Limping along the LCS while carrying a 10-game losing streak behind their feebled backs, FlyQuest reached a crossroads with their starting roster. Their coordination was nonexistent, their teamplay was barren, and their morale was shot with utter exhaustion.
It seemed that no matter what the team did to fix their issues, the only attention they garnered came in the form of laughs in response to their mistakes. In no way did this team reflect last year’s iteration which constantly flirted with success. Recognizing the pressing crisis that entangled FlyQuest, the team’s management sought a way to resolve it.
Eventually, and less than a day after finishing Week 5 of the LCS Summer Split, they called up their Academy roster while simultaneously demoting their starting lineup to the bench, causing an uproar among their fans. Not only that, they transferred top-laner Eric “Licorice” Ritchie to Golden Guardians. Not even a year into his stint with FLY, he was already gone, his experiment officially declared a failure.
While a good portion questioned the move considering the point in time they did so–they were locked in a three-team tie for eighth place with four weeks remaining until the start of playoffs–the team ignored the noise surrounding them and only focused on what came ahead. Cloud9, Counter Logic Gaming, and Immortals were their opponents for Week 6 after all. A big test lay ahead.
And how did they do in those games? Not much, actually. They just won all of their three games to comfortably sit with the final playoff spot and a firm two-game lead over CLG and GG like nothing. No big deal.
Head coach Lamine-Lounis “Kanani” Khouani anticipated this stupendous performance to a degree. The new lineup did well in the NA Academy split leading up to their call-up so there was proper credence to his notion. Nevertheless, academy and the LCS play were different beasts, and achieving success at the highest level of NA pro play would be difficult. It should’ve been difficult, but Kanani’s squad wasn’t kind to follow the script that associates with rookies.
With FlyQuest’s playoff chances suddenly rejuvenated, Kanani sat down with Gamezo for an exclusive interview to discuss everything that went down in the leadup to Week 6, what he learned as the head coach of an LCS team, and how he thinks his former players are doing this year.
On Going 3-0 in Week 6
I’d love to know your overall thoughts on the team’s performance in Week 6.
Kanani: Obviously, it’s a good feeling to win again, and doing so at this point in the season has given the organization a boost as we make our playoff push. I’m very proud of the work all the players put into this weekend, both in scrims and on stage, and I think we showed some of that cohesion we’ve been working towards.
Even though you fielded an Academy team to take on a trio of full-fledged LCS rosters, did you expect for them to perform as well as they did?
Kanani: Well, when you’re on the LCS stage, you’re an LCS player and part of an LCS roster. We went into the weekend feeling very strongly about where we were as a team. I think a 3-0 weekend is a tough thing to accomplish at any point, but I don’t think I’m as surprised by the performance as some others may be. I have the privilege of working alongside these players every day, so I know how much work it took for them to get where they are now. I believe that when this group plays at their best, we can beat anyone in the LCS, and we showed that last weekend.
How did that preparation come into play after Licorice’s transfer to GG?
Kanani: The Licorice move came together very quickly, but in a way, sometimes having a move happen so fast can be a benefit. It forces you to focus on what’s at hand and what you know. Kumo deserves all the praise for rising to the occasion in both Academy and LCS, and I think his ability to do so really highlights how much trust he has in his own abilities. Kumo’s been in similar situations before, so he’s able to draw on his experience to stay composed no matter what we ask of him. I also think as Kumo himself said postgame, that there’s a lot of synergy between these players, something they were able to rely on and build upon even in the face of many moving parts.
What was the difference in the play or team cohesion that you noticed while watching the Academy team in comparison to the LCS team before the switch was made?
Kanani: I would say the biggest differences are leadership qualities and decisiveness. I think in the LCS, we had tons of problems where we would second-guess on calls in general. Not to put in any blame on them, but if you’re losing 10 games in a row, it can bring up certain insecurities or uncertainties and it makes you do more than you usually do.
And the good part about having this [new] iteration start for this week was that even though they aren’t necessarily made up of good individual players, and perhaps they have slightly worse decision-making, it wouldn’t matter too much as long as they’re on the same page. That was one of the reasons why they were outstanding.
On Licorice’s Transfer to GG
Your GM Nick Phan explained how he sealed the deal regarding Licorice’s exit from FlyQuest in a podcast he did with Tim Sevenhuysen, but he didn’t explain how you played a part in the move, so I’d like to hear your perspective on the matter.
Kanani: To be completely honest, I don’t think I can tell you too much about it because I wasn’t as involved. I mean, I was involved with the process when the offer was on the table, but I wasn’t involved in the process when GG was engaged in conversation with FlyQuest [about Licorice]. From what we came down to in agreement was that, for both sides, with Licorice and GG, it made sense to go in a different direction. And yeah, it turned out to be the best for both parties, right? He won the Player of the Week award and we had a very good week as well.
I was obviously surprised that the process went faster than I expected. When I got the notification about him receiving the offer, everything happened super fast. Licorice also said it in his interview. He came to the office, was informed on Monday that there was interest from GG and how FLY was very open about it, and basically everything happened within the next 48 hours. It seemed very brief.
From a coaching perspective, I’m obviously sad to let Licorice go because I think he’s a player that is able to offer a lot of qualities to the team due to his veteran mindset and having good ideas on how he wants to play. But it seems that he’s going to be a good fit for GG based on not only his decision but on the result that he has gained from this past week.
Considering the nature of the switch, this happened between two rivals in a playoff race. You guys were neck and neck in the league standings. Did you factor in how that switch affects the playoff race with GG?
Kanani: Coming into the playoff race, having Licorice as an upgrade on that GG side because things seem to work out better based on the feedback that he was giving from that interview, it is quite annoying to have a stronger opponent. However, I’m also very excited to be competing against him because, in the end, it’s not necessarily about who’s having the better players. It’s about who’s having the better team and that will qualify them to playoffs, so I’m looking forward to competing against him in the last round-robin and I’m actually not too worried. Because if we need to qualify for playoffs, that would mean we need to beat the other teams and not only GG, so looking at only GG is not giving me too much worry.
In hindsight, what could you have done differently with Licorice?
Kanani: I think I could’ve worked more in one-on-one and smaller group settings to have an easier way to coach him–or a group of players in general–because sometimes, when you’re doing team reviews or when you’re going over team cohesion, it feels like some of the individual engagement goes under the table. I don’t know how to phrase it but sometimes it feels like it’s not going to be as noticeable as it should be.
Sometimes with individual coaching, I think I could’ve invested more time. Outside of that, I do think that coming from spring to summer, we were one of the few teams that were working in an online environment. I think I could’ve invested more time and energy into literally all my players to have a better bonding with them because we lost a lot of precious time due to the setting that we had in spring split.
Coaching Experience in Perspective
Regarding your position as a coach within FlyQuest, it’s the first time you’ve been handed such a position in a major region. You already with other teams in the past, so taking that into consideration, what has the experience in NA been like so far for you, with this roster swap included?
Kanani: My takeaways are I started realizing that based on previous positions, it’s not about knowing the game well but also maintaining your schedule in the sense of managing the timetable around the team, being good at having relationships with your players, learning how to be a coach more from the traditional sports side rather than telling them, ‘You could’ve played this matchup better if you hit your Q.’
I think being a head coach is a lot about relationship management and that is something I had to practice a lot over the course of the season.
Jumping to last year, you were a part of SK Gaming’s coaching staff. To that end, what are your thoughts on SK Gaming’s performance in summer thus far? Also, have you been helping some of your former players on the side (like giving advice and etc.)?
Kanani: Looking at SK, I still maintain a good relationship with Jenax. Before he was signed to the LEC, he was one of the original rookies that made it to SK and the only player to keep his spot in 2021. Looking at their standings, they had the aspiration like other teams to use a rookie lineup. You can try to expect a lot of growing pains, like trying to see and mesh with their improvement throughout the competition.
I think it’s very hard to expect every team to perform like Rogue in the early days when they subbed in their rookie roster and they performed immediately well. That is something that should be on the side of fewer expectations. Aside from the other roster changes SK made, I really hope that they can try to find the best possible form coming into the playoff race. Right now, they’re at the bottom of the league, but regardless, I think with their newest addition in Lilipp, who I also had the pleasure of working with briefly, I’m confident that they can qualify for playoffs if they figure things out in the right way.
You’ve always taken note of your past players. What is one player that you’ve been most impressed by with their growth during this year compared to last year?
Kanani: Talking about player growth in general, when they’re not in competition, I think that Nemesis has always impressed me on how he works in a self-sufficient way. He’s generally the type of player who doesn’t really need too much guidance from a coaching staff because he understands a lot of the fundamentals of the game.
Also, looking back at him from 2017, with how he behaves and functions as a human being, I think that he’s one of the most successful esports competitors. Even though he’s not competing right now, I can still see that he learns something every once in a while and I think that will help him in LEC, LCS, or wherever he goes.
Talking about the players that are inactive competition, I would want to give a shoutout to Crownshot and Selfmade because I think they had to experience growing pains, like some in Fnatic and some in SK. Due to their work ethic, which is a very European thing in general, it helps them surpass any hurdle that they’ll face in their careers. Usually, if I would think of these people, I would characterize their qualities as self-critical, super hard grinders, and very outspoken, and I think having those players makes it much easier for the coaching staff to find a middle ground and work as a unit. That’s what I’m really proud of.
I’d like a quick answer on this next one: Do you think we’ll see Nemesis return to competitive play next year?
Kanani: I think he does come back. If teams do not judge him too much on public relationships, I think he should definitely have a chance. I mean, whether he will or not, that’s up to a lot of organizations who will make offers to him, but I definitely think he deserves to come back in 2022.
Looking Into Week 7
Final question: Since the academy is playing so well and things are looking to be on the come up, and I understand that you might not want to reveal too much, will we see a return of the original LCS team to the main stage? Or is it going to be a mixture of Academy and LCS players?
Kanani: As a coaching staff, we’re trying to address it not by month-to-month but by week-to-week. Aside from the Academy coach, we’re also trying to use our assistant coach Sharkz to monitor the LCS players closely. We try to evaluate the players’ performance on a weekly basis by checking their process and the things they have to work on, so I don’t want to leave myself too much out of the window, but I would say there’s a varied chance of seeing players return to the main lineup.