Fabien ‘Neo’ Devide, Vitality’s Co-founder and Executive President, delved into the process of creating what he hopes to be an LEC title contender in an interview with Dexerto.
As Neo sat down in his chair and began to weigh all the possible scenarios, he felt like he was playing a game of Football Manager.
In the popular management simulation, players can take over any club or national team in the world and steer it to the top of the sport. The transfer market is a vital part of the game and represents one of its most exciting aspects for many virtual coaches. Every transfer window, with its endless possibilities, brings out all sorts of questions: Which players can I buy? Which should I off-load? Can I assemble a dream team?
Those were the exact same questions on Neo’s mind heading into the League of Legends offseason in 2021.
Vitality had been a mess in the first three years of the LEC. A measure of how expectations had slipped since the great days of 2018, when they reached the World Championship, was offered in the lead-up to the 2021 Summer Split.
The high-profile signing of jungler Oskar ‘Selfmade’ Boderek from Fnatic did little enough to undo the pessimism that had set in after three splits of misery. The general sentiment seemed to be that the team would either crash out and burn or qualify for Worlds. There was no in-between.
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Vitality ended up finishing sixth after losing to eventual runners-up Fnatic in the first round of the lower bracket. It was an improvement, no doubt, but still a far cry from where they wanted to be.
“My goal for 2022 was to be able to create title contenders in every game,” he told Dexerto. “In League, it was more about being able to convince superstars and proven winners that we could be the right fit and the right org to be their new home.
“When you have poor results for two years, I don’t think you have a really good reputation, and League players usually don’t follow other games. They might follow the major competitions in CS:GO, Rocket League, or whatever, but they’re not hardcore followers.
“When you don’t have good results and you are not an attractive place, sometimes you need to pay more just to create these shortcuts.”
Playing the market roulette
The League of Legends offseason is not for the faint of heart. Even for a veteran like Neo, it can be difficult to navigate through the transfer market smartly and avoid major pitfalls because “everything can move in every direction.” A deal might fall through at the last minute after weeks of negotiations, and suddenly a well-laid plan goes awry and a franchise’s title hopes go up in smoke.
That’s exactly what had happened to Vitality in late 2020, when they were close to landing Luka ‘Perkz’ Perković before he joined Cloud9. “We had a pretty good shot at building a superteam last year,” Neo said. “But unfortunately, we could not make it happen for several reasons.”
Those plans were revisited in 2021, this time with a happy ending. In rescuing Perkz and Barney ‘Alphari’ Morris from North America, and signing back-to-back LEC champion Matyáš ‘Carzzy’ Orság from MAD Lions, Vitality hit the League jackpot. But just like 12 months earlier, things could have turned out much differently.
“I’m kind of an adrenaline junkie during this period because for sure it’s the best part of the year,” Neo admitted. “Not for the people that are leaving us, but for the people who will be the faces of your project for the next years.
“It’s super stressful because anything can happen. Last year, the opportunity to sign Perkz came in super late. I had to find agreements with everyone in like 48 hours. So you can’t sleep.
“Most of the agreements are done on Discord calls at like 4 in the morning, so you’re not sleeping. Someone might say something and then say the opposite the day after. Nothing is guaranteed until it’s signed.
“It’s really stressful and exciting at the same time.”
Because of the volatility of the offseason, Neo had to draw up multiple contingency plans. The alternatives to assembling the team of his dreams, with Europe’s best and brightest, included building a roster with Martin ‘Rekkles’ Larsson – “adding a player of this caliber was, of course, an option” – and keeping the core of the 2021 lineup while making upgrades “in the mid and the bot lanes.”
With every scenario plotted and projected, he dipped into the market hoping for the best.
“When you are last and full of ambition, you consider everything,” he said. “My job during the offseason is to open doors. I talk to most of the free agents and the players who have been benched or put up for transfer. I have a lot of experience, it was not my first offseason. So when you’ve experienced failure, you know how to avoid some traps and how to make sure that you can bounce back if something bad happens.
“We did a lot of trials, a lot of interviews, and I think we did a good job. We were super thorough. We were convinced that anything could happen. We could sign the players on the last day of the offseason or we could lose the bidding war and the guy would move to another team. And then you could be f**ed.
“When you’re writing down a list of players on a piece of paper and building your dream team, it’s like you’re playing Football Manager and putting Mbappé… Actually, doing the PSG team. And when you’re able to pull it off, it’s the best feeling. Last year I was exhausted because we failed, but this year I’m not exhausted because we made it happen. It’s definitely good.
“Plan A was pretty unrealistic but we managed to do it, so I’m a happy owner right now.”
Handling the criticism and the doubters
The new signings are a swing for the fences, and Vitality have made no effort to hide their ambition: In the announcement of their 2022 lineup, the French organization described it as “the biggest LEC roster ever seen,” featuring the “best EU players.”
The biggest LEC roster ever seen, we gathered the best EU players.
— Team Vitality (@TeamVitality) December 8, 2021
Vitality have received some blowback for the way they have oversold an unproven team, with critics pointing to the underwhelming year that Perkz and Alphari had in North America. What’s more, European superteam projects, like Elements in Season 5 and the 2021 iteration of G2 Esports with Rekkles, have traditionally failed to live up to the hype.
“What am I supposed to do when you have this kind of players together?,” asked Neo. “Am I supposed to say, ‘Oh, give us some time, we are not here to win everything’? That’s bullsh*t. I don’t want to be a hypocrite.
“I prefer to show a lot of ambition, instead of saying, ‘We know that the superteam has a bad track record. We will do our best, and losing is part of the process’. I can say this, we did it for years.
“This pressure, we need to deal with it, and it will be brand new for us because we’ve never had this kind of pressure before. I think we just need to accept it. It will take some time to digest it.
“Alphari was part of the superteam of Origen, Selfmade was part of Fnatic, who had a really strong lineup back in the day and still have a strong lineup. Maybe it will be brand new for Labrov, but that’s also why I think we won the offseason regarding coaches. And I think a lot of people haven’t realized our additions on this topic.”
But not everyone is convinced. For example, League of Legends personality and Cloud9 coach Nick ‘LS’ De Cesare predicted that Vitality will “implode” and won’t finish higher than third because of a personality clash.
Such comments were laughed off by Perkz on Twitter and played down by Alphari.
every day different drama meanwhile my new team already imploding we have to cancel our bootcamp and just go home wtf is going on
— Luka (@Perkz) December 6, 2021
For his part, Neo sees the Croatian superstar as the glue that will bind the whole team together.
“Some commentators say that Fnatic are better on paper than us, but I don’t think so,” he said. “It’s the same when people say that there are too many egos. I don’t fully agree with that.
“We have Perkz, a leader and a charismatic player. I think he is the alpha of the team. Everyone will follow him blindly. So for me, you won the offseason by just getting Perkz. This guy knows exactly how to win, how to sacrifice himself. Look back at what he did in G2, how he transitioned and role swapped to AD just to make sure he could have Caps and have like a proper shot at Worlds. He was at the disposal of his team and his teammates.
“I definitely feel like a winner by having Perkz because this kind of profile doesn’t exist.”
Challenging the status quo
Over in the Vitality camp, the excitement is almost palpable. Earlier in January, the French organization announced a $56 million investment from Rewired.gg over the next three years with the aim of creating “European super teams capable of winning the most coveted trophies in esports.”
A lot of hard work has been done for Vitality to enter 2022 as a force to be reckoned with, not just in League, but also in CS:GO, where multi-Major champions Emil ‘Magisk’ Reif, Peter ‘dupreeh’ Rasmussen and head coach Danny ‘zonic’ Sørensen have been signed in an effort to put the team back at the top.
But it’s hard to shake off the thought that these moves have also deepened the division within the organization. Not a great deal of resources seem to be going into the other esports sections, like Valorant or Rainbow Six, where Vitality have been little more than also-rans.
That, according to Neo, will change eventually.
“Our main focus right now is tier-one games, for sure,” Neo explained. “CS and League are the biggest titles, and we need to be relevant and super strong [in them].
“Most of our investment and focus will be on those games. We will not ignore the others. We want to win a title that matters, and that’s mostly in League and CS. Winning like a Six Major is of course a big accomplishment and a huge title, but we need to stay really sharp and focused on tier-one games, and that’s why we are going super aggressively [in them].
“Once everything is set up, we will definitely aim for the best in all those games, but one battle at a time [laughs].
“For now it’s League and CS. We have the best player in the world in CS; so it’s common sense to be super aggressive and ambitious. And League is the biggest esport title in my opinion, so that’s why we’re pushing hard.
“I want Vitality to be number one in Europe and definitely number three in the world.”
There’s more to an esports organization than just competitive success, though, and Neo knows it. That’s why Vitality will also focus heavily on branding and marketing, to give players “a voice” and promote their personalities. The goal is to expand their fanbase, in France and beyond.
The countdown to the start of the LEC Spring Split is hitting full throttle. Vitality will enter the Rift to face reigning champions MAD Lions — a baptism of fire before the highly-anticipated clash against Fnatic on January 15. Those two games, while not season-defining, will be a measuring stick as the team looks to shake up the established order in Europe.
The symbolism of the moment is not lost on Neo. In his words, this is the start of “Vitality 2.0”.
“We want to be more global, more international, while still having our French roots and French DNA because we’re proud to be Parisians and we are based in Paris,” he said. “We are the leader in France and that is something that matters to us.
“But at the same time, we need to aim for the best, and that means being more global and competing in the best leagues with the best players to have the best chance to lift trophies.
“It’s a brand new era for this European Vitality with a lot of ambition.”