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YellOwStaR's final year

by theScore Staff Oct 20 2016
Thumbnail image courtesy of Riot Games

The face cams drifted between Fabien "Febiven" Diepstraten and Lee "Spirit" Dayoon as the Unicorns of Love dismantled Fnatic's final Nexus in Game 3 of the 2016 Regional World Championship qualifier. Febiven’s anger was palpable. Spirit, after his final death, covered his face before sinking into his seat and hanging his arm across his stomach, uncoiling all of the tension he’d kept locked down tight through his year in the EU LCS.

In the EU LCS studio, Zdravets "Hylissang" Galabov teased his bangs before he stood from his chair. Unicorns, stunned by their victory, huddled together in quiet celebration, while excited fans in pink jerseys punched the air and cheered.

When Unicorns crossed the divider for the handshake, the cameras hovered on Mateusz "Kikis" Szkudlarek as he met his former teammates. He managed to nod and hug both Tamás "Vizicsacsi" Kiss and Hylissang before the Unicorns moved to the front of the stage to tag the crowd. UoL manager Romain "Khagneur" Bigeard crossed Fnatic’s name off his bare chest in black marker. Febiven lagged behind his team, clearing his peripherals one more time before he slogged backstage.

Not once — from his final death to the followup analysis on the desk — did the production team focus in on Bora "YellOwStaR" Kim, team captain and fixture of Fnatic since the start of the LCS era. The loss to UoL meant YellOwStaR wouldn’t attend a sixth consecutive World Championship. His streak had at last come to an end. Yet there's no footage of YellOwStaR’s reaction to the last professional game he played in the 2016 season — the last, it turns out, that he would ever play.

Fans have an idealized narrative that sports heroes are supposed to follow. The seasoned veteran works excruciatingly long hours to achieve an end, he climbs the ranks and makes a name for himself. When he’s reached his peak, when he’s won it all, he retires gracefully because he can rest well on his laurels.

That ending can also be that of a coward who is afraid to want to achieve more. YellOwStaR was no coward. He didn't quit at his peak; he kept doing what he loved until he became weary of the game. His final year in the LCS was a disappointment, likely not just for his fans but for the widely celebrated support player himself. But no pro should know his limit until he reaches it and the drive to push it vanishes. That sort of heroism is what kept us searching for YellOwStaR's face when the camera panned away from the Nexus to show us the emotions of the players and the crowd.

A year prior to his retirement announcement, at the height of YellOwStaR’s career, he attended the 2015 World Championship with Febiven, Martin "Rekkles" Larsson, Heo "Huni" Seunghoon and Kim "Reignover" Yeujin, a squad rebuilt around him. They advanced to a World Championship quarterfinal against EDward Gaming, and though EDG didn’t have the tight form expected of them going into the tournament, Fnatic played clean games their way and closed a 3-0. It was the first best-of-five win by a European team over a Chinese team in the history of League of Legends.

Fnatic had made their definitive mark on the international community. They were the strongest Western team to attend a World Championship since the start of the LCS era. Yet their triumph was punctuated by a 3-0 defeat at the hands of KOO Tigers in the semifinal. Rekkles, commenting on KOO’s unexpected performance and the fact that he personally felt he pushed himself too hard, acknowledged the Tigers were a better team. It left fans with a sense the roster could have achieved more.

By the very nature of competition, those who don’t limit themselves often succeed. That doesn’t mean an individual should set unrealistic goals, nor does it mean he should skip steps along the way and try at something he isn’t ready for. But if he sees something he wants to achieve, he should at least work toward it, insofar as he has the energy to do so.

In his retirement statement, YellOwStaR reflected on the moment he last considered leaving the game: after a disappointing World Championship showing where he failed to escape Group Stage. "Back in 2014 when I was having second thoughts," he said, "I turned to my loved ones for advices and they told me to pursue my dreams as long as I was genuinely happy doing it." Because he chose to continue playing then, YellOwStaR gave LoL fans one of the greatest storylines of 2015, with an 18-0 run in the EU LCS summer regular season and an exciting appearance at the World Championship. I imagine he still felt genuinely happy playing the game then, and he strove to push himself even further.

Following Fnatic’s semifinal appearance at Worlds 2015, it would be ridiculous to think YellOwStaR was satisfied, that his goals had been met and that he didn’t want to achieve something else before he hung up his mouse. Of course he didn’t want to retire before 2016. He wanted a serious run at Worlds with teammates boasting pedigrees of experience that matched his own.

His determination led him to Los Angeles, where he played for League of Legends’ most iconic squad, Team SoloMid, alongside North America’s most renowned AD carry, Yiliang "Doublelift" Peng. He failed spectacularly. It would be dishonest to YellOwStaR’s reputation to call his time on TSM anything other than disaster, even though the team managed to place second in the spring playoffs. Doublelift would later refer to him as "one of the worst supports [he’d] ever played with," going on to criticize both his mechanics and his decision-making.

When YellOwStaR did return to the EU LCS for Fnatic, the expectation was he would replicate Rekkles' triumphant return the previous year. Fnatic’s famed bottom lane, though hardly ever regarded as lane-dominant outside early spring 2014, had a long familiarity that made them reliable and safe, that allowed them to prep the rest of the team and control vision.

Somehow, YellOwStaR managed an even worse performance returning to his old organization. He and Rekkles looked for a way to exert early pressure with the jungler and mid lane farming more passively, but they often misplayed trades and simply fell further behind. Fnatic were aided by the lane swap meta when the team could dictate the pace of the game after turret trades, but the 2v2 emphasis in summer playoffs and regionals proved debilitating.

Much of the blame fell on YellOwStaR. He doesn’t deserve of all of it, not by a large margin; Johan "Klaj" Olsson, Fnatic’s spring support, wouldn’t have been a noticeable improvement, and Fnatic had problems with unity and early pressure in more than just bottom lane. But YellOwStaR didn’t feel as stable on Fnatic anymore.

In their heartfelt farewells, commentators and former teammates of YellOwStaR have often ignored the disappointments of his final year, as if they have been minor black marks on an otherwise steady and stable part of his career. I’ve personally gone into detail to track him from 2011 through 2014, an as-yet incomplete account which leaves off just before his peak in 2015. But I don't want to ignore 2016, his most disappointing year — not now, as I watch one of League of Legends’ most iconic players transition to a new role in 2017. It isn’t a part of his story to be ashamed of.

If YellOwStaR had retired at the end of 2015, I would always wonder what he could have achieved in 2016. Romantic notions are one thing, but the reality of watching him confront difficulty this year, of accepting that he had struggled and failed to replicate results, was almost more fulfilling. I will always remember that in his final year of professional play, YellOwStaR wanted to keep playing and challenged himself until he came to a realization he felt too exhausted to continue.

Bringing up YellOwStaR’s failures in his final year isn’t a disservice to what he achieved. It would also be unfair to say he held his teammates back, based on the struggles Fnatic had and the way TSM bounced back in the spring playoffs and then again in the summer split with a new support.

YellOwStaR simply dared to dream. It would do us well to remember that, sometimes, to fail is also heroic.

Kelsey Moser is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.