H2K Gaming can still reach the 2016 World Championship despite its loss against Splyce in the semifinals. For that to happen, it has to prevail against the Unicorns of Love in the third-place match, and have G2 Esports beat Splyce in the finals. If G2 wins, and if H2K clinch third place, it will go to Worlds with a point differential over Splyce.
However, H2K may have to achieve that feat without its starting AD carry, Ales "Freeze" Knezinek, as he nurses the tendonitis in his right wrist. The timetable for recovery is usually six weeks, but because he aggravated it throughout the season, it may take up to two months or more.
Freeze noticed the first warning signs before the summer split started, and booked a series of appointments with a doctor in Berlin. At the first appointment, the doctor told him that the tiredness in his hand was a result of his grueling schedule practicing in front of the computer. "The hand was getting tired after playing 10 hours a day," Freeze said. But 10 hours was normal for a professional gamer.
Things changed at the second appointment when Freeze started noticing pain, rather than tiredness.
"The second game [in the EU LCS], I could only play six [or] seven games because the hand started hurting," Freeze recalled. "I would have to force myself to play more, which I obviously did because I wanted to practice harder. In the end, [that] wasn't the greatest idea."
Freeze's doctor ordered an X-ray and MRI to follow up. The X-ray showed nothing, but Freeze had to wait more than a month and a half for the MRI, which meant the pain in his wrist progressively intensified as he continued practicing and playing. In the meantime, he had taken matters in his own hands, visiting a physiotherapist daily at 8 a.m., a time that many players in esports might consider too early (most professional gamers stay up late to practice, which means their schedules can start as late as 1 p.m.).
In the end, Freeze's hand was overwhelmed by the stress.
"I did everything I could -- exercises, everything -- but nothing was helping," he said. "Nothing was improving the situation. It kept getting worse to the point where I couldn't play anymore. At that point, I had to step down, which was very stressful for me."
Freeze also endured stress from his performance slumps, which is customary with injuries. As time went on, he also cut down his practice and playing time drastically. Ten hours of practice, scrimmages and solo queue winded down to five, and that meant less time to work on mechanics and widening his champion pool. Alas, as is customary with slumping professional players, the vocal minorities on reddit and social media criticized him louder than ever before.
It took him five weeks to overcome the noise his detractors made on social media, and it was no easy feat. "Everything that happened to the team was basically my fault, which was a very big hit because everyone's literally blaming me for everything, so I got to experience how that feels," he stated pensively. "In the end, I managed to look for the constructive criticism and not the flaming, so that helped me. It took me four or five weeks, though, to get over it."
In the process, he also discerned between fans and haters. "When a player plays well, everyone says he plays well," stated Freeze, before thanking his fans. "But when he is in a slump and struggle, then he realizes how [many] true fans he has because only true fans will keep supporting him even though he has been slumping."
His mental toughness improved, but his hand did not. As the end of the split neared, he abstained from playing solo queue and focused solely on scrims. However unlikely, setbacks can unveil breakthroughs, and Freeze's practice habits benefited heavily. Rather than grinding the ladder, he watched games from other regions and noted things he could improve. What made Bae "Bang" Jun-sik stand out in South Korea? What about Gu "imp" Seung-bin in China?
"It's a very different approach of learning and improving if you start watching five different players, [the] best AD carries," Freeze said. "Then you start connecting the play styles and take the best from each and try to implement that into your own play."
Despite the silver lining, he still ranks this split as his hardest. It was difficult enough that he opted to sideline himself starting in the ninth week of the EU LCS summer split. But it has improved his efficiency as a professional gamer for the long term.
"You never know when certain things are going to happen to you and you're just going to get over the obstacle and struggle. It definitely made me stronger," he said. "Even though I'm sad how it went, I'm glad for it as well because it made me approach the game differently and made me realize how inefficient I was with my practice and the way I played."