In the summer of 2018, Paul "sOAZ" Boyer came to Los Angeles as the top laner of European powerhouse Fnatic. The team's other top laner, Gabriël "Bwipo" Rau, was playing champions like Ornn and Swain in the bottom lane, in lieu of starting AD carry Martin "Rekkles" Larsson. That weekend, the temperature soared above 100 degrees Fahrenheit as visiting teams from Europe bested their North American counterparts on the latter's home soil.
"I really like more playing the game right now than last year," sOAZ said over the hum of the air conditioning system in a wayward office next to the League of Legends Championship Series press room. "My love for the game is a bit higher, for purely the game. I really like playing as a team, communicating with my teammates, the aspect of team things. Pretty much this and the competition. I don't know what I'd do besides playing."
He talked animatedly about how much the game had changed since 2018 -- as evidenced by Bwipo now playing in the bottom lane -- and his place in it. In many ways, Fnatic and sOAZ were European League of Legends at that time.
"I had a conversation with a [Counter-Strike] player, he played for 12 years, he said that he regretted stopping playing even though he played for so long. Even though sometimes you force yourself to do things you don't like, it's better than having regrets."
In the winter of 2020, sOAZ came to Los Angeles as the starting top laner for Immortals in the League of Legends Championship Series. It was the first time since his career began in 2011, that he had played for a non-European team. Leaving Fnatic at the end of 2018 to go to Misfits Gaming was one thing. Leaving Europe altogether was something else entirely.
The memory of League of Legends fans, coaching staff and analysts is frequently short. A three-month split can feel like a lifetime with the amount of patch changes and player shifts that can happen. The fact that sOAZ is still playing League of Legends in 2020, over 10 years since he began, is a remarkable tenure in a game and community that hasn't been particularly kind to its aging stars.
With the reputation of the League of Legends European Championship ascending in the wake of powerhouses like 2018 Fnatic and 2019 G2 Esports, competition among the top European teams is fiercer than ever before. For some players, being on a mid-to-lower-tier team is a worse proposition than leaving the region entirely, even for a less-competitive region like North America.
Read more: This week's League of Legends Power Rankings
"For me, [being on a lower-tier team] can only be bad because of what I've achieved in the past," sOAZ said.
He said this slowly, as if he was considering his personal legacy through the process of speaking. After leaving his competitive home of Fnatic, one of the most popular and high-profile teams in Europe, he landed on a Misfits team that did not perform as well as expected.
"If I had had another year of something like Misfits, then my career would be over," he said. "It depends. If you're a rookie, of course you want to play for any team in the LEC. It's really not about ego or things like that. At the end of the day, you don't really know what it's like. At least here I know the players that I'm playing with, and it makes it a little bit easier. Another year like a Misfits year would end my career."
Inadvertently, sOAZ touched upon one of the key factors why the system is so harsh to older players, particularly in Europe where there is a font of younger talent, eager to work their way up to the top teams. Regardless of legacy, memories are short. One bad year for a player, even one with the veteran experience of sOAZ, and that player is labelled as washed-up, cast aside for other talent, especially since experience is not valued as highly as up-and-coming mechanical prowess on the solo queue ladder.
"I could eventually be a playoff team in NA or do almost nothing in Europe," sOAZ said. "It was just an easy choice to go to NA, so at least I could have some visibility and show that I'm a good player rather than be in Europe and people not knowing what I'm doing or whatever. It was mostly just to stay relevant. It's sort of like a meme that NA level right now is pretty low, but it's just to keep playing in LCS/LEC."
Misfits Gaming in 2019 was a star-studded lineup of sOAZ, jungler Nubar "Maxlore" Sarafian, mid laner Fabian "Febiven" Diepstraten, bot laner Steven "Hans sama" Liv, and support Kang "GorillA" Beom-hyeon. They were rated highly alongside Fnatic and G2 Esports as one of the top rosters on paper going into the season.
While G2 soared and became one of the best teams in the world with Fnatic and Origen on their heels for most of the year, Misfits sunk to eighth place during the spring split and ninth place in summer.
"I think it was just like, OK, we got five good players, so it will just be good,'" sOAZ said. "Rather than investing in the process of making what is a good team and learning basics. I think they just assumed that we would be good.
"We were doing fine at the start, but our process of learning together as a team was really poor. At some point, there were just too many issues for us to really do anything. Everyone is partly at fault. From the start we should have had a much better system of how to improve as a team."
With the fierce competition for the top of the LEC, Misfits started out well enough but failed to improve as a team going forward despite having five talented players.
"At the end of any day, in the year I didn't feel improved," sOAZ said. "Both individually and as a team."
Fitting in with Immortals
Now in 2020, both Misfits and sOAZ appear to be in better places. The current roster of Misfits is led by Febiven, the only 2019 member to stay with the organization in the offseason, and is full of talented rookies. Going into Week 5 of the LEC's spring split, they're tied for first place with G2 and Origen. Meanwhile, Immortals are in a somewhat similar situation in North America, tied for second place overall with FlyQuest at 5-3, defying the low expectations for them before the season started.
Read more: Immortals prepare for return to the LCS.
Although sOAZ was the last player officially signed to the team, he was one of the first on the radar of Immortals coach Thomas "Zaboutine" Si-Hassen.
"I was discussing with sOAZ because he had two rough years. I asked him, 'Are you interested in NA or do I get rid of you in my listings, and he was like, 'You know what, why not?'" Zaboutine said. "So I started talking to him, we started discussing what he thinks a good team is."
One of the most important factors for Zaboutine was ensuring that the two veteran leaders he wanted for his team, sOAZ and jungler Jake "Xmithie" Puchero shared similar in-game ideals and had a shared framework of what they wanted a team to be.
"That talk with me and sOAZ, I think we just thought of how we're going to play ... he agrees with most of how I think and we think together," Xmithie said. "He said that he can be stubborn at times, and I really like stubborn people who you can give constructive criticism to them too. I've been with a lot of stubborn people in the past, and it's good if teammates can butt heads with each other."
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"Jake and me are pretty similar," sOAZ said. "I'll just speak for me, but my ideal thing is to make my team smarter and better in practice. And then onstage, depending on picks and bans and what happens in the game, then everyone is going to be able to think smart and play better."
The Immortals roster of sOAZ, Xmithie, mid laner Jérémy "Eika" Valdenaire, bot laner Johnny "Altec" Ru and support Nickolas "Hakuho" Surgent came under heavy criticism from the North American League of Legends community.
"Our relationship is kind of funny, actually," Eika said, laughing. "We have a lot of banter with each other. I wanted to play with him, so I was waiting for the opportunity."
"People seem to think sOAZ is bad, but in EU he played really well," Hakuho said. "They just see him die and think it's his fault when really they don't see that he's getting 2v1'd top and just absorbing pressure for bot lane to win."
Europe comes to North America
On Feb. 10, Immortals faced off against last-place Counter Logic Gaming in the final match of the night on Monday Night League.
It was not a strong showing from either team and came down to a final, bold call from Immortals to split up and have sOAZ and Xmithie beat back CLG while Altec and later Eika pushed down the final two nexus turrets to eventually win the game.
Social media was instantly flooded with tweets that insisted that this call was all sOAZ, and it was later confirmed by Xmithie in a postmatch broadcast interview.
"Paul and Eika planned really well," Xmithie told Julian "Pastrytime" Carr after the match. "That EU strategy of backdooring. It was just kind of a bad game to play because we were always on the back foot, but we had that EU strategy on us."
"This was not too much NA-RAM, more like clown fiesta," sOAZ said laughing. "We were playing macro wrong in this game, so we didn't have pressure. We just pushed the mid wave, and I just said, 'Let's fight them and kite back and look to end.' We were pretty slow at doing it, actually, because I wanted Eika to go with Altec, and we were a few seconds late. At the end of the day we just did it."
In the grand scheme of sOAZ calls, this one will not go down in history like others during his time on Fnatic. Yet, it's a microcosm of what sOAZ brings to a team and the value of his leadership.
Despite their position in the standings right now, Immortals haven't been playing overwhelmingly sound League of Legends. Often it comes down to split-second timing, like the late call against CLG or their recent Level 1 early invade against Evil Geniuses that went horrifically wrong and set the tone for the entire game.
"My character depends on how the game goes whether I'm going to lead or not," sOAZ said. "I'm never going to force myself to do something. I'm just trying to share the way that I see the game from the outside and try to make the team better."
"Are you happy?" is a question that frequently in esports seems superfluous. How much does it matter if one is happy as long as you're performing well? Success is often seen to beget happiness, but that isn't always the case, although it certainly helps.
For sOAZ, the answer to happiness appears to come from his ability to help himself and his team grow.