Excel Esports Are Proving Their Doubters Wrong
When Excel Esports announced their 2022 LEC roster last December, the overarching feeling was it wasn’t exactly stellar. The ignominy of being the only LEC outfit to have never reached the playoffs at the time – they have since gone on to finish in the top six in the spring – stuck like an albatross around their neck. The perception was that while they are good on their day, on a bad one, they had the propensity to arguably be the worst team in the European League of Legends league.
This air of unpredictability that hung over them made them one of the most mercurial outfits in the sport. You just didn’t know which version of them would turn up. As is the case with mid-tier and lower mid-tier teams, the unexpected flashes of brilliance stood out brighter, and they didn’t cover themselves in glory because such performances were mostly followed by oodles of mediocrity.
But they have consciously tried to course correct now. They have drawn inspiration from Rogue. Once the laughing stock of the LEC (they finished 10th in 2019 with two wins and 16 losses), they have now emerged as challengers to the throne. Rogue proved such a transformation isn’t an outlandish prospect if you make the right changes and put the right people in charge. And Excel have so far tried to walk the talk.
Mark “Markoon” van Woensel and Finn “Finn” Wiestål’s addition have given them a little bit of variety. Erlend “nukeduck” Våtevik Holm was said to have developed an air of sameness having been around the LEC for years. They said he didn’t have much to give and was doing the bare minimum to survive, not thrive. Nearly halfway into the summer split, they have all carved a niche for themselves; they have all left an imprint in some way or the other.
Finn’s kill participation, Markoon’s offensive proficiency and Nukeduck’s assists have all been as good as they come. Mind you, they aren’t earth shattering. They’re not the kind of numbers that are threatening the record books. But a fine concoction of their strengths in unison has fired Excel Esports to near the top of the leaderboard at this stage. Players who weren’t exactly rated highly by experts and fans alike coming into the split are now the toast of the summer.
The season started with seeds of self-doubt. It didn’t help that the external pressure didn’t abate. There was constant scrutiny of their decision to not make changes to their roster ahead of the summer. The logic was it was absolutely perfect for teams like Fnatic, G2 or Rogue to not make changes because they were successful. How could Excel Esports, a “weaker” outfit, not make switches? Something didn’t add up. But games aren’t played on paper, as they have proved.
Last spring, they were a butt of jokes. Why? Because, well, they made the playoffs. Because they supposedly had no business being there. They finished ninth in their first spring split, in 2019. The summer was even worse, they finished last. In 2020, they finished seventh in both spring and summer. The trend was they’d struggle to finish in the top six, but they did. And that seemed to have injected a wave of optimism within their ranks.
The high was followed by another setback last year when they finished eighth in both splits. Not even the signing of the experienced Nukeduck, who has been at every season non-stop since 2011, forced a change in fortunes. Then in what can best be described as a move borne out of necessity, they signed Markoon last year, and it’s a partnership that has gone from strength to strength.
One signing was followed by another impactful one: Finn before and Mihael “Mikyx” Mehle during this year’s Spring Split. Each one of them had a massive say in them finally making the playoffs. Nine wins in the split got them to uncharted territory. It was all dreamy, but it was the culmination of a number of smart roster moves and game play that brought them the rewards. They were finally in a position to move on from being the laughing stocks to challengers in the midfield.
“The first iteration of the team didn’t really work that well, so we had to make adjustments,” Nukeduck told Inven Global. “That’s why we also had a bit of a slow start, but it was also my play, I think. Now, I think we are getting better and better. We have a full Split with Mikyx and we can work with him from the start. We don’t have to rush anything in the middle of it.
“So, I’m the kind of player that stops playing the game a lot when the Split ends. When we got to Korea, I needed a bit to get into shape again. The first week, I would say, I was playing kinda badly. But after that, I think it was fine. You just play against better players. Some games, of course, you lose, and some games you win. It was fine. Some players on specific champions were obviously one level above others, so it was hard to deal with. You can’t say, ‘We played well in the scrim, so now it’s all better.’ But I think we got a lot of good reps in Korea, so I think it was good. For the playoffs, I’m not sure what it does.”
What has worked for them is they haven’t been reliant on any single player like has been the case in the past. Where earlier they’d concede ground the moment they landed the big kills, they have learnt to snowball leads successfully, unlike some of the other sides. For the first three weeks, they held the highest average gold difference at the end of the 15-minute mark, a measure of how much in control of the map they were in.
They haven’t been averse to taking risks. And this has been led by Markoon, who was written off. He has now been one of their catalysts for change. They have snowballed leads successfully, even as Patrik “Patrik” Jírů and Nukeduck have proved their utility quietly without shouting over rooftops.
This transformation hasn’t been overnight. They have walked the extra mile in trying to narrow down on a play style given their roster. They spent the off-season in Korea, playing scrims against some of the best teams in the world over a month-long sojourn. And when they came into the summer, they looked like a transformed unit. Their early-game decisiveness in dives and team fights have stood out.
This transformation has also helped the likes of Mikyx, who hasn’t had a proper offseason to get to know his new teammates. Yet, he seamlessly switched from the G2 Esports bench to the Excel line-up straightaway.
When they lost to G2 in the opening week, it seemed as if the boot camp theory was starting to wear off, but in taking down Mad Lions and Vitality the way they did, they showed they meant business. They showed they’re there to stay and are firmly on the path towards being a totally different team to the diffident one that debuted over three years ago.
“I do think that, if the meta had stayed the same, we would have been crushing,” Nukeduck said. “We were actually playing well in scrims against the top teams at MSI. I felt like that meta fit us a lot. At the start, when we came home, people hadn’t really adapted yet. Now, we are not crushing that hard anymore because we actually need to learn something. We scrimmed against Astralis and we actually learned some combinations from them that work in the meta, and we could not do anything against them. We’re still learning and adapting to the meta.”
There are clearly challenges. Can they sustain this new-found aggression and gusto? Time will tell, but the signs are promising.