North America has never been the most notorious region when it comes to producing local talent. Until the creation of the NA Academy League in 2018, North America had struggled to raise up-and-coming League of Legends players all the way up and into the LCS.
Most amateur teams, on the contrary, were usually born with the single objective of qualifying for the next split of the Los Angeles-based league. If they failed to fulfill that goal, a massive roster shake-up seemed to be the norm. In such a short-term-focused environment, there was just no possible way for the rookies to develop and hone their skills.
But this is not the article to talk about regular, everyday teams. Among all these low-budget organizations, there was one that, in the long run, would have all of its rookie players not only competing in the LCS but also being competitive enough to raise more than a few eyebrows. We are talking about the end-of-2016 iteration of the Cloud9 Challenger roster.
On August 2016, Cloud9 Challenger would finally make it into the LCS after easily dispatching NRG Esports in a quick 3-0 affair. Having already achieved the most important goal of the season, however, they weren’t finished just yet.
There was one more League of Legends tournament remaining: the 2016 Logitech G Challenge. Apart from them, the event only fielded Latin American teams and, moreover, took place during the off-season, in which most players need to rest after a year of hard work and putting in big efforts.
Consequently, Jack Etienne and co. decided not to attend without first making some adjustments to the roster. They moved legendary mid-laner Hai “Hai” Lam to the jungle, fielding in Tanner “Damonte” Damonte, who at the time was almost a complete newcomer to the scene, to occupy his role. Furthermore, they decided to include Eric “Licorice” Ritchie, their substitute top-laner, in place of mainstay player An “Balls” Van Le.
Lastly, they also allowed the bot-lane of Johnny “Altec” Ru and Daerek “LemonNation” Hart to rest at home, having young talents Matthew “Deftly” Chen and Tristan “Zeyzal” Stidam stand in at the Argentina-based tournament. They were considered the favorites for winning the tournament, as the format put them directly into the finals, but the reality was completely different.
The roster was a mishmash of totally inexperienced players, with the only seasoned member not even taking on his primary role as a mid-laner. Even if most of them knew each other from SoloQ before they were called to be part of the team, they had just not had enough time to click and start playing as a unit. Once they had to go up against the Brazilians of CNB Infinity for the title, they were just not able to take the win. Finally, they went home with a disappointing 2-1 loss in the only series played throughout the whole tournament.
Apparently, it all just ended there. Cloud9 Challenger would seemingly go on to become FlyQuest and put up a decent performance in the LCS with their main roster, where they would just have to keep fighting for their shot at greatness as they had all been doing up to that point. However, an unbelievable streak of events took place, at the end of which three members of the lineup — Licorice, Deftly, and Zeyzal — were signed by eUnited for the following Challenger Series split.
Two years later, the four of them (leaving aside Hai, who already had a few years on his back as a pro) became established players in the recently rebranded LCS. The paths they’ve taken to arrive at where they are today share some similiarities, but their individual stories are unique.
The C9 Bros
Nowadays, if someone speaks about Licorice or Zeyzal, the words “talented international players” may very well come to mind. At the time, however, they were a far cry from that status. Getting signed by eUnited was surely a blast for the pair. They had both failed to come out of the NA CS 2016 Spring Split open qualifiers victorious. Now, they suddenly had a shot at greatness, even if they had most likely not yet proved they deserved it. The last thing they were going to do was waste such a meaningful opportunity.
In a totally unpredictable way, they went on to dominate the 2017 Challenger Series spring split, decimating most of their opposition, only to end up losing the finals against Gold Coin United. The squad coached by Choi “Locodoco” Yoon-seop, however, featured the likes of Lucas “Santorin” Tao Kilmer Larsen in the jungle and the father of all supports, Hong “MadLife” Ming-Gi, down in the bot lane. It was a star-studded roster for a league like the NA CS.
Even if the end of the split was a little anti-climatic for Licorice and Zeyzal, the League of Legends community had finally noticed their talent. Fans started figuring things out: It was not normal for a bunch of complete rookies to show up in such fashion during a whole regular season; thus, it was most likely the fruit of the immense talent they possessed.
After understandably failing to qualify for the LCS, Licorice and Zeyzal went on to repeat the exact same result in the second split of the year, this time with the help of two new very valuable teammates in legendary Koreans Choi “Dandy” In-kyu and Lee “GBM” Chang-seok. This served to prove that their earlier result had not been just a fluke, as many suggested. They were now justifiably heralded as some of the best American talents out of the LCS.
When it was announced that Licorice was the chosen one to replace Jung “Impact” Eon-yeong in Cloud9 for the first ever franchised split in league history, nobody seemed to approve the move. There was no problem with Zeyzal being the new academy team’s support. He would have the possibility to keep developing his skills while not impacting the main roster of the organization. But when it came to Licorice, would he really be able to keep up with the other, apparently much mightier, professional top-laners?
Time ended up proving all the doubters wrong. After two years, he has proven to be one of, if not the best, top-laners in the region. With a Worlds semifinal within his numerous achievements, the Canadian is not only a force to be reckoned with during laning phase but the backbone of the team as well. Even when nobody is performing to their usual level, Cloud9 can still count on Licorice to get in the lead thanks to his never-ending consistency. His rivals now have to make sure they prepare before playing against him because, at the moment, he’s not going anywhere.
On the other hand, Zeyzal, who used to be his inseparable support, had to get a bit luckier in order to climb upward. Amid the 2018 summer split, Andy “Smoothie” Ta was benched from the main roster, making space for him to play on stage for the first time ever. He ended up staying with them, and nowadays, he is still the support for the Worlds semifinalists squad. It is not his mechanics that stand out, but rather his ability to shot call the team’s strategy and keep his otherwise greedy teammates at bay.
Together with Licorice, he is now a member of one of the most endemic League of Legends teams in North America. Watch out, folks, because we may be watching the beginning of two future superstars.
Deftly, the Golden State’s Wonder
Deftly, for his part, was also able to follow Licorice and Zeyzal into the LCS once 2018 came around. Yet his experience would be significantly more bitter. He joined the main roster of the newly founded Golden Guardians, who bet on local talent to take them to the top in their first season.
Alas, the team ended up being a complete disaster all the way from the start of the year until it ended. Not even the mid-season addition of Korean mid-laner Son “Mickey” Yong-min could save the team from two consecutive disappointing tenth places. Mickey, nonetheless, was not the main issue by any means.
His Heimerdinger looked incredibly clean, and in general, all the champions he played seemed to be at a considerable level. Golden Guardians agreed with this, as he was one of the two players who continued in the team for one more year once the season came to a close. The Golden State Warriors affiliate did not want to be the laughing stock again in 2019.
They brought on Henrik “Froggen” Hansen with the purpose of building a successful roster around him. So far, they have at least improved over last year’s performance, ending on a respectable fifth place after confidently qualifying for playoffs. Deftly has not had the best split of his career at all, but at least he still has time to fix it. He is the face of the Golden Guardians. They have accepted him as a prospect for the future who will most likely start to pay off in a few years. As of now, ex-Liquid’s support Kim “Olleh” Joo-sung is determined to make him improve. He intends to turn Deftly into a more communicative player, using all the knowledge he obtained during his time with Yiliang “Doublelift” Peng. As he said in an interview with Akshon Esports: “I’m pretty sure [Deftly] will blossom and I’ll be next to him to help him.”
Damonte was not signed by eUnited. Rather, his LCS career has been forged through trial and error, through numerous attempts and failures. Unlike his Cloud9 Challengers teammates, Damonte actually had to qualify for the next season of the NA CS. He got to do so forming part of Delta Fox, the secondary squad of what would go on to become one of the most well-known NA teams, Echo Fox.
While his former teammates fought for the trophy and caught everyone’s attention, he ended the split in fifth place, which meant he would have to go through the qualifying process one more time should he want to stay in the league.
He ultimately stuck with Delta Fox, not enjoying much playtime during the second half of the year. That commitment, though, would ultimately grant him a spot in Echo Fox’s academy team at the beginning of 2018. It seemed like that was going to be his role for some time, but unexpectedly, Echo Fox decided to get rid of Kim “Fenix” Jae-hun, the main roster’s mid-laner, in between weeks three and four of the summer split. That switch allowed Damonte to get his so long-awaited opportunity.
Fortunately, he did not disappoint. While Echo Fox lost in the first round of the playoffs, the fact that they even got that far was already an optimistic sign for Tanner. Coming into 2019, he moved on to play with Clutch Gaming. From the start, the roster suffered from severe communication issues, with Heo “Huni” Seung-hoon almost having to translate so the Korean and English-speaking halves of the team could understand each other. Bringing Chae “Piglet” Gwan-jin back to the stage ended up being insufficient, and it was not even his fault.
Rightfully or not, Damonte is considered a low-tier AD Carry within the NA region. Realistically, though, should he care about the quality of his play? He has managed to build a brand for himself, he is now a personality within the league, and with outstanding players, those triumphs shall be cared about and preserved. If he does not suddenly start running it down every single game, the chances of seeing Damonte permanently out of the LCS are fairly low.
However, that is not enough for him. As a good professional League of Legends player, he only strives for victory. But he can relax. The only thing he has to do is keep trying, and if nothing else, Damonte is an expert at that.
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