If European League of Legends fans were to compare the 2016 LCS summer split with its spring counterpart, they would come to the conclusion that the circuit has been flipped upside down and shaken to a cataclysmic extent.
In fact, three teams that were out of the playoff race in the spring split are in the thick of it five weeks in: Jakob "YamatoCannon" Mebdi's Splyce, the dark horses-turned-contenders Schalke 04, and the enigmatic Giants. For the latter, getting there involved a full reboot that had started two weeks before the end of the spring split.
By the end of it, the emblematic squad that had qualified to the EU League Championship Series in 2015 had been fully revamped, save for head coach David "LoZarK" Alonso Vicente. I asked him which roster was better at its prime. "This roster is completely better," he replied. "We have a really good shotcaller. Everyone on the team knows how we want to play, what we want to do. In the other team, it was more like: we have one style, we want to play this type of game and just win." But it was not always that way.
Following Giants' decline in the standings during the 2016 spring split, the organization decided to upgrade key positions. In came Lennart "Smittyj" Warkus, Son "S0NSTAR" Seung-ik and Kim "Wisdom" Tae-wan - the latter two as a package - replacing Peter "Atom" Thomsen, Joachim "Betongjocke" Rasmussen and Adrian "Adryh" Pérez in the process. But the loss of its shotcaller, Oskar "G0DFRED" Lundström, was a setback, if only on paper, and former Giants Underdoge Morgan "Hustlin" Granberg has since been a staple in the lineup.
Smittyj recalls a time where the squad was still seeking to build an identity. "I didn't feel that well either with everything," he noted. "There wasn't much improvement going on, and it wasn't really a tryhard atmosphere. Nowadays, it's a lot better. People are more hungry for success."
Why is it better now? One final setback proved a blessing; Wisdom's departure allowed the squad to deal with the departure of its iconic mid laner, Isaac "xPePii" Flores. Using their contacts in Korea, Giants acquired Winners' mid laner, Na "NighT" Gun-woo. Most importantly, due to the import rule, they signed Nubar "Maxlore" Sarafian into the lineup.
LoZarK says that, as a result of Maxlore's presence, the squad is extremely easy to work with. "He is a hard worker," the coach asserts. "He helps the team a lot. He always tries to analyze everything - give feedback to his teammates."
Maxlore's drive to win pushed him to help his teammates, and he gained confidence as they proved receptive to his straightforward style of communication, his willingness to help fix mistakes and the sense of direction he provided. But the squad needed experience, particularly onstage, to succeed. The players they had in scrims were different from the players onstage, and adjustment proved time-consuming - and they needed enough time for that.
Combine that with an initial language barrier the squad and NighT, and you get an understandably shaky start - not that the schedule helped. Fnatic, G2 Esports and H2k-Gaming capitalized on the Giants' frailty, but the squad's veterans - S0NSTAR and Smittyj - had undergone such a process many times before. Even Maxlore had jitters as he played more hesitantly, allowing opponents to take control as they capitalized on opportunities. But he shrugged that off quickly.
Beyond onstage fright issues, Smittyj pinpointed the squad's initial lack of initiative. "We really were scared of doing plays and ending early," he explained. "That's why we always went to 50 minutes if we won. We didn't have the balls to end or just do some plays and finish."
Gelling as a squad is a process that took time, hard work and an unwavering dedication. It turns out, gelling as a squad was the key to asserting the Giants as a legitimate contender for a playoff spot as they currently occupy sixth place.
Team communication also evolved, as the framework Maxlore helped lay expanded, and other players started to communicate efficiently, informing their jungler on potential snowballing opportunities. Suddenly, a squad that seemed bound to occupy the last spot emerged as a European giant, poised to overtake the continent's best - including Fnatic.
"In Europe right now," Smittyj informs, "most teams are even. Anyone can win vs. anyone."
And Giants are doing just that.