Milan Oleksij’s life used to follow a predictable pattern. He’d wake up every morning around 6 a.m., walk to the gym about half a mile away from his Toronto home, and exercise for 90 minutes before attending his nearby high school. After school, the 16-year-old Oleksij would head home to finish homework, unwind by playing a few hours of League of Legends under the alias Tenacity, and then do it all over again come sunrise.

But everything changed in early January. Now in the second semester of his junior year, Oleksij still worked out in the morning, took classes in the afternoon and stayed atop his schoolwork. But in his free time, Oleksij began grinding League like it was his job. Because, well, it was. Esports organization and fashion brand 100 Thieves needed a new top laner, and they wanted Tenacity.

When he received a direct message from 100 Thieves Academy coach Kelsey Moser saying the team was looking for top amateur players to join its ranks, the opportunity seemed too good to be true. The team said “it’d be super flexible,” Tenacity recalled. “They prioritize school, they want you to get that done first before any other responsibility. I thought that was really cool.”

Creating a Next level

The 100 Thieves team Tenacity joined was not the Tier 1 roster that competes weekly in the League of Legends Championship Series (LCS), nor the Tier 2 Academy squad that feeds directly into the LCS. Instead, Tenacity became one of five prospects on 100 Thieves Next, a developmental program that offers skilled solo queue youngsters a taste of the professional life in the region’s Tier 3 scene, which isn’t affiliated with the LCS. Instead, to this point, it’s been a mess of underfunded third party tournaments, ever-shifting rosters and sporadic collegiate involvement. 100 Thieves Next is the first team of its kind, fully backed by an LCS franchise with the goal of growing North American talent in a game dominated by stars from overseas.

100 Thieves Next is the brainchild of Tony “Zikz” Gray, the senior team’s head coach, who understands the financial and strategic value of homegrown players. As LCS player salaries continue to skyrocket — the average was $300,000 in 2019, according to league commissioner Chris Greeley — franchises are incentivized to invest in promising unknowns at bargain prices rather than splurge on pricey imports. Also, LCS roster rules force teams to start a minimum of three North American residents each game. For organizations that can effectively unearth and polish the local diamonds in the rough, there’s a clear advantage to this approach.

Gray laid the groundwork for 100 Thieves Next during previous coaching gigs, where he experienced the potential upside firsthand. At Counter Logic Gaming, Gray oversaw CLG Black, an amateur “sister team” that begot future stars like Philippe “Vulcan” Laflamme, the former Dignitas support whose contract was bought out by Cloud9 for $1.5 million last November. When Gray joined Team SoloMid in 2019, he established TSM Junior in the same vein, and although the third-tier program dissolved when Gray departed for 100 Thieves, it lasted long enough to propel current LCS rookie standout Johnson “Johnsun” Nguyen to prominence.

“The scene has not done a solid job of browsing the [competitive] ladder, and seeing who all of the untested talent is,” Gray said. “I think there's a lot of talent out there, but the issue is just that people aren't looking for it. This was my solution that I wanted to bring to 100 Thieves and make sure that we executed on, because I think this is for sure going to be the future.”

Fishing in the talent pool

Along with general manager Chris “PapaSmithy” Smith and Moser, Gray scoured the North American challenger pool for potential candidates. Their extensive search yielded Tenacity and two highly-ranked 17-year-olds: jungler Shane “Kenvi” Espinoza, a Filipino transplant based in Calgary; and mid laner Jouhan “Copy” Pathmanathan, who’s never met fellow Torontonian Tenacity despite living 15 minutes away. Former CLG Black bot laner Osama “Auto” Alkhalaileh and support Philippe “Poome” Lavoie-Giguere, a duo that caught management’s eye after they won the 2019 Tyler1 Championship Series together, filled out 100 Thieves Next. Their aggressive tactics fit stylistically with the roster’s young guns.

Since both Auto and Poome are in their early twenties, contracting them was routine, but 100 Thieves required parental consent for the three minors. The team outlined the opportunity in digestible terms — paid, part-time work with valuable experience that would all be subordinate to the player’s usual schooling — and most parents signed on immediately. The team declined to divulge the monetary terms of the contracts.

Copy’s family need more convincing; a career in professional gaming was drastically different from the engineering path they’d envisioned for their son.

“It was a bit shaky at first,” Copy said. “Gaming isn’t really a thing that parents understand. To the outside world, gaming is just something that’s not thought of as profound, so it was hard to convince my parents who also have that opinion.”

Like a college football coach on the recruiting trail, Smith anticipated flying to Toronto for an at-home visit to secure his blue-chip prospect’s services, but it wasn’t necessary. A combination of letters, 100 Thieves’ name recognition and the pledge that team activities wouldn’t interfere with school ultimately sealed the deal.

“It seemed like people in general were pretty supportive,” Smith said. “I think that’s the reality of being part of a system that’s now closing in on 10 years of Worlds, 10 years of League of Legends. Thankfully there’s enough awareness of League of Legends esports, and the LCS in particular, that [recruiting] was relatively bump-free.”

Finding balance on a path to the pros

With team activities ranging from 15 to 20 hours per week, 100 Thieves has kept its word that participation would mimic the commitment of a part-time job. Official matches in the Tier 3 Upsurge Premier League, where Next sits at 5-0 in the standings, are held online every Tuesday night, aired via Twitch broadcast. The team scrimmages collegiate and amateur opposition three to four times a week, with frequent matches against 100 Thieves Academy mixed in. They always review gameplay tape afterward, leveraging the expertise of in-house coaches and Academy players. All this is on top of the individual solo queue practice each player uses to maintain their ladder rating, sessions that can reach upward of five hours a day on weekends.

For the teenage players, balancing schoolwork and their new responsibilities with 100 Thieves Next has been challenging. Copy tries to finish his assignments in the spaces between classes so that he can focus on League while at home. Tenacity follows suit, arriving on campus early after his gym sessions to complete unfinished homework. So far, their grades have remained steady.

“School, I wouldn’t say it’s been hard, but it’s been hard to keep motivation,” Tenacity said. “I know it needs to be done, so I do it to the best of my ability, but I don’t feel an urge to keep pushing on doing actual school life. But League of Legends, and video games in general, I always feel motivated and passionate about what I do. It drives my competitiveness.”

Unlike Copy, who chose to keep his options open by submitting university applications, Tenacity doesn’t intend to continue school when he graduates next year. A career in business might be an alternative down the road, but for now, he’s focused on earning a place in the LCS. It’s a risky move; with only 100 starting roster spots across LCS and Academy, the odds of breaking into the league are remarkably low, even for a player of Tenacity’s level.

100 Thieves bot laner Cody “Cody Sun” Sun remembered making the difficult choice to go pro when he was a high school student in Markham, a Toronto suburb. Once it became clear that his senior year grades were insufficient for top universities — thanks to, he says, an unfairly stringent calculus teacher — Cody Sun fully committed to semipro League of Legends, leading to an offer from Immortals in 2016. He was one of the lucky ones.

“If you want to go pro in League, you have to go all in,” Cody Sun said. “Understand that going pro is a big leap from just being a student playing League for fun. You have to act the part and be professional at a really young age. … You can’t blame other people for your mistakes. It’s all about yourself. And it’s all about focusing on what you can improve on.”

Tenacity will get a closer look at what it means to be a pro this summer when 100 Thieves plans to gather the entire Next roster at its state-of-the-art CashApp Compound in Culver City, California for further training. He’s excited to finally meet the team offline, and to gauge the full-time esports lifestyle. At the very least, it’ll be a far cry from brisk morning walks in the Canadian cold.

“It would be really awesome to see everyone on 100 Thieves in person,” Tenacity said. “To see how life is like as a 100 Thieves player, their day-to-day schedule, that’s so cool to me.”

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