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10 Players to Watch: 2019 LCS Spring Split

On my last day in Bloomington, Indiana — after three years of graduate school — I sat in my car behind my house and stared at my roommate’s garden, which was browning and the leaves were beginning to wilt over as autumn approached. I sat there and cried. In part for the memories I’d made and the people I’d be leaving. And in part because I had no idea what would come next.

Leaving a place of comfort for something else is always a mixture of scary and exciting — this is why I think we like to rewatch television shows so much. We know exactly when the moments of comfort are, and we can skip anything that makes us anxious. But new shows are full of twists and turns, and it’s a brand new emotional commitment.

This is the reality for the vast majority of pro players in the League of Legends landscape every single year — only 24 teams make it to Worlds, which means over 70% of players worldwide have been pacing restlessly since September. Some didn’t know if they’d ever play a single game on stage again. Some didn’t know who they’d play for. And some yet never had a single doubt — the only thing they did see was the dawn of this split with renewed dreams and a chance to prove their worth once again.

This offseason saw great upheaval across all the major regions in the world — in part thanks to the chaos sewn at Worlds in Korea as the paradigm of power shifted. Watching all three Korean teams fall before the Semifinals was a sort of wakeup call for everyone that anyone can win. That, I think, prompted a lot of teams to extend themselves more than ever before to put together a roster that can make a run at the Summoner’s Cup. When Invictus Gaming won it all, everyone saw a little part of themselves bouncing around on that stage in joy.

And North America — who’ve long-ago adopted the model of importing talent — is no exception. After watching our own Cloud9 make it all the way to the Semifinals, I imagine a mixture of pride, excitement, and envy will serve as fuel for the league this year. But, of course, only three teams will even make it. So here’s a look at 10 players who’ve swapped teams to new teams this year. Here’s a look at what keeps them going.

In 2009, NBA superstar Allen Iverson famously quipped, “I’d rather retire than [come off the bench] again.” True to his word, he retired just a short time after that. When I recounted this story to Jensen, he laughed. But I think it was something he could relate to. I think it’s something any of us can relate to on some level — having enough pride in an aspect of ourselves to hold our ground. No matter how stubborn it might be.

And in Jensen’s case — probably it is not that stubborn at all. He says one of the biggest reasons he left C9 is tied to how they employed their substitutions last year. “I didn’t really feel like I was playing worse or getting outperformed or anything like that,” he says. “I just felt like I could do the most out of any mid laner in the league, and I think I deserved to be the starter.”

He caveats that by saying that what C9 did was successful, but that only contributed to his desire to leave even more. He didn’t feel like it was proper to demand changes to a system that clearly delivered results. It makes me wonder — in a perfect world — if the choice was as simple as lose Jensen or have him play in 100% of the games, what would C9 have chosen to do? Of course other factors ultimately played into his decision, but this is probably the single biggest player to switch rosters since Doublelift first left CLG.

The decision to leave a roster that made Semifinals could come to haunt him for years — this was a feat that NA hadn’t accomplished even once in the modern era, and ultimately he still played every single game at Worlds. Even up to the final moment, he says, “It was [emotional to leave]. It was really tough for me because even though I was considering leaving, when it came to it, I was like, ‘Oh, fuck. Am I making the right decision?’”

Jensen is an MVP-caliber player who you should expect to challenge every single mid laner in the world. The roster assembled on Team Liquid now is one of the best we’ve ever seen in North America and features almost an unfair excess of veteran experience — their average age being almost 25 hopefully means they’re capable of avoiding any off-the-rift drama that might hinder a younger team. And unlike C9, there seems to be no indication they’ll rotate through even a six person roster, let alone seven.

This is Jensen’s fourth year as a professional player, but it will be the first time he really needs to learn what it’s like to be on a different team. And he’ll be partnered up with high profile players who might demand more from him than the more goofy atmosphere and family he’d been a part of on C9 — combined with the pressure this team faces, there is sure to be ample room to stumble. By leaving C9, he’s essentially staking a bet on TL being able to make the Worlds Finals — anything short of that will pale in comparison to his heights on C9.

But these are all things he’s weighed — and maybe has weighed for a long time now. It’s hard to say when he first thought he’d leave C9, but maybe this was set into motion last summer. Now it’s all happened, though, and there’s no turning back.

“I’ve been playing with Sneaky for a long time so it will definitely be weird to not see him every day,” he says. “And even Reapered — we got along pretty well on a personal level, and even Jack was a really cool owner. All those three together — we’ve been together for so long, and we had good times as well. I’ll miss all of those guys. It’ll definitely be a big change for me.”

“In hindsight, [C9] went to Semifinals at Worlds — I was pretty jealous. Not going to lie. When you see your old team being successful, you’re always envious, but if they played with me, it might not have been that way,” says Smoothie.

His benching came as a big surprise to many people last split — especially considering he’s known for being a vocal in-game leader, which seems to be a thing you want when you’re struggling. But perhaps the best way to usher in new voices and perspectives is to clean the slate, and at least in C9’s case, that ended up being the correct route.

But imagine you are Smoothie. It is 3:00 am and you are up alone watching your old teammates play the most important match of their year some thousands of miles away. You remember back to last year in Guangzhou you, seated next to those guys, were eliminated in five games to end your championship aspirations. Every time C9 crashes into the Afreeca Freecs’ Nexus, what are you supposed to feel but a sharp jolt to your heart? The pain not sourced by C9’s win, but from yourself.

Ultimately, the decision to leave C9 was Smoothie’s, even if it was prompted by the unlikelihood of him returning to the starting lineup. There are countless what-if scenarios that must have played out in his head by now, but the reality is he’s had to move on.

He spent the bulk of the off-season trying to branch out of his comfort zone — doing things like rock climbing or trying to talk to pros on other teams more. He says, “I feel like during the split, some days I just had this realization that I don’t really do anything besides play the game and talk to my teammates. I don’t really live life, you know? I wanted to do a lot of things that were really out of my comfort zone.”

Now Smoothie is on TSM — perhaps the only organization with a more storied history than Cloud9 in the LCS. The short stint on FOX was a good change of pace for him — maybe call it his rebound team, but they helped him identify what he brings to the table. They also gave him a stage to rebuild the confidence he’d lost at the start of the Summer Split.

The reality that you can be benched is something that some players — especially the stars — don’t even think about. Throughout their careers, playing the game was as simple as hitting the play button in the client. But once you hit that wall, where someone says you can’t play, you are then forced to reevaluate the things you’ve taken for granted all along.

As Smoothie says, “At the end of the day, esports is like regular sports in that if you don’t perform, then someone else that’s better is going to replace you. That’s just the reality of things.”

In 2011, a then 14-year-old Pobelter answers more than half of the questions in this interview with some variation of “yes.” His team is coming off his first major tournament, but he is still focused on finishing school and prepping for his upcoming tests. This is the Pobelter I think of still when someone mentions his name — not the consistent presence in mid lane that he’s come to be known for, but the brimming prodigy and “hope” of North American mid laners.

But Pobelter’s reputation has been relegated to being “good” just because he doesn’t take up an import slot. This has bled into the expectations of his play — because he’s one of the few NA mid laners still getting play time in the league, he’s expected to just hold his own in lane and go even. That’s considered doing his job. This is in part because mid lane has seen more foreign imports than any other position in the LCS. But, probably, it’s also tied to how Pobelter has shifted his play.

Reflecting on his departure from Team Liquid, he says, “I was really limited a lot actually. I felt really upset at the end of all of it. I felt like I did everything exactly the way my team wanted me to play in terms of not trying to… I don’t know the right way of putting it, but not trying to excel too much individually. Just play really slow and steady and limit risks — help out the team. If I can get ahead, then sacrifice myself to help bot. That’s literally what I did. I really just performed fucking excellent both playoffs. I really feel like I played the best out of anyone both playoffs, and then it felt like I just got shit on by everyone when we lost international tournaments.

“Our team was just collapsing — not being able to cope with the pressure and turning on each other… things like that. I took most of the blame for it. That part really sucked. My own playstyle [naturally] was actually really aggressive — if you remember old IMT, I really liked to play aggressively and test out my mechanics and go for outplays… things like that. On TL it was the opposite — everyone was really passive so I switched that way, too.”

Pobelter spent a large chunk of the offseason in Hawaii with his family, and he says he’s taken up reading more as a hobby lately instead of just always being on his phone during downtime. The stint on Team Liquid was easily Pobelter’s most successful as a pro player thus far, and trying to recapture that high will be very difficult in a league that’s more stacked with talent than ever. But FlyQuest is an opportunity for him to reset and redefine his identity as a player.

This will be his eighth year in the scene — more than a third of his life has been dedicated to the Summoner’s Rift. Changing perceptions of who he is as a player won’t be easy but so much of that is media-driven narratives, anyway. That’s not something he’ll ever be able to control very well. But what he can do is change how he actually plays. FLY reunites him with WildTurtle — another player who’s persisted despite dogged community perceptions. And more importantly, Turtle should push Pobelter to return to his aggressive roots. He certainly won’t be lacking in motivation given what he needs to prove now.

“I still love LoL,” he says. “It’s still really fun to just play — to scrim and improve. It’s impossible for your motivation to stay the same as when you’re an aspiring rookie trying to make it big or whatever. Back then it was the joy of playing the game with a bunch of fresh experiences, but now… I still really enjoy playing the game and putting in the hours, but it’s a bit more discipline-driven.”

He’s long-since grown up from the young kid with braces, and fortunately he isn’t answering questions with simple variations of “yes” anymore. Maneuvering through this landscape is complicated, and he’s once again tasked with developing a language to help fans understand exactly what kind of player he is.

“When we all met up together, we were like, ‘Guys, you know we’re the revenge team right? We gotta get revenge on everyone.’ Juan has C9. Henrik has Echo Fox. Joo-Sung has TL. And I have TSM,” says Hauntzer. He seems animated about those prospects.

I think this was said partially in jest — like, for the vast majority of pros, there isn’t much real animosity towards their old teams where they’re looking to trade fists. I don’t think we have the same vendettas that sometimes permeate other sports because players still scrim with each other and see each other on a fairly regular basis. But I also think that there’s always underlying truth to statements like this — how could you not take being released personally?

At his peak on TSM, Hauntzer was an MVP candidate and perennial All-Pro player. In a world that ushered in superstar Korean imports, Hauntzer managed to elevate his play and not just keep up with his new foes but actually outplay them. I remember the 2017 Spring Split in particular where TSM focused a lot of resources into the top side of the map — we saw him flourish to a point where he was probably the single most important player on TSM. Even more-so than Bjergsen.

And off the Rift, he often embodied the bold confidence and swagger that bordered on the edge of arrogance. He was, in a nutshell, everything TSM stood for. He brought baylife back. So his departure from TSM is definitely a signal that the era has shifted — and given TSM’s struggles last year, that may be the best for both parties.

Looking back at the summer gauntlet, Hauntzer says it never really occurred to him that those were going to be his last games for TSM. With another year left on his contract and the history he’d built on that team, I imagine he felt like they’d just retool and go for it again next year. I imagine the loss didn’t really sink in for a while — for TSM who’d never missed Worlds before, I imagine none of that felt real. Until, maybe, it was time to leave.

For this year, Hauntzer is focused on himself. He says, “I need to really focus on my individual performance… I have to be there when my team isn’t having a good game, or say it’s carry top meta — I want to carry the game. I want to make sure I can do that for my team.” He suggests some of his struggles last year might be tied to TSM spending too much time on the team elements of the game and perhaps neglecting individual performances.

Last year in the Summer Semifinals against C9, Hauntzer ran over to Svenskeren to banter with him before their game. I thought it was a nice moment between old teammates, but some people thought it was Hauntzer just being cocky again. And you know… I think even if he was just being cocky, that’s fine. I want players who think they’re going to win. I want players that can be relaxed enough to still enjoy the game and who are able to maintain relationships with their old teammates — making it more personal (good or bad) gives the matches a bit of an extra edge.

GGS have already scrimmed TSM a bit this year, and he says, “It’s always fun playing against old teammates because you can always banter and have some fun in between games. Definitely feels nice to beat them — we’ve been scrimming [TSM] a bit and when we beat them…” He wags his finger, laughs, and says, “It’s like… Got ‘em! You shouldn’t have done that.”

“For some reason, in the League culture, being viewed as a ‘for fun player’ is a bad thing,” says Meteos. “It’s got a negative stigma to it. But for me, why does wanting to win and having fun need to be exclusive?

“I think everyone plays better when they have fun. That’s one thing for me that I find really valuable on a team setting — just making sure everyone is really comfortable. If you’re having fun, then you’re going to try harder. You’re going to get over problems faster.”

I think there’s more nuance here, and oftentimes “for fun” is just a way of masking someone who’s actually trolling. But also I think the larger point being made is that we’ve come to expect players to take everything seriously all the time. This manifested in a big way at Worlds with the Fortnite meme for NA — a vocal if not large contingency of the fan base and even players in the scene make it seem like every waking hour should be devoted to League of Legends if you’re a pro. That maybe stems from watching too much anime or whatnot where the main character goes off to a mountain to punch rocks for ten years.  

But that’s not healthy, and at least to Meteos, it’s also not always conducive towards winning. For some players, sure, having other things to do or other games to play might be distracting — I can definitely see that. But the other way to frame it is having other things to do can help bring balance to a player’s mental state — which is something I think we are (rightfully) valuing more and more these days. Playing 16 hours a day isn’t very effective if the last four or six hours are actually detrimental to your well-being. And I imagine all of us have said, at one point or another, “I hate this game.” So, surely, you can imagine how spending too much time on it can have a negative effect.

After a successful split with 100 Thieves to start 2018, Meteos was surprisingly traded away in the summer and then relegated to the academy league. He’s kind of been inconsistent in the last couple of years — not because of his play (which has been good, actually) but in how much he’s literally playing on a team. I’m sure it’s a two-way street for why that happened, but the stint on FlyQuest Academy seems to have re-invigorated him. He cites players like Erry and Ngo as being really funny dudes that helped reshape his perspective.

“I feel like I’ve gotten more and more serious over the years by being put in leadership roles on teams and [needing] to be more responsible for things,” he says. “It kind of got to a point where I was feeling a lot of stress and [FQA] was sort of a good way to take a step back and kind of go back to my roots a bit. Just mess around and have fun. It kind of reminded me of what I enjoyed about all of this in the first place.”

I think a motivated Meteos — one who can approach this game in his own way — is a force that can upend a lot of expectations this split. Whether he’s able to align with OpTic’s new roster will be the biggest question, but at this point he’s proven that he can at least fit in playstyle-wise with many different rosters. And now he’s focused on trying to gain a more holistic understanding of the game.

He says, “I saw this really good analogy on Reddit or something about League players that basically related it to playing piano. There’s some people who — I think it’s called synthesia — you can play a piano song just by remembering how to move your fingers, but you can’t read music or play another song. You just know how to do that one thing. I feel like a lot of League players can kind of be like that — they’ve learned all of these really specific things to be able to do one job. And I think those players don’t usually stand the test of time, so I want to avoid that trap and try to understand the game as best as I can.”

For Meteos and OpTic — there are going to be a lot of questions as to how this roster will come together. Especially with a crestfallen former World Champion in Crown to helm the mid lane. This will be a team whose biggest struggles might be in finding the right reasons and motivations to play this game together. And perhaps Meteos can be the one to lead the way in that regard.

Part 2 will be released tomorrow at the same time — this article was split in half because it’s really freaking long. And 10 Thoughts will resume in the same banter-esque manner next week, and it is very possible I have even worse jokes in store for you this year.  

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