Entering the 2018 season, Echo Fox was the most disappointing organization in North American League Championship Series history.
When it was announced that former NBA champion Rick Fox bought Team Gravity's spot in the LCS for a deal reportedly around $1,000,000, expectations were high. This was not a team that was without money, lacking vision or just trying to stay afloat in the NA LCS. The team was quick to scoop up European legend Henrik "Froggen" Hansen as the ace and face of the brand. Around him, the Foxes compiled a team of up-and-coming talent with the remaining time before the season began in hopes of being competitive. The team failed to make the playoffs in either spring or summer 2016 and ended the year in embarrassing fashion, winning only a single game of the 18-game schedule and scraping through the relegation tournament to stay in the league.
Come 2017, again, the team didn't skimp when it came to name recognition, signing former world champion and Samsung White top laner Jang "Looper" Hyeong-seok to allegedly the most lucrative base salary contract in the league at the time. Just like in 2016, the team failed to gain traction, showing little synergy and help for Froggen in the mid lane, who performed well individually but suffered from having one of the weakest top and bottom lanes in the league. The investment into Looper didn't pan out, and though Echo Fox didn't finish dead last, two straight eighth-place finishes meant another year without playoffs and left Rick Fox, the head of the team, needing a new blueprint for success.
After Echo Fox was accepted into NA LCS as one of 10 inaugural franchises last fall, it was time for a full reboot. Gone was Looper. Gone was rookie standout Matthew "Akaadian" Higginbotham, who eventually landed with Optic Gaming. Even Froggen, the face of the franchise, did not make it onto the 2018 roster, with the Danish mid laner taking the spring season off to train in South Korea with former Echo Fox teammate Austin "Gate" Yu, leaving the starting lineup barren of any former members.
In their place, Fox and head coach Nick "Inero" Smith enacted a plan to create a roster capable of not only winning the NA LCS but also functioning as a starting five for the foreseeable future. When the roster was announced, the community's first response was fascination underlined by fear of the team's explosive personalities. Star player Heo "Huni" Seung-hoon was returning to North America, where he used to be known for a one-dimensional playing style and lack of flexibility. Support starting Adrian "Adrian" Ma had jumped around from team to team. Jungler Joshua "Dardoch" Hartnett had been on more teams over the past year (four) than Rick Fox had played for in the entirety of his 13-year NBA career (two).
Through all the backlash of the team's choices, though, Echo Fox had faith. The team's starters were not picked due to happenstance. When the team was accepted into the NA LCS, Smith and the rest of the franchise used anything and everything to make sure the team would have the chemistry needed to contend.
"Everyone expects the team to implode and everything, but we had a huge offseason because Echo Fox didn't make the playoffs -- months to work with -- so we compiled a huge list of players, interacted with each other, if they were friends with each other," Inero said. "Everything from seeing them at parties and how they interact and stuff like that, we were really aware of how everyone already had friendships established.
"We knew these people were already friends with each other, so when we approached them, it was kind of like a chain effect. So we end up with Fenix. Fenix and Dardoch are good friends. We wanted Daroch, and [he] was surprised we even went after Fenix. And that led to Adrian. Adrian brings Altec. And then they bring Huni along as well, so it just chain reacts. The personalities aren't even a problem. All of them want the same thing: They all want to win."
With the roster set up, the first step was complete. Next was building the infrastructure around the players. Instead of having the players live in a team house and practice while being with their teammates 24/7, each player had his own apartment, living space and practice room. For the players, the move from a communal team house to separate living quarters was most beneficial to the player with the most experience moving from team house to team house. That was Dardoch, who has begun the year with his best play since he came into the league as a rookie on Team Liquid two years ago.
"I've matured a lot over the last two years," Dardoch said. "My life situation is a lot more complete, where I have my apartment, my dogs, I have a regular schedule kind of thing. So there are not as many random things in my life just tilting me throughout the day, like having to stay in the house after scrims, bad days, that kind of stuff. Overall, I think a lot of the reason I'm happier is because obviously, my teammates are just really good people and really close friends with me. And also, I'm just living a lot better."
Dardoch would go on to say that while being in a team house can be beneficial, it's a case-by-case basis. For him, someone who loves the game and is self-disciplined, the around-the-clock monitoring in a team house can be a detriment, causing more issues than it resolves. With his own living space, he can separate his gaming life and personal one. When he has a bad day at work or has an argument with one of his teammates, he doesn't have to stew beside him while eating dinner or walk on eggshells around the house. Instead, like any other athlete in the world, he can go home, unwind and come back to work the next day to hash out issues with a calmer head after being away from the game.
"Very, very young teams, like Academy-level, it's good to have them all in-house so they can get used to what that environment is like, but as people are more experienced, I think it's really good to have that separation from where your work is and where you can just relax and be at home and chill," Inero said. "So I think that's extremely important, and Echo Fox thankfully provides that. We're moving all players to apartment-style living areas, so I think it's really important and something that's undervalued."
In the first three games of the NA LCS season, the team played as designed: quick, in-sync and aggressive. Fenix, who essentially had an off-year after being replaced on Team Liquid in 2017, was the big revelation in the first week of games, playing like he hadn't skipped a beat (and then some) in his return to the main stage. Overall, the team's chemistry outside of the game translated to inside it, with Echo Fox being one of the few teams to effectively snowball an early-game advantage into a blowout victory in a meta plagued by hour-long marathons. Similar to the Immortals team Huni and Adrian starred on two years prior, the team played loose and fun League of Legends, leading to highlight plays in an attractive style of the game that won over the fans in the arena by weekend's end.
The only thing missing from Echo Fox's early season résumé was adversity. Immortals, which faced almost none in its first season in the LCS, had a rude awakening come the playoffs, when its style failed to translate into a best-of-five setting, and Huni's stubbornness in playing style cost the team what seemed to be an almost guaranteed trip to a title and a ticket to the Mid-Season Invitational.
In the fourth game of the season last weekend, against Team SoloMid, the team that beat Immortals in that playoff round, Echo Fox faced the challenge. It needed to see where its mental fortitude stood among the other top teams in the league. Down almost the entire game and pushed to the brink of a loss several times, with the Riot cameramen shuffling near the stage for every TSM attack thinking it should be the last, Echo Fox held strong at the goal line and kept fending off the three-peating champion. While Inero admitted that TSM lost the game more than Echo Fox won it, he was proud of his team's mental resolve, chipping away at the deficit until ultimately reversing the pressure and winning the game.
At the center of it all was Huni. On the scoresheet, it was the worst performance of the season for him. Back on Immortals, a performance like that from Huni would have meant an easy victory from the opposing side. That isn't the Huni who wears the Echo Fox jersey, though. A year spent on SK Telecom T1 under the greatest coach in the game, Kim "kkOma" Jung-Gyun, Huni has become a different player. Now, instead of being the one the team needs to rein in, the ace top laner has matured into the calming, clear voice Echo Fox needs when things are tilting off the map.
"When Huni came in, he just made the atmosphere so tame and really relaxed," Dardoch said. "And as soon as he gets in-game, he flips the switch, and he's try hard SKT Huni. He just sets the standard for everyone in terms of how hard we need to play, on how much focus we need going into the game. He's just a really great example of what a complete professional League of Legends player looks like. In-game, we're just all kind of taking care of each. I lost Baron today -- notoriously, my smites are garbage -- but right after, Huni looks me in the eye and is just like, 'It's fine, don't worry about it.' We instantly move on what we can do to win."
Huni went to Europe and won a title in Europe. He went to South Korea and won a title in the toughest region in the world. North America, the only region in which he has played professionally but hasn't won a title, is the only thing remaining from Huni's domestic mantle. A little over a year ago, he left North America without a championship to chase his lifelong dream of playing on SK Telecom T1. Following the completion of his dream and getting to play with Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok, be coached by kkOma and play in a Summoner's Cup Final, the dull, nagging pain of losing with Immortals still stuck with him. Older, more mature now and in the role of in-game leader, Huni doesn't want to be the man who gets Echo Fox to the playoffs for the first time.
He wants to be the man who brings Echo Fox its first LCS championship.
"I don't think going to the playoffs should be the goal," he said. "I'm thinking at least make the playoffs, and winning [it all] is my goal. And then go to MSI. And then just prove that we, as a team, play really well. That's my ultimate goal."