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The king of the jungle is the lion. This is one of the first things you learn about the animal kingdom as a kid, and with its mane crowning its head or the big roar you see before movies sometimes, it was something you’d just accept as fact. The lion is the strongest. But you know – I did a lot of research into big cats as a kid, and the hypothetical situation of “who would win in a fight” between X and Y animals were fascinating to me. The idea that there was always something more deadly, with bigger teeth or claws or muscles or speed or all of these things. And I remember one day learning that the tiger was in fact far more terrifying than a lion. In a fight, it would devour a lion. So even a king could know fear if he found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time.
All of this is to say that when Team Liquid smashes into TSM this weekend, one of them will find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. All week the debate has raged onwards – is the greatest player in North American history Bjergsen, or is it Doublelift? Which one is the lion, and which one is the tiger? There isn’t a surefire way to say someone is better or worse, and even this one single series won’t give us an answer. But I can say that it is definitively one of these two.
One of the distinctions in the GOAT debates for any sport that feels critical to me is that a player must be unanimously agreed upon as the GOAT in their time to truly be the GOAT. If there’s a debate over the title, as in the case with Bjergsen and Doublelift now, then can you really apply such a grand title to one or the other? It feels to me like being the GOAT is about more than just being the best player, which if you combed this to the finest detail, you could make an argument one way or the other. You might point at Bjergsen’s four MVPs or Doublelift’s ability to win a championship on three separate teams. It feels like you have to be so good that isn’t any doubt as to whether or not you are the best.
But for me neither of them have really had a truly iconic moment that’s allowed them to separate from the other. One that without fail every single person would point to and say that’s it. That’s the one play where they transcended above every other player in the game and paused time and demanded we all hold our breaths. There have been great ones to be sure – Doublelift’s turnaround as Lucian to close out Cloud9 in 2016 comes to mind first for me, but it doesn’t satisfy me in the same way other moments have. I am really in want of, for example, Faker’s Zed mirror against Ryu. I don’t just want a surprising or clutch play (like the Lucian turnaround), I want something that makes my jaw drop so that even in slow-motion, I barely know what happened. Faker is a player with the accolades to be called the greatest, and he also has the moment to ground that abstract into. And it happened in a Game 5 against one of his greatest rivals.
That’s the kind of opportunity that sits in front of these two this weekend, though. There’s nothing special about beating up on the 10th place team in the LCS, just as there is nothing particularly special about a tiger mauling a lone doe. Even knocking off the 2nd best player in the world doesn’t mean much if the established gap between the two of you is already defined. You are supposed to win if you are at the top. But if it’s not clear, as is the case here, then one or the other has the chance to step up and make that difference known.
When they last faced off in a Playoff series in 2015, Doublelift was still known as a perennial choke artist, and Bjergsen was just a fledgling—what did either of them truly know about being great? Now though, after they’ve been teammates, the air is different. Their breathing has a more consistent tempo. And if either is not completely focused, they might miss their chance to exhale. When you face someone great, your only means to overcome that is to be even greater.
And I’m not saying you have to be flashy to be great. Being flashy is maybe even counter-intuitive to greatness in that it invites a lot of risk — with great highs, the lows can cost your team the game or the series. But I am saying that taking those risks and then executing on them is what separates the best from, well, the rest. I don’t want to watch someone just make the high percentage play every time. I want to see them do something really stupid and for it to still pan out. That, to me, is peak League of Legends (and honestly peak sports). It needs to be so brilliant that it looks dumb. Because that means they saw something I couldn’t even imagine.
In the past, Doublelift was the player closest to achieving that, but these days his play is a lot more tempered. His team also hasn’t really been challenged in NA in a long time, but I think we’ve seen glimpses of him stepping up (last year’s MSI in particular after they started 0-4). This weekend they could be pushed all the way against the wall, and I am kind of hoping we see him overextend himself, because part of me still believes he can show us something new.
Bjergsen on the other hand has always been a rock for TSM. A really big rock. The biggest criticism against him is that he isn’t Superman, which is kind of ridiculous, but it’s also an expectation he’s created by virtue of being so damn good all the time. What might be seen as excellent on another player is just the standard for him, so when we asked for more of him at Worlds, we were asking him to take a leap to something beyond excellence. I don’t know how fair it is, but I think it’s fine to expect more out of players of his caliber. I want to see him greed for something, even if it backfires, because it might mean he’s trying to open up a future that is otherwise closed.
So call them GOATs or lions or tigers. The stars have aligned for something truly magical to happen this weekend in St. Louis. League of Legends has up to 10 players alive on the map at any given time with some dozens of minions running head first into each other. It is a game that does everything to prevent you from being the only person that matters. And yet, here we are, looking for just that.