Set For Success – How TSM Fosters the Rising Stars of NA
Following yet another abysmal international showing from NA at the 2019 World Championship, NA’s amateur scene has faced a great deal of scrutiny in 2020 leaving people wondering what’s being done to develop the region’s young talent. These days, 100 Thieves’ NEXT program and Cloud9’s historical success with rookies, such as reigning MVP Robert “Blaber” Huang, have spearheaded the discussion around who’s doing what to give resources for NA players with the aspirations and aptitude to become pro. Oddly enough, one of the oldest teams in the league, TSM, hasn’t been getting as much recognition despite sinking heavy investment into scouting and development initiatives in recent years.
The TSM Scouting Combine (formerly TSM Scouting Grounds) and TSM Junior programs were announced in 2018 and 2019 respectively and are still ongoing talent development initiatives within the organization today. Both programs were partly formed by former General Manager and current Head Coach Parth Naidu, who has been a driving force in TSM’s efforts to double down on developing the next generation of superstars in NA.
TSM’s talent philosophy
TSM has had their fair share of roster moves over the years, but it wasn’t until 2018 that we saw them take a public stance about wanting to make space within their org for promising young players to learn and grow. Back then, this stance was reflected in their announcement of their own private Scouting Combine, acquisition of an Academy team, and signing of homegrown NA rookie Mike “MikeYeung” Yeung among other things.
According to Parth, however, they don’t discriminate when it comes to actually searching out talent. “We believe that talent is universal. We don’t look at just NA players, but those all around the world,” he said. “During down times during the season, I’m usually watching EU masters, Turkey, Australia, Brazil. You slowly start to develop context in each of these regions to know who the up and coming talent is. Erik “Treatz” Wessén and Sergen “Broken Blade” Çelik are a result of this effort. They’re players that those regions didn’t necessarily highly prioritize at the time that I saw were really good and we’ve kind of been developing them at TSM.”
In addition to finding the right players, Parth emphasized the importance of a strong coach that enforces the fundamentals of the game onto players. Because rookies tend to be impressionable and form a lot of habits in their early, formative years, training must be rigorous. He identified TSM’s Academy Coach Peter Zhang’s coaching as a key element for TSM as he excels in this regard and is highly respected by TSM’s players.
Another important aspect of talent development at TSM is the development curve. This refers to the rate at which different players at different stages in their growth will be able to improve. While some teams will tunnel in on gathering as many rookies as they can, TSM has turned their focus on finding a balance between young rookies and more veteran players that can lead the way.
“There are multiple places where a player can be at,” Parth explained. “A player who comes straight from solo queue has different expectations and goals compared to someone who spent a year in a development league or someone who’s played in LCS for a bit. All of them have places or parts of their game, communication, and leadership, that they can improve and develop. It’s up to the organization that picks them up to identify that and see how it fits into what they wanna do. For example, you never normally pick up five rookies because it’s really important to have one or two veterans on the team to balance out and give the rookies perspective. Similarly, it’s also important for the veterans on the team to still have LCS aspirations. So we will never have someone on our Academy or Junior team that doesn’t have the potential to make LCS or make it back to LCS. Those are the core guidelines for us in terms of who we pick up and how we want to develop.”
Upon recognizing that then-starting ADC Jesper “Zven” Svenningsen’s contract was nearing expiration, the org identified the need to build up aspiring rookies. In 2019, TSM began to funnel more resources into their Academy team. ADC Edward “Tactical” Ra, veteran support Erik “Treatz” Wessén, and later ADC Johnson “Johnsun” Nguyen, were pivotal to TSM Academy’s success, earning the team an Academy championship in Spring of 2019 and finishing within the top four in Summer.
“We have a cycle of when we look at certain talent and when we want to slot other people in. It was similar to Ming-yi “Spica” Lu actually,” Parth explained. “Spica is someone I spoke to at I want to say 2018 Scouting Grounds, but I’m not really sure. At the time he was only 16-years-old. I think he was really talented for someone that nobody knew and he was also really outspoken, so I followed his trajectory from there.”
TSM Scouting Combine
The TSM Scouting Combine is one of two internal talent scouting initiatives at TSM. The idea first formed as a solution to the problems TSM and many other teams face when trying to hold tryouts during the offseason. Between trade negotiations, Worlds, and whatever else may be going on, there was little to no time for TSM to hold intensive tryouts that allowed them to vet a player’s gameplay and other intangible attributes. The Scouting Combine solved that issue, at least for Academy, by providing a controlled environment for TSM to test players how they saw fit.
Before constructing the TSM Performance Center, TSM would rent out a separate space to hold the Scouting Combine for a few weeks. Both players and potential coaching staff would be flown in (if necessary) and provided hotels near the area. Players would be judged by both their gameplay and how they interacted with their teammates, while analysts and coaches would be paired with different rosters to have their skills in overall coaching, reviews, and analysis observed.
While TSM has worked hard to develop their own program, Parth recognizes that the Riot-sponsored Scouting Grounds event still holds an important place within NA’s amateur ecosystem, despite becoming less important for teams over the years. The biggest draw being that for unknown talent, it’s a predefined path to pro that’s been laid out and can be actively worked towards.
“When we run our Scouting Combine, it allows us to invite anyone that we want, and we get to test them in any way that we want,” he said. “We get to test them against our current pool of players, and we can mix and match rosters to see how the synergies work, whereas you don’t really get to do that at the Riot Scouting Grounds. We actually have a lot of help from Logitech with this event, as well as Andy Walshe from the Luminal Collective. They’ve been helping us refine the process from doing panel interviews to creating an elite performance model for what metrics we wanna track and how we want to run this event. It allows us to do a more in-depth analysis of what we really want, more so than going into an event that’s run by a third-party and getting limited access there.”
While the Scouting Combine has traditionally been held as an annual event within TSM, Parth confirmed TSM’s plans to hold the bootcamp at least twice a year beginning in 2020. Since the start of the year, they’ve held at least one such event between the Spring and Summer Splits, but they were held online due to complications caused by COVID-19. Those same complications have made it more difficult to consider inviting players living outside of the United States to participate as travel bans and visa issues have arisen.
TSM Junior and the amateur circuit
The newest, and perhaps most topical, talent development initiative within TSM is the Junior Program, which was announced in January 2019. Contrary to what many have come to believe about it being a full-fledged amateur team, TSM Junior was created as a trial program for young, skilled players still in school or uncertain of their future that were interested in seeing what it was like being a pro. Its three founding members were jungler Austin “Sarcasm” Tran, mid laner Rico “Sword” Chen, and Johnsun, however, Parth stated that other players have trickled in and out of the program since its upstart.
In Sword’s case, he was too young to compete upon signing and is still in high school. In Johnsun’s case, he was unsure if pursuing a career as a pro was the right move for him during his initial conversations with TSM. Junior allows for players like Sword and Johnsun to have access to TSM’s players, scrims, coaching staff, and whatever other resources they may need.
As more teams begin prioritizing finding good young players they can use to flesh out an amateur team, it begs the question of why TSM Junior hasn’t participated in any amateur tournaments despite teams like 100 Thieves’ 100X doing so and performing well. For Parth, the answer lies in the way in which the amateur scene operates as a whole.
“At the end of 2019, I wanted to continue this project by having a full third team similar to what 100X is doing right now,” Parth said. “The problem was, in my conversations with Riot and kind of the amateur circuit, there were a lot of restrictions on what you could do and what you were allowed to do at the time, so I didn’t really feel confident in investing fully into it. The system was really disjointed, it wasn’t really well thought out and there were a lot of inherent issues. It’s a really complicated scene to manage. You’re managing a scene with third party organizers and amateur orgs and in order for it to be sustainable every party in that ecosystem must have an incentive to keep working and growing players. Let’s look at amateur orgs: for them to be incentivized to grow and nurture talent, they must be in a place where they don’t instantly lose the talent any time an LCS or Academy team wants it. And at the same time, as an Academy or LCS team, you don’t want an amateur org to be holding a player on a long contract and not having the opportunity to move up. There are alot of things to figure out.”
Parth isn’t alone in this way of thinking. In a recent interview with Hotspawn, 100 Thieves support Philippe “Poome” Lavoie-Giguere voiced his opinion that the amateur scene is unorganized and unstable, with players having little to no incentive to stay with teams in most cases.
Despite his skepticism of the way the amateur scene is currently run within NA, Parth is confident that NA will be able to follow in Europe’s footsteps and develop a model in which there’s compromise between third-party organizers, amateur orgs, LCS teams, and their relationships. He confirmed that those conversations are happening right now, and while he’s not sure what the end product will be, he’s confident that TSM Junior will be looking to kick back up in 2021. If his concerns about amateur are cleared up by then, the team will be competing in a similar vein as 100X.
TSM’s future plans
Due to COVID-19, the road ahead seems increasingly uncertain for many orgs when it comes to bringing in talent. Regardless, TSM’s vision for the evolution of their League of Legends program is clear-cut.
“We’re probably one of the few orgs that invests everything we can into amateur and academy and we’re definitely gonna see that continue,” Parth claimed. “Once the amateur circuit improvements come into place, we’re looking to reboot TSM Junior coming into next year. Since 2019, we’ve definitely had a very clear development plan with our Academy. We work with Peter Zhang and have a great coaching staff behind it. We’re generally either high into the rankings or making sure that we’re making improvements to get there; a lot of our players since then have gone on to play in LCS.”
For the LCS team, the plan has always been to continue using the best tools available to field the strongest roster iteration possible. In Academy, the system will remain a combination of players on different parts of their development curve; veterans or rookies. TSM Junior will become a program exclusively for rookies that tests their fundamentals, leadership skills, and other abilities. Ideally, an ebb and flow will develop where high-performing players from Junior will fluctuate between Academy, and Academy players may find opportunities to bounce between LCS.
Over the past two years, TSM has laid the groundwork for a comprehensive talent development system unlike anything publicly showcased by other LCS orgs. It may take a bit more time for all of the pieces to come together, such as TSM Junior’s revamp, but it’s safe to say that TSM’s style of bringing up players has produced the desired results thus far. Spica, Tactical, Johnsun, and Treatz all went through an iteration of TSM Academy between 2018 and 2020. All four of these players currently hold starting positions in the LCS with TSM, Team Liquid, and Team Dignitas.
TSM round out the 2020 Summer Split regular season this weekend with matches against Golden Guardians on August 7 at 7 p.m. PDT and Team Liquid on August 9 at 3 p.m. PDT.