When Jean-Paul Sartre penned the line "Hell is other people" in his play "No Exit," he wasn't being literal. Instead, as people, we are frequently trapped in a hell of perceiving ourselves through the eyes of others. We cannot break free of the existence of the other.
For Team SoloMid this year that other is a community of fans and analysts with only small pieces of a larger internal picture. This isn't saying that outside commentary shouldn't happen, but that some of it inevitably creeps into players' and staff's perceptions regardless of will. Several TSM players discussed this during the season, as the team missed the world championship by the narrowest possible margin. So, this hell now applies to TSM. For the first time in its history, TSM is looking in at the world championship from the outside, while also bearing the brunt of a community storm that has been building since before the roster was constructed in the 2017-18 offseason.
As North America's premier League of Legends organization -- or at least its most popular -- TSM is expected to perform well. The team has been a constant at international events as the North American League Championship Series representative. It seemed inevitable, just like it did SK Telecom T1's dominance in South Korea and G2 Esports' dominion over Europe across the past few years, that TSM would continue that success in 2018 and represent North America at worlds.
But this year marked a series of new challenges for certain old guard teams. Equally shocking as TSM's absence, SKT also failed to qualify for worlds. G2 qualified but as Europe's third seed rather than its first. Now the TSM organization is the hot topic in the North American League of Legends community. Why did TSM fail? Who should be replaced? Treatises and theses have been posted to a variety of social media platforms on whom should be kicked off or why the star-studded roster didn't live up to expectations.
The trick for TSM is to now escape that commentary "hell," the expectations placed by the community and that the organization had set for itself, while thoroughly examining the team's failures on TSM's own internal terms.
"We just have to find a way that both allows us to have success in the short term both in NA and internationally if we make it that far," TSM general manager Parth Naidu said, "and also progressing as an organization moving forward. Regardless of all of the changes we made this year, I don't think that keeping the same roster and staff together for this year, regardless of how much success we would have had regionally, would be in the best interest of the org."
Two years ago, TSM assembled a different superstar roster that similarly failed to find its synergy until playoff time, narrowly losing to Counter Logic Gaming in the 2016 NA LCS Spring Split finals. After acquiring rookie support Vincent "Biofrost" Wang to replace Bora "YellOwStaR" Kim, TSM won that season's summer split and was a pre-tournament favorite to become the first North American team to make it to the world championship semifinals.
TSM's elimination in the group stage was unexpected, and the team was near-universally panned for the failure. When TSM decided to stick with its 2016 lineup for 2017 -- top laner Kevin "Hauntzer" Yarnell, jungler Dennis "Svenskeren" Johnsen, mid laner Søren "Bjergsen" Bjerg, AD carry Yiliang "Doublelift" Peng and support Biofrost -- expectations were similarly high, although not as high as the previous year. The worlds defeat had tempered predictions, but the team looked to have grown from and built upon the experience of its 2016 shortcomings.
Again, TSM failed to make it out of the group stage, leaving Cloud9 as the lone North American organization in quarterfinals for two years in a row.
It was time for a change.
"I think this was the first season where TSM has had the chance to experiment in the post-franchise era, and we took very big risks with both our roster and our staff," Naidu said. "This was the year where I felt we kind of approached it with a little bit of hubris where we took potentially the best coach -- at least based on his knowledge and experience, we felt like that was true. We brought over a bot lane with a lot of experience."
TSM assembled another star-studded lineup in this offseason with the signing of former G2 bottom lane Jesper "Zven" Svenningsen and Alfonso "Mithy" Aguirre Rodríguez. The team signed former Immortals coach Kim "SSONG" Sang-soo and former TSM support Ham "Lustboy" Jang-sik as a coach as well. Everything pointed to another successful domestic season for TSM and a chance at a better result at worlds.
The team never came together, and the tough part for Naidu and his team is that there are no easy answers.
"Everyone on our team is insanely good, it's just that culturally as a fit, things just didn't click throughout the year," he said. "It's not like they didn't like each other or didn't want to work hard. It was just some piece of both in the game and outside the game didn't click with them.
"We worked with SSONG and Lustboy and again, individually, they're very smart about the game. Everyone on the team and the org respects their knowledge a lot. But there are certain nuances in terms of how they work as a staff with the players that also didn't click very well."
What is a staff to do when the team simply doesn't come together? When there was no prolonged infighting? No individual player problems? When everyone works hard but just can't manage to jell as a competitive team? It's a lot less salacious than one player antagonizing teammates and a lot more difficult to grasp. Mediocrity is worse than being awful because at least awful is easier to recognize.
For Naidu, TSM's shortcomings this year will turn into a new direction for TSM in the future, regardless of whether changes are made within the roster or staff. Team Liquid, with its squad of veteran talent, and Cloud9, with its seven-man roster including three rookies, both found their own individual paths for their teams in the franchising era.
It's now time for TSM to do the same.
"We just have to recognize what our plan is, at least for the League of Legends competitive side, and go forward next year with that," Naidu said. "Until this year we've always had the legacy of having the best players and then having success, but this loss right now where we're not attending worlds ushers in a new era for TSM, and we have to see how we want to face that."