Why homegrown NA talent isn't a viable solution
One of the hottest topics in the North American scene is the subject of native mid laners being nearly nonexistent from the scene in the modern era.
Since the birth of competitive League of Legends in NA, mid laners have been the face of teams with Andy “Reginald” Dinh and William “Scarra” Li leading both their brand and teams ingame.
The era following these legends quickly became dominated by more mid-centric teams, with Cloud9 bringing in mastermind general Hai “Hai” Lam and TeamSolo Mid passing the torch onto a young European mid laner named Soren “Bjergsen” Bjerg.
Their shared, vice-like grip over North America as the two Championship calibre teams quickly created a mold for winning in the region: have a mid laner that can act as the backbone of their team while being the main ingame voice and enforcing the direction of the game through mid.
This standard for success in NA is the start of an environment built around mid laners within the region that creates a self-fulfilling lack of young native talented being raised in that role.
A Self-Fulfilling Environment
I don’t want to make the argument that there is mid lane talent in NA and it’s just going unnoticed, but rather that a cascade of environmental factors - as I’ll refer to them - have led to the decline in development since 2014.
At the core of this is the perception that to dethrone organizations like Team SoloMid or Cloud9 requires a mid laner of the same qualities that Bjergsen and Hai (now Jensen) possess. This sentiment is constantly expressed by fans on Reddit, and I believe is one held by the front office of many organizations, though I don’t have direct evidence for it.
However, through their actions and signings over the years, we can observe that at the least a few up-and-coming organizations hold this view; they need someone that can outmaneuver Bjergsen. After Hai’s attempted retirement, Cloud9 signed a dominate Danish mid laner named Nicolaj “Jensen” Jensen who’s served as the best answer to the King.
Venture capital teams gunning for the title imported foreign players such as Echo Fox’s Henrik “Froggen” Hensen, who arguably developed the role of being a commanding in-game leader through mid before Bjergsen even began his professional career. Nearly every signed mid laner—only three of them being North American—now fit this role as the sparkplug for their team.
If a mid laner doesn’t fit this template, then they’re quickly ostracized by the community and constantly doubted over whether they’re worthy of the role on their team.
A perfect example of a mid laner that’s always been dismissed for breaking the mold while playing an essential playmaker role on his team is Choi “Huhi” Jae-Hyun.
Huhi alongside ex-CLG member Eugene “Pobelter” Park are the only mid laners to win a recent championship outside of TSM & C9 (Riot Games)
Huhi’s erratic playmaker style is a magnet for low-light plays and failures when getting overambitious for an advantage, but there hasn’t been a more clutch player on Counter Logic Gaming since he joined. Despite exerting himself as one of the focal points in nearly every CLG game, the community has constantly focused on the negative aspects of Huhi’s game instead of the pressure he draws from his team.
This kind of dismissal is something that goes much deeper in an organization like Team Liquid, who benched Greyson “Goldenglue” Gilmer after just one series, where he evidently didn’t even play poorly. In their loss against Echo Fox, it became easy to blame Goldenglue even though it was TL fundamentally playing bad as a team.
Another vessel which he can view this constant pessimism around mid lane in NA is the witch hunt after Galio’s 29% win-rate when played mid. Instead of identifying that it was teams merely drafting and playing around the champion badly, the NA community was quick to say Galio didn’t fit the formula for an effective mid laner.
Where’s the DPS? Where’s the early pressure?
Meanwhile, Galio continued to dominate other regions, maintaining a global 54% win rate even with NA bogging it down. It never was that Galio was bad as a champion, but that fans—and at times higher ups in the industry—wrongly attribute the negative qualities and failures of a team with a scapegoat.
Surely it can’t be TSM failing as a team to play around Galio; it has the be the champion not fitting the role.
This is the logic we can see applied to mid laners in the region who don’t fit the traditional image of a mid laner that North America has created, just as Galio doesn’t fit that vision as a champion.
A Limiting Vision
Pobelter is one of the few native mids to maintain a starting role in the NA LCS
This perception of what a mid laner must be capable of to challenge the top ranks of NA leads to a constraint on the native mid talent for a multitude of reasons.
The qualities favored for a mid laner simply aren’t something that many young talents posses; even Bjergsen wasn’t capable of leading his team cerebrally until Summer 2014-Spring 2015. If an organization wants to immediately compete for a title, they don’t have time to develop these talents and wait for a player to get enough experience to effectively lead. It needs to already be ingrained.
Even players like Jensen, who’ve stood toe-to-toe with Bjergsen, are dogged by the community for slight over-exertions that cost his team games, notably in Game 5 against TSM. Any showing of vulnerability as a mid laner is emphasised as more of a weakness than it truly is in North America, simply because of how methodical Bjergsen’s play is.
As an organization, why would you ever take the risk developing a talent with decent to great mechanics when one slip up could mean losing a title to masterminds like Bjergsen and Hai?
Why would you take an outside-the-box native mid laner when the community will never accept them and it will limit the brand?
Overall in North America, there isn’t space for organizations to raise a mid laner that can stand up to the already elite talent that’s been imported into the region. The supply-and-demand of veteran mids and imported mechanical titans to challenge them has simply pushed the native NA mid laner out of the market.
In Europe, where young mids reign supreme, many teams have space to bring up a promising talent and provide infrastructure to them that matures them overtime.
Though NA doesn’t have anywhere near the type of talent pool EU has, players like Linsanity, Damonte, and Insanity (Currently rank 1) have all showed great mechanical promise, but have mental obstacles to overcome. In North America, having a mental weakness mid lane is understandably undesirable, so they’ve been bypassed for years (except Echo Fox adding Damonte to the 10 man roster.)
To demonstrate that the region just doesn’t prioritize development for mid laners we can look to the constant flow of jungle talent in NA, like Joshua “Dardoch” Hartnett, Juan “Contractz” Garcia and recently, Michael “MikeYeung” Yeung. These young players have all become key players for their teams on stage—barring Mike, who’s only played one series—because of the infrastructure they have helping them mature.
With franchising on the horizon, the hope for seeing more North Americans with starting spots mid lane can be renewed because organizations will be forced to have a backup mid laner.
Undoubtedly, some of these slots will be filled with imports, but it will give teams incentive to develop a new mid laner to replace the current centerpiece of their team.
The pace of money flow has for a long time caused endemic mid laners to be neglected, but it’s finally reached the point where after this season, money may allow those players to be developed.
We’re right to be skeptical about franchising, but a great argument to be made for it is the way it’ll force teams to develop the amatuer scene that’s long been thrown to the wolves in North America.
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