Excel Esports aimed high for the 2023 LEC season. The organization picked up Andrei “Odoamne” Pascu from Rogue, who had just won the LEC championship. On the other side of the map, another LEC champion joined the ranks: Raphaël “Targamas” Crabbé, 2022 Spring Split champion with G2 Esports.
The expenditures didn’t stop there and Excel brought more standout players on board. Andrei “Xerxe” Dragomir, who led Astralis impressively in the 2022 Summer Split, now roamed the jungle on Excel’s behalf. 2022 Spring Split MVP Vincent “Vetheo” Berrié rounded out the offseason.
The quartet of new hires joined long-time head coach Joey “YoungBuck” Steltenpool, assistant coach Nelson Sng Yi-Wei, and flagship player Patrik “Patrik” Jírů. After years of dwelling in the lower half of the LEC standings, this was the year Excel would break into the top of the league.
Or so they thought. In the new LEC format, which eliminates the first two teams after just three weeks of best-of-ones, Excel crumbled. The team picked up only one win across nine games and finished dead last.
Assessing Excel’s failures in the Winter Split
“We felt confident and we felt good about the roster we built up,” Excel Esports CEO Tim Reichert said in an exclusive interview with Em Dash. In December, Excel hosted a bootcamp in London, which Reichert described as being successful. “We were still quite confident in ourselves. We had good results, good games.”
Darker clouds formed at the start of 2023. Whereas the lineup performed well in a loose environment in London, issues arose when the LEC Winter Split came knocking on the door. The five talented players and their coaches could not get on the same page. Excel’s scrim results were inconsistent and the team environment deteriorated.
“It felt that, moving forward, we would also not be able to fix the problems. (…) I think it’s too easy to point fingers at coaches or a single player. We all failed here, but you can’t change everything.”— Tim Reichert
Still, Reichert clung to the hope that these issues would fade. “You never know how good you are until you get on stage. There was still the hope that everything would be fine when this team went on stage,” he recalled. “It did not happen.”
Jonas “Hidon” Vraa observed Excel’s struggles from the outside. The Dane, then head coach of Ruddy Esports in the NLC, saw a team that was far worse than the sum of its parts. “It seemed that they just expected to do well from the start, rather than working together to do well,” he said. “I think it’s clear to everyone that those five players are good players. But in this day and age, it’s just not enough. You need a good team.”
Reichert saw the same issues. He said that Excel, for all the experience it had on the team across its players, coaching staff, and supporting staff, addressed internal issues poorly. Though the pressure on Excel to improve was compounded by the new LEC format, which demands improvement in just three weeks, Reichert saw bigger underlying issues.
“The short amount of time we had [in the Winter Split] was not the reason why we couldn’t fix things. It felt that, moving forward, we would also not be able to fix the problems,” Reichert said. Excel evaluated all options and came to the conclusion that Youngbuck, who had been with the team since the end of 2019, had to be replaced. His assistant, Nelson, would also no longer be part of the coaching staff.
“[Youngbuck] and Excel had good years, with ups and downs given the challenges that come with being a young organization like Excel. We often achieved good results,” Reichert stated. “For this year, yes, the expectation with the roster was that we would do better. I think it’s too easy to point fingers at coaches or a single player. We all failed here, but you can’t change everything. For us, this was the best option to have a much more successful Spring Split and then also a more successful Summer Split.”
How Hidon impressed Excel
Hidon’s agent reached out in the middle of the NLC Spring Split. Excel was looking for new coaches and they wanted him to do tryouts with the team. But he did not enter the tryouts thinking he would become the head coach.
“Initially, I was going to be the assistant coach or strategical coach,” Hidon said. “I had a talk with all of the internal staff and some of the Excel players. I showed them my structure and how I want to work. I showed my game knowledge through VOD reviews and through speaking with the players.”
“In the beginning, there was a lot of repairing to dO. There was a lot of mistrust. There wasn’t a lot of structure or leadership.”— Hidon
He had stiff competition. Well-known names such as Fabian “GrabbZ” Lohmann and Jakob “YamatoCannon” Mebdi were also on the market. They weren’t the only ones on Excel’s list of potential hires.
“We had many, many interviews,” Reichert recalled. “We interviewed coaches that do have a lot of experience on an LEC level and coaches that have a lot of ERL experience. We also interviewed people that haven’t been head coach yet.”
Excel looked for a coach that provided more than game knowledge. Whoever would lead the team had to be able to raise the spirits of the squad. Excel’s League of Legends team was broken. It needed healing and a fresh start. After many tryouts, Excel’s entire League of Legends department, from players to supporting staff and management, reached a decision. Hidon would be the head coach.
“Because of what I did and what I showed, they wanted me as head coach,” Hidon said. “They liked the structure, they liked how I worked, they liked my knowledge.”
Creating unity in a broken LEC team
Now, the 22-year-old coach found himself amid seasoned players with strong opinions on how they want to play the game. Moreover, Excel’s team environment had grown sour in wake of the underwhelming results of the previous split. Festering disappointment permeated the team.
“In the beginning, there was a lot of repairing to do,” Hidon said, reflecting on his first days with the team. “There was a lot of mistrust. There wasn’t a lot of structure or leadership.”
“My role in this team is to adapt to the cards I have been dealt. (…) I think there are many, many ways for the game to be played in a good way. I understand all those ways.”— Hidon
Hidon leaned on his own structures to rebuild the broken squad. “We installed a lot of concepts to become more of a team. It’s not just in-game. It’s arguably even more outside of the game, actually. To work together, you need to be willing to spend time together.”
Excel reunited through team activities. Having lunches together, going for walks, or going climbing: everything helped to form strong foundations. According to Hidon, the players have worked past most of their issues now. Nevertheless, there is still a lot of work to be done. The players may trust each other again, but they ultimately have to perform well on the LEC stage. They need to share the same vision in-game so they can redeem themselves in the upcoming splits.
Although he is relatively unknown in the larger League of Legends sphere, Hidon has strong, outspoken views on how the game should be played. “I think there are ‘good’ ways to play the game, but I also think that there is a right way to play the game,” he explained.
Hidon is well aware of the variables at play and, more importantly, he is extremely confident that he can adjust to the needs of the veterans on his lineup. He stated again that he has rigid structures in place that Excel can fall back on in the face of adversity.
“There are obviously personalities and there are egos at play, but that doesn’t mean much if you show them what needs to happen for the team to improve. My role in this team is to adapt to the cards I have been dealt, rather than choosing the cards that I’m playing with. Initially, I’m not gonna brute force my way of viewing the game, or say that my way of viewing the game is ‘the best way’ to do it. I think there are many, many ways for the game to be played in a good way. I understand all those ways. We already have a good view of how we are gonna play the game here.”
Another new piece to work with: LIMIT
Hidon is not the only new face on Excel’s LEC roster. Dino “LIMIT” Tot, who sat on the bench of Team BDS, replaces Targamas as Excel’s support player. The organization made the change relatively quickly after the Winter Split ended for the team. Hidon noted that, remarkably, he had no say in the decision.
“I came in as the last piece which, at least in my opinion, is not too conventional,” he said. “I think Excel thought the benching was necessary.”
“[LIMIT] is a plug-and-play player. From the very first scrim, he had really good communication with Patrik. He is very vocal.”— Tim Reichert
Reichert offers more perspective on the change, though he didn’t want to divulge specific reasons behind Targamas’ early exit. He reiterated that there was not just one person to blame and clarified that the remaining players knew they had to step it up going forward as well. “Targamas is a great player, I think there is no doubt about that. He has had a lot of success. That’s a point where we have to look at ourselves: why couldn’t we make it work better with him? But, it didn’t work out with Patrik at all.”
The frontman explained that Excel needed a player who evoked more communication in-game. As with finding a new head coach, however, Excel didn’t have many options for new support players in the middle of the season. Thankfully for Excel, Reichert knew LIMIT from their days on Schalke 04’s LEC team and he knew the player’s worth in-game.
“I would say he’s a plug-and-play player. From the very first scrim, he had really good communication with Patrik. He is very vocal. This isn’t just helpful for Patrik, but also for the rest of the team,” Reichert commented, adding that the entire team weighed in on the decision. “All of them were really happy. In the end, I would say that we were very lucky that he was available.”
While Hidon joined the team at a later point, he has been happy with LIMIT’s efforts so far. “I’ve been with LIMIT for a few weeks and I like him a lot. He is hard-working and brings a good mood, a good atmosphere.”
Excel Esports feels ready to start its redemption run, Reichert said. He is still committed to finding an assistant coach for Hidon and his players, but the CEO felt confident enough to set new milestones and expectations.
“Our ambitions are still high. We still aim for big success this year—the biggest success Excel has ever had. Maybe people say that that’s delusional after a tenth-place finish, but we will see and we will find out. It’s very difficult for any team to beat G2 at the moment,” he said. “So, to immediately compete for the title will be a challenge. But we want to go to Worlds, so we want to gain some Championship Points. For the Spring Split, the minimum for us is to make it to the top four. For the Summer Split, we’ll see.”
“There is a lot of work to be done. I believe in my systems, I believe in myself, and I believe in the team. I am here to win.”— Hidon
Hidon isn’t afraid to aim higher, though he remains realistic about the team’s position as well.
“We have a lot of ground to cover in a short amount of time. There is a lot of work to be done. I believe in my systems, I believe in myself, and I believe in the team. I am here to win. If we can get the work done, then I believe that we have a likely chance of winning. Worlds would be the ultimate goal. From the outside perspective, of course, you don’t expect Excel to do well. They’re bringing in a young coach who, on Leaguepedia, maybe looks like a noob. But I know what I can do.”