The story of the challenger is built by the players who will not take the easy way out and join the champions
Not everyone has the mental fortitude for greatness - and that’s okay.
Some players with a noted aspiration for true greatness (check out this Thorin’s Thoughts video on what separates good from great players for details about this) will, at some point, look at being on a top team as a priority in achieving this. Bjergsen is one such player who has displayed this mindset. Mithy has been cited in various articles stating his desire to join TSM.
Why is it so important that Mithy joined TSM and not, say, OpTic? Why does Bjergsen remain on TSM even though he could possibly join another top team in the West?
It is because to join TSM, you have to have the mindset of a champion—being in the position of the incumbent, and fending off challenges from various others who desire to topple the giants. This is an image which TSM has built over the years, and no amount of non-endemic brands entering the scene can currently match that prestige.
But not everyone has that type of mindset; in fact, some become noticeably weaker for it.
Take Huni, for instance. Having achieved remarkable success in both European and North American teams, the chance to join the world champions in SK Telecom T1 proved too tempting to pass up. He won LCK Spring and MSI with them, but left the organization after just a year. As his subsequent signing with Echo Fox seemingly shows, Huni does not appear the type of player who can, or wants, the sort of greatness we’ve outlined, the type that comes from winning titles with a team of prestige. Huni might be content with being on a very good team and perhaps winning a few titles, but one can argue that if he truly wished to be a champion with all of his heart, he would have remained on SKT and fought to win it back in 2018, as Faker, Bang and Wolf have done.
Neither, it seems, can Peanut, a player who made his name on the band of bandits known as the ROX Tigers. If you were to ask me whether players like PraY and GorillA would ever join SKT or KT, my answer would be a resounding no. Despite their astounding skills and experience, it seems as though they’d take being the challengers over being the incumbent 10 out of 10 times. Even with an LCK title under their belt, Longzhu Gaming are nowhere close to being a flagship name in esports like SKT and KT are.
We’ve seen players come and go from Telecom teams—the likes of Fly, Nagne, InSec, Kakao, Arrow, and several others all chose to move overseas. Easyhoon left for China because playing under Faker was, in his mind, less than ideal for a player who saw himself as a starter. MaRin left for a different reason; he wanted to challenge himself on a team that did not have Faker in it. That in itself is as admirable as having a winning mindset, even if MaRin has come nowhere close to replicating the success he had on SKT in either LGD or Afreeca Freecs.
This is to posit an extreme hypothetical, but did these players know they would not be able to stand alongside Faker as the greatest players of all time? I do not claim to be privy to their thought processes and decisions, but one thing’s for sure: a pro’s life overseas as an import is far less pressurizing than if one were to remain in Korea. The pressure-cooker environment is enough to burn anyone to a crisp, but the ones who remain are arguably the ones most suited for greatness.
Make no mistake—I do not begrudge any pro who decides to go overseas. Sometimes these decisions are made with longevity in mind over fleeting success; we’ve seen the effects of burnout claim many a Korean player. And it is in that environment that a player like Huni, who had spent most of his pro career overseas, undoubtedly struggled under the watchful gaze of Kkoma’s strict coaching. But a Bjergsen, a Perkz, a Crown, a Faker — they are not renegades like PraY and GorillA (perhaps we can add Peanut to this list) are, and they might not have enjoyed the same degree of success if they remained on an organization which was not able to nurture their greatness.
ROX Tigers, probably the ultimate challengers while it existed, were great, but not in the sense of being champions; they were great because they shook up the scene and emerged as the only worthy rival to SKT's domination in 2015 and 2016. Their failure at Worlds, alongside turbulent conditions behind the scenes, meant they had to split up and go their separate ways. The ROX Tigers spirit arguably lives on in Longzhu Gaming where another unfancied group with the common elements of PraY and GorillA became way better than anyone could have expected.
The current KT Rolster, on the other hand, is in a curious spot where it is a team made up of exactly the sort of players who would never join a team like SKT in Smeb, Mata and PawN, yet they have the backing of SKT’s greatest rivals. At his core, Mata is every bit a renegade as Pray or Gorilla are. He did not start out in a top team; MVP Ozone was anything but a top team coming into OGN Spring 2013. Nor were the two Samsung teams built to be top teams. They became the best teams by virtue of beating everyone else, the old-fashioned way. Mata joining an outright top team remains a surprise to my eyes for this reason.
In my eyes, SKT with Faker has become the team to beat since they captured the World Championship in 2013. Joining SKT, like joining TSM in North America, is akin to saying you want to win. No other teams have had the consistent success rates to boast of this. Others can say whatever they like about joining a brand with the aim to win, but there is no easier way to do it—provided you have the mentality—than to join the best team.
Perhaps then, Mata joining KT Rolster makes sense. Some will find more meaning in defeating the champions than in joining them. Even if they become champions, they will still have to sustain that dominance over a prolonged period; it is perhaps why certain teams have won titles, but never did so again.
The allure of being a challenger is very different from that of being a champion, and different players thrive under different mindsets. It is nice to know that for every Goliath, there will always be Davids. It is a symbiotic relationship; David would not be great if he does not defeat Goliath, while Goliath got to where he did because of his size.
I take an unabashed pleasure from watching great teams fall, and it is thanks to these guerrillas—the ones who will not join the best team out of principle—that we can watch some of the most compelling matches in League of Legends.
All images except where noted courtesy of LoL Esports Photos.
Credits to ongamenet for the cover picture
Credits to @kenzi131 for the picture of Mata
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