The Problem With Forced LEC Narratives
Narratives are the heart of competitive League, which holds true for the LEC as much as it does for any other region. They’re the reason we all tune in, the reason we care, and why we hold this scene so close to our hearts. The best ones spring out of nowhere when we least expect and end up defining not just a certain team or region but also the season. We race to our seats, hoping to see history get made. Some of these storylines are seemingly larger than life; others, while perhaps not as long-standing and awe-inspiring, are still there to fill in the gaps, and help create the much larger whole.
But not all narratives are created equal. The ones we all love the most are rooted in history and have grown into existence in a natural, organic way. These stories, however, are quite rare as they cannot spawn out of thin air. Many things need to happen before these narratives can materialize.
And yet as with any traditional sport, the need for hype and entertainment requires a larger output than players and teams can generate. In a way, competitive esports thrive because of their many exquisite stories and peculiar age-old rivalries. Whenever these elements are lacking, we have a problem. Some regions can persevere even in such a scenario with relative ease, but they’re in the minority. When you aren’t entertained by the stories these people tell, you tune in because of the top-tier play. If that’s not a possibility either — and, frankly speaking, it mostly isn’t — then we find ourselves in quite the pickle.
What can a region like the LCS provide its fans and spectators? Top-tier play? Only when Cloud9 is playing, it seems like. That’s where forced narratives and made-up storylines come into play. Is there a promising rookie who’s about to play his first game? Odds are, you’ll see his solo queue stats displayed in their full glory, you’ll see highlight reels plays and testimonies from his friends and foes, both complementing this young rookie’s inherent potential. The hype machine starts chugging along, and before you know it, you’re watching these up-and-coming adolescents and expecting them to perform — you want these individuals to deliver what you’ve been told by the broadcast team mere moments prior.
And yet, things rarely pan out as we were led to believe.
Now, this kind of marketing tactic is by no means unique to esports. It is, in fact, present in every traditional sport, and many other facets of life. Many esports out there aren’t fully developed as standalone products, and most of them lack a well-functioning Academy/Tier 2 system. There’s rarely a good way for young talent to blossom and reach the highest levels of play. Like the LEC, some regions stand better than others in this regard, but the point still stands. There’s no natural passing of the guard, so to speak, as most older veterans end up competing way past their prime.
On rare occasions, a young player of astonishing talent comes along and makes a big enough impact to immediately get noticed and, by proxy, picked up; but that’s quite rare for a wide variety of reasons. Teams are often unwilling to experiment and risk short-term failure, which is always possible when you slot in someone less experienced.
This means that these hyped-up rookies end up falling flat more often than not because they lack the talent, but because they were forced underneath the spotlight way before the time was right.
Some of these individuals manage to thrive in such unfavorable circumstances. Others, however, crumble under the immense pressure. The community is always prepared to rip them to shreds should these rookies miss a cannon creep, fail a Flash, or end up misplaying. There are many incredible fans out there, but they’re just not as vocal as those who are toxic beyond belief.
As far as regions go, one could argue that the LEC is the champion of forced narratives, but because it’s also a highly competitive region, no one seems to mind too much. Still, as the years go on, this tendency to overhype is becoming more and more irritating.
How many times have you heard of the “Year of the Duck?” Or Elias “Upset” Lipp being touted the second coming of Konstantinos-Napoleon “FORG1VEN” Tzortziou? Or Barney “Alphari” Morris being a top lane giant stuck in elo hell? When was the last time you heard the casters/analysts criticize a roster? Sometimes this happens, but only when the team is winless for many weeks. It’s becoming more and more evident that they’re pretty much a bottom-tier dweller. But until it’s clear to everyone, they’ll hype every individual like they’re going to etch their names in the LEC history.
And yet almost no one does, and the same goes for the LCS, although things are slightly less egregious in North America as they don’t even have much native talent to speak of (at least not in the LCS). Is it such a shame to admit that we’re watching two top-heavy regions? Is that such a travesty? If so, why? One could argue that creating such false narratives ends up dealing a lot more damage in the long run — to everyone involved.
Why beat around the bush? No, Team Vitality will not accomplish anything if they don’t go for a complete roster overhaul. No, SK Gaming is not suddenly a contender even though they’ve won a couple of games in a row. No, Excel Esports doesn’t have a “unique identity” but are rather underwhelming across the board, barring a couple of good plays scattered throughout the season. In the end, the throne is reserved for two teams and two teams only.
There’s no shame in admitting that we already know “the script” and how things will unfold. That’s okay. There’s no need for over-the-top narratives and drama when we all know that, for instance, G2 Esports will demolish everyone in seventy minutes once the playoffs come around. We need to accept things as they are: most of the challengers ranked below Top 3 are solid, well-rounded teams, but they’re also inherently flawed and stand absolutely no chance of leaving a mark in the grand scheme of things.
This might be a bit harsh, but it is by no means incorrect.
It’s not just that these attempts at creating stories out of thin air are redundant, but they’re also dangerous, especially for the players.
The Superstars That Never Were
Everyone’s always on the lookout for the next big thing, for the next breakout star that’s going to blow our minds. Sometimes it works, like in the case of Rasmus “Caps” Winther. Other times, these narratives fall flat in a multitude of ways.
There are many such “superstars” that never were. Upset is, in a way, a “victim” of the LEC hype machine. It’s not that anyone lied about his skill or inherent potential. Rather, he was pushed underneath the spotlight too soon and forced to carry the burden of many overwhelming narratives. Everyone was hyping him up to be equal in strength and potential to Martin “Rekkles” Larsson, but he never delivered, in no small part because he had worse teammates and still wasn’t peaking as a player. Then, after “failing” to reach such lofty expectations, his very next split was touted as the moment Upset gets “revenge” and yet that never materialized either.
By the same token, once Rogue went on a late surge last Summer and reached the playoffs, they were a dangerous contender, as a team many were afraid of because of their aggression and off-the-wall playstyle. Rogue failed to do much, and that holds true for their most recent Spring Split as well. If you compare their results to what the broadcast crew expected from them, you’d argue they underperformed. In actuality, however, they did as well as they could, given what they had to work with. A classic case of “expectations vs. reality.” The Rogue bunch never trash-talked much either — they knew they were an inherently flawed mid-tier team that could punch above its weight class at times.
More often than not, the LEC is forcing superficial, one-dimensional narratives, and they don’t last long for a reason. Will this be the year of the duck — the year Erlend Våtevik “Nukeduck” Holm pops off? No, it won’t. The contrast between these forced hype segments and Nukeduck is baffling. He’s just a regular guy, a seasoned veteran who goes on stage to compete (i.e. do his job); he puts on a poker face and tries his best to avoid unnecessary attention.
The best narratives out there are nuanced and complex, and they cannot be forced into existence. When they’re authentic and real, they tend to stick around for a long time. Not everything is a story, and not everyone needs to be propelled to stardom. Most players, if they’re good enough, will get there in due time. Alphari, for instance, finally reached that level after three long years. Upset will probably follow suit, given how well he’s performing so far in 2020.
Whenever a team spikes performance-wise (maybe they look good for a moment or go on a short win streak), you can be sure that you’ll hear about it most dramatically and theatrically possible, as if the history books are being written in front of your very eyes. And then it’s always the same conclusion to the story — G2 or Fnatic lifting the LEC trophy, with everyone else waiting on the sidelines, trying to decipher when and where things went awry.
No one’s doing this with bad intent. Competitive League — much like any other esport out there — needs to entertain in more ways than one. It’s all good fun, but when we see the same stories applied to virtually every team, this approach (which is incredibly potent when used correctly and sparingly) loses its edge.
No one’s saying that hype should be absent, but rather that it should be created and applied only when there’s a reason to do so — it needs to be justified. A few good games don’t mean a player is destined for great things, much like a five-game win streak doesn’t mean the G2 dynasty will fall soon.
These players know something that the community, in general, fails to understand. Developing synergy and team-wide cohesion is not something that happens in a week or two. When you assemble five players who have no experience in playing with each other, they’ll sometimes need many months before fully gelling — and that’s without factoring in the many impending meta shifts and game-related changes that are a consistent occurrence. These players know they’ll be judged for their performances. They’re okay with that (it comes with the job), but they want to have a bit of time before being pressured to perform up to anyone’s (often unrealistic) expectations. A good chunk of the community eats up these hyped-up narratives like it’s nothing, so it should come as no surprise when fans go on Reddit to flame these young rookies after they “fail to deliver.”
Furthermore, the community often has a skewed perception of what a professional esports player’s life looks like and their status in a team. Now sure, if they’re failing on the weekends (when it matters the most), then that’s a problem, but maybe they’re showing a lot of promise in scrims and are being given leeway by the coaching staff? Maybe the organization is building for the long-term and sees a ton of potential in this individual? It’s not all black and white, and we rarely have all the details. What happens on the Summoner’s Rift is hugely important, but it’s not the only factor, at least not in the beginning.
Experience is invaluable, but it’s only obtainable through trial and error. There’s no shortcut, unfortunately. Indirectly forcing up-and-coming rookies to awe us with their play immediately can all too often stunt their growth.
To make matters even more confusing, the LEC and its players are oozing with a unique style, accompanied by a bevy of entertaining idiosyncrasies. Forcing any narratives is entirely unnecessary, primarily because these individuals will grow and create their own stories with time. Europe is as top-heavy a region as they come, and that’s okay.
Forced LEC narratives won’t change the fact, despite what we are often led to believe.