While the eyes of the VALORANT world was occupied with the events of Masters: Reykjavik, over in EMEA, FOKUS was confronting its biggest challenge to date in competitive VALORANT. After winning the DACH Evolution league, the team then had to show their mettle against better competition in the VCT EMEA Challengers Promotion tournament, facing off against other regional champions in the process.
Overcoming a challenge such as this wasn’t easy by any means, especially for a team like FOKUS. As the But just taking on their contemporaries wouldn’t be enough for FOKUS to facilitate direct promotion. They had to face and defeat BIG and SuperMassive Blaze, two teams who played in the VCT EMEA Challengers 1 main event, to punch a ticket in the main stage for Challengers 2.
Even with the increasing pressure potentially weighing FOKUS down as the event went on, they weren’t dismayed by it by the slightest.
Helped by a stellar lineup which found its groove at the right time, the team successfully secured their promotion to the EMEA VCT main stage, placing them alongside the region’s best teams like FunPlus Phoenix, G2 Esports, and Fnatic.
With a firm view towards Challengers 2, BLIX.GG sat down with FOKUS’ IGL Ilari "iluri" Puranen to discuss FOKUS’ promotion to the VCT, how the team was formed, how it differed from all his past teams, and who he’s looking forward to facing next season.
Formation of FOKUS
Pedro Romero: Thank you for doing this interview, iluri. I'd like to start off by saying congratulations for securing promotion to the VCT EMEA Challengers 2 main event. That said, how does it feel for you to accomplish this feat with FOKUS?
iluri: It's been amazing for me and the whole team especially because the start of this year was not so good for us. We barely qualified into the VRL (VALORANT Regional League) through the lower bracket and the start of the season was not the best from us, but after turning it around and winning VRL and flawlessly winning VCT EMEA Promotion and qualifying to the VCT, it feels amazing.
I want to backtrack to the moment you and your teammates formed the team that would eventually become FOKUS. For your part, you've roamed in the Tier-2 EMEA VALORANT scene for quite some time before forming your current team. How did you cross paths with your current teammates?
For this team, it was Fabian "HighKitty" Schultze who first messaged me if I wanted to come trial for the team. It was called "naughty evil owls" back then before it became FOKUS. At that point, I don't think I had a team--maybe some projects--so I went for the tryout and from there, it ended up working. We got a nice team out of it.
That said, what was the process like in the beginning when you were first familiarizing with your teammates whilst initially being a member of "naughty evil owls"?
It was not "naughty evil owls", it was first a full German team, but at some point they wanted to go international because they saw more potential in that. That would then be backed by FOKUS. Then they just started trying out people. Soon afterwards they were looking for an IGL and a flex player. The team had basically three players so they messaged me if I wanted to come try out for the IGL role. From there, they picked me and Vong "vong" Nguyen up at the start before then signing a third player in Lewis "YaBoiLewis" Hughes whereas Jakub "Kuba" Dogan and Maximilian "bucher" Bucher stayed from the previous roster of "naughty evil owls".
Taking up the mantle of IGL is a very crucial role for any player to undertake in any team. How has it been for you to become the IGL for this specific team? Did you encounter any sort of challenges, in and out of the game, while trying to formalize a team in addition to being its IGL?
At the start, it was always about finding out who you're playing with, what their strengths are, and what their weaknesses are. From that, you can see what your team's strengths and weaknesses are in general. And it's also important to find the right playstyle that your team benefits from the most. I think those were the biggest challenges at the start. Then when you find a playstyle, depending on how the results begin to show, you have to change things up. But I feel like for us, it was a lot of ups and downs and a lot of challenges, especially during the start of the start of this year. We had to change the roles and playstyle around and yeah. I'm not sure how to say it but--
I guess that means you eventually manage to make things click with your team and lead them properly. That's what you're trying to say, correct?
Yeah. For our team, I think making the roles click was one of the biggest challenges at the start and that's the main reason why we ended up having to bring Jakob "JUGi" Hansen and put Kuba to the bench. It was just so we could fix the roles and once we solved that challenge, we got a lot better.
Each player within this FOKUS team has had their own particular paths in reaching this point, but for your case specifically, you've been a member of various Tier-2 teams as I mentioned before. In what way does this current team differ from all of your past teams in competitive VALORANT so far as your career goes?
I think with this team, above all others, we have really strong individual players which I think is one of our strengths. Another thing that we're really good at are the roles. We have pretty much everything we need regarding roles. The synergy among us is really good and I think that was something that was not there for a lot of teams that I played in before.
What about yourself? Did you feel as if you underwent a massive difference between this team and all of your past teams?
For my shotcalling, I changed some things on what I needed to focus on from my previous teams. For example, during this time with FOKUS, I started to work a lot on mid-round calling and I think that has helped us a lot. In general, everyone in the team is very vocal so its easy to come up with the right call since I get so much input from everyone.
Playing in DACH (VRLs)
Right, moving on towards actually playing in the VRL. This team played in VRL DACH which is the German regional league. What were your expectations for the team in VRL DACH in Challengers 1? Did you think they would play as well as they did by the season's end?
I think I expected us to make playoffs and after that I was not so sure if we could win the whole thing because we still had some problems with the roles and such. But once we did the roster move and got JUGi in, I quickly saw that after we started winning some games and gaining momentum, I saw that we could not only reach playoffs, but also win the whole league.
I was going to ask about what was the main reason for the team's turnaround throughout VRL DACH, but from what I'm seeing, the answer to that question is the substitution of JUGi into the team. Is that correct?
Yeah, I think it's a big part of it because, like I said before, we had some challenges with the roles. For example, Lewis was playing as main duelist with Jett but he was not so experienced with the Operator, so once we brought JUGi in, we got a really, really good Jett Operator player and then we could put Lewis on a flex role and I think was the best role for him. He is really good with both rifle and utility.
Then we put vong on the smoker and flex position and he's doing really good on that as well, so I think we're all playing in our best roles right now and the synergy is really good. I think that's one of the main reasons why we turned it around.
Did you expect for that change to go as well as it did? Did you expect for the turnaround to happen so suddenly?
I don't think I expected us necessarily to suddenly start winning it all and go on this massive win streak. I thought we would do better but maybe not by this much.
Did you have a particular moment in time in which you felt this team was going to go far and not just appear in playoffs for a couple of games?
After we started winning some games and made playoffs, at that point, I realized that we were playing really well in scrims and in officials especially. After that, I started believing that we could win VRL and do really well in the VCT Promotion as well if we got there.
Right, relative to last year in which you basically participated in various third-party tournaments, this year saw you play in the DACH regional league. How beneficial has it been for your team, and others in that matter, to play in a regional league format that has been instituted by Riot for the 2022 season?
I think it's really nice for the whole scene and for all the players in Tier-2 and Tier-3 in Europe to have official leagues by Riot. It has been really good for our team and our regional development to consistently get really good official games every week with a nice schedule and good organization. It really helps the teams and I like it a lot.
Securing promotion to VCT
Talking about the VCT EMEA promotion series, what was the team's mindset prior to competing in that tournament?
Our mindset was really good. I think one of the reasons why we did so well was because of our mentality. The spirit every day in practice and in official games was really good, our confidence was high, and we got insane momentum from winning the VRL. In every official game, we didn't play scared, we weren't afraid of losing, and even if we were down, we always believed we could come back. There were many situations where we were down even on the last map of a series, but we always came back and I think that's been one of our strengths so far: our mentality.
Can you give an example of the team's perseverance within those difficult circumstances during that time?
I remember the series against Anonymo Esports in the VCT promotion. We were down 4-8 in the last map on Breeze and when we started our defense half, even though we were down, our mentality was really really good. We always just played the game round by round and our communication never changed. We always believed that we could win if we just played our game and we closed out the second half 8-2 to win the best-of-three and headed to the playoffs. I think that was a nice moment from us.
You talked about the team's subsequent performance after that series with Anonymo. Looking at FOKUS' run, they only dropped two maps throughout the tournament, so it speaks volumes to the team's improvement compared to how they fared in the DACH. How would you describe FOKUS' showing in the VCT EMEA promotion after playing in the DACH league?
I think heading into the VCT Promotion, we improved a lot. I feel we improved from our mistakes a lot. Even though we won the DACH league by beating Angry Titans, MOUZ, and Wave Esports, I still felt we made a lot of mistakes so we reviewed some games and thought about how we played and I felt we identified and fixed those mistakes coming into the VCT promotion. There were some moments where we f****d up some rounds really badly and we went over it the next day, and the same exact situation happened again later in the tournament and we handled it perfectly. I think improving from our mistakes was also a really big thing as to why we did so well.
Within FOKUS' journey in the playoffs, you guys had to defeat the two teams that participated in VCT Challengers 1 (BIG and SuperMassive Blaze). What was it like for you to defeat those two teams who were just in the VCT? Was there any worry or were you so confident that you felt as if nothing was going to stop you even if those teams that came in your way actually played in the VCT not too long ago?
I think we were insanely confident after beating Anonymo, Team Falcons, and Surreal Esports and before the SMB game, we were of the same mindset playing against them. We got the first map as default because one of their players didn't show up, but after winning Haven 13-6, we gained another confidence boost. Heading into the series with BIG, I don't know why but I just had the feeling that we were going to crush them 2-0. I can't explain it but I just had the feeling like on the day of the game and the day before that we were going to win 2-0, but I think it was just the mindset, the confidence, and the momentum from all the previous wins. And I think genuinely we were just playing really well.
Expectations for Challengers 2
And it is with that momentum that FOKUS will now play in the VCT alongside the rest of the best in the region. What are your expectations for this team as they will face the best in EMEA for Challengers 2?
I think in Challengers 2, there are some really good teams, but at the same time, there are some teams that have clear weaknesses such as problems with roles or roster changes so I think we have a really good chance actually to do well. I think we can compete against the teams in the VCT.
Is there a team that you are most particularly looking forward to face?
I really want to play M3 Champions. I really like how they play and I like their approach to the game and playing them is always super hard in scrims. I'm just looking forward to facing them and trying to beat them in an official match.
What about the rest of the team? Which team do you feel as if everyone wants to face? Is it still M3 or another team?
For my team? Hmm... I have to think about that. I'm not sure but I have a feeling that at least some people want to really face Fnatic and beat them.
Since FOKUS is set to play in Challengers 2, the team will face plenty of world-class players within each renowned team. For you, as the IGL who will face the rest of the region's other best IGLs, how would you rank yourself within this particular position even though we're a few months from the start of the next season?
It's always hard to say but I personally think I can keep up with the rest of the IGLs in the league.
As the only team to secure promotion to the VCT for Challengers 2, not many people are aware of the kind of playstyle that you display in games. For that crowd, how would you describe the team's playstyle and what they should be looking forward to?
I think the only words that come to mind is a confident playstyle and I think for anyone watching our game, they can see that we are not afraid to play the game. I think having a confident playstyle is something that we're good at.
What is one game you can point to for fans to watch as reference?
Yeah, the last best-of-three in the VCT Promotion against BIG where we completely destroyed them. I think that is a good example of how we can perform as individuals and as a team. You're going to see a mix of our strategical and individual ability going crazy.
That about wraps up all of my questions. Do you have any final words to share or any acknowledgments to give?
I guess just thanks. Thanks to all the fans. Nothing else really.