Wednesday, May 1, 2024

How to build the hardest-working team in the LCS

Written by:
Nick Ray
Team Liquid Crest Logo Light Version
Written by:
Team Liquid Crest Logo Light Version
Edited by:
Team Liquid Crest Logo Light Version
Graphic design by:
Wednesday, May 1, 2024

How to build the hardest-working team in the LCS

Team Liquid Crest Logo Light Version
Written by:
Team Liquid Crest Logo Light Version
Edited by:
Team Liquid Crest Logo Light Version
Graphic design by:
Wednesday, May 1, 2024

How to build the hardest-working team in the LCS

Team Liquid Crest Logo Light Version
Written by:
Team Liquid Crest Logo Light Version
Edited by:
Team Liquid Crest Logo Light Version
Graphic design by:

“For the first time since 2019, Team Liquid is the best team in the LCS!” 

Before the final caster call of the League of Legends Championship Series 2024 Spring Split could reach the ears of viewers at home, Eom “UmTi” Seong-hyeon had already leapt into the arms of Eain “APA”  Stearns as blue, white, and gold confetti showered the stage. Prideful and composed, Jo “CoreJJ” Yong-In and Jeong “Impact” Eon-young both met their teammates’ celebration with confident strides. They’ve been here before many times. For UmTi, APA, and Sean “Yeon” Sung– who looked rather nonchalant considering he’d just become an LCS champ–however, this win was a first. A remarkable first in the face of months (years, in UmTi’s case) of harsh criticism and relentless efforts to improve. 

Jun “Dodo” Kang was the first of their allies to join them from backstage, and perhaps the only individual in the arena capable of truly understanding the range of emotions these players were feeling. He’d also been here before. As a player, as a coach, and now, as the General Manager or Team Liquid. 

“If I were to say why I’m still doing what I’m doing, it’s because I’m competitive,” said Dodo. “I just want to feel the sense of winning.” 

Five LCS championships into his career with Team Liquid, Dodo is still winning. But most of his victories don’t come with a trophy. They look like learning a new skill that will make him better at supporting the team, or a player who joined the team from Korea finding food in Los Angeles that they enjoy. For Dodo, those triumphs act as motivation to lead by example and pour everything he has into his job. 

Visions of growth

The day before TL raised the LCS trophy, they’d just defeated Cloud9 in the lower bracket to qualify for the 2024 Mid-Season Invitational. Naturally, the team’s sights were set on the upcoming finals match against LCS first seed FlyQuest. As General Manager, however, Dodo’s focus was split.

“Once we qualified for MSI, I had to make sure all our visa processing was good,” said Dodo. “I started looking for options for bootcamps before MSI. I looked into options in Korea, China, Japan, and ultimately chose to bootcamp in Chengdu for about 10 days prior to the event. Our priority was to be here early so we can adjust to the country, timezone, food, and get back into our routine as a team. I had to reach out to a few contacts to make sure we had a good setup for the bootcamp.” 

Luckily, Dodo and Team Liquid had already started the visa process roughly a month before the MSI qualification match. At the time, the team was sitting in the bottom half of the league after a string of losses.  

Around late 2013, Dodo formed a League of Legends team of his own with some friends from solo queue called Team 8 to chase his dreams of going pro in League of Legends. In the past, Dodo played Heroes of Newerth professionally with Evil Geniuses. After winning the North American Challenger scene with Team 8 in 2014, and later qualifying for the LCS with that same squad, he’d finally get his chance. 

Dodo didn’t win much during his time as an LCS player with Team 8 in 2015. Actually, that team was without question one of the worst teams in the LCS at the time. But Dodo still looks back on that time fondly, and credits it as an experience that has shaped his approach to managing other players. 

“It wasn’t as professional back then, obviously,” said Dodo. “It was kind of just five guys playing games. Just living together, eating some shit food, going to the gym a little bit… but the whole experience for me as a player was enjoyable– it was super fun. I think I enjoyed every single moment of that.” 

As a certified LCS old head, I’m obligated to take this moment to educate you all on the wild west that was pre-franchising LCS. Before the glitz and glam of the league we know today–flush with extravagant salaries, big time investors, and lavish training facilities– were the days of energy drink can-laden gaming houses and filterless personalities uninhibited by the fear of upsetting big brand sponsors. Spicy drama and heated arguments were aired out on YouTube channels like freshly laundered whites on a balcony for the whole community to see. It was awesome. 

“There was a time where one of our players just kind of, like, left the house because he wanted to join another team,” said Dodo. At the time, the strict poaching rules of modern-day LCS didn’t exist. “He saw LMQ on our side of the bracket and was like ‘I’m leaving’, one day before the tournament.” 

For some, these experiences may have turned them away from esports entirely. But Dodo cherished this opportunity to the fullest — he values those tough moments just as highly as the good times. They helped shape his ability to empathize with his players when he was coaching, and how he approaches his duties as a GM now. 

“I know what the players need during the season,” said Dodo. “I could always talk to the players very easily because I know the players, I played against them, they know me. It was easier for me to actually build relationships with all the players and gain respect as well.”

And, sure, having the skills of a former LoL pro certainly helps, too. 

“Even now, I still talk about the game with Impact, Core, and some of the guys and they still listen to my opinions a little bit because I know about the game,” said Dodo. “I still play the game quite a bit. I try to hit Masters/Grandmasters every split [laughs]. Getting harder now, but it’s still doable.”

Dodo made the difficult decision to retire as a pro soon after his first full LCS season. Team 8 actually qualified for the 2016 LCS season through the promotional tournament, but sold their slot to Immortals, where Dodo would take on roles in player and team management. After a few years, he eventually accepted an opportunity to join Team Liquid as assistant coach in 2017 after weighing multiple options. 

“I was definitely sad when I had to choose to retire,” said Dodo. “I always want to be the best in the world — or the best at what I’m doing, right? I kinda had to realize ‘am I gonna be the best support player in the league? Am I gonna be able to compete at Worlds?’ I actually chose the path of management, the coaching side of it which felt like more where I could definitely be the best in the league.”

Outworking the competition    

Dodo’s stint as TL’s Assistant Coach from late 2017 to the end of 2019 was about as fruitful as someone as competitive as himself could hope for. Working under former Head Coach Jang “Cain” Nu-ri, he helped a team made of some of the best players in the LCS take home four back-to-back (to-back-to-back) LCS championships. A feat which has yet to be repeated to this day, and may never be replicated within the region again. These results didn’t go unnoticed within the org, and he was eventually given more managerial responsibilities by Co-CEO Steve Arhancet. 

“Steve doesn’t trust a lot of people immediately,” said Dodo. “He needs to see results. He needs to see people achieving something before actually giving them duties.”

Winning four domestic titles is certainly one way to earn the trust of your employer. Starting in late 2019, Dodo gradually moved into more team manager roles within the team before eventually transitioning fully to GM in 2021. He learned quickly that in order to succeed in that position, he’d need to learn an entirely new set of skills including contract negotiation, budgeting, working with social media and public relations teams, and how to run a department to name a few. At one point, helping to fill a gap made by a recent departure, he even managed Liquid Guild (Team Liquid’s World of Warcraft players) during a Race to World First.

“It was a bit overwhelming at the start,” said Dodo. “[Steve] gave me a lot of tips and tricks to manage that. I learned a lot through the last two years — it just became a little more natural. Now Steve gives me a lot of control on what I want to do and what my vision for the team is.” 

Dodo’s first few years as GM looked very different from his early years at TL as a coach. The org’s tried and true roster building strategy of gathering the best talent possible to assemble an LCS super team was no longer working. With support CoreJJ as the single constant on the team since 2019, stacked lineups came and went. And after a critical failure in 2022, where the most stacked team in Liquid (and probably LCS) history failed to qualify for the World Championship, it was clear that this roster building strategy was no longer viable from both a competitive and financial standpoint. Dodo knew something needed to change going into 2023, and the buck stopped with him. 

“When it becomes ‘winning is always expected and losing is a failure,’ that is something where you need to reconsider how you approach things,” said Dodo. “It was the first time in about five years I believe that we changed our approach to roster building. I kind of had to convince Steve to approach the process of roster building in a different way where we have to invest in our talent, the rookies. Conveniently, Spawn was having a lot of success in Academy. They won Academy back-to-back. There was really good talent in our system.”

Dodo’s top priority in assembling the team for 2023 was to build a team and culture where everybody was working hard. And he values that ironclad work ethic above all else, including results, when it comes to his player and staff.

“I’m always at the office until the players are [done] there,” said Dodo. “It’s like an expectation for me: if you really want to succeed, you have to put in the hours.” 

A new era 

The first iteration of a TL team built to fit Dodo’s vision included the likes of 2022 World Champion jungler Hong “Pyosik” Chang-hyeon and former LCS MVP top laner Park “Summit” Woo-tae, CoreJJ, bot laner Yeon, and mid laner Harry “Haeri” Kang (both straight from TL’s academy system). Halfway through the 2023 Summer Split, APA was promoted from Team Liquid Honda Challengers to the main team as the starting mid.

This roster began the year at the bottom of the LCS and ended summer as a top three team with a ticket to Worlds. Though their time overseas was cut short, that year’s comeback story served as an absolute proof of Dodo’s philosophy. So, he doubled down for 2024.

“Going into this year, we kind of kept the same system and culture,” said Dodo. “We kept the two rookies and brought in Impact and UmTi, a super hard-working player with something to prove.”

Dodo hates any insinuations that Team Liquid prioritizes building rosters of mostly Korean players, especially because every member of the team, players and staff, has fully bought into the hard-working culture. He’s intimately aware of the rigorous practice schedules adhered to by players in the South Korean region, but his goal has always been to be the hardest-working team in the LCS — regardless of player background. 

In Dodo’s eyes, Impact and CoreJJ are two of the best players to raise rookies because they effortlessly lead by example. They’re players who maintain robust personal lives while throwing their all into their work. They always talk about the game, even in their free time. And are often eager to review games even after wins. CoreJJ especially embodies the system that Dodo works to build within TL.

“He is definitely one of the hardest working players in the league,” said Dodo. “He wanted to elevate the region. He would run in-houses and he would just spend so much time on trying to improve the rookies.”

Dodo emphasized the importance of working intelligently in addition to working hard, and monitoring the emotional and physical well-being of his players.

“We also know how to work smart,” said Dodo. ‘We don’t just mindlessly grind games…we have a lot of meetings as a coaching staff about how we should be using our time.”

The TL coaching staff works to ensure players are spending enough time out of game and properly developing their skills. This can be especially difficult to manage with rookies who are eager to prove themselves. Dodo was quick to identify Yeon and APA as the biggest offenders when it came to overexertion and long grinding sessions. 

“Their life is just League of Legends all year long,” said Dodo. “The coaching staff and I had to monitor [Yeon’s] sleep and how many games he played while in Korea bootcamp because he would spam games nonstop and not prioritize his sleep and health. He’s gotten better about it now, and we had to educate him on how he needs to balance his sleep and practice so he can practice efficiently.”

While older and more experienced, CoreJJ, UmTi, and Impact still have the same passion and hunger for the game as their juniors — it's just tempered, and backed by results. They’re role models within the team, and are always discussing the game with their teammates. 

On paper, this sounds like the dream formula for a top LCS team, right? A former LCK jungler with something to prove, two cracked rookies from TL’s internal talent pipeline, two of the most successful and experienced LCS players of all time. Evil Geniuses’ winning 2022 LCS lineup, of which Impact was an alumni, had an identical structure. And, much like that EG team, this TL spent most of the season flirting with playoff disqualification before making an epic lower bracket run for the title. 

The test ahead 

Despite a turbulent start to the Spring Split, this 2024 roster was already living up to the expectations of both Dodo and the coachings staff. A vocal part of the League community felt differently, however. Calls for the team’s rookies to be replaced also spiked, after comments by streamer (and former TL bot laner and eight-time LCS champion) Yiliang “Doublelift” Peng described early season talks of him joining the team in 2024 to replace Yeon falling through.  

“There was a big community sentiment about us making a mistake, I guess, me making a mistake, personally,” said Dodo. “There were a lot of hateful messages about myself and the team, and there were a lot of hateful messages towards APA and Yeon.”

Dodo isn’t one to shy away from reading critique’s from fans, but it never affects his work. Still, this 2024 Spring Split trophy was a necessary validation. His past few years of resolve and efforts were not enough to reclaim glory within the LCS, after all. But the vindication wasn’t so much in proving the haters wrong, but proving his own path right. 

“It was kind of vindicating,” said Dodo. “It feels good. Not because I proved the haters wrong, but it was because the things that I believed in were right… the players and coaches putting all the effort and time in got rewarded.”

This team is a reflection of Dodo’s firm belief in the potential of rookie talent, and his steadfast commitment to providing a nurturing and healthy environment for hardworking players to succeed. But MSI is the real test. His competitive drive remains as strong as ever, and as someone who was once a single best-of-five away from making history by winning MSI in 2019, his ultimate goal is to help his players reach even greater heights. 

“I once asked Core ‘what do you think that we can do to win Worlds?’” said Dodo (while stifling a laugh). “He said, ‘If all the NA rookies right now replace all the NA veterans right now, then we have a chance to win Worlds in NA.’” 

At the time, Dodo had no clue how serious CoreJJ was about this answer, and he’s still not sure, but the logic made sense. The most successful regions, China and South Korea, had robust talent pipelines in which hard-working and talented rookies could work their way up from secondary and tertiary leagues to earn a starting spot. And, oftentimes, those players were quick to become superstars in their own right. T1’s Lee "Gumayusi" Min-hyeong and Gen.G’s Jeong "Chovy" Ji-hoon are prime examples of this system in play. 

As for this TL’s upcoming international debut, Dodo plans to take things one step at a time while being careful not to place unrealistic expectations on the team. 

“Right now, I’m super happy with the team,” Dodo said. “I think international tournaments are just a testing place for us to see how much we can compete with the best teams in the world.”

A measured approach makes sense when preparing for elite competition. But anyone who’s ever been a competitor knows that gut feeling that dares you to abandon all logic. The one that urges you to throw caution to the wind and bet on yourself to win it all. I call it “main character syndrome.”

Dodo remembers Team Liquid’s last appearance at MSI in 2019; CoreJJ and Impact remember, too. The team toppled the reigning world champions Invictus Gaming in the semis to advance to the grand finals. It was a monumental feat worthy of the LCS history books, but that story ends with Team Liquid getting 3-0’d by G2 Esports at a record-breaking pace. They were not the main characters. Of course Dodo wants to do whatever he can to be in that situation again. But he has faith these players are capable of achieving something even greater, if given the time. 

“They’re just the hardest working players in the league,” said Dodo. “Our goal is to learn, adapt, and get better as a team. And I think if we get better and better at everything, then we can win.”

When Dodo says “our goal” he means it. He is trying to work as hard, and learn as much, as his players. Whether it’s how to contract players to his team, how to stop his solo queue-obsessed rookies from fusing to their PCs, or how to secure a very tricky green card for his star support in time for the middle of the season. He enjoys the process of learning new things. And as the LCS 2024 Spring Split champions prepare to enter a proving ground unlike any they’ve faced before as a team, Dodo’s learning to value every experience along the way as its own victory. 

“Sometimes [it’s a lot],” said Dodo. “But in the end, if I can actually manage and handle it, it’s kind of like competing in a sense, right? It’s like winning as well.”

Share article

Thanks for reading!

It's incredible how much growth the LCS and everyone in it has experienced since those early days. Take some poynts - we're glad to have you along for the ride.
Some poynts, then back to work!

Related articles

League of Legends

Why LCS Game Changers Matters

LCS Game Changers is an initiative that uplifts League of Legends players of marginalized genders. But a decade into League esports' history, why do we need it now?

League of Legends

Ocean of Love

In the spirit of Valentine's Day, Team Liquid is proud to present the first dating sim where you can date esports teams - who are also whales.

League of Legends

How Riot Makes Their Black Characters

For years, Riot has struggled with Black representation. This is how they're trying to change that.

League of Legends

TL vs. FLY: outperforming a superteam

On March 31, 2024, Team Liquid lifted the LCS trophy for the first time in five years. Here's how they went from middle of the pack to the kings of North America.