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Worlds

Meeting the fans, through Splyce's eyes

Watching the line of fans form for professional League of Legends players at live events is for me still one of the most surreal aspects to esports.

A tough first week at the 2016 World Championship hasn’t prevented Europe’s Splyce from keeping perspective and interacting with Worlds attendees. Even between losses, they took the opportunity to interact with fans in the long halls of San Francisco’s Bill Graham Civic Auditorium.

Losses piling up can make it difficult on a team’s morale. That Europe as a whole has faltered has perhaps alleviated some of the flame towards Splyce, but it has forced them to pivot their expectations. SPY showed promise in particular in their match against TSM by holding a lead for the majority of the game. Their inability to close it, though, is a reminder of just how green they are on the international level. Just a split removed from nearly being relegated, their run to 2nd place in the EU LCS Summer Split demonstrated a remarkable leap in progress.

Still, they’ve enjoyed their time at Worlds. I took them down from their practice room to see the level of excitement from fans. Let’s backtrack for a moment, though -- what exactly does a pro player’s regimen at Worlds look like?

Well, each team is provided a practice room at the venue -- they get there early and they leave late. And I wish I could tell you that behind those doors are wild ragers where they’re playing Gragas Pong or carving ritualistic symbols into the ground to summon Teemo, but it’s really just pure, concentrated League of Legends.

I sat with Splyce for a while as their head coach, Jakob “YamatoCannon” Mebdi, reviewed some game footage. YamatoCannon is a former professional player. As is usually the case, he had a nice suit on, and looked like he could be featured on Dos Equis commercials as the most interesting man on the Summoner’s Rift -- he doesn’t always drink, but when he does, it’s a health potion.

Like many people in the scene, YamatoCannon is very young -- just 20 years old. He looks a lot older, though, and his voice is so deep he could pull off a very accurate voiceover of Nautilus. Those who’ve followed the EU LCS are very familiar with his presence on camera, and in person, it’s not much different. He commanded the attention of his players very easily. Despite his age, he’s a battle-hardened veteran of the scene who has watched the league evolve.

On these game days, teams often scrim for as long as possible. Short of that, they’re touching up on their mechanics. They’re told to relax and clear their minds, but for most of them, the most comfortable place is on the Rift.

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Stepping away from that comfort zone -- where they can escape the pressure of worlds if only in brief -- can be hectic. And on a practical level, it isn’t something they have the luxury of doing. Many of these guys are still teenagers. In a lot of cases, they still need someone to shepherd them from A to B. Plus, sometimes it gets hectic for certain players.

Doublelift, for example, accidentally took the wrong elevator to the wrong floor and found himself swarmed by fans. He wasliterally cornered until someone realized he was missing. One of the things you don’t really see sitting at home is just how recognizable some of these players are, and how exciting it is for fans to meet them. I tell myself, for example, that I’d play it cool if I ran into Kevin Durant or whatever, but let’s be real, I’d squeal like a toddler meeting Daniel Tiger.

So for Splyce, I took their top laner, Martin “Wunder” Hansen, and their jungler, Jonas “Trashy” Anderson, down to the lobby. We didn’t really know what to expect. I knew what it was like to walk around with some of the NA LCS’s biggest stars, but I wasn’t sure American fans would be as quick to recognize a relatively new team from Europe. There are worlds where a celebrity is probably a little hesitant to open every door -- you don’t know what you’ll find when the elevator opens, for example.

Splyce isn’t quite there -- not yet, anyway. Just beyond a few closed doors, the crowd roared as SK Telecom T1 was giving Cloud9 a crash course on what a World Champion looked like. We decided to follow the noise and took the opportunity to watch the game with the live audience.

It took all of 10 seconds for us to be stopped. A fan -- having just cleared security -- recognized Trashy and ran over. The mad dash was so quick I almost wanted to step in front like I was his Secret Service agent. Trashy took it in stride, though.

He says, “At first, I thought it was a bit weird for someone to want to take a picture with me, but I’m used to it now. Everyone who wants to support me is always great. If I can give them just a little bit with just taking a picture, then I love that.”  

Poor Wunder was coming off his first full year as a pro and didn’t have the same level of exposure as Trashy, who’d spent time in the NA LCS for Enemy eSports. I almost wanted to point to Wunder and yell, “Look! This dude just dunked on people all summer. He’s a pro, too!”  But the hallway was still mostly empty -- SKT vs. C9 was one of the most billed matches of the weekend. So we settled into some reserved seats and watched the action.

At one point in the game -- SKT was massively ahead -- Faker roamed top and ended up dying to Meteos and Impact. Trashy laughed and quipped, “KDA jungler,” which is a joke and criticism often levied at junglers whose play, at least at the pro level, is more reflective of how their team does.

The crowd went nuts. But Trashy and Wunder found it funny and shook their heads. They thought it was weird the crowd was cheering so hard for a mostly throwaway play. At that point, they said the game was already over. It made me wonder if they are kind of like the film critic who has a tougher time enjoying crappy action movies.

It was clear that they appreciated the skill displayed from the SKT side at least. These players are attracted to the same level of brilliance displayed at the World Championship as the casual fan.They just happen to be able to replicate a lot of it.

As it became clear the match truly was over, we stepped back into the lobby. There are two main attractions outside of the auditorium itself where fans congregate to take pictures. One is the Rift Walk and the other is by the Summoner’s Cup. We positioned ourselves by the Cup to catch the waves of fans leaving for concessions and the like between games.

And immediately, I saw people looking at the Splyce players. People started whispering. It just takes one person bold enough to ask for a picture or an autograph for an entire line to form. There isn’t exactly a proper social protocol for asking for this type of thing. Professional League of Legends players are largely still in some sort of celebrity-limbo, where they are famous in this particular niche, yes, but that particular kind of fame doesn’t quite have a shape.

splyce

These are often kids just a year or two -- sometimes just months -- removed from being in a classroom. They still shoot looks at Hans Christian Durr, their manager, to make sure they can do x or y. These are guys who can do the wildest things when you give them a mouse and a keyboard, but things like an autograph or a proper pose for the camera? Those things are harder. At one point, Trashy needed to use the bathroom, but we had to send an escort with him -- it’s hard to accurately gauge the level of recognition.

We’re rookies at the Worlds stage. People came here to watch the established teams.

Wunder

Splyce's video guy wanted some shots for their video series, so we started to make poses in front of the Cup. Wunder at one point asked me, “What do I do with my hands?” I’m still not really sure. That seems like a rather philosophical question. And once the filming started, the crowd gathered the courage to ask for photos. The line started to form. For Wunder, it’s his first time at an international event. He says, “Fan meets and fan interaction is great, but I’m still getting used to it -- like experiences with girls coming up and hugging, going like, Oh my god!”

People were quick to listen when asked to be patient and to form a line. It is a curious sight for outsiders -- between cosplayers and teenagers to families with children, it is an eclectic group. The line would have taken hours to clear if we didn’t put a stop to it. I don’t think they quite expected that level of immediate fandom. Splyce’s owner, Marty Strenczewilk, relayed a story to me. He said, “I met a guy on a plane once who said he was a big esports and League of Legends fan -- he was really excited when I told him I owned a team. But when I told him it was Splyce, he said he’d never heard of them.” He laughed.

Trashy, too, has seen firsthand just how crazy it could get, though he didn’t expect the same level of fandom either. He said, “I’ve been together at big events with Bjergsen -- it’s rough for him to even walk through casual places [near the venue] because he’ll get stopped all the time.”

Wunder added, “We’re rookies at the Worlds stage. People came here to watch the established teams.”

But they watched and will watch Splyce as well. Wunder’s family made the trip over from Denmark to watch him live. Trashy says his family is very supportive, too -- that they just want him to be happy at what he’s doing. “And I’m very happy right now,” he says. While the first weekend was disappointing, I think the two of them are very capable of managing their own expectations. Splyce is still in a position to create a lot of havoc in Week 2 -- and they’ll do their best to prove they belong on the Worlds stage.

But for all of their aggression on the Rift, they are reserved and thoughtful in person. All of this fanfare and excitement around the World Championship isn’t lost on them. Trashy adds, “It’s cool -- you never know when you’re gonna get recognized and asked for a picture.”

When we finally pulled them away from the crowd, I asked what they were going to do before their match started. Their manager smiled and said, “League of Legends.”