Western teams and the dangers of international burnout

We look at why international tournaments like Worlds and MSI seem to be the breaking point for the vast majority of western League of Legends lineups.

(Image Credit: Riot Games)

Coming into Worlds 2016, TSM looked set for success. Despite their initial struggles in spring, they built up one of the strongest rosters in North America and produced a monstrous 17-1 record over the course of the Summer Split. They were the definition of an NA LCS powerhouse, and even casters bought into the narrative that TSM could make a deep Worlds run. 

And then it just… didn’t happen.

TSM struggled to hold their own in the group stage, and while their 3-3 record didn’t look bad on paper, it wasn’t enough to break into the playoffs. Of course, you could go back and argue that TSM ended up in the hardest group of the tournament. They had to go against juggernauts like Royal Never Give Up and Samsung Galaxy, so—in a sense—this result didn’t exactly come out of the blue. Still, it was hard to deny that TSM members made multiple uncharacteristic mistakes and bad judgment calls at the tournament.

Most viewers will likely remember Doublelift dashing to his death against an enemy Viktor. But what about Bjergsen giving up two solo kills to the same Viktor in the early game? Or Hauntzer having a very underwhelming showing on Jayce in the deciding match against RNG? Granted, these flaws could’ve been exposed because they were going against stronger opponents, but it was hard to shake the feeling that TSM were falling apart. 

When the dust settled, TSM’s owner Andy "Reginald" Dinh apologized to the fans, claiming that the team "choked and could not perform up to expectations." It was easy to dismiss this statement as yet another in the long list of North America’s excuses. Looking back, there was a ring of truth to it. 

Right after their victory at the 2016 NA LCS, TSM’s performance coach and psychology trainer Weldon Green claimed they were practicing insane hours and trying “to find the edge between maximum possible effort and avoiding burnout”. Bjergsen echoed this sentiment. According to him, TSM were modeling their practice schedule after Korean teams that practiced for 15 hours a day. This willingness to go above and beyond turned TSM into the NA LCS champions. 

It also put them on the edge of burnout right before the most important tournament of the season.

But this issue isn’t limited to TSM. Even now, more than two years later, international tournaments act as the straw that breaks the camel’s back. A single glance at G2’s Luka "Perkz" Perković in his post-game interview after beating Royal Never Give Up at Worlds 2018 would let you know that G2’s mid laner was on his last legs.

Later, Fnatic’s head coach Joey “Youngbuck” Stelenpool mentioned how “too much practice and too little time off” was the main factor behind his team’s poor form in the finals against Invictus Gaming.It’s easy to see the reasoning behind this. 

As the former OpTic Gaming and Unicorns of Love manager Romain Bigeard put it, professional League of Legends has more in common with a marathon than a sprint, but international tournaments like Worlds or MSI have elements of both. These events tend to last for 3-4 weeks, yet teams often start boot camping for them a month in advance. On top of that, players feel obligated to push past their limits in practice since international competitions are viewed as once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. But few people can handle being in a crunch time mode for two months in a row. 

And so, pros burn out. 

This rabbit hole goes even deeper. International tournaments are just the tip of the iceberg, and veteran players like Doublelift and Perkz already went on record saying how mentally draining competitive League of Legends can be. Still, it’s hard to argue against the trend of Western teams struggling to balance rest and practice in high-pressure moments. Until coaches and owners become more thoughtful about the way they approach international bootcamps, players will keep burning out.

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Daniil Volkov

I craft League of Legends narratives and cover LCK, NA & EU LCS.