Articles: eSports
Apr 09, 2018 Written by:ROG Article

10:30 AM

undefinedStepping inside Echo Fox’s new Beverly Hills home.

The new Echo Fox team house was surprisingly still, even for a Sunday. Six days out of the week, Monday through Saturday, they’re on a strict schedule that would put the military to shame. They wake up early for workouts before scrimming all day to keep their skills sharp. 

However, it’s now 2018’s NA LCS Spring Split season, which has switched up their normal routine. As teams clash in round-robin best-of-one matches and head for the playoffs, the next nine weekends are committed to competitions. After practicing Tuesday through Friday, weekends are about stadiums instead of scrims. Even Sundays like today are no longer sacred.

The sprawling Beverly Hills home is now in a state of furnitureless transition, empty rooms cast in shadow. It’s not usually this sparse, but the movers hadn’t arrived. The Academy team was moving out, and the LCS team was moving in from their former house nearby. 

Every LCS team has an Academy counterpart, where players 16 and older participate in a developmental league. Each Academy roster is stacked with promising young players who are still learning the pro gaming ropes (although Riot’s rules do allow up to one “veteran” per Academy lineup). 

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    For now, the house is mostly empty, with just a few scattered boxes and pieces of furniture.

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    However, there are a few staple items like Oreo O’s (only available from Koreatown grocery stores) and board games.

Although some players are moving back into the house for now, Echo Fox management views independent living as the logical next step for both teams, which is why most Academy players have already moved into their own apartments. Like many, Echo Fox once viewed team houses as the industry standard, especially for younger Academy players who move far away from their families to play for the team. Team houses provided an important soft landing while players were learning the ropes. 

However, Echo Fox General Manager Jake Fyfe points out that shared houses just don’t make sense anymore, especially not when many experienced players have already lived in team houses and understand teamwork fundamentals. As for younger, less-experienced Academy players, esports experts like historian Duncan ‘Thorin’ Shields have begun questioning whether team houses, adopted from the Korean StarCraft gaming scene of the early 2000s, are  best for players’ long-term health, psychology, and performance. After all, pro sports players don’t live in shared houses, and Echo Fox is one of the industry’s strongest advocates for applying pro sports lessons to esports lifestyles.

For the time being, a few LCS players are still living in the team house, and they’re just beginning to stir. The first sighting is Adrian. He sleepily shuffles outside in comfy sweats, giving a big stretch and yawn as his tiny, white fuzzball of a puppy, Banana, curiously peeks out from behind a curtain. She’s a troublemaker, but he loves her anyway. He’s the first to admit that puppy parenthood is a delicate balance with pro gaming’s demanding lifestyle. “But she really de-stresses me,” he says. “I’m really happy to be around her. Puppies really help. It’s giving me more responsibility in my life.”

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    Banana snoops in the window as Adrian and Justin chat outside the Echo Fox team house.

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    Altec brings Banana out to say “Hello.”

Just behind him, charging and gleaming, is his black BMW i8. The flashy new rental arrived just in time for the weekend, thanks to esports agency, PressX. He might not get a chance to drive it today, but he will tomorrow when the weekend competitions are over and there’s some time to unwind. There will be plenty of time for windows-down joyriding then.

Cars like these aren’t common for esports players, at least not yet, but they speak to changing times. GM Jake Fyfe notes that Adrian is making about ten times the highest League of Legends salary from just a few years ago. Drool-worthy status symbols like sports cars will surely become more common as pro gamer salaries and lifestyles converge with those of pro athletes. 

Right now, what Adrian is really looking forward to is food, and lots of it. If Echo Fox wins today, maybe they’ll go out to eat and shop, two of his favorite activities. “We usually like to go out,” he confesses. “[We like] good food. Me and Huni stress eat a lot. And when we're really happy we eat a lot, too. So we’re always eating.” Win or lose, it sounds like the future holds some of their favorite meals: steak, Din Tai Fung, sushi, Korean barbecue, and maybe even all of the above.

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    ROG contest winner Evan Samer checks out Adrian’s sweet new ride.

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    He and fellow winner Nick Abela got to tour the Echo Fox house.

Next comes Altec in a distressed jean jacket, cradling Banana the fuzzball, who’s wriggling and eager to meet the newcomers. Some of the house’s yet-to-be-packed items are Altec’s, including board games. “I play board games with Huni and Adrian at night,” explains Altec. They really like Bohnanza, a German card game about beans. He likes working out, too, and is planning to start a weekly badminton group with Huni and the Academy players. 

Adrian and Altec joked around for a few more minutes, then disappeared to finish getting ready. Their battle against Clutch Gaming was looming. The pressure was on to secure a 2-0 weekend. This opening weekend was a chance to prove critics wrong about their new roster.

echo-fox-na-lcs-small76Huni, Altec, and other players sometimes unwind with ping pong at HQ. Adrian wants to start a badminton group with LCS and Academy players.

12:00 PM

A normal scrim day usually means getting to the nearby Echo Fox office by 10:30 AM for breakfast. Players walk or catch a quick rideshare, then wolf down Greek yogurt, peanut butter sandwiches, bagels, or cereal, in a pinch. Whatever helps them power through three-plus hours of practice until lunch.

But today’s a competition. For earlier games, that means heading straight for LCS Arena. Today they’re already in the Green Room, the backstage area where they practice, eat, and hang out before the match. Justin Lee, the team’s assistant, is collecting lunch orders.

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    On competition days, players either eat lunch at LCS Arena or in the city, depending on their match time.

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    Evan (left) and Nick (right) were impressed by the pro perspective. “It's cool to see professionals work at something we do for fun every day,” said Evan. “Playing League of Legends is just what we do to hang out,” added Nick. “And people our age are doing this.”

A pro player’s hierarchy of needs clearly begins with food. The LCS and Academy teams’ at-home meals are prepared by a professional Korean chef, who ensures the food they’re eating is both delicious and nutritious. At HQ, the snack room overflows with protein bars and Pop Tarts, while the kitchen is stocked with Lays, Cheez-Its, Sun Chips, and more. Some homemade kimchi is probably needed to balance out all the Cheetos. Forget the Riot Player Lounge catering, though. It’s a last-resort, dire-straits situation in there, although, there are buckets of energy drinks and fistfuls of Slim Jims, for those who dare make the pairing. 

Next in that hierarchy is caffeine. Lots of it. The backstage Green Room fridge is filled with Red Bull, and there’s almost always an energy drink nearby. Plus, Justin’s often going on pre-game coffeeshop runs.

echo-fox-na-lcs-small64Echo Fox HQ’s kitchen is stashed with all kinds of snacks and breakfast foods (and can you spot the Vault Boy mug?)

When it comes to food and competing, some Echo Fox players have adopted very specific rituals. Adrian and Altec, fast friends since the Team Dignitas days, have settled on one very specific meal before competitions: Chipotle.

1:00 PM

Every player has his different pre-competition preferences. Fenix likes constantly warming up until the game starts, while Dardoch prefers chilling out. From the back of the Green Room, he alternated between browsing Twitter and watching the ongoing match.

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    Dardoch likes to relax and keep his mind off the competition. He was hanging out on Twitter with beefy gaming headphones plugged into his phone.

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    In contrast, Fenix prefers constantly warming up. He was intently focused on solo queue matches, even while other players were hanging out.

Huni is a veteran of LCK, the South Korean LoL scene, a region known for its grueling training routines. Before joining Echo Fox, he was also on the formidable SKT1, one of the world’s best teams. Despite pedigree that would make many opponents blanch, backstage in the Green Room he was holding a cuddly bear plushie while gazing up at the TV. It’s not the tough disposition you might expect from a player with Huni’s background. Perhaps this softer side came out backstage. Then again, this was the bubbly top laner who regularly hammed it up for the cameras and whose personality was known for boosting everyone else’s. “Huni does a lot of funny stuff,” said Altec. “It’s really, really easy to get along with him. [When he joined], it brought everyone’s mood up.” So, perhaps it wasn’t too out of character after all. 

With the team’s stomachs now sated and energy drinks close at hand, Green Room warm ups began in earnest. Back at Echo Fox HQ, the Academy players were signed on and ready to help their LCS counterparts with pre-tournament practice. It was time to scrim.

echo-fox-na-lcs-small101Huni holds a bear plush in the Echo Fox Green Room.

1:45 PM

echo-fox-na-lcs-small85Lost warms up with OSU!, a rhythm game for practicing mouse mechanics.

Over at Echo Fox HQ, the Academy Team had just wrapped up their own lunch. Now they were settling in at computers, warming up their hands, and getting ready to help the LCS team train for their impending match. Today was technically the Academy’s day off. However, LCS’s tournament practice schedule almost always takes priority, and practice scrims like these don’t usually cut into the day too much. When the LCS match began at 6 PM, the Academy players would be off the hook for the rest of the evening.

The LCS and Academy teams scrim regularly, but these practice matches are especially crucial before competitions. From a practical perspective, the Academy team is a convenient, on-call opponent. From a strategic standpoint, it’s LCS’s chance to test key strategies without giving away crucial intel. And, from a pure difficulty perspective, solo queue just doesn’t cut it when you’re looking for a challenge. Scrimming is great experience for the Academy players, too. “When I'm scrimming, I have to put in maximum effort,” said Jungler, Nathan “OddOrange” Ryan. “You have to put in 100% or you’re not really going to improve at all.” 

The only major scheduling differences between Academy and LCS right now are Spring Split-related; Academy matches land on Thursdays and Fridays instead of Saturdays and Sundays. That, and all Academy matches besides playoffs are online versus on a stage. The Academy team might be in a lower competitive bracket and they might not be under the arena lights as often, but that doesn’t make what they’re doing easy. Just like LCS, the Academy team wakes up early, gets to the office, and works out. After breakfast, they scrim from 10 AM to 2 PM, break for lunch, and practice through 6 PM. Dinner is at the office or home, and then it’s probably more League of Legends in solo queue if they’re feeling it. Then they wake up and do it all over again. 

“There’s a common misconception that this is really laid back,” said AD Carry, Lawrence “Lost” Hui. “But it's pretty difficult and if anyone is looking to go into it… They gotta be ready for the consequences. They have to be strong.” Top Laner, Kieran “Allorim” Logue agreed wholeheartedly. Besides the usual challenges on the path to pro gaming, he noted additional difficulties like lack of family and financial support. Allorim dropped out of college to go pro, but it took two years of living frugally, working at Chipotle, and advancing through the amateur scene before getting to where he is today. “But now it’s all good, right?” He said with a grin and a shrug. “[I] made it.”

echo-fox-na-lcs119Papa Chau and Lost take a break between scrims.

The Academy might be scrimming against LCS right now, but during the week they face other Academy teams. This is the daily work of pro gaming, and the Academy team says these scrim blocks are especially exhausting. Many prefer unplugging and unwinding at the end of the day, but others, like OddOrange and Support player Papa Chau, seem to have endless energy for LoL. They’re almost always back in-game for solo queue, even when their daily work is done. 

During weekly practice scrims, Academy Coach Peter Zhang watches every match with a hawk’s eye, his notebook and pen poised, scribbling down notes for later. LCS Coach Inero often steps in for a quick glance, too.

echo-fox-na-lcs-small92Coach Peter watches the Academy scrims on the ROG Swift PG248Q Esports Gaming monitor, scribbling notes for later review.

After each game, there are match reviews. Discussions are supposed to last 15 minutes, but often go much longer. They cover where and how to place wards, when to teleport, which Champions to pick and how to counter-pick. With the team circling up in their chairs, raising their hands, and focusing attentively on Coach Peter as he frantically scribbled on the whiteboard, it was like taking classes at an actual League of Legends school. “It’s like Drafting 101, right?” Joked Allorim later. 

Humor aside, they love their coach’s passion, right down to his use of a laminated Summoner’s Rift map at a moment’s notice. “He inspires us to not let him down and play really well,” said OddOrange.

echo-fox-na-lcs-small107Class is in session with Coach Peter. Look closely and you’ll see the instructional map of Summoner’s Rift tucked behind his monitor.

6:00 PM

echo-fox-na-lcs-small6Huni heads to the competition area.

Back at the LCS Arena with warm-ups behind them, it was almost competition time for Echo Fox’s LCS team. The players strode out of the Green Room, bags loaded up with everything they needed, and clustered backstage, waiting for their cue.

There it was. They streamed up the steps, past the larger-than-life League of Legends logo, straight to their designated stations. Their pulses quickened with the thrill of the cheering crowd, the flashing orange and red lights, and the pounding music.

The team erupted in a flurry of activity. They knew the drill, unrolling mouse pads, plugging in mice and keyboards, adjusting monitors, situating headphones, and testing mics with errant chatter. Huni adjusted the pillow attached to his headrest, while Dardoch bounced up and down in his chair like a trampoline. They were antsy with adrenaline, ready to start.

echo-fox-na-lcs-small7Adrian focuses on getting his computer set up properly before the match begins.

As picks and bans began, Coach Inero remained onstage, playbook cradled in one hand, talking quickly through each 30-second phase, reviewing their gameplan, and reacting in real time as FlyQuest did or didn’t draft as expected.

For the team, the audience’s cheers had long ago quieted beneath headphones. For spectators, the roar was deafening. With Champions selected, Echo Fox was dialed in. Everything but their monitors faded into the background. Now they could do what they do best.

7:15 PM

echo-fox-na-lcs-small21Echo Fox excitedly jumps up after their victory. Huni somehow found time for a few sips of water.

“GG guys.”

Echo Fox’s fingers flew over the keyboards as they exchanged congratulations with their opponents. At 33 minutes on the nose, it had been an awesome end-of-weekend victory. They’d executed a masterful late-game split push, playing their cards right with carefully calculated aggression. Mid laner Kim ‘Fenix’ Jae-hun, who’s still somehow convinced that he “plays like a newbie,” was an absolute beast with Azir, showing everyone that he means business on this new team.

Director of Player Operations, Daniel Deshe, was especially happy with the team’s weekend wins. “I attribute it to the players putting in the hard work,” he said. In spite of a short week and fewer scrims than normal, “When they had the opportunity to win, they took it. They didn't wait for something bigger to open up.” All the intense practice and pressure had been building up to this. With eight more weeks ahead, they couldn’t let off the gas. But for now, they could allow themselves a little celebration.

They could see the crowd cheering behind the monitors as the all-encompassing white and orange VICTORY text turned the world neon. Echo Fox leapt up, ripping off their headphones. The din of the audience flooded back in, and the team strode quickly across the stage to wish their challengers well. Huni gave Clutch Gaming’s Febiven a big hug, both a greeting and wry apology for beating his former Fnatic friend and teammate. Fenix hugged Solo, another former teammate and friend.

Not that Echo Fox’s players were ones to lose sleep over conquering friends. In a post-match interview, Huni said he liked dissecting a frenemy’s play-style. It was all part of the thrill. “Beating friends should be more fun when they’re part of the enemy,” he said. He wasn’t especially worried about impacting friendships. “It’s whatever. This is professional league.”

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    Fenix hugs his former teammate Solo after beating him in NA LCS Spring Split 2018 week one.

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    Does Huni ever worry about beating friends? Nah.

8:20 PM

echo-fox-na-lcs-small16Echo Fox’s team and management gather in the chill evening outside LCS Arena for a victorious fan meet-and-greet.

Adrian’s Korean barbecue dreams were about to come true. After a fan meet and greet outside the LCS Arena, the entire team, management, Republic of Gamers contest winners, and ROG staff packed a long table at one of Beverly Hills’ best KBBQ restaurants to celebrate the Echo Fox win. 

As the banchan, celebratory glasses of soju, and decadent meats were laid out by attentive staff, Huni and Dardoch passed a phone back and forth, playing an addictive mobile game they’d just downloaded. To Huni’s right, his mom and brother beamed with pride. For the first time since his 2016 Season stint on Immortals, they’d flown in from South Korea to watch him play live. 

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    Banchan (side dishes) laid out at the Korean barbecue restaurant. Adrian and Huni were in foodie heaven.

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    Huni and Dardoch passed a phone back and forth playing a mobile game over dinner.

As meat sizzled away on the grill, Huni’s mom provided insight into his professional gaming journey. At first, she didn’t approve of his aspirations, but everything changed in 2014. At just 16 years old, Huni won an amateur tournament, and his mom realized his ambitions. “She thought she shouldn’t be allowed throw away his dream,” explained a Korean interpreter over our meal. From then on, she not only accepted his seriousness and dedication, but resolved to go above and beyond with her support. Huni’s little brother helped his mom learn about League of Legends, and now she follows along with matches. These days, she understands and admires just how challenging his chosen career is.

As the Academy players said, and as Huni’s mom has come to realize, there’s nothing laid back about pro gaming. Players at this level are as young as they are disciplined. They might be laughing around a dinner table now, but it’s a rare moment following a key win. Just a few hours ago, they were shouting into headsets, sweating under hot stage lights and immense pressure. It’s no wonder they all have different ways of coping, from fancy cars and fine dining to personal time with their puppies. 

Full of delicious barbecue and warm with celebratory soju, everyone slowly trickled into the cold night, hailing Ubers and going their separate ways. Tomorrow, they’d get a brief rest before restarting grueling scrim blocks. Seven more weeks until playoffs, then Summer Split, World Championships, free agency, and, suddenly, full circle back to Spring Split. Work out, scrim, eat, sleep, compete, repeat, repeat.

echo-fox-na-lcs-small32Echo Fox’s LCS team poses with management and front office staff.