Bjergsen’s ‘League of Legends’ legacy

Bjerg retired from competitive play this Fall as one of the most successful League of Legends players ever in North America. Entering the league in 2014, the second LCS season, Bjerg gained a loyal fan base that appreciated his methodical, deliberate, and adaptable style, which produced four season split MVP awards and six North American split championships for the only North American team he’s played for, TSM, formerly known as Team SoloMid. The decision to retire came as a surprise to many, but also secured his legacy as one of the game’s all-time greats.

“Bjergsen is one of the all-time best League of Legends players, at mid laner, which is arguably most important role,” said David “Phreak” Turley, a “League of Legends” announcer with more than 15 years of experience in video games commentating and who is ranked in the top 1% of players. “He has been incredibly dominant and just been a hugely impactful force in North American League of Legends.”

Now Bjerg will embark on a new chapter in his trailblazing career, taking a role as TSM’s head coach. He will also continue in his role as a part-owner of TSM, after increasing the stake he acquired as part of a groundbreaking two-year contract he signed in 2019. While terms of that deal were not disclosed, top League players have been known to make salaries ranging as high as seven figures and a recent valuation placed TSM’s worth at $400 million. None of that, however, would have been achieved if he hadn’t managed to repeatedly confront and conquer a persistent adversary — his own self doubts.

Finding a calling

Bjerg’s high profile, lucrative career path was anything but inevitable as he grew up in Mejdal, Denmark, a town that did not have a restaurant until a pizzeria came to town during Bjerg’s teenage years. For starters, the game that would provide his career did not exist until he was in middle school. And while he loved video games from a young age, the notion of being a professional video game player wasn’t a consideration for anyone back then. Instead he’d focus on simply besting his brothers as a diversion while harboring dreams of becoming a pro soccer or handball player.

A medical condition derailed that dream and set him on a new path.

“I probably have my asthma to thank, a little bit, for being a competitive video game player, because it kind of took me out of sports,” Bjerg told The Post in an exclusive retrospective interview on his career.

But the path that would ultimately lead him to prosperity didn’t look so providential during his early teens.

“I was really struggling in school. I was really getting bullied by a lot of my classmates, both physically and mentally,” he said, describing himself as a “depressed kid” at that time.

The alienation at school was compounded by his loss of traditional sport — where he felt he belonged. Ultimately it led him to switch schools, and then take leave of his schooling altogether at 14 years old. He said he was “in and out” after that. Danish law requires the completion of ninth grade, but he did not earn a diploma.

It was around the time he dropped out that he learned of a new video game called “League of Legends.” It was not love at first sight.

“I thought the game looked pretty childish, and it didn’t seem as cool as ‘Counter-Strike’ or ‘World of Warcraft,’” he said.

His brothers and friends leaned on him to give it a shot. Eventually he did, and said he wound up playing 1,500 games casually because he was so drawn to the gameplay. Developing an appreciation for the game, the kid who longed to be a sportsman could not resist the trials of competition for long.

Bjerg dove in to the competitive scene, where he said he rediscovered much of what he’d recently lost — sport and social acceptance.

“I think it was a good replacement for sports. … The more games you win, the more points you get. The more games you lose, you lose points. It’s very clear whether you’re getting better,” he said, adding that the online game allowed him to meet new people and reconnect with friends who had moved away. “That was just easier for me. And it was always a very positive experience because we’re bonding over the game.”

The next level

In 2011, Bjerg’s abilities opened the door to regional tournaments. While satiating his desire to compete, they brought with them a new challenge with which he’d grapple throughout his competitive career.

“I was really freaking nervous. I was really insecure,” he said, recalling his worries about his skinny physical appearance and voice. “I was worried that the people that I played with online, once they got to meet me, they wouldn’t approve of me, maybe they would not want to play with me.”

His success in the game helped bolster his confidence, as did his manager at the time, Martin “Deficio” Lynge. His personal progress would be crucial the following year when, at just 16 years old, Bjerg was offered his first paid, pro contract by the Copenhagen Wolves, an opportunity he “jumped at.” Seeing he was not happy in school and that esports had put some money in their son’s bank account, his parents were on board and he made his first big decision in what would become his career.

Instead of a gaming house, the team was based out of a German hotel, which Bjerg described as “fairly nice, very artistic and colorful … but it’s hard for a hotel room to feel like home.” His focus was not, however, on the living situation but pursuing what he said had become his dream — becoming a pro gamer. Soon enough, he got himself noticed.

“He was an up and coming talent,” said Andy Dinh, CEO and founder of TSM. Dinh, who played professionally on TSM, was looking for his replacement. Despite the heights Bjergsen would ultimately reach, Dinh said he did not see greatness from the outset.

“We thought he would be an option three or an option four, not much separated him from the other players we could have gotten,” Dinh told The Post. “What stood out to me was how hungry he was. He really wanted the position … the biggest spark was how much he needed to make the career work for him.”

Dinh could recognize the hunger because he shared it, growing up as the son of immigrants who had given up much to come to the United States. While his siblings went to premier colleges, Dinh instead focused on gaming. He made a deal with his parents. He asked for a $5,000 loan from them and told them that if he failed to start a legitimate organization within 6 to 9 months, he would return to college. He never went back to school.

Dinh offered Bjerg a spot, though the Dane was still “very much a child, very immature,” Dinh recalled of the assessment he made when he himself was 22 years old.

Team Liquid’s Nicolaj Jensen, who plays the same position as Bjerg and is also from Denmark, said Bjerg was “making his way up there as a high prospect” when he first started off in the European league, though suffered from being on a weak team.

“It was a bit of a shock back then,” Jensen said when news broke that Bjerg had been signed, though mostly because he was one of the first players to be signed to a North American team from abroad. Today, NA LCS is known for having the most imports — close to half of players in last season’s summer split were not from the U.S. or Canada (Mexico competes in Latin American League).

Facing a familiar foe

Bjerg joined the squad and promptly found himself sleeping on the floor in a teammate’s room in San Jose. But he was on a top team and in a league that had burgeoning competitive infrastructures, like gaming houses and coaches. While he was focused on his game and would soon move with TSM to Santa Monica, Bjerg was still dogged by old demons.

“I had impostor syndrome and felt they were going to find out I wasn’t actually good enough to be helpful,” he said. He was concerned he wouldn’t last a year with TSM, even despite early success.

The awkward kid kept focusing on his game and quickly found that his desire to win, and then actually winning, overcame the cultural and social barriers he experienced. In his first split of his first season, Bjerg’s efforts earned him an MVP award. Later that year, he helped TSM win the summer split playoffs and secure a top seed to Worlds, where they lost in the quarterfinals.

“From the get go, it was clear this guy’s special,” Turley said.

The following year, Bjerg helped lead TSM to further success, with another MVP-winning spring split and playoff championship. TSM would also notch an international tournament win that year, a rarity for North American teams competing against Korean sides. TSM also took the spring split that year, but fell short during the summer split and in Worlds. Bjerg’s success over the next several years, with MVP awards in 2016 and 2017 as well as three playoff championships during those years. However, as TSM and Bjerg dominated North American play it became less important to him as success at Worlds proved elusive.

“I took succeeding in North America for granted,” he said. “I didn’t really care or feel too much from winning a trophy or winning an MVP, because it was just all about doing better internationally.”

During these years, the once reticent teen had grown into a team leader and something of a celebrity, a term he rejects for himself.

“I really learned how to be around people and how to be social and how to be just normal some degree,” Bjerg said. Dinh said Bjerg’s leadership could be seen in practice and competition, but was also evident in more subtle ways, with the team adopting specific terms he used in the game.

“It was gradual process for him to become a leader,” Dinh said, crediting Bjerg’s work ethic and performance. But Dinh also noted that Bjerg began to take note of his status by showing up to team meetings on time, after his default pattern of tardiness.

While Bjerg was able to work through his previous interpersonal limitations on the team, fans and public attention would represent another challenge for him.

“The amount of attention that you get, both positive and negative, from different forums and social media, I think it can really kind of warp a young mind,” he said, saying that at one point he thought he was “the hot s—, the coolest guy, the best player” while other times he said he was “terrible” and felt ready to quit.

“It’s not something I think, really, any young person can handle,” he said. Bjerg’s solution was to eventually ignore the peanut gallery as much as possible, while also waxing philosophical by saying that irate fans really just “want us to do better.”

A trailblazing legacy

Bjerg departs the LCS’s player ranks with a plethora of accolades, but many will remember him more for his overall impact on League of Legends esports.

“He changed the way the game is played. … It takes a group of people that dedicated to evolve a space and I think he’s one of the larger contributors for sure,” Dinh said. Turley agreed, saying that Bjerg, “has been important in growing the English-speaking audience for competitive League of Legends.”

He changed more than that. Last fall, Bjerg signed a new contract with TSM, one in which he secured part-ownership of the organization, a groundbreaking contract term that required special approval from the league’s governing body.

This past year, Bjerg went out with a summer split win and a second-place finish in MVP voting. His goal of success on the global stage eluded him however, as TSM departed Worlds with a winless performance.

“It sucked,” he said. “Of course, it sucked.”

Still, he tried to enjoy his last dance as a player. “Even though we lost, so it’s hard to find joy, I found it in any kind of moments leading up to the games and being onstage,” he said. “Whatever positive momentum we had in the games, I tried to really feel the full extent of the joy of competing.”

Despite not ending up where he hoped on the international stage, Bjerg felt he was ready to move on, announcing his plans to retire as a player. The news surprised Dinh and his competitors.

“I thought he’d run it back and prove everyone wrong,” Jensen said, alluding to the criticism Bjerg has received for his past performances at Worlds.

“He really has not accomplished anything outside of domestic play,” Turley said bluntly, adding he felt that Bjerg was rarely the fault point during TSM’s repeated failures to advance out of the group stage.

But Bjerg’s time in the league had helped him see a bigger picture. A lifelong competitor, Bjerg knew that every career comes to an end, and he wanted to be the one to make that decision.

“I had teammates who stuck around a little bit too long and it felt like it hurts their legacy, people didn’t respect them as much,” he said, noting he feels he could have had more years of competitive play. “I did it on my own terms.”

The next frontier

Dinh said Bjerg’s leadership and attention to detail should carry over to his new coaching role, in which he will have the added legitimacy of still being one of the top players at his position were he to suit up. Bjerg replaced Parth Naidu, who coached the team previously and was brought back on for last season’s summer split. Naidu stayed on with TSM as general manager for their League team.

Regarding the hire and offer of increased equity, Dinh said Søren created value for TSM in “multiple ways” and he wanted him to feel like “part of the organization.” He also said that Bjergsen’s move to coaching seemed like a natural extension of the work he was already doing in terms of helping his teammates improve and his interest in using analytical tools provided to the team by Logitech.

“I always saw he would make a good coach,” Dinh said. “Søren is naturally interested in science and performance and he’s always trying to get players around him to be better.”

Bjerg said the decision felt like a natural one for him.

“Just in my heart, this felt like the right time to go into coaching and what I’m passionate about. So that’s what I want,” he said.

To prepare for his new coaching role, Bjerg said he’s casting a wide net across the league for advice, in line with his collaborative leadership style. The outreach is a continuation of a process he began while still competing, even with those he played against.

“North America has always been behind and we tried to focus on helping each other,” said Team Liquid’s Jensen. “We needed to be able to benefit both of us and the league,” he said.

This commitment to improve NA LCS has not been lost on Turley and many other fans.

“He has very clearly decided that the U.S. is his home,” Turley said. “Instead of going to back to Denmark, he stayed here and I really appreciate that. He remained here to make the LCS better.”

Jensen thinks Bjerg’s strengths as player, which he identified as consistency and being “really good at understanding the right way to play the game” will translate to coaching.

“I think he will have good concepts on how to play the game,” Jensen said.

Though unsuccessful at helping a North American team win Worlds — a feat no LCS team has yet accomplished — Bjerg said he thinks bringing home a championship is possible, based on non-South Korean teams that have come in and been competitive.

“It definitely can happen. I’m not gonna say that it’s likely,” he said, citing the rise of Chinese teams. “But every region has shown they can put together a super team that can really catch up to the best teams in the world.”

As Bjerg starts TSM down that path as a coach, Dinh reflected on his former star player, the one who had to make it work, and the life he was able to set up for himself in a new country and a new industry — something that has been appreciated by both his team and supporters of North American LCS.

“He came to America and put in an insane amount of time and effort and built something for himself and his family,” Dinh said.

“I would just hope that I’ve kind of left an imprint on people,” Bjerg said.

Noah Smith is a regular contributor to The Washington Post and staff journalist for Direct Relief, a nonprofit. Follow his work on Twitter @Vildehaya.

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