Samsung Galaxy: Establishing the Rebuild Model
Samsung’s recent semi-final against KT Rolster was the benchmark for whether the roster were truly overachievers or if they’d just squeaked into 2nd place in the standings with a miracle 9-1 run in the second half of the split. The newly assembled super team dismantled Samsung 3-0, resetting their reputation as a contender to become SKT’s rival for the year. The mental weakness of the roster without Ambition or Wraith in the first two games was exposed and Haru struggled as a rookie in his first playoff series. The roster will again have to earn their respect as a true contender for the title, but this isn’t something new to Samsung, as they’ve constantly lingered in the shadow of the 2014 sister teams.
At the height of 2014, Samsung possessed the two best teams in the world and they trained together to reach that point. At the world championship that year, Samsung White & Blue matched up in the semi-final for what many called the true finals of that tournament. White dismantled their sister team 3-0 and moved on to win the tournament with ease. After both teams had successful runs at the World Championship, they disbanded and scattered across regions for big salaries.
Losing ten world championship caliber players is a blow most organizations can't survive or rebound from, but Samsung saw the opportunity it gave them. Samsung knew to accept the burden of losing that roster and silently acknowledged that no team they signed could live up to the previous — why waste money on big names when they’ll pale in comparison? Samsung decided to rebuild and raise young talent in the darkness left by the shadow of the sister teams, hoping to forge diamonds out of that pressure.
The 2015 Season
A Major League Baseball front office legend named Billy Beane once said, “Smaller market teams, when you hit bottom, you hit with a thud.” and while Samsung isn’t ‘small market’ per se, they rebuilt their roster with a small market approach. Prices for Korean players had ballooned after regions began importing at the end of 2014 and demand was high. Signing an established player at that time would cost you a lot of money and the player would need incentive to join the organization. Samsung wasn’t exactly appealing knowing you’d have to live up to the dynasty of White and Blue the previous year.
That led to the signing of four rookies, CuVee, Eve, Ace and Bliss, a somewhat impressive AD carry from 10th place Jin Air named Fury and a veteran support named Wraith. Previously known under the ID Casper, Wraith had played a stint on SKT when PoohManDu left for medical reasons. Wraith attempted to use his experience with the world championship roster to lead the team in their first split, but they ended with a 2-12 record. Samsung went on to the promotion tournament, but quickly dismissed the competitors by going 4-0 in match score and maintaining their spot in the LCK.
With the roster looking composed in the relegation tournament, the only move Samsung made for the summer split was adding Crown and Luna to compete for the starting spots. SSG improved to 6-12 with Crown playing every game as the mid laner in the split, combining with CuVee to be a solid foundation of solo laners. Luna traded games with Wraith, but the team’s win percentage with Wraith was far better at 47.6% compared to 27.3% with Luna. The team then competed in the 2015 Kespa Cup during the offseason and ended up getting upset in the first round by newcomers ESC Ever. Luna and Fury posted a combined 1-15-9 in the two games and jungler Eve was severely out pressured, leading to clear shake-ups in the 2016 roster.
The 2016 Season
“There are no shortcuts to building a team each season. You build the foundation brick by brick.”
- Bill Belichick, NFL head coach and 5-time Super Bowl Champion
The previous season and Kespa Cup allowed Samsung to identify what pieces of ‘the foundation’ they’d acquired with the previous roster, starting the year with only three of the same players: CuVee, Crown and Wraith. Samsung knew they needed another leader, and with Ambition role swapping to jungle, they took a risk of a mentally strong veteran player. In addition, they’d sign three new solo queue talents in Helper (top) CoreJJ and Stitch (AD Carry) to fill out the roster and create competition within their team environment. The search for 2016 was to find the final pieces missing in the championship puzzle.
Samsung entered the 2016 spring split with hard-working, dedicated grinders as solo laners and two leaders in the utility roles of Jungle and Support. Subsequently, they flourished to a positive record of 10-8, tying for 5th place and missing the playoffs because Afreeca had two more game wins. Though Samsung had progressed, there still wasn’t enough explosiveness in their line-up and neither Stitch nor CoreJJ stood out at AD. Presented with a long off-season, it was time for the roster to scout out the right AD carry that could make the difference and push them into playoffs.
The smallest move of every split turned out to be the most impactful when they signed Ruler, a solo queue star and seventeen-year old rookie, to play AD Carry for them in the summer. The addition of an AD carry with elite mechanical skill and lane presence fit seamlessly into the team-based style of play Samsung excel at. Samsung picked up two more match wins in the summer, going 12-6 awarding them 4th place and their first playoff berth since 2014. That playoff spot advanced them to the Regional Qualifier for worlds, where CoreJJ continued to play support and led Samsung to a run that ended in a 3-2 victory of KT Rolster. They’d narrowly squeaked in, but Samsung managed to appear at the World Championship exactly two years after the departure of their super teams.
Rebuilding a Championship Team
Though we could gawk forever about Samsung placing 2nd at Worlds, becoming a runner-up and out placing the ROX Tigers, the consensus best team in the world during the year, it’s a much larger feat to even make it there. In esports, it’s almost unheard of to rebuild a roster while in the league because of relegations, but Samsung braved the risk and managed it. The two year plan they approached it with is shockingly similar to the way front-offices managed a rebuild in the MLB/NBA. Signing a group of young guys with a vet or two around them, losing a lot of games for a while and then finally winning when they develop is the trusted method for most sports organizations.
Just ask front-office manager Theo Epstein who presented the Chicago Cubs with a ‘5-year plan’ when he was contracted in 2011. That Cubs team had the 3rd youngest team in baseball at 27.9 years of age and won the World Series in 2016 -- exactly 5 years since Epstein joined the team. Though Samsung didn’t have the same luxury of time, their signings mimic those of the Cubs during their rise to championship status.
Signing Ambition at the start of 2016 is comparable to bringing in Jon Lester on the Cubs, a pitcher with experience fighting for championships that could lead the younger players. CuVee, Crown* and Ruler at the carry roles are all comparable to the young core position players Bryant, Rizzo and Russell on the Cubs. Samsung imitated a model for success and adapted it to e-sports, crunching the timeframe but keeping the same principals.
Samsung's identity as a farm team and dedication to their players is in stark contrast to the big money, New York Yankee style approach of the team that defeated them in the semi-finals, KT Rolster. Though the farm team method hasn’t proven to outperform the high market approach, a dramatic turn-around like 10th place to 3rd is something a lot of esports organizations would kill for.
Samsung is unwavering in their dedication to building a roster brick by brick, being unsatisfied and adding Haru to start the majority of games at jungle despite coming in 2nd at the world championship. With a shorter career length for pro player compared to pro athletes, refreshing and signing the right young talent becomes even more important. Despite this urgent way of working, Samsung found success in adapting the farm team style rebuild to esports by identifying and assessing their strengths meticulously after each split.
Teams across the west could learn from this approach, organizations like NV who have a superstar jungler in Lira need to commit to the strengths of their roster and slowly bring in new players to replace the rest. In esports, instant gratification is strived for — almost fetishized in a way — and taking the quickest perceived route to it is tempting, but it won’t always get you there. Taking the long, winding road like Samsung and seeing the long-term is what many organizations lack when it comes to finding the finals pieces to make a roster click.