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In 2018, FlyQuest went to Worlds, and won.
By which I mean, the team sent their AD carry and most famous face, Jason “WildTurtle” Tran to Korea to cover Worlds and came back with some of the most memorable content in recent LCS history. It was a project WildTurtle himself asked for, in part to break the monotony of the offseason — having lost to 100 Thieves in the 2018 Summer Playoffs, it would be 151 days before FLY would next hit Summoner’s Rift on the LCS stage.
“For me, personally, I’ve been in this space for four years and I’ve never once had a player come to me and ask to do content,” Ricky Gonzalez, FLY’s Vice President of Content, muses. “It’s very rare. So when Turtle came to us and said, ‘I’d like to do this content,’ it was a no-brainer.”
What FLY’s content team and WildTurtle ended up putting together was a four-part miniseries, nominally exploring the topic of why NA sucks at Worlds. It was the first time a team that didn’t make Worlds sent one of their players to cover it, and even our media team was at a bit of a loss on what to do with WildTurtle. Should he be given special privileges because he was also a pro, or just considered another member of the press room? In the end, he was given a press pass and told to request interviews at the end of each match just like all the other journalists.
“The beautiful thing was I think some [team managers and players] said yes or approved our interview requests just to see what was going on,” Gonzalez jokes.
“Their reactions were kind of funny,” WildTurtle agrees. “Since I play LCS, when they saw me at Worlds, they were like, ‘What are you doing here, Turtle?!’”
The WildTurtle at Worlds series is a haphazard mix of traditional post-game interviews, behind the scenes footage of WildTurtle shopping and eating, and one-on-one interactions with other journalists at the arena. In his interviews, WildTurtle manages to be both irreverent and insightful in a way only available to a veteran progamer well-respected by his peers. In one episode, WildTurtle dons a one-piece Fizz pajama suit, his hands reduced to fat blue fingers fidgeting with a fuzzy hood, looking like a tired cosplayer that wandered out of the wrong convention. But despite that, he still gets serious answers about gameplay out of Fnatic’s coach Dylan Falco and Team Liquid’s Xmithie, the latter of whom even breaks out into unexpected laughter when WildTurtle bluntly agrees with him that TL’s execution problems showed up on the world stage.
“I think it was easier for the players to open up to me because the things I said were more relatable,” WildTurtle says about his time at Worlds. “I was able to see the game from a player’s perspective and ask more insightful questions. I’m a player myself and I know what to ask a player, how they felt.”
How it feels as a player on the Worlds stage, he explains, is “extremely stressful.” The whole project had started as a way for him to experience something different from that, to hang out and chill and take a spectator’s point of view for once. It instead helped ground him as a pro player. “I ended up finding a little bit more motivation with the game, because NA [ended up] doing pretty well that year.”
I’d like to think that WildTurtle going to Worlds as a journalist is why FlyQuest is doing so well in the 2019 Spring Split — using that motivation of seeing Cloud9 in the Semifinals to propel FLY ahead. But whether or not that’s true, one thing is undeniable: in 2019, FlyQuest’s brand is finally taking off.
I have always had a soft spot for FLY, probably because we both entered the LCS at the same time. 2017 FLY could best be summarized as the old guard of C9, which FLY had bought wholesale from C9’s Challenger team, remixed in gold and white. Like most of the newer teams in 2017, FLY was just trying to hang on long enough to make it through franchising; unlike some of the other teams, they had a storied roster with narratives aplenty that made a miraculous run in the Spring Split that shot them into Playoffs.
Some of the most memorable pieces of content for me that year were on FLY: convincing Lemonnation to participate in his own DRIVE video, giving the FLY vs. C9 civil war top billing as the match of the week complete with its own dramatic promo video, and filming a surprisingly punchy conversation between Hai and Bjergsen for Spring Semifinals. No wonder a newbie like me, who wanted to be fed the narratives, gravitated towards FLY, even when they ended with a poor 6-12 record in the Summer Split.
The only things that remain of that original FlyQuest iteration are the team name and WildTurtle, who joined in the 2017 Summer Split. After being accepted as a franchise partner, FLY dismantled their whole roster and trashed the old gold, black, and white eyeball logo. Then they locked down another mid laner with an IGN that would match the team name (FLY Fly) and rebuilt around WildTurtle. In one video titled “A Fresh Start,” a hokey movie trailer-esque voiceover narrates dramatically shadowed profiles of WildTurtle’s face, asking fans if they were ready for take-off.
That hokey feel would permeate much of FLY’s 2018 content. Scroll through FLY’s social media accounts for 2018, and most of what you’ll find is branded content: members of the 2018 roster doodling gameplay for the “5-Hour Energy Moment of the Match,” a commercial for Snickers where the punchline is that a hungry WildTurtle hoses down then top laner Flame with a fire extinguisher, and a few chaotic videos of FLY playing real sports in a school gym. Maybe unsurprisingly, FLY stopped being known as “that team with the eyeball logo” and then became simply “Team Snickers.”
It’s not that League of Legends’ esports audience doesn’t like seeing their pro players act or have fun. In fact, much of what people loved about LCK—the trash-talking, the teaser videos, the dramatics—combine acting and fun. But there’s a line between Faker trying to hide a grin as he portentously perches on a huge throne in the LCK arena and WildTurtle dramatically welcoming Anda and Stunt to the FLY house by throwing them bottles of 5-Hour Energy.
The question of authenticity plagues even the most sophisticated brands, so it’s not a surprise that a fledgling esport brand such as FLY might hit a stumbling block and fall face first into peanuts and sticky nougat when trying to establish themselves. It’s probably no coincidence that jokes about FLY’s corporate servitude to their sponsors came at the same time as franchise hysteria and accusations that we were losing our scrappy ways to basketball teams and ownership groups that just didn’t get esports.
As an aging millennial, I can parrot back the commandments of advertising to Young People Who Are Online: thou shalt not sell out, thou shalt not use stupid hashtags, thou shalt not make cringey memes, thou shalt not appear to be selling a product instead of an experience—all of which Team Snickers violated.
“In 2018 we basically sold our souls for tweets,” support Juan “JayJ” Guibert says. “It was a bit weird. It was just like, ‘Here’s the content you guys need to put out.'”
Lucas “Santorin” Larsen, who joined as FLY’s jungler in the 2018 Summer Split, is very straightforward about his feelings towards that era of FLY content: “I hated it.” He thinks it influenced how people looked at FLY as a team in 2018. “If you went on the YouTube channel all you saw were Snickers ads,” he points out. “That’s all people remember.”
But all that is behind the team now. Go on FlyQuest’s YouTube account in 2019, and you won’t find Snickers or 5-Hour Energy ads. Instead, you’ll see a big banner image proudly displaying their new motto: Showcase Greatness.
When 2018 brought in the new franchised teams, it also brought in a new wave of weekly team series, to the point where it now feels like every franchised team in LCS has a behind-the-scenes docu-series. If you watch enough of them, you can break them down into their well-trodden emotional beats. Interviews held in rooms dimly lit up with their team color, the pre-game huddle, the slow-mo replay of the week’s game set to copyright-free EDM, and finally close-up shots of serious faces as everyone listens to the coach give nonspecific advice about how to get better for next week.
You won’t find any of that on FLY’s channel. Instead, when it comes to showcasing greatness, it seems like FLY’s focus is on everything outside of the game. Like the WildTurtle at Worlds miniseries, FLY in 2019 is an eclectic mix. There’s Flight Path, a weekly series where two players make predictions on the week’s LCS matches “from all around the world” (read: in front of a green screen with excessive amounts of props). There are the weekly vlogs, where each player takes the camera on a personal adventure before reacting to the week’s scrims and matches. Then, there’s a grab bag of montages and Q&A videos, where you can learn preferred pizza toppings (WildTurtle likes banana peppers) and greatest fears (V1per, despite his name, is afraid of snakes).
“It’s definitely a stark contrast from how serious it [was] on TL,” says Eugene “Pobelter” Park. “Different strokes for different folks.” But now that he’s on FLY, he likes getting to joke around on Flight Path. “Not being so serious about everything fits my personality a lot more.” Known for streaming himself occasionally playing violin while waiting for his queue to pop, he’s taken advantage of FLY’s content to show off his musical talents. In his second vlog episode he gives the audience an impromptu performance of his self-composed track, “Cosmic Giraffes,” which features him on every instrument you hear. “[Music] is a way to express myself, which I don’t get to do when I’m just sitting there playing League for twelve hours a day every day. And I think that’s pretty essential in life, just having a creative outlet… It’s nice to have something outside of just the game. It’s better for my happiness and mental health to have something like that.”
In his vlog episode, JayJ makes Peruvian food, mostly family recipes: ceviche, lomo saltado, and rice pudding. One of his favorite things to watch in his free time is cooking videos on the Internet (“Tasty, Bon Appetit, Alex French Guy Cooking”). He likes the idea of cooking food, but between the chef that comes to the team house and ordering food, he rarely gets a chance to practice. When asked about his preference between these vlogs and more serious documentary-style content, he weighs the benefits and drawbacks. “The more serious stuff takes less effort on the player’s part, because you do what you usually do and then the camera’s just there,” JayJ explains. “Whereas for our stuff, we actually have to take interest in something. The content team obviously helps us through everything, but we have to hold the camera… and you have to think about how you want to phrase things. There’s probably a bit more work but I definitely like it more than having all of our dirty laundry being aired.”
His food, by the way, comes out fine. After taking a few bites, WildTurtle tells the camera it tastes like takeout, which we gather is supposed to be a compliment. He also tastes the rice pudding, pronounces it “good,” and puts the used spoon back in the bowl. No one, to my horror, appears to notice or care.
Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle (I know) is a quantum mechanics concept (stay with me) that boils down to, we cannot measure with absolute precision both the position and momentum of a particle. The more we know about one variable, the less we know about the other. Like Schrodinger’s ill-fated cat, it’s commonly confused, even by its inventor, with a related but separate physics concept of the observer effect: that simply observing a situation necessarily changes that situation.
Let me propose the esports uncertainty principle: the creation of esports content, especially behind-the-scenes documentaries, fundamentally changes our relationship with these players. Without behind-the-scenes personal content like FLY’s vlogs or Squad or TSM: Legends, we can never hope to get to know the people behind the handles. Yet the very act of filming and releasing content makes what you see in front of the camera affected. Content creates public perceptions, some of which will never fade; on the other hand, public perception goes on to affect what is actually shown when it comes to team content.
Maybe the most famous example of this is TL’s “Breaking Point,” which has for years dogged not only the public’s perception of Dardoch, but also divided the opinion of content creators for LCS teams as to how much transparency is too much transparency. But there are more recent examples too, like whether 100 Thieves last year should have shared more on their docuseries “The Heist” about what happened to the team in the lead-up to Worlds.
For the FLY players, the esports uncertainty dilemma is far less dramatic but still anxiety-inducing: can they be engaging on camera but still be true to themselves? For his first vlog episode, Omran “V1per” Shoura goes to Santa Monica Pier and talks about his family, like his brother who has always supported him becoming a pro. It didn’t come to him naturally at all. “I don’t even talk [about that kind of thing] in person, with people, much less in front of a camera,” he says. He’s never been a fan of being on camera. “Even on Liquid, whenever they wanted to make content with me, I was the only one on our team that was always like, nah guys, I’m okay, I’ll just chill.” But he, like most newer LCS pros, gets that doing content is now part of his job. “You should expect if you come to LCS, that content is a big part of what you’re doing.”
For most of us viewers, team content is the only way we get to know who the players are outside of the game. Even for the pros themselves, these series can be their only line of sight into another team. V1per admits that so far this split, he’s only watched content from two teams: The Heist to see whether or not there would be any roster changes, and “if I’m being honest, the TSM episode when we beat them. I wanted to see their reactions.” (“That one I felt a little bad about, because you could tell they were really rattled,” JayJ adds. “It’s cool to see the other side.”)
Which is all to say, we all know we are not getting the real story, that these vlogs are merely jabs in the dark, all of us like blind men feeling for the elephant that makes up a person, a team, a brand in the center of the room. We get that who they are on stage, when they’re on the Rift, is the truest expression of who they are. Yet there’s a part of us that is never satisfied by just the results or the gameplay. We can’t help wanting to know the full story. We can’t help wanting to know what they’re like, even when we know the only way to get it is to, oxymoronically, put the players back on stage.
When TSM started vlogging in 2011, the resulting videos were more home movies than what we would think of today as content. In Chaox’s tour of the first TSM team house, the focus isn’t on the house itself but on the piles of clothes in his room and $600 worth of Cup Noodles in the garage. The vlog doesn’t look professional or polished, but maybe that was the point. Chaox just wanted the viewers to feel at home in TSM’s new house, like one of them.
I can’t help but see Santorin and JayJ blowing vuvuzelas while they attempt to cast a CBLoL game starring their former teammate Shrimp as a return to the early days of League of Legends esports, when esports was, well, weird and personal. “T-sports” has had its fair share of weird team content, of course, like who can forget the transcendentally bizarre Super Bowl Shuffle, a rap song performed by the 1985 Chicago Bears? But the big power of esports has always been in its smallness and its specificity to its fans. Its players are accessible. Its community is close-knit and all on a single subreddit. Unlike with traditional sports, it isn’t fake or inauthentic for pro gamers to be online with you—that’s the nature of both the game and the industry. You share the same memes. You speak in the same Twitch emotes.
The search for intimacy and human connection leads us to watch all sorts of things that allow us to invest emotion into perfect strangers. South Korea has its mukbangs, where friendly streamers broadcast themselves eating monstrous amounts of food on camera, soothing the pain of young working adults who have left their homes and now have to eat dinner alone. The team vlog is a mukbang for the lonely gamer. We say over and over again, League of Legends is a team game. You can play League of Legends alone forever, but the game truly unlocks itself when you find four other people to play with you. The fantasy that early TSM peddled, purposefully or otherwise, was of finding friends who would live with you in a big fancy house, all of you making a career playing video games for fun. Who wouldn’t want to be part of that?
FLY’s 2019 content doesn’t look like those 2011 TSM vlogs. They’re full of silly editing that would be more at home in a stoner flick with long sequences set to That One Wii Mii Song and text added in post-production making fun of the way Santorin buttons his sleeves (“But You’re An Adult,” flashes mournfully across the screen). But dig beneath the surface, and the same emotional beats are there. There’s a moment when you intrude on WildTurtle talking to his mother in Vietnamese. There’s JayJ giving V1per advice about how to deal with criticism as a rookie. You follow the players as they move into the house, buy dinner from Whole Foods, discover a mysterious and apparently useless statue in the bathroom, and make funny faces for asset day. They seem like normal people, who just also happen to be sharing their feelings and thoughts and struggles with you. They’re people who could be your friends, and will never—can never—reject you.
When I heard “showcase greatness,” I thought of mechanical outplays, great feats of strength, and maybe community volunteer work. But for FLY, the greatness is something closer to home. A mundane intimacy that lets you know, our players are more than just League of Legends machines. A grand vision that says, this is your team too. A greatness that hearkens back to the original branding trick that turned TSM into the only LCS team that mattered, just by making you care about the little things.
In Santorin’s vlog episode, he goes to a tai chi class. (“I’m big on self-improvement,” he tells me. He also gets book recommendations from Bjergsen.) But there’s a conspiracy afoot—later that week, it’s Valentine’s Day, and FLY has arranged for his girlfriend to fly into Los Angeles. Pretending that there’s a potential sponsor who wants to have a business dinner with just him, they force Santorin to go shopping for nice clothes.
“I was so angry,” he laughs about it now. “I really didn’t want to go to the dinner that night.” Because Valentine’s Day falls in the middle of spring split, Santorin never gets a chance to be with his girlfriend. In the vlog, the FLY content team ask him whether he’s ever thought about flying out to Toronto to surprise her, and Santorin walks perfectly into their trap. “It’s a six-hour flight to just spend one night,” he says, shaking his head. “It’s not worth it.”
He is leaning against a railing in a noisy restaurant reading something on his phone when his girlfriend finally meets him. He looks up, amazed, when she greets him, and then leans in to give her a kiss. Seconds later, the restaurant staff forces FLY’s video crew out, telling them, “No cameras please. We don’t allow cameras here.” The episode abruptly shifts; in the next scene, Santorin is in his FLY jersey, back at the LCS arena. In less than a minute, we got both sides: the practiced face of the veteran LCS pro Santorin and the personal side of Lucas Larsen, just another guy with a girlfriend he doesn’t get to see that often because of his busy job.
Content is always a double-edged sword. If teams share too much, they risk airing out their dirty laundry and forever defining one of their players as hard to work with; if they share too little, they seem evasive, shifty, trying to hide something from their fans. Sometimes, it seems like content can only hurt, an obligation placed on by greedy fans who will take every opportunity to tear the team down.
But there are moments when it brings joy, too. “No org has ever done something like that for me before,” Santorin says, about his Valentine’s date. “Nothing even comparable.” And sure, let’s be cynical and realistic—they did it for the content, the engagement, the clicks. But watching that vlog, or seeing WildTurtle sign autographs for fans in Korea, or hearing JayJ talk to his parents about making rice pudding, makes me think it’s not so bad. Content can humanize. Content makes the players more than their win-loss record. Content gives you something more than just a fleeting moment in the game to cheer for.
Maybe in the end, the best metaphor is still a scientific thought experiment. This is Schrodinger’s Content Box. It’s all taped up so you can’t see what’s inside. It might be full of candy bars, energy drinks, and disappointment. But it could also be friends, family, and the beating heart that helped create a lasting fan community.
You won’t know until you open it and watch.