Dardoch should be one of the League of Legends Championship Series most valuable and influential players, but he's been held back time and again. Esports historian Duncan "Thorin" Shields explains why.
Joshua "Dardoch" Hartnett is one of the most talented North American prospects to ever play League of Legends. He has the potential to become a Most Valuable Player (MVP) caliber super-star a la ex-Cloud9 Svenskeren. Dozens of players who have won the LCS championship cannot compare in terms of ability and upside. What's more, he plays the Jungler role, a notoriously difficult position to find reliable domestic talent for and essential to opening up the Top and Mid roles, arguably the most traditionally influential in LCS, up to import use.
Theoretically, he should be among the top two or three most valuable players in the league, from an organizational standpoint. Yet he spent last year sat on the bench or playing in Academy with far inferior players and few people watching his games. Dardoch has already played in three championship-level organizations: the now dominant Team Liquid, an Immortals that reached the finals a split after replacing him and a CLG with a core of champions. After a year on the OpTic bench, rarely seeing LCS play, he now moves to TSM, the organization with the most championships in LCS history but also a notoriously poor record of housing quality Junglers over the long-term. So what has held Dardoch back and where are his championships?
Strike after strike
Dardoch is a player cursed with an ego and an attitude that might slide if you're a Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant, the clear-cut best player and with an impeccable work ethic. Instead of being a difficult player to deal with, though, he has become a poisoned chalice pick-up. Team Liquid saw him practically alienate the already troublesome but essential Piglet, a better player than Dardoch at the time. In Immortals he continued to blacken his name and the direct almost-karmic contrast of the team making the finals the next split says a lot. Certainly, a player like Cody Sun had to develop and the team may well have improved their chemistry, but a look at the career of Xmithie - his replacement - before and since suggests the now six time LCS champion Jungler had something to do with such a transformation.
CLG were stuck in a rut, lacking some carry potential and a fiery figure to offset their near-snooze-inducing calmness, but could well be imagined to regret their decision to gamble Xmithie for Dardoch. Not only has Xmithie won four more championships and reached an MSI final since, the only player in NA history to accomplish the latter feat twice, but the nature of Dardoch's removal suggests emphatic buyer's remorse.
CLG, who had struggled to legitimately contend for the championship the previous few splits, were sat tied for second place in the LCS, with a 10:4 series record, at the time of his removal. They had even led the league's standings for five of the first six weeks. From the outside, the Dardoch gambit had proven a huge success. All of the upside and none of the downside. Internally, matters were bad enough to see Dardoch replaced by eventual washout OmarGod and released to rejoin Team Liquid days later.
I could and probably will easily compose an article praising Dardoch's strengths, from his mechanical excellence to his obvious intuitive feel for the game - a powerful talent stack for his particular role, but the theme on this occasion is rather the negatives that come with fielding Dardoch and have led him to be considered a detriment to his previous teams. Dardoch is a player who can ruin a team's atmosphere utterly. Certainly, it is not always or entirely his fault and he may not even be the match that lights the fuse, but he has repeatedly shown an inability to problem solve in a productive manner when it comes to maintaining credibility as a good team-mate.
As far as professionalism goes I would grade him at an F. Team Liquid's now infamous 'Breaking Point' documentary highlights some of Dardoch's inability to comprehend the standards expected from a professional, from berating his owner in front of other staff to mocking a team-mate dying in a live match, but his problems go further. Countless sources have relayed to me tales of Dardoch causing issues in practice games, killing team discussions and most alarmingly of all even displaying a flippant attitude towards performing at his best if he feels slighted or that the team is not good enough.
If a player works his hardest, gives his best effort in the server and then tells me of issues with team-mates, communication or team direction then I am ever a sympathetic ear, even if I hold a percentage of credibility in reserve for what I may not be being told. In Dardoch's case, failure to practice appropriately, perform in official matches with full effort and refusal to accept responsibility for such behavior crosses a line I will always be waiting on the other side of, never to join them on the unprofessional side.
Dardoch is a product of his environment in a number of senses. Had the right team and coach gotten to him early, with a strong base of team-mates around him, I suspect he could have been course-corrected towards a more tempered attitude. Alas, Dardoch rose up in an era when few coaches knew anything appropriate to their role outside of how to talk about play inside the server. Similarly, teams were used to dealing with shy nerds excited to be playing professional video games, not explosive and intense troubled teens. Because that is what Dardoch was: a troubled teen.
Difficult but talented players are a preoccupation of mine as I can both identify with their background and struggles, having experienced some of the same issues myself, and also offer some insight into how to polish off the rough edges and get what they want as opposed to the consequences of their inability to change. As such, I have gone much further than simply watching these players inside of the server, frequently investigating their cases by talking to current and former team-mates and coaching staff. In Dardoch's case that has been a frustrating experience, as the same stories and themes arose over and over, as if we were discussing a beloved cat who just won't stop knocking ornaments off the mantle-piece, as opposed to one of the most electrifying potential super-stars LCS has ever birthed.
Said coaches and team-mates often even come to me in a combative manner, hearing the parts of my content in which I praise Dardoch's talent and potential and warning me of his behavior and attitude. The circle extends even outside of the game and while I am in no way referencing rumors which follow Dardoch through his career, I can say little but my insight suggests Dardoch's problems were present, perhaps in a less developed form, prior to his entry into esports.
As such, here is a young man who needed to be entering the NCAA (college basketball) system at this point in his sporting career, guided by sage veteran coaches who have seen and worked with every type of player, not put under the supervision of conflict-averse glorified analysts and left to rampage through groups of quiet and already questionably confident nerds. The Dardoch horror stories evoke the worst of fellow problem children like Europe's FORG1VEN and Ukrainian CS:GO prodigy s1mple, though those two could not be more different in their dedication to practice and giving their best inside the confines of an official match.
The most basic solutions to Dardoch's issues would be to surround him with veteran players who are as tilt-proof as possible and enamored with his talent and what it could do for the team that they can look past his attitude and behavior. Then again, such players might soon be turned off by him proving unreliable on the level of professionalism. Similarly, he seemingly needs coaches who can work on said players, probably privately, to ensure they are helping unlock Dardoch's potential and unwind that tightly coiled ego, so that he is treated in a manner which moves him closer to feeling at home and accepted rather than simply another player. Actions speak louder than words in this regard.
His organizations need to set clear standards of behavior, as many of them eventually did, and if he fails to meet these, in the context of the aforementioned team-wide strategy, then let him wash out of their team and possibly the league. At this point it is the best thing that could happen to him, even if he has yet to seemingly truly learn from said experiences. An area Kelsey Moser's article addressing Dardoch agrees with my own philosophy is that Dardoch's immense value lies too much in his potential if he can address his attitude issues. As such, he is far less valuable than he perhaps imagines on the basis of his in-game ability.
A new challenger enters the jungler's graveyard
TSM are a squad understandably in a state of desperation. After taking a substitute Jungler all the way to the Spring split final, himself a core component to their stylistic approach, the situation collapsed upon them entirely in the summer, leading to a messy dual position rotation and eventually brute-forcing another, untested, substitute into the line-up for the end of the season. After tying for the worst play-off finish in organization history, Bjergsen and company needed a solution to their Jungling quagmire.
Much has been spoken and written about TSM and their relationship with Junglers, with some experts suggesting that at this point the TSM organization and Bjergsen - the only common denominators in the pattern of repeated break-downs - must accept responsibility and address the matter internally, instead of simply replacing the broken part only to find its replacement similarly chewed up and useless. The rehabilitation of a number of these parts into again useful and even exceptional pieces damns them further. Whether TSM has undertaken such reflection seems a little doubtful, considering their deflections regarding the summer's issues, but if they have sought to gamble on one more signing then they have picked an intriguing but logical choice.
For TSM the gamble is one carrying similar risk and reward on their side as for Dardoch's own position. They seek a strong Jungle voice who won't lose confidence in the face of the scrutiny of playing for the TSM brand - with their ravenous fanbase - and the play-off expectations. Finals or bust is the narrative for TSM every split, whether they like it or not and whether it's fair or a hold-over from years gone by.
Dardoch, on the other hand, has been granted the almost undeserved grace of a chance to play alongside team-mates and for an organization that can serve as a platform from which to become the super-star his talent hints at and accomplish the great feats his resume sorely lacks after four years of professional-level play. If the prospect of working with Bjergsen cannot motivate Dardoch to change then he can easily be written off as a bust, just not for playing reasons entirely.
I see no changes
In practically every team Dardoch has played in, there has been a point in time when the team addressed public criticism and concerns that he was a troublesome element within the team. Typically, he is described as "reformed" or "changed" and it is implied that he has matured with both age and experience. That is until those teams cut or trade him. Then, either publicly or privately, the same now depressing complaints are verbalized and outlined again.
OpTic is no outlier in this matter. Housing both Meteos and Dardoch, it is not necessarily damning that OpTic chose Meteos over Dardoch as their primary LCS starter for the vast majority of their games. Meteos is one of the most decorated players in LCS history, reaching six LCS finals with three almost entirely different line-ups, winning two championships. The problem is what Dardoch did during his time in Academy. He looked from the outside like a player phoning in some of his performances. Significantly better than practically any player he faced, he should have dominated and forced his way back into the public's consciousness and thus onto an LCS side again. Here was an opportunity to prove his professional issues were behind him.
Instead, my sources tell me Dardoch blames his performances and lack of star quality in Academy on not having the right team around him, an all too familiar refrain. At this point one wonders who Dardoch imagines would be a good set of players to surround him, if all of his past teams have not sufficed, and why said players would want to play with a powder keg train-wreck team-mate like him, baggage and all. My own personal recommendations that teams take a gamble on his talent in past years, explaining to them the potential risks but also the high upside, have at times been heeded and at other times justifiably rebuffed.
I will state the matter in no uncertain terms: TSM picking up Dardoch is no corroborating proof that he has fixed his problems, as much as affirms TSM's gradual understanding of their own deficiencies. Off-season rumors suggest he was not their first choice and would not be wearing starting colors if it were up to the organization initially.
The Dardoch lottery
'The Dardoch lottery' is my name for the incredibly risky but potentially rewarding gordion knot he represents. Right now he is a confusing puzzle few have time to waste on, but the team who finds a solution to what ails him may find themselves fielding the new king of the LCS. One of the truly great Western LoL players. The next Doublelift or Meteos. Until then, teams who try will simply be another tavern on the bar crawl of career suicide that has haunted Dardoch until this point.
In an age when so much discussion routinely returns to the lack of competent North American LoL prospects, one of the best in many years still has yet to cut away the sand-bangs holding him to the Earth. Prove me wrong with actions not words, Dardoch.