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A legacy deferred: The story of Nukeduck

Erlend "Nukeduck" Våtevik Holm competes during the European League Championship Series. Provided by Riot Games

"Nukeduck is Faker."

This ubiquitous phrase, uttered half in jest, half in awe, became a staple of the 2017 European League Championship Series summer split. Pro players tweeted both ironically and unironically in anticipation of Erlend "Nukeduck" Våtevik Holm's matches on Team Vitality, one of the lowest ranked teams in the league.

Nukeduck is one of League of Legends' most interesting characters, although the spotlight has seldom pegged him as one of Europe's brightest personalities. A 2014 spent banned for "toxic behavior" and a 2015 and 2016 spent on bottom or mid tier teams like ROCCAT and Vitality hasn't garnered him major accolades. Yet, among the mid laners on top teams in the league, he has retained a high level of respect, even in his worst competitive year in 2015.

"I could actually win against LCS mid laners in solo queue and stuff [in Season 5]," said G2 Esports mid laner Luka "PerkZ" Perkovik. "But against Nuke, I could not win. I don't know. I actually had a mental block against him."

For casual fans, Rasmus "Caps" Winther's decision to place Nukeduck top two in his European mid laner tier list might've elicited surprise. Even with Team Vitality flagging in fourth place in its group to close the split, praise of Nukeduck managed to seep through because his spectacular individual showings -- consider his performances on Corki and, surprisingly, Kog'Maw -- made him difficult to ignore.

In the cafeteria of the EU LCS during Week 6 of the summer split, caster Martin "Deficio" Lynge said, "Team Vitality are the next big thing. They're going to win today versus [Ninjas in Pyjamas] and later against Fnatic."

"And Nukeduck is going to go off," he added. "Quote me on that!"

Of course, Vitality struggled to close a three-game set that day and were utterly embarrassed by Fnatic to close the week, but with Nukeduck performing well, it was easy to see why he inspired faith.

The respect from analysts, commentators and the community obviously drew from a more compelling well of analysis, but Nukeduck himself saw a relatively simple explanation.

"[It's] probably because we just play each other many times," Nukeduck said when asked about the praise he received from his fellow peers. "It's easier to assess the skill of someone when you play against them many times. Then it's not based on just the games in the LCS. I play like tons of solo queue, [and] scrim every day."

Top western pros have historically been considered lacking in ranked play when compared to their Korean counterparts. Currently, Longzhu's Kim "PraY" Jongin is the highest ranked active player in League Champions Korea with 609 total games on his main account and 242 on a smurf account. Though not currently ranked in the upper echelons of Challenger, Nukeduck has played 1,888 ranked matches on his account, NukeduckAPM. Playing "tons of solo que" may, in fact, actually understate Nukeduck's work ethic.

"I just play nonstop, basically," Nukeduck told Duncan "Thorin" Shields in his Reflections interview at the end of 2015.

Even in arguably his worst competitive year in the LCS, many saw him at the top of the ladder, queuing immediately after scrims concluded. But intense work ethic only touched the tip of the Nukeduck tapestry. His unique history made him the most senior mid laner of the EU LCS and the only local member of the region's lost generation of mid laners.

"His unique history made him the most senior mid laner of the EU LCS and the only local member of the region's lost generation of mid laners."

When the LCS locked regions into place in 2013, the first generation of mid lane legends who established themselves in the earliest years of League of Legends -- Alex "Alex Ich" Ichetovkin, Henrik "Froggen" Hansen and Enrique "xPeke" Cedeño Martínez -- took up shop in the European LCS. Over time, their supremacy would wane, and whispers of new challengers buzzed.

A new trinity of mids getting their solo queue stripes rose at the start of the LCS era. Søren "Bjergsen" Bjerg was the first to debut for Copenhagen Wolves after being benched for two weeks before his 17th birthday. The second, Nicolaj "Incarnati0n" Jensen (now just Jensen), had a potential debut stifled in February with a lifetime ban.

The third, Nukeduck, didn't appear in the EU LCS until the summer split. He played with a Swedish organization known as Lemondogs.

Nukeduck began to challenge the established trinity of European mids before the split ended with Marcel "dexter" Feldkamp camping his lane frequently. He made it to Worlds in his debut, and though Lemondogs failed to get out of groups, this breakout season would still stick out to the next generation of mids, even after Bjergsen and Jensen left for North America.

"Nuke was like the first mid lane star after Peke in that era," Perkz said. "And he was always very high elo in solo queue, so when I got Challenger first, he was obviously the one that I would look up to."

With two of the three young mid laner prospects either banned or having left to North America, Nukeduck was an easy icon to follow.

"In Season 3, Season 4," H2K Gaming mid laner Fabian Diepstraten said, "I was like his little brother. I felt like that. When he would say something, like Xerath is useless, I would think the same, you know. Basically, I was a follower, which was kind of bad because actually, for example, in Season 4 he always said Orianna is a really bad champion."

Febiven had a similar career trajectory like Nukeduck. During his breakout year in the LCS, he won both 2015 splits and made his way to the World Championships.

When he talks about Nukeduck today, it's still with a great deal of admiration.

"He's always been a smart player," Febiven said. "So decision-making-wise, he's always really good. Teamfighting-wise, and, like, predicting enemy moves, and he has a good champion pool, too. I would rate him probably Top 3, even though he's in Vitality."

The sentiment that Nukeduck is smart or has authority on champions and matchups isn't an uncommon one.

"When I want to play matchups," Unicorns of Love's Fabian "Exileh" Schubert said, "the opponent I am looking forward to most right now in the split is actually Nukeduck."

He added, "For instance, when I played Talon against Caps' Orianna, he gave me a lot of openings that I could exploit, but I feel like Nukeduck is playing, matchup-wise, really, really solid. Like he is barely giving openings, and he knows exactly the weaknesses and strengths of those champions. Even when he played the matchup for the first time."

But Nukeduck has had years to rise back to the top since his heights in Season 3, even after failing to qualify for the LCS when he joined Ninjas in Pyjamas and receiving a year long ban for toxicity in 2014. When the subject shifts to the bleak Team ROCCAT period, some of the best regarded mid laners in LCS might point out some of Nukeduck's small flaws, but they continue to insist he has always been one of the best.

"The opponent I am looking forward to most right now in the split is actually Nukeduck."

Fabian "Exileh" Schubert

"He never really could prove himself," Febiven said. "He never really could get the achievements that make people say like 'Sure, this guy is really good, like Top 3 mid.' It's a team game, so he has to have a good team around him or he's not going to succeed."

"Elo hell does exist, you know," Perkz added. "It does exist. Because he was on Vitality in the spring split, and he was regarded as like Top 3 mid with me and Febi because Vitality was Top 3, and then after that, Vitality was s---, but Nuke was always high elo in solo queue, good in scrims."

Nukeduck, like Febiven, doesn't think his form has changed much to warrant the recent attention.

On his time with ROCCAT, Nukeduck said, "We just had this plan where me, Jankos, and VandeR and Woolite would all play like super aggressive and were just like play whatever from that, you know, whatever came to us, we would just use. If we got kills bot or mid, whatever, we would just try to snowball it."

One might think a player with a history like Nukeduck might have a chip on his shoulder or even a sense of bitterness, but in most of his public appearances, he has appeared calm. And while his peers regard him highly for the pressure he puts on them in lane, 1v1s aren't something he thinks about much.

"Right now, I am not that focused on laning phase because I feel laning phase is not that reliable nowadays," he said. "Most games, you have to respect jungle or you make plays on side lane dives or just in general. Being that one percent better on laning phase is not gonna make a difference in this meta."

Fnatic top laner Paul "sOAZ" Boyer echoed this sentiment during the EU LCS post-game Lobby, "What I like about Nukeduck is that even though he probably feels like he's performing good, he's still proactive with his team. And he still looks for a play to make with his team."

During the 2016 spring split, one of Nukeduck's best champions was Lissandra. His ability to find openings and engage can leave a much larger impression than spectacular 1v1s if one places high value on setting up 1-4's and transitioning into a flank. Even earlier in his LCS career, Nukeduck was a leading voice on Lemondogs, so as a spectator, a Lissandra or a Corki flank says a lot about him as a player and his role in LCS. The needs of his craft rise above the need to build himself up.

"If you put him on Fnatic or H2K, they'll be same," Perkz said. "Maybe even better. You never know."

Perkz and Febiven make a strong point. When a team doesn't succeed or a player doesn't have titles to his name, it's hard for fans or commentators to highlight him sometimes, but the same can be said for the respect of his peers. It's exceptionally rare that a player on a team like Team Vitality gets mentioned in a consensus as one of the best by mid laners on the top four teams in the league.

It's interesting to imagine what the EU LCS would have been like with Bjergsen, Jensen and Nukeduck rising and developing from Season 3 and competing on top teams today to fill the shoes of the first trinity of European mids. For fans of the EU ecosystem who don't watch the North American LCS, it can feel a lot like a lost generation of talent, but Nukeduck has left an impression all his own.

But if Nukeduck keeps playing, and he and the teams around him continue to improve like Vitality has this split, the what-ifs will cease to matter. Nukeduck can find the success that Bjergsen and Jensen have across the sea, and as far as his peers are concerned, nothing will have changed.