Five months ago, just minutes removed from one last loss that cemented another 10th-place finish in the North American League of Legends Championship Series, Matthew "Deftly" Chen bluntly reflected on 2018. Normally polished and positive in interviews, the Golden Guardians AD carry couldn't help but let his frustration bleed through.
"It's ridiculous how we performed through these two splits," Deftly said. "Two splits, we got nine wins. That's a fourth of our games.
"I just hate losing. I don't want to be here ever again. I don't want to be in 10th. It just really sucks."
Deftly's dissatisfaction was understandable. Losers of nine straight matches since a promising 5-4 start to summer split, the Golden Guardians were a mess on every level.
The team, which is funded by the Golden State Warriors ownership group, went through weeks of scrims without a single win. Players felt their concerns about the team's playstyle, and organization's direction went unheard. Head coach Tyler Perron was relieved of his duties mid-split; he himself had filled the role after Choi "Locodoco" Yoon-seop was fired in February.
And as a final indignity, mid laner Son "Mickey" Young-min abandoned the team days before the final weekend of the split. Rather than spend another day tilting in North America, Mickey boarded a flight home for South Korea and never returned.
As he sat in an anonymous back room within the bowels of the LCS Arena, Deftly wasn't sure if he would wear the blue and gold again. One thing was certain: A systemic shift needed to be made if the Golden Guardians wanted to avoid more bottom-feeding splits.
"If we keep the same roster and nothing changes, no coaching staff changes," Deftly said at the time, "we will be the laughingstock of LCS."
To fix a building that was built wrong, the Golden Guardians tore it all down. The team used a long offseason to remodel the roster and assemble a capable support staff. These on-paper upgrades hinted at instant success, but if the team's 0-2 start to the LCS Spring Split is any indication, the job remains a work in progress.
An 0-2 Week 1 is far from a death sentence; just ask Cloud9, which made a miraculous run during that same summer split after starting it off 1-5. And no one expects 100 Thieves to miss the spring playoffs after the team lost both of its opening-week matches. The galling part for Golden Guardians is that losses against projected mid-table teams are the ones they most hoped to avoid this year and what cost them so dearly in 2018.
There's reason for hope this split, though, and it goes back to the overhaul that began after that 10th-place finish.
The Golden Guardians' first offseason hire also was their best. Danan Flander, who spent the better part of four years managing Cloud9's esports teams, became the organization's first general manager, filling a position left vacant for all of 2018. Flander was the principal architect of Cloud9's player development initiatives back in 2014, efforts that directly bolstered the team during its semifinal run at last year's League of Legends World Championship.
A GM with proven success and a player-first focus aligned neatly with Golden Guardians' oft-trumpeted (but clumsily actualized) narrative: a team that wants to compete at a high level while growing domestic talent.
Together with new head coach Nick "Inero" Smith, Flander set about reimagining the LCS squad. No position was guaranteed as management poured over stats and VODs. In the end, only jungler Juan "Contractz" Arturo Garcia and Deftly were retained, with Deftly forgoing a planned South Korean boot camp to negotiate his place on the team.
"They saw the potential in me," Deftly said. "Even though we were 10th, they felt like we could do a lot more with the right tools around me."
The right tools arrived in the form of three established veterans: top laner Kevin "Hauntzer" Yarnell, support Kim "Olleh" Joo-sung and mid laner Henrik "Froggen" Hansen. The trio brought a combined five LCS titles to the table (Froggen earned his in 2014 on Alliance in the European LCS) and five worlds appearances. Hauntzer and Olleh were named to the NA LCS All-Pro first team in 2017. Their skill sets broadened what was possible for Golden Guardians, suddenly turning playoffs into a floor rather than an optimistic ceiling.
Despite his affection and well wishes for his former teammates, Contractz admitted the improvements to the roster are hard to dispute, especially in mid lane.
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"I think we have upgrades all across the board," Contractz said. "People are really underrating Froggen. He's a great player, really smart; he has really good mechanics. Everyone thinks he can only play a couple champs: Lux, Veigar, Anivia. But that guy's really insane. He has a champion ocean. I hope this season he'll show how good he is again."
Once Olleh signed on, Deftly immediately began forging a synergy with his new support. They quickly settled into a practice pattern that lasted most of December: Wake up, message each other on Discord, play until 3 or 4 a.m., sleep and repeat.
"He really whipped me into shape," Deftly said, "and told me this is what it takes to get better. You have to work your ass off; you need to practice hard. This is your career, and there's no going back. It was honestly a big reality check for me. I'm really grateful for the opportunity to play with a support like him."
The roster remade, Flander then set his sights on improving the players' living situation. In December, they traded the mansion once inhabited by Immortals for sleek apartments in downtown Culver City. While the move acted as a symbolic break with the failed past, it was also practical, allowing players to maintain a healthier work-life balance by confining team activities to a separate training facility.
Perks like the new digs and a gym membership played well, but for Deftly, the most welcome change from last year was an atmosphere of receptiveness and action from management. A year ago, player feedback and concerns seemed to pass unheeded until it was too late, torpedoing morale as the losses piled high. That isn't the case under Flander and Inero.
"They're all open ears," Deftly said. "Any time you have a concern about anything, they're always down to listen and give feedback, whether it's a change they'll do in the future or why it's wrong. Even the small stuff, like having an extra setup at the office rather than at home, they're like, 'Oh, yeah, no problem. We can do that.' All these small things add up to player's happiness, helping us fix our quality of life."
As the new split drew closer, scrim results began to improve (as the meme goes), thanks in large part to Inero's coaching style. The former Echo Fox head man put an emphasis on the team's communication and created lists of specific interactions he wanted to hear from each player on comms during the game. If they failed to do so, "He'll mark it down and just be really anal about us not doing it," Contractz said with a laugh. "It gets done for sure."
While the rest of the players have three or four communication boxes to check, Deftly has closer to 10. Bot side has become a priority for Golden Guardians because their strong solo lanes can operate in absence of resources. That puts more responsibility on Deftly's plate. He asked for the pressure, but the team's willingness to lean on Deftly proves how much faith the coaching staff has in its least-decorated player.
"[Inero] wants me to direct the team in the direction we're supposed to go," Deftly said. "Are we getting dragons? Setting up bot dives? Rotating for Herald? All these things are put on my shoulders. ... He really wants me to start the conversation, everyone else after can chime in and we as a team will formulate what is the best play after that. I think my communication is becoming a lot better, and I'm becoming more whole as a player due to Nick."
After all the raised expectations and renewed confidence from the offseason, though, Golden Guardians floundered on stage and dropped their Week 1 games against FlyQuest and Echo Fox. Golden Guardians' poor fight selection in the side lanes was fodder for FlyQuest's teamfighting composition, and Echo Fox heavily punished their disjointed Rakan/Galio initiations.
Whatever plans Golden Guardians made were undone by a sudden instinctual read, an unnecessary forcing of the issue that was miles away from their methodical scrims.
In a way, their flaws were understandable, if hard to digest. Each member of this squad has a divot-sized chip on his shoulder and is eager to show their quality to those that disowned or laughed at them. Hauntzer and Olleh were cast aside from Team SoloMid and Team Liquid, respectively, in favor of star imports. Contractz and Deftly will never forget being the butt of the joke in 2018, while Froggen aims to reclaim his place among the region's best mid laners.
All that passion needs to be controlled if Golden Guardians want to realize their potential.
"Towards the end of last year, it felt kind of hopeless," Deftly said. "We had no direction, no clue of what to do, no read on the meta. It felt really doomed, you know? But this year, we have a goal, and everyone's working really hard towards that. Even in this 0-2 week, no one's berating another player. We all know we're way better than we played, and we're going to work our hardest to show it.
"I want to make up for the mishaps of last year and prove the Golden Guardians aren't a joke, a laughingstock. We're not going to f--- around. We're going to stay positive and build each other up."