Esports team-building strategies: Talent vs infrastructure

In this piece, ESI Guest Columnist Caleb Cousens, CEO of Adamas Esports, compares two team-building strategies we have seen in traditional sports for decades: win-now talent acquisition versus infrastructural, ground-up nurturing of talent. 

Caleb Cousens

The other day I was watching one of my favourite industry podcasts right now: Creator Economics, hosted by Reed Duchscher and Blake Robbins. They provide insight into the world of gaming and content creators and they recently interviewed 100 Thieves owner, Matt ‘Nadeshot’ Haag. 

Near the end of the conversation, Reed and Matt got into a debate about what it would take for a North American League of Legends team to win the World Championship. They argued from opposite sides of an age-old argument in traditional sports that has made its way into the esports conversation.

In the tradition of Real Madrid’s Galacticos and the New York Yankees, Reed is convinced it is a challenge that deep pockets and aggressive spending can solve. Reed is looking for North America to win a crown now. Matt and his 100 Thieves League of Legends team have taken a longer-term approach, focusing on talent development and building a project that will last.

Both approaches have their strengths and weaknesses with different timelines and end goals in mind, and I think it is good to have both in esports. It will create more drama, storylines, and conversations around the games we love. 

Having said that, when it comes to sustainability and how teams should be managed for their long-term health — which in turn affects the long-term stability of the industry — I  believe that there are multiple ways to approach investing in pro esports. Let’s explore.

Top-talent-based investment strategy

This follows Reed’s train of thought around committing large amounts of money to scoop up the world’s best talent in an attempt to win now.

As I wrote above, this is an important approach for the esports ecosystem because we need our New York Yankees and Real Madrid teams that people either love or hate. Also, when taking a purely North American view of League of Legends, we absolutely need to start having more success at the World Championships, and the first team to do so will go down in the history of the sport.

Commercially, North America is already one of the top and fastest-growing esports markets, and if there is one thing that North American fans and brands love, it is a winner. This strategy is a good one if you can hit the winning team mix and lift that elusive Summoner’s Cup.

Real Madrid win-now strategy
Sergio Ramos holds Real Madrid’s 13th European Cup trophy. Real Madrid is renowned for its constant win-now mentality, typified by the club’s ‘Galacticos’ project. Image credit: Getty, Michael Regan

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Having said all that, this is a high-risk, all-or-nothing strategy that can leave an organisation in rebuild mode for years to come if not done properly. Returning to our traditional-sport examples for a moment, the New York Yankees and Real Madrid had an existing culture of excellence and history that helped them to achieve what they did. They also had world-class coaches to lead their rosters of superstars to glory. 

We have seen a number of esports orgs splash big cash for a superstar, but no esports team has gone all-in on this strategy to date and proven the model out. G2’s League of Legends team is the closest we’ve come to this, and to great success. In 2018, the org poached the LEC’s best mid-laner Caps from Fnatic — despite already having Perkz, an elite player in that position — and moved Perkz to the bottom lane to accommodate him. Clearly this strategy benefited G2, but not every org has the means to go this route. 

Infrastructure investment strategy

Now over to Nadeshot’s philosophy and approach, which admittedly takes a more long-term outlook and reduces the chances of short-term success for the opportunity at sustainable success down the line.

For football fans, the best example is Borussia Dortmund of the German Bundesliga. Dortmund has made it its business to find and nurture young talent and (usually) sell them off after a few years for an obscene profit. Not only is this approach great business, but Dortmund can continually attract young talent, as they have become a proven development stop for young superstars all over the world. If you hit the right mix at the right time it can also bring trophies, as it did at the beginning of the last decade. We will also be heading to Germany to look at two great examples of orgs in League of Legends that have done this well.

In April, MAD Lions won the LEC Spring Split (go Canadian org!) in an epic comeback against Rogue. Both teams have strong lineups and similar philosophies that brought them to the pinnacle of European League of Legends.

Talent identification and development

MAD Lions LEC Spring Split
MAD Lions win the LEC Spring Split, 2021. The org has nurtured two players in particular — Armut (far right), who played in Turkey until this season, and Spring Rookie of the Split Elyoya (holding the trophy). Image credit: LoL Esports

In an industry where teams are willing to spend millions of dollars on the next top player, this focus on trusting young talent and developing players into bonafide superstars is great for business. MAD Lions won the last Split with a rookie jungler in Elyoya and a top-laner in Armut, who last season was in the Turkish Championship League (TCL). Both were risky moves that are already paying dividends.

Rogue has often trusted young talent as well with its talented jungler, Inspired, the youngest player in the LEC when he joined the team in 2019. This is also one of the obvious differences between these two sides and the likes of G2 Esports and Fnatic, who were the favourites going into the Split with more experienced rosters.

Consistency in project

Another standout when looking at these two European teams is their coaching staff. Both orgs have coaches that they believe in, and are giving them the time they need to build a successful project. Simon Payne has been Rogue’s Head Coach since 2018 and James MacCormack has been at the helm for the entirety of MAD’s one and a half years in the LEC. There is nothing more expensive or disruptive to an organisation than turnover, and finding the right leaders that can build something lasting will always pay off.

Focus on performance

In order to develop young, talented players, you need a support staff that can help them perform as well as manage the strains that come with any esports competition. It is important to remember that these athletes are often teenagers who don’t have the skills or foundation necessary to live in a team house, compete every week, and be professional. Psychologists and performance coaches enable players to understand their performance and communicate with their teammates, and can simply provide them with someone to talk to when needed. They are there to help them perform, but even more importantly, be healthy and learn the skills they need to be successful in life.

Both MAD Lions and Rogue have a performance staff — as in more than one. There isn’t just one practitioner expected to be the nutritionist, psychologist and strength and conditioning coach for the team, as is so often the case in esports. Both teams have a team psychologist and a performance coach to give their players the best chance, not only to perform well, but to have long, successful careers. Not only is this rare in the industry, but many teams still don’t have one performance practitioner. This means that the holistic health and performance training often falls on the already heavy-laden shoulders of the coaching staff or a good-intentioned team manager.

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This is a significant investment and I applaud the decision makers at both orgs for valuing these foundational aspects of their teams’ performance and wellbeing. Building this kind of infrastructure now will set your organisation up for success long into the future. 

Both strategies — spending big bucks on a super-team and nurturing talent through process — can be used to great success, and it is a good thing that there are already debates around the pros and cons of each philosophy. A healthy and thriving esports ecosystem needs both strategies, and the storylines and heated fan debates that come with them. 

I find the infrastructure and grassroots approach the more intriguing project to watch. Whether it is developing the next superstar or finding a diamond in the rough from a smaller region, those storylines cannot be beat. It is the same thing that attracted me to FC Barcelona as a child — the emphasis on youth development. But for every FC Barcelona fan there is a fan of Real Madrid and their big-spending Galacticos philosophy. On which side of the aisle do you sit?

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