Hauntzer: From Challenger to Champion
As boot camps in Seoul, Korea come to an end, teams from across the world prepare to head to San Francisco to compete for the Summoner’s Cup and the title of the best team in the world. For North American’s fan favourite Team SoloMid, this year appears to be the organization's best chance to make a deep run at the World Championships, and even win the whole tournament.
If either scenario comes to fruition, this iteration of TSM will cement their place as the best team North America has ever created. For TSM’s top laner Kevin “Hauntzer” Yarnell, the next few weeks of global competition he will be participating in will probably feel like a dream. From competing in the challenger scene for a spot in the LCS under Team LoLPro and later Team Curse Academy, to playing for the Summoner’s Cup for the most popular League of Legends team in the world, Hauntzer has experienced almost every aspect of being a pro player.
As League of Legends’ fourth World Championship concluded, Riot Games announced that both the European and North American LCS would be expanding from eight teams to ten. This news gave many challenger players, who previously failed to make it through the promotion tournament, another chance to be part of the 2015 Spring Split.
For Curse Academy, Team Curse’s challenger squad, the expansion tournament was another chance after an extremely disappointing 2015 spring promotion tournament, where they were one game away from beating Counter Logic Gaming and joining the LCS, but proceeded to get reverse swept and lose the series. For the team to not have to experience such a devastating loss again, Curse Academy decided to do everything in their power to guarantee they would make it back into the league, which included finding a new top laner.
In their match against CLG, Curse Academy’s top laner at the time, Cristian "Cris" Rosales, had a very disappointing performance against CLG’s Shin "Seraph" Wooyeong. This caused Academy’s management to make the decision to let Cris go, and instead take a risk and bring in Kevin “Hauntzer” Yarnell from Team Curse’s other challenger team, Team LolPro, to use in the expansion tournament.
Hauntzer has been around in the scene since season three of League of Legends, though it was not until he joined Team LolPro where he made his debut in professional play. At the time of the expansion tournament, Hauntzer, in an interview, described his playstyle as being safe, while being cautious for ganks. This was the type of laner Academy needed, as Cris’ lackluster performance against CLG was a major factor attributing to their loss. With this new lineup, Hauntzer’s role would be to support their mid, Keane, as well as their bot lane, David “Cop” Roberson and Michael “Bunny FuFuu” Kurylo.
As expected, Curse Academy was able to make the finals of the expansion tournament, and beat Team Fusion, the other favourites in the tournament who housed the very popular OGN champion top laner Yoon "MakNooN" Ha-woon. What was not expected was how well Hauntzer did against MaKNooN. Hauntzer was able to neutralize and even have the edge over Fusion’s biggest threat. The final between Fusion showcased to the world the strength of Hauntzer, and dismissed any naysayers who thought Hauntzer was not LCS material.
As Hauntzer and Curse Academy joined the LCS, the team was sold due to Riot’s policy of an organization not being able to have two teams, and therefore became known as Team Gravity. As far as teams coming straight from challenger into the LCS, Gravity had an amazing first split, and it was largely due to Hauntzer, who quickly became known as one of the best top laners in the region.
Hauntzer was able to play both carry and tank style champions (a skill most top laners in North America at the time did not have), making himself a very versatile player. While his mid laner “Keane” was becoming more and more overwhelmed by mids such as “Bjergsen” and “XiaoWeiXiao,” having to rely on more “cheesy” picks like Rumble or Hecarim mid, Hauntzer was excelling more and more, becoming the true carry for this iteration of the Gravity roster. By the end of the spring split, Gravity was able to make it to playoffs off a top-five finish, though get eliminated in the first round by Team Impulse.
The summer split saw a couple of changes for Hauntzer and Gravity. The departure of their jungler Saintvicious, as well as their ADC Cop moving to the coaching position, brought on the arrival of the Korean import jungler, Kang "Move" Min-su, as well as former Winterfox ADC, Johnny "Altec" Ru. While this new roster contained a lot more talent, it also lost both veteran players, in Saintvicious and Cop. This meant that Hauntzer would have to take more of a leadership role on the team.
Surprisingly enough, in combination with a solid bot lane, and Hauntzer’s strong performance in the top lane, Gravity had an extremely successful regular summer split, staying top-four throughout the entire duration of the split, and even securing first place for two consecutive weeks in the last half of the split.
But, during the final couple of weeks in the split, Gravity was on a major downward spiral, losing many games in part to the team’s poor rotational play, as well as Keane’s inability to play meta champions at the time, forcing him to continually have to rely on his unconventional “cheese” picks, which teams had figured out how to play against. With a disappointing final week of play in the summer split, it was no surprise that they were knocked out in the first round of playoffs again, this time to TSM. For Hauntzer, this was without a doubt, one of the worst series he has ever played, getting bested by Dyrus, a top laner who had previously been struggling over the entire summer split.
After playoffs concluded, Hauntzer was in a very precarious situation, in relation to his future in the LCS. With murmurs around the scene that the Gravity organization was trying to sell their spot in the LCS, as well as a few of his teammates, such as Bunny FuFuu getting offers from teams such as Cloud9, Hauntzer was left with two options: either start looking for a spot on another team, or stay with Gravity and see what the future holds. That is until he would get the biggest opportunity to ever occur in his League of Legends career.
On Oct. 14, 2015 it was announced that TSM’s veteran top laner had officially retired, and that alongside a new support and jungler, TSM would be looking for a new top laner. While the masses thought that star names like CLG’s “Darshan,” or the legendary top laner “Flame,” who was currently on the bench of Chinese team LGD, would be chosen, but instead, the young top laner from Team Gravity was the one picked up.
While this roster decision was met with heavy criticism, Andy “Reginald Dinh, the owner of TSM, explained his choice saying that Hauntzer is “a very flexible player ... who can play multiple champions.” Alongside the addition of very strong European imports, Dennis “Svenskeren” Johnsen and Raymond “KaSing” Tsang, as well as the highly controversial pickup of former CLG star ADC, Yiliang “Doublelift” Peng, this lineup was stacked with all-star talent, and Hauntzer needed to prove his worth on this team.
The first test for this new roster came in the form of IEM San Jose. This tournament housed teams like Origen, who were fresh off their semifinals finish at the season five World Championships, and LGD, who were still regarded as a top team at the time, even though they had an abysmal performance at Worlds. If Hauntzer could have a good performance here, then he could silence the naysayers, and show that he belonged on this roster.
The first series TSM played in this tournament was against LGD, and to many people’s surprise, TSM dominated this series. Hauntzer was able to get first blood in the first game on Flame (with the help of Svenskeren), and even solo kill Acorn in the second game. With such a dominating performance against two of the world’s best top laners, Hauntzer immediately changed the community’s perspective of him.
While losing to Origen in the semifinals of IEM San Jose, a hype around both Hauntzer and this new roster was created. Add to the fact that Fnatic’s legendary support, Bora “Yellowstar” Kim became the new TSM support, this iteration of TSM was being regarded as the new “NA super team.” Though, if anything can be learned from the previous “super team” that was made in Europe, it is that a bunch of star talent on a roster does not guarantee success.
The spring split for this roster can aptly be described as “rough.” TSM had the organization’s worst regular split in history, losing to Renegades who were last in the league, and suffering a loss to NRG where they did not get a single kill. The team lacked synergy (especially in the bot lane), and most of their wins came from lower LCS teams, where they won through the massive mechanical skill difference.
Even though the team was having major problems, the community still regarded Hauntzer as a top tier player in the region for his role. This was due to Hauntzer’s stable performance, and the star carry performances he had in many of the games TSM did win. TSM barely made it into the playoff as the last seed, and most people were expecting a first round exit as they were playing the third seed, Cloud9.
It was anything short of a miracle that this roster was able to pull it together for playoffs. Whether it was coach Reginald taking over for playoffs again, or Weldon returning to help the team, but this roster was able to finally play as a team, and be the team people expected at the beginning of the split.
TSM was able to cleanly defeat Cloud9, and even beat the unstoppable titans of the regular split, Immortals, who had a match record of 17-1 previously. This was truly a miracle playoff run for TSM, making their narrow 2-3 loss to CLG even more heartbreaking for the team. While everyone else on the team had experienced being in a LCS finals, this was Hauntzer’s first time, and after such a close series, he and the rest of the team were determined to not make the same mistakes, and win the next split.
The post season was filled with uncertainty for TSM. With the departure of Yellowstar, and the arrival of Vincent “Biofrost” Wang, a rookie support, the community had their reservations over this new roster. After the fifth week of the summer split, TSM had beaten every other team in the league in the new best-of-three format, and everyone acknowledged that this new roster was incredibly good. Some fans went as far as to put this iteration of TSM in the running as one of the best rosters NA has ever had, if not the best.
By the end of the season, alongside his superstar ADC and mid teammates, Hauntzer was undisputedly the best top laner in NA. His laning in the lane swap meta, as well as his ability to communicate with his team on his teleport usage was second to none in the region. As expected, TSM was able to win the summer split in quite a dominant fashion, only losing one game to Cloud9 in the finals.
This playoff showcased just how strong TSM is in comparison to the rest of the region, and proved that they are a world class team. As Hauntzer hoisted up the championship trophy in front of the roaring crowd of 15,000 people in Toronto, he did so with a bit of disappointment as he thought that “[he] could play better” in this series. He knew that it would have been even better to compete against Korean top laners, such as Song "Smeb" Kyung and Lee "Duke" Ho-seong.
In a few weeks, Hauntzer, as well as the rest of his team, has the opportunity to make history for the North American region at the 2016 World Championships. In just over a month, Hauntzer can prove to the world that he is a world class top laner who can compete, and even win, against the best in the world.
Do you think that Hauntzer is the best top laner in the world? Let us know by commenting below or tweeting us @GAMURScom.
Photo credits to lolesports, Team SoloMid, and Dailydot