Excel's entry into the LEC was not as smooth as anyone involved with the organisation would have liked. They only found out they were accepted into the league days before the public announcement, taking a last minute spot from another team that was expected to join but couldn't reach an agreement with Riot.
Quickly, they had to ramp up from a large UK focused organisation into an international powerhouse competing on the biggest stage in Europe, and with only had a handful of weeks to do so.
The organisation secured a home base at Twickenham Stadium in London, but that wasn't ready to move into fully until midway through the season, meaning the team played in corporate boxes and meeting rooms at the stadium for the first few weeks of the competition. They were also one of the teams that decided to fly out to Berlin every weekend to play their matches but were based in London in the week, a strategy that some criticized. The building blocks for something great were there, but it felt like they needed more time to get everything done.
Despite the organisation's best efforts their season on the Rift did not go to plan, they finished 9th in the Spring Split and 10th in Summer, with the worst win-loss record across the season. As far as debut seasons go, it was underwhelming to say the least.
"There were a lot of things that I was extremely proud of regarding our first year in the LEC, however our placements were not one of them," Kieran Holmes-Darby, Co-Founder and CGO at Excel Esports says. "It is well known that we were pushed for time to ramp up our facilities, staff team and playing roster prior to the start of the LEC in 2019 and this had a lasting effect on what we were able to achieve.
"This resulted in what were two poor placings in both the 2019 Spring and Summer Splits. We are competitors, we want to win and despite some moments of brilliance, it wasn't enough last year."
So, as the off season started, it was clear a lot of changes needed to be made. The organisation was at a more stable point, with its fancy Twickenham HQ all up-and-running and a number of new staff on board to help the team improve results -- meaning they had more time and resources to finally focus on building the best roster possible.
However, getting in top-tier players was not the first priority for Excel. Whereas a lot of teams try to pick up the best free agents possible when it comes to the off-season and hope they fit into their team, Excel realised that their issues from the 2019 season ran a little deeper, and they needed to overhaul every aspect of the squad. The best way to do that: bring in a new coaching team.
"This offseason was a million times better than our previous one but still by no means relaxing," Holmes-Darby jokes. "We had time to implement everything that we had wanted to implement in the previous year. Our coach-led strategy allowed us to attract some of the best in the business in our LEC staff team with Joey "Youngbuck" Steltenpool, Fabian "FaBro" Broich and Alex "Mapache" Parejo.
"This all-star line-up then attracted some world class playing talent to bolster our roster. We achieved everything we wanted to achieve in this offseason."
Leading the new coaching squad is Joey "YoungBuck" Steltenpool, one of the most decorated European coaches in all of LoL, his resume includes multiple EU LCS/LEC championships, multiple appearances at Worlds and a dominating win-loss record across both Fnatic and G2 that almost looks unreal.
Over the last few years he has been with title contenders and Worlds regulars G2 and Fnatic, so it was somewhat of a surprise to see him head to the team that propped up the bottom of the LEC table last year. But for Steltenpool it presented an interesting challenge, overhauling an entire organisational culture and taking a team few expected big things from to the top of the table.
"It is difficult to go into specifics [of what the issues were] without having been there last year," Steltenpool says. "But a lot of feedback was given around improving the coaching staff, staff structure and there being a lack of trust between players when it came to responsibly handling being given resources in the game."
"Excel first looked to change the coaching staff after which we looked into rebuilding the roster in terms of who we wanted to keep, and for which roles we wanted to scout different options.
"We quickly found Patrik "Patrik" Jírů and Tore "Tore" Hoel Eilertsen as free agents standing out as they have been performing very well. I have been very pleased with the roster, especially the attitude the players have shown on both good and bad days."
The choice to target a world-class coach first and foremost is a strategy that almost immediately paid off as Excel were now able to offer the chance to work with a proven winner to the top players looking for a new team.
The organisation knew that they had a number of talented players already signed and certainly weren't looking to overhaul the entire playing squad, but they also realised there were a couple of positions that could be improved, and set out to find some new stars to bring in.
The two big additions to the roster were Patrik "Patrik" Jírů and Tore "Tore" Hoel Eilertsen, two young players who really made a name for themselves in 2019 and were looking for a new challenge. The former had placed second in the Spring Split with Origen, while the latter had made it to the top eight at Worlds with Splyce. The pair were immediately attracted to Excel when the offers came in thanks to the new coaching staff, and clear change in attitude internally.
"I value having a great team environment, and enjoying myself while I play a lot and great coaching staff is also important to me personally," Hoel Eilertsen says. "Excel had just picked up Joey ["Youngbuck" Steltenpool] and Alex ["Mapache" Parejo], who I had heard were great to work with, so it was not really a hard decision for me to make.
"Leaving Splyce was not a hard decision as well, everyone I enjoyed playing with and from the coaching staff left the team, so there was not really a single reason for me to want to stay with Splyce."
Sometimes bringing in some new star players, especially ones who are going to take a leadership role such as Hoel Eilertsen, can irk those players that put in a lot of work last year with Excel. But these new additions have been warmly welcomed.
Despite their disappointing season last year, one of the best things for Excel was the development of Marc Robert "Caedrel" Lamont, a British player who had hovered in and around the bottom of the LEC level for years, but but enjoyed a breakout season last year to become one of the better junglers in the LEC.
As one of the cornerstone pieces of the Excel roster, Caedrel is delighted with the additions to the team and feels that the organisation has really put them in a great position to improve on 2019.
"The roster is stronger [than last year], our support was top eight at worlds and Patrik ["Patrik" Jírů] is someone who is incredibly talented," Caedrel says. "Naturally our roster has more firepower on paper, but more importantly I think emotionally the team is alot stronger. Everyone gets along super well and [Son] "Mickey" [Young-min] is a lot more comfortable now and has adapted a lot more to Europe and can show up even more than he did in Summer of last year.
"Finishing ninth and 10th is nothing to be proud of. I tried the best I could but there's always room for more, if anything it just motivated me to try even harder this year."
Hearing positivity like this from all angles of an organisation at the start of a new season isn't exactly anything new. Every year the bottom teams in every league around the world promise to change and dramatically improve results. On a closer look, Excel are backing their statement up.
The team are sitting in seventh place after the opening five weeks of the season, sporting five wins and five losses. That does not sound massively impressive, but they are just two wins behind the four teams sharing first place.
Their improvement is obvious: Excel picked up only nine wins in both the Spring and Summer and are already over a half of the way to equalling their 2019 win total after just five weeks. They are, finally, a tough team to beat.
"I have been incredibly proud of how the team has started off the 2020 season," Holmes-Darby say. "If we continue to pick up wins every weekend, we are nailed on for Spring Playoffs. We believe that with the support structure we have in place, we will outperform teams around us over time. We are playing the long game and we intend to win it."
The long game is something team members talk about. They knew that coming into the LEC and competing with the teams that had been playing at the top level of European competition for years straight away would be difficult, so instead they set realistic goals. Winning a world championship is still a long way off, but they are feeling confident that this strong start to the season can continue and take them to where they want to be in the near future.
"This year, we want to make the LEC Playoffs so that we can be amongst the best in Europe and we want our BT Excel team to make the European Masters live finals," Holmes-Darby says. "In 2021, we're going for international competitions."
It might be a little early to say that Excel is now a true contender for the LEC, but there is no doubt that the massive offseason changes that were brought on by the disastrous 2019 season have been a success. The team that was looked at as massively underwhelming last year, but are now showing the making early doubters regret their reservations.