After Team SoloMid’s press conference Wednesday afternoon, I got a chance to speak with veteran solo laners Soren “Bjergsen” Bjerg and Kevin “Hauntzer” Yarnell. We talked about how TSM will adapt to new faces, a renewed focus on best-of-ones, and how franchising has already begun to change the NA LCS.
Bjergsen and Hauntzer headline the North American All-Star team, which resumes group play this afternoon against Đỗ “Levi” Duy Khánh and the Southeast Asia All-Stars. You can watch live starting at 3pm PST on YouTube, Twitch, and LoLEsports.com
Miles Yim: Tell me what Coach [Kim “SSONG” Sang-soo] brings to the table, and what you’re excited to learn most from him.
Bjergsen: Obviously it’s going to be teamwork related, communication related, decision-making overall, like shotcalling. I think what SSONG brings is a different…something that I haven’t been used to with [former Head Coach Parth Naidu]. Parth tries to get everyone’s opinion to form how we’re going to run the team, what direction we want to take the team. We’ve only had one scrim set with SSONG for All-Stars, but he seems like he knows where he wants to take the team, he knows what things he wants us to improve on and focus on. I really like that. He seems really confident in himself, and that’s something I’ve really only experienced from [Andy “Reginald” Dinh] as a coach. I’m excited to try being coached by SSONG, and have that Korean coach that is so confident and knows what he’s doing.
Hauntzer: I think SSONG has a really good understanding of the basics and what is needed to win in the current meta. Based off of our one scrim set we’ve had with him so far, it seems like if he sees an error in a player, he really goes in-depth with the player and helps him out, gives him reasons why what they did was not correct and what they should do next time. Having a coach like that, where they themselves just know and are confident in their own opinions, is really helpful because that means there’s less of a back and forth. It’s more like, “I feel that this is best,” and the player can argue for a bit, but it the end it will be a culmination between two people. Before, we had everyone on the team comment on what plays are good, what plays are bad, and I feel like that was really not helpful and didn’t get much done. So this year, I’m just really excited to work with him. He seems like a really smart guy. He’s worked for a lot of teams in the past, so he’s got a lot of experience as well.
Along with SSONG, TSM added three new players in the offseason. What did you gain by adding [Mike “MikeYeung” Yeung, Jesper “Zven” Svenningsen, and Alfonso “mithy” Rodriguez] that’s an improvement over the previous roster?
Bjergsen: I think a big problem we were having was that both [Dennis “Svenskeren” Johnsen and Vincent “Biofrost” Wang] were not innately communicative players within the game. Out of game they’re very shy people, and we were always struggling to teach them how to take control of the game as a support and jungle. Vision control is extremely important, invades, that’s mostly coordinated by jungle and support. But on our team, the laners had to control a lot of it, myself, Hauntzer and [Yiliang “Doublelift” Peng]. I think to be one of the very best teams in the world, that the support and jungle can really take over the vision control, invades, and to some degree, rotations. Because they’re the ones moving between the map, they’re the ones who know where the team should be moving and what objectives we should be playing for. They just have the most time to look at the map, whereas as a laner you’re stuck trading, you’re stuck farming. That was something we were always getting better at, but in the heat of the moment, or after a couple of bad scrims, it would always revert. It was just a constant problem that kept reoccurring. I think mithy and MikeYeung are both really communicative guys. MikeYeung talks a lot in the game. I watch his stream and he’s always talking about what he’s thinking about, what he wants to do. And mithy’s known for vision control and roaming as well.
Hauntzer: I think the biggest thing with our roster change—the biggest benefit—will be consistency. With the previous roster, there were a lot of high highs and low lows. At Worlds, we had some pretty bad lows. But with the new roster, I think we’ll have a better ability to adapt to the meta, figure out the meta picks faster, and be able to play them well. Another thing is consistency between the players and their communication. MikeYeung, mithy, they communicate a lot compared to [Biofrost and Svenskeren]. Even if you’re not having the best time, or not playing that well, if you communicate well, that’ll help the team. That’s something we really didn’t have before. If we started losing before, it would just kind of get silent and the team would shut down. We wouldn’t know what to do. But now I think, if that happens again, we’ll try to problem-solve in-game, and it’ll be more helpful if we have more people’s input than just three people.
Hauntzer, the new player you’ll have the most interaction with, at least in the early game, is MikeYeung. What are you working on together in preparation for the upcoming season?
Hauntzer: Well, if you play Jayce or Gnar, you definitely need a lot of jungle help. What we’re looking to improve is mainly our synergy, knowing when I need him, when he doesn’t need to be there for me, or when I can do stuff for myself. That’s going to happen over time. We’re a new top lane duo, and we’re going to have to learn how to scrimmage and play around top lane, because that’s just what we do. It’ll take time, but that’s our main goal right now. We don’t have much else to focus on. We really need to focus on the basics first, and then we can scale up from there.
What do you make of the competition in NA LCS this year? Some of the old organizations are still around, but do any of the new ones catch your eye as teams to watch out for?
Bjergsen: I think of the new orgs…I don’t want to be too BM, but probably not OpTic. I don’t think they got the strongest roster. I think Clutch Gaming and 100 Thieves both have potential. I think people underrate [Apollo “Apollo” Price and Nickolas “Hakuho” Surgent] as a bot lane. People think that they, as a bot lane, are making Clutch Gaming look weak, but I think [Fabian “Febiven” Diepstraten and Nam “LirA” Tae-yoo] are really strong, and Apollo and Hakuho is a solid bot lane. I think overall, 100 Thieves has a lot of experience. They have many experienced players, but maybe not that fresh blood. I feel like they don’t have that drive and motivation and passion some of the other teams do, or our team does. I think that will their amount of veterans and solid players…[Kim “Ssumday” Chan-ho, Yoo “Ryu” Sang-wook, Zaqueri “aphromoo” Black, William “Meteos” Hartman], they’ll definitely do well early in the season, but I’m not so sure how they’ll do in the long run.
I’ll focus the question for you, Hauntzer. How does the top lane specifically seem to be shaping up across the new league?
Hauntzer: Most of the top lanes are pretty similar. Ssumday, [Lee “Flame” Ho-jong and Jung “Impact” Eon-yeong], those are probably the best top lanes besides me. I don’t think it’ll change that much in terms of competition. I’ll be at the top, and they’ll be behind me. The other teams…it really don’t seem like they have very strong top laners. We’ve got [Colin “Solo” Earnest] coming in, he’s played a lot in the challenger series, but he hasn’t really been able to perform on stage. I can’t even name the other top lane talents. Maybe [Heo “Huni” Seung-hoon]’s coming back in (Editor’s Note: Echo Fox announced Huni as their starting top laner today). [Darshan “Darshan” Upadhyaya]’s actually pretty good. So it’s going to be the same competition as before. In terms of the meta, there’s a lot of poke like Jayce and Gnar that are really strong in lane against tanks. We’ll just have to see what’s good, because right now, everyone is still figuring it out. Depending on how the patches in the future go, it’ll change for sure.
The NA LCS is moving back to BO1s for the coming split and the foreseeable future. How does this format change affect your expectations of winning NA LCS?
Bjergsen: I don’t think it’ll change much in terms of the result, but it will change the way we prepare and how we play. There’s going to be less testing with new team comps and new champions unless we’re confident in them. Because it is best-of-one, and you need to win that one game. You can’t play a new comp that you’ve kinda tried in scrims, but you want to give it a shot on stage, lose, then come back in a best-of-three. It almost turned into a meme that we were practicing for Worlds during Summer Split, right? To some degree, doing that, practicing for worlds, trying stuff out in the best of threes also hurt us in the best of ones going into Worlds and MSI where everything is best of one.
I think that the fact that we have to practice for best of one, that first game, is really important. We have to be prepared and ready in every single game. There’s no warm-up game. It’s going to change the way we practice, and hopefully change our results at international events. Because we have been struggling in best of ones. Even in NA, there was some ridiculous stat that we were losing 60% of our first games in Spring Split this year, but then we were always winning the next two games. (Editor’s Note: In NA CLS Spring Split 2017, TSM lost 50% of their Game 1s, eventually winning 66.7% of those series) So that’s something we’re looking to change in the new best-of-one system.
Hauntzer: I agree with what Bjergsen said. The result is going to be the same, but our journey to get there will be different. We’re not known as a best-of-one team, so there’s going to be games where lower tier teams will take games off of us. But as long as we get into playoffs, and it turns into a best-of format, I don’t think there’s any team that’ll be able to stop us. For the beginning of the split, we’re going to be focused on learning best-of-ones, what the best strategy is. That’s really valuable to learn, because Worlds format is always best-of-ones in the group stage, and that’s where we’ve been failing a lot. If we can improve at best of ones during our time in NA LCS in Spring and Summer, that’ll help a lot for Worlds.
As a player, what immediate changes from franchising have you already seen on a day-to-day basis, if any?
Bjergsen: The first immediate thing I notice is that Regi definitely got a lot more serious. He wanted us to clean up the house, wanted it to look more presentable because now we’re in franchising. We can’t have a messy house with trash everywhere (Laughs). I can tell it’s more serious. There will be bigger brand sponsors like Gillette coming in, because there’s more job safety, more safety to sponsor these teams in a longer term. They’re not just going to sponsor a team and then get kicked out of LCS the next year. I think we’re going to see bigger and more mainstream sponsors coming in to support teams, which means better structure, better salary, hopefully more motivated and better performing players.
Hauntzer: With franchising, it’s really good to have big organizations like Gillette come in and help sponsor the teams. It means esports is growing, the league is growing. There’s going to be more money coming in and out. It’s something to get excited for as a pro right now, because it means you’re going to get paid more obviously. They’ll get more notoriety, the esports league will get more famous, and overall it’ll just be more fun and rewarding to play.
This interview has been edited for clarity.