2017 has been a different kind of year for Immortals. After two near-perfect splits in 2016 were cut short in the first round of the playoffs, Immortals has entered a period of building for the future.
“In 2016, we had a good flash-in-the-pan type of year,” Immortals CEO Noah Whinston said in an interview with The Rift Herald in March. “But in order to become a sustainable esports organization in the long term, you need to build rosters not just focused on one split, not just focused on one year, but focused on the lifespan of an organization.”
So that’s what they did.
During the offseason, Immortals scoured the global free agent market to create a roster designed for the future. A roster whose goals closely align with one another's — a problem Whinston noted with the 2016 roster.
“Each player on the team had very different priorities,” he said. “About the team that they were looking to join, and the way that they wanted to move in their own career.”
Whinston explained Immortals as an organization was never going to be a place that could fulfill all those different goals for every player on that roster. He used the example of 2016 Immortals’ star top laner Seung-hoon “Huni” Heo, who accepted an offer to join the starting roster of back-to-back World Champions SK Telecom T1. Even though Huni was scheduled to rejoin IMT’s roster as an integral part of the starting lineup, this move gave him the chance to put himself in the conversation of the best top laners in the world.
“As much as I would like to tell Huni that, yes, we have just as good a chance at winning Worlds as SKT, that wasn’t really something that was a possibility for us,” joked Whinston.
Before the start of the 2017 split, Immortals released almost all of its starting players, with Eugene “Pobelter” Park as the lone holdover. Filling out the roster around him was a group of players with one of the most varied backgrounds NA LCS history. There were two faces from North America: a veteran jungler in Joshua “Dardoch” Hartnett, and rookie AD Carry Cody Sun, who had turned heads as one of the highest-ranking players on the North American solo ladder. There were also two foreign additions: legendary Korean toplaner Ho-Jong “Flame” Lee and Korean support Joo-sung “Olleh” Kim, a rising star in the Brazilian scene.
According to Whinston, this new roster was built, not only, on having similar goals, but also on having similar ideas on how to improve.
“There is more of an alignment about what it means to practice hard, what it means to have good work ethic. Those ideals are pretty aligned with members of this roster in a way that’s difficult to find with other teams, to be honest.”
As for this new roster’s performance — 6-8 and in 7th place at the time of the interview — Whinston said it was about in line with expectations.
“This isn’t a roster that is built to get first place automatically in spring,” he says, “Because as we saw last year, getting first place in the spring regular season doesn’t mean much unless you can transition it into further success.”
He explains that this roster, and the organizational approach around it, has been built for consistency, not getting complacent with wins or too beaten down with losses, an approach he thinks the Immortals fans have been very receptive to this split.
“I’m very encouraged by it ... fans have had a lot of patience,” he continues, “of course there is disappointment when we have losses ... but also an understanding that the way the team is performing right now is not the target of how we want the team to perform.”
This topic of fans brings up another issue for Whinston that he has talked about in the past: the idea that the NA LCS has a lot of fans of players, rather than fans of teams. This was an issue that, due to the extensive roster changes, he had a first-hand opportunity to deal with.
“A huge part of that,” he said. “Is spending last year, 2016, creating content and showing fans why, if you were a fan of Huni, you should be a fan of Immortals.”
He goes on to talk about why consistency as an organization and in the content they bring to fans has been one of their focus points that he feels gives them an identit.
“The consistency with which we still create that content with the new roster and still talk about the players ... I think is really important.
“I don’t think we kept 100% of the people that were Huni fans or Wildturtle fans,” he said. ”But I hope — and based on the numbers I think we did — keep a good portion of them because they see who we are as an organization and see our rosters as a reflection of that.”
This issue is one that continues to grow in importance, as the rise of venture capital funding and traditional sports investment continues in the NA LCS — something that Immortals was one of the pioneers of in the league. According to Whinston, this has helped their brand grow and quickly establish itself as a major player the LCS.
“Already in the minds of a lot of the fans we are not the new guys on the block anymore. For better or worse, I think we have become enough of a mainstay — not just in LCS but in other rest of the esports community too — that people don’t look at us as the new kids,” said Whinston.
While the benefits of this new LCS money are innumerable, Whinston took some time specifically to talk about what it may offer to new players with dreams of making it as a professional.
“Three years ago if you were a rookie you were making, maybe league minimum salary,” he said. “Now even as a rookie you are making significant money ... Now professional playing can be a viable career. In the future, I would like to see less of those funds going into the spiraling cost of player salaries and more into the structure of organization.”
He continued by mentioning the impact it would have on players as they moved into the future after their playing careers, and the ways team organizations can help players transition to the next steps of life.
“I think it’s also an organization’s responsibility to, on the one hand, provide them opportunities, have strong relationships with collegiate esports to get them scholarships if they wanna go back to school,” Whinston said. “Or have good relationships with esports endemic brands like peripheral manufacturers or PC manufacturers, so if a player wants to retire and go into brand marketing that’s something they can do. Or if they want to become a streamer or influencer with brand deals that’s something you can set them up well with.”
But, Whinston says, there is another level that needs to be talked about when it comes to helping players.
“How are you giving players the tool they need to help them find those opportunities for themselves? And that’s where we get tot the point of agents and financial advisors,” he said. “That type of consultation is incredibly important for players, whether they are in traditional sports or esports.”
He explains that these are services that Immortals as an organization makes sure to set its players up with.
“Even when they negotiate against us,” he said. “It benefits us because the player is going to fully understand and accept everything that they are signing their name to.
“That’s the type of career longevity that is missing from esports right now. There are good agents, but there aren’t enough of them, there are good financial planners but there aren’t enough of them.”
According to Whinston, the current structure of the LCS is also a significant factor in limiting the kind of growth in organizations he feels is necessary to grow the league.
“It’s all about how do I not get relegated this split,” he said. “I’m gonna spend as much money possible on the best free agents because the only thing I can think about right now is how not to get relegated.”
“If we want to see an LCS that is healthier and stronger in the long term, we need to see more of those investments put into infrastructure, towards staff and non-competitive stuff like fan engagement and fan events.”
In talking about what might help encourage teams to invest in this long term, Whinston says he thinks franchising for the NA LCS is necessary.
“When you have an ecosystem in which your entire business can get destroyed overnight, if you don’t perform well enough competitively, that over-incentivizes short term thinking,” he said.
But, that kind of short term success isn’t enough for Whinston. After all, it’s why Immortals made the their 2016 roster. Success for is about long term stability and creating something that can sustain into the future. And to Whinston, that future looks bright, not just for Immortals, but for esports as a whole.