OCT 10, 2017

Soren “Bjergsen” Bjerg has trouble remembering how many times he’s been MVP. I feel embarrassed that I have to phrase it as a question when I congratulate Team SoloMid’s midlaner on winning what I think is his fourth most valuable player award for the North American LCS, but he can’t remember either - he replies “Fourth, I think? I don’t really know,” and then laughs, the drawn out “i” in think making it apparent that he knows as well as I do. At this point, Bjergsen has so many trophies that it’s hard to keep track (for the record, it is four - half of all the MVP awards ever given out in the NA LCS). For some, that level of decoration would be reward enough itself. Not for Bjergsen. “It’s nice,” Bjergsen says, “but I still have more aspirations, I guess. So it doesn’t satisfy me that I have just four MVP awards or something. There’s still much more to be achieved.”

Things weren’t always that way. Once, just winning the split was a glory Bjergsen had never known before. “The win always tasted a lot sweeter in the beginning,” he says. “in the beginning, it was amazing if we could even win NA but now, like Doublelift said, we just went to Boston to collect the trophy. The expectations definitely have changed. The level that I need to get to really feel satisfied has changed along with it.”

Bjergsen has built a complex legacy in his near five years as a professional player. He’s indisputably the most dominant player in North American League of Legends history and arguably one of the West’s greatest propositions to a puzzle that has seemed more and more impossible to solve as time goes by that of Korean dominance. But with all that said, he’s only acquired one international title for his resume; IEM IX World Championship Katowice, where TSM walked its way to an almost too-easy trophy after World Elite’s freak upset of the GE Tigers in the semifinals. It’s the conundrum that plagues every star player from a region not named Korea - with a single league so evidently, head and shoulders above any would-be challengers, international success is a joy so rare that even when it does come, it can almost seem unearned. It’s expected that a player of Bjergsen’s caliber would be hungry for more - we’d be disappointed if his “expectations” were anything less than what they are - but the pedigree of “best Western player” can read more as a caveat than praise. As Team SoloMid makes their way through a fourth Worlds with a group that seems tailor-made for them to advance, the expectations are higher than ever - from TSM fans, North American fans, and yes, Western fans as a whole. So how is it that a boy from Denmark who used to have trouble being on camera came to shoulder the hopes of multiple continents?

Bjergsen is the person, who throughout the years that I’ve known him, has always improved and refined the process of how he wants to improve as a player.”PARTH ON BJERGSEN

For what it’s worth, that weight doesn’t seem to burden Bjergsen that much. He’s certainly aware of the bar that’s been set for him, but his priority lies equally with his fans and with the team for which he’s been the marquee member for the last four years. “I think it’s a little bit of both,” he says. Obviously, the first priority is being able to make my team proud, my owner proud, manager, coaches, but also the NA fans who have a lot of faith in me and my team or any other NA team when it comes to international tournaments. I definitely do think about them and want to make them proud. But I guess I want to make any kind of fan proud. Not specifically the NA fans, but I know those are the fans we have the most.” The pressure to succeed doesn’t worry him, but instead serves as a source from which he can draw motivation and energy. Once Bjergsen checks in, it’s all business. “Once I’m in the game, I don’t think about it,” he says. “That said, it motivates me and it makes me work harder because I have that. It’s not really in anyone else’s hands, but myself and my team. I would rather have that than having to rely on someone else.”

That sort of confidence is one of Bjergsen’s trademarks as a competitor. It’s clear in speaking to him, deep in the middle of TSM’s bootcamp in Korea to prepare for Worlds, that he doesn’t have time for doubts. It’s the mark of a player who has put in the work to ensure that they’re giving the best they can. “Bjergsen is the person, who throughout the years that I’ve known him, has always improved and refined the process of how he wants to improve as a player,” says Parth Naidu, who has worked with Bjergsen for three years as a member of TSM’s coaching staff. “He’ll go out of his way to talk to his analyst and make sure that he has all the right builds, help do all the research, try it in solo queue, and then he will come back to me and tell me if he’s good in what context he’s good in.The experience that Bjergsen has over the last two years, and my relationship with him, it’s much easier to work with him in anything that we’re trying to do compared to the other players.”

That dedication to hard work has shown up in Bjergsen’s play. Once a player who shone most on high-damage assassins and the odd control mage, he’s now grown into a well-rounded role-player who can perform any job his team asks of him. He frequently tops the charts for damage share and damage per minute even as he takes up less gold than his other North American midlaners in comparison to their team. He played 11 different champions across the 2017 summer split, ranging from tanks like Galio to long-range poke mages like Corki. Some of his most impressive performances have come on supportive midlaners, like his explosive pentakill against CLG on Karma back in the 2014 Spring semifinals. He is by far one of the most consistent players of his generation, with his few slumps often owed to his experimentation with new champions in order to broaden TSM’s strategic playbook.

According to the man himself, however, it’s more than just the hours that’s led to his stellar play. “It’s not just work ethic,” Bjergsen says. “It’s also being able to work smart, because I know people that play more games than me, but if you’re just grinding game after game and watching VODs and you’re not really getting anything from it. So it’s always fighting to optimize your practice and being able to practice long hours, but also being efficient hours.” Although that level of practice is what’s expected of any professional League of Legends player, it’s apparent from talking to those who know Bjergsen that he’s mastered the art of self-improvement to a degree that sets him apart. “I think one of the coolest things about working with Bjerg is that he honestly really tries to just be better every single day.” says Andy “Reginald” Dinh, TSM’s founder and owner. “The best way to explain it is that he will always focus on improving himself and the people around him and he expects really high standards of everyone around him. His overall mindset to take criticism and fix it is honestly astonishing.”

That commitment to bettering himself has sometimes left Bjergsen as a shining exemplar surrounded by those who couldn’t quite live up to him. Although these days, each of his teammates can boast to be one of the best at their position in North America, it’s not that long ago that the jokes about TSM being “Bjergsen and four wards” were still floating around. As Bjergsen started to outstrip his teammates in skill level, his responsibilities grew - and sometimes, he says, that led to his own play suffering. “When my play personally felt limited, it’s not because I’m making the overall macro call for the team or being a leader for the team, it’s because my teammates weren’t even knowledgeable enough to understand what they were supposed to do within their individual roles. In the past, I had to think about what my teammates needed to be doing and I have to be guiding their individual characters which needs a lot of focus - kind of playing the game for someone else.”

I take my job really
seriously, whereas some
people - you know, they’re
just talented, or they play
a lot ... but they don’t
actually really take it
seriously.
- BJERGSEN

These days, each member of Team SoloMid can hold their own as one of the best in their position in North America - but it’s not as though that transition purely came through replacing past-their-prime players with new and upgraded versions. Bjergsen himself has a fair amount to do with any sort of growth that TSM goes through, and not just as its longest-tenured member. “Bjergsen is also at the point where he’s not only efficient in the way that he works with himself in terms of how he wants to improve, he also helps others as well,” says Parth. “I think Bjergsen reached the point where he recognized that anything he can do to improve himself is going to hit diminishing returns compared to him working and helping his teammates improve at the same time. This year, specifically, in reviews, Bjergsen is probably the most vocal player in terms of what he thinks that he wants - not only ways where the team could help him in the game, but how he thinks other players should also be playing the game.”

That sort of laser focus is consistent even when TSM isn’t at the height of its powers - according to Parth, when the team has had rougher patches, such as when they integrated longtime Fnatic support Bora “Yellowstar” Kim, it was Bjergsen who would go out of his way to review VODs and reach out to teammates to figure out how they could make changes. Of course, some of that is expected of any captain of a team, but Bjergsen puts in the extra effort to ensure that it’s his team as a whole, and not just him, that’s operating in top form. While it’s clear that a large part of that is due to his inborn motivation to succeed, Bjergsen also credits Peter “Doublelift” Peng with encouraging him to spend time on his teammates as well as himself, saying “since Doublelift joined the team, he showed me that during team practice, it’s not even just about improving the macro strategy and improving yourself, it’s also about being able to improve small things with your teammates all the time. He’s always questioning everything I do and it just made me a better player. So I started kind of, as we’re playing, I was looking at what my teammates are doing, if they can do different jungle pathing, different item builds, use their abilities, different skirmishes, and team fights in that way I am always trying to help elevate my teammates as well as elevating myself.”

Of course, Doublelift’s penchant for criticism has been known as much as his downfall as something that makes him a great teammate. It’s clear from talking to the support system that surrounds him that Bjergsen’s desire to constantly better himself is his protection against being too affected by criticism, but according to Bjergsen that sort of environment is also what has become the TSM norm. “The TSM culture is very much like everyone is open to take and give criticism and we’re all good friends, we’re all good teammates,” he says. “When you give someone harsh criticism, they know it’s coming from a place of ‘we want to be the best team, we want to win.’ So there’s almost never a time where someone feels hurt or it’s affected anyone’s friendships in the team. Sometimes I’m a dick to Doublelift, but he's still a super good friend of mine and he'll be hard on me when he needs to be and I really like that about our team environment.”

Talking to Bjergsen about this is easy. With all the time set aside for self-improvement, it’s clear that he’s organized his thoughts around not just League of Legends, but the way he lives his life. “I think Soren is just a very goal-oriented person,” says Parth. “If you ever just glance over his computer screen or see what he’s doing, his schedule is pretty strict in terms of when he wants to dedicate himself to the game and when he doesn’t.” That sort of codified balance is something Parth says he doesn’t think that many other players have come close to mastering - and perhaps one of the reasons that Bjergsen is so consistently on his game. “I think I take the game really seriously,” he says. “I take my job really seriously, whereas some people - you know, they’re just talented, or they play a lot and they end up in the LCS but they don’t actually really take it seriously.” His use of the word “job” is telling - perhaps it’s his awareness that his position is work that allows him to grasp the balance that seems to elude so many pros.

That said, Bjergsen isn’t treating this like any regular 9 to 5. There is a glowing ember inside of him - strong and with no sign of flickering out before its time. “I think a lot of people in NA LCS, if they make it to the top, they’re like, ‘I made it, this is everything I wanted,’ right?” he remarks. “But Regi kind of always instilled the mindset in me that NA LCS has got to be expected that we win and I can’t be satisfied until we win Worlds.”

When Bjergsen joined Team SoloMid in 2013, it was far different than the now standard practice of a North American team picking up a proven import talent to fill the holes in NA’s perceived weak domestic talent pool. Bjergsen was a bright talent, sure, but his previous teams had only been mildly successful, mostly carried to their 5th place successes by his raw skill. Consider that the only attempted import to North America to date had been that of legendary Gambit support Edward to Curse, a move that led to mixed results and Edward booking the soonest possible flight back to Europe. But this wasn’t just any player that Bjergsen was tasked with replacing: it was Reginald, TSM’s founder and captain, notoriously aggressive both in game and out.

Bjergsen makes his debut for TSM at NA LCS Super Week in 2014.Courtesy Riot Games

“Honestly I had really high expectations of him and, just looking back, I was kind delusional, right?” says Reginald with a laugh. “Because we brought him in, he had just turned 17 and I was like, “hey Bjerg, within six months, I want you to be the captain of this team.” He laughs again. Although these days it’s hard not to picture Bjergsen in the black and white of TSM, back then it was a different vanguard entirely that spurred chants of “baylife!” when they entered the arena. Marcus “Dyrus” Hill and Alex “Xpecial” Chu certainly outstripped Bjergsen in popularity, but for Regi’s money, they were flat out better players than him at the time as well. “He was playing with all these veterans that were honestly just better than him. Even though he was good mechanically, from an experience standpoint and everything else, he didn't compare to those guys.” Bjergsen was seen by some as the next in line in a long tradition of superstar European midlaners that included the likes of Henrik “Froggen” Hansen, Aleksei “Alex Ich” Ichetovkin, and Enrique “xPeke” Cedeño Martinez, but Reginald says he wasn’t even taking that into consideration. “I didn't really care if he was EU or NA,” he says. “Most of the midlaners were pretty crappy in NA, and I felt like the midlaners in EU really weren’t that much better. What I think is that I saw that he could be a leader. I thought that the players on our team were just so immature and they could hardly they get their shit together, ‘I was like, okay because our players are so bad at this, maybe this guy can do it.’”

Reginald laughs again as he says this. It’s understandable - on that reasoning alone, it would be a huge mistake to pick up a player who you expect to be the future leader for your team. But Reginald did have something else backing him up, although it may not have been that concrete either. “It was really the type of character profile that I thought would fit into the team really well,” he says. He grows quiet before he talks again. “If you look at him from like a life perspective, right, Soren was someone that never really had much. Growing up, not in the sense that he wasn’t provided for, but when he went to school he was bullied. He didn't really fit in. He wasn't really that happy. He went through periods where he was just really sad going to school.”

I think one of the big reasons why he works that hard is because he realizes the opportunity that's given to him and he doesn't want to miss it. He doesn't want to lose it. And he knows that these type of opportunities don't come very often.”REGINALD ON BJERGSEN

What becomes apparent is that when Reginald speaks of a character profile that would fit Team SoloMid, he doesn’t just mean that he saw a born leader - what he saw was a kid who reminded him of himself. “He never really found anything that really motivated him, right?” Reginald continues. “And I felt like I shared the same - no, I didn't get bullied but I shared the same sentiment as him where we both have this mindset where we're given this opportunity and we really want to make the best out of it. I think one of the big reasons why he works that hard is because he realizes the opportunity that's given to him and he doesn't want to miss it. He doesn't want to lose it. And he knows that these type of opportunities don't come very often. And what we really needed was someone that really cared. Would have really cared to have that position and would have worked really hard to continue to work hard to keep it and take the team to new levels.”

If there is one thing that no one could accuse Reginald of, it’s of not caring about his team. In fact, when Reginald did receive spectator hate - and boy, did he take a lot of it - it was frequently for caring too much. Clips of him berating his teammates over a bad play or simply calling them stupid would rocket up the League of Legends subreddit, droves of commenters furious over his unprofessionalism. But what nobody could deny was that Team SoloMid was good - and for all his volume, Reginald was the undisputed leader of that team. Replacing him was a task wholly unlike anything else.

That shadow looms large over Bjergsen. When I talk to him about Doublelift joining the team, he mentions that before the former CLG AD Carry’s conversion to the cult of TSM, “the only person I could actively really learn from was Reginald.” (He later appends that he also learned a good deal from Yoonsup “Locodoco” Choi, feeling bad for forgetting TSM’s former head coach). But on Reginald: “He’s just really fucking smart. When I talk to him, there’s oftentimes where I thought I saw the correct play… but Andy just has an eye for it, and he’s like, ‘No, if you guys all dropped everything you’re doing and you all went to dragon right now, you have gotten it. No doubt.’ And he’s right. That smart. He just understands the basics so well that he’s able to, even now, so many years later, identify things that some current pros or current coaches can’t even do.”

Reginald has served as far more than just a League of Legends teacher for Bjergsen. After all, when Bjergsen moved from Europe to North America at just 17 years old, Reginald was essentially his sole sponsor - the days of sports psychology coaches were still a few years off. To that end, Reginald was - to some degree - the one who helped Bjergsen grow from that boy who was sad just going to school to the confident person he is today. “He’s helped me with both in and out of game issues,” Bjergsen says. “I think any kind of issue that I thought about. Whether it’s dealing with past girlfriends, because I think everyone goes through that stage where you don’t know how to handle a relationship, or where you don’t know how to handle outside life.” Even his competitive nature, while clearly innate, is something that Parth, at least, feels is owed to Reginald, saying “I think just the foundation that the team is built on was given to us by Andy just because of how competitive he is. I think without Andy giving that to the team and specifically Bjergsen, I don’t think the team would be where it is today.” Without Reginald, maybe Bjergsen would be able to remember how many MVP awards he has.

Bjergsen is clearly one of Reginald’s biggest fans - even of his style as a leader. When Bjergsen talks about Reginald, it’s clear that he’s very aware of the pros that come with that particular brand of leadership: “He’s very harsh, he’s very blunt in his wording, but I think everyone who’s on TSM understands that it's just because he cares for the players, he cares for the team, and he wants us to succeed so he’s not afraid to say it like it is to our faces. I think that’s also very good, because he doesn’t waste time sugar-coating, he just says "this is awful, you guys suck at this,” or “you’re going to get better at this, and this is how.”

It should come as no surprise that Bjergsen partially models his own leadership style after Reginald’s. Here, he demonstrates that he’s aware of the cons of that style - and why it’s only a partial imitation. “It’s not exactly like his,” Bjergsen says, “but I can be pretty harsh on my teammates in the same way and be fairly blunt. I guess I just learned from Andy that being straight to someone’s face and telling it like it is can sometimes be the fastest way to convey a message. There’s some good and bad that comes from that - I would say I’ve learned from him but I'm not Reginald V2 just yet.”

I’m not so sure of that last part. Sure, Bjergsen isn’t as blunt or forthright as Reginald is - but in some ways, doesn’t that make him exactly what Reginald version two should be? When I ask Reginald if he thinks Bjergsen has the same method of leadership as him, he laughs awkwardly and responds, “I don't think so. For me, right - I'm a very harsh person, and pretty brutal. I would be like, “Are you fucking serious? You're playing like a fucking bronze player, now get your shit together.” Bjergsen would just say “that play is bad, that shouldn't happen.” Bjergsen is well aware that there’s a danger to being too hard on your teammates. It’s one of the many areas where he’s made a concerted effort to grow. “I’ve matured a lot,” he says. “Sometimes I say something and I criticize one of my teammates and I’m wrong - it’s about being humble enough to be able to take that and say, ‘oh yeah, you’re actually right. I was wrong. Sorry.’ I think it’s about being able to not just give criticism, but also being willing to be wrong. I think some people are good at taking criticism and not as good at being wrong.” If Bjergsen has taken the good parts of Reginald’s style of leadership - his ability to convey an idea quickly and with no equivocating - but maintain healthy relationships while doing so, I’d say that’s a straight-up upgrade.

Maybe what Reginald really needed in his almost impossible search for the player to replace him was someone who could take the heat - and within that flame, constantly reforge for battles ahead. Maybe it was the recognition of a familiar iron will tempered through hardship, that so endeared the Danish midlaner to him. It certainly seems that way from speaking to him. “The reason why we picked him up was because he would have a much more serious attitude than everyone else,” Reginald says. “Essentially, he would have moved from Europe all the way through North America. He would have a purpose and had he failed from being successful on TSM, it would really suck. He would have moved away from his family, moved away from everyone that he knew and was close to. He would have worked the hardest - and he really has. He's worked really hard and he's been very successful.” To be able to sacrifice to be the best, whether that’s personal relationships or time - that’s what Reginald was looking for.

Reginald got that fire. But what he also got, magically, was someone who could temper that energy and harness it, better than he ever did - to the point that the same sacrifice need not be as dire. There is no question that Bjergsen is just as motivated as Reginald - but the same sort of destructive in-fighting is just something you could never imagine under his control of TSM, at least not coming from him. Reginald says he wasn’t professional enough; what he found in that young Danish kid was a consummate professional, but one who would never let the rigor of his work stifle his desire to win.

That’s why I don’t quite believe it when Bjergsen tells me he’s trying to keep his expectations reasonable at Worlds this year. It fits in with his not wanting to overwhelm his teammates - he says that his position last year, when he considered anything below semifinals a failure, may have caused his teammates too much pressure. And that’s the correct stance for him to take, as a leader - after all, TSM’s last two Worlds left a lot to be desired. So when Bjergsen tells me “I just want to go in not having any regrets towards the way we practiced, or the way we played or the way we drafted or whatever,” I do believe him - because I think that he truly does want to keep the expectations manageable, to be the best leader he can be.

But I also believe that more than anything, Bjergsen wants to hoist that Summoner’s Cup - not just someday, but now. That he can’t conceal that ambition is a good thing. That insatiable need to be the best is the other part of what makes Bjergsen a great leader. It’s what keeps him working harder than almost anyone else. It’s what makes Parth say “I don’t think anyone will have the same impact he has on a team. It’s not just because of him as a person, and a player, and what he is today. It’s also because of the respect that I and all the players in the team have for the amount of experience that he’s gained over the team.”

When I ask Reginald what the biggest similarity between him and Bjergsen is, he replies,”I think the biggest similarity is just we really want to win it. We really want to be the best in what we do. And a lot of people say it. I think he actually really wants it, and I really want it.” Bjergsen’s under no illusion that to win Worlds would be anything short of miraculous. But does he want it? I think he’s made that clear.