Just one game separated Golden Guardians from a potential ticket to the 2020 League of Legends World Championship. Just one more win was all the team needed to enter a potential winner-take-all best-of-five series with a qualifying seed to Worlds on the line. Just one more win and the franchise would have had a shot at changing the narrative forever.
Heading into game three of the 2020 LCS Summer Split lower bracket quarterfinals on Aug. 23, Golden Guardians found themselves poised to move on to the semifinal round. A date with Cloud9 was on the horizon. All they had to do was topple over a team in TSM that they had beaten in five previous consecutive contests heading into that decisive game. In that moment, Golden Guardians had the league at their fingertips. The entirety of North America was ready to be captivated.
Two hours from that moment, though, Golden Guardians’ season came crashing to a close.
TSM, a team that Golden Guardians seemingly had pinned down to a science, came back from a drastic 0-2 deficit, winning three straight games to knock Golden Guardians straight out of the playoffs. It was a shell shocking, overwhelming, and most certainly premature defeat that left a franchise destined for bigger things asking “what happened?” at season’s end.
But even with a lower finish than the team might have anticipated, there’s still a lot to be positive about when it comes to the successful 2020 that Golden Guardians had, as well as the bright 2021 season that’s on the horizon for the organization.
Despite placing fifth overall to close out the 2020 season, there were many points throughout the year where one could argue that Golden Guardians looked stronger than a fifth-place finisher. At certain points, especially during the team’s summer postseason run, Golden Guardians played up to a level where they could most definitely pass as a top-four team in North America. They were, after all, just four wins away from representing the region at Worlds.
Even though there were three games that separated Golden Guardians from the top four at the end of the regular split, a bounceback 5-3 stretch to close out the regularly scheduled bill of the year—which included a convincing week eight win over Cloud9—proved to be a deciding factor in regard to the overall success of Golden Guardians in 2020. Additionally, a solid playoff performance helped contribute to the total level of confidence surrounding the team and its current roster. Had things gone differently to close out the year and the roster wasn’t resilient enough to recover from its brutal 1-4 start this summer, the narrative surrounding Golden Guardians would look immensely different.
Golden Guardians may have missed out on the World Championship by the length of a hair, but there’s still a lot to be proud of as the team reflects on 2020 as a whole. The highly-touted and long-awaited young talent that the team had waiting in the wings was able to shine on a widespread level at the back-end of the season. And for the first time in the organization’s history, it genuinely feels like Golden Guardians has a core of players that the team can develop moving forward into the looming offseason and the following year as well. If 2020 served as a year in which the organization set the table, then 2021 should be widely anticipated as the year when Golden Guardians breaks through.
Building a core
One of the major themes surrounding Golden Guardians on a year-to-year basis was the nasty trend of beginning a new season with an entirely different core of players than the one it ended the previous season with. Whether the org was replacing fresh players of a younger generation with veterans who were supposed to carry the team to new heights or bringing in unproven rookies to take the league by storm, Golden Guardians always seemed to switch things up heading into each season. In fact, since entering the LCS at the start of 2018, 16 different players have started at least one game for Golden Guardians, the second-most of any team in the league during that span (only behind 100 Thieves’ mark of 20 players).
Heading into 2020, the team made several changes during the free agency period when veterans Froggen and Olleh left Golden Guardians. Additionally, at the season’s halfway point, Goldenglue and Keith left the team’s starting roster after a disappointing 8-10 Spring Split that saw Golden Guardians fail to win a playoff game after barely reaching the postseason bracket in the first place.
As the summer quickly approached, Golden Guardians was forced to do some soul searching and revamp the team’s starting five as soon as possible. The organization faced a midseason crisis and was cornered into the process of trying to revamp a borderline team on a split-by-split basis. The Golden Guardians roster carousel was in full swing and it seemed like it’d take a miracle—especially in an unprecedented year like 2020—to make the on-stage product palatable and ultimately successful.
Without question or hesitation, the organization’s front office answered the call.
With a second half stretch run on the horizon for Golden Guardians, the team picked up Damonte to fill the void left by Goldenglue while promoting FBI to the main roster in an attempt to develop young talent in two imperative carry positions. The previous Summer Split, FBI, an Oceanic import, reached the LCS stage but only played in 11 of Golden Guardians’ 21 games that split. In 2020, however, the team was fully committed to allowing him and the rest of the roster’s young players to bloom and acquire experience. This time around, FBI had a developing core full of fellow young players around him, as opposed to last year when he was the only non-veteran on the roster.
The new additions were immediately thrown headfirst into the fire on their first day. Their week one victory over Dignitas saw Damonte and FBI post identical scorelines of 6/2/5. It was almost as if from day one, the pair was destined to serve as the linked barometer for Golden Guardians’ success moving forward.
Throughout the course of the split, the two Golden Guardians carries had breakout performances across the board. And although FBI and Damonte have hung around in the professional scene for a few years at this point, it truly felt like the summer of 2020 was when fans finally got to see both players break out in their own respective ways on a team that gives them the tools to succeed.
In addition to the talent that Golden Guardians already had on tap in North America, the organization also invested in another import from the TCL in Closer. The jungler reached Worlds in 2019 with Supermassive, giving four out of the five starting players on Golden Guardians experience at a World Championship. In North America, however, he flourished alongside the field. Closer ranked toward the top of the league when it came to statistical categories this past split. Most notably, his ability to farm the jungle was nearly unmatched. He ranked in the top two across the LCS for stats like CSM with a mark of 6.2 and [email protected] with 13.0, according to League statistics website gol.gg. The only jungler to topple over Closer this summer when it came to statistical prowess was Cloud9’s Blaber.
Developing a winning culture
Now, as the season winds down and a long offseason of reflection begins for Golden Guardians, it couldn’t be more obvious that the core of the roster—the core that features Damonte, Closer, and FBI in headlining roles—needs to stick together heading into 2021. If the organization is going to find any success moving forward, it’s going to be on the basis of stability and proven success. Finally, the organization has found a core of players—of both the domestic and imported variety—that it can build a winning culture around.
And still, even beyond that young core consisting of FBI, Closer, and Damonte, Golden Guardians has more talent to work with if they choose to do so. And although Huhi and Hauntzer will be fair game to the rest of the league when the free agent market opens once again, the team wouldn’t necessarily be making the worst move in the world if it re-signed both players this fall.
During the Summer Split, when the current roster gelled together on an impressive level, Hauntzer and Huhi served as two veteran anchors on opposite ends of the Rift. Hauntzer ranked in the top three among all qualified top laners this past split in CS/M, DPM, and [email protected], according to gol.gg, bringing his statistical prowess up to the level of other elite veteran top laners in the league like Licorice and Impact. Hauntzer was a solid option for the team statistically and he managed to serve as a veteran leader on a team full of players who hadn’t flourished in their careers as notably as he had.
Additionally, Huhi, who spent the majority of his career as a mid laner, came over to Golden Guardians in 2019 where he immediately transitioned into the role of support. While his statistics that season were less than desirable when compared to his contemporaries, the team stuck with him. And this year, he began to earn his place among the top support players in the league, becoming more comfortable in the role. While he might not be as stunning as players IgNar or Vulcan, Huhi’s veteran presence in the bottom lane alongside the team’s developing superstar in FBI is a welcome intangible that not many other teams in the league can claim host to.
With a perfect combination of veteran presence to supplement the growth of the organization’s next generation of young talent, Golden Guardians showcased exactly how to lay the foundation of a winning culture in 2020. Now how do they actually capitalize on that?
The road ahead
The obvious supplemental answer to the team’s future would be bringing in a top-notch free agent to play alongside the team’s younger players. And since the organization looks devoted to the prospect of keeping Closer, FBI, and Damonte together for the foreseeable future, that free agent would have to play in the top lane or the support role.
Of course, external options from the free agent pool might not even be in the team’s sightlines. Both Hauntzer and Huhi have made the case in recent years as to why Golden Guardians should keep them on board and bring the entire band back together next season in an attempt to capture the LCS crown. At the very least, the three-headed hydra of potential in FBI, Closer, and Damonte needs to stick together. With this much development in the organization’s back pocket, the team’s top priority should be making sure those three players, in particular, reach their full, respective potentials.
Regardless of what the org’s plan is, Golden Guardians looks poised to hang tight and stay competitive in 2021. This season was particularly kind to a franchise that desperately needed some form of good news after years of muddling behind the pack. Now, with an impressive overall finish to build off of, the future looks bright for the Golden Guardians. For the first time in franchise history, there are more definitive answers than question marks heading into the offseason.
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