THE GREAT PRETENDERS
After a Semifinals appearance from C9 at Worlds 2018 and a Finals appearance from TL at MSI 2019, expectations for NA are as high as they’ve ever been.
The most emotional I’ve ever seen Huni after a loss was not when KOO Tigers knocked Fnatic out of Worlds in 2015, or when Cloud9 kept Immortals from going to Worlds in 2016, or when Samsung Galaxy won against SK Telecom T1 in a 3-0 set in the 2017 Worlds Finals. It was after Clutch lost to Team Liquid in Game 5 of this year’s Summer Split Semifinals. Out of all those matches, this one had the fewest consequences: CG still had to play in Detroit (and went on to lose against Counter Logic Gaming in the third place match), and they could still qualify for Worlds (which they did, in part by winning the rematch against CLG in the Regional Qualifiers). But it was after this game, and not the others, that I first saw Huni actually, truly cry on camera.
We know the body language of the loser’s pose: eyes squeezed shut, hands clasped over your face, as if sealing off words you’d regret saying, as if pressing your breath back into your body, as if praying. No other player in the LCS does it quite as well as Huni. In 2015 when he was plucked from Korea with little to no English skills, he conveyed through his body what he couldn’t with words, channeling his charisma into shoulder shimmies and cackles that made him so iconic you can find gifs of his face in the most unexpected places, like Neil Degrasse Tyson’s Twitter. In 2019, a lot of things have changed for Huni. He is no longer the little brother depending on Reignover to translate for him, and his English is so good that he can help translate for a less fluent teammate (as fate would have it, also his jungler). But maybe he is still at his most eloquent when words fail him, when you have to read his emotions from his body language alone. When we, like his teammates, can only watch on helplessly as he sobs into his hands after a loss.
For years, Huni’s career has been a series of ever-escalating pressure points. He went from being the novelty Korean import in EU to headlining as the one-two punch of a newly formed Immortals in NA to starting as a top laner for the greatest League of Legends team in the world. But a funny thing happened to Huni: the greater heights he climbed, the more we doubted him. At some point we stopped talking about him as a rising star and instead watched to see when he would fall. We tallied the marks against him: he wasn’t able to bring IMT to Worlds, he wasn’t able to win Worlds on SKT, he didn’t get anywhere with Echo Fox. Maybe, as the business world would say, Huni was promoted to his greatest level of incompetence. Or maybe, as someone more eloquent than I once wrote, “potential is a promise that you break to yourself.”
When we talk about Huni’s career, we talk in fairytales. There are the ones that never came true—like SKT winning in 2017 (and they lived on, happily ever after)—and the cautionary tales—like Huni becoming yet another wasted Korean import in LCS (don’t go into the woods of NA!). But in 2019, the fairytale isn’t Huni the carry, or Huni the magic bullet. Instead, the fairytale is Clutch. It’s the ninth place finish in Spring to being in Playoffs in Summer. It’s Cody Sun deathless for seven games. Damonte on Qiyana. Lira finally making it to Worlds after six years of grinding. It’s the unlikely run through the Regional Qualifiers, the first non-C9 team that the LCS gauntlet has sent through since its creation in 2015.
Through playoffs and the gauntlet, CG played every game as if it would be their last: the last together, the last on this roster, the last of their careers. Each game was a magic spell, and as long as they kept playing, it would never break. I believe there was magic in CG for those final days of summer. I think it turned back time for Huni and made him forget for a minute the frustrations of 2016 and 2018. In the post-match interview with Ovilee, Huni promised to “crash” Khan and Clid, and boasts that he will be the best top laner at Worlds. For those few minutes, it was like glimpsing the past, at the ghost of FNC Huni coming out to play.
I don’t know if Huni’s brashness these days is an act, or if he’s ever haunted by the top laner we thought he’d become when he debuted in 2015. He was a cocky trainee on Samsung’s third squad, who greeted 2014 Fnatic by trashing them in a scrim. That Huni knew he was going to be the best in the world someday, just as long as someone gave him a chance. That’s the spirit that is reincarnated through CG. It’s a team that will ask for forgiveness, not for permission, a team that knows its place and believes that place to be at the top. “I know we are the best team in NA,” Damonte tells his team backstage in Detroit without a single hint of hesitation in his voice. “We deserve to be at Worlds. That’s how I feel. We can do it.”
Potential is a fairy godmother who can turn a pumpkin into a carriage to get you to the ball. At some point, it runs out. But even if we can’t really say Huni has potential anymore, this Worlds is a chance for him and the CG team to prove that the magic was real. They have gone further than any of us dared to believe. And still, their run is not yet done.
THERE’S AN IMAGE I’VE BUILT of Cloud9 in my head: that they are friends first and teammates second, that they are laid-back, that for their team, being a pro gamer is still fun and not a job. Of the legacy organizations in the LCS, C9 has always carried the air of the youngest brother: confident, risk-prone, somehow always getting its way, if not through the regular season, then through the gauntlet. When Clutch qualified for Worlds this year, it was as if they donned their best C9 cosplay. They summoned that patron saint of reverse sweeps with all the right incantations: having fun, trusting each other, winning despite the odds. And it worked.
If there is one fixture of the LCS that still gives off the aura of tossing a metaphorical football on a metaphorical Sunday afternoon in the metaphorical backyard that is Summoner’s Rift, it’s C9. Their origin story hangs heavy over their image, in part because C9’s past is still so tantalizingly present. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that the first generation C9 roster came back from the dead to walk among us once again, reminding us that once upon a time, all it took was a dream and five friends. But unlike the CLG fan, or more recently the TSM fan, the C9 fan doesn’t dwell on the past to mourn it. The C9 fan deals easily in double exposure, happy to brag about the success of their organization while still treating it like the hometown team. Maybe that’s why talking about C9 is an exercise in navigating between contradictions. C9 hasn’t been NA’s best team for a while now, but they are also the NA team that has gone the furthest at Worlds. They haven’t won an LCS title since 2014, but they’ve also qualified for Worlds every year since joining the league, an accomplishment no other LCS team can claim. Sneaky has never been NA’s most celebrated or dominant AD carry, but this will be his seventh Worlds appearance in a row, another accomplishment no one else in the league—not even Doublelift—can claim.
Sometimes it feels like C9 made a devil’s bargain: as long as we don’t look at them too hard, they will keep succeeding. As long as we don’t talk about the possibility that C9 is the most popular LCS team (if you were at Detroit, especially outside in the heat waiting to buy C9 merch, it’s a conclusion that’s hard to deny), then they can still be loved as the underdogs. As long as Sneaky is there, then no matter how many rosters and Series B funding rounds come through, they will always be the royal roaders that lived in a house with a clogged toilet and no plunger for days. As long as we don’t tweet about Jensen finally giving C9 an LCS title, C9 might actually win another LCS title. And as long as they don’t win domestically, they can keep being our last hope internationally.
Or maybe it’s not a devil’s bargain. Maybe it’s just a way to manage expectations. After all, the easiest expectation to meet is no expectation at all. Time and time again, I find myself turning to a little piece of dialogue from Michael Chabon’s novel The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. “You know how [Wile E. Coyote] can run in the middle of the air,” one of his characters says. “He knows how to fly, but only so long as he still thinks he’s touching the ground. As soon as he looks down, and sees where he is . . . then he falls and smashes into the ground.”
I’ve thought for years that this is what it feels like to manage the crushing weight of self-doubt. You can’t let yourself think too hard about what you’ve accomplished, or all the expectations other people have for you. You have to just keep your eyes closed. You have to keep running. Treat every step you take like you’re still on the ground, even if there’s nothing under your feet.
Reapered told his team in 2018, right before they were about to face FNC in the Semifinals, “Usually when I speak to you guys, I say, ‘this is a life opportunity, you can make history, you can be a star, you can get everything from this game.’ But today, it’s different. Don’t give any respect. Don’t put on your shoulders anything.”
He means, of course, don’t shoulder that weight of being the last NA team at Worlds. Don’t look down and realize the enormity of what you are doing or how far you have come. If you do, you’ll smash into the ground.
In 2019, the weight on C9’s shoulders has gotten even heavier. We no longer talk about them as NA’s last hope with irony. They could be in any group at Worlds (and are, in fact, in a group with some of the strongest teams at the event) and we would still say, “C9 always makes it out.” When you repeat a stroke of good luck too many times, it starts to look like an obligation. But the superstitious part of me says to shut up if I want C9 to float on. That part of me says one foot in front of another. It says let’s walk before you run. It says, if we all close our eyes and pretend it’s just another game, and another game, and another game, then before we know it, when none of us are looking, maybe we will reach that final stage.
EVERYONE KNOWS that Team Liquid has two former world champions on their team. What everyone may not realize is that with Impact and CoreJJ on the team, TL is tied with SKT for having the most number of former world champions on their roster going into Worlds (the first, obviously, is last year’s champions Invictus Gaming). Like so many things about TL’s success, this feels like cheating—not a growth hard fought and won, but something the team happened into. It is a record not molded and shaped but already completed at the conception of this roster, five Athenas emerging from Zeus’ head with a full set of peripherals.
When we talk about Clutch, we talk about fairytales. They are the team that made it to Worlds despite. When we talk about Cloud9, we talk about contradictions. They are our best team at Worlds, except. But when we talk about TL, we always seem to be talking around them instead of about them. We recount their founding like a series of other people’s circumstances converging—IMT being denied franchising, Impact becoming a resident, TSM kicking Doublelift, Steve’s deep pockets. We celebrate TL’s accomplishments by discounting them: who wouldn’t win four LCS titles in a row with that roster? When you play TL, there are no surprises (except, maybe, if you forget to ban Sona). We don’t watch TL play expecting them to climb new heights or reach new skill ceilings. This, we fear, is TL’s skill ceiling.
Brian Phillips has written many pieces about the difficulties of liking soccer superstar Cristiano Ronaldo. The one I remember the most is one he wrote for ESPN in 2018. At one point he describes watching Ronaldo sob face down in the mud as Manchester United wins the 2008 Champions League final. “What killed me was how relieved he was,” he writes. “This was not the happiness of someone to whom something good has just happened. It was the happiness of someone to whom something terrible, something unimaginably painful, has almost happened, and then not happened. He made a mistake and the universe almost ended, but then, miraculously, life continued.”
There are many reasons why I would never say Team Liquid is comparable to Ronaldo. But what I project onto them is a relative of what Phillips imagines for Ronaldo at that moment. It’s the drive of someone who knows they cannot be helped, only fought against. It’s the frustration of knowing that you are capable of more than you have accomplished, that the shell other people see of you is too small to contain what you think you can achieve. It is Doublelift’s trophy case, which will never be empty again, but can never be too full.
What Phillips means, I think, is that for some successful players there comes a point when winning no longer feels like a reward, but a responsibility. You stop asking yourself, “What if I won?” and instead start wondering how much losing would hurt and how much of your reputation it would invalidate. You’re no longer the excited child looking out the window as your plane lands, but the jaded adult who wonders, without fail, what would happen if the whole plane went down with all your coworkers on it. It’s not that the TLs and the Ronaldos of the world think they deserve to win. Rather, it’s about thinking you deserve the abuse if you lose, that your identity is so tied up in your ability to show up and perform that failing to do so makes you a fake. Failure means you are no longer you.
This kind of endless drive is not the opposite of impostor syndrome; it’s impostor syndrome’s evil twin. It doesn’t say, one day someone will recognize that you lied your way to get here; it says, all your past successes become lies if you don’t keep succeeding. What use is TL four-peating if they cannot get out of Groups at Worlds? If they don’t get to Quarterfinals, to Semifinals, to Finals, doesn’t it prove that all the haters were right, that their victory over IG at MSI was just a fluke? If they are the best team that North America has ever produced, then their failures become the LCS’ failures. If they have built an identity around winning, then they are no one if they lose.
When the gold confetti came down on TL in Detroit, Xmithie was sleepwalking. As he makes his way to the trophy, he looks up at the ceiling lights and rubs his head, as if trying to ground himself or wake himself up. “It doesn’t feel like we won,” he tells CoreJJ, almost concerned as they approach center stage. Later, he recounts, “the feeling I had that time, it wasn’t as exciting as any other titles I’d won. I couldn’t feel the butterflies at all.” But why should he have? For TL, the real work is only just beginning. Winning Summer Split is just a prelude, a way to warm up before the penalty kick that is Worlds. If they fail, they will be just another in a line of pretenders who promised us the title only to come up empty. But if they win, they’ll have returned to the top of Mount Olympus, from which we imagined they came.
Cathy Yang followed Kongdoo Monster all the way to Challengers Korea. Twice. Find more of her questionable decisions on her Twitter.