Stealing the spotlight: an inside look at the LA Thieves’ revival
How roster changes and the Stage 2 Major put the team back on track
As their final series of the Stage 2 regular season against cross-town rivals Los Angeles Guerrillas reaches its third mode, Control, the Los Angeles Thieves are visibly desperate and on the verge of being swept.
A much stronger start to this map puts the Thieves up 2-1. However, the following stale offensive effort evens the scoreline and forces the deciding round. With another attacking side coming up for the Thieves, they are forced to quickly right their wrongs to save the series. Soon enough, their usual struggles catch up to them.
It’s only with several seconds remaining that the LA Thieves get their first tick on either point and, although they make it interesting after winning a few gunfights, they unnecessarily give their man advantage right back to the Guerrillas just before securing the first point.
As has been the theme with the Thieves up to this point, a simple situation is made difficult by their own hands. This poor decision making during such a crucial moment is punished: the Thieves are cleared out of the point, and with it, the series.
Heads are left hanging and each player sits in complete silence. There’s a sense of disappointment in their disposition, yet not so much in expressions of shock. Results like this have become much too familiar.
Los Angeles was left with even more questions than they entered the match with, and the immediate future looked bleak. This promising inaugural LA Thieves roster, once considered among the best in the Call of Duty League on-paper, now struggled to scrape out wins against the lowest teams in the standings.
The team had already made one roster change earlier in Stage 2, with Donovan “Temp” Laroda hitting the bench in favor of top Challengers prospect Carlos “Venom” Hernandez. Now, with just a few days before Major 2, the Thieves made an even more difficult decision.
Our starting roster for the Stage 2 Major will be:@Kuavo@TJHaLy@Vxnxm@Drazah_
Drazah has been playing incredibly well in Challengers with multiple event wins under his belt this season. We’re excited to see him play on the big stage this week as we give Slasher some time off.
— LA Thieves (@LAThieves) April 5, 2021
News broke that Black Ops III World Champion and LA Thieves leader Austin “SlasheR” Liddicoat had been benched, too.
The man replacing him? Zachary “Drazah” Jordan; last year’s substitute in Modern Warfare; the man who helped the team get back on the right path with a sixth place finish at the Call of Duty Championship under the OpTic Gaming Los Angeles brand.
The possibility of a substitution wasn’t out of the question; it never is in the young CDL, where the big money invested by franchised teams makes it hard to just sit back and let a roster keep losing. But benching any of the four distinguished veterans was bound to cause some shock and disagreement around the league.
Kenneth “Kenny” Williams and Thomas “TJHaLy” Haly, the two players who avoided being benched, were now forced to pick up the pieces and get to work with their new teammates.
Destined to be together again
The CDL’s newest franchise bears a modified title but is no stranger to the competitive scene.
100 Thieves, the original organization that competed in the Call of Duty World League prior to the franchising direction taken for the Modern Warfare season, saw incredible success under the ownership of former pro player Matthew “Nadeshot” Haag.
The roster for Black Ops 4, which included current LA Thieves players Kenny and SlasheR, brought in back-to-back event wins at the London and Anaheim Majors – similar to how the Atlanta FaZe have won the Major events in both Stages 1 and 3 – and was the runner-up to Evil Geniuses at the CWL Championship to end the year strong.
They had the potential to build off of their success and chase a ring the next year, but the young organization wasn’t financially prepared for what came next.
The reported $25 million fee for a spot in the franchised CDL was too much of a risk to take for Nadeshot. Especially considering the fact that both Los Angeles slots had been sold. Those on the roster would have to find new homes in another city.
One of those LA slots went to OpTic Gaming, under the new ownership of Immortals Gaming Company. IGC bought the rights to the OpTic brand from founder Hector “H3CZ” Rodriguez, while H3CZ became the co-CEO of NRG and bought the slot for the Chicago Huntsmen.
Kenny and SlasheR were kept along by the new owners, though. This is how their trio with TJHaLy first formed when they signed with OGLA during Modern Warfare.
It was a year that no one could have expected. The COVID-19 pandemic interrupted all social gatherings and, for the Call of Duty competitive scene, in-person events were canceled. The switch to online play for the latter half of the year disrupted the team’s progress. After a surprising sixth place finish at the CDL Championship, news broke that IGC would sell the franchise to another group.
During the entirety of the four-month offseason, the OGLA players were stuck in a position where they didn’t know who would buy them out. And they weren’t sure whether the new owners would even decide to keep the roster together. Should they get in touch with other franchises? Were their spots for next season secure?
“It was the most confusing and demotivating process I’ve probably ever experienced,” Kenny said.
One afternoon Kenny received two FaceTime calls at the same time; one from his mother and the other from Nadeshot.
“You don’t get a call from Nade every day,” Kenny thought. “I can call my mom back.”
Drawing inspiration from his Chicago roots and basketball legend Michael Jordan’s famous statement when he came out of retirement, Nadeshot shared some career-shaking news:
So many adjustments, so little time
Kenny is no longer the young phenomenon that he once was. As a veteran and key piece for the LA Thieves, he knew he would have to step up and take on a leadership role going into Major II in the CDL. After all, if a leader like SlasheR could end up on the bench, was anyone’s spot truly safe? That sort of thought can weigh heavily in the back of a player’s mind. But Kenny said that his experience in the back up assault rifle role prepared him well to lead the Thieves.
“I didn’t feel any pressure,” Kenny said. “Taking on that main AR role gave me even more confidence.”
Getting top amateurs to maximize their potential and learn to think like the pros is usually a challenge. This is why Kenny decided to tackle the issue head on with only a day to spare.
“My biggest thing is making sure that everyone can talk about and decide what roles and weapons they want that make them the most comfortable,” Kenny said. “That was the best way to go forward.”
For Drazah, using and switching to the AR, after being a submachine gun player for most of his career, has been the key to his success in Cold War. In Challengers this year, he bounced back from poor placings in an SMG role to several event wins. This included first place at the Challengers Elite North America Stage 2 Playoffs the weekend prior to Major 2.
“A lot of people in the amateur scene didn’t think that I had the skill level I knew I had,” Drazah said. “I know the player I am and I knew I would get another chance as long as I kept grinding and my placements improved.”
Just over half of the league’s 12 teams, including the LA Thieves, have been playing their online matches all year in their own dedicated team houses in Texas. Frustration with the inconsistent nature of online play led to the Thieves’ decision to move.
“Anyone who kept up with us last year remembers how much of a problem there was with lag in our matches since we were playing from LA,” Kenny said.
Kenny said that playing under a Los Angeles franchise in Dallas has been a testing experience for everyone, and noted how playing everything from home, without any LANs, can be even more demanding in terms of staying fully concentrated and motivated. The original roster knew what they were getting into, though, and Kenny said everyone understood that the priority was to win now, so they were willing to make the sacrifice of moving south for a fairer chance in the online environment.
After setting themselves up for success in the best way they could, Kenny said he knew that it would be completely on them to perform well and earn positive results in the league. It just simply hadn’t gone according to plan up to that point.
“There’s no excuse this year when it comes to connection,” Kenny said. “Our core just hasn’t clicked and we decided as a team that we couldn’t be together.”
Drazah, who left his hometown in Alaska to compete prior to Modern Warfare and moved to Fort Worth to live with a friend he met online, now had to take an Uber to the Thieves house half an hour away to get accustomed to what the plan was.
To complicate matters, the new roster only had one day of scrimmages against other teams to get whatever experience they could on this entirely different game and regain chemistry.
“We’ve had the least amount of practice of any team, so let’s just get loose and play our game,” Kenny told the team to put their minds in the right place.
“It’s do or die.”
When a plan comes together
It’s finally time: Major 2 is here.
LA begins their losers bracket run against the Paris Legion, with strong showings by both ARs that help them secure a 3-0 series sweep in which they don’t allow a single point in either of the last two modes. But the next day against the London Royal Ravens, it seems like they might fall apart. The LA Thieves dig themselves in a frustrating 0-2 hole with poor teamwork, but they stay true to their fast-paced style and claw back to an even scoreline with wins in Control and Hardpoint.
Kenny, in particular, serves as the team’s anchor.
“All of us thrive in coordinated chaos,” Kenny said, “so it’s my job to keep everything organized and the team’s morale up.”
Despite applying pressure to London, a slow start to the deciding Search & Destroy leaves the Thieves down 0-3. Instead of faltering, the young guns double down with more aggression and stun the Royal Ravens, turning London’s nightmare of a reverse sweep into reality.
The legend of “Kylo Ken” has only just begun. Kenny says that he was individually inspired to win by the chance to show off his brand new lightsaber in the post-match interview, but pulling off such a performance takes a lot of mental composure and hard work from the entire squad.
The New York Subliners, the LA Thieves next opponent, seem like a different beast. It’s one thing to defeat Paris and London, but the Subliners are a top team in the league. Victory depends on which force is stronger: LA’s momentum or New York’s stability.
The two teams become very familiar on Checkmate, which is played in each of the first three game modes, but LA gets the better of NY each time. This sweep leaves no doubt that the Thieves are the story of the tournament so far. According to Kenny, the Thieves are finally starting to play their own game, and beating what is considered a top four team in that fashion makes it all the more special.
The only team playing as well as the Thieves is the Toronto Ultra. After defeating OpTic Chicago and falling short to the Atlanta FaZe, the Ultra meet LA in the fourth round of the losers bracket. It takes a while, but the comeback kids finally earn a taste of their own medicine. The LA Thieves lose hold of several points in Hardpoint and can’t close out a 5-2 lead in Search & Destroy.
Unfortunately, there is no recovering from that point. A series with a few tight games is closed out by the Ultra with a shutout in Control, sweeping the Thieves out of the tournament.
The Cinderella story is over.
The only way is forward
The LA Thieves performed much higher than the expectations of most, but both Kenny and Drazah feel as though they could’ve gone farther.
The only reason they weren’t the story of the tournament was because the team that knocked them out ended up winning it all and shocked the Atlanta FaZe in the Grand Finals. The Ultra were in a similar situation to the Thieves prior to Major 2: inconsistent results and the replacement of Anthony “Methodz” Zinni for Jamie “Insight” Craven. As much as the loss hurt, Kenny said he thinks Toronto’s eventual tournament win may have put the Thieves in an even better position going forward.
“It really made us realize our potential,” Kenny said. “If they’re winning, then we can be winning and beating top teams.”
Fans and casters like to say that a team is just having a “honeymoon phase” when results are better than usual for a short time after a roster change, but this group of players knows it has plenty of room for growth and will work on having more structure to their strategies instead of just forcefully winging it.
Drazah and Venom have gotten some meaningful practice in since then and will need to be better prepared for those that are to come, which only get bigger as this title comes closer to the end of its lifespan.
“I didn’t perform well against Toronto and that was the most important series,” Drazah said. “I know I can’t be too hard on myself and it’ll be a learning experience that’ll help me grow.”
Kenny said he understands that Call of Duty, like most professional sports, is a “results business and very day-to-day in the way things can change,” but said following Major 2 that he believed the roster would be “stuck for a long time” since they would only keep improving.
Neither he or the league could’ve imagined it then, but the Thieves would end up making another major roster change later on during Stage 3 with the blockbuster addition of Multi-FPS Champion Cuyler “Huke” Garland, who replaced TJHaLy. Nevertheless, the Thieves recently announced that they would enter Stage 4 with Huke in a bench role and put TJHaLy back in the starting lineup due to a lack of consistency since the original switch was made.
We haven’t been seeing the same level of consistency as a team and, with Stage 4 starting, we decided to make the tough call to bring Teej back and improve upon where we last left off with him. https://t.co/0SIqj9cDTF
— Jordan Kaplan (@JKap415) May 25, 2021
Putting this organization in a solid position to compete for a championship will take more work than a few good series, which is what gives Kenny even more confidence in leading the Thieves to the top by the time the season concludes.
The elusive ring that Kenny and the Thieves were a series away from winning in Black Ops 4 remains a possibility this year.
“Now is the perfect time to get better,” Kenny said. “The best feeling is being at the top and winning events, and the ring will usually only come with all of that.”
Another major boost, not just for the Thieves’, but also the entire league’s morale, may have come at the perfect time. The CDL recently announced a plan to return to LAN for Stage 4. As a result, Cold War’s Call of Duty Championship will almost certainly be played offline. For the right group of players, finally getting back to in-person events could produce a possible placebo effect and lead to a better final placing than what was achieved during the online era.
“That LAN atmosphere with fans creates a lot of pressure and decides close matches that you just can’t experience online,” Kenny said. “I live for that and can’t wait to be back on stage.”
The results in the beginning may not have been up to standards, but Stages 4 and 5 still remain before the Championship, and this roster full of youth and talent is daring to dream big. The legacy of a staple in the professional Call of Duty scene is still being written, and these players will aim to stay true to their newfound team motto by “flyin’ and fryin’” their way into their own page.