North America has a poor reputation when it comes to developing talent. Here are three up-and-coming LCS rookies who are looking to change that narrative.
Through a combination of importing talent and the longevity of veteran players, it’s always been considered much more difficult to make it as a rookie player in NA than EU. The lack of regional competition means that many NA amateurs have lacked opportunities to prove themselves in a tournament atmosphere.
Steps were taken by Riot to rectify this in 2021. The LCS Academy system was restructured, and academy and amateur teams would now compete alongside each other in the Proving Grounds tournament. The change offered amateur players the opportunity to play in the same tournaments as LCS organizations and increased the number of eyes on the amateur scene.
While NA’s grassroots circuit is still far from perfect, it’s making steps in the right direction. And we’re now starting to see the fruits of that labor blossom in the LCS, with two players coming into LCS starting spots this year who have made their way up through the amateur ecosystem to the main stage of North America.
Alongside those amateur graduate hopefuls, North America has not given up on its age-old tactic of importing talent. But instead of going for ex-World Champions, the region has looked to the LPL’s developmental league, the LDL, for talent that can potentially be molded into the future stars of the LCS.
Here are our picks for North America’s most exciting rookie prospects for 2022.
Joseph ‘Jojopyun’ Joon Pyun- Mid laner for Evil Geniuses
If there’s any rookie who’s going to give you the entertainment factor, it’s Jojopyun. Hailing from the Evil Geniuses’ development system, he’s played for the org pretty much since his competitive debut in 2020.
He spent two months in the amateur scene before he was picked up by EG Academy in January 2021. The team’s performance in the academy league was mediocre, failing to find anything above a fourth-place finish throughout the 2021 season.
Jojopyun’s most played in the Summer Split was Lulu, but don’t let that fool you – he’s a bloodthirsty, hard-carry player through and through. His career most-played champions are Sylas and Lucian, and EG Analyst Mike “Beora” Skriloff describes him as “incredibly explosive on the Rift.”
“If you give him an inch, he’ll take a mile,” Beora told Dexerto. “He’s super aggressive and in your face as a player.”
EG’s secret prodigy
It’s been a while since a hyper-aggressive rookie has successfully debuted in North America, especially in the mid lane. There is a real possibility that Jojopyun has a rookie split on the level of European superstar mid laner Rasmus ‘Caps’ Winther.
NA Academy caster Matthew ‘Cubby’ Samuelson described him as a player who “commands a lot of respect” in the NA scene, despite being one of the youngest players in North America at just 17.
“I know mid laners who’ve been more motivated to spam solo queue just because they want to run into Jojopyun and learn something from him,” Cubby said.
Not only is he mechanically gifted and refreshingly aggressive, he’s got the experienced players around him to turn him into more than just a ‘good hands, no brain’ player. Paired up with World Champion top laner Jeong ‘Impact’ Eon and two-time Worlds attendees Kacper ‘Inspired’ Słoma and Philippe ‘Vulcan’ Laflamme, he’s got the experience around him to mold him into something truly special.
EG are no strangers to fostering rookie talent. They’re one of the few LCS orgs to have an established path to pro through amateur investment, and they’ve proven they can handle the rookie talent that comes their way.
EG AD Carry Kyle ‘Danny’ Sakamaki was one of the LCS’s most exciting talents in 2021, and he came up through the same talent development system as Jojopyun. If Evil Geniuses can bring up two consecutive, region-defining talents through their amateur pipeline, then it might just be the kick other orgs in the region need to increase their amateur investment.
Wei ‘Shenyi’ Zi-Jie – Support for TSM
While there are some truly impressive residential talents coming into North America this year, it would be remiss to ignore TSM’s offseason signings when discussing exciting rookies.
North American organizations have been criticized in the past for their reliance on imported talent and the unwillingness to invest in development programs within their own regions. However, the free movement of talent has long been a cornerstone of League esports, and to say that a region should only rely on native players disregards the hard work of numerous imported talents to assimilate to and progress in their adoptive region.
A new tactic for TSM
Until recently, imported players have typically been established veterans in their regions looking to try their competitive luck elsewhere. However, we’re now starting to see a new trend in international player movement- importing rookie players who have not yet played in their region’s tier-one competitive environment.
This is the case for TSM support Wei ‘Shenyi’ Zi-Jie. Pulled from the LPL’s developmental league by TSM alongside mid laner Zhu ‘Keaiduo’ Xiong, he’ll be paired up with AD Carry Edward ‘Tactical’ Ra to form TSM’s bot lane for 2022.
He’s an aggressive support who’s not afraid to make the game-changing engages his team needs on champions like Nautilus and Rakan. He subbed in briefly for FunPlus Phoenix’s LPL team during his time on their academy roster, and performed well against LPL giants Top Esports. He’s definitely no stranger to high-pressure environments.
He and Keaiduo present a unique challenge for TSM. Not only does the org have to help these players develop in their rookie split, they have to integrate two young players whose primary language isn’t English.
TSM’s jungler Mingyi ‘Spica’ Lu speaks Mandarin, but TSM can’t rely on his translation skills alone to help them find success with their LDL rookies. Support in particular is a role that requires a huge amount of coordination with your lane partner and team as a whole, and TSM in 2022 will live and die by how well they are able to facilitate communication between Shenyi and the rest of the team.
And although Shenyi comes to TSM from another region, he will require just as much development as any other rookie. He’s only been competing for a little over a year, and although he has experienced a brief stint on the LPL stage, that ‘experience’ totals out at five games played. To call him anything other than a rookie puts a weight of expectation on his shoulders that he does not deserve to bear.
Visa issues and the continuing global pandemic mean that TSM will be fielding their academy roster for the Lock-In tournament. The org explained via Twitter that the team had not yet been able to practice together, and that Shenyi and Keaiduo were currently still in China and would not make it to LA in time for the start of the Lock-In.
Roster update ahead of the LCS Lock In. pic.twitter.com/YeU02nSMIp
— TSM FTX (@TSM) January 6, 2022
Fans won’t get their first glimpse of Shenyi until the beginning of the Spring split on February 5th. By then, the team will hopefully have had time to work on their synergy; otherwise, the org’s LDL gamble may blow up in their faces.
Milan ‘Tenacity’ Oleksij- Top laner for 100 Thieves
Tenacity, much like Jojopyun, is a product of growing investment in North America’s amateur scene. He was picked up by 100 Thieves’ talent growth pipeline in January of 2020 to join their amateur team, 100 Thieves Next.
The 100 Next roster came second in the Challengers Uprising tournament in 2020, losing out to the now-disbanded Anew Esports. Tenacity was promoted to 100T’s academy roster at the start of 2021, and showed consistent performances throughout the 2021 seasons despite failing to win either the Proving Grounds or the Academy Summer playoffs.
Tenacity belongs to the Kim ‘Ssumday’ Chan-ho school of bruiser top laners, favoring champions like Aatrox and Volibear – which is fitting, because he’ll be sharing stage time with Ssumday in his debut split.
Sharing the spotlight
Having players share a starting spot is an unconventional way of running a roster. It’s unclear what the rationale will be behind who plays week by week for 100 Thieves. Tenacity and Ssumday both play similar champions, with Ssumday having slightly more experience on tanks.
In an interview with Dexerto, head coach Chris ‘PapaSmithy’ Smith explained that the team is coming into the LCS with “a really good idea of how we can make a six-man roster work for us”. The strategy has been notoriously tricky to get right, but 100 Thieves clearly feel that they’ve got the formula down for helping Tenacity’s development without hindering Ssumday’s growth.
Cubby describes Tenacity as a “secret weapon” that the roster will bring out when they need a strong carry presence in the top lane. Ssumday is infinitely more flexible of a player due to his years of experience, but Tenacity’s Irelia is known to strike fear into the hearts of players all across the NA solo queue ladder.
In fact, his proficiency on the champion was spotted by LEC caster Marc ‘Caedrel’ Lamont during his time in EU West solo queue for Worlds 2021.
“There is going to be a great amount of joy in 100 Thieves when Tenacity finally gets to hit the stage,” explained Cubby, “because there has been a lot of effort put in by them into developing him as a player and a person.”
Tenacity was part of 100 Thieves’ 2021 Worlds bootcamp in Europe and has been one of the organization’s highest-ranked solo queue players in multiple regions. He requires a fairly specific set of conditions to set him up for success (hence the shared starting spot), but if those conditions can be met, he’s one of the scariest top laners in North America right now.