At the dawn of competitive League of Legends, Europe began as the region of mid laners. Henrik “Froggen” Hansen, Alexey "Alex Ich" Ichetovkin, and Enrique "xPeke" Cedeño Martínez made the largest names for themselves in 2012 when international competition frothed to the point of boiling over. Even if a strong reputation for Korean top and jungle talent and Chinese ADCs emerged, even when Hong "MadLife" Min-gi began to change the way the world considered the support role, Europe had the best mids.
Froggen, Alex Ich, and xPeke all lead their teams to dizzying international heights at major tournaments during the second season. Both CLG EU and Moscow 5 went into the Season 2 World Championship as potential favorites to win it all. Korean team Azubu Frost also earned a mention, but commentators weren’t asking whether or not Froggen or Alex Ich could stand up to Jung “RapidStar” Min-sung of Azubu Frost, they were asking “Which EU mid is the best mid in the world?”
In 2013, the emergence of Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok changed everything. SKT Telecom T1 K’s near unquestionable domination of the 2013 World Championship left no lingering dispute. Faker was the best mid laner and the best player to ever touch League of Legends, and he remained on top for years to come.
Faker changed everything — until this year, when SKT not only didn’t make the World Championship, they didn’t make the playoffs in LCK, and the LCK representatives who advanced to Worlds in place of SKT didn’t even advance past the Quarterfinals. Suddenly the flood gates opened, and the title of “best player” was no longer region-locked. Three mids originally hailing from Europe have risen to share the top of the conversation yet again.
In the era of Faker’s dominance, a general assumption that he represented not just SKT, but all of Korea, seemed to prevail. It wasn’t just one man, Korea had the absolute best mid laners available. A careful glance over history and the mid laners who emerged in this year’s Semifinals demonstrates that just because Faker was the best, doesn’t mean that Korea produced the largest pool of competitive mid lane talent.
In 2018’s World Championship Semifinals, representatives from three different generations of European mid lane talent took to Summoner’s Rift. Nicolaj “Jensen” Jensen, Luka “Perkz” Perković, and Rasmus “Caps” Winther all demonstrated that European mids have always found a way to rise to the top.
Jensen’s history is a complicated one, as his development draws from multiple years without an LCS debut. When the reign of xPeke, Froggen, and Alex Ich as the undisputable mid kings of the rift began to wane, other challengers from Europe emerged. Erlend “Nukeduck” Våtevik Holm of Sinners Never Sleep — later, Lemondogs — Søren "Bjergsen" Bjerg of Copenhagen Wolves, and another player known then as Incarnati0n were all members of the next generation of European mid laners.
Nukeduck and Incarnati0n in particular often met in solo queue and rose as prominent players of some of the best assassin champions. All three of Nukeduck, Bjergsen, and Incarnati0n have survived to play LCS to this day, but Incarnati0n couldn’t debut in the same year as Nukeduck and Bjergsen. Time stalled for Incarnati0n due to a competitive ban from February of 2013 until May of 2015. Such was Incarnati0n’s repute, however, that only days after his ban was lifted, he joined Cloud9, replacing legendary shotcaller Hai “Hai” Du Lam and taking on the name "Jensen".
Jensen’s beginning came as a struggle. He learned a great deal about side laning from Hai who returned to the jungle position in one of Cloud9’s now typical comebacks from the bottom of the standings to the World Championship. Nevertheless, Jensen had a chance to put his skills on display internationally for the first time in 2015: the only year in which C9 failed to advance beyond the Group Stage.
But even in this first modest performance, Jensen faced competent mid lane competition and didn’t falter. He had to test his mettle against Fnatic’s Fabian “Febiven” Diepstraten — a European mid who often looked up to Nukeduck and came out of the generation after Jensen’s — Rookie, and ahq e-Sport’s Liu "Westdoor" Shu-wei (famed more for his map play than laning prowess, but noteworthy on Fizz and Twisted Fate). Cloud9 split even with every team in their group, but lost the tie-breaker to ahq and failed to advance to the Quarterfinals.
Since 2015, Jensen had the opportunity test his skills twice against Faker himself. Cloud9’s record against Faker’s SKT stands at 0-4, but Jensen has made an impressive mark against nearly every other mid lane opponent he faced. In 2016, no mid but Faker could squash Jensen’s laning prowess, even Lee “Crown” Min-ho and Huang “Maple” Yi-tang. In 2017, he stood above a less tempered Lee “Scout” Ye-chan and got his revenge against Westdoor before a bloody best-of-five against Su “xiye” Han-wei.
This year, after a shaky Play-In, Jensen continued to perform exceptionally in Group Stage against Crown and Li “Xiaohu” Yuan-hao, only struggling against the Italian Stallion Daniele "Jiizuke" di Mauro. He exploded in their first game against Afreeca Freecs’ Lee “Kuro” Seo-haeng, leading Cloud9 to advance handily in the only 3-0 of the Quarterfinals.
Much of Jensen’s progress has stemmed from transferring his raw skill as the 1v1 monster that was Incarnati0n to a stable and consistent player who understands fake pressure and playing for his jungler. Jensen’s largest growth point this year came from his ability to roam if he took advantage of the window where he got first back against his opponent. He assisted both his junglers in Cloud9, adapting to the more unpredictable nature of Robert “Blaber” Huang and opening up options for Dennis "Svenskeren" Johnsen. Either way, Jensen looks best when he plays aggressively and opens an opportunity for his jungler to cleanup and snowball ahead, extending advantages to other lanes.
Flexibility makes the once young Generation Two mid laner look like the most mature of the EU mids in the Semifinals, but the accolade of best performer undoubtedly goes to Perkz: the middle child.
Jensen transcends a large swathe of mid lane talent following the reign of the original Top Three. He started in the era of Nukeduck and Bjergsen’s emergence and came to prominence during Febiven’s rise in 2015. Perkz, G2 Esports’ franchise player, comes from the generation of European mids after Jensen, Nukeduck, and Febiven — after Faker’s clout had irreversibly changed the landscape. He didn’t come up in a time where it was assumed he would simply wrest the mantel from Froggen or Alex Ich.
Perkz didn’t inherit anything. He had to earn it.
Anyone playing outside Champions Korea had assumed inferiority and had to prove they even had a shot at tangling with the best. While many European mid lane talents still received praise, it was with an air of uncertainty. They didn’t have the opportunity to spend the year playing against Faker, so how could anyone truly call them the best?
The likes of Heo “PawN” Won-seok, Shin “Coco” Jin-yeong, and Kuro often received accolades just by existing in the same league as Faker even before international showings. Despite strong individual performances by the likes of Alex Ich, Froggen, Xpeke, Febiven, Jensen, and arguably Bjergsen, European mid laners didn’t receive the same benefit of the doubt awarded to the Season 2 greats.
At his first international event, Perkz created ripples of outrage by suggesting that European mids could even be considered equals to mids hailing from any Asian region. The short memory of the international community allowed for the collective raising of eyebrows, and Perkz’s initial international showings, did him no favors.
Far from emerging as a bold and fresh rookie to take on some of the best in his role like Nukeduck, Jensen, or Febiven before him, Perkz’s first MSI yielded a 2-8 bowing out, and he crumbled even against Counter-Logic Gaming’s much-maligned Choi "huhi" Jae-hyun at Worlds in 2016. Some of Perkz’s most vocal detractors invented rhymes to celebrate his failures.
But regardless of where Perkz’s failings stemmed, his climbing of the global ladder redeemed him by the end of 2017’s MSI. Because of continuous competition at MSIs and the 2017 IEM World Championship, one could almost call G2 Esports and Flash Wolves unofficial international rivals. While Jensen found himself constantly pitted against ahq’s Westdoor, Perkz in particular has expressed that the LMS’ king of the mid lane has taught him a great deal.
“I learned from Maple at IEM how important is a counter pick and push lane, etc,” Perkz said in 2017. “In EU, I could get away with picking Jayce into Syndra. I would just win my lane. But this guy was just playing to push mid, so there was a new light to my eyes.”
For Perkz, the gaps between himself and someone like Maple didn’t come in individual skill or 1v1 prowess. Impacting the map and his role as a mid laner in the context of the team mattered more. At the World Championship in 2018, that showed up particularly in Game Five against Royal Never Give Up.
When Jian “Uzi” Zi-hao over-extended to pressure a turret in a side lane, Perkz’s LeBlanc appeared to punish him. When G2 Esports needed to weave through fog of war to collect shutdown gold or find Uzi isolated, Perkz found the opportunity. Even after brushing up against Rookie, Perkz still leads all four Semifinalist mid laners in percentage of team damage dealt at 27.6%.
Perkz’s losses at Rookie’s hands in the Semifinals even demonstrated glimmers of triumph. He performed better in losing matchups in the first two games than any other mid laner had against Rookie all event. In Game Three, with mid lane priority secured in the first three minutes, Perkz had just enough mana for Glacial Path, Ring of Frost, and Ice Shard to help jungler Marcin “Jankos” Jankowski secure two kills and a snowball for G2. Perkz maximized what he could get with a lead even during his team’s final moments at Worlds.
But Jensen and Perkz’s exits clear the stage for Europe’s final mid lane representative to rise. So far, the tournament hasn’t been especially kind to Caps. Despite heavy murmurs surrounding his entrance into Worlds after his showboating at MSI, it has felt much more like the rest of Fnatic carried the team to the Semifinals. He didn’t live up to the same standards set by Cloud9 and G2 Esports’ mid laners.
Against Jensen, however, Caps found a new level of prowess nearly unseen for him at Worlds. Even in poor matchups, his 2v2 with Mads "Broxah" Brock-Pedersen outperformed Jensen and Svenskeren. Caps went from an average 304 gold deficit in the rest of the tournament at ten minutes to a 107 gold lead over Jensen in the Semifinals. He also earned Player of the Game twice in a row for his efforts.
Caps overcoming Jensen represents a cathartic moment where the highly touted best-of-the-west has finally given a show-stopping performance against an elite mid laner at the World Championship. Even with incredible teamfight play, Caps’ fumbles against Rookie and Scout in laning phase made it seem as if Fnatic sometimes succeeded in spite of him, not because of him. He has tried thrice against Rookie and failed each time — even worse than his matchup dictates he should.
With Jensen and Perkz bowing out of the tournament, the stage is set for Caps to claim the ultimate redemption. Jensen came from an age of solo queue just after Froggen, Alex Ich, and xPeke when European mids were assumed to be the best by default. Perkz had to struggle through Group Stages for two years before he had enough tape to demonstrate that it isn’t unbelievable that European mids could rub shoulders with Korean giants.
Caps and Team Vitality’s Jiizuke — sure to turn even more heads next year after his Group Stage performance in 2018 — represent a third age. An age where the best mid laner doesn’t make the best region of mid laners. An age where performance on the rift alone can determine standings.