Golden Guardians’ Niles showing North American collegiate talent can shine in LCS

by Xander Torres

North American talent gets a bad rap in League of Legends. Time and time again, League of Legends Championship Series (LCS) teams have chosen established foreign talent over hungry and promising domestic talent. It has been a pain point for North America as the region struggles to raise new talent, but that trend is changing with teams like the Golden Guardians prioritizing new talent in 2021 — perhaps none more exciting than top laner, Aiden “Niles” Tidwell.

Unlike most LCS players, Niles is a product of the North American collegiate system having spent two-and-a-half years at Maryville University. With Maryville, he won Riot Games’ 2019 LoL College Championship and placed second at the LoL International Collegiate Championship before being drafted by Golden Guardians at North American Scouting Grounds in late 2020.

Niles won a collegiate championship with Maryville. Photo by Colin Young-Wolff/Riot Games

The level of play in collegiate League of Legends varies greatly from school to school, but with more universities like Maryville stepping up to provide full-ride scholarships, it’s becoming more competitive than ever before. Niles making the jump to the LCS with Golden Guardians should be evidence enough of collegiate’s legitimacy as a scouting ground — he’s one of North America’s most anticipated rookies — but his experience in college was illuminating in more ways than one for the young North American top laner.

“When you’re playing in collegiate or any team for an extended period of time, you learn to interact with a bunch of different types of people. You learn how to be a better teammate in general,” Niles said. “I think my time at Maryville definitely helped me with that. … If you’re playing on an amateur team, you’re not going to be with your teammates in person. One thing about both LCS and collegiate is that you’re around those people. My people skills really improved a lot.”

One of the reasons North American teams have shied away from scouting talent in the past is that newer players are unproven in their ability to adjust to the LCS environment. Competing in amateur tournaments or even LCS Academy (the tier below LCS) doesn’t necessarily translate to North America’s biggest stage, but that has been slightly assuaged by current events forcing all competitive play online and at home. It seems minor at first, but Niles believes that playing at home, compared to “playing on stage with special headsets and lights” makes for an easier transition overall.

Niles might be playing from home this season, but he has been on the LCS stage before. Photo by Colin Young-Wolff/Riot Games

Even so, Niles isn’t shying away from the competition, and part of that is thanks to his competitive background in high school football.

“I played football in high school until I tore my meniscus and had surgery,” he said. “I couldn’t play football anymore, and so I started playing League.”

As any sports fan might expect, Niles’ past experience has really aided him in his mindset and his current competitive pursuit.

“I think there are a lot of people whose only life experience is just playing League … so they’re sorta just gamers in the truest sense of the word,” Niles said, chuckling. “And so they don’t have the life skills that are necessary to really succeed. Football gave me a lot of life skills that were necessary to foster my growth.”

Read more: TSM 2021: Same high expectation for team, but with rookie coach and overhauled roster

It can be difficult to navigate the LCS when fans and teams alike can be stingy about player opportunity, but Niles is taking everything as a learning experience. Prior to the LCS, Niles juggled schoolwork with League of Legends on Maryville, but now his schedule is filled with practice. He has been impressed so far with Golden Guardians’ practice regimen as it differs from anything he has experienced before.

“The experience so far at Golden Guardians has been really nice because the coaching staff [has us] focused on one thing at a time. We just try to drill that one thing over and over again,” Niles said. “It’s something like, ‘Every single day, we’ll get [Rift] Herald through some lane in [priority] and as long as we do that, the game is a success whether we win or lose the scrim. That laser focus on one thing has been really different [from collegiate].”

Of course, Golden Guardians haven’t had the greatest performance yet. They currently have a record of 1-2 in the LCS and are still working out the kinks as a roster focused around a core of younger players. Niles believes that “teamfighting is [their] biggest issue right now,” but it’s something that will improve with time. Given their status as a mostly rookie team, there are not a lot of expectations, and that can be relieving sometimes. If they perform well, that’s great, but if they don’t, no one is really going to cry foul.

“I’d say that everyone has the same mentality going in … no one expects us to do very well,” Niles said. “It’s kind of nice to have that in a way. I wouldn’t want to be [Kim] Ssumday [Chan-ho] … and lose to Niles and then get made fun of. It’s nice that everyone has the same mentality and can play with a little less pressure. “

Niles might not be expected to beat 100 Thieves’ Ssumday now — he has been to the League of Legends World Championship numerous times, after all — but he’s been profiled as a carry player who should challenge him someday. That expectation carries its own weight irrespective of Golden Guardians, but Niles isn’t married to any specific label. He’s prepared to be a carry, but really, he’s just prepared to do whatever it takes to win.

“One of my strengths as a player is playing side lane champions, and that gravitates me toward playing split-push champions like Camille, Quinn and stuff like that,” he said. “I wouldn’t necessarily characterize myself as a carry player, but carries are the strongest right now, and I’m willing to play whatever’s the most strong. Last year, when Ornn was turbo broken, I’d play Ornn, but he’s just not as good as he used to be. The meta is all about carries, so I guess I’m a carry player, but I’m not dead-set on that.”

Recognizing the need to be flexible is the hallmark of any great player, and Niles is certainly heading in the right direction with a strong mentality and devotion toward the game. Niles wants the best for his team, but for that to happen, he knows that he needs to focus on himself first.

“I just want to confidently know in my mind that I’m a top-five top laner in North America,” he said. “It doesn’t matter, win or loss, my personal goal is to be able to say to myself, ‘I’m top five,’ and know that’s true in my mind.”

It’s a lofty but achievable goal for a fresh North American rookie. He’s level-headed, patient and taking it one day at a time, but he’s confident in his work ethic and ability to be among the best.

Lead image credit: Golden Guardians

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