Why Ego Projects like Gamers2 and Origen are doomed to fail (and why Alliance didn't)
For the purpose of this article, I'm going to define an Ego Project as any team where a single player has the deciding voice in filling out the rest of the lineup. This is especially so for teams where that player is also either the owner, or a member of management.
Since the start of the LCS, three of Europe's most famous mid laners have made the decision to leave their former team to form their own. Ocelote was the first, forming Gamers2 after parting ways with SK Gaming. He was eventually followed by Froggen, who left CLG.eu at the end of Season 3 to form the first Western Super Team, Alliance. This past off-season they were joined by xPeke, who parted ways with Fnatic and recently announced the formation of the painfully named Origen (thought not as bad as TIP). It's easy to see why this would be an attractive option for these players. All three have achieved some modicum of success with their original team, having either laid claim to the title of best at their position in their region like Froggen and xPeke or, as in the case of Ocelote, turned intelligent marketing into a truly remarkable amount of income when compared with the rest of the industry at the time. It is in times like these that one begins to think they have achieved all they can in their current situation and look for new challenges. There's just one problem, there's a strong precedent for these types of ego projects failing. One only has to look to CLG and TSM to see the risks of having one player holding control over the other four on the team.
The Original Ego Projects
TSM and CLG did not begin as ego projects. While it's true that HotshotGG and Reginald have always owned their teams, the stakes were limited in the first few years of competitive League of Legends and the organizations involved were not nearly as established or structurally sound. Teams were assembled and disassembled by the month as players looked for compositions that worked. But as League of Legends entered its third season and the LCS was established, those LCS spots became extremely important. Securing a spot in the LCS guaranteed the future and financial solvency of your team for at least six months. LCS rules required each team to have an established owner in order to receive and manage the Riot supplied salary. This further cemented the position of power that player-owners like HotshotGG and Reginald had within their own team. This imbalance of power caused problems for both teams.
For CLG, the problems originally manifested in the rapid decline of HSGG's performance. This resulted in multiple role swaps as the team struggled to find a position that HSGG wasn't outmatched in. HSGG was a prime example of a player that lingered too long before retirement, and one can't help but wonder if his playing career might have ended much earlier if he hadn't been the owner of the team.
TSM faced a different problem at first. Reginald's position of power within the team resulted in two famous incidents. An episode of Gamecrib ended with Xpecial crying after having an argument with Reginald during a team meeting. A month later, Dyrus and Reginald got into an argument live on stream that ended with Dyrus slamming his desk and shouting "Sorry" multiple times. Each incident painted Reginald as unwilling to accept any negative feedback whatsoever. The Dyrus incident was even more alarming, as the cause was the very definition of petty. Reginald clearly used his authority within the team to back Dyrus into a corner with no alternative but to capitulate, ordering him to first, not slam the desk, and then telling Dyrus to get out if he didn't like Reginald's behavior. As Reginald is the owner of the team, Dyrus clearly had no way to healthily reconcile his own feelings. He could either swallow his pride and accept the mistreatment, or lose the stability and income that being a member of TSM provides. Reginald retiring at the end of Season 3 and stepping back into a full time ownership position resulted in a visible easing of tensions within the team, and a return to the upbeat TSM that fans first fell in love with.
Ocelote and Gamers2
In CLG and TSM, we already have two established teams with players whose position of power within the team caused issues. Taking that into consideration, it's not surprising that Ocelote has struggled since leaving SK Gaming to form Gamers2. Even before leaving SK Gaming, the general view within the community was that Ocelote was past his prime. Ocelote's fame had always outshone his play, but it seemed apparent that Ocelote was coasting on reputation at this point. Things did not improve when he formed Gamers2. Despite putting together a fairly solid team, Gamers2 was unable to qualify for the LCS and its future lies in doubt after almost a year of existence. Just based on the numerous rumors that hit Reddit over the past year, it's clear that Ocelote has had many of the same issues that plagued Reginald during his last season as a player. The future success of Gamers2 will depend on whether Ocelote is able to swallow his ego and step back from his role as a player.
Alliance tries to buck the trend
Alliance is easily the most successful ego project to date. Despite early struggles in the Spring Split, they improved steadily over the course of the season, culminating in their first ever LCS Championship and a number one seed at worlds. That success stems from the fact that Froggen is mostly a figurehead on an organizational level. While he appears to have a large voice in roster decisions, the actual management of the team is left up to the European remnants of the Evil Geniuses organization that were retained when Alliance took over EG's LCS spot a year ago. This frees Froggen from the responsibility that historically burdened HSGG and Reginald, allowing him to focus on his play. It also helps that Alliance was able to buy their way into the LCS. When you consider Alliance's early struggles, it's not difficult to imagine Alliance not qualifying for a spot in the LCS if they had been forced to go through the promo tournament like Gamers2 was. In fact, it's more than likely that Froggen's decision to form Alliance would have ended in failure if they had been forced to qualify through the standard process. Instead, they were given a free pass into the LCS. I do think Alliance has a great chance of bucking the trend long term. Froggen is very intense and unlikely to fall into any struggles with motivation, and their decision to replace Tabzz with Rekkles clearly shows that they are willing to make the necessary changes to ensure success.
Origen and Beyond
xPeke has been in the League of Legends scene as long as there has been a scene. He won the very first World Championship on Fnatic back when it was played in a small exhibition hall in front of a few hundred people. His good looks and big game reputation have long made him a fan favorite. However, he and the rest of Fnatic also had a reputation for struggling to maintain motivation. Now that xPeke has set out on his own, the spot light will be on whether his new team can avoid the same struggles. Like Froggen, xPeke has filled out his roster with mostly old standbys of the scene. Amazing is coming off a mixed-bag year with TSM, while Mithy is coming off a ban for solo que toxicity. Rumors have Soaz and Alex Ich in consideration for the top lane position. Each of these players has previously qualified for worlds with a different team, but it's going to be extremely difficult for them to match that success. As they are unable to buy a roster spot, they will be forced to follow the same path as Gamers2. This Origen lineup shares multiple players with the NiP lineups that often seemed like they believed their past success and experience would carry them to victory.
Doomed to Fail
I don't think it's a stretch to say that a team can never be successful when the owner is also one of the players. It creates an imbalance of power that's impossible to avoid. Even if the players don't show it, the mere existence of such an imbalance causes changes in behavior at a subconscious level. Humans are flawed, and its easy for someone in a position of power to resort to that position of power as a final defense against criticism, especially when we're talking about an industry with an average age in the teens. It's also a struggle for the rest of the players to feel comfortable being honest with the player in power when they are performing poorly. This can hurt the team as constructive criticism is necessary for improvement to occur. Even if you ignore the potential inter-personal issues this imbalance causes, it's extremely difficult for the player/owner to maintain his prior level of performance. Sponsorship obligations are numerous, as is the never-ending search for more sponsors. The owner is responsible for meeting the needs of every other player, and the organization. He/she has to manage the analysts/coaches, make sure the bills and employees are paid on time, and the gaming house is supplied. This is a lot of responsibility. It's not hard to see why Reginald slept barely four hours a day for the few weeks he had to return to playing last season. Unless he hires someone to manage all these things, the same fate awaits xPeke and all players who try to do what he has done.
- Player/Owners have historically struggled to maintain their prior level of performance due to increased responsibility/work load limiting practice time.
- The imbalance of power between player/owners and the other players on the team can cause substantial strain on the interpersonal relationships within the team.
- When forming teams, players struggle to separate themselves emotionally, often turning to old friends to fill roster spots when more qualified candidates are available. This is common in professional sports and especially college football recruiting. In order to secure a player, coaches sometimes make deals with them offering scholarships to their friends to convince the player to sign on the dotted line. This is similar to Shiphtur and Zionspartan being a package deal when they were acquired from Coast by Dignitas. An inability to put aside emotions when making roster decisions is a death knell for any team. North America has specifically struggled with this historically, though recent improvements in this mentality have led to a marked improvement in the overall quality of the NA LCS.
- Such Teams can be the result of a player's bruised ego. Having been told that their services are no longer needed by the team they made their name with, they set out to form their own team to prove their original team wrong. If that team fails, the player/owner may lash out at the other team members, continuing their trend of being unable to accept their decline. This is actually quite normal. Not many people know that Babe Ruth actually finished his career with the Boston Braves after the Yankees cut him loose. Players in all sports struggle to accept that they aren't as good as they once were.
- It's dangerous to take success for granted. It's easy to assume that once you've achieved success it will be easy to do it again, but it's not. Sometimes, a team is more than the sum of its parts. Teams like Moscow 5 and Cloud 9 are prime examples. They just mesh perfectly together. Take any player out of those teams and put them on another and they are unlikely to achieve the same level of success. In short, it's a huge risk for established players to leave their original teams.