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Long Way Back to Earth: TSM on the Eve of Worlds

Andy "Reginald" Dinh looks out over the desert airstrip where skydivers are drifting out of a blue sky shredded with wisps of cloud. It's dead quiet here in the desert, a month before Worlds.

TSM are concluding one of the best years in their competitive history. They rallied at the end of a lackluster spring season, and then went on to become the dominant North American team of the summer. Three weeks after this mid-morning conversation, they will take the stage at Worlds with perhaps the roster they've ever brought to the championship playoffs, a team that could redeem so many North American fans' sour memories of past years.

Dinh used to be at the center of moments like this, the Mid at the heart of his team's name and identity. It used to be him carrying all the weight of all those hopes, all that excitement, as he led his team onto the stage and into the Rift.

Days gone by

Dinh is subdued the morning he's supposed to go skydiving. Maybe it's nerves about the fact that he'll be stepping out of an aircraft in a few hours, or maybe it's the fact that he has just concluded an incredibly public spat with Riot founder Marc Merrill about the competitive ecosystem around League of Legends. As he talks, he weighs every word carefully, and thinks about every question. Regi the League of Legends star and personality has had to take a back seat to Andy the business-owner. He's having business disagreements with people he has always considered friends and allies, and seems faintly uncomfortable about these tensions.

Nevertheless, times have changed for him and so have his feelings toward competitive League of Legends.

"At [that] time and place, it felt more prestigious, I would say. Than in the time these guys are playing now," he adds, then frowns.

That sounds really bad, but the time I played... it was a really big thing! It wasn't necessarily big and mainstream, but everyone around me at that time was picking it up for the first time. There were a lot of first-time experiences. It was special.

TSM founder Andy "Reginald" Dinh

"Now ...The championship still means a lot. But it's hard to compare back then to now. If I were just starting out, I'd be just as excited. Because I've had such a long career, it's not as special."

Part of his disenchantment might be that it's also much more professionalized, Dinh admits. Reginald was a character on what amounted to an eSports reality show, playing out make-believe blood feuds with rival stars, teams, and occasionally even his own players. He was part of a landscape where players aired their grievances via vlog, subtweet, and occasional Reddit meltdown, and the games themselves sometimes seemed like extensions of old-fashioned forum flame-wars.

But part of Dinh's nostalgia is also down to the fact that he knows League of Legends eSports passed him by, at least as a player. He misses the game, he misses being the player at the heart of the action. But does he miss what professional League of Legends has become in his retirement?

Dinh starts walking away from the airstrip toward a skydiving practice chamber where he, TSM coach Parth Naidu, and mid laner Soren "Bjergsen" Bjerg will go through the process of learning how to move and control themselves in freefall. It's a tall, sheet-metal tower with a giant jet exhaust at the bottom. You can hear the whine of the turbines from across the parking lot.

"Being a competitor, being a player was a lot more fun. But I don't know if I would like LCS. My career went downhill after the LCS started. But it's really hard to compare. The scene has changed so much," he says.

Adapt or die

"Going on stage is way scarier," Parth explains in the briefing room before the team's jump. He's the least nervous of the bunch, having gone skydiving before. He's enjoying the day off from responsibility, from having to manage his team's risk.

With this, you just jump out, another guy pulls the cord, and you float for thirty seconds, and you're done. Versus working for something for two or three months, and if I do something wrong on stage for a minute, all that work will be destroyed. That's really scary.

TSM coach Parth Naidu

Still, he admits, he'd rather have the day to practice. He's got to prepare a team to play under radically different conditions than they ones at which they excelled during the season. For him, this is where games and championships are won and lost. The stage is about execution, but the process of learning and adapting has to happen well before First Blood at Worlds.

His method runs according to a schedule. He builds a practice system around the process of learning League's own new and evolving systems.

"Week one: we were going to figure out all the new stuff. Week two, we're going to practice our new comps. Week three, we're going to prep for a specific opponent. And that's how it works in terms of systems. And [it's] the same with what we decide to do on stage. There's a clear hierarchy of what we're going to do, and how we're going to play," he says. "And we just sort of try to build that system to be as precise as possible. So there's as little adaptation as possible that we have to make on stage. We just systematically approach a lot of things, and usually it ends up working out."

A coach in League of Legends isn't like a coach in, say, pro football. Parth isn't the general leading his army of players, turning them into playing pieces on the Rift to be moved around according to his designs. The game doesn't work that way, and the players are too knowledgeable and insightful to be wasted on pure execution.

"The players understand the game to an equal level if not better than me. That's something that's reinforced throughout the coaching staff," Parth says. "The players are the people with the expertise. My job, the coaching position's job, is to create systems around them. And sort of build a context where it all fits together. I will never tell Bjergsen how to play midlane or a champion. But I will be able to explain to him why his champion in a particular team comp must function a different way. It's about tying the pieces altogether."

Right now, he's working through how to best bring his players up to speed on the Worlds patch. It's not a one-size-fits-all dilemma, Parth explains.

"Even within teams there's different approaches. There's two things you can either do: you can either adapt, or you can… There are teams that are super comfortable with just picking up new champions, and they're fine just trying new things and if it works, great, if not, then they move on.

"Then there are teams that prefer to adapt. They wait and stay with the old stuff they've been working on, and tweak only one or two things. Then they see how the old systems interact with the new champions and stuff that's being played. And whenever the new champions sort of break their assumptions about how the game works, then they sort of take all their data that players are trying and incorporate that into their approach."

TSM follows a slightly different approach, as Parth tailors the routine around each player. Bjergsen, he explains, is someone who can comfortably play most champions that are currently viable at the competitive level, so there's more room for experimentation with him. Other players are more dependent on their comfort picks, so it's better to ease them into the new meta and force them to make as few adjustments as possible.

"Some players are super comfortable picking new champions, and those players sort of innovate and we sort of build team comps around them using our old systems. Whereas some players, it definitely takes them a lot of practice on a champion, in a lot of situations, for them to sort of find their groove. For those players, I usually wait to see what other teams are doing, and then I sort of ask them to pick it up.

"Because if a player is going to put a lot of investment into practicing something new, you had better know it's something that's right."

Anything but solo

Minutes before the jump, Bjergsen is thinking about the fact that in a few minutes he's going to board a prop-plane, ride it a couple miles into the California sky, and then fall out of it.

"I don't really know what to expect," he says with a laugh. "I'm pretty sure when I'm just sitting in the plane and looking down… I used to be really afraid of heights. I'm not anymore. But I can imagine if I'm sitting there and looking down, just thinking, 'Oh fuck.'"

But that's not what scares him. What scares Bjergsen, the successor to Reginald in mid lane in a team named for his position, is failing his friends and teammates.

The biggest thing that makes me nervous is letting my teammates down. That I'm not doing anything wrong, or not playing my part.

Soren "Bjergsen" Bjerg

But here, I'm just here to have fun. So I'm not worried about disappointing anyone."

Bjergsen is a very different kind of player, competing in a very different era than the one that gave rise to Team SoloMid as North America's premier team. The days of the solo-carry are largely gone, and Bjergsen's excellence is in always adapting himself to the game's changing landscape and his team's shifting needs.

But it's also a more cerebral game, requiring even greater mental discipline than in the past. There are a thousand things to keep track of, and a million things that can go wrong, and finding the balance between self-reflection and self-doubt is part of a professional's job in modern League of Legends. But they don't have to do it alone.

"We have a sports psychologist who explains that tilting isn't just feeding and dying over and over again. It's also that you make a mistake, and that mistake is still stuck in your head two minutes later," Bjergsen explains. "In the game, you can instantly think, oh that was bad. But then you need to move on and think about the next thing. And in between games you've got a lot of time to think. You can look at the replay and criticize yourself. There needs to be a balance between dwelling on a game and trying to improve on it. Everyone needs to find it."

Do or die time

Team SoloMid has grown-up under Andy's management, Parth's coaching, and Bjergsen's leadership. They are no longer a team trying to move past an old identity, praying for a star or two to save them. They are a complete team.

"We often win with strategic play and team play, whereas with previous rosters we had really good individual players and laners but not as good teamwork," Bjergsen admits. "So when we won it was like we were crushing lanes and taking teamfights and smashing them in teamfights. Now we're playing really smart. We're setting up fights. We're not necessarily smashing them in mid, but we're still making good plays. People watching can see us fall behind, but we still have set plays and play really well as a team. And I think that's why a lot of people look at us and think we have a chance internationally."

The time for doubts ends as the team are called to the airstip to don their suits and chutes. With nervous jokes, the team heads out to the runway together. They are arguably better than they've ever been before, because they're probably more mature than ever before.

Before the jump, Andy explains that he likes their chances. He's talking about the odds of a safe touchdown (he can recite the exact odds and repeats them like a mantra), but their odds at Worlds are also better than ever before.

Either way, however, they have to jump. The ground is always waiting for TSM. They hope that this year, at long last, they'll float.

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