed away. New clubs want to build their own brand. Their own players. Their own style. The last thing a new owner usually wants to do is continue the legacy of the team he just bought the spot from.
The outcome of the deal between Team Envy and Renegades didn't quite go that way. Instead of completely overhauling the roster, Envy held onto three players from the Renegades roster that finished the spring split, though it added two fresh players from outside to help forge a new brand of its own through this hybrid squad.
Shin "Seraph" Woo-yeong, Noh "Ninja" Geon-woo, and Nickolas "Hakuho" Surgent welcomed Team Impulse's starting jungler Kim "Procxin" Se-young and minor league standout Benjamin "LOD" deMunck into the fold. Together, the five created a worthy starting lineup to compete in the summer season of the LCS, while also building upon the roots that were laid down by Renegades in the spring.
"They're hungry," Rufail immediately answered when asked what he liked about his group of players. "The hardest thing in pro-gaming -- I've been doing this for 10 years -- is to keep the team hungry to win. It's probably the biggest challenge, hands down, that people don't realize. That even when players win a lot, they get less hungry. [With] really successful players, it's hard for them to want to continue winning. It's almost subconscious. So this team is very, very hungry, and the trick for them is just to keep wanting to win."
"And that's what I think excites me about them -- it's like a mix. It's a bilingual team. They have a lot of challenges, and again, they're kind of like a misfit team. I just love that, that fact they're not supposed to be able to communicate this well. They're hungry to win."
Rufail is right. If you were to chisel down the current Team Envy club to its core, it would be dying with the hunger to succeed. Seraph, the team's ace so far this split, has been the ultimate journeyman in his pro-gaming career. He came over to North America almost three years ago, seen as some sort of Korean prodigy coming over from the NaJin organization for Counter Logic Gaming. He failed to impress and was meek with his limited English, eventually leading him to meander around for a few years as he searched for a team where he could fully show how much he's grown from his early days as CLG's shy, inconsistent top laner.
Ninja, Seraph's closest friend in North America, is of a similar pedigree. He bounced around with a number of different teams, including LPL's Team WE, and failed to become a proper starter on a contending team. Right when it felt like he was about to become a real force alongside Seraph on Renegades, the rug was pulled out from underneath them by the ban -- and they had to start anew once again on Team Envy.
For Procxin, LOD, and Hakuho, although they're all relative newcomers in the grand scheme of things, they've also been written off once or twice already in their short careers. Procxin's first few games in the United States on Team Impulse left a lot to be desired. LOD, although he performed well in Challenger and held his own when called up to the big leagues, was pegged as an average player with little upside. As for Hakuho, he was thrown into the fire last season when he joined a Renegades team in disarray during the middle of the season.
None of the five players on this roster have tasted success in their careers. Rufail, who has brought success to every team he's owned, wants to show them the way.
"[Team Envy] knows how to win," Rufail stated confidently. "We know how to fuel our players and be a springboard for our players. I think that's what we've always built around, and at one point or another, we're going to be on that podium. There has never been a team we've had that hasn't sat on the podium at some point."
The opening weekend of the NA LCS' summer split couldn't have gone any better for Rufail's team. Team Envy began its journey in the league by beating out NRG Esports in a close 2-1 series, and it ended on an even higher note the next day when the team took down Team Liquid and closed out the first week of matchplay with an undefeated map record. Envy was led by Seraph at the top lane position, as the now-veteran top laner used his calculated timings to roll over teams with perfect flanks and teleports. Seraph ended the week atop the MVP standings of the NA LCS, with three Player of the Game superlatives out of the four wins Team Envy.
"League of Legends is super global, and I think CS:GO is catching up to that," he said, evaluating how he sees the current two biggest titles in the competitive gaming scene. "Asia is starting to really pick up [CS:GO] -- the Chinese are picking it up. They're both games that are a lot of fun to watch, and are super competitive. We're talking about millions of players trying to make it to the top level in both games with having aspirations of being a pro-gamer. So you get a lot of competition naturally from that, and I think that aspect of it -- it being so competitive -- is what engages people to watch."
Getting into the topic of the other team owners in the scene, Rufail respects them but doesn't want to mimic them. While he admires the work the likes of Andy "Reginald" Dinh and Jack Etienne, for their work in building homegrown brands out of the North American region, Rufail wants to do his things in his own way - and, in his words, "be competitive with [the top organizations] right off the bat."
"[Shotcalling] is super democratic," he said, going into the inner workings of his team's system. "Everyone's communicating what's going on in their position and what they're seeing on the map, and I think in watching the last game, and the last two games, and just hearing our coms, everybody is just communicating. And I think that's ultimately the reason we're 2-0 right now."
It's easy to get ahead of yourself in this position, but Rufail isn't worried. He's been here before, and with how much his brand has expanded into all corners of the esports landscape, he'll be here again in a new game sooner rather than later. They enter Week 2 of the split undefeated after two wins, and as they head into a marquee Friday night matchup against fellow spotless rookie squad Apex Gaming, Team Envy and its owner are welcoming the spotlight.
"We're going to win with swagger," said Rufail, ending the interview with a proclamation to fans new and old to the organization. "[Secondly], our players are going to be smiling because they know that we're working really hard with them. Hard work always puts a smile on your face when it pays off. To our fans that are tuning in, we're going to try and always give them a team they can cheer for."