Team Secret: Relegated to the Rival Series, but set on an RLCS comeback

March 27, 2018 - 16:12
Rocketeers / RLRS / Spotlight /

Aeriality was the team behind one of the Rocket League Championship Series’ most shocking upsets: they came seemingly out of nowhere to defeat RLCS squad The Leftovers (now Fnatic) in the season four play-in tournament, sending that veteran RLCS trio to the lower-tier Rival Series. Soon after, Aeriality signed with Team Secret and found themselves playing at the highest level of Rocket League, surrounded by the best teams in the world.

And then reality hit: the young, otherwise unproven team had a brutal run in league play, going 0-7 and only winning three games along the way. Likewise, they failed to make it out of the relegation tournament, losing their RLCS spot and finding themselves dropped into the Rival Series.

It was a rough start, obviously. But rather than crumble under frustration or embarrassment and give up, Team Secret retooled in the offseason and are fighting for the opportunity to earn another shot at the RLCS. They’re off to a spectacular start, going 2-0 in the first week of Rival Series play without dropping a game. It’s still early on, but as the team tells Rocketeers.gg, they’re willing to put in the work to change the story around them.

Hitting the big time

Aeriality has been around in one form or another since season one of the RLCS, hosting top EU pros like Gale Force’s Alexandre “Kaydop” Courant and compLexity’s Joonas “Mognus” Salo and Otto “Metsanauris” Kaipiainen in the past. For the season four qualifiers, the team comprised of founding member Oliver “Continuum” Meier alongside bubble player Stephen “Tylacto” Griffin and Method’s Gfinity Elite Series substitute, Jack “FlamE” Pearton.

They came into the play-in tournament as an 8th seed, and initially figured their best shot was making the Rival Series. But the bracket showed a potential late-day matchup against The Leftovers—typically a fearsome sight, but The Leftovers were still trying to get in sync after swapping in ex-EnVy player Nicolai “Maestro” Bang.

“It’s no secret that prior to the play-in, [The Leftovers’] form had been pretty appalling compared to what you’d expect,” says Tylacto. “So weirdly, we actually went in pretty damn confident that we could make it as long as we could get to that series.”

For viewers, the upset was much more surprising. In the final series of the EU tournament, Aeriality took The Leftovers more than five minutes deep into a game five overtime. Tensions were high and the teams were playing safe—but The Leftovers nearly ended it on a dazzling pass from Maestro to Alexander “Sikii” Karelin. In the aftermath of the missed shot, Sikii tried passing back to captain Nicolai “Snaski” Andersen, but the ball went too high.

Snaski launched upwards, and just as he was about to reach the ball, Tylacto appeared out of thin air and slapped the ball across the pitch and into the goal. Game over. The Leftovers, who finished 4th at the RLCS World Championship the previous season, found themselves banished to the Rival Series. Aeriality, on the other hand, had earned themselves a spot in the RLCS.

“It was really good, and was great to do it for Continuum seeing as [The Leftovers had] benched him the season prior,” says Tylacto, Team Secret’s captain. “As for playing in RLCS, we had played or scrimmed every team at that point and done respectably, so there was a false sense of security that everything would be OK.”

‘We were screwed’

As one of two unsigned teams in the European RLCS—alongside Frontline, who soon joined up with Paris Saint-Germain—Aeriality were quickly inundated with offers from organizations large and small.

“We received a lot of offers over the week before week one, and I mean a lot. Good, bad, and ugly ones—but yeah, mostly ugly until the holy light shone down and Team Secret appeared, apparently looking for a team that could go 0-7,” jokes Tylacto. “I’m fairly sure that’s not what they wanted, now that I look back. But on a more serious note, I can’t thank them enough for sticking with us, because they knew we underperformed and could do far better.”

Team Secret were a surprise team in the RLCS mix, and they wouldn’t have an easy start to the season: in week one, they faced off against Method (now compLexity) and then Gale Force Esports, better known as last season’s eventual runner-up and World Champion, respectively. Gale Force was a known quantity; a precision powerhouse and possible dynasty in the making. Method, on the other hand, had plenty of talent and potential but hadn’t yet shown their full capabilities.

“We knew that going up against teams like Gale Force and Method was going to be very difficult to win, but we went in with the mindset of having nothing to lose. That did help us in the game against Method, as this was probably the best series we played all season,” FlamE explains. “As for Gale Force, we had played them before and it didn’t turn out too well for us, so we did want to forget about that as quickly as possible.”

Tylacto is interviewed during DreamHack Leipzig | Credit: Jennika Ojala/DreamHack

Similarly, Tylacto admits that they weren’t expecting to come out of the Gale Force series with a win, but Method seemed more feasible. When they came out on the wrong side of a 3-1 decision, however, Team Secret had a sense that things weren’t going to get better from there.

“It honestly felt like our season ended at the Method series,” Tylacto admits. “They were one of the teams we knew we should look at for a win, but the way we threw in game three with two different two-goal leads, and giving away the chance to be on series point… I’ve never been and still am not one to ever give up, but it was a really weird feeling that I’ll probably never experience again. It was as if we silently unanimously agreed that that was it, and that we were screwed.”

The punching bag

That’s a pretty fair self-assessment. Following those week one 3-1 defeats, Team Secret were later swept by four other EU teams, and only took a single game during the rest of the season (against Mock-It). Their dismal 3-21 games record shows a team that was clearly outclassed by the competition, providing easy wins for the other squads. Even struggling veteran teams like EnVy and FlipSid3 Tactics could take solace in having their way with Team Secret.

“The morale was pretty rock bottom after the Method series, and yeah, thankfully you can’t go below rock bottom,” says Tylacto. “Moving to university and starting my degree basically ate my life for a few weeks in one bite, and it turns out not being able to practice turns you into a bit of a punching bag for the league.”

Call it bad timing: beginning his astrophysics studies made it difficult for Tylacto to scrim and practice steadily enough with the team, which drastically limited their ability to try and find their way out of their losing spiral. At first, according to FlamE, “Tylacto could only fit in seven hours in two weeks because of study, which I wouldn’t say is too ideal when you have the most important weeks ahead of you in terms of your Rocket League career.”

“We really couldn’t get enough practice in order to be able to make any adjustments,” Tylacto affirms. “You’d think it’s nice playing the top teams regularly, but it turns out being slapped left, right, and center in front of 80,000 people on a weekly basis—when you know you can play much better—is quite sobering.”

“It turns out not being able to practice turns you into a bit of a punching bag for the league.”

Alongside EnVy, the reigning World Champions at the time, Team Secret were forced to fight for their RLCS spot in the promotion/relegation tournament. Fnatic quickly got their play-in revenge on Team Secret with a 4-1 victory en route to an RLCS return, although Secret stayed alive by then beating The Juicy Kids 4-1. However, EnVyUs ultimately sealed Team Secret’s Rival Series fate with a 4-1 victory in the loser’s bracket.

“We combined all the hope we had left, which as I’m sure you can guess was like, tons,” Tylacto deadpans. “We knew that in reality, we had it in us to stay up [in the RLCS]… but when you haven’t won a series anywhere in like two months, then the chance of execution is pretty low.”

Nearly with EyeIgnite

Tylacto says that they had no illusions about what had happened: they hadn’t put in the grind, couldn’t keep up with the competition, and got smacked around as a result. But rather than call it a day and disappear, he says that their desire to succeed only magnified over the offseason.

“As time went on, and especially up to the first week of Rival Series and even now, I’d grown sick of waiting to prove how much better we were than the performance we gave last season,” he affirms. “I didn’t think I’d be as hungry as I am, but months of offseason drive you to insanity.”

After seasons of diminishing returns, and citing a work apprenticeship and the weight of expectations, Continuum decided to retire from pro Rocket League. Seeking a new third to fill out the roster, Team Secret tried a few options before settling on Jordan “EyeIgnite” Stellon, one of the rising offensive stars in the competitive scene.

EyeIgnite played with Team Secret at DreamHack Leipzig | Caption: Jennika Ojala/DreamHack

He had helped guide ExRay to a 4th-place finish in the Rival Series, but was trying out new fits in the offseason. Tylacto felt like they’d found a winning addition, although he was playing with Secret on a trial basis. Ultimately, EyeIgnite signed with EnVy to replace Marius “gReazymeister” Ranheim as their new starter.

“Yeah, that was a weird time. I wasn’t surprised, as EyeIgnite is a good guy and had already made me aware that he could be trying out with an RLCS team prior to DreamHack Leipzig. Understandably, our team ethic during that was odd, although the experience was still fantastic,” says Tylacto, who tweeted that he was “heartbroken” to lose EyeIgnite to EnVy.

“At that moment, it did feel like he might have been that specific player we needed, but we were definitely wrong,” he adds. “What FlamE and I needed was a player who could play at a high pace and was of top caliber. The RLCS season had just killed the confidence in ourselves.”

The new trio

With only a week remaining before the roster lock, Team Secret had to scramble to find someone to fill the slot—so they turned to one of their most fearsome opponents of late, Maik “Tigreee” Hoffmann. He is one of the reigning Gfinity Elite Series champions with Reason, and had impressed as the captain of Team Veritas (sponsored by Rocketeers.gg’s parent company) at DreamHack.

“I hate being the cause to break apart a team, but Tigreee is a player of that top caliber, and the prospect of playing with him was exciting—so we had to see if we could convince him to join us,” says Tylacto. And luckily, his ex-Veritas teammates Alex “Alex161” Ernst and Florian “Neqzo” Esnault both ended up in the Rival Series elsewhere, so nobody was left out on the sidelines for RLCS season five. “It worked out great, our results remained great, and our scrims have gone even better,” says Tylacto. “The best part was we also wouldn’t have to play against Tigreee, so win-win.”

Tigreee says that playing for the Team Secret organization, as well as alongside more seasoned pros like Tylacto and FlamE, was very appealing, even if he regrets splitting up his promising past squad. “I still feel bad about leaving Alex161 and Neqzo, but in the upcoming weeks, I hope to play my best to make sure it was the right decision for the future.”

Team Secret are practicing a lot more than they did last season, now that Tylacto has a better handle on his university schedule, and they’re finding serious synergy together. FlamE leads the charge with nutty shots and impressive precision, with Tigreee doing nearly as much of the offensive heavy lifting; he gives them another option on the attack. Tylacto, meanwhile, takes the third man role, creating space for his teammates, calling shots, and defending to keep games close. They’re all flexible, of course, but that core dynamic is paying off.

“Tigreee and FlamE’s job is to run around, hit the ball, score the good goals, score the bad goals, make the amazing assists, conserve possession, challenge the opponents, find and complement each other, and you know, just do all that good stuff. I’m still trying to convince people that my job of watching this happen in front of me is really important, but for some reason, people don’t believe me,” jokes Tylacto.

FlamE is becoming more of a team player on the pitch | Credit: Jennika Ojala/DreamHack

Sincerely, though, they’ve found that their play styles complement each other well, and Tigreee’s addition has already elevated their team play. Furthermore, in the wake of last season’s collapse, they’re working hard to put an even greater premium on passing and being mindful of each other on the pitch.

“Doing everything yourself is never the best option, so I worked on doing what is best for the team instead of trying to go for unnecessary hits, which could cause more issues (which I was doing previously),” says FlamE. “Winning is more important than trying to be the ‘standout’ player in the team. [That is] what I have focused on recently, and I think this is one part that has improved the team’s performance—and ironically has made me play better and make more plays regardless.”

Off to a hot start

So far, so good: in the first week of Rival Series play, Team Secret handily dispatched both Zebra Nose and Triple Trouble in clean sweeps. At 2-0 with a perfect 6-0 games record, they’re sitting pretty atop the standings. “I’m not sure I’d have been able to sleep for these two weeks if there had been any other result,” Tylacto concedes.

However, there’s still a lot of league play ahead. They’ve just had a bye week, but matchups against top squads like Servette Geneva (formerly ExRay) and the new Method roster are sure to challenge them soon thereafter. Getting off to a hot start is critical in the Rival Series, in which finishing in the top two is your only chance of potentially boosting up into the RLCS. It’s early still, but consider the opposite perspective: the much-hyped Dignitas just started 0-2 in the North American Rival Series, and their season could be toast. It’s that serious.

“Making it into RLCS is 10 times harder than making LAN, and that’s just the way it is,” Tylacto claims. “To make playoffs, you could need only one good day, but to make it to RLCS in the first place? Week 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and then promotion tournament. You have a bad day once? Yeah, good luck—enjoy your six months of waiting around for your next shot. Look at Dignitas in NA: that’s nightmare fuel for me.”

Team Secret find themselves in a peculiar state of limbo right now. They clearly weren’t at the level of the RLCS competition last season, but if early results play out across the full season, then they might show a Fnatic-like dominance over the Rival Series. Tylacto believes that they really are good enough to keep up that momentum, but overconfidence could be a killer. They’re trying to not let this blazing start fool them into complacency.

“Whilst I completely agree that we’re a level above the other RLRS teams, we cannot let our guard down for a second,” he suggests. “They are very good teams, they are hungry, and there is no team that they want to beat more than us. We just have to want it more.”

Team Secret are currently undefeated in the Rival Series | Credit: Psyonix

“I think its the season for us,” adds Tigreee. “We practice as much as we can to improve and keep up with the RLCS teams. For me, it’s the first time in RLCS/RLRS, and even as a rookie, I feel ready to knock at the door of RLCS.”

Ultimately, ruling league play is only half the battle. As Fibeon (now Dignitas) showed last season, you can crush the Rival Series competition and then botch the promotion tournament, putting you right back where you started. Tylacto says that practice and their ever-building confidence can be the difference-maker in the next promotion/relegation tournament, should they get there. Regardless of which RLCS teams they could potentially face, “if we show up on the day, then there shouldn’t be any huge worries.”

Still, he admits he’s “terrified” by the prospect. There’s a lot of work left to be done to even get to that point, and then a strong performance needed to land back in the RLCS. But they’re starting to believe in themselves again. “One game at a time,” Tylacto says, “and when it comes to each game, all that matters is the ball, my car, and my teammates.”

Andrew Hayward will never be an amazing Rocket League player... so instead, he writes about it. He's been covering the pro scene since RLCS S1 for the likes of Red Bull Esports and Waypoint, and has interviewed dozens of the game's top players and personalities.

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