Ask a question about League or Riot, and we’ll try to answer it. Answers go live every other Thursday at 1:30 pm (PT)
One of the most famous photographs in League of Legends esports history is one of SK telecom T1 slumped over in their chairs after falling to Samsung Galaxy in the 2017 Worlds Finals. A few glass panes separates them from the confetti and the thousands of fans roaring together, having just watched the greatest dynasty in LoL fall. Their hands are buried in their faces as they cry. There is sheer exhaustion from the yearlong run. There is frustration. And, perhaps, there is some relief in having it all be over with. That is the height of pressure in this game.
I thought about that a lot last week when TSM was down 0-2, and honestly I think about that pretty much every time that team steps onto the Rift. If you’ve followed the discourse following their defeat, then you’ve seen hot takes ranging from “Bjergsen should quit TSM and go become a Fortnite pro” to “Bjergsen killed JFK.” There is no team in the LCS that faces as much pressure as TSM, but with four teams remaining, I wanted to take a look at what kind of pressures the remaining teams do face. Which team is more likely to be eviscerated by fans for a loss, and which ones will get a pat on the back for even making it this far already?
To achieve this, I’ve come up with a mostly arbitrary way to measure their pressure based on four separate categories:
- Organization: pressure from a team’s legacy and current image
- Players: pressure that individual players have to deal with based on their own career circumstances
- Fans: the kind of discourse that stems up from fans depending on how well their team does
- Expectations: how they did compared to how they were expected to do — overachieving teams face less pressure than underachieving teams
The scoring is simply on a 1-10 scale. I come up with the scores by digging deep down into my gut and pulling out a number that just makes sense. You could call it a kind of science if your kind of science is if you are willing to warp your definition of science significantly. There are no winners and no losers. There is only math.
Organization: We’ve come a long way in just two years for Liquid, who used to be memed for always finishing 4th, which is great because they’re poised now to win their fourth consecutive LCS title. This is the final step in the exorcism of their curse — they could put the past to rest once and for all. They face the same pressure that any champion faces, which is that they literally can’t do better than their last couple of splits (at least in the LCS), so at best they can only match what they’ve accomplished now. Losing here might make people question their ability to perform at Worlds (which they also haven’t technically clinched yet), but people are quick to forget if you’re the #1 or the #2 seed once the Group Stage starts. You either win or you lose. Liquid’s real burden is that they’ve become a bit of a super team in the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” sense that plagues other perennial champions. Nothing is ever as satisfying as the first championship, and every one after is more to build your own Goliath-mythos for someone else to tear down. Your job is to become a bigger and bigger villain, but that’s more of an external look at the team than an internal one. They don’t really face that pressure themselves. 4/10.
Players: Last split, Jensen and (to a much lesser extent) CoreJJ, were under a lot of pressure because they’d never won a domestic title before. Then they won it and Jensen was super happy, so there isn’t really much left for them to prove. The team placed four players on the LCS All-Pro 1st team (Xmithie was 2nd team) and as the oldest team in the LCS (and one of the oldest, if not the oldest in the world), they’re pretty even keeled when it comes to expectations — at least in NA. Doublelift might want to maintain his Finals appearances streak in NA but it’s a fairly arbitrary measure compared to what he hopes to accomplish at Worlds. At most they’ll self-impose a ban on playing other games. 3/10
Fans: Likewise, the fans aren’t clamoring for much anymore. They’ve won too much. I bet some of them are even secretly hoping they get challenged just so they could have better competition in NA, which would in turn help them be better prepared for the heightened level of competition at Worlds. The only thing going against them here is that fans expect them to win because that’s what they’ve done every split, and right now they, again, look like the overwhelming favorite. So they’re expected to win, but they don’t have to win to prove anything. 3/10
Expectations: TL was expected to run the table this year, and so far they’ve done exactly that. They won Spring, made MSI Finals, did well at Rift Rivals, and then finished 1st place in the regular season over the summer. Again, with Worlds as their only real goal, this one’s a wash, too.They’re not overachieving because it’s kind of hard to overachieve. They are simply doing what was expected of them. 2/10
Overall: 12/40 — 30% pressure
Organization: If they don’t win this split, they’ll end up pushing six years since their last LCS championship. Because splits are short, you might think of it like your favorite sports team not winning for over a decade, which is kind of normal for sports but abnormal for a team that’s still always good. They are perennially almost the champions and have even made an LCS Final every single year since they were formed. There’s been so much almost-success for them (even at Worlds) as an organization that I think they’ll be at least a little desperate to win it all. Snagging first would also let them skip the gauntlet for the first time in years, which is always a huge sigh of relief because even if it seems like a given that they’ll make it, it isn’t (just ask TSM). 7/10
Players: Sneaky once told me that his fondest memories as a player are from when C9 won LCS splits — more so than their Semifinals appearance or making it out of Group Stage at Worlds. There’s a finality to standing on that stage and knowing you’ve conquered something and then being able to hoist the trophy as all the lights glow on you. It’s like an alien abduction that lifts you from reality for a tiny euphoric moment. And it’s something C9 hasn’t experienced as a team in years, even if players like Sneaky and Svenskeren have done so in the past. The others have simply been almost good enough. That said, these players don’t really have much to prove on an individual basis, and C9’s struggles domestically are overlooked because they still manage to make it to Worlds. Question marks around Sneaky’s play (which seems to happen at least once a year) and Licorice’s injury still persist, though, so perhaps this is a chance for them to put the doubters to rest (until next year). 6/10
Fans: C9 seems to have some of the most happy-go-lucky fans in the league, but with the roster rotations they’ve made all split, it’s been a bumpy ride. I’d say they’ve grown a little accustomed even to the inconsistency, which makes this a team that at times looks worldly and then they lose their minds and run it down mid. Fans are probably a little restless for a title, but I don’t think that’s the same thing as being overly-demanding on their team. Of all the teams in the league, I feel like this is the fan base that’s most ready to clown their team for a bad loss, except it’d be the kind of joke that actually makes them cry on the inside. 5/10
Expectations: With Jensen leaving, there were a lot of questions as to how effective this roster would be considering he was widely regarded as their best player. Nisqy has filled that hole admirably, though, to the point of C9 having not really missed a beat since last year. It’s a huge testament to their infrastructure that they’re able to rotate through players and still find success. They’ve definitely overperformed expectations already, but because they’ve been so good over both splits, people have already forgotten the major question marks around C9 going into the year. 4/10
Overall: 22/40 — 55% pressure
COUNTER LOGIC GAMING
Organization: Travel back in time a few years and this team would easily be #1 when it comes to pressure. They piled it upon themselves with an array of bizarre decisions when it came to player personnel, and a lot of their internal strife was made public. They argued internally, trash talked externally, and didn’t have the results to back any of it up. There was also the famous donezo manifesto — combine all of this and you have a team that felt immense pressure to win every single time they loaded onto the Rift.
Today, though? CLG as a whole is much different from who they once were. I hesitate to say “shell” because that implies they’re worse, and while their popularity has certainly waned, I don’t think their current identity is necessarily worse. Stixxay is the only tie to their last championship and the management has largely changed as well, which means they aren’t really burdened by what once was. I would say that there is some pressure to win only in the sense that they could be popular again, and the easiest way to do that is to just win. So while the org might be significantly different in practice, there is still a legacy that hangs over them in the public eye. 6/10.
Players: After Worlds 2017, PowerOfEvil was one of the most-hyped players in the world thanks to his performance in taking Misfits all the way to a 5th game against SK telecom T1. People looked at him as part of a new generation of EU mids that could shape the scene, and then he got up and left for NA, where he hasn’t even made the playoffs until now. I’d say the pressure has dissipated a little bit since he already took the brunt of the criticism last year, but I expect there’s still a good chunk of him that wants to prove going to NA was the correct decision. Other than him, I think self-imposed pressure from the players here isn’t anything unusual. 4/10
Fans: I feel like CLG is one of those teams where a significant portion of their fanbase has just been around. These are the local diehards that tailgate every weekend and paint their faces and come up with weird nicknames for their cheering section — they’ve been known to get into fights in the parking lot, and they are exceptionally rambunctious. They talk about the one year they won a championship like it was yesterday even though it was over two decades ago. They are the first to talk shit about their own team, but they hate it when someone else does it. Pray for the best. Expect the worst. That’s CLG nation. It is very difficult to please them because even when you win, they will turn part of their attention towards “how could this go wrong?” 8/10
Expectations: The last two years now, I’ve looked at CLG at the start of the season and thought, “Yeah this looks like a pretty good roster.” And then they went out onto the Rift and proved me completely wrong. Not until they brought in Ruin this split did things take a turn for the better, but it was hard to know what to expect from him — dominating in the TCL is one thing, but it was hard to say how that would translate over to the LCS. Even now there’s a ton of mixed opinions on him as a player. In any case, I don’t think many people expected them to do this well (and some didn’t even peg them as a playoff team), so I don’t think they’re battling against any sort of expectations anymore. They’ve already exceeded them. 3/10
Overall: 21/40 — 53% pressure
Organization: Considering Clutch’s history is pretty short to begin with and then they just got bought out by Dignitas, I really don’t think there can be much pressure from the organization itself. Even Dignitas wasn’t ever that big when it came to pressure because they were so often memed to death for their weird failings. The only thing you might say is that because they’re named Clutch, sometimes they get flamed when they turn out to not be clutch. This is their second Semifinals appearance in four splits, though, so clearly something is working out well for them — it’s almost a shame that they’re changing when you think about it in that light. 2/10
Players: Like Clutch, this will be Huni’s second Semifinals appearance in four years, which is a pretty remarkable achievement for a player that’s been called “washed up” as recently as a couple of weeks ago. This has always been a matter of Huni being compared to what he was at his peak in NA (an MVP candidate and easily the best top laner in the league) and what he is now (a strong if sometimes inconsistent top laner). I think there’s always going to be pressure on him to perform at an MVP level, even if he might not be that much better than the rest of the league anymore. LirA faces a similar kind of pressure but to a much lesser extent, and even Damonte had been hyped as the next big thing NA mid laner. This is a team full of players who have a bit of a chip on their shoulder — Cody Sun maybe the biggest of all considering he was benched for the better part of the last year only to completely pop off in the Quarterfinals to remind people that he’s a pretty damn good player. I’d say having a lot to prove definitely constitutes as pressure. 8/10
Fans: Because Clutch hasn’t been around for as long as the other three teams, I don’t think their fan base has had time to really build up a mythos around their team. There aren’t any sort of major quirks or traits that you think of when you see “Clutch Gaming.” At best I’ve got some yee haw jokes. As such, I don’t think they’re going to feel particularly pressured to prove anything or not to their fans. The only thing you’d really say is perhaps it feels bad for the Clutch fans who will now watch their team rebrand to something entirely different. So perhaps this last run they’re making is one final yee haw to those who own Clutch merchandise. 2/10
Expectations: Like CLG, this was a roster you’d look at on paper and think they could be alright, but it was also a roster that you weren’t in any rush to go make a bet on. They’re a strong horse, but they aren’t expected to win. And like CLG, they weren’t really even expected to make it here (or even the Playoffs). So once you surpass expectations, it’s literally impossible to succumb to them. Which means you face new expectations, and realistically, what are the expectations for this team at this point? If you took a poll, over 90% of people would pick TL to win this Semifinals matchup. No expectations means no pressure. 1/10
Overall: 13/40 — 33% pressure
As you can see, I would say that no team in the Semifinals faces a truly absurd amount of pressure (TSM, for reference, would have easily been over 90%). I think that should make it easier for the players to relax a bit and perform at their best. Semifinals begin this Saturday at 2:00pm PT with Cloud9 taking on Counter Logic Gaming with the winning team likely to clinch a Worlds spot (if TL wins on Sunday). Don’t miss out!