MadLife, Kobe Bryant, and the CJ Farewell Tour
The opening day LCK matchup between CJ Entus and ESC Ever was season-defining for the former in all but reality. Let's get that out of the way first: it was a single Bo3 that's not likely to have any standings implication down the line and where both victory and defeat can be shrugged off as transient with regards to what it means for both teams' seasons.
Yet, in the realm of narrative, there was an interesting theme backing up this series. It's easy to forget, but this isn't the first time that CJ Entus have met this particular foe. While memories of Ever's famous KeSPA Cup run (and their resultant sojourns to Europe) are dominated by their victory over SKT, that was actually only a semi-final match.
The final of that tournament was against none other than CJ, and there's a reason that people forget it. Having built up a modicum of hype with a 2-1 win in an extremely tight series over Worlds returnees KT Rolster, CJ completely imploded in the finals, losing 3-0 and failing to play Ever even close in any game.
That was the last game that the 2015 CJ Entus lineup would play together. Of the five members, three left the organisation outright - CoCo to Longzhu, Ambition to Samsung, and Space to a long-overdue retirement. A fourth, Shy, remains on the CJ roster, but hasn't played in 2016 and likely won't.
The fifth player was MadLife. Of course it was.
Thursday's action marked the opening of the twelfth edition of the OGN Champions tournament, in all its various guises. It came 1,526 days after the first day of Azubu The Champions Spring 2012. MadLife played on that day, too; that time, he was in the opening game, as his MiG Frost team took down Little Hippo.
Four years is an absolute eternity in esports. When MadLife first appeared competitively, CS:GO had yet to be released, North America was still considered the strongest region in League, and the uneasy transition from Brood War to Heart of the Swarm was still ongoing. Of the eighty players on rosters in that tournament, only a handful are on active rosters in any league, and only two still ply their trade in Korea's top flight (the other being Longzhu's Expession).
MadLife's longevity is impressive in itself; what's more impressive is that we've heard nary a hint of retirement rumours from him or anyone else. We still haven't. But, for the first time, some writing may be appearing on the wall.
In basketball, as in League of Legends, most stars fade out quietly and forgettable. Just as one can see KaKAO and Nagne versus Watch and Ggong in a mid-table LSPL match, so too could one see Hakeem Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing face off as bench players on .500 teams. It's not even a question of ending on a high; since 1990, 9 of the 29 active players later inducted to the Hall of Fame were substitutes for the majority of their final season.
It takes a very rare sort of player that can press on and convince a manager, a team, a community to give them control over their final act once their time has passed. That's what made Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers this past season so grotesquely compelling.
2014 and 2015 had seen Kobe rendered well and truly mortal. Dogged by a series of injuries (starting with a season-ending Achilles tear in April 2013), Kobe played just 41 games (of a possible 164) in the following two seasons; when he was on the court, he was a shadow of his former self. By the Win Shares/48 metric, among 274 players who appeared in at least 1000 minutes, he was 270th in efficiency. While Kobe's capacity for self-delusion is legendary, it was surely clear even to the man himself: his time as a productive player was up.
Yet, for 2015/16, the Lakers handed the keys over to Kobe. In spite of being so poor that, by aforementioned Win Shares/48 metric, the Lakers would have been better off playing 4v5, he started every game he was healthy for, led the league in shooting attempts per minute, and came out every night and put on the Kobe show as his team fell further and further down the standings.
The Lakers would end 2016 in 29th out of 30 teams with a 17-65 record. Kobe's final game came in the season closer against the Utah Jazz on 13th April - on home turf, Kobe turned in what was simultaneously one of the best and worst showings we've ever seen by a basketball player, putting up 60 points (the most of any player in the league this year) but taking 50 shots to do it (for just the seventh time in league history). It was an exciting, high-scoring game full of highlight reel moments, but it was also one of the ugliest and least efficient games we've ever seen in the modern era. At once, it was brilliant, and it was a mockery of the game.
Why did this game, this whole season, happen? Well, the Lakers having very little to play for, and the incentive to lose that the NBA Draft system provides, probably helped a little. But there was more to it than that. Those in and around the team were quite open about Kobe not being the same player (how could they not be?), and openly justified it as paying tribute to an all-time great. Mitch Kupchak, the team's general manager, went as far as to say the following to ESPN in January:
This [season] is really a justified farewell to perhaps the best player in franchise history. And, God-willing, he's going to want to play every game and he's going to want to play a lot of minutes in every game, because that's just the way he is.
What's particularly interesting about that quote, incidentally, is that it's bookended by quiet griping about how the Kobe tribute season was necessarily holding back development of younger players. In any case, there's no doubt that paying tribute to Kobe was an impetus for the entire show; yet, there's something more to it. It's not just that Kobe is a legendary player; it's that his entire career has been centred around his dominant personality, his unsurpassed popularity, his legendary ability to make the impossible possible (and, at times, to make the possible impossible).
There are better comparisons that could be made if we were trying to compare a League of Legends player to Kobe. Yet, when one thinks about what MadLife is as a player, and where his career has gone over the past few years, the notion of a farewell tour akin to Kobe's has resonance.
When MadLife's name is brought up, most will still remember the roster-defining, game-changing, world-beating play-maker that he served as in his first couple of seasons. Yet, for nearly two and a half years now, MadLife has quietly plugged along in what is now known as LCK, performing decently enough but rarely rocking the boat and - more importantly - never finding the limelight of contention. 2014 CJ Frost were a top-8 threat at best, praying for Swift to suddenly become KaKAO; 2015 CJ Entus flashed a little more at times in the regular season, but ultimately themselves needed CoCo to become Faker.
For all the brief epochs oF CJ hype that have manifested for the odd week or two in the past year, it's probably fair to say that MadLife has not been on a true contender since season 3 - a fact that owes as much to consistently questionable roster management on the part of the CJ Entus organisation as to MadLife itself, but is what it is. Part of the reason for that is that while MadLife has proven himself a perfectly acceptable OGN/LCK support, and even someone who could play and win on a competitor, all the things that made him truly special - mainly revolving around his mechanical ability and his instinct for skirmishing and for creating picks - no longer consistently win games in high-level competition.
Of course, while League of Legends steadily progresses at a game at the highest level, and teams become wiser and wiser in both their micro and macro memory, it's not like play-making has fallen out of the game entirely - the highlight reel industry from pro play is as strong as ever, for one thing. The capacity for the 'MadLife play' will always be there - it's just that those plays rarely win games on their own anymore, or even significantly contribute to it.
MadLife (unlike Kobe Bryant) could still be a productive part of a winning team. A team built around MadLife, however, can't consistently win. Maybe it can pull off some big upsets. Maybe it can get far more coverage on Reddit than it deserves. But it's not a winning formula.
MadLife may have been the surviving member from 2015 to 2016 on CJ Entus, but the roster they built for the spring was in no sense built around him. The focal point was newly-of-age mid-laner Bdd, a solo queue star who came into the league as the most hyped talent since Faker's arrival in the spring of 2013 (and with more than a few comparisons to the man in question). The team's other young acquisitions - top laner Untara and jungler Bubbling - came without the same levels of hype, and with the baggage of undistinguished experience in Korea and China's second-tier competition. Filling out the roster, and weighing in as the second most-experienced player on the team on the strength of a single split at LMS and a six-game stint as a starter for Flash Wolves at Worlds, was AD carry Kramer.
In terms of how it played out, despite the radically different lineup both literally and stylistically compared to the past couple of years, it ended up being the same deal as usual for CJ - the team came in with low expectations (lolesports' preseason power rankings placed them in 7th), exceeded them a little, had their usual mid-split purple patch (winning five straight serieses between weeks 7 and 10), ultimately fell short, but did enough to give analysts hope that they were going to work it out next split.
The frustrating thing about CJ Entus isn't that their rosters don't make some sense, or even that their little sacs of potential remain just that. Swift will always be something of a quixotic player, but it's hard to deny that he's proved some things on his spell with Qiao Gu. CoCo isn't having the best of times right now on Longzhu, but that speaks more to Longzhu than to CoCo. CJ Entus are capable of producing great players, and all of their rosters look better a few months after they've drifted apart than they did at the time even. It just never quite works out.
The odd thing about CJ's 0-2 is that, on the basis of what went wrong and where the flaws were, neither loss exactly forebodes doom for CJ simply because there's a sense in which both games were over before they began on the basis of horrendous drafting and simple mistakes that one would not expect to be repeated.
The draft in game 2 was one of the worst we've seen a while, to the point where CJ did not have any real win condition; they were at a disadvantage in all phases of the game in almost all potential skirmishing, objective, and 5v5s, and could not conceivably win lane hard enough to make up for that in either top or mid. Even if they had managed to snowball bottom lane with their prized Lucian pick, it's hard to see how they could have done so hard enough to make up for the compositional hard-counters they faced in almost any conceivable scenario; that their situation forced them into a predictable early lane setup, and that Ever were able to exploit level 1 warding that was convention and hence thoughtless to extinguish that last hope by the times minions met one another, was just icing on the cake.
Game 1 wasn't quite as bad with regards to the draft - one can question the priority on Kindred over Ekko coupled with CJ's bans, as well as the Maokai pick into both Ekko and Azir, but there were at least clear strengths and a win condition to it all, albeit one that relied heavily on execution in the late game.
What killed CJ that time was the failure to respect emergent circumstances in the mid-game (with a second set of deaths on a gank for the duo of Kramer and MadLife after a 12-minute 2-for-2 teamfight in their lane proving pivotal), and the resulting map that saw them forced to undertake a Sisyphean approach of constant skirmishing for a good 20 minutes or more to make up for a complete inability to farm and the late-game nature of their composition.
That they stayed in that game at all can (and has) been taken as a sign for optimism by CJ fans; in any case, again, the mistakes that lost them the game were a touch of laziness, a touch of over-confidence, and not much at all of fundamental problems with the team's ability to play or think about the game.
CJ's problems seem fixable. The problem is intent - and there's more to this than speculation about the narrative and sports comparisons. Let's look back at Game 1; specifically, let's look at what the plan put in place for early-to-mid-game for CJ was:
On paper, that's already putting a lot on the bot lane; while Maokai can hold out in the short lane against Ekko, he's still at a disadvantage, and while Ezreal is set up for success he's pressing against a very tight schedule with regards to getting farmed up and meeting his power spikes before holding the map in the necessary semi-closed state for him becomes impossible.
When played out, the intent became even clearer: this was a set-up for a 2v8. Kramer and MadLife played the long lane hyper-aggressively throughout, constantly pushing up and making the choice to look to bully out Loken and Key's Ashe-Bard rather than setting up for ganks or teleport plays (or even making much use of the implict threat of the aforementioned). This approach actually was working up to a point - at the time of the aforementioned skirmish, Kramer held a 15 CS lead on Loken - but would end up being their undoing after the CJ duo failed to show a second dimension to their laning after losing their Flashes, hence becoming easy bait for a successful game-turning gank a few minutes later.
As for game 2, let's look at the draft again:
As already mentioned, this draft is an absolute mess for CJ, because it delivered a situation where they had no win condition and were entirely reliant on a succession of active plays being made by the bot lane. That, in itself, is clearly telling; yet, there's more. Look at the last two rounds of the draft for CJ. The Veigar pick is off-meta, but not entirely unexpected; there's been a fair bit of buzz about the reworked Veigar as a potential pro pick. Yet, most of that buzz has seen it as a potential support; between his passive now giving him AP scaling on harass, the boosted execute on his ultimate (against non-mage targets), and slight buffs to Event Horizon since the changes to it that saw Veigar support's previous run in the meta cut short, Veigar now looks like a legitimate pick in that role once more.
In the context of this draft, Veigar support would have made perfect sense. Yet, the pick ended up going to Bdd - remember, the biggest talent on this team, and the star of the future for the CJ Entus organisation - with the fifth pick used to get MadLife his signature Thresh. Given the implications for CJ's 2v2 matchup, as well as the weakness of Veigar into Varus in-lane, it's very hard to imagine a scenario that didn't revolve around the pick being flexed from support to mid.
Again, it's possible to make justifications for that decision strategically - but it's pointing to a mindset at work in the entire decision-making process for CJ that puts an absolutely abnormal priority on the bot lane. That's fundamentally not something that makes sense from the perspective of winning now with how the game is played, and it's certainly not something that makes sense for the future of CJ; as much as Kramer had his moments down the stretch last split, it's Bdd (and to a lesser extent Untara) where CJ's future most likely lies.
CJ's priorities certainly seem to be aligning in a particular way for this upcoming split, not that they're likely to admit it. It could make for a fun ride for the spectator, and there's even an argument to be made that it could be the best thing for the players.
If CJ stay true to what we think they're holding true, their games are going to be an absolute mess, full of odd lane setups, attempted solo kills, and all the skirmishing one could hope for in a non-LPL match. That should be the sort of environment that CJ thrive in, but more importantly, it's the sort of environment that will allow CJ's rookies to push every possibility and get as fine an understanding as possible of where the exact line sits between the genius outplay and the game-losing blunder in pro matches.
In theory, Untara and Bdd will have forty-plus games of constantly testing their own limits. Whoever ends up being the starter of Bubbling and Haru will be able to acclimatise to pro play in a high-level, low-pressure environment. All the while, MadLife and Kramer will sit bottom, looking to squeeze another YouTube clip, another adoring eulogy from an Inven commenter, another play-with-a-name out of the remains of a fading career.
Of course, it could also lead to bad habits, a lack of motivation, and potentially a roster that fails to get the necessary results to even keep the CJ Entus organisation out of the Promotion Tournament. Either way, it promises to be exciting.
All images used in this article were either captured from OGN or SPOTV broadcasts, or were taken from the official Riot Esports Flickr (https://www.flickr.com/photos/lolesports/).