EU Mids: Searching for the lost superstars

The historic greatness of “EU mids” has been waning for some time.

There are several good mid laners in Europe right now, but we’re no longer living in the glory days when Danish and Spanish titans were stalking the Rift and leaving their indelible marks on the League of Legends history books. That’s partly because of an ongoing exodus of skill to North America, thinning out the upper strata of the talent pool, but there’s also a lack of compelling narratives to tell around the current generation of EU LCS mid laners: it’s become more difficult to clearly establish their legacies and in-game personalities.

Unquestionably, though, the average level of European mid lane talent has remained high, and there are stories very much worth telling, even if those narratives don’t flow quite so easily, and even if we must continue to wait and hope for the arrival of Europe’s next true mid lane superstar.

Missing Ingredients

Define “star power” however you like; the current generation of EU LCS mid laners lacks it.

It’s hard to latch onto Perkz, Sencux, or Exileh the way we latched on to Froggen, xPeke, and others. Call it rose-tinted glasses, or blame it on my personal tendency to watch VODs on mute and skip through analyst desk sessions to save time. Whatever the reason, present-day Febiven and PowerOfEvil simply don’t capture the imagination the same way as their predecessors, or even, especially in Febiven’s case, the same way as previous versions of themselves.

Two ingredients seem to be missing.

The first, and most important, is consistent, long-term excellence. Inconsistency has been a common theme among EU mid laners over the past few seasons: none of the current EU mids, either domestic or import, have played well enough for long enough to prove themselves worthy of the “EU mid” legacy. We get stretches of brilliance from some of these players at different times, but they have all fallen off from season to season or from week to week.

Perkz was the next big thing in spring 2016, but after his team’s disappointing showing at the Mid-Season Invitational he took a step backwards in the summer split. His natural aggression got the better of him, leading to an embarrassing number of unnecessary deaths and spawning a stupid Reddit poem meme that unfortunately overshadows his more positive contributions at times.

Exileh took over in summer 2016, alongside some Korean import influence from the Giants’ Night, but this season neither has shown real growth. Night and his team took a clear step back from their surprising summer run, and while Exileh didn’t regress, per se, as a sophomore he hasn’t quite seized our attention the same way he did as a rookie.

No mid laner has been able to ascend the tier list and take hold of top billing for an extended period of time. Each time a player has seemed poised to take hold—whether Febiven in 2015 or Perkz in 2016—they’ve failed to sustain their claim for more than a season or two. That ebb and flow is partly due to the high level of overall competition at the mid lane position: the average level of European mid laners has always been, and still is, higher than what we see in, for example, North America. Mid lane parity means that any drop-off in performance will be punished severely, as we’ve seen in the careers of players like PowerOfEvil, Nukeduck, and, more dramatically, xPePii. But superstars can always rise above parity to cement their legacy over time, and no candidate has done so in years.

The second ingredient that seems to be missing is an array of distinctly personal play styles, at least comparatively when looking at a region like North America. Europe has exported some of its most iconic mid laners to NA, losing their skill from the talent pool but also, and just as importantly, losing their compelling identities. Think about Froggen’s power farming, epitomized by his wave-clearing Anivia. We always remember his CS records and dramatic late-game performances. Consider Jensen’s pure lane dominance and ability to hard carry almost every game. Hai is the relentlessly aggressive and creative shot caller, always willing to throw his body at a problem. And don’t forget Bjergsen, whose consistency, flexibility, and record of success sum up into the most desirable identity of all: the Winner.

Honing in on the Narratives

We can’t fix the current EU mid laners’ inconsistent level of play from the outside—that’s up to the players themselves, and their coaches and teammates—but we can bring more attention to their unique play styles and in-game personalities, even if it takes a little bit more effort and subtlety to do so.

Below, I’ve run through a thought experiment to help myself do just that, summarizing my take on the identities of a selection of worthy EU mids. These titles and descriptions will naturally lack some nuance, but I hope they’ll serve to support both my own storytelling around these players, and possibly the wider conversations around them, as well.

Perkz, the Hard Carry

Among the current crop, Perkz is the most classically lane-dominant mid, the most straightforward example of an aggressive primary carry. In three regular seasons, Perkz has never finished below second in mid laner CS difference at 10 minutes, or below third in mid laner damage per minute.

G2’s continued success has owed a lot to Perkz’s ability to anchor the map with his laning and create time and space for his teammates by acting as a damage threat in team fights. Some recklessness and misplaced aggression have tended to bump up his death count a bit too much, as previously mentioned, but overall, Perkz has been very good, especially when his team sets him up to be the primary carry.

 

Exileh, the Weapon of Choice

Exileh was an unheralded rookie in summer 2016, but became one of the most captivating stories of the split when he helped the Unicorns of Love outperform expectations and make a run into the playoffs, something they do every season (and yet we analysts never seem to learn!). In the offseason Intel Extreme Masters Oakland event, Exileh acquitted himself well, surviving a gauntlet of world class mid lane opposition to help lead his team to a tournament win.

With perpetually underrated veterans like Vizicsacsi and Hylissang setting him up to succeed, and with Xerxe bringing some new flavor this split with supportive Ivern picks and space-creating dive champions like Rengar and Warwick, Exileh has been a weapon well wielded. He led the Unicorns in damage share and shouldered the largest part of the carry burden, easing Samux’s entry into the league in the bottom lane. Inconsistency has plagued Exileh as much as anyone else, with some misplaced aggression and poor map movements creeping into his play, and that has prevented him from making his case as a true star. Still, he has been a valuable part of his team’s successes for the past two seasons, and the potential for a big forward evolution is there.

Sencux, the Side Lane Specialist

Sencux has always been a relatively soft laner, consistently finishing with negative CS differences at 10 minutes. This split he was dead last among mid laners in gold and experience difference at 10 minutes, slashing -166/-317 in those stats. But Sencux is one of the main reasons Splyce are such a powerful mid-game team: he plays the split push very well, and can always take over on mobile assassins like Kassadin, Ahri, and LeBlanc. He’s capable of exploding all over the Rift in the right circumstances; it’s just a question of whether he’ll be able to light the fuse in any given game.

This split Sencux rode Corki to a 5-2 record, while expanding his overall champion pool to 17 different picks, 10 of which were only played in single games. That lack of focus, with a conspicuous absence of past favourites, feels like a symptom of Splyce’s attempts to adjust their play style to fit the 2017 meta, after losing their preferred lane swapping and ability to rely on Trashy’s excellent defensive jungling to reach the mid game on even terms. For Splyce to find success in the postseason, they’ll need to do a better job of helping Sencux through the early game so he can recapture his core identity.

Febiven and PowerOfEvil, the Resurging Veterans

The 2016 season was hard on both Febiven and PowerOfEvil. At different times and in different ways, both were considered the next big thing in the European mid lane at certain points in their careers. Febiven, most notably, was an anchor of the Fnatic team that produced an undefeated regular season in summer 2015 and made a run to the World Championship semifinals, but when Huni and Reignover left for North America he was unable to sustain his momentum. PowerOfEvil was known for his creativity and skill, notably asserting himself during the AP poke meta with Kog’Maw and Ezreal and embodying the unique spirit of the Unicorns of Love when they first arrived in the EU LCS. But team results were never really there for PoE, and his move to Origen coincided with the beginning of that team’s descent to the bottom of the standings.

Changes of scenery have proven to be just what the doctor ordered for both players. Febiven has looked better on H2K than he did last year with Fnatic, and PowerOfEvil has redeemed his own storyline with the Misfits after doing his best to carry a dysfunctional Origen last summer. There has been plenty of variance in the performances of both veterans, but the positives have outweighed the negatives, and both deserve praise for their body of work this season.

Close it out

More could be said if we ran down the complete list of mid laners, and there’s skill worth highlighting from the Challenger scene, as well. But in the interest of brevity, I’ll spare a deeper discussion of Caps, Betsy, Nukeduck, and Night, all of whom certainly have compelling stories to tell.

Hopefully some of the candidates we’ve discussed will find the right opportunities to establish themselves as long-term stars. But even if they don’t, there are two reasons we shouldn’t get carried away with bemoaning times gone by.

First, for every underwhelming sophomore split, there seems to be another rookie EU mid laner ready to take a crack at seizing the mantle. If not Perkz, maybe Exileh, or maybe Caps, or maybe the next one after that. If nothing else, Europe has a wealth of homegrown challengers, and that’s something to continue celebrating.

Second, if you’re really feeling despondent, forget about mid: take a look at that impressive crop of EU top laners, instead!

Photos courtesy flickr.com/lolesports

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