With League of Legends World Championships starting in several hours, it’s important to talk about the subject of players’ performance in high stakes environments, with a crowd rooting for or booing them in the background. If you’ve ever done some kind of public speaking before, you might know some of what eSports athletes face when they have to play in front of a crowd. If you haven’t, well… TV producer Shonda Rhimes, described it pretty well when giving a Commencement Speech for her alma mater, Dartmouth College: “Dry mouth, heart beats so so fast, everything in slow motion, pass out, die, poop.” Obviously, it’s a little bit different for players, but the principle stays the same.
A player’s ability to deal with the pressure and stress of playing on stage is one of the necessary characteristics when determining whether he’s going to have a career in eSports as a player or not. Assuming that he’s a good enough player, doors will open, some team will try him out, pluck him out of Solo Queue or Matchmaking and sign him to a team. Then, he will participate in scrims, playing with his new teammates. He will have to learn a lot of new things because often, professional matches are vastly different from what you and I play everyday. Even if he learns quickly and starts slaying in scrims, setting himself up to be the new Faker or s1mple, everything can come crashing down if he fails to overcome the last boss, the live audience.
Why do some people have trouble playing before a crowd, while others seem to thrive in that environment? It comes down to three factors: personality, psychological toughness, and experience. It’s become a bit of a cliche over the years, but everyone’s different. It’s extremely hard to tell how someone’s going to react when their fight or flight instinct is triggered.
Some people charge forward and meet the challenge, pumping themselves up, while others just want to curl up into a ball and die. While a player who meets the challenge seems to have the advantage, it still remains to be seen how he’d react when the response of the audience is negative. Suddenly, it’s much harder to pump yourself up.
This is where psychological toughness comes in. In both cases, the player has to accept what’s happening and let it go, tune it out, and concentrate on the game. Not everyone can do that at the drop of the hat, with no training. It’s not their fault, it’s a hard thing to do, after all. The people who used to pump themselves up from the roar of the crowd, now have to find a way to believe in themselves in a vacuum, the silent and fearful guy has to somehow convince himself that running away is not an option, he’s all in now, his back is up against the wall, he might as well fight. Easier said than done.
The best medicine for both of these issues is experience. It’s a fact that the longer you do something, the better you get at it unless you don’t care about improving at all. Even then, it’s different from what it was the first time when you do it for the 50th time. The effect gets muted, it’s a familiar feeling now, you can greet is as an old friend, accept that it’s there and move on, doing what needs to be done.
Even if a player can do that, it doesn’t mean that he can do it completely. At the back of player’s minds, there’s always the thought that thousands, if not millions in the case of events like Worlds or CS:GO Majors, of people are watching every move they make in game. Even if you practiced a certain comp or maneuver hundreds of times in scrims, there will probably still be a small difference in how you play.
Players often talk about bodying fools in scrims and then forgetting everything on stage, reverting to their instincts due to the stress. That is where effective and targeted practice comes in. Professional players don’t play for 10+ hours everyday to have fun, they play to drill some kind of mechanical skill or rotation so deeply that it becomes instinct, which WILL come out when the shit hits the fan. This practice is not fun. It’s monotonous hard work. And it’s what separates okay teams and players from the greats. When it’s go time, teams usually revert to their instincts and the one with the better ones wins. Of course, they still figure out things on the fly, use complicated plans made beforehand, however, it’s different than it was in scrims. The pressure MAKES it different.
In Worlds, there will be a rookie with a single LCS Split under his belt, on a team which is expected to make Playoffs as the second, if not the first seed. He was very good in the Split before a studio audience, he didn’t crumble in the Grand Finals against Cloud9; however, it will be VERY interesting to see how he does on the Worlds stage, where the stakes are so much higher. I am talking about Vincent “Biofrost” Wang, of course. We will have our answer today, when TSM faces off against Royal Never Give Up in Game 6 of the day. The Player Experience Stream will even be focused on the ADC matchup, giving us a fair view of how Biofrost stands up to Mata, one of the most famous Supports in the world.