Bjergsen: The Golden Mean

February 05 2022

Bjergsen: The Golden Mean

In the middle of Soren “Bjergsen” Bjerg’s debut year as a coach, he got an itch.

He had retired from professional play a year prior, stepping down from the mid lane position he had filled at TSM for nearly seven years - the longest partnership between player and team in LCS history. Bjergsen was looking for a change in perspective - one he found close to home, as TSM’s new coach.

But Bjergsen’s new point of view gave rise to an unexpected idea - that perhaps he could still perform in the LCS outside of the mid lane position. “There was a part during my season of coaching that I thought about maybe playing another role competitively,” Bjergsen says. “It was kind of like playing the game... I wouldn't say for the first time, but just learning a lot of basic things around other roles, which I thought was really fun.”

All the same, Bjergsen already had a job to do and no plans on abandoning his post. “But I was still really committed to fully doing the one year of coaching and putting my all into it.”

Bjergsen continued to put his all into coaching, primarily using his dalliances with other roles to inform his oversight of the TSM squad. Under his guidance, TSM embarked on a volatile campaign that saw them fall just short of Worlds after an impressive regular season. A good result for a good player. Then again - Bjergsen has never been just a “good” player.

Bjergsen entered the off-season with one goal: to join the team that gave him the best chance of winning big, doing something great, no matter the role. “I came into the offseason with the intention of looking at both coaching and playing, seeing what my options would look like for both,” he says of his time off. “My mindset was that I just want to be on a winning team and I want to fulfill the position that's going to give me the highest chance of winning and being successful, whether the team needs a head coach, or whether the team needs an assistant coach or a mid laner.”

But with time to cool his heels, Bjergsen did what any League of Legends player with an early offseason does: he watched Worlds and played solo queue. And as he did, he came to a realization.

A shift in perspective had rejuvenated him, granted him the benefits of time and distance, a wealth of new knowledge only possible from a higher vantage point. But the best position for him to win wouldn’t come from a new lane, a new role, a spot on a coaching staff.

He’d made a change, but maybe it wasn’t exactly the right one. Bjergsen’s best shot at winning was still in the mid lane.

It just might not be on TSM.

— Prove it to yourself, first

Bjergsen would like to make one thing clear - not just anyone can retire for a year and come back to the highest level of competition. “I think a lot of coaches that I've seen [who are] ex-pro players are like, ‘oh, I could easily play again…’ and maybe they're a little bit delusional,” he chuckles.

Bjergsen wasn’t sure how smooth the climb back to his peak would be - acutely aware of what it takes to maintain the degree of execution he once had. During his time coaching, he barely touched the mid lane, and he could feel the degradation of his skill when he returned to his old position. But after a year of being on the outside looking in, he was still convinced he could find that old peak. “I really wanted to prove to myself that I'm not that guy that just says that I still can, but I don't actually have it in me to play at a high level - to sit down and just play the game for 10 hours straight and do that over multiple days,” he says.

To that end, he packed up for a Korean bootcamp in November, determined to show he had what it took to return to pro play.

(Bjergsen speaks with Ashley Kang of Korizon about short-term goals and returning to form)

In typical Bjergsen fashion, he had a well-considered, rational plan for getting back in form: he would reconstruct his play back up piece by piece, focusing on the most clear cut parts of the game first and then moving on to the next building block. As such, he dedicated his time in Korea to laning phase, the “most consistent thing that you can practice.”

Every day, Bjergsen tried to make the League of Legends he was playing look like the League of Legends he was imagining. “That was a big reason why I went to Korea,” he comments, “to just try to get as much of that out of my system as possible: where I feel like my brain knows what to do, but my hands just can't keep up.”

But laning wasn’t the only thing Bjergsen was testing - he was also seeing if he could still stomach the demanding practice schedule of a pro. He grinded the game nonstop, consistently clocking in fifteen hours days, reaching over four hundred games on the server in just a few weeks. “That was kind of the test for myself - to see both if I enjoyed it, because if I don't enjoy that, then I'm not going to enjoy the long season of grinding, and [to see] if I still had it in me… And I kind of proved both those things to myself and then actually, just ended up enjoying it a lot more.”

Every discussion about Bjergsen’s return has started with the same question: will he be able to play at his peak again? Sure, Bjergsen may be one of the greatest players in history of the LCS, but is he worth picking up while players like Jensen or Jiizuke ride the bench? Are we getting sixty percent of Bjergsen’s potential? Can he perform? When will he get back to his old caliber?

— Old Bjergsen

To some, Bjergsen has deteriorated just by merit of being in NA - never getting better than in those first few years on TSM. Bjergsen debuted as an explosive carry threat, one who sat down North America’s best and said in no uncertain terms, “this is my throne now.” It was dominance unlike anything the LCS had ever seen. He was at his best when he could pump out massive damage, whether on assassins like Zed and LeBlanc or control mages such as the Syndra on which he garnered his first pentakill - in his first-ever professional win, to boot.

You already know the memes - that Bjergsen was keeping TSM true to its old name of “Team Solo Mid,” that the team was Bjergsen and four wards. It didn’t matter who his teammates were - in those early days he was capable of singlehandedly putting TSM on the podium.

According to Bjergsen, there were obvious downsides to wearing the solo carry mantle. “I think I was a bit of a baby,” he says of his first few seasons, laughing. “I was 18 years old, 19 years old, and I mostly just cared about myself. If I didn't have a good game, I would just not talk at all. Not contribute at all. I would just get upset and quiet, and complain to the coaching staff about like, "I don't like that this player is doing this" or... I just wasn't very emotionally mature, and probably not a very good teammate as a result of that.”

("I don't really wanna name myself MVP because I think that's really cocky." Bjergsen acknowledges immaturity but even when he was young, he rarely made public shows of ego. Jot it down, it'll come back around.)

But as time went on, Bjergsen remained TSM’s one constant - and matured in playstyle and personality while across swapping rosters. Bjergsen may be Danish, but he became the ultimate Swiss Army Knife, equally willing to support his AD Carry on Karma or Lulu as he was to carry a game himself. Whatever his part, Bjergsen would play it.

“The mid laner kind of needs to do it all,” Bjergsen says. “There are metas where you are the guy that needs to carry, and there are metas where you are the guy that's creating space, having early priority to help other roles scale, where you have more of a facilitator role, engager role. And I think that's one of my strengths, is that I can play all those different roles.” That versatility certainly paid off. In Bjergsen’s first four years in the LCS, TSM won the title five times, including a three split-string from 2016 to 2017, and he picked up MVP hardware four times - at least once every single year.

But there are downsides to flexibility, as well. The TSM roster continued to evolve, and Bjergsen, ever the team player, continued to do his duty. He went from Zed to Zilean, finding himself on supportive champions more and more often. In his Run It video series, Tim Sevenhuysen of Oracle’s Elixir broke down how the shift in Bjergsen’s champion pool led to a decline in his personal damage numbers. In the 2018 Summer Split, his damage per minute fell below 500 for the first time in his career - the anomaly would become the average after he repeated it for the next four splits.

A new narrative cropped up around Bjergsen. On a domestic level, he was still clearly outclassing NA mids, who couldn’t punish his Zilean weak early game, who got stymied by his safe laning. But at an international level, fans started to single out Bjergsen - that he was too passive compared to international mids, too cautious, never the one to break a game open.

The Bjergsen of old? He could get things done. The one playing a literal old man? Not so much.

(Xiye fully exploits Zilean's weak landing phase, solo killing Bjergsen.)

When I ask Bjergsen about this idea, he grows quiet, taking a long time to consider his answer. “I mean, I think... I just wanted to do whatever it takes to win, and I felt like I was the most adaptable.”

“So like, in the 2020 roster, both Doublelift and Broken Blade are very demanding players in terms of resources. I feel like I can be the guy who doesn't need resources from my own lane, but then is roaming around the map and playing these champions to give them even more resources to carry. Because these are players who do very well with resources, know how to carry games - but if they are left without resources, at least at that time, wouldn't perform as well in the game or wouldn't feel as comfortable in the game.”

To Bjergsen, the decision was simple. Playing the supportive role would maximize his team’s chances of success; any other option was out of the question. His job was to win splits, and so he would do it. Supporting or carrying - that wasn’t so important.

And yet - Bjergsen still has his reservations. “I've always just tried to, maybe sometimes to a fault, fill the role that the team needed,” he says. But his time coaching showed him that even if you never break, bending has its own limits. “Focusing on yourself is knowing what you need,” he says. “What help, what resources and assistance that you need from your teammates. I learned that even more from watching the game from the outside for one year.”

In particular, from observing TSM’s next star mid laner. “Watching Power of Evil, and watching the ways that he utilized his teammates and the way that he was good at it and wasn't, and the ways that he became more of a follower, put himself in worse positions, rather than speak up and ask for what he needed.”

Bjergsen has the same goal as ever: to win, however that win may come. But this year, after seeing a parallel in Power of Evil, he has another aspiration: To advocate for himself more, to get back to a place where he can light up the rift and run away with a game. “[I’m] trying to not be overly adaptable as well, and kind of solidify my place in the team and the vision that I have and the things that I want. The one thing on TL that I would like to be able to do is be the guy to suck up more resources.”

(Run It's breakdown of Bjergsen's stylistic shift)

“[I’d like to] have trust in my teammates that they can facilitate me once I get a lead to really carry the game and know what I need. I don't think in the past on my teams that I always got that feeling - that if I have a lead, my teammates are going to do the things that I need to succeed and carry the game. I didn't always have that trust in my team and I want to have that trust in this TL roster.”

After eight years with the same team, Bjergsen is taking a leap of faith, hoping to land where he has the support to perform at his highest level. He came to Liquid with a promise and a question: “I can lead this team to greatness. Will you help me?”

For Liquid, the answer had to be yes. But they probably had a question of their own - “Can you still deliver?”

— Higher still

Bjergsen isn’t interested in chasing his past peaks - he’s aiming for new heights, ones only made possible by a change of scenery.

“I definitely feel like my peak is potentially a lot higher now than it was in the past,” he says. “I don't think I realized how repetitious LCS seasons were getting for me. Getting this break, and getting time to reflect I think will kind of give me the ability to to become even better, because I'm looking at things with a fresh perspective. I spent a lot more time playing every role in the game, not just mid, which made me smarter.”

Still, when Bjergsen made the flight back to North America, he wasn’t sure whether he was about to, for lack of a better term, get clapped. After all, weeks of soloqueue do not a mid-lane superstar make.

“I mean, I had no idea if I was going to come to scrims and just get crushed by people. I didn't know what level I was at. But when I started scrimming I was pleasantly surprised that I felt like I was just as good, if not better than pretty much everyone, maybe because I had been working so much on my laning phase.”

Bjergsen is usually humble - at least, given his legacy - but it’s clear from the slight smile in his voice that he was able to reassert himself as one of NA’s best without too much difficulty. Even if he still felt shaky in some aspects of his play, such as his teamfighting, his plan to start from the bottom up had laid a foundation strong enough that he could walk confidently into his first real test: LCS Lock In.

— Young, Bold, Forward World

It only seems right that Bjergsen would face Evil Geniuses in the Lock-In finals, led by the upstart seventeen-year-old jojopyun in the mid lane. Not because this matchup was familiar, but because it was stark and new.

Entering the Lock In, Bjergsen didn’t have the usual rivals. From Hai all the way to Jensen, 2013 to 2022, Bjergsen has seen regimes change. Still, no one could’ve predicted how much of the old guard would end up locked out of a starting spot in the west. Nor did many predict the swift rise of the new talents.

More than just a new face, jojopyun is everything that Bjergsen isn’t - young, unproven, known for his aggressive laning, given to bouts of bravado and trash talk. Bjergsen may not be a boomer, but jojopyun is certainly a zoomer.

And while it’s hard to think of Bjergsen as anything other than an NA player after his 8 years representing the region, jojo is home-grown talent - a sticking point in a year with so much discussion about where teams are sourcing their hopes for a Worlds bid.

What’s more, jojo came for Bjergsen’s neck the first chance he got. After EG scrapped out a victory over TL in a rollercoaster group stage match, jojo tweeted “this is your goat??” He quickly doubled down. In an interview with Travis Gafford, jojo said, “I was surprised. When I first [played] versus him, I thought he’d do more stuff, but he just didn’t do much. So, I was like… isn’t this supposed to be the best player or something? I was confused.”

Jojo wasn’t firing shots just because he had the gun in hand. It wasn’t because he’d won but because of how he both mid laners played. In a game where jojo went for bold, sometimes reckless plays, Bjergsen sat back calmly, scaled, and played his part - exactly the thing jojopyun had called out NA midlaners for less than a week prior.

But unbeknownst to jojo, Bjergsen had battles to fight beyond the Twitter timeline. He had developed COVID-19, with severe symptoms consigning him to bed rest any times he wasn’t playing. Despite this, Bjergsen agreed to pull double duty by subbing in for Liquid’s Academy team, whose mid laner Haeri had also contracted COVID and was stuck in Australia. Bjergsen, in typical fashion, treated Academy as more practice.

“I wasn't sure if I should play because I was actually feeling very sick at the time with COVID myself, he says. “But you know, they didn't exactly have someone else lined up. So I thought it's still good for me to get games in playing these serious competitive games, and also just getting to play with different people. Always gives a little bit of a different perspective”

It wasn’t exactly the Jordan-esque flu game people expected. Fielding a new support, a new mid, and a top and ADC splitting time between squads, the academy team would go 1-3 during Bjergsen’s tenure, their only win coming off of his Zilean (ironically enough, against EG Academy). The starting roster would fare better, but Bjergsen wasn’t the story there.

With Bjergsen under the weather, Liquid’s standout player in Lock-In groups was undeniably Bwipo in the top lane. Bwipo played all of Lock-In like a man possessed, flinging himself into the enemy team.

“He sees the game a little bit differently from me,” Bjergsen says of Bwipo. “Which I think is helpful, because it kind of balances out the perspective within the team. I don't think the way that I view the game is perfect. I think sometimes I'm a little bit too efficient and I don't account for player error on the enemy team.”

Bwipo’s aggression may have resulted in a nine death Sion game against EG, but Bjergsen admires the fact that Bwipo always has his foot on the gas. “Bwipo is really good at taking advantage of small mistakes that the enemies make. He's always the guy who's like, jumping at a kill when they step up too far on the mid wave when we're contesting on dragons or contesting on vision. And I think we balance each other out well, because someone is looking to get the right set up, and someone is like, "yeah, but if they come in we're fucking murdering them." He laughs again.

[image loading]

(The quote above, from a TL interview with Bwipo, gives a glimpse into the top laner's mindset.)

Certainly, there were traces of that synergy to be found in the rest of groups. While Bwipo embarked on a Rengar murder campaign against Revenge or dashed into full enemy teams with Graves, Bjergsen quietly put together a suite of impressive games on control mages. In some ways, it’s a strong marriage of the eras the players came up in. Bjergsen reaching his peak while Faker LCK teams played clean and masterful macro, Bwipo reaching his while TheShy and LPL teams played fast, mean, and punishing.

Bolstered by Bwipo’s never-say-die attitude, Liquid managed to make their way to the finals - though not without some bumps along the way. Although their semifinal scoreline against Dignitas may have been 3-1, it was the Bwipo show through and through. For the first three games, Bjergsen was stuck in lane, unable to contribute until the games’ ending stages. He may have put together a stunning performance in game four - but it was on Zilean, the comfort pick that seemingly on succeeds in NA.

The old discourse became new again: Bjergsen was too passive, and could only win if the enemy wasn’t capable of punishing his Zilean. If anyone was going to punish this pick in lane, it would be jojo - and for most analysts, it seemed like an Evil Geniuses win was in the books.

Then Team Liquid 3-0’d them.

— The Carry Undying

As the 3-1 against Dignitas shows, the set record shows little of what the series means - for Liquid or Bjergsen. Better to take a look at Bjergsen’s Lock-In stats and see what we can find there.

Bjergsen boasted an incredible 15.6 KDA throughout Lock-In, more than double that of the next player with more than one game played: his teammate, Santorin. Bjergsen owes that stat to his absurdly low deaths - just 8 in 13 games, with 7 deathless games to his name. He broke above that 500 damage per minute mark that had vexed him for multiple seasons, even if just barely, and was third in damage per minute across all midlaners. By all accounts, Bjergsen had a tremendous Lock-In tournament, especially considering his continuing recovery from COVID and nascent return to professional League of Legends.

[image loading]

Whether his passivity stemmed from COVID recovery or a reacclimation to competitive play or something else entirely, Bjergsen seemed to have shrugged it off by finals. He kicked off the series by stealing a Twisted Fate ult with Sylas and porting to the bot lane for first blood. From there, he managed to consistently sow disruption in teamfights, playing just on the razor’s edge of death and picking up a back-breaking Quadra Kill in the process. He might have fallen short of the Sylas highlight reel in game 2 but he did his job - nullifying jojopyun’s Twisted Fate and creating space for Hans Sama to do what he does best: Melt the opposing team.

To nail the series shut, Bjergsen did what he does best: He scaled on Zilean. With a juiced-up Jinx on their side and a Lulu to boot, Team Liquid turned around game 3, picked up their second consecutive Lock-In trophy, and Bjergsen earned yet another Finals MVP.

Whether he was the correct pick is up to you - there are arguments to be made for Santorin, for Hans Sama - but it’s hard to argue with the caliber Bjergsen rediscovers in all of his finals. Bjergsen not only stepped up his play, he managed to perform on drastically different champions, showing up on both Zilean and Sylas.

(The bot lane gank is at 0:25 and the quadra is at 3:00)

But there’s one more stat to discuss that we haven’t touched on yet. Despite his other impressive stats, Bjergsen emerged from Lock-In with the lowest damage share of any midlaner in the tournament, at 23.4%.

But in context, this stat isn’t a strike against Bjergsen. We already know that Bjergsen was in the top three damage for midlaners. His low damage percentage doesn’t mean that he wasn’t carrying his weight - it’s more a testament to how well the team surrounding him is performing. How damaging this iteration of TL can be.

However, it’s a sign that Bjergsen hasn’t reached that new peak he’s seeking. Not just yet. That old world, that primordial soul of “highest damage share” that sits in the pit of every carry’s stomach, is something he’s still reaching for. To both rewind to when he shined in that style and to mature it within a brand new org, brand new roster.

When I asked Bjergsen if he had that trust that his team would let him carry yet, he could have given me a PR answer, said he was already confident this was the environment he would thrive in. Instead, he was honest.

“I don't think we're there yet, because we haven't worked together that long, and also, we haven't even been working with the full five man roster. So, we're not completely clicked in with how to play the game, and our communication systems. It's tough when you're constantly swapping players and not with your full roster, but I definitely see the potential.”

After Lock-In, it’s safe to say that the potential is there. Bjergsen has shown he trusts his team to carry - and soon, maybe he’ll trust them to let him do so as well. Maybe he’ll turn the clock back, even as he gets older.

After all, he already returned to form in a sense. He walked into lane as Zilean against jojopyun and came out unscathed. A new challenger in a new meta in a new LCS - still folding to the same undying carry.

— The Golden Mean

When the dust settled, when Bjergsen emerged the winner of yet another rivalry, he did an interview with Travis Gafford to talk about Liquid’s Lock-In win. When Travis asked for any comments on jojopyun, Bjergsen, ever the diplomat, had nothing but compliments - on jojo’s laning, on his champion pool, and on the players around him.

In their expression of ego too, the mid laners paint a stark contrast. Bjergsen, even when he was jojo’s age, did not trash talk as often nor let his ego flash. After the time spent maturing, supporting, Bjergsen’s ego outwardly seems to have shrunk. And yet - Bjergsen spent a year watching the game from the outside, examining and evaluating player skill level as a coach, and his conclusion was “I can still beat these guys.”

Surely there must be some modicum of ego there.

“I think it's kind of like… What's it called? The golden mean?” Bjergsen says.

For those not familiar with Aristotle, the “golden mean” is basically an argument for moderation - that one should strive for balance between excess and deficiency. “Balance in all things,” Irelia would say; Buddhism has a similar concept called “the middle way.”

“I think at the point where you're saying ‘ego,’ I usually feel like it's come too far and that's kind of like the negative aspect of having... perhaps too much confidence or too much... is it called self-efficacy?”

Here, I can hear typing as Bjergsen looks up the term, checking to make sure he’s got the definition right. He does.

“Yeah. Which is basically like a belief in your own capacity to do something, which I don't really know why it's different from self-confidence…” He laughs. “But a lot of the psychologist people that I work with use self-efficacy instead, I don't know why but…” He laughs again. This is heady stuff, stuff he takes seriously - but clearly not without levity. Ever trying to walk the right path.

“It definitely goes into ego sometimes,” he continues. “And I have to kind of calm myself down because it's not something that I really admire in myself or think is beneficial. I think, usually when it tends to fall over into ego, then you start dealing with, you know, like overconfidence, complacency, these kinds of things, and I really try to avoid those.”

That ego will play a role in finding new peaks too. Threading the needle between the unders and overs of confidence could mean a lot in trusting both his team and himself to carry.

[image loading]

“But obviously not having enough confidence is also a huge issue, and I think I kind of go between both. Like sometimes I don't have enough confidence in myself. Sometimes my ego pokes through the clouds a little bit too much.”

A domestic legend a year out of the game, coming back to immediately collect another trophy and finals MVP… It’s enough to give anyone an ego battle. But I think back to the last time I interviewed Bjergsen, fresh off his fourth MVP award. Even then, Bjergsen couldn’t keep track of how many times he’d picked up top honors. Not because he didn’t value the accolades - but because he wasn’t interested in living anywhere but the present. After all, there were more games to prepare for - more practice to be done.

“And I just try to keep myself right there… right in the middle, where I feel confident in my abilities, and especially confident in the work that I've put in.”

Now, approaching a decade-long sprawl of a career, on TL’s star-laden roster, Bjergsen has a new vantage point from which to find his perfect balance. Tick-tock. With each successive swing, the clock’s pendulum slows, until eventually it comes to rest, at peace, in the middle.

Writer // Zane "Epengu" Bhansali
Editor // Austin "Plyff" Ryan
Graphics // Zack "Zack Arts" Kiesewetter
Graphics (Bwipo Quote) // Yasen Trendafilov

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