Don't Look Back

October 16 2021




Don't Look Back







In the 2020 Summer Split, Barney “Alphari” Morris made League of Legends history: he became the first player in the LEC region named to the All-Pro Team while finishing in last place. It was Alphari’s second year toiling on a dysfunctional Origen roster that was expected to be a championship contender. Their fourth-place finish in Spring was disappointing enough. Falling all the way to tenth was more than enough reason for Alphari to jump ship.



Alphari’s move to North America has paid huge dividends. He’s continued his dominance in the top lane, extending his running count of All-Pro nominations to three in a row, put up historically impressive individual stats for the LCS, and won the Lock-In tournament.



Alphari’s success with Liquid also paid for a berth to worlds—his first trip since his rookie split four years ago. In 2017, rookie Alphari helped take the upstart Misfits to Worlds in their first season in the European LCS. Once there, they stunned audiences by nearly defeating reigning champions SK Telecom T1 in the quarterfinals, just barely losing out in a game 5 series.







Misfits returned home with high expectations, but the loss of PowerOfEvil killed their momentum, and the team stalled out. In the subsequent years, Alphari made good on the promise of his rookie season and established himself as one of Europe’s premier top laners—yet was never able to make another run to worlds. Call it bad luck, call it a stacked field: the fact remains that after tasting the highest level of competition in his first season as a pro, Alphari went four years without returning to the biggest stage. That is, until now.



One might think such a gap would impart additional meaning on Alphari’s return. Or at least, one might think that if they didn’t know Alphari very well.



When I ask him whether there’s any added meaning in making his return, Alphari is quick and blunt: “No, not really. Coming into LEC, the goal was to make it to Worlds in 2017,” he says. “And the goal should always be, minimum, to make it to Worlds. If you are competing and you are like, ‘yeah, let's make playoffs’—what kind of goal is that, honestly? Then you have no self-confidence, and if you have no self-confidence, you shouldn't be…” Here he cuts himself off, choosing his words carefully. He settles on: “You will not last as a competitor.”



What about the idea of playing against the team who eliminated him four years ago?



“Oh, no, I don't care about playing against SKT. I think that actually they look like one of the most boring teams to play against,” he says. “They seem to play very standard and stale. I would much rather play against Damwon or a very good Chinese team. And then I'd also prefer to play against Europe just because that's where I'm from.”



Does the fact that he left Europe on a tenth place team give any extra motivation?



“No, I think that even if I was on a second or first-place team, when I was leaving the region, I'd still want to prove that I'm better than all of them. That's just the nature of competing.”



Don’t bother asking Alphari about the past. It doesn’t concern him.



---



At 6’6”, Alphari towers over the rest of his teammates. It complicates the usual hype photos that you see popping up around this time of year; unless Alphari is in the center, the entire composition looks lopsided. In candid photos of the team traveling to Reykjavik, Alphari is occasionally off to the side, an inadvertent exclamation point at the end of a line of players and coaching staff.





It’s hard to ignore Alphari, and not just because of his stature. He has a habit of being blunt with his thoughts in a way that could raise a few eyebrows.



“I think the European tops—Adam, Armut, Odoamne—are pretty overrated,” he says of the competitors from his former region. “So I want to play against them to show them up. Maybe Armut is ok, he seems pretty confident.” It doesn’t end there. He goes on to add that “historically, Chinese top laners have been overrated going into Worlds. At least in the past couple years I always had high expectations of Chinese top laners, and then people like Vizicsaci would just destroy them.”



But where such a statement might seem like arrogance coming from another player, Alphari speaks with a calm candor that makes it clear he’s not attempting to put anyone down. He delivers what could be boasts as statements of fact, a hubris born out of confidence. Alphari thinks of himself as a world class top laner. The logical extension of that thought is he should be confident against virtually any opponent.



That’s not to say that he thinks he’ll win every matchup. For Alphari, Worlds is an opportunity to test his skills against other top laners who are operating at a world class. “It'll be fun to play against teams that play through top, but it'll also be fun to play against teams who are like, competent enough with their top laner to, like, not get shit on in lane,” he says. The roster of top laners at Worlds this year is heavily stacked, and Alphari is quick to point out those most deserving of respect: Nuguri, Xiaohu, Khan. The usual suspects.







But that respect never translates into fear. “I assume that winning lane will be harder, or that I will even lose lane,” Alphari says. “But while players might look very good in other regions, it's still hard to really say until you play against them. So it's not like I'm going in with too much respect. I will respect every player, but even the best players in the world, even Nuguri or Xiaohu, who I suppose are probably the best top laners right now… They're just human, they will fuck up and int as well, so I’m not really worried about anyone.”



The thing is, he’s got the bona fides to back it up. Alphari has dominated the LCS’s top lane. Much has been made of the records he’s shattered in North America, but all the stats say the same thing: he is an elite-level top laner, and what’s more, one capable of carrying from a lane that can often be pigeonholed into an isolated, defensive role. If other top laners are the rocks that ground their team, Alphari has become the point of Team Liquid’s spear: a potent tool in a region with a dearth of teams who play through top.



Alphari has not been reserved about his problems with North America as a region. The ping, the solo queue, the quality of scrims; he’s unabashedly critical of all the things he sees as the region's shortcomings. To be fair, it’s not as though Alphari is the first player to raise these issues. Still, in his own words, “a minority of players in NA are worthy of respect.” One has to ask why a player so confident in his own ability would come to a weaker region.



“I just thought it would be a good life experience to live one time in America,” he says. “And I just figured—I don't know how long my career is going to be, but may as well go the distance, check out what's going on. So I figured it'd be interesting, exciting. Win a split.”







I ask him whether he met his goals in coming to North America. “No. Because we didn't win a split,” he says. “Winning a split has been my primary motive, I would say, for a very very long time regardless. The year was ok, but we didn't win. So still kind of disappointing.”



Alphari is quick to point out that he doesn’t think North America is completely a lost cause. “Okay, so I don't mean necessarily that NA is not good,” he says. “I think that top, like two, three teams come playoffs, usually get their shit together a little bit and those players I have a lot of respect for. I think that the ping and the practice etiquette is disgusting. So it's not like NA's shit. It's just that the bottom teams… are really bad.”



But for Alphari, where he’s playing will never matter as much as his own skill level. Even if he’s playing in a worse region, all that counts to him is what happens after he loads into the game.



---



Alphari’s time in the LCS, though dominant, has not been without its roadblocks. The most recent setback was the sudden onset of Santorin’s intense migraines last Spring. It’s an interference that comes with a dose of breathtaking irony, as Santorin is, by some bizarre, coincidence, not the first jungler Alphari has lost to migraines. In 2019, his former teammate (and current Liquid coach) Kold also suffered severe headaches, an ailment that ended his career as a professional player and started Origen’s slow decline.



“Yeah. That was, that was some deja vu when it happened,” Alphari says. “But you know, like what was I to do about it? I can't control factors that are not in my control, I mean by definition, right? So it sucked and I felt bad for him. But there was nothing to do apart from still just focus on myself, focus on the team and try to make the most out of the situation. That's all you can ever really do. Try to make the most out of what you are given in the current situation.”



He delivers this with the same even-keeled tone that I’ve grown used to by now. League of Legends is a team game, but the stereotype about top lane is that it’s an island, cut off from the rest of the map for large chunks of time. It is a role perfectly suited for Alphari, who seems to have entered the scene with a skin already fully impervious to outside distractions. Whether it is the past or a teammate’s issue, he does not let it concern him; instead he turns the full, terrifying bear of his attention to the game and whatever unfortunate soul might be across from him in top lane.







When I ask Alphari what his goals are at worlds, he replies, “to not disappoint myself, pretty much. Get out of groups and not disappoint myself. I mean, my motivation going into worlds is just to show as best a performance as I can. I'm at Worlds regardless of winning a split or not, and I have confidence in myself and my teammates. And at least know that I can control how I perform and... all we can do is just do the best that we can do. If we don't get out of groups it will be very disappointing as well. It'd be kind of gross.”



I believe Alphari when he says he has confidence in his teammates. And yet - there’s something beguiling about a player who, in a game so dedicated to teamwork, seems to draw their motivation from a deeply internal place. Alphari is certainly not a selfish player - but he plays for himself above all else. If his team is collapsing, that doesn’t mean Alphari cannot load into Summoner’s Rift with the same killer intent he brings to every match. He believes in the simple meritocratic ideal that if he puts in the work every time, eventually he will be rewarded.



“It's a hard process and it's not simple, it's just what has to be done,” Alphari says. “And as long as you persist and keep trying, presumably eventually you will win, right?"



For such a simple statement, it’s a radical belief. Any competitor at the highest level looks superhuman compared to an average spectator. Although we delight in comparing their achievements, the margins are ultimately fractional on a large scale. In a game like League of Legends, dependent on the uncountable interactions and decisions of nine other people, the most tantalizing possibility imaginable is that one player could determine the game solely through their actions, no matter what other bad luck might be thrown their way. Imagine a knife thin enough to pare one layer of skin off your thumb - that’s the precision of the blade you need to split the difference your way.



Alphari believes in an order and system where his merit will, eventually, carry him to a victory. Maybe not to a World championship. Maybe not through a quarterfinal match, should he get there again. But a split? “At least, that's the philosophy,” he says. “I believe I have the baseline skill level to win a split and be the best top laner in the west, I believe that it's in my potential. So then it's just about continuing to try, and continuing to try to learn, and that doesn't mean that I will perform every single time. But theoretically, at some point, I should win.”



I have one last question for him. If his main goal at worlds is not to disappoint himself, what does that mean? If he thinks the European tops are overrated, and the Chinese tops are overrated, where’s the limit to his expectation?



“I'm not sure yet,” Alphari says. “I will only know after I play on stage. I will know how I perform during and after the game.”



Don’t look forward. Don’t look back. Endlessly chasing the Platonic ideal of himself. Sometimes, if we’re lucky, we might see a glimpse of it too.




Writer // Zane "Epengu" Bhansali
Graphics // Yasen Trendafilov























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