By Petar Vukobrat
August 22, 2019
The 2019 LCS Summer Split has officially concluded, but there’s a familiar face missing from the Top 3 — Team SoloMid Now, depending on how much you believe in them, that may or may not have been a shocking development. After all, enough time has passed that Team SoloMid’s success is no longer an expected outcome, but rather a mildly plausible scenario; a scenario that doesn’t have to come to fruition.
After they nearly took down Team Liquid in the 2019 Spring Split finals, people had high hopes for this incarnation of Team SoloMid, and with good reason. They had a young import in the top lane, a player that could dominate on both bruisers and tanks alike; two talented junglers with diverging playstyles; a legendary mid laner that still wasn’t past his prime; one of the most successful European AD carries in history, and arguably the best native support that North America ever fostered.
How was this line-up not a recipe for success? How could it not achieve greatness, or at the very least come achingly close to doing so? On paper, there wasn’t a single thing that was missing and after a couple of months they were playing like a well-oiled machine.
The fact that they were reverse swept by Liquid only added to their narrative — they had a chip on their shoulder and were looking for revenge. And a Team SoloMid that is motivated is a frightening challenger, to say the least.
But for one reason or another, they failed to perform up to expectations. Once all was said and done they failed to leave much of a mark. They were mediocre more often than not and were barely eking out wins by resorting to proven solutions and strategies. Now, there’s nothing shameful in doing so, but most people expected more from the perennial North American titans.
So what are the main problems surrounding Team SoloMid as an organization, and what are the inherent flaws that keep hindering their chances of (once again) attaining greatness?
Let’s take a closer look.
The Team SoloMid colors, their legendary jerseys, empowering chant and recognizable logo coalesce into one singular thing almost by default. In doing so, they create an iconography that is larger-than-life. Playing for Team SoloMid is the stuff dreams are made off — for better or worse. It is a goal to which every professional player starting out aspires to. Being selected as their starter is ultimate validation, even today.
But with such great “power” comes an immense pressure to perform. It is overwhelming, and many of their former players often spoke about their struggles, their anxiety and this lingering pressure above their heads that was suffocating them before each and every game.
The moments of success were exhilarating, but the dread of performing quickly crept back mere minutes after a triumph. They knew that maintaining excellence was of the utmost importance, and that not being able to perform up to expectations would carry dire consequences.
That is the reality of playing for Team SoloMid, even now when they are no longer champions — and haven’t been for quite a long while.
Throughout the years only a single player has been able to “weather the storm” so to speak, to survive and persevere, to thrive through the many trials and tribulations that come with wearing a Team SoloMid jersey — Søren “Bjergsen” Bjerg.
Everyone else crumbled, and it’s hard to blame them. There’s no break, no moment to relax and reminisce, to revel in victory. For such a staple organization, for such a momentous giant with the largest of pedigrees, there’s no off switch.
They just won the Spring Split? Great — but will they be able to repeat their performance in Summer, when it “actually” counts? Won the Summer Split? Great — but will they be able to leave a mark on the international stage?
Their players exist in a constant state of flux; a state in which they’re perpetually competing; a state in which they’re always laser-focused on the “next big thing.” Such an environment is toxic and harming almost by default. And because of it, many of their players thrived and prospered after leaving the team.
But team culture isn’t just comprised from the team itself — outside sources play an integral part as well. Fans and their expectations also take center stage, and for Team SoloMid, that’s a problem.
There isn’t a fan base in professional League of Legends that’s as volatile, thankless and toxic as the one following Team SoloMid. There’s just no other — simpler or less direct — way to phrase it, and the players know it as well.
When Team SoloMid wins, everyone’s aboard the hype train. When they lose, however, they immediately become targets for online lynching and harrasment. Trolls come out of the woodwork with their ready-made insults and thought-out (and adequately altered) copy pastas. When Team SoloMid loses there’s always a huge number of people celebrating, and they’re not just opponents of the brand and team — their fans are often included.
Now, whether or not we can accurately label these individuals as fans or not is less important right now. This is neither the time nor place for such a discussion. But some of these characters also carry their flares, buy their jerseys, and chant their names at live viewings and events, therefore they can be considered as supporters, albeit somewhat inconsistent in nature.
And the moments of hate and harassment far outweigh the moments of outpouring love and support. They are far more frequent, and more intense.
Playing for Team SoloMid is a double-edged sword. It takes immense grit and resilience to persevere in such an environment, and one has to wonder — is it even worth it? Does the pride that comes with carrying their logo justify the abuse? Is it a worthwhile trade-off?
2019 has, for the most part, given us a very peculiar narrative surrounding Team SoloMid, and it revolves around their junglers. The organization decided to have both Jonathan “Grig” Armao and Matthew “Akaadian” Higginbotham rotate as starters in order to give Team SoloMid a strategic edge. Seeing how both players diverge in playstyle, the team could adapt and better utilize both styles in order to gain an upper hand.
Grig was the more calculated and subdued type of jungler, the kind that thrived on tanks and would prosper most as a team player. Akaadian, on the other hand, was a proactive carnivore, not unlike Svenskeren. The kind of player that resembled a lone wolf, the player who creates his own leads and attacks whenever he sees fit. While not all of his decisions make sense, he has the mechanical prowess to back any ill-advised engage or play.
But after Grig got injured, the team decided to focus solely on Akaadian — which many people thought was for the best. Throughout history, Team SoloMid looked best when they had an active, highly aggressive playmaker in the jungle, and Akaadian definitely fit the bill.
Bjergsen’s thoughts on balancing Grig & Akaadian
And for a good while, it seems like things panned out great. Akaadian’s stellar play and confidence-driven performance enabled Team SoloMid more often than not. Their second-place finish in Spring was more than enough for people to claim that “Team SoloMid was back.”
Once Summer rolled around, however, the organization decided to give Grig a shot at the starting position. The tables had turned, as it was Grig who was dominating and playing out of his mind, with Akaadian making egregious errors and heavily underperforming. The team went back and forth between the two, and no one really knew what to make of it.
Then, when consistency mattered the most, came a twist that could perhaps only be seen in an M. Night Shyamalan film: Team SoloMid decided to sign a third jungler and make him a starter for the playoffs — a player who was, by all intents and purposes a complete rookie on the LCS stage. Fans took it badly, and with good reason. But it was the rest of their line-up that perhaps suffered the most. All of their pre-built synergy with Akaadian and Grig went down the drain — at the very moment they needed it most.
Their 1-3 loss to Clutch Gaming was basically a formality at that point, seeing how they had no chance of being competitive with such a late change to their roster. To make matters even more interesting, neither Akaadian nor Grig have been signed on as substitutes for the playoffs, meaning they’re basically waiting things out until 2020.
This decision, while absolutely horrendous and confusing, is still somehow expected from Team SoloMid. They’re no strangers to making ill-advised changes at the worst possible times, and this definitely isn’t the first time they decided to go for such a decision at the cost of attaining success.
This one moment is a microcosm of Team SoloMid. Once the pressure mounts, things tend to fall apart. Once a problem spawns, they tend to go for band-aid fixes rather than finding an actual solution. They’re constantly focusing on the consequences, rather than what’s causing them.
If there’s one positive take away from their current season, it is the fact that they’ve been trying to diversify their arsenal and to adapt to the ever-changing 2019 meta. They no longer want to be a somewhat one-dimensional threat, a team that plays just a singular style — they know they need to branch out if they want to accomplish anything on the international stage.
But even when they test the waters, when they try to push themselves to the very limit, they always end up resorting to proven solutions — and it’s hard to blame them. The pressure to perform if you’re wearing a Team SoloMid logo on your jersey is monumental; it is overwhelming.
To make matters even worse, there’s rarely enough time to actually experiment. A top-tier team doesn’t have the luxury of dropping games because sooner or later every single win counts. They want to achieve a high enough spot in the standings and that’s only possible by playing their best and most optimal League of Legends consistently.
There are many important questions that have been lingering in the air ever since they lost control of the LCS throne. Will they bounce back? Is the era of Team SoloMid’s dominance over, or is this just a momentary hiatus; a brief pause before they return to form and continue building their legacy?
These questions are exciting, but there are no concrete answers in sight. A couple of things are for certain, however. The problems plaguing Team SoloMid — the same problems that aren’t constantly visible but always manage to creep up when it matters the most — aren’t surface-level, nor are they easy to fix. They go as deep as the marrow of the bone. They are inherent to the organization itself, and they need to find a solution sooner rather than later.
And even when they win — when they’re the ones dominating over the region — it never feels fresh. You mostly react with a “oh, it’s that time of the year again” kind of emotion. There’s nothing overly exciting or exhilarating when they’re at the top of their game because we all know that sooner or later they will get back on top. And we also know that they’re going to do so by going the default route: by playing to their inherent (and well-documented) strengths.
Now, there’s no reason not to play to your strong suits, but if you mostly win through a singular style of play, and if it’s the norm year after year, then it’s hard for fans to stay invested — regardless of the line-up.
And that’s one of their biggest problems as well. Individual pieces of their line-up came and went. The roster was rebuilt from the ground up (if we count out Bjergsen) and yet it always falters in the exact same way and, by proxy, wins through the exact same avenues.
Team SoloMid is, simply put, a known quantity. For better and worse.
Right now, however, they have a problem. Team Liqu4id is better lane for lane and has shown more potential as a five-man unit. By the same token, Cloud9 has also left a mark internationally through a unique and highly idiosyncratic style of play. Both teams found their avenues for success through different means, and in the meantime Team SoloMid is just idling on the sidelines, waiting for their time to come.
For as long as they refuse to adapt, they will be unable to attain greatness — the one thing that’s synonymous with the boys in black and white. And so the pressure mounts.