If 2014's domestic seasons heralded Søren "Bjergsen" Bjerg's transformation into a powerhouse, over the next year he would learn what it meant to carry the weight of the world on your shoulders. Following the bliss of the 2014 summer finals in Seattle, Team SoloMid traveled for the fourth straight year to the World Championship. The team, confident from its victory over Cloud9, wanted to aim for the very top of Worlds, which defending champions SK Telecom T1 had left unoccupied after failing to re-qualify that year.
The tournament itself was a bittersweet first trip to the pantheon for Bjergsen. While TSM was able to get out of its opening round group, it failed in the end to capitalize on an opportunity to take the group's first slot and avoid facing a top seed in the quarterfinals. When the group draw came, TSM was gifted with the worst possible outcome: Samsung White.
To this day, Samsung White is considered by many to be the greatest team to ever play League of Legends. The team disbanded almost immediately following the end of the World Championship, the five players taking diverging paths in China for better contracts than Samsung would offer. White toyed with opponents in scrims during Worlds, and the official results mirrored the scrimmages; Samsung only dropped two games the entire tournament to win the Summoner's Cup. Nearly perfect.
For what it's worth, one of those losses came at the hands of TSM. The first two games in their quarterfinal series went to the side of Samsung in relatively easy fashion, but the third game showed the promise that TSM roster held. The newfound North American champions got ahead early and didn't look back, making the great White bleed before ultimately falling to them in the fourth game.
"I think there's two sides to the 2014 TSM Worlds story," says NA League Championship Series (LCS) commentator David "Phreak" Turley. "If you ask certain people, they'll tell you TSM was the second best team in the tournament and it's just unlucky that they drew Samsung White in the quarterfinals. [TSM owner] Reginald has lamented to me that he wishes they took the group stage games more seriously and earned the first seed so they could've dodged the matchup."
Phreak's opinion is it's more important how TSM played. "Maybe they disappointed their own expectations, but if you play like the second-best team in your group, you deserve to draw the best team from somewhere else. TSM played like a top eight team at Worlds and that's where they finished. I think that's still a great result, to end up as one of the eight best teams in the world, but if your sights are higher, you better play like it."
"[Bjergsen] dealt with pressure and the amount of expectation put on him better than 90% of the players in the scene. It wasn't by chance that he succeeded." Choi "Locodoco" Yoon-sub
The expectations for greater success would only grow as the calendars turned from 2014 to 2015. More changes shook up the TSM roster as jungler Maurice "Amazing" Stückenschneider departed to return to Europe. His replacement was someone Bjergsen could relate to: a Danish rookie making his professional jungler debut under the scrutinizingly bright lights of Team SoloMid by the name of Lucas "Santorin" Tao Kilmer Larsen.
"Bjergsen is the best player I've played with and he was also a good teammate," recounts Santorin from the year he spent alongside Bjergsen. "He has really good game knowledge while still having strong mechanics, which makes him a really strong mid laner. He is super hungry to win and will do whatever it takes to make it happen."
The spring of that year was as brisk and carefree as the Santa Monica weather outside the studios. Bjergsen was untouchable in his new position as the face of the North American LCS. Cloud9 had been unlocked the previous season's finals, and LMQ, the rivals from China, had all left America except for Yu "XiaoWeiXiao" Xian who joined the new organization Team Impulse, which finished fourth in its first season.
Bjergsen's partnership with Santorin was simple: the jungler would serve the ball - an enemy champion - into the air, and Bjergsen would rise higher than anyone in North America could contend, spiking down the ball to secure a kill for his team. For their inaugural split together, there was no better duo in the league than the two Danes on TSM. Santorin would do his best to protect and serve Bjergsen, and the ace of SoloMid would respond by doing what he did best: slaughter the insolent opponents who dared to face him.
Awards that season were a sweep across the board for TSM. Choi "Locodoco" Yoon-sub was given Coach of the Split. Santorin, the sleek setter, was presented with Rookie of the Split honors. And Bjergsen, for the second time in his career, won the MVP of the entire league for his supremacy over the rest of the field.
"Bjerg was a teenager with a lot of burden when I first started working with him," says Locodoco, his head coach at the time, who led the team from summer of 2014 to the end of the 2015 season. "He felt as if he had to carry the team through his play and also shotcalling. He had pushback at times regarding how much he had to do but at the end when it came down to it he always shouldered the burden and put the work in."
This postseason for the split was like a rerun with the same tired ending. XiaoweiXiao awaited Bjergsen in the semifinals, but this time XWX's team was not nearly as polished or in-sync as the previous season, and TSM won the series in four games. The finals, the fourth showdown in a row with C9, was the tepid sequel to their classic final in Seattle months earlier. After dropping the first game, TSM found its form and fired off three straight wins to take a convincing second title in a row. Bjergsen, who had gone blow to blow with Hai "Hai" Lam in the previous final, didn't look back in the third best-of-five between the two; he amassed a monstrous 19/2/17 in the three straight victories.
In the middle of the dominant domestic season, TSM added international hardware to its trophy case in the form of the Intel Extreme Masters World Championship in Katowice, Poland. TSM exited champions when the odds-on favorite, the GE Tigers from South Korea, failed to make it out of the semifinals in a stunning upset by Chinese bottom-tier club Team WE.
"Bjergsen was dishing out a ridiculous 42.5% of his team's damage, an astronomical figure that was 7% above the next player and almost 10% above anyone on a team that made the postseason."
The way TSM played orbited around Bjergsen. Santorin was his setter. Top laner Marcus "Dyrus" Hill was the sacrificial lamb used as bait to leave the mid lane free to farm minions. All the bottom lane needed to do was stay alive and push down turrets. When it came to damage, it all revolved around whether or not Bjergsen reached the late game unscathed. If Bjergsen was allowed to get through the laning phase in a good position, TSM could win through teamfighting and his late game heroics. Trouble in Metropolis? Don't worry, Bjergsen is here to save the day for TSM.
In the IEM finals, TSM repeatedly dangled the juicy Dyrus bait and the opponent left Bjergsen to his own devices. The Chinese team would take down the TSM top laner, but TSM would take the map and get Bjergsen in an optimal position to take over the game. Everything funneled through the mid lane Dane, and no one that spring was able to stop him. TSM won that series in a perfect sweep.
"It's probably easy to think of Bjerg as someone that got lucky by joining TSM at the right time," says Locodoco. "But he showed dedication to his work beyond someone his age and dealt with pressure and the amount of expectation put on him better than 90% of the players in the scene. It wasn't by chance that he succeeded."
The dreams of thousands of TSM fans across the world were planted squarely on the back of the teenager, who shone in his roles from carrying to shotcalling. On his face a diligent smile, he was the best player in North America on an unstoppable team. IEM world champions. The outcome at Riot's World Championship this year would be different.
His legs, however, unbeknownst to the fans, staggered with each step.
The breeze of the spring transitioned into the dull, inescapable heat of summer. What worked in the spring was becoming less viable as the year trudged on. In a game where being able to adapt on the fly distinguishes the good teams from the great, TSM was stuck. Bjergsen was the best player in the league, but with Riot Games' changes to League of Legends over the past few months it was tougher than ever to sustain a one-man strategy. The game became more team-focused, with players needing to coordinate from the start to the end. It was no longer about which team brought the largest weapon to the battlefield, but rather which team knew how to properly use the full power of the arsenal at its disposal.
By the time the summer's regular season came to an end, Bjergsen's once-steady legs had started to buckle under him. TSM finished the split by losing five of their last seven games, including ones to teams sitting at the bottom of the standings.
Bjergsen was dishing out a ridiculous 42.5% of his team's damage, an astronomical figure that was 7% above the next player and almost 10% above anyone on a team that made the postseason. It was obvious the team was fundamentally broken; a stalled truck on the side of the road, the engine having exploded from overheating.
But, in front of the broken-down hunk of metal, there was Bjergsen, pulling the carcass stalwartly along with a rope past the finish line and into the playoffs. In the first two rounds of the postseason, TSM strung together two successful series where it played around more than just Bjergsen. Dyrus got heavily involved in the quarterfinal win over Gravity, and Jason "WildTurtle" Tran, who regressed from his form in the spring split, shone in the semifinal victory over regular-season champion Team Liquid. Somehow, some way, TSM had found itself in the NA LCS finals for a sixth straight season.
"Bjergsen has been the player to beat ever since he joined NA LCS," says Eugene "Pobelter" Park, the mid laner he would ultimately face in the finals that summer. "He's almost always been dominant, and even at his worst he's someone to play very carefully against. I think the most remarkable thing about him is how rarely he gives solo kills in lane. I can remember it happening only three times over his career since he's joined LCS, which is crazy considering most mid laners will give solo kills a couple times a split."
The finals took place at the famed Madison Square Garden in New York City, marking it as the biggest final to ever take place in the league's history. On the opposite side was Counter Logic Gaming, the arch-rivals of Team SoloMid since almost its inception. Throughout the years, CLG had watched TSM's success from afar, always failing to make it over the final hurdle.
This time it was different. The fool's gold would shine no more, and Bjergsen could no longer carry the burden of the hopes of thousands of fans all by himself. CLG swept the series in an anti-climactic 3-0, and TSM this time were the ones to watch from a distance, its rivals basking in the glow of a championship for the first time.
TSM qualified for the 2015 World Championship through the circuit point system, but the team did not go far. International teams had figured out TSM, and the North Americans struggled, leaving with a single win to their name. At the end of the tournament, longtime top laner Dyrus retired on stage, giving a final interview following their group stage elimination loss to the Chinese club LGD Gaming.
Next it would be Lustboy to retire, becoming an analyst before moving back to South Korea to coach for a team in the domestic league there. Santorin would also leave, eventually joining a minor league team in Europe. WildTurtle would be the last, being moved to a substitute before joining Immortals, a new venture capital-backed organization making its debut in the NA LCS.
"I think the biggest problem for 2015 TSM was the lack of flexibility," says Martin "Deficio" Lynge, a former coach and current shoutcaster. "Dyrus played tanks and Wildturtle was too inconsistent to be relied on as a carry at the international level so Bjergsen was always forced to carry. The era of solo carrying was already over in 2015 so it was pretty clear that TSM's 2015 lineup was past its expiration date."
Bjergsen stood alone at the end of the 2015 season. Gone were all the teammates who had been there as he learned to become a champion one year prior, laughing as Andy "Reginald" Dinh hugged him on stage with trophy in hand.
Team SoloMid's name had never been more appropriate.