I have watched multiple genres of esports games. Real time strategy, MOBAs, team first person shooters, fighting games, and iterations in between. While the form, the structure, and the demands of each game can be different, there is a singular theme that can be drawn upon from the world champions. It is that individualism is what creates exceptionalism, that is in general what creates champions. However this individualism, this strength of the champion will eventually turn inward and become a weakness. After all, a champion has this confident belief that what they have done is always right and thus they come at the problem the exact same way as before without realizing the faults of their play. Thus strength turns into weakness and this is why champions slump, why kings die, and this is why dynasties end. This is the fall of Lee “MarineKing” Jung Hoon, Vincent “Happy” Cervoni Schopenhauer, and SK Telecom.
There are multiple examples I could have picked out, but the three that have exemplified this stubborn adherence to a style at the eventual cost to themselves have been MarineKing in Starcraft 2, Happy in CS:GO, and SKT in League of Legends. The relative smallest figure amongst the three here is MarineKing. While he didn’t achieve as much as Happy or SKT did relative to their particular scenes, MarineKing was one of the early greats of Starcraft 2. This is someone who got to the GSL finals three times early on in 2011. In 2012, he had a dominant period in the early parts of the year where he won MLG Winter Arena and MLG Winter Championship.
This was a player who was a part of the same generation of Terrans that included: Jung “Mvp” Jong Hyun, Choi “Polt” Seong Hun, and Mun “MMA” Seong Won. In the early parts of 2012, MarineKing looked to eclipse all of them. Mvp had injuries that looked to be the end of him. Polt looked to be a one off Super Tournament Winner. MMA was his chief rival at the time, but he was soon to fall both because of personal play and the internal drama of the SlayerS team imploding. However, as time went on it was MarineKing that disappeared into the ether whereas the other three players continued to extend their legacy and be placed far above MarineKing when it came down to the greats of SC2 history.
So how did MarineKing fall? To answer that, it is better to ask, how did he rise? If we look at the raw mechanics of the four Terrans I’ve pointed out, I think MarineKing was the best by far by the time 2012 starts. Mvp’s mechanics suffered with his injuries. Neither Polt nor MMA were mechanical monsters, though both were incredibly calculated with the APM (Actions per minute) that they did have. In addition to that, the meta was perfect for MarineKing’s time. MarineKing is a player who specialized in front-running. He used two polarized builds, a greedy macro opening and a proxy two rax. So either one of two things happened. He got a lead going into the mid-game off his greedy opening which he parlayed into more troops which allowed him to bash his opponent over the head with his raw mechanics. The proxy rax allowed him to keep other players in check if they tried to match him for his greed or sometimes allowed him to outright win the game because of his superior micro.
He then ran into a meta that no longer allowed him to get away with that. At this point in time, the BL/infestor era started to come into play, which meant a lot of different problems for MarineKing. First was the creation of multi-varied ZvT builds, many of which could counter both of his openings. This created an aftereffect that he could no longer front-run a game and keep tempo against any Zerg in the game. These problems were mirrored in the evolving PvT meta as well as players like Jung “Rain” Yoon Jong and Won “PartinG” Lee Sak came into the prominence and both players represented the exact same types of problems to MarineKing. Rain figured out how to perfect the late game, even from a deficit. PartinG and other Protoss players of the time figured out multiple builds that forced MarineKing to no longer have tempo advantage in that match up either. Finally, his mechanics were no longer a decisive edge because of the rising skill of players (KeSPA had started to join the SC2 scene) and because they were diminished by the changing times (you couldn’t marine split your way out of a fungal growth for instance).
Caught against the changing tides of the scene, MarineKing did what he always did. He doubled down on his playstyle and died as a result. From mid 2012 onward, he stopped being relevant to the scene as a top player until the very end of 2014 where he made one last hurrah by getting second at the Hot6ix Cup. Even then, that run was predicated on the meta allowing MarineKing to play his greedy style and his run ended in the same thematic sense. Kim “sOs” Yoo Jin refused to allow MarineKing the tempo advantage in the finals and MarineKing died as a result. When I look back now, I still think that MarineKing had the raw mechanics to have continued being a top player from 2012 all the way till 2014 at least. However it was his mindset and stubbornness that stopped him from advancing. He had found success in his style of play and refused to change and ended his own career as a top player as a result.
The second player on this list is Happy, and his story is similar to MarineKing’s. At the end of 2014, a French Revolution happened and in the end, Happy joined LDLC which included: himself, Richard “shox” Papillon, Nathan “NBK-” Schmitt, Edouard “SmithZz” Dubourdeaux, and Fabien “kioShiMa” FIey. When he initially joined the team, he was supposed to be another player. However the leadership issue couldn’t get resolved between NBK- or shox and it eventually landed in Happy’s hands. It was one of the best things to have ever happened to the French scene in CS:GO.
The LDLC/EnVyUs squad that lasted from 2014-2015 is still the most successful French team in CS:GO history. While it is remembered as the Fnatic Era now, LDLC/EnVyUs had kept right up with them for the majority of that period and were able to consistently beat every team outside of Fnatic. They had numerous tournament victories, top finishes, and they won the DreamHack Winter 2014 Major. Even when the team did a roster shuffle again in mid 2015, Happy was still able to lead the new squad to another Major victory at DreamHack Cluj-Napoca. Soon after however, the squad started to decline and eventually broke apart.
Much like MarineKing, the rise and fall of Happy came as a result of his strengths and then a stubborn adherence to those strengths. In 2014, Happy broke the meta. The lineup he created back then was incredible. He made himself a lurker/in-game leader and had the other four players run a deathball on the other side of the map. With Shox, NBK, and kioShiMa running around, they had the firepower to break open anyone. This then let Happy use his intelligence and intuition to break open the other side of the map as a lurker. In addition to that, they were one of the first to understand the power of the forcebuy in CS:GO and used it to great effect as they consistently broke the economy of the other teams.
This style of play was incredible to watch, but by the beginning of 2016, teams had a far better read of it. The biggest warning sign for me was the Counter Pit League Season 2 Finals. This was played at the end of March and EnVyUs were still considered a top team at the time. It was a single elimination eight team bracket and EnVyUs were eliminated in the first round by NRG. This was the German-USA mix with Fatih “gob b” Dayik and Nikola “LEGIJA” Ninic playing in NA. The other players included Justin “Just9n” Ortiz, Samuel “SileNt” Portillo, and Peter “ptr” Gurney. Famously, ptr had injured his leg on the place so Johannes “tabseN” Wodarz had to stand-in for the lineup. NRG then upset EnVyUs in a best-of-three.
This loss should have been a wakeup call that something was amiss with the style and approach of the EnVyUs squad. Everything was in EnVyUs’ favor, however they were unable to close out against a tier two team that was forced to use a standin (though tabseN did play lights out in that series). Instead, EnVyUs stuck with their old plans and models of how to play the game. Of using the forcebuys, the death balls, and the lurker style until it ran itself into the ground. Thus Happy’s time as the King of France ended and this created the impetus to create the G2 super team in 2017. In the end Happy’s fall from grace was similar to MarineKing’s. An archaic player from a time long past who couldn’t adapt or change their style to the demands of the modern day. Since then the Happy squads have slowly stagnated until the modern day where he has now given up his role as in-game leader and has joined NBK-’s Vitality team.
The final example of strength turning into weakness is SKT from League of Legends. For League of Legends, SKT are both the alpha and omega of the scene. While a team like Samsung White is more influential in the way they have defined the entire meta of League of Legends, SKT as an organization are the most successful team in League of Legends history. A large part of that comes down to also having the greatest player in League of Legends history in Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok. This is a team that has three Worlds title, another worlds runner-up, and have been the most dominant force in all of LCK history.
So how did SKT achieve their dominance, what were the patterns across the myriad of lineups and seasons that have gone through all of their successes? I can pinpoint a few patterns. First and foremost, they had Faker. Faker is a player that every superlative has been used and every superlative has been justified. An ascendant player, someone who can rightly be called a once in a game talent, someone whose skill and consistency is such that his career surpasses the bounds of League of Legends, who can only be compared to the greatest of the greats like Lee “Flash” Young Ho or Lee “Jaedong” Jae Dong. Someone who forced League of Legends to change from a polytheistic society to a monotheistic one.
With Faker as the centerpiece, the SKT organization did two things. First, they put him in the hardest positions possible because he could handle it. He absorbed all of the resources and attention and in turn this enabled the rest of the players on his team to have a good game. So when we look at SKT historically, they have often gotten raised up newer talent or players to fill in the roles surrounding Faker.
This system worked incredibly well, but like everything in the world, it couldn’t last forever. For Happy, his judgement day was the Counter Pit League. For SKT, I’d argue it was Worlds 2017. That tournament was a League of Legends recreation of Weekend at Bernie’s where Faker was dragging along four corpses to get to the finals. The best way I could sum up their tournament run is that SKT lost in the quarterfinals of that event whereas Faker lost in the finals. Where the SKT system of the past years looked unstoppable and untouchable, in 2017 Worlds, it looked dysfunctional and broken down. The entire system was only being upheld by the will of a single player and so when SKT lost in the finals, analysts were expecting SKT to make big changes to save the sinking ship.
Instead they reverted to what they had always done. They tried to use the same old system and replace some of the broken parts with rookies such as Park “Blossom” Beom-chan, Park “Thal” Kwon-hyuk, and Lee “Effort” Sang-ho. In the Spring Split they ended fourth in the regular season and were eliminated in the second round of the playoffs. In the Summer Split they ended in 7th. In the end, what killed SKT was their belief that what had always been will continue to always be. Their bounded rationality let them believe that the solution they came to was satisfactory enough and that it would solve their problems every time. This year, it has finally broken apart. Their strength finally turned into their weakness.
This however is not the end of the story. Fate and destiny can be changed, the future is not written in stone, it is written in our characters. So long as the person changes, the paths they walk along can change as well. MarineKing never learned that lesson and so his career faded away. Happy still has a chance to recreate his own as a player rather than a leader. As for SKT, they must look long and hard to decide what new direction they have to take as the one they have walked upon so far no longer works.