You can’t miss the 80,000 capacity stadium that Excel Esports now calls home. The venue – Twickenham Stadium in west London, home to England’s national rugby team – is a magnificent sight, as is the 27ft tall bronze sculpture of a rugby lineout stood outside.
The iconic stadium is just as awe-inspiring upon entry, with rugby memorabilia and photos flooding the walls. Until you get to a certain floor and are greeted by a big blue wall with the words Excel Esports plastered on top.
Walking through the doors is like stumbling upon a new world. The walls are littered with League of Legends art, and by the entrance is a giant picture of the team’s Spring Split line-up. There is still a rugby ball on one of the desks, mind, but it’s a mini Excel-branded one that had been thrown to co-founder and managing director Kieran Holmes-Darby.
Here, the entire organisation becomes one with the in-house content team stationed at the back while the rest of the staff members’ desks line-up along the side of the long room. Behind said staff are two separate scrim rooms which are fully-equipped to mirror the set-up of the LEC studios in Berlin to the most minute detail – the desks are even the exact same height.
There is also a third practise area called the solo-queue room where up to 10 players can go for additional practise or to even stream. There are also two VOD-review areas on either side of the room furnished with couches and beanbags but also equipped with some fun team-bonding activities like a Nintendo Switch and board games with One Night Ultimate Werewolf looking well used on top of the pile.
Yet in the morning when we visit, a lot of this set-up isn’t being used, it’s rather quiet apart from some keyboard tapping and a few conversations between staff. Most of the players are yet to arrive as Excel allows them to have a free morning where they are able to go to the gym next door or stay in the comfort of their own homes where they can play some solo-queue, or more realistically, sleep-in from doing just that the evening before.
Keeping work and play separate
The team owns four brand-new houses in a gated community just a short walk away from the stadium where the players and some of the staff are based. The homes were built just this year as members of the organisation arrived on the day they were built to secure them.
While most of the players were still at home, UKLC jungler Christian "Taxer" Jensen was in one of the scrim rooms already practising. The Dane had been to the gym and was the first to arrive at the facility, even beating the Holmes-Darby brothers.
Slowly the players arrive one-by-one, some coming in earlier than planned for our interviews before beginning their busy practise schedule, including Raymond “Kasing” Tsang who had snuck past an apparent fire-drill in order to get inside.
Most players head straight for the industrial-sized kitchen where a healthy lunch provided by a catering company is there waiting for them. The food on offer is important as coach David “DLim” Lim tells me that North American teams usually often have Korean team-chefs who make a lot of carb-heavy meals which tire out the players and leads to a decline of quality in later scrim games.
Player health is an important component of Excel’s model as the organisation will explore any option that could benefit the squad. Some of the players even gave saliva samples recently for Muhdo testing which looks at the DNA of players for miniscule details which will help create a food and exercise plan catered to each of them. For example, someone may have more mercury in their body than most people so they would be advised against having much more fish in their diet.
DLim tells us that the plan is all about quality over quantity: “Managing health is crucial with athletes travelling and dealing with the stress of being a pro gamer. As the scene becomes more professional, there's the added responsibility of managing your brand, your career, your sleep schedule. Every little thing you do I think ends up coming back around.
“Even though it's not an extra solo-queue game or one more VOD review, I do believe you will get more value out of those VOD reviews and games you participate in if you're in good shape physically. I'm not expecting them to be five-star athletes or anything, just healthy and ready to work.”
While Excel look for any little extra boost that might increase their chances of winning, Kieran admits that their system is far from perfect: “With esports, we're not ready yet to start thinking about the last five per cent of performance because we haven't got the first 95 nailed. We're still working on that though there are certain small-percentage wins we think we do have like the separate scrim rooms, the separate facility from home."
The Summer Split is the first time that Excel have had their headquarters up and running but the plan has already changed with the LEC line-up spending a lot of the week in a gaming house in Berlin. The decision was taken following travel issues which plagued the team in the first two weeks with Excel’s first game of the Summer having to be delayed after the weather had cancelled flights while in the second week, the team had to be awake at 6AM for their rebooked flight to Berlin on the same day as their match.
Kieran joked that he’s still working on a way to control the weather but concedes that the organisation is still figuring things out: “We want to be transparent that we've had our issues and we've dealt with them. I think the process is working better now than it was at the start of the split so what percentage of impact that has on performance we'll never know. It's sometimes an easy scapegoat but by no means perfect.”
The LEC line-up spend Mondays and Tuesdays at the Twickenham facility then travel to Berlin on Wednesdays to ensure the team arrive in good time and avoid any extra stress on match-days.
From the players we spoke to, they all liked the facility but wasn’t sure it was necessarily a better model than having a gaming house. Petter “Hjarnan” Freyschuss believes that teams in a team house improve and bond quicker: “In a gaming house, you can force your way through problems. If someone is angry then you just go home and will be okay the next day and maybe the problem doesn’t get fixed.
“I think if you're a new team trying to improve then you should probably stay together as much as you can in the same room and then you can just play the game. Right now, you play five scrim games then you go home and don't have any interaction with the other people for eight hours. That's not how it normally goes.”
It’s a learning experience for Excel who of course are still in their first year of running a team at this level. Now utilising a hybrid between the gaming house and facility models, the team has finally picked up its first win of the Summer Split and is moving forward.
And a clear five-man roster for the LEC appears to be forming as the organisation has recognised the need for better synergy within the team. During our day at Twickenham we didn’t see most of the LEC squad as scheduling clashes meant they couldn’t scrim their usual partners.
Instead, the LEC team had a VOD review of other region’s games back at DLim’s house before a day of team bonding with some go-karting before the entire organisation met for dinner at a Korean BBQ restaurant in London.
Again Kieran was honest in saying that things hadn’t worked perfectly but has high hopes for the future: “We're kind of trailblazing the way forward of how to run a successful esports team. We're trying things, we're getting things wrong, we're getting things right and we're coming up with what we think is the best model. Whatever we think will be best to get wins on the weekend, we will do.”