“Let’s go Guardians! Let’s go Guardians!”
It was a small cheer. Come next match, it was dwarfed by the cries of Team SoloMid and Counter Logic Gaming fans, and even later, completely forgotten in the face of screams by an ever-expanding Echo Fox fanbase.
In Golden Guardians’ series against 100 Thieves, it was the loudest cheer in the LCS Arena. Accompanied by short rhythmic clapping, it filled the room.
The chants started up at 36:40. Golden Guardians had just secured Baron Nashor, with the added bonus of an incoming minion wave hammering away at 100T’s final nexus turret. It had already taken out the first one. Top laner Samson “Lourlo” Jackson teleported into 100T’s base and was joined by his team a few seconds later. When the nexus fell at 37:11, Lourlo was the first to spring out of his seat. He ran over to hug mid laner Hai “Hai” Du Lam, who leaned back in his chair exhausted, but with a wide grin that slowly spread across his entire face. Lourlo turned next to jungler Juan “Contractz” Arturo Garcia, who rubbed his eyes before rising from his gaming chair.
It wasn’t the cleanest or most impressive victory, but to the members of Golden Guardians, it was everything.
Week 4 of the 2018 North American League of Legends Championship Series opened with discussions of Team SoloMid and Counter Logic Gaming. Team Liquid also dominated headlines and pregame conversations. With TL’s crucial matches against Cloud9 and Echo Fox, sole possession of first place in the standings was at stake.
By contrast, the only discussion of Golden Guardians was of whether they would manage to take a game, or become the first team in NA LCS history to end a season without a single win.
Since its inception, the LCS has been home to many bad teams. In turn, those teams have showcased abysmal performances in their regions of North America and Europe. The worst NA LCS record still belongs to Team Coast. In 2015 NA LCS Spring Coast took only one game: a victory over Winterfox, which did not field its starting LCS lineup in that match. Origen failed to win a single best-of-three series in 2017 EU LCS Spring, but did manage two game wins against Giants Gaming and Team ROCCAT for a seven percent total win rate. This is the company that Golden Guardians were desperately trying to avoid keeping.
“Ahhhhh,” Contractz sighed, collapsing into a nearby chair in the LCS press room. He stretched out his arms as if the gesture and the noise combined were physically expelling the weight of emotional tension accumulated over the past four weeks.
“It’s like a big chunk of stress is just thrown away,” he said. “It feels really nice because losing seven times in a row is never fun. Finally getting that win just makes our team atmosphere so much better and we’re just motivated to keep improving even more.” He paused again, grinning before sitting back in his chair.
“It just feels really nice.”
One of the region’s few rising rookies of the past year, Contractz was seen as a shining example of what North American talent could do in a good, experienced environment. Although NA did not, and will never have, a player base to rival that of even Europe, the cream still rose to the top, and Contractz was considered one of the best. He was promoted from Cloud9 Challenger to the main Cloud9 roster for the 2017 season after turning 17 years-old in August 2016, becoming age-eligible for LCS competition. He burst onto the LCS stage on January 20, 2017, with a 2-0 sweep of TSM and a pair of impressive debut performances on Kha’Zix and Lee Sin.
Cloud9 offered Contractz room to grow into his position at the professional level and, by the end of the competitive season, a ticket to Wuhan, China to compete with the team at the 2017 League of Legends World Championship. There he competed in both scrims and onstage against some of the best junglers in the world at the time.
“What Worlds really gave me was confidence, that I could jungle against all of these top-tier names from all over the world and not lose really hard,” he said. “I didn’t win really hard but my game was up to par and I wasn’t scared. It was a nice feeling to have.”
Contractz didn’t have a meteoric rise to the top. There were many growing pains throughout his time on C9, especially when it came to communicating with mid laner Nicolaj “Jensen” Jensen. It wasn’t until late spring that Contractz said he felt confident in their communication, and it showed multiple times throughout that split when Contractz would be caught by his opponents on overly-ambitious invades without vision coverage. Still, with steady improvement across the competitive year, Contractz was viewed by many as the future of C9 and to some extent, talent in North America.
Amidst frenzied transfers and signings accelerated by the free agency period that accompanied NA LCS’ new franchising system, C9’s acquisition of Dennis “Svenskeren” Johnsen the day after Contractz left the team was perceived as a downgrade based on their 2017 performances. The League of Legends fan community accused Contractz of leaving C9 for the money, especially when the all-NA lineup of Golden Guardians was announced.
“I heard a lot of, ‘Oh, he just wanted a bigger paycheck,'” he said. “It doesn’t matter. If people are going to hate on my decision, they’re going to hate on it, and if you’re going to follow me, I appreciate all of the support that you guys are giving me. But I think this is a good move for me and I’m just going to run with it.”
By his own admission, Contractz was not a strong voice in C9’s communication system during his rookie year. He credited Andy “Smoothie” Ta for most of the team’s early game shotcalling, and said that it transitioned into more team communications during the mid-to-late game. One of the reasons that he wanted to leave C9 was to try to find a team where he could learn to be a larger part of team communications and shotcalling in order to contend for the title of best in his position.
“I felt like if I didn’t level up as a player communications and gameplay-wise, I’d just be another jungler,” he said. “I wanted to do it sooner rather than later, branch out, and really work on that aspect of play.”
On Golden Guardians, Contractz is frequently the second-biggest voice on the team, with Hai being the first. Still the pride of NA, Hai made his name and cemented his legacy as one of the region’s best and most influential team leaders. Contractz admitted that he is still hoping to learn a lot from the veteran mid laner on how to be a better communicator and team leader, especially since leading does not come to Contractz naturally.
“It’s still out of my comfort zone and something that I need to work 10 times harder than anyone else to improve my leadership skills and in-game communication,” he said. “I think it will take a while because it’s just, I’ve never done this before. I’m a reserved person. I don’t like to speak up too much. I like listening and going with the flow. Having to change and be my team’s win condition is going to take a lot of effort.”
With career aspirations contrary to his default shy personality, Contractz’s transition from C9 to Golden Guardians has hardly been smooth for the jungler’s sophomore season. He is his own harshest critic, singling himself out on social media after a loss. According to him, his leadership has improved, but only slightly.
“I don’t think I’m even close to where I want to be,” he said. “I’ve definitely failed as a vocal leader and outside game leader these past four weeks. I’ve also been playing pretty poorly in some matches. No matter how long it takes, that’s where I want to be and where I want to get to in my career so I’m just going to put in 110 percent to make that happen.”
Talk of Golden Guardians going into Week 4 may have been about whether they would go winless, but according to Contractz and the team, it was their most efficient practice week yet. Their loss on Saturday to Echo Fox was an easy fix, he said. They knew what they had done wrong and were determined to correct it. The result was the team’s first LCS victory. For Contractz, this first win is a concrete step forward after a series of setbacks that piled up over the first four weeks of the 2018 NA LCS Spring split. From here, the only way to go is up.
You can follow Emily Rand on Twitter @leagueofemily