When the North American League of Legends pro team Team Curse picked up Korean player Chae "Piglet" Gwang-jin last year, they thought they'd signed one of the best players in the world. Now just four months later, Piglet's coach announced that he's been replaced by a relative rookie in the starting line-up. The sudden change has many fans wondering what went wrong.
The short answer is that Piglet wasn't performing as well as he was expected to. As any team would when faced with a weak player, they decided to bench him. Piglet isn't just any League of Legends player, though. For the past two years, he's been regarded as one of the best -- if not the best player for the specific position he fills on a team. Seeing a high-profile player tossed to the side after competing for just four weeks triggered thousands of comments on popular forums like the League subreddit from players wondering (or attempting to explain) what the hell his coaches are thinking.
The longer explanation for Piglet's unexpected fall-from-grace is an interesting story about the struggles that top eSports athletes face when they're forced to adapt to a new environment, as they often are given the reshuffling of teams and corporate sponsors that takes place every year prior to high-stakes competitions like the League of Legends championship series.
The eSports scene can be very dense and illegible for even casual followers, so let me give some background to help illustrate why Piglet's benching has struck a chord with diehard League fans. Piglet joined Team Curse in October 2014. The team has since been rebranded as Team Liquid, following a merger of Teams Liquid and Curse last month. Regardless of the corporate manoeuvring, Piglet's position was supposed to remain the same: he'd be one of the five players in Liquid's starting line-up for the 2015 North American Championship Series, a months-long competition between the best League teams in the region that determines who gets to participate in the lucrative Worlds Championship, which kicks off in October.
Those who make it to Worlds compete against other top teams from around the globe for million-dollar winning prizes (the 2014 winners took home $US1 million). Since the stakes of the tournament are so high, teams going into LCS do their best to prepare by attracting the greatest possible talent for their roster. So when Team Curse (now Team Liquid) recruited Piglet, they thought they'd made a safe bet to secure their chances to make it through LCS and onto Worlds.
Korean players are often considered the best at League, as they are in many popular eSports. But Piglet was something special. He started playing League competitively in 2013 for the Korean team SK Telecom T1 K (SKT for short), which ended up winning Worlds that year. Many fans considered Piglet instrumental to SKT's many victories in 2013 thanks to his adaptable and aggressive style, which helped propel the team's forward momentum in offensive plays and plug up holes in their defences whenever they started to appear.
Piglet plays as an "AD Carry," a position that's vital in high-level competitive League games because, as the name implies, they're meant to "carry" their team to victory by working with another teammate in a support role and deal tons of damage late in a match. Being an assist position for the early stages of a match, however, means that the AD Carry isn't always as high-profile a position as some others. While on SKT, Piglet was often overshadowed by his teammate Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok, who played the starring role of "AP Carry," which is often compared to being, say, the quarterback of a football team.
Despite Faker's pre-eminent role on SKT, Piglet showed enough talent that he managed to make a name for himself. Here's how an article published today in The Score describes his career during that time (emphasis mine):
It isn't even that Piglet was on one of the most dominating teams in League of Legends history with SK Telecom T1 in Season 3. It's that Piglet was a vital part, being the secondary carry alongside Faker, that was needed to step up when the mid lane couldn't get rolling. Without Piglet on that team, SK Telecom T1 is never as good as they were. You can talk about how amazing Faker is and how he's the best player in the world, but the numerous championships and their victory at Worlds never happen if Piglet wasn't their AD carry.
When the 2013 season came to a close, the best AD carry on Earth was Piglet. Not Imp, Uzi, or any of the fantastic carries in China that people will argue for. Piglet was a mechanical monster that picked up the slack of SKT countless times when Faker got camped and the other players on the team couldn't be a threat. For all the praise Faker got during Season 3 for being the 'God of League of Legends', Piglet was just as necessary to the success that came to SKT.
Piglet's success was all the more impressive considering that it was his first year in eSports. The following year, League developer Riot prominently featured Piglet in a documentary they produced called "The Road To Worlds." These two factors combined secured the young athlete's reputation as the best AD Carry player in the world.
Since it's a collaborative position, though, the AD Carry doesn't have many chances to show off the way any talented athlete might want to. That's where Piglet started to run into problems after joining Team Liquid.
Piglet sounded cocky when he first joined Team Curse. He described his plans for 2015 in an interview with the League-focused (and Riot-owned) esports site Lolesports by saying: "I can beat everyone." The interview described him as eager to take advantage of the spotlight after being in the shadow of Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok and become the best ADC in North America. He even said that he thought North American teams didn't practice as much as their Korean counterparts.
"In comparison to NA ADCs," he concluded in that interview, "I don't think I'll lose against any of them to be honest."
Joining a North American team was a more difficult transition than Piglet had anticipated. As the only Korean player on the team, he struggled with basic communication issues with his teammates. The Score describes the many hurdles Piglet has had to overcome in the past few months:
There has been no secret Piglet has had a hard time adjusting to America. He's a young adult coming to a foreign country where he has no real understanding of the language. He goes from a structured environment in SK Telecom where he was close to his mother to a team that is transitioning over to a new brand and where he is away from his family for the first time.
It's hard. Some players like Lustboy have been able to acclimate nicely to their new surroundings, but not everyone can be Lustboy. From the food, to the lack of communication, and even new headphones that he felt were uncomfortable, Piglet had to change his entire routine and move outside his comfort zone when he moved to Liquid. He had played on the same team for two years with the same coach, and he was comfortable with the players around him. Now? Even if he and the team get along personally, playing together is an entirely different story.
Communication problems like the ever-present language barrier quickly began to reveal themselves as LCS got underway at the beginning of February. Team Liquid struggled to make the snap decisions necessary to carry themselves to victory in early matches against other top American teams like Cloud9 and Counter Logic Gaming, sparking jokes from League fans, who'd quip online with snarky comments like, "Welcome to NA."
And, "tilt the Koreans."
Piglet was humbled by the rude awakening. An Lolesports article from this past weekend described him as "nervous about disappointing his new NA fans." He told the site that he'd been practicing "really, really hard."
"There were times I was sleeping only two hours," Piglet added, "but mostly around three to four hours, because I was practicing."
Lolesports noted that Piglet managed to recover slightly from his shaky start. But apparently, it wasn't enough to keep him in the starting lineup. Late last night, Team Liquid head coach Peter Zhang announced in a post on the team's website that he'd decided to bench the player for the next week of LCS games.
"This decision was not made lightly," Zhang said in his statement. "There have been ongoing issues during scrims/training that have resulted in a poor team dynamic. Our staff and players have put in a lot of effort toward improving the situation, but unfortunately we have not made as much progress as we would have hoped."
"We understand that this is not easy for Piglet," Zhang continued, "and we will continue to do everything we can to resolve the issues at hand so that he can return to the LCS in the future. But at present, this decision is in the best interest of the team."
Benching Piglet doesn't mean anything about his future place in Team Liquid, necessarily. But what stands out to many fans is who he's being replaced by. KeithmcBrief is a newcomer in comparison. While he might fit into Team Liquid more naturally than Piglet since he speaks English fluently, he's also never helped carry a team to victory at Worlds yet. And he certainly hasn't been described as the best AD Carry in the world.
The thing about League of Legends, though, is that it's a ferociously competitive game that requires effective teamwork if you want to have a fighting chance in any given match. Unlike other popular eSports like StarCraft II or Super Smash Bros., victory isn't determined by a single player. Winning or losing comes down to how well all five players can work together.
Zhang ended his statement by acknowledging: "We believe our fans deserve further explanation of the rationale that led to this decision." He said that other members of Team Liquid "will be able answer related questions from the media during the next LCS weekend."
For the time being, the team has remained relatively silent on questions of Piglet's future. Team Liquid's Twitter account said yesterday that the decision to bench Piglet wasn't a direct result of the team's "most recent results" in LCS:
The decision was not made based off of our most recent results, but more information in the statement from @Liquidpeter.
— Team Liquid LoL (@TeamLiquidLoL) February 16, 2015
Zhang, meanwhile, has insisted on his personal Twitter that detractors should stop bad-mouthing Piglet, imploring fans that they give Team Liquid more time to explain the situation:
Piglet is a good player , Please stop bm him. I will do the interview at LCS this weekend. Please give us some time!
— Peter Zhang (@Liquidpeter) February 16, 2015
Fans continue to speculate about what might have happened behind the scenes to cause Piglet to be benched. Team Liquid's next game is set to take place Saturday, February 21. Hopefully we'll get more answers from Zhang and the rest of the team's management then.