European Midlane Exceptionalism - The Bjergsen Shock, Third Generation Mid-laners & Misunderstanding the Role of Talent
As we move into the 2015 Season of the EU LCS, the buildup of hype is followed by a very typical European excitement of the new mid-laners. A recent Youtube montage showcased their exceptional ability to make plays and further increased the expectations.
However, it is my case that there is a noticeable misunderstanding prevalent in the discussion. European midlane dominance is not solely due to abundance of natural talent, but also due to the historical playstyle of the European region - the midlane as the primary playmaking role and the focal point of teams. Understanding European mid-lane dominance is more about understanding this central concept than understanding it as a reduction to mere abundance of talent.
So even though European mid-laners are undeniably more talented than their NA counterparts, and traditionally one of the only roles that can be compared to non-Westerners, the European emphasis on mid-lane playmaking makes the gap seem even larger than it really it.
Three Generations of Mids
Without making it a distinction of too much consequence (and excluding Season 1), the new talent can be seen as the third generation of European mid-laners. First generation being xPeke, Froggen and Alex Ich; second generation being players like Bjergsen and Nukeduck. The third generation is still largely unproven on the big stage, except for the qualifying tournaments and Unicorns of Love at IEM San Jose.
It's commonly stated that nothing can be concluded from Power of Evil's domination of Bjergsen at that tournament. Though I'd rather say that while we can't make any conclusive remarks on Bjergsen's current skill level, other than he had a bad day, credit must not be taken from Power of Evil. The playmaking desire visible in PoE, is alone enough to show that the European mid-lane mentality, if not its skill level, is as healthy as ever.
The Bjergsen Shock
Shoutout to Bjergsen for helping our team really evolve, 'cause that LeBlanc game, that was... That was something.
- Imaqtpie, onGamers
When he transfered to TSM, Bjergsen went from being a top 4 mid in his region, to being a clear number 1 in NA. However, I call this initial surge in the Spring split, the 'Bjergsen Shock'. Without dismissing his performance too much, he still is the best mid in NA after all, his excellence can in some sense be attributed to sheer the shock value he had on NA.
While NA have had important playmakers in the past, Reginald himself being one of the most famous, there was never as much emphasis on being a 'lane carry'. When Reginald replaced himself with Bjergsen, he did not only find a player that could match his playmaking status (and later shotcaller as well), but one who could carry from a strong laning phase.
Remember that while in Europe, Bjergsen played during the apex of the Season 3 European metagame. His natural playstyle, lane domination into splitpushing, had mixed success in EU - the region itself being more adjusted to it. In NA, he had success almost every game. People simply didn't play or couldn't adapt to this style. The closest was the Vulcun Mancloud/Xmithie duo using their incredible synergy to play a similar style, snowballing the mid-lane. The key difference here being Bjergsen having significantly higher kill pressure on his own (not that OddOne didn't help), than Mancloud ever did without Xmithie.
But in the end, other NA mid-laners eventually caught up with him. Some people see this as a skill gap being closed. But in reality, it was more a result of NA adjusting to Bjergsen's playstyle. The end of the initial Bjergsen shock.
This progression is important because it exhibits some aspects of my central point. That European exceptionalism in the mid-lane is only partly caused by talent and partly caused by stylistic differences.
A Metagame That Forces Big Plays
I remember a quote where my jungler at the time was told that he didn't understand why I couldn't just let him take blue, 'cause Froggen, Froggen could tell him 'just take the blue, because I'll kill their mid and get his blue,' and then he went out and killed him. He was a legend in the team.
- Bjergsen, Thorin's "Grilled" #67
I'm possibly going to say something controversial here, but at least in the service of making an important point. At least two of the three first generation midlaners are overrated in terms of natural talent. Froggen and Alex Ich. If we focus on Froggen, there is no doubt he is highly talented. But I've always seen his incredible work ethic, passion for the game and insatiable lust for winning, as the driving forces behind his excellence. His perfect mechanics do not seem intrinsic as they are to a player like Faker, but they been developed from countless hours of dedication.
I always like to tell a little anecdote about Froggen and his passion for the game, I'll shorten it here for convenience. After EG got fourth place at the EU Season 3 Summer Playoff, it meant that Froggen wouldn't be going to participate in the World Championship. Mere hours after this loss, a loss which for 'normal' people would be very disappointing, for Froggen outright devastating, he booted up League of Legends, queued up for ranked and started streaming. For a player to get right back to the game, after experiencing a massive disappointment at the culmination of an entire season of playing the game. Well, it does say a thing or two about his passion for the game.
In season 2, when Froggen and Alex were at their relative peaks internationally, they were highly admired in Europe as legends. To compete against Froggen or Alex, higher quality mid-lane play was not only natural, but necessary. Consequently, a culture of ever increasing mid-lane playmaking would be developed. And while this can seem somewhat contrived, there cannot be any doubt that the imposing figures of Alex and Froggen had at least a hand in forming the European vision of the game.
Today, neither Alex nor Froggen has what it takes to be a full lane carry. They compensate with brilliance in other areas, however. Europe has not yet experienced a universal Faker-like mid, a player whose excellence reaches all aspects of the game, though ever-present speculation on Incarnation as a possible candidate has been ongoing for quite a long time.
Yes. Power of Evil, Febiven, Fox and Pepinero are great talents, and I truly believe that the EU LCS will be more exciting than ever because of them. But I hope people will also understand that Europe itself demands playmaking mid-laners and that this can sometimes distort the perception of European mid-lane talent. When winning, European mid-laners will always look superb, since the fundamental win condition for a European team, is a demonstrative performance from the mid-lane.
One could argue that this point ultimately doesn't matter in the present. That there is no great 'misunderstanding' when referring to the European mid-lane as a case of absolute superiority and not relative exceptionalism. In this case, I've hopefully at least nuanced the view on its origin, or provoked some thoughts on the matter.