Burnout or Paradise?

Evaluating the pros and cons of a pro player’s dedication

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Most star players don’t come out of the blue. It takes years of hard work, dedication, and even sometimes a bit of luck to build up a reputation. Even then, it can become incredibly hard to create and keep a fanbase. One slip up and it all comes crashing down. For Team SoloMid’s former AD Carry, Yiliang Peter Doublelift Peng, the path to stardom has been full of ups and downs.

Double what? Doublelift

Maybe you’ve been a Doublelift fan since his debut in 2011 or maybe you’ve never even heard of him up until reading this article, but the first time he showed up on the map for a lot of people was back in 2015 when he, as a part of Counter Logic Gaming, won the North American League of Legends Championship Series Summer Split.

Following almost four years of not being able to secure a single championship and finally doing it flawlessly against defending champions, Team SoloMid, was an overwhelming achievement for Counter Logic Gaming. This victory also ensured that CLG would participate in the upcoming League of Legends World Championship, as North America’s first seed. However, regardless of how dominant CLG looked domestically, the World Championship is a completely different beast. During the second week of said tournament, no north american team was able to win a single game, establishing a 0-10 record that would forever haunt the region. For CLG, a great victory was followed  by an even greater defeat.

If you fall, stand back up

Once the conclusion of the World Championship gave way to the off season (the period of time in a season were no major tournaments are held), roster changes started to take place. The most surprising one was, without a doubt, that Doublelift would no longer be on Counter Logic Gaming and would rather start as the new AD Carry of Team SoloMid. These two organizations were know to be enemies, so naturally fans were outraged and shocked when CLG let their star player go to their #1 rival. Yet for both orgs, this would be the best decision they’d taken in the off season.

As the 2016 Spring split was approaching, the Team SoloMid roster was looking incredibly strong. Additions like SK Gaming’s star jungler Dennis Svenskeren Johnsen, ex-top laner for Gravity Gaming Kevin Hauntzer Yarnell, and EU LCS veteran Bora YellOwStaR Kim made TSM look like an unstoppable force. However, the team was off to a slow start and placed 6th with a 9-9 record. Many fans thought that TSM would not be able to make it through the playoffs, but to everyone’s surprise, they were able to dominate the competition and advance to the finals.

The match for the championship title was a repeat of last split’s. It was defending champion Counter Logic Gaming versus Team SoloMid, just that this time Doublelift was playing on the opposite team. After five exciting games, it all came down to one last team fight. For the final game, CLG drafted around their rookie ADC, Trevor Stixxay Hayes’ pocket pick, Tristana with Guinsoo’s Rageblade. With CLG’s new starting mid laner Choi HuHi Jae-hyun on Lulu, a champion famous for enabling AD Carries and keeping them alive, Rageblade Trist was a success and CLG secured their second NA LCS title.

Even if this felt like a failure for all of Team SoloMid, it meant that they would have to come back stronger than ever for the Summer Split, with hopes to achieve their long term goal, to win Worlds. TSM took advantage of the mid season to bootcamp in Korea, where they could practice on the korean solo queue ladder and with korean teams.  Also, YellOwStaR had returned to Europe to play on Fnatic once again, so tryouts were held for a new support player. Synergy with Doublelift was crucial in order for the TSM bot lane to succeed.

After the mid season ended, Vincent Biofrost Wang was incorporated into the TSM roster as the new support player. His debut as a rookie was spectacular, showing he was able to seamlessly mesh with the team and compete against other, more experimented, players. This iteration of TSM looked more coordinated and skilled than the last, and many thought that was impossible. TSM proceeded to crush the Summer Split finishing 1st with a 17-1 record and, after a convincing playoff run, they won their 4th NA LCS Championship. Victory would not elude TSM any longer and with the NA first seed secured, they could set their sights on the next hurdle, Worlds.

The bigger they are, the harder they fall

Team SoloMid was getting hyped up to be the strongest western team in the 2016 World Championship. Many fans and analysts believed they would make it out of groups quite easily and even the team itself stated that anything other than a Top 4 finish would be a failure. The first week of play looked solid, all the hype surrounding TSM seemed to be justified and taking first place in the group was a real possibility. But all that crumbled in week two.

TSM started the second week with a 2-1 record, but after a sloppy game against Korea’s Samsung Galaxy, the eventual runner-up of the tournament, the dream of securing the first place of their group appeared increasingly darker. On their next game against the EU LCS’s Splyce, TSM’s mid laner Søren Bjergsen Bjerg carried the team to victory with his Syndra pick, an extremely contested and powerful champion, that was left unbanned. Team SoloMid was one game away from making it to the quarterfinals. Their final match of the day was against China’s second seed Royal Never Give Up, which had already defeated them the week before. An aggressive play in the bot lane gave RNG’s AD Carry Jian Uzi Zi-Hao three kills. TSM tried to fight back but Uzi’s Ezreal, one of his best champions, was too strong. TSM lost that game and finished third in the group due to the head to head against RNG. A year of hard work and demanding practice schedules would leave TSM empty handed.

The weight of the world on your shoulders

Team SoloMid had to return home defeated and “fans” didn’t make it any easier for them. All the players got their share of hate, but it felt mostly targeted towards Doublelift. The internet unjustifiably cried for his retirement. Some of the same fans that cheered for TSM in the groups stage where now booing them online.

Shortly after the World Championship ended, Doublelift made an announcement. He wouldn’t be retiring per se, he would instead have a hiatus from pro play during the 2017 Spring Split, where he will focus primarily on streaming and creating video content. His reasoning behind this decision was based on two things. The first one was the increasing demand of time it took to be a pro player.

Earlier this year, Team SoloMid had opted into a practice schedule similar to the one korean teams use. This meant that players would play upwards of 10-12 hours a day, with only one day a month of break. Of course, this new system allowed TSM to dominate domestically but it also took its toll on the players. In an interview with Yahoo Esports, Doublelift explained how, in the long run, being a pro player under this regime can be extremely exhausting and affect both your physical and mental health. He also emphasized that the gratification for all of the hard work a player puts in is almost never there. “99% of pro players don’t win” he said.

The second topic he touched on was income for pro players. As of right now, popular pro players can generate much more revenue for their team if they stream or produce video content. However, under such demanding practice schedules, these alternate sources of revenue are a secondary focus. It’s a sacrifice of personal time and income for higher competitive play.

Game Over? Not yet

With Doublelift officially taking a break, Team SoloMid will need to find a replacement AD Carry.  The team has already stated that they’ve been approached by many veteran players and that they plan to announce said AD Carry by the time Intel Extreme Masters Oakland comes along on November 19th. If it all goes well, the roster at IEM Oakland will remain the same for the 2017 Spring Split. However, for TSM, the Summer Split is looking dubious.

Doublelift has previously expressed his desire to return to professional play in the 2017 Summer Split, be it through a substitute system with the new ADC or through having to fight for his spot on the team. Yet, a lot can happen over the course of the Spring Split. Maybe Doublelift does return to play for TSM in the Summer Split. Or maybe he simply decides that streaming and producing video content is better for himself and his team. Regardless of whatever path Doublelift decides to take, he has already made his mark on the League of Legends competitive scene as one of the best north american AD Carries of all time.

The Gap

A look at Western teams’ international performance in 2016

STAPLES LoL Finals 2016

Another year has passed, another League of Legends World Championship has concluded, and once again SKTelecom T1 hoists  the Summoner’s Cup. After a month’s worth of exhilarating competition, the final showdown between the now three times World Champion, SKTelecom T1, and the korean underdogs of Samsung Galaxy went far from what anyone would have expected.

Game 3 was underway in the STAPLES Center. I, like many other viewers, had written this series off. It clearly looked like SKT T1 was going to win yet another World Championship cleanly, a quick 3-0. But Samsung had other plans. They would not go down without a fight. At the 30 minute mark a fight broke out around Baron when SKT was looking to take it. SKT Bang was caught out and got chunked by SSG Ruler. SKT Wolf flashed in to try and defend Bang, but only lost his life in doing so. With Wolf dead and Bang retreating, Samsung Galaxy immediately turned their attention to SKT Faker and SKT Bengi. Faker dropped, then Bengi. SSG secured the Baron. The whole crowd went wild.  It was time for a comeback. Forty minutes later and SSG’s dreams were alive and well. The put a win on the board and their eyes on the reverse sweep.

You could say Game 4 was a slight handout for SSG. But for SKT it was a guarantee. Even if SKT Blank could not perform as desired, subbing him in allowed Bengi to take a short break and discuss tactics with SKT’s coach kkoma. SKT would have one final shot to win, with Bengi fresh off the bench.

Game 4 concluded and both Samsung Galaxy and SKTelecom T1 were one win away from taking home the Summoner’s Cup. Stakes were the highest they’ve ever been. No other World Championship final had gone to 5 games. Silver was being scraped at the STAPLES Center. SKT T1 was fighting to establish a dynasty. Samsung Galaxy was fighting to prove their worth. Both teams deserved to be there.

About 45 minutes into Game 5, Samsung’s base was in shambles and SKT T1 was pushing for the win. With three inhibitors down in SSG’s base, SKT T1 was simply too much to handle. Fireworks crackled as SKT T1 secured their thrid World Championship. Whilst one team was celebrating, the other one was walking out of the arena, crushed. However, for the first time since maybe the start of competitive League of Legends, the competition looked as grueling as ever. Maybe “The Gap” is closing.

The Gap: What does it mean?

When someone talks about “The Gap” in League of Legends, they are usually referring to the skill difference between players, teams and whole regions. Though it’s sometimes difficult to compare skill levels, ever since the LoL World Championship in 2012, asian regions, specifically Korea, have reigned supreme in the competitive scene. The only time a western team, european or north american, has won a World Championship was in 2011, attributed mostly to the fact that there were no asian teams participating.

Koreans now hold the expectations to eventually win everything, europeans have acquired fame for performing substantially well and north americans have almost never delivered when on the international stage. Big emphasis on  “almost”.

Lack of depth perception

After Counter Logic Gaming emerged victorious in the NA LCS Spring Split 2016, there were doubts surrounding how the team would perform at the Mid Season Invitational, a competition that only featured the winner of the Spring Split from the five premier regions and the winner of the International Wild Card Invitational.

Most predictions placed Korea’s SKT as an undeniable first, with China’s Royal Never Give Up as a close second. The third and fourth spot were often switched between the LMS’s Flash Wolves and EU’s G2 Esports. CLG was realistically expected to finish only above the IWCI winner Turkey’s SuperMassive.

It was until day two of the competition that people realised G2 was not playing with the same caliber as they did in the EU LCS, not being able to pick up a single game up to that point. Surprisingly, CLG was of to a decent start, only losing to RNG on day one and then, unfortunately, underestimating SuperMassive, dropping a game to them too. Overall SKT didn’t seem like the korean powerhouse their reputation hyped them up to be and RNG was looking like the best team at the tournament.

Once the group stage had concluded two very opportunistic conclusions were drawn. “NA is getting better” and “Korea is getting worse”. The Knockout stage would eventually dispose of these two statements but the reasoning behind them at the time appeared to be infallible. CLG found their success mainly due to the state of the meta and their skill as a team. Darshan thrived on flanking tanks like Poppy and Ekko, HuHi mastered champions like Aurelion Sol and Ryze, two S tier picks at the tournament, and Aphromoo dictated the ranged support meta. Even though they were able to excel in a Best-Of-One scenario during the group stage, CLG found it difficult to translate these individual highlights into game wins in Best-Of-Fives.  

At the finals, SKT took a convincing 3-0 series over CLG and claimed the MSI Winner title. As per usual with most of the Bo5s SKT plays, the first game seemed close but, after CLG opted into drafting the same composition for Game 2, SKT swiftly won the two remaining games. Everything returned to normality as Korea reclaimed their dominant status and NA was again seen as an alright region.

NA vs EU: The eternal struggle

Fast forward to the end of the Summer Split 2016 and it felt like MSI was forgotten. G2 used “vacation” as an excuse for their extremely poor performance and then went on to dominate the EU LCS again. Expectations were set high for this team as the World Championship was approaching.

On the other hand, after what some would call a spectacular performance at MSI, CLG could not find the same success they had in spring. They struggled through the regular season and eventually finished fourth, qualifying to the World Championship via championship points.

Both CLG and G2 were drawn into the same group (A) at the World Championship, which lead to predictions placing G2 higher due to their inherently better performance domestically. However, the world was shocked when Albus Nox Luna, an IWC team from the CIS took down CLG, G2 and, tournament favorites, ROX Tigers in the group stage. The glaring weakness of both western teams showed and they were not able to perform when it mattered. In the end, neither of them advanced to the knockout stage.

For G2, this meant another inexcusable disappointment on the international stage. Nevertheless they had moments where they showed that could compete against the best, having early leads against ROX Tigers. On the other hand, CLG met previously set expectations, finishing third even after showing some potential.

Following the group stage, the only western teams to advance to the knockout stage were Cloud 9 and H2K. They both had a favorable draw as they avoided SKT T1 and ROX Tigers in their quarter finals matches. Luckily for H2K, they also drew ANX as their first opponent, which guaranteed them a much easier road to semis. On the contrary, C9 was immediately matched against Samsung Galaxy, to whom the lost 3-0. Eventually SSG and H2K would face off in the semifinals, where SSG would crushingly defeat H2K.

Just like that, and like many times before, no western team would show up to the finals. The recurring speculation that whoever could avoid a korean team for the longest time would make it the furthest in an international tournament was showing to be true once again. However, in contrast to last year, the KR vs KR matches showed to be the closest and most competitive, with both series in the knockout brackets going to 5 games. A gap was definitely closing, but maybe not the one most people thought.

The “Real” Gap

The 2016 League of Legends World Championship was mostly regarded as a failure for western teams. Nevertheless, if you stop to analyse the preparations of some of these teams rather than their results, you’ll  notice that the west has taken a big step in the right direction. The gap that most notably closed this year was not a skill gap, it was a preparation gap.

North America’s Team SoloMid is a clear example of this. During the regular season they doubled down on scrims and practice, following schedules similar to those of korean teams. This adaptation to a new regime allowed TSM to dominate domestically, finishing second in the spring split and first in the summer. Even if their performance at Worlds was somewhat disappointing, they were one of the best looking north american teams in quite some time.

Moving forward, it would be great to see more teams opt into these types of practice schedules, as they will help elevate the skill cap for all regions. However, playing upwards of 12 hours a day can be incredibly demanding for pro players, and the gratification and reward for their efforts might not always be there.

“The Gap” as most people know isn’t going to close overnight. For the skill gap between regions to close, the preparation and infrastructure gap must close first. While some teams are taking steps in the right direction, the west still has a long way to go.