Should rosters be given more time?
After another summer break filled with transfers, should teams be giving their lineups more time?
"I kinda dislike seeing so many changes every break, because it feels like teams restart their progression. They don't try to find the full potential of the lineup." That's what Russel "Twistzz" Van Dulken had to say during BLAST Fall's group stage when he was asked for his thoughts on this summer's edition of the silly season. So, does he have a point?
There was considerable excitement for new-look projects at G2 and Vitality last off-season, but neither got close to the results their name-value demanded. Instead, it was the teams that stuck with their original lineup (Natus Vincere, Cloud9, Movistar Riders, Spirit) or made one single change but kept their overall system and structure (FaZe, ENCE) that ended the season with the best results. Over the pond, a huge shuffle in North America left Liquid (3 moves), Evil Geniuses (3), and Complexity (2) with fresh lineups, but all three sides floundered.
Which begs the question: Are teams pulling the plug too early? If teams kept faith in their lineups for longer, would results eventually turn a corner? How long does a team need before we can safely write them off as having reached their peak? Let's try and answer these questions.
First things first, let's take an overall look at our sample. 71.3% of our roster moves included just one move, 23.5% two, and 5.3% three. Of rosters that are not currently active, 58.7% of them survived for longer than 100 days, meaning nearly half of teams made another change within three months. The median roster timespan is a measly 174.5 days (128 if we include active rosters).
Of our active teams, 31.8% of teams have been together for longer than 100 days, though this number might be higher if we weren't collecting data just after a player break. Still, the bar chart below illustrates the point: Teams, despite contracts being harder and harder to buy out, are quick to twist rather than stick.
Cloud9 are the ultimate outliers, picking up Abay "HObbit" Khasenov all the way back in July 2020 when they were still Gambit Youngsters. The only other team to have not made a change in 2022 is forZe, who added Alexandr "shalfey" Marenov and Evgeny "Norwi" Ermolin in October 2021.
So why do teams do this? Surely now, with data scientists and more and more general managers or coaches controlling the roster, five-man lineups should be given more time?
Well, one answer is that we're not quite there yet; as much as teams love to publicly preach about their professionalism, their decision-making reveals that they are not as well-run as they act. This is a viewpoint vocalised by Aleksandar "kassad" Trifunović and Marco "Snappi" Pfeiffer in recent times, the latter reflecting that "I think a lot of GMs don’t have their finger on the pulse when it comes to talent and what to look for. You have to find out through other channels how their attitude is, work ethic, mentality. Are their numbers inflated by good roles, are they selfish?"
But Snappi also employs a ruthless, but effective, roster management in his own team, such as cutting Joonas "doto" Forss for Pavle "Maden" Bošković or most recently hades for Alvaro "SunPayus" Garcia; the skill is knowing when a lineup can be improved in the market. Roster moves, when done right, are an opportunity for a team to evolve. But how do we measure this?
One way to measure the effectiveness of a roster move is to look at a team's HLTV ranking on the final day of their old five-man lineup, and compare it to the peak of their new lineup. So, let's take a look, using only teams that were in the top twenty before they made their change to remove huge, disproportionate, jumps made by teams like ENCE and Movistar Riders.
As we can see, nearly every team peaked at least slightly higher than their rank before they made their roster moves. The outliers here are FaZe, who could only peak at No. 15 (-7 positions) after losing Nikola "NiKo" Kovač to G2 and re-instating Olof "olofmeister" Kajbjer, and EXTREMUM, who never went higher than 22nd after replacing Justin "jks" Savage with Hansel "BnTeT" Ferdinand. But, a good 80.5% of rosters improved on their prior ranking by at least one position at least once in their lifetime.
Naturally, comparing a team's ranking at their peak is doing some heavy lifting here. So what about comparing the new roster's peak to the old one's?
Now, we get a much more even distribution, with only about 42% of new teams one-upping their previous iteration. This implies that a lot of roster moves are essentially coin flips, gambles that have no guarantee of reaching the heights of the previous lineup.
Yet, this isn't as stark as it may seem for the 'roster moves are good' camp. Most roster moves are teams making changes to get out of a rut, so a 42% chance of improving, however small a jump, is actually pretty high. This sample also includes teams who made involuntary roster moves, whether because of a player being poached or taking a leave of absence.
Returning to Twistzz's interview, there is a level of irony to his opposition to roster moves in that FaZe's dominance of 2022 so far was jumpstarted by a roster move. The Europeans jumped eight places in a 98-day spell all the way to the number one spot when they replaced olofmeister with Robin "ropz" Kool, winning IEM Katowice and ESL Pro League Season 15 within their first few months together. Without ropz providing that final piece of the jigsaw, it's unlikely FaZe would be where they are now.
It's necessary to point out that Twistzz, when he criticises teams for "restarting their progression", is not talking about roster moves like FaZe adding ropz. That move was planned for months, with Finn "karrigan" Andersen and Robert "RobbaN" Dahlström building the rest of the side, including Twistzz himself, with ropz in mind. This was the kind of roster move that a general manager makes their money on.
Rather, Twistzz is arguing that teams like G2 and Vitality are reaching for the red button too soon, before their potential was reached. This is a reasonable point to make. Vitality's lineup with Kévin "misutaaa" Rabier could be far better than they are now in six months as the players get used to communicating in English. G2 had barely learned Aleksi "Aleksib" Virolainen's system before deciding it clashed with their preferred style.
Take this scatterplot: the vast majority of teams make changes in the first six months, which skews our data quite a lot. Every team that changes in the first six months therefore peaks in the first six months. We can also see in the exceptions that teams can be patient: Gambit again being the perfect example.
However, we can also see why these teams are in such a rush. No team in our sample took longer than 399 days to reach their peak, even including the online era re-jigging the order of things. Speaking specifically about Vitality, Peter "dupreeh" Rasmussen and Dan "apEX" Madesclaire are both 29 years old; if this Vitality project is going to win Majors, it needs to soon — with a player like Lotan "Spinx" Giladi available, why wouldn't they make that move?
As for G2, Aleksib's system not suiting their players is a good enough reason to remove him, despite not answering why they didn't foresee the ideological clash when they picked him up. 25-year-old NiKo, too, is running out of time to cement his legacy with a Major while he is in his peak. It is very much a chicken and the egg situation; do teams make roster moves early because they feel they can peak no higher, or do teams peak quickly because they change quickly?
When we only look at teams that reached the No. 1 spot — which Vitality and G2 are aiming to be — nearly every single one reaches that zenith within the first season or so of playing together. This bar chart even excludes those who were number one before the roster move (Natus Vincere adding Valeriy "b1t" Vakhovskiy for Egor "flamie" Vasilyev, and FaZe using Richard "Xizt" Landström as a stand-in for olofmeister in 2017).
Gambit once again stand out as outliers, but we can see that most teams reach No. 1 within half a year of making their roster move, practically still within their honeymoon period. Moreover, we can see the same trend among the teams that never make it to No. 1 — of the teams that improved in the top 20, the median length of time for them to reach their peak was just 103.5 days.
Teams can repeat and maintain their peak, of course, but this data seems to suggest that — in the majority of cases — we know how good a team is going to be after 3-6 months of them playing together. Number one teams are the exception here, with teams like Astralis going through peaks and troughs all while maintaining their No. 1 spot. But, for everyone else, the first six months of a roster are the most crucial and, usually, their peak.
Of course, there are limitations to this hypothesis. We do not know if teams would go beyond their peak if they waited longer before making changes. The pandemic has given teams unreasonable rankings, and community expectations to match; Heroic's move for Jakob "jabbi" Nygaard is a direct result of them trying to return to the heights of the online era, heights that they may have never reached had LAN and crowd play never went away.
Peak team ranking is also rarely fully representative of a team's quality. Vitality were ranked No. 2 in the world when they removed Jayson "Kyojin" Nguyen Van and Richard "shox" Papillon for Emil "Magisk" Reif and dupreeh, but they only reached their rank once the decision to go international had been made. For most of 2021, the same five-man lineup hovered around the bottom of the top ten, providing a solid basis for Vitality's management to make a change in pursuit of silverware.
This happens the other way round, too. Liquid were eighth in the world when Nick "nitr0" Cannella departed for VALORANT, but that squad was the best in the world only a few months before. Throw in the pandemic, and it's easy to argue that Liquid may well have returned to their peak of No. 1 had LAN play returned and nitr0 stayed.
It is an inarguable fact that there would be fewer roster moves (and better teams) if every transfer was conducted with care, working out role, personality, and style clashes before any player gets near a dotted line. In the same way, teamplay like prime Astralis was only possible because their core three players had learnt each other's automatisms by playing together since 2013. There are clear benefits to giving rosters more time.
Six months is a long time in esports. We do not have 'multi-year projects', at least so far. When teams waste six months shuffling between stand-ins, they are potentially wasting two runs at the number one spot. Careers are short, and the odds of the last five years tell us that most number one teams reach that point with the help of a roster move one or two off-seasons prior.
In fact, every team that reached the No. 1 spot outside of the online era did so less than six months after making a roster move. Like Twistzz says, "you don't necessarily have to [add] a star player to reach" the top, his example of Ilya "Perfecto" Zalutskiy joining Natus Vincere being a good one of how a tweak to role balance can make every player improve.
This is a route of several number one teams, whether by luck like when Markus "Kjaerbye" Kjærbye leaving Astralis gave dupreeh his preferred roles back, or deliberately when Perfecto was added to Natus Vincere or Ricardo "boltz" Prass to SK.
A change of IGL — with the exception of Evil Geniuses adding Peter "stanislaw" Jarguz and apEX taking over from Alex "ALEX" McMeekin in Vitality — is rarer in number one teams, with most adding a player to an already functioning system.
The same goes for double moves. There are only two examples, FaZe's blockbuster move for GuardiaN and olofmeister and Heroic adding Nikolaj "niko" Kristensen and René "TeSeS" Madsen, of a number one team making more than one swap to create their world-topping lineup.
Double moves, triple moves, and IGL swaps should be placed in the same category. They are sometimes necessary, but one should not expect a fast improvement from them. It is far more likely that they are landing platforms, signalling an era of transition for teams before they make a final, single, roster move to push that new system or core into tournament-winning form.
For the vast majority of teams, it is not only easier but more effective to solve role clashes, firepower deficits, or an off-meta system with a roster move. The burst of motivation when a new player arrives at a bootcamp is another intangible that makes roster moves so tempting.
Teams like Virtus.pro, who could swap around roles every six months and take a charge at the No. 1 spot without even thinking about a roster change, are practically extinct. Players can develop while in a team; Spinx is far more of a star player now than he was when ENCE signed him. But it is Vitality who might benefit most from that development, by signing Spinx as both a ready-made product to improve their firepower and a lurker to help their role conflict.
This is ultimately a discussion of hypotheticals, but it is also a case of players making their own truth: By believing that a roster will not improve, they are making it very difficult for things to turn around, making a change inevitable. The number of roster moves around the top twenty may decline one day, when more teams find success sticking to their five for long periods of time and coaches are granted more control.
For now, history tells us that the best way to reach the very top is to take an already good core and add one final piece to the jigsaw. As long as teams are in the hunt to become the best, they will do whatever it takes. For good or ill, roster moves are the easiest, sharpest, and most direct way to take a squad to the next level, so don't expect off-seasons to quiet down any time soon.
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