It’s hard to imagine a more immersive spectator experience than Riot’s LCS Arena.
Giant, curved screens skimmed the trees of Summoner’s Rift. Blue and red torches flickered. Monitors cast Summoners’ faces in an icy blue glow. Week one of the NA LCS Spring Split was here, and Echo Fox’s League of Legends team was facing its first two challengers.
In the NA LCS spring season, players fight their way through nine best-of-one weekends to ultimate glory in the playoffs. Qualifying for the LCS World Championship is reserved for winners of the Summer Split, which begins in June. Nonetheless, Spring Split is a key opportunity. It allows new teams and rosters to distinguish themselves, find sponsors, and win prize money.
For Echo Fox, there was far more on the line. The Republic of Gamers and ASUS-sponsored team has been in LCS for two years, but now they were back with a totally new roster. All players had joined in the last few months, and the lineup had already been called explosive. Shoutcasters meant this as a compliment, but some critics thought the team’s more volatile players could sink the whole ship. Spring Split, and especially this weekend, was Echo Fox’s chance to launch themselves into the spotlight and put naysayers’ fears to rest.
Without a doubt, they had more than enough talent to go around. From Huni, the former South Korean SKT1 player known as one of the world’s best top laners, to Dardoch, an aggressive, top-notch Jungler who’d been looking for a team to truly call home, this was a lineup built for winning, a statement underscored by former NBA star-turned-team president Jared Jeffries.
Of course, any pro team is built to win, but Jeffries has reasons to say this. When he and General Manager Jake Fyfe put their heads together during free agency, Jeffries’ goal was to emulate NBA recruiting. They created a database. They dug deep. They spent months “grinding out free agency,” as Fyfe puts it. It’s a roster built for winning, but they built it in the most thorough way possible.
A player cam looks on as Adrian makes some last-minute tweaks before the match.
On their first competition day, Echo Fox was facing FlyQuest, a team relatively new to the NA LCS circuit. Even so, the team could pose a serious threat, especially with well-known veterans like South Korean top laner Flame in their ranks. On day two, they’d be taking on Clutch Gaming. However, CG held just as much deadly promise with Febiven, one of the strongest EU LCS mid laners, on their team.
Now this captivating cocktail of player talents would shake out on the Field of Justice. As the audience beat glowing cheer sticks together, Echo Fox made final hardware adjustments, expressions set and ready for battle. At long last, everyone would see what these unknown teams could do.
Saturday’s sparks fly
Top laner Huni is legendary for wins in EU and SKT LCS. He’s also just plain fun to watch. Now he’s back in NA to prove that he can dominate here.
Where Huni and Flame clashed, sparks were bound to fly. From a perch above the audience, shoutcasters Azael and Pastrytime couldn’t suppress their excitement for top lane skirmishes. After all, Huni is one of the world’s best, and Flame is renowned in his own right.
But Huni was the main talk of the day, both as a top player who’d returned to NA to put another notch in his belt, and as a carry player overall. “I’m so excited for him to be back in North America,” said Azael. “I think he could immediately be the best player in the entire league.”
As opponents go, FlyQuest were no slouches, either. With strong solo queue players on their side, there were no easy predictions. And one of Huni’s former SKT coaches, RapidStar, was now FlyQuest’s strategic coach. Would this give the team unexpected insights into the world-famous top laner’s strategies—or even his psyche?
However, the team also had a potential setback. Just two days before the new season, FlyQuest revealed their mid laner Fly had visa issues. Now Academy player Keane was subbing in. Time would tell whether this would notably impact their mid lane map control against Echo Fox’s intimidating new roster.
The “Huni Special” drew audience cheers and excitement. Photo via @lolesports on Flickr.
From the very start, Echo Fox played their hand slyly. It wasn’t until pick phase two, when Altec chose Lucian, that their strategy and Huni’s true Champion became clear.
“This is the Huni special!” Exclaimed Azael with glee. It was a draft that garnered huge cheers from the audience. On Immortals, one of Huni’s old teams, a Lucian top build was his signature choice. No one in NA LCS could play Lucian top like Huni.
Although they were outwardly calm, it wasn’t hard to imagine FlyQuest mentally sinking lower in their seats. Unlike Echo Fox, they’d blind-picked their top lane Champion. This was a deadly mistake against Huni, the master of top lane counterpicks.
From ambush to advantage
The games started out evenly enough, but Saturday’s theme soon became about players coordinating and turning unexpected opportunities around in surprising ways.
The first sign of a tide change was during what could have been a disastrous situation. As Dardoch squared off against the lower jungle brambleback, Stunt and AnDa spotted him. Caught unawares, Dardoch was suddenly double rooted and helpless. The ambush could have gone terribly wrong for the Echo Fox Jungler. But Huni teleported in with lightning speed, Altec breathlessly sprinted up from bottom, and a full on fight ensued.
Echo Fox snagged first blood when Huni’s Lightslinger Champion took down Stunt. Red engulfed the audience as every light turned deep crimson and a huge FIRST BLOOD swept across the curved screen with a deadly flourish.
If the audience can’t join their favorite players in-game, at least they can viscerally feel the action with the arena’s immersive effects.
In the camera's crosshairs, a player's perch looks out over a raucous sea of red
But the fight had just begun. AnDa died somewhere in the chaos and FlyQuest knew they were outnumbered. Their three remaining Champions fled, and all five Echo Fox Summoners gave chase. Keane was cut off, taunted, and summarily slaughtered. FlyQuest’s WILDTURTLE returned bottom, seemingly content to resume minion farming. This was his undoing when Dardoch bounced in beside Adrian and Fenix. Then fell FlyQuest’s bottom and mid lane turrets.
From first blood to four-zero, Echo Fox had turned an enemy ambush into a triumph, teleporting in their top laner and bringing their team’s full might down in Dardoch’s defense. The results were laid bare across the map. Mid and bottom lanes opened up. A 5k gold lead. And, perhaps most importantly, vision advantage. Gold would convert into powerful new items, but vision through ward placement was priceless extra intel. At just barely 16 minutes in, FlyQuest was hurting.
“I’m impressed at the level of coordination Echo Fox is showing early on,” said shoutcaster Pastrytime. “This is kind of a ragtag team in many ways. For a team that has a very, very high [skill] ceiling and maybe the highest opportunity to implode, things seem to be sticking together.”
Things were definitely sticking together thanks to their lineup. Beyond individual strengths, a surprising number of players were former teammates. There was Huni and Adrian on Immortals, Adrian and Altec on Team Dignitas, and Dardoch and Fenix on Team Liquid.
Everyone on Echo Fox had previously worked with at least one other player, sometimes for years. The inherent value of that can’t be overstated, and even players realize the importance.
“Fenix has a really good understanding of how I want to play the game. He gets me as a player, he knows exactly what I’m going to do,” Dardoch said of his former TL teammate, with whom he was now reunited on FOX. “We just have a lot of synergy.”
Dardoch explained his history with Fenix on Team Liquid. “He just gets me as a player,” he said.
Adrian felt the same way about being reunited with Altec. More importantly, he felt it gave them a distinct advantage. “We know what we want from each other, so we instantly click,” he said. “We have an edge because we’ve been playing together for so long.” Plus, quickly getting on the same page meant the duo had more time to communicate with their team.
These pairings meant that what at first glance seemed like a hodgepodge group might not have the same setbacks of a completely new five-player roster. That familiarity was now showing up in a big way.
Swatting down FlyQuest
Some observers think Echo Fox’s personalities might lead to implosion, but the team and its leadership are convinced these concerns are overdramatized.
Echo Fox was already itching for another fight. Dardoch jumped in on mid and his teammates converged. It was enough of a diversion that Echo Fox was able to increase their laning advantage. Another Champion kill, another turret, another push, another incremental nudge into the lead. The shoutcasters said it was a textbook game. Bleed away gold, experience, and vision control from the enemy, little by little, until there’s nothing left for them to claim but defeat.
After another skirmish in upper mid, Echo Fox pushed hard for Baron Nashor, the Rift’s most powerful neutral monster. But FlyQuest got their wish when they drew Echo Fox team away from the pit. However, the move came at great cost. Clashing nearby, Dardoch rooted AnDa, Huni split Keane off from the group, and Altec went on a killing spree. With three of the five FlyQuest heroes dead, Adrian, Fenix, Huni, and Altec went back for the Baron and finished what they started. This time, there was no way for FlyQuest to stop them.
Scenting their enemies’ blood in the water, Echo Fox took their Baron buff for a gleeful split push. Huni kept Flame occupied on bottom, while Fenix rotated up top. Adrian, Altec, and Dardoch waltzed up mid like they owned the place.
They might as well have, because it was a slaughter. Altec’s Kog’Maw tore through Stunt and Keane as the tier three turrets fell, followed by the inhibitors that were spitting out minions.
“Echo Fox are actually going for the throat!” Pastrytime exclaimed, just as Huni’s Lucian ripped through Flame’s Gangplank. The top laners were clashing. The shoutcasters were getting their wish. But Huni and Flame weren’t on top anymore. They were inside FlyQuest’s base, and the late-game Lucian counter-pick that Flame’s GP could have been never came to fruition. Not now, and certainly not against Huni’s Blade of the Ruined King and Cleaver.
As the Echo Fox Champions poured into FlyQuest’s base and painted targets on the Nexus, their opponents were powerless to stop them. At just twenty-nine minutes, it was a quick win to start the weekend.
But even as team Echo Fox grinned broadly and high-fived their fans at the front of the stage, they had their sights set on something far greater. “If we get one streak, then we’re not gonna lose,” said Huni. “It’s going to be unbeatable. I’m pretty sure we’re going to make playoffs. And my goal is NA LCS winner.” His prediction about an Echo Fox streak would prove prescient.
Disproving the naysayers
A Gnar superfan raises his plushies high in the audience.
If Echo Fox’s first game was defined by leveraging unexpected opportunities, then day two was all about calculated aggression. Wherever Clutch Gaming gave an inch, Echo Fox took a mile, plus a key turret and an objective or two.
Six minutes in, Clutch Gaming’s top laner Solo hit level six on his Champion, Ornn. Before he even had time to celebrate, Dardoch’s Zac and Huni’s Gnar rushed in. First airborne, then stunned, Solo didn’t even get a chance to think about his ulti. A Gnar superfan leapt up, screaming in excitement and shaking Gnar plushies, one for each hand. Although he was wearing a different team’s jersey, his love for the cute-yet-deadly Champion transcended team boundaries.
Energy was high for day two’s final game, but some were still withholding judgement. These were the naysayers that Echo Fox’s general manager Jake Fyfe wanted to prove wrong.
Echo Fox’s general manager Jake Fyfe said he was most excited to prove the naysayers wrong.
“I'm really excited to show everyone that people can change,” he said. Echo Fox’s detractors thought volatile personalities were the team’s greatest tilting risk. These types saw the team’s intelligent plays and coordination as outliers rather than part of a new pattern.
But Fyfe thought it was a huge mistake to look at players as fixed points. “People do grow and change,” he said. And he put special credence in the Echo Fox leadership team’s impact on players’ success. “Your leadership and management team surrounding a team of five is a huge variable in how that team will succeed,” he said. “Lots of teams have a ton of potential but weak staff or weak environment [mean] they just don't perform.” He strongly believed Echo Fox was offering something different.
The magic of momentum
Nick (left) beat over 8000 other contestants, winning a trip for two to meet Echo Fox's League of Legends team and watch NA LCS up close and personal. Evan (right) mulled over what he might ask his favorite player, Adrian.
Beneath the orange lights, two newcomers joined the audience for the first time: Nick Abela and Evan Samer, contest winners from New Jersey. They were flown out by Republic of Gamers to meet the team and watch the matches. It was their first time in Los Angeles, much less setting foot anywhere remotely like Riot’s arena. Even their coworkers hardly believed that something like this existed. They looked around with wide eyes, taking it all in.
Meanwhile, Echo Fox took incremental wins wherever they could. An Ocean Drake here. A Rift Herald there. Adrian kept his teammates alive with Champion Taric’s perfectly-timed Cosmic Radiance, while Fenix played Azir like no one else. His mid lane game was a lesson in control, from a perfect early-game creep score and potion steals to a mid-game CS of 187.
Huni took on CG's Solo and LirA in a bold one-versus-two 20 minutes into the match. Then CG’s Febiven jumped in. Fox’s Adrian and Dardoch popped up. Suddenly, Clutch had more than they bargained for, as did their tier two turret. And Echo Fox’s path to Baron was clear just 30 seconds after he spawned. They made a break for it. One minute later, Baron was dust and the Echo Fox gold lead had widened to 8k. A Mountain Drake was Clutch Gaming’s consolation prize; a small solace against heavy top and mid losses.
Fenix played Champion Azir in mid like no one else. Photo via @lolesports on Flickr.
This game was all about calculated aggression, and Echo Fox wasn’t going to wait out their Baron buff. They stormed up mid and Clutch Gaming was suddenly defending mid lane inhibitors in open ground. They staved off short term destruction with Sejuani’s chain stuns. But Echo Fox’s ongoing harassment kept Clutch constantly on the defensive: pushing on mid, razing an inhibitor, setting up vision, bludgeoning through top.
A second Baron kill at 31 minutes spelled more trouble. With Echo Fox buffed and ready, Fenix set his sights on the top tower, while Huni split pushed bottom. They stormed into the enemy base again. Apollo, Febiven, and LiRa were all alive, but they didn’t have the gold or itemization to stop the relentless onslaught that rained down on their inhibitors and Nexus. At exactly 33 minutes, it was GG.
The audience leapt to their feet as Echo Fox’s serious expressions dissolved. Huni somehow found time for a few gulps of water, but Adrian couldn’t contain his wide grin as they brought it in for a team hug. Despite their detractors, Echo Fox had shown exactly what they were made of with decisive, quick wins, aggressive play, and smart strategies. “Echo Fox is playing like an Echo Fox we have not seen before, and it’s just insane,” said shoutcaster Zirene.
A fan takes a photo of Jungler Dardoch after the Echo Fox win. He constantly kept the enemy team on their toes during the game. Photo via @lolesports on Flickr.
Indeed, Huni was not the team’s only carry. Fenix owned in mid and Dardoch swooped in to harass when his opponents least expected it. The 2-0 weekend was exactly the kind of momentum Huni was talking about. The icing on the cake was Echo Fox Academy’s perfect 2-0 weekend.
Speculation about winning playoffs no longer seems like a moonshot. Huni’s talk of a winning streak and momentum wasn’t errant egotism. In weeks two and three, Echo Fox clawed their way through difficult matches and prevailed, bringing their overall record to 5-1. The team is now tied for first place in the standings.
Without a doubt, this is an Echo Fox reborn. The team proved themselves not once or twice, but five times over. They showed they can decisively close games from positions of both strength and weakness. As one announcer put it, they’ve gone from question mark to exclamation point. For Echo Fox’s impressive new lineup, anything is possible.
By Kimberly Koenig
Echo Fox brings it in for a group hug after winning their second game. Photo via @lolesports on Flickr.