Ordinarily, when a team stumbles into the postseason with a lackluster sub-.500 record, fans expect them to lose and get eliminated upon facing their first obstacle. They would make way for the other more capable teams to contend for the top in their respective leagues. Such was the situation for NRG Esports, who started their journey in the 2022 North American VCT Stage 2 Challengers playoffs in the lower bracket, having compiled a 2-3 record in the group stage.
Unfortunately for the spectators, NRG opted to take the unconventional route in their march for possible Masters: Copenhagen qualification. Wins over Evil Geniuses and Ghost Gaming sent them to the forefront of a region, all the while pitting them with the likes of major teams, including OpTic Gaming, XSET, and FaZe Clan.
It was FaZe who served as NRG’s latest opponent in the Lower Bracket, another resurgent side that has made equal noise through the entirety of Stage 2. Still, unlike how they overcame past challenges thus far, FaZe was too strong to be bested as they lost 2-1 to bow out just two wins shy of reaching Denmark.
Following NRG's elimination from the playoffs, NRG’s head coach Josh “JoshRT” Lee spoke to BLIX.GG to discuss his team's run in Stage 2, whether the sudden stoppage to the Bootcamp was a major step back in their series against FaZe, their overall turnaround in Stage 2, and how they will approach the LCQ.
Pedro Romero: You just came off a pretty tough series with FaZe Clan, with the series going the distance in its entirety. The loss is still fresh in your mind, so I just like to know what message you sent to your players following that contest.
JoshRT: The loss was brutal, and I just wanted to give them the perspective that we worked really hard throughout the boot camp, we improved so much, and we should be proud of the progress that we made and the result that we got. We had a really shaky start in the season, a lot of bad maps, and a lot of bad series. But then we were coming up in form for the playoffs. We pulled out a bunch of upsets, and it was pretty damn cool, so I wanted them to keep that in mind and just be proud of the progress we made.
It was through the help of this environment that allowed NRG to manufacture that deep run in the playoffs despite their lackluster group stage showing. For this team to do so well and put up such a major fight in the march towards Copenhagen, what was the catalyst for this team's turnaround from your perspective from the end of the group stage to the playoffs?
JoshRT: It had to do with the changing of comps and a lot of different ideas. There wasn't a strong singular vision as to what we wanted to do. Plus, we were in a new boot camp environment after being online for the entirety of this roster's existence and the whole time I've been a coach. That was the first I ran a boot camp, and there were a lot of learning experiences from that.
The first week, our obligations were elsewhere in terms of content, setting up the boot camp, and configuring our new routines, so we got a little uncomfortable in the beginning. That kind of explains why we weren't so sharp in the first game. Going back into the comp discussions, we were kind of messing around with it, but ultimately, in that series against The Guard, we went back into our identity. I tried to make Sam (Sam “s0m” Oh) and Ian (Ian “tex” Botsch) be as comfortable as possible, and through that, we were able to pull some great wins off of great performances. We ramped up, we honed in on what we wanted to do, our playbook started to become a lot more defined, our map pool became pretty strong, and that's why we beat EG and Ghost.
One of the major aspects that people will look at for how this series transpired was your team dispersing from the boot camp due to a potential COVID infection within the camp. How much of an impact did that play into the team's subsequent performance against FaZe?
JoshRT: Yeah, I think I had a lot of impacts, to be honest because it took a bit to get used to the Bootcamp environment, and then we were starting to feel it off those great wins. The players were super comfortable with their routines but then suddenly, after the news of a potential COVID infection, we were like: "Oh sh*t. We don't want to take any risk here. We gotta fly home." So we just flew home, and just getting used to home setups could be impactful to some of the players' performances. I won't say that's the reason why we lost. I think it's on me. I shouldn't have let Ascent go through, but it was definitely a factor. We had to lose a day based on travel and whatnot.
Given that there weren't many expectations from the public for this team to contend in this tournament as a result of their shaky group stage, do you think that greatly contributed to the team's mindset and enhanced how they played in the playoffs?
JoshRT: The team generally doesn't look too deep into that. Obviously, we knew the narrative surrounding us, and we did have high expectations going into the season, especially with the whole 10-0 run-in maps (during the end of Stage 1 Challengers, Stage 2 open qualifiers, and Stage 2 group stage). We beat TSM for Week 1, and we were feeling good, but we were brought back to reality after that XSET loss.
We wanted to prove ourselves for sure, and when we lost the next few matches, by the time we reached that series with The Guard, it was do or die for us. And yeah, we knew that narrative, but ultimately, we didn't really care about that. It's more about us. We wanted to go to Copenhagen; we wanted to play in the playoffs. That was the most important thing for us.
What does this playoff run for NRG say about the team's chances of qualifying for Champions in the NA LCQ?
JoshRT: For a long time, people saw our roster thinking, "the skill on that team is immense, but they haven't put it together," and how there were plenty of teamwork and fundamental issues that we were trying to resolve. It started to click here, especially with Ethan (Ethan Arnold) joining on board. He provides so much experience in addition to James' (James “hazed” Cobb) leadership.
We're going to be a scary team. I think we're going to be a top team going forward, and we shouldn't be taken lightly at all. That regular-season performance was just us messing around with comps and getting used to new stuff. Now we have a much better process on the table with the players working with improved routines. Expect us to be a top-three contender moving forward.