Xerxe’s found his rookie passion again with Astralis in LEC: ‘I feel way better in EU’

Astralis XerxeMichal Konkol/Riot Games

It’s been a rough few years in Andrei ‘Xerxe’ Dragomir’s League of Legends career. But he’s been given a new lease of life with his return to the LEC, where he’s looking to bring Astralis to their first-ever playoffs in Summer 2022.

Every pro player has their slumps. It’s impossible to remain on the top of your game forever, especially in a competitive environment that’s constantly in a stage of change.

And nobody knows this better than Xerxe. Once one of the best-performing junglers in Europe, he went through a rough patch that began with a tenth-place LEC finish in Summer 2020 with Origen. A trip to North America to play with Immortals didn’t fix that run of poor performance either, and it almost seemed as if he was entering the premature twilight of his League of Legends career.

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But he wasn’t ready to give up yet, and for the 2022 Summer split he made the decision to return to Europe as the starting jungler for Astralis. And after a 2-1 opening weekend, he’s confident that he made the right choice – even though community sentiment was mixed when he announced he’d be returning to Europe to play on one of its worst-performing teams.

Why Astralis?

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Coming to Astralis saw Xerxe reunited with multiple former teammates, and has brought a breath of life back to his attitude towards competitive play.

“Coming to Astralis was a bit scary,” he told Dexerto, “because obviously I didn’t have the best individual results and the team didn’t have the best history. But in a way, I wanted to see it as a challenge for myself.”

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He explained how this run with Astralis was, in some ways, his last-ditch effort to prove to himself he still had the ability to compete at the highest level. “I was considering that, if I can’t compete at the highest level in Europe any more, then maybe I’m just not good at the game any more – and that maybe I should consider retiring if I can’t perform at this highest level.”

But he couldn’t think of retiring without having given pro play one more shot. “I cannot imagine myself retiring on a bad note,” he admitted.

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“I would hate to retire knowing that my last performance was absolutely terrible.”

There were moments during his slump that he felt the motivation for pro play fading – but since beginning scrims with Astralis, he’s been hit with a “burst of motivation” that’s completely revitalized his attitude towards professional play.

“I feel like I’m playing the game for the first time. I feel like I’m just a rookie again, and that I’m really just trying to improve in every area that I can find.”

Especially after such a rough period, that kind of motivation can be hard to find. But in comparison to his time in NA, he says the atmosphere at Astralis is much more “relaxed and loose”. “I don’t even think I was aware of how different it was in NA, but here I just feel so relaxed. I’m not even sure how to explain it, and maybe it’s just a cultural thing, but I know that I feel way better being here in EU.”

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Playing with JeongHoon and simplifying communication

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Bringing in JeongHoon has radically changed Astralis’s communication – but according to Xerxe, that’s actually been a good thing.

Communication is a cornerstone of competitive League – especially when you’re contending with a language barrier. Alongside the signings of Xerxe and top laner Kiss ‘Vizicasci’ Tamás, Astralis looked to the LCK’s Challenger league to round out their Summer roster by picking up former Brion Challengers support Lee ‘JeongHoon’ Jeonghoon.

Incorporating a non-English speaking player to an entirely English-speaking roster is always going to be a challenge. In an interview with Inven Global’s Tom Matthiesen, he explained how JeongHoon was “still learning English”, but that despite his limited grasp of the language he was “very receptive” to joining in with the team’s banter. And, according to Xerxe, JeongHoon’s presence and limited English has actually improved the team’s communication in some ways.

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“It kind of simplifies the amount of things you’re saying in game. Sometimes players can really say a lot of words in a sentence, especially when you’re on stage, and sometimes you can just end up saying a bunch of stuff that nobody cares about or listens to.”

“So by having this language barrier, it kind of forces us as a team to use really simple, basic words to explain what we need on the map. And as soon as we have to express these things using simple words, it kind of feels like something clicks in our brains and we go ‘okay, we know what to do’ and everybody knows what their position on the map needs to be.”

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Of course, the situation is by no means perfect. Communication is still difficult, and Xerxe explains how it can still be a struggle to express some of League’s more complex concepts in this simple language. But with Jeonghoon studying English every day, the team’s communication is “only getting better”, and for now this simplified style of shotcalling has revitalized the team’s understanding of the game.

The road so far and what’s to come

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He’s gotten a haircut and changed jerseys a few times, but Xerxe says he still feels the same way about competing that he did all those years ago in his rookie split in the EU LCS.

It feels bizarre to say that a 22-year old could be considered a veteran of their sport. But, heading into his sixth year of competitive play, Xerxe is one of the most storied players in Europe – even if he doesn’t always feel like it.

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“I still consider myself to be a rookie – just a rookie with a lot of experience,” he laughs, “because I still enjoy the game, and I still enjoy learning new things.”

But even with this youthful mindset, he still has his regrets. Hindsight is 20/20 vision, and nowhere more so than in a career where many players make their debut while they’re still in their teens. Many players aren’t equipped to understand and appreciate their role as a pro at the beginning of their careers, and this is something that Xerxe feels even now.

“My only regret is that I didn’t appreciate the early years of my career more. I remember in my first split, making it to finals and losing against G2 – I was so freaking mad and disappointed and just being in my room after the final and not wanting to talk to anyone. It really affected me on a deep level, and I guess that was just my rookie feelings at the time. I know now how to handle my emotions a lot better, but I guess I just wish I’d appreciated those early years more.”

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But now he’s back in Europe, he explained how he feels like he’s getting his rookie years back again. A second shot at appreciating the excitement and the endless possibilities of playing on the European stage.

“I think I achieved a lot of the things I’d planned for myself when I first started going pro. I made it to Worlds, which was one of my main goals. But in a way I’m setting up these rookie goals again for myself right now, and I know I can reach them with the way I’m feeling about myself and about the game.”

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Astralis’s next big challenge, in Xerxe’s eyes, will come in their match versus Rogue on June 26. Their 2-1 start in the LEC is a strong sign of things to come, but as he explains, “obviously we played the weaker teams, so we should not be too cocky.”

“But I also don’t think we should be scared of going against a team like Rogue.”