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From near relegation to playoffs: Phoenix1 rises from the ashes

Phoenix1's support William "Stunt" Chen celebrates after his team swept Team Dignitas in the quarterfinals of the 2017 NA LCS spring playoffs last weekend. Just under a year ago, Phoenix1 was facing relegation after a very rough LCS debut. Riot Games

When the pressure is highest, League of Legends players rely on clarity, communication and timing. Phoenix1 majority owner Robert Moore had none of that when trying to get his new squad ready for the beginning of the 2016 North American League Championship Series Summer Split.

Given last-minute approval to purchase Team Impulse's 2016 NA LCS Summer Split slot, Moore had less than seven days to fill out his roster. He relied on a strategy he had employed for many years as vice chairman at Paramount Pictures: Surround yourself with experts, listen to them, trust them.

"I didn't study marketing in college, but I was overseeing marketing for a long time at Paramount and really finding the best people, and surrounding [myself] with the best people, and I think what we've tried to do here [at P1] is find people who have been around League of Legends, people who have coached, and people who have been in management positions," Moore said.

Ex-Cloud9 coach Charlie Lipsie, Moore's son Michael and team consultant Eric Ma were among the experts the new owner leaned on. The newly minted organization's first goal was to build a roster that could keep P1 safe from relegation in the immediate future, and to develop new players into a playoff-contending team in the long term.

Phoenix1's management identified three players it would retain from the Team Impulse roster: Choi "Pirean" Jun-sik, Brandon "Mash" Phan and Austin "Gate" Yu. However, it needed five to field a complete team and a few more as subs, so the dash was on to try out as many potential additions as possible.

Just hours away from embarrassingly having to submit an incomplete or underpowered roster, Phoenix1 was able to fill a team it believed in and was ready to begin its inaugural NA LCS journey.

The team's first split got off to a rough start, both on and off the Rift. Jungler Rami "Inori" Charagh ran into visa issues that caused him to miss the first three weeks of the season. And in-game, Phoenix1 simply was not performing as it plummeted to the bottom of the table. At the season's midpoint, P1 was an uninspiring 0-9.

Perhaps a week was not enough time to choose a roster. Maybe team management was too confident that its more inexperienced team members would develop. Or perhaps the team's ownership underestimated what it took to be successful in League of Legends and was becoming another example of outside investors blowing a fortune to prospect in esports. Despite the issues, Moore maintained belief in those with whom he surrounded himself. The team never gave up on Inori and the owner personally helped the jungler sort out the paperwork he needed to make his Phoenix1 debut.

Moore's patience paid off. In the final nine games of the 2016 Summer Split, P1 had a winning record. Not only did the team prove it could hang with the dregs of the region, Phoenix1 was able to win a spectacular series over the undefeated league leaders, Team SoloMid -- a pivotal moment in the rise of the Phoenix1.

When the relegation tournament came around, P1 was hitting its stride, having climbed from 10th place to eighth in the final few weeks of play. The strong finish meant Phoenix1 had managed to earn a "win and you're in" seed. All the team had to do was defeat Echo Fox and its LCS future would remain intact. Shortly after the players loaded into the first game of the best-of-five series, it was clear that P1's time at the bottom of the table had run its course. They dominated Echo Fox with a 3-0 sweep.

Phoenix1 then began its first full offseason with a monthlong bootcamp in South Korea. The goals were to build camaraderie, practice against the best players in the world and lock up new team members in key positions.

"The difference in solo queue [in South Korea], I couldn't comprehend ... the high ELO felt like I was playing in scrims," Inori said.

When Phoenix1 returned to the U.S., it had made top acquisitions in Ryu "Ryu" Sang-wook and No "Arrow" Dong-hyeon. In the mid lane, Ryu was coming off a Worlds semifinals appearance with the EU LCS's H2K Gaming. Arrow, the new AD carry, was respected as one of the top at his position in the premier league in the world, the LCK. In his final split in his home country of South Korea, Arrow's team of KT Rolster reached the Summer Split finals.

Bringing in players of this caliber was rare for NA LCS organizations. And what Phoenix1 did by rostering them after an eighth-place Summer Split finish was virtually unheard of.

"I think what we've tried to do here [at P1] is find people who have been around League of Legends, people who have coached, and people who have been in management positions."

Phoenix1 majority owner Robert Moore

Building a team is much more than simply adding individual talents. Teams have identities beyond the names on their jerseys. Phoenix1 found this out when Inori was once again forced off the Rift when he needed to return to Canada and tend to his family. After starting off with a roaring 4-1 record to begin the 2017 Spring Split, the team once again found itself in a roster bind. However, P1's management rounded out the five-man roster by persuading William "Meteos" Hartman to return to the professional scene after a brief retirement.

"[Meteos] is a really good jungler, I was surprised at how good he was still, I'm trying to learn as much as I can from him ... I've learned a lot from his communication and playstyle, I don't think many players get this type of opportunity," Inori said.

With a new jungler playing a different style than Inori, Phoenix1's place on the table was once again in question. Regardless, Meteos helped his new organization win both of its matches in his first weekend with the team, including a high-intensity series against his former squad, top of the standings Cloud9. Instead of seeing his new role as a negative, Inori used the challenge of losing his starting spot to challenge himself and gain a whole new level of trust for his teammates.

"I realized I didn't have to be a huge carry monster every game," Inori said.

Phoenix1 wasn't content, though, as team management decided to make some final roster tweaks to close out the season by replacing support player Adrian "Adrian" Ma with the two-man rotation of William "Stunt" Chen and Jordan "Shady" Robison. The move created a level of depth that few teams enjoy, while simultaneously cementing the fact that Phoenix1 is a winning brand, bigger than any one player on the Rift.

The new faces and roster turnover throughout spring 2017 provided a viable excuse for the team to stagnate, yet Phoenix1 was far and away the most improved team in the NA LCS. After finishing in the bottom three a few months prior, Phoenix1 secured a top-three finish this split to earn its first-ever NA LCS playoff berth.

Last weekend, Phoenix1 made its playoff debut and swept Team Dignitas 3-0 in the Spring Split quarterfinals. The days of relegation talk are now in the rearview, and when it plays Cloud9 on Saturday at 3 p.m. ET, the stakes will be the highest the team has ever experienced. There will be championship points on the line and with each victory, P1 will get closer to earning a spot at the 2017 World Championships.

Not bad for a team built in six-and-a-half days.