More than just an academy team - how ENCE is investing into Finland's future
As one of the latest top organizations to enter the academy space, ENCE is aiming higher than just having an additional team of players.
Academy projects are not all the same. In some cases, these are simply secondary teams that an organization built out of a few young prospects and a more experienced coaching figure. The goal is to have them compete in WePlay's Academy League and other lower-tier events, and often the vision doesn't go beyond wild hopes of hitting the jackpot with a star in the making to promote to the main team.
Others build their youth programs in a more complex fashion. NAVI has been perhaps the biggest pioneer in the space, having created a system featuring multiple tiers, beginning at the near-grassroots-level and feeding into the NAVI Youth roster and to NAVI Junior, all the way to the main team competing at the very highest level of CS:GO. Valeriy "b1t" Vakhovskiy and Ilya "m0NESY" Osipov are the early products of that structure as the two shiny examples of players who went from a junior roster to the big games, the likes of which other organizations dream to find in their academy ventures.
ENCE is another organization that has a bigger vision for its youth program than having an additional team competing in tournaments the main squad is too good for. Their new Academy Program, which has quickly gotten off the ground since it was announced at the start of the year, is an investment into Finland's future and a way to give young promising players a path that previously didn't exist in the country.
"We're trying to tackle the issue that there hasn't been a path for the youngsters to seek help on what it even means to have a career as a professional player," ENCE co-founder Joona "natu" Leppänen tells HLTV about the philosophy behind launching the program. "All they've had is a few old dogs in the scene not necessarily giving them the best example — if I'm totally honest — of how to be a player, how to behave.
"What we're hoping to do is to give a bit of hope to the Finnish players as the leading esports team here, that we are actively trying to help the Finnish community and for the Finnish scene to find these diamonds in the rough and give them an opportunity to learn from day zero what are the fundamental things that you need to understand and the demands for you to one day be professional."
"We want to be the most comprehensive training program out there to help the players mentally and in-game," adds Eemeli Ikonen, the ENCE Academy Program Lead, who was hired by the organization earlier this year to run its youth development efforts.
"There are no resources in Finland when it comes to grassroots training, professional training with the youngsters. We think there's quite a lot of potential and talent, especially here in Finland but globally too, so we want to be the place that has the right atmosphere, work ethic, and professionalism to help the young talent."
This new program goes well beyond the five players you see on the organization's new ENCE Academy lineup, who have just played their first season of the WePlay Academy League in their first month together, looking competitive but ultimately falling out in groups after a plethora of close losses. Those are the players who get to play in a team and who you will see on occasion on the match pages, but they're only the tip of the iceberg. Below the surface are tens more prospective players that ENCE will aim to help not only become better at the game itself but also gain insight into what the ins and outs of being in a professional team are.
"We want to have a pool of players which will eventually widen, but to start with we're probably talking 10-20 players that we keep our eye on, we keep tabs on them on a monthly basis, we give them different tasks that we see they should be improving on," natu explains.
Though still in its infancy, this part of the program has already begun thanks to a collaboration between ENCE and Esportal, a matchmaking platform that is especially popular in Nordic countries. Young prospects have been competing in special monthly ladders and some of the best players from the April and May ladders were hand-picked to go to ENCE's headquarters in Helsinki in early August. They met and played with the existing academy team and had the chance to talk to natu and General Manager Niklas "Willkey" Ojalainen about the fundamentals of building a team.
"Esportal has been a platform to find those individuals who have the interest, who have the drive to take it to the next level and to be part of this kind of guidance," natu continues. "We made a shortlist of players to invite over, to visit, because they've not necessarily been to an esports team facility before, to give them an opportunity to play and give them a little bit of an experience, but also an opportunity for us to get introduced with these guys, to see what they're like as people."
"We had them play together with our academy players in different types of mixes to give them an experience of playing in a LAN environment, we had some prizes for them, and everyone had a really good time. We are planning to have more of these."
The aim of events like these and the ENCE Academy Program as a whole is not just to develop the local scene, but also to find and hone talent for the academy roster and, ideally, for the main team. The organization was forced to go international when its all-Finnish roster disbanded at the end of 2020, but now it's making an investment that could see it one day return to its roots.
"Finnish CS hasn't been in a great place for a while. We had to go international if we wanted to stay competitive a couple of years back because of the hard fact that there just wasn't enough depth in terms of players for us to bring on," natu admits. "In the big picture, we are doing this as a feeder for our main team. That's the dream, right? But also to revitalize the Finnish scene. We're happy if, let's say, one of our Finnish rivals wants to buy one of our players. That'll be a happy day, we've done things correctly at that point in time."
"That is the end goal, that at some point in our academy program journey we would develop that kind of talent that would rise into the main roster," Ikonen adds. "The long-term thing is of course that even if we didn't have a spot in our main roster, we would develop those kinds of players that would be able to move somewhere internationally."
Interestingly, though, ENCE isn't only looking at Finnish talent when it comes to the academy team that actually gets to compete. It consists solely of Finns at the moment, but many players from international waters were considered in the long process. On top of that, despite its initial call for only Finnish-speaking applicants, the organization hired a British coach who doesn't speak the language in ex Endpoint Academy skipper George "Whitey" White, simply because he was the best candidate.
"We were certain of having three players of a Finnish core," Ikonen says. "The last two spots were [open to foreign players] — if we found really good hidden gems or super good talents that we would be able to get to the team, we would take them. But the situation was that we found five really good Finnish players that clicked really well together."
So why consider players outside of Finland when the goal of the program is to develop Finnish talent? Diversity is good, natu points out.
"We don't want to limit ourselves that we're not going to bring imports into the lineup. Those guys can also give a certain different mentality, perspective, and approach to the Finnish guys. And then they have to learn about communicating in a different language. I only find it as a positive that there's diversity," natu reckons.
Having experience speaking English in-game would certainly help in a potential future transition into the main roster, which is currently compiled out of five (six, once Alvaro "SunPayus" Garcia officially joins) different nationalities. It's clear that this is something ENCE has kept in mind and is already actively working towards, as the two key strategical figures behind the main team in Marco "Snappi" Pfeiffer and Eetu "sAw" Saha are helping the academy roster get off the ground.
"Snappi has already been working with the boys on the team and Eetu [sAw] has been working with George [Whitey]," Ikonen shares. "We are already kind of trying to emulate that we have some sort of mirroring regarding the playstyle and tactics, because if at some point in the future we have that kind of talent in academy, the gap would be as small as possible to go to the main roster."
You can see that this is a project that has been in the works for a while and that ENCE has thought things through beyond just making the decision to enter the academy scene. The Finland-focused program is more than just a commercial product, and it is here to stay as one of the pillars of the ENCE's long-term plans, Ikonen concludes:
"This is not a PR stunt. This is something that ENCE sees will be a really big part of where we want to go as an organization."