As Schalke 04's players emerged victorious from their booths against Giants, a raucous crowd was ready to greet the rising team. The squad's fourth week of competition in the European League Championship Series summer split yielded a positive record as the squad tied a match 1-1 against G2 Esports and prevailed over Giants 2-0 on the second day.
The second contest looked messy for Schalke, and a Baron Nashor steal from Berk "Gilius" Demir propelled the squad to victory shortly after. Despite the initial struggles, the crowd passionately yelled a rallying cry, cheering for the top laner, Etienne "Steve" Michels, whenever he made an appearance in-game.
The "STEEEEEEVE" shouts have become a custom in Berlin, but the first occurrences weren't necessarily positive.
"Initially, it started from casters having fun with me," Michels said, referencing the first LCS game of his career, a 1/8/2 KDA (kills/deaths/assists) performance on a Hercarim (carrying Smite and Teleport) back when Cinderhulk was a meta item in the top lane.
"It was horrible!," he said. "I was playing without Flash, I was getting ganked, and they would say 'STEVE' when I die." But that changed as he became more comfortable and started showcasing solid performances. The mocking "STEEEEVE" shouts became cheers.
When I ask him why he thinks the cheering has remained steady, he tells me that the crowd finds it entertaining so the fans keep at it. "I enjoy it, because I've improved," he said. "Of course, I have to focus during the game, but after the games it's always a pleasure. You go shake hands with a fan, and they yell STEEEEVE. Even when I have bad games, they're always backing me up."
The crowd has backed him up since his time at ROCCAT, where he met like-minded individuals driven by success. The squad's former head coach, Jakob "YamatoCannon" Mebdi had specifically hired the player because of his mindset, positive attitude and work ethic so that he could implement his elaborate pick-ban strategies. And it showed: "We played better and better in scrims and translated that to the stage, and for that we needed to be fearless, be confident," Michels said. "We mastered the patches, especially near the end [of the split.]"
The crowd also backed him up when he wore an Elements jersey in 2016. The organization assembled a last-minute roster following its failure to sell its spot, which caused some observers to peg the players as 'rejects.' The matter seemed even more dire as Schalke 04's current head coach, Patrick "Nyph" Funke, considered leaving his coaching position and initially remained there until Elements found a replacement.
But Nyph stayed as he saw potential in the squad and gained motivation. If Michels had to guess why the head coach was considering departing from his functions, he said he'd attribute it to Elements' 2015 experience. "I think that, before [the spring split], he wanted to coach, but he had difficulties [doing so]," he said. "Sprattel was in the lineup, but then he was replaced by Nyph. So the coach replaced one of his players, and he was too close to them -- so he may not have had lots of authority."
That problem had no chance of appearing in the 2016 Elements squad, as Nyph coached experienced players that had everything to prove. "We had everything to learn, and that allowed him to coach us very easily," he said. "There were no big-headed players, no veterans that were tough to coach."
The squad impressed early on, but as the schedule pitted them against playoff squads, it experienced growing pains. Michels admitted that his squad wasn't good enough to contend for a playoff spot, but the squad's ability to compete at the LCS was no longer in doubt as they edged playoff contenders near the end of split and avoided the relegation tournament.
The transition from the spring split to the summer entailed changes to the jersey it wore. As Michels highlights, Schalke 04 helped its players focus on playing the game as it pooled resources into its League of Legends division. But the squad's improvements also come from within.
"We had already started to improve near the end of the spring split, and we kept it up going into the summer split," Michels said. "It's not just Schalke playing -- it's also the addition of Fox into the lineup. We weren't noticing that during scrims, but he's very aggressive. Gilius can now play around every lane nowadays, and it helps us a lot."
As a result, the team developed flexibility beyond its team-fighting prowess; it developed resilience and patience. Against Giants, despite a disadvantageous lane swap that nearly caused a snowball, the players explored ways to recover from the disadvantage. In the end, they opted to bide their time through wave clearing, until they reached Level 18 and had enough gold to purchase big-ticket items.
It is this type of play that highlights Schalke's growth. The only question is: can the team continue to trend upward and go 2-0 in matches?