There is always an added pressure when putting on the Team SoloMid jersey. Supporters chant "T-S-M!" the second you step out on the League of Legends Championship Series stage, and every move -- in-game and offline -- is made under a microscope.
Winning the North American LCS championship isn't just a goal for TSM -- it's something the team's fans expect split after split. Even then, when TSM wins the domestic title, the expectations are pushed higher, and members are expected to beat the best in the world at international events.
Soren "Bjergsen" Bjerg has been the face of TSM since joining the team from the European LCS two years ago, and the pressure to perform has been a constant since he took over for former mid laner and current team owner Andy "Reginald" Dinh. Bjerg's a two-time league MVP, three-time champion and is considered one of the most mechanically gifted players in the world -- a résumé that a majority of pro gamers could only dream of. Still, even with all of Bjergsen's titles, accolades and popularity, the stress to succeed on the highest level -- the World Championships -- is always pushing him to become better.
After TSM's failure to make it out of the group stages of the 2015 Worlds, the team was gutted, aside from Bjergen in the mid lane. TSM rebuilt over the offseason, successfully putting together one of the best starting fives on paper in the western region's history. A balance of talent, experience and new blood, the SoloMid lineup seemingly fixed the holes in its game, which had plagued the team against the top-flight international talent the year before.
"It's really just trying to find out the most effective way to practice," Bjergsen said about his team's up-and-down first half. "Once we know the best way to practice, we're going to improve faster, and then that's going to turn into wins."
TSM sits at 5-3, second in the standings, which is a spot that many teams with an entirely new roster would be happy about. Not so for Bjergsen and TSM. The fourth week of the split was perhaps the worst of their season so far; although they went 2-0, they struggled to get past Echo Fox and Renegades -- two squads that currently have a combined record of 2-14.
"It's a little bit more structured," Bjergsen said of TSM's evolving training regimen. "We meet up in the morning; everyone has to be on time. We practice the same amount of hours [as last year], but it's really just how you review [your games]."
TSM's ace explained the ways some teams look over their replays. While a few teams pinpoint every mistake or happening on the map in a systematic fashion over long periods of time, other squads can retain the same amount of information by simply going outside, getting some fresh air and casually talking about what went wrong and right in the game. SoloMid is trying to figure out what system works best for the team.
"Last season, I played a lot of champions that did a lot of [area-of-effect damage] in team fights, like Azir and Orianna," he said on his differing role from 2015 to 2016 with Yiliang "Doublelift" Peng coming in as co-carry of the team. "But now, I just kind of take [any] role my team puts me into. If I have to play Lulu, I'll play Lulu because I'm super confident in Doublelift's ability to carry. And I really don't care how much damage I'm doing or if [I have zero kills and five deaths] -- if we win as a team and we're improving as a team. That's all I care about."
While TSM went to the NA LCS finals twice in 2015 -- even taking home a title in the spring season -- Bjergsen noted that there were obvious weaknesses in the team. They couldn't play around the top lane a lot or vary their strategies during the season. TSM members know they aren't playing at their best right now, but they want to fix their issues early on at the core before developing bad habits, as they did last year.
"A lot of the teams that we see actually [go all the way at Worlds] like [the Tigers] and SKT -- they can play every style. They can play [around] top. They can play [around] bot. Every single player is able to carry."
Of all the teams playing, the one that Bjergsen has his eye closest on is Longzhu Gaming from Korea. Longzhu has a similar structure to the current TSM, with a "super-team" dynamic of bringing together some of the best free agents during the offseason. They're also coached strategically by Bjergsen's friend and former teammate, Ham "Lustboy" Jang-sik, who is also attempting to find the best way for his team to flourish in the world's toughest league.
The biggest signing of the offseason for TSM -- or at least the most publicized -- was that of Doublelift at the AD carry position. Heated rivals for the past two years, their partnership has worked out well so far, Bjergsen believes. "We're kind of different personalities. He's very blunt and straightforward. The good thing about [Doublelift] is he also wants that said to him. ... He wants you to be straight with your criticism -- that's how he learns."
By the end of the split, Bjergsen wants TSM to be competing with the likes of Immortals for the championship but knows the team will need to work diligently. TSM's new coach, KC "Woodbuck" Woods, is attempting to build the correct infrastructure for TSM to succeed. It's about doing the little things right: waking up at a regular time and maintaining a schedule; getting to the team shuttle on time; getting down to working when it's time to focus; and get into scrimmages.
For Bjergsen and SoloMid, 2016 is a marathon, not a sprint.