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The Difference Between a Contender and a Champion

Despite finishing the regular season within one game of each other, the Spring Playoffs highlighted the key differences between a champion and a contender.

The confetti falls before Team Liquid can even stand up to hug each other. It is the first of many things to fall. Olleh would embrace Doublelift first before tears would fall from his eyes. The 100 Thieves would later fall back to their rooms and avoid all press — the last NA team to fall before all eyes would turn to Europe for the Mid-Season Invitational. After TL files past 100 in the customary handshake, they corale around the trophy. It is a brief gesture, but Xmithie puts an arm around Doublelift and ushers him more to the center of the team before they lift the trophy together. Seeing this, a part of me falls, too — the season is a grueling climb to the top, and in this moment I think every single pair of eyes was fixated on Doublelift.
He posted a 35.3 KDA over the course of the playoffs — it’s an insane mark that highlighted just how dominant he was in a meta that demanded hyper-carry type of performances from the bot lane. He provided the very blueprint for that style of play. When it doesn’t work, it’s called selfish and narcissistic. But when it does work, you are heralded as a hero and career highlight reels are filled with such moments — as much as fans may turn their noses at it, it’s when the high-risk plays pay off that fans are lifted to their feet.
But that’s not the only reason everyone was watching Doublelift. A personal tragedy with his family shocked the community immediately after the Semifinal — people weren’t even sure if he’d play. I think ultimately a lot of us were watching because it felt like the proper show of support — what could anyone really do or say?
All of my emotions stockpiled through the set. Xmithie’s small gesture at the end was the moment that broke me like the first crack in a dam before the cement bursts. It was a solemn reminder that yes, this is just a game, but the game is also the focal point and culmination of a lifestyle. And here Team Liquid had distanced itself from the rest of the field, and only a few weeks removed from a regular season that saw all six teams finish within one game of each other, it was no longer even close.
MIAMI, FLORIDA: The day before 100 Thieves would be swept by Team Liquid, Aphromoo is awarded the Spring Split MVP.
“I don’t really get nervous for interviews until that MVP interview,” says Aphromoo after being recognized for his individual prowess over the Spring Split. It’s not an easy award for supports to win — the role has historically been seen as the hardest to carry from and is generally the least glamorous. There’s nothing flashy about placing a ward. But he won because of his ability to stand out in a role that often blends in. That 100 would go on to lose the next day was not his fault, but it did speak to the importance of League of Legends being a team game.
The Team Liquid roster didn’t have a single player finish Top 3 in voting for the NA LCS All-Pro awards. They were simply the better team. Aphromoo suggests that practice is wildly overrated. “You actually have to hang out with your teammates a lot,” he says. “You can talk about anything — it doesn’t have to be LoL. You have to build trust and bond over random-ass shit. If you don’t do any of that, then you just hate going to work. I actually don’t think you need to practice that much to do well in LoL right now.”
He cited Xmithie being Diamond 2 in solo queue during Liquid’s championship run. It’s almost strange how much it needs to be repeated that a 5v5 game is still ultimately a team game. Maybe it’s because we’re always trying to find heroes when we watch. Or be the hero when we play.
“I did try to 1v9 back in the day, but it didn’t really work out,” he says [about his times on the international stage]. “I only did it like two times, [then] I was like, ‘Well this is shit ‘cuz this is going to be really hard to win by myself.’”
SEOUL, KOREA: Huni studies the matches at MSI 2018 and prepares some notes in preparation for his guest casting appearance for OGN.
I ask Huni if he was the type of person to watch the games after he’s been eliminated, or if he shuts off the screen to collect himself. He laughs and talks about how he had to watch the games to prepare for the casting gig, but he didn’t want to watch all of them.
“I’m really competitive,” he says, “So why am I in Korea when I was last year’s champion?”
FOX raced to the top of the NA LCS standings to start the Spring Split before late struggles cut their season short. Even though they managed to win the third place match, it’s still ultimately a consolation match. The sting was, perhaps, even more pronounced because they served merely as the appetizer for the Final that would take place the following day to a more boisterous crowd.
Huni doesn’t think this split will be as easy as spring — they won’t just be able to pounce on teams. “I would say I got kind of hard-stuck in NA. It’s pretty sad, right?” he suggests. “I have won in Europe. I have won in LCK. Even though I’m undefeated in the [NA LCS] regular season — it always looks good — the problem is being dropped down always in playoffs. Three times in a row. Maybe we got too [complacent] after getting first place. We kind of got overconfident. We don’t practice enough probably.”
LOS ANGELES: Solo spent some time over the offseason recovering from a procedure to remove skin cancer from his cheek.
“I don’t know the best way to put it,” he laughs, “But I had skin cancer, so I unfortunately had to get it removed.” The procedure went well, and he had a good doctor. This was something he’s known about for some time now, but now there’s a visible scar — he says people are bound to ask about it now.
“It’s kind of given me perspective in the sense that there are things more important than league,” he says. “Obviously League is a huge part of my life, but you know, there’s more real world things going on. This was a pretty big moment in my life, and it kind of keeps me grounded. Cuz LCS and esports as a whole is a bubble you live in. It’s kind of nice to be reminded — not only myself — that everyone has their own individual lives outside of it.”
Solo powered through the Spring Split and became a reliable top laner for Clutch Gaming — they were one win away from securing a spot in the Finals. He matched up well against powerhouses in Hauntzer and Ssumday in the playoffs and looks to become even better in his second full split as a professional player. And he already knows the way forward.
“It’s kind of funny,” he says, “Whenever a season ends — you instantly kind of have this euphoria of everything that went wrong. You instantly know what needed to be fixed.”
LOS ANGELES: The rookie enjoyed his first time off by completing a series of errands — routine things like dentist and doctors appointments.
While Rookie of the Split is a title he’ll have forever, it was a little unceremonious in that only three players were even eligible for the award. That’s not to say he didn’t deserve it — even if the field was bigger, he’d still have been a good candidate. Licorice demonstrated a fearlessness in the top lane that I found admirable. But at times, it was like watching a young lion cub poke at the head of the pride. Eventually the lion’s patience runs dry.
Maybe it’s a pity, but the game I remember the most vividly from Licorice last split was when he picked Lucian into Huni — the OG aggressive top laner who’d had an infamous run on Lucian himself. Licorice proceeded to go 0-6 to start the game. It was a major welcome-to-the-league kind of moment for the rookie.
He says, “I think a lot of the criticism against me was that I had a single style.” But he insists that he’s also capable of playing tanks at a higher level. The rookie excuse won’t be available to him anymore, though — Cloud9’s consecutive appearances at Worlds is in jeopardy now with a host of internal issues at hand and a stronger league at bay. He knows their legacy and doesn’t want to be part of the first roster to not make Worlds.
To fix that, he’ll need to overcome his struggles. “I think I played a little too scared,” he said of his Spring Playoffs performance. “It was that playoff mentality where I didn’t want to make a mistake. I ended up not going for the plays I should have.”
KYOTO, JAPAN: Between the hot springs, the food, and visiting his girlfriend’s family, Hauntzer’s trip to Japan was a good mental reset — even if it just made him miss playing League of Legends even more.
TSM entered the Spring Playoffs as the favorite to win it all again — they’d made 10 straight NA LCS Finals, and in a pack with no clear favorite, why not play the numbers? Then they got eliminated by the least assuming team in the playoffs — an under-the-radar Clutch Gaming team that stymied TSM with a slow-paced style.
“After we lost, I said, ‘Fuck NA Finals… I don’t care,’” says Hauntzer. “I mean, I watched a little bit of it, but I knew who was going to win. TL was obviously the better team in that meta. And MSI… I think that was kind of an entertaining tournament. I wanted to see how TL would do, and I kind of wanted to see them fail, because that wasn’t us.”
Hauntzer has received some flak for a perceived “arrogance” — whether that’s a persona or the reality, I can’t say, but I do think he’s painfully aware of TSM’s shortcomings last split. It’s not like he’d failed to back up his confidence in the past — at least not in North America. And, at the very least, he still understands the winner’s mentality.
On the difference between a champion and a contender, he says, “I think the biggest difference is decisiveness. The champion should always be confident in what they’re doing.”
BERLIN, GERMANY: TL is eliminated in the tiebreaker after storming back from an 0-4 start in the Group Stage in large part thanks to Doublelift’s worldly play.
“I think that I did the unimportant part,” says Doublelift, “which was showing that I’m good and that I’m one of the strongest players. But we failed to do the main thing. I think putting [winning] first was really important. Like, in other tournaments, I’d really come in and be like, ‘I want to win, but mostly I want to make sure I’m not shit.’”
Now he’s experienced that — proving himself but failing to win. It is, of course, a bitter feeling. The wall he faces at the moment is his inability to escape the Group Stage, but it was a valuable experience for him and, perhaps, it reignited a fire in his competitive desire. At this time last year, he was easing back from a brief retirement. This year he may be having more fun than ever.
He says, “It is so much more fun to play against good players. I’ll just constantly be amazed — like, ‘Wow, they punished that.’ Normally I’d get away with that. When I do something really good, I’m like, ‘Oh my god, that worked?’ I didn’t know it would work, but I played aggressive and it panned out because I forced him to make a mistake. Like, I made Uzi make a mistake.”
The challenge is coming back from the type of play and tackling his North American counterparts with the same type of vigor. I think there are plenty of strong teams in the region — especially TSM — but ultimately, he doesn’t care as much for the competition. “[NA] is just a step to getting back to Worlds,” he says.
“I went from playing against Uzi, Betty, and PraY, and now I’m playing against all the NA LCS bot lanes,” he says. “They’re definitely… by definition professional players, but they’re on a completely different level.”
And it’s a level Doublelift will need to conquer again if he wants to get back to Worlds. The year so far has thrown a lot at him, and that’s not about to stop now, but for Doublelift it’s a matter of placing one foot in front of the other. Again and again.
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Eyes on Mike Yeung