The greatest experiment of the 2022 professional League of Legends season can be found in the form of North America’s Evil Geniuses. This season, the team is fielding one of the youngest starting lineups in the world, as well as two of the youngest and most inexperienced players in the LCS’ history. Most importantly, they’re being developed and attaining “superstar status” through EG’s internal farm system.
EG debuted one of the youngest, most promising duos the LCS has seen in 18-year-old AD carry Kyle “Danny” Sakamaki and 17-year-old mid laner Joseph “Jojopyun” Joon Pyun—last year’s Rookie of the Year winner and this year’s near-consensus favorite for the award, respectively.
By taking a historically prevalent and successful route of developing their own stars as opposed to the old-fashioned North American way of bringing in pre-developed ready-to-win A-listers, EG’s front office laid its own pieces of a championship-winning core into place. And now, in their first split together as a cohesive lineup, the team stands just two matches away from hoisting the organization’s first LCS trophy.
While Danny and Jojopyun may be a ways off from capturing the same glory other international teenage prospects like China’s JackeyLove and Korea’s Canyon in their first full seasons in the pro scene, they’re providing EG with something the franchise has desperately needed since it re-entered the LCS in 2020: a long-term plan.
Over the last two years, the two youngsters’ respective tracks to the LCS have carefully replicated the global systems that have been so consistent at finding success in the top level of professional League. EG’s front office is using regions beyond the LCS as a blueprint for its homegrown stars. Because, if there’s any one constant factor across internationally successful teams regardless of their native region, it’s the prowess of young stars. Dating back to 2017, every Worlds-winning team has sported at least one homegrown player aged 19 or younger during their run to the Summoner’s Cup.
In their first split together, Jojopyun and Danny wreaked havoc on the LCS, earning the second-most combined kills of any mid/AD carry duo with 143 between the two of them across 19 games. Only 100 Thieves’ FBI and Abbedagge earned more, logging 146 combined kills this spring, according to League stats-tracking site Oracle’s Elixir. Furthermore, Danny has already collected three pentakills in LCS play this season. No other major region pro player has more than one in 2022, and no player has ever earned more than three in a single season, according to League stats site Games of Legends.
“When looking at other regions, in particular the LPL or even the LEC to an extent, you’re constantly seeing these younger players moving up into the league and I have been a big believer in seeing these young players rise up into the main leagues,” EG general manager Andrew Barton told Dot Esports.
Beyond its promising rookies, EG boasts a healthy mix of veterans to complement the starting lineup’s young talent. The team’s lineup sports proven names like former Rogue jungler and 2021 LEC Summer Split MVP Inspired, two-time LCS champion support Vulcan, as well as 10-year journeyman (and 2013 world champion) top laner Impact. Inspired and Vulcan were both acquired ahead of the 2022 season in an effort to push the team into the realm of championship contention.
Even though EG is competing with one of the youngest lineups in North America, as well as the sixth-youngest lineup across the four major regions of pro League, the team’s starters hold six LCS championships, six Worlds appearances, and 17 All-Pro accolades between them. When they secured a top-three finish in the 2022 LCS Spring Split last weekend, the players each moved one step closer to adding another championship to their trophy cases.
Although their raw age suggests they’re years out from hanging with the heavy-hitters of professional League, the team’s accomplishments would suggest EG is closer to contending internationally than the average fan might believe. The team’s 2022 free agency pickups, Vulcan and Inspired, have both been to two World Championships in the last three years with their former teams.
Expanding the staff
While leaps of faith similar to the ones EG is taking may have been far riskier for other organizations (such as the playoff-eliminated Cloud9, FlyQuest, and Golden Guardians), the franchise has put pieces in place to ensure its young players’ careers are less of a gamble and more of a surefire bet.
Earlier this year, EG expanded its coaching staff ahead of the 2022 season, promoting 2021 head coach Peter Dun to a new position within the organization: head of coaching staff.
In Dun, EG recognizes one of the West’s most proven player-focused coaches of all time. During his time in the EU LCS/LEC, Dun helped develop players including future LCS champion Nisqy, three-time All-Pro jungler Xerxe, and the entirety of the 2020 MAD Lions lineup, which included eventual LEC champions Kaiser, Humanoid, and Carzzy. In short, he’s helping ensure there’s no better organization for a young player to stake their trust in than EG.
“As far as moving Peter Dun to head of coaching staff for us, I think, really, as we look to expand out our coaching programs, a lot of that management does come upon myself, I do look for other individuals to assist and help out in that,” Barton said. “When it comes to Peter and his accolades, he has worked with so many tremendous coaches, whether it was in Europe, Brazil, or other regions.”
In Barton, EG holds one of the LCS’ strongest front office talent developers. With EG alone, Barton has played a pivotal role in not only the promotions of the team’s starting ADC Danny, but also his former amateur teammates Srtty, Skytec, and Tomio, as well—all of whom have progressed to the NA Academy league in 2022. Additionally, prior to joining EG, Barton assisted in the front office of former LCS organization Clutch Gaming, where he scouted and developed the eventual five-time All-Pro Vulcan. Together, the two reached the 2019 World Championship, just one year after the organization’s inaugural season.
After Dun took up the mantle as head of EG’s coaching staff, Gabriel “Turtle” Peixoto filled the void as head coach, while an arsenal of assistant coaches was given jobs in the wide-reaching program. This season, EG’s League coaching staff features nearly a dozen individual minds working together across the organization, from the amateur level to the LCS stage. Between scouting experts and coaches for different positions on Summoner’s Rift, EG made it a priority to extrapolate and build upon relationships between its players and staff.
While raw, unignorable on-stage talent is the greatest indicator of future success, a proven coaching staff and front office are essential in establishing a winning culture. As Team Liquid won championships in 2018 and 2019 with Jang “Cain” Nu-ri, and Cloud9 (and now 100 Thieves) did with Bok “Reapered” Han-gyu in 2020 and 2021, EG hopes to do the same with Dun, Barton, and the rest of their staff this season—in the process adding more names to the historic shortlist of top-tier LCS coaches and executives.
Together, minds like Barton and Dun cover all aspects of a successful front office in esports including recruiting, developing, and promoting. With their track records in mind, it’s hard to be concerned for the futures of developing players like Danny and Jojopyun.
Pushing the issue, setting the pace
Last year, the team took a massive risk in promoting Danny to the LCS stage with no prior Academy-level experience. The straight-from-amateur promotion was one of the first of its kind in LCS history, described as a jump straight to “step 100,” by Danny last summer. In fact, the young ADC was forced to juggle his own high school graduation and LCS debut on the same weekend.
“The big difference I try to get younger players to actually understand is when you’re joining Evil Geniuses, it’s not a bunch of talk,” Barton said. “There’s actually going to be action and next steps for you in your career. So, hopefully, I have really established not only a culture, but more or less a baseline to where players can objectively look at our program and go: ‘hey, he’s actually serious when they do promote players up in the ranks.’”
The youth movement at EG is an outlier in the LCS, too. Among the 20 youngest organizations in the world by aggregate age, just three hail from North America. Furthermore, the LCS remains the oldest major league by average age of players as of the 2022 Spring Split.
In the East, League fans can date back to a seemingly endless compendium of high-tempo, occasionally game-winning plays made by players completely unafraid to take risks, even in moments of tension. With the arrival of young players in Jojopyun and Danny, high-risk, high-reward plays—plays that are a dime a dozen in leagues like the LPL and LCK, and even on the international stage—are becoming more common in North America.
“I think you can look at our playstyle and understand that this is probably a group that could contend on the Worlds stage eventually,” Barton said. “I think with how North America specifically approaches League … there’s a lot of passiveness when North American teams are playing the game. That is not an acceptable way to play the game outside of North America.”
So far in 2022, EG have been playing League at a much more rapid and aggressive pace than any other team in North America. Their 30-minute average game time in the LCS Lock In was the fastest among all teams competing in this year’s preseason tournament, according to League stats site Oracle’s Elixir. In the Spring Split playoffs, the team’s aggression has carried over. Their 16.67 kills per game are far and away the most among all postseason-qualifying teams heading into the final weekend of the bracket.
“The rest of the world is playing hyperaggressivley,” Barton said. “Games are ending between 25 and 30 minutes, and you see this average game time decreasing over time … and what you’re really looking for are those high-mechanical players who are going to get stuff to happen. With [Jojopyun], Inspired, Vulcan—these are players who want to be proactive on the map. They want to get stuff done. I think this is very important in North America because this is how we’re going to actually contend on the Worlds stage.”
With a high ceiling on its newcomers and a high floor for its veterans, EG has a strong core that can dependably develop and compete far beyond the confines of the LCS stage. While superteams of the past had been built for the “here-and-now,” making an all-in attempt to win a title overnight, EG took the steps in 2021 to build a roster that can develop enough chemistry to contend in 2022 and potentially win a championship later on in the team’s growth cycle.
Just three months into their first full year together, EG’s young stars are outpacing their projected development schedule, defeating rival young, flourishing teams like FlyQuest and Cloud9 (in do-or-die playoff series, no less) en route to an appearance at the LCS’ finals weekend. Their ability to convincingly beat teams conducting similar experiments proves just how far ahead of the LCS’ curve EG really are.
“Even though you can give a chance to Academy players, I feel like giving a chance is not enough. You have to have a lot of faith in them and give them a starting spot,” Vulcan said in a post-game press conference during this year’s LCS Lock In tournament. “But it’s also a very scary jump to make as an org to have that much faith in a player. Obviously EG is doing that with Jojopyun this year, and we already see that it’s paying off, and the public will see soon enough.”
To get ahead of (or at least on pace with) the pack, EG modeled itself after a traditional sports team, prioritizing long-term maturation and staying power over all other factors that define successful teams. By finishing sixth in three consecutive splits, EG took its lumps while working out the kinks in its starting lineup. While there aren’t any draft picks to “tank” for in the LCS, there is a common factor between traditional sports and esports when it comes to roster building: time. Championship-winning teams such as the MLB’s Houston Astros and NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks, for example, each spent years picking the right young players out of talent pools to build their core, overhauling their coaching staffs to assist in the development of their fresh-faced stars, as well as signing stalwart veterans to provide enough juice to back the team up when the 11th hour arrived.
Over the last two years, EG took a similar approach and has a quickly developing lineup the team’s fans and front office both feel comfortable with. The team always had its sights set on the long term, but the fact that immediate success is springing up in the present makes the future that much more promising.
EG will play in the LCS’ first major live event since 2019 this weekend when they take on Liquid in the Spring Split’s lower bracket finals in Houston, Texas, on April 23.