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Pro-gamer migration to League of Legends reveals tension between eSports communities
by Zoran Cunningham on 05/08/13 10:00:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

In just over three short years Riot Games' League of Legends (LoL) has soared to incredible popularity among casual audiences and professional gamers alike. Riot Games' crown jewel is now the single most successful game in eSports history and a premiere hotspot for a migration of pro-gamers leaving other competitive games in order to compete in League of Legends.

 

The numbers behind LoL certainly speak for themselves. At its peak, MMO giant World of Warcraft had a little over 12 million subscribers while League of Legends reaches 32 million players monthly. The ultra popular FPS Halo series has enjoyed more than 2 billion hours of online gameplay since 2004 while League of Legends averages more than 1 billion hours of play per month. Meanwhile StarCraft 2, the game largely responsible for the resurgence of eSports in 2010 now struggles for viewership and interest as the League of Legends Championship Series (LCS) consistently sets records for online viewership and fan attendance at events.

 

 

The migration ramped up in 2011 when Riot Games announced plans to support the League of Legends competitive scene with over $5 million USD in prizes. There was an immediate surge of interest from high-level players of all games and genres. At the MLG 2012 Spring Championship, League of Legends had not only the biggest crowds and most vocal fans at the event, but the online stream viewership numbers made it obvious that LoL was the star of the show.

 

I recall running into Martin "Marn" Phan at the NASL Season 2 Grand Finals. Being a famed fighting game player with a number of major tournament victories under his belt it was surprising to see Marn at an event that had no fighting game presence. His response was simple: he wanted to be a part of the spectacle of eSports, the grand tournaments and prize money in particular. It was around this time that he was brainstorming a transition into LoL and laying the groundwork for starting his own team that, less than two years later, become part of the North American LCS, the highest tier of competition that League of Legends has to offer. 

 

Marn was one of many high level players from other games and genres that began crossing over to League of Legends for a variety of reasons. Many of the pro-gamers I spoke to liked the variety of the deep champion pool and the consistent release of new champions. Others mentioned the complexity and depth of learning to play against so many abilities that might come their way in a match. Most praised Riot's consistent balancing of game mechanics and champion abilities. 

 

Yet, when I asked a number of pro-gamers to speak on the record regarding their transition to LoL, they were surprisingly reluctant. Professionally sponsored LoL teams and many of the players who crossed over from other competitive games either declined to speak or preferred to speak off the record on the subject. The common reason being the ongoing tension between each game's respective fan base in the greater eSports community.

 

It seemed curious that so much tension would exist between different games in the eSports community. While there is certainly a large contingent of fans who can enjoy high-level competition in any game or genre, some of the more storied hardcore fan communities often consider other games to be rivals. StarCraft 2, World of Warcraft PvP, Counterstrike, Call of Duty, and League of Legends communities don't necessarily intermingle and the fighting game community goes so far as to consider itself separate from the very term eSports. 

 

Fortunately, Loren “Fanatiq” Riley, a well-known top ranked player in the fighting game community who himself has been spending an increasing amount of time with LoL, was willing to speak openly on the topic and provide a better understanding of this phenomenon from a pro-gamer's perspective.

 

 

“I started playing League of Legends casually on my TwitchTV stream in early 2012 and the initial reaction of my fans and followers was overwhelmingly negative,” he recalls. “Everyone knows me as a fighting game player and they would tune in primarily to see my high level Marvel vs. Capcom skills in action.”

 

“I honestly wasn't too surprised by the resentment because I think a lot of fans and players in the fighting game community took it personally when players like Marn, ClakeyD, and Nick Wu all left to go play League of Legends and compete in the LCS. When fans saw me playing LoL, they took it very much the same way, interpreting it as my inevitable transition from fighting games to MOBAs. The fighting game community hates that trend and they felt that League of Legends was stealing some of their best players and personalities.”

 

In some ways the fan reaction is understandable. Many high-level well-known players establish themselves in a particular game community and become personalities of sorts. They can, at times, become synonymous with a particular game and develop and honest-to-goodness fan base. When they decide to leave a game or scene for another one, fans sometimes feel abandoned or betrayed.

 

“There were plenty of people that went out of their way to let me know just how disappointed they were that I was even playing LoL, even though I had no intention of leaving fighting games behind. But I stuck with it and the loyal fans stood by me and supported me regardless,” Riley explains.

 

Indeed, a number of the pro-gamers I spoke were reluctant to be named because they haven't fully announced their transition to LoL and have had to practice in secret. It's quite a difficult task when one considers the team-based nature of LoL. They can't stream their matches online or even reveal their identity before, during, or after matches because they not only face potential heckling from high-level players in their new endeavor, but they run the risk of creating animosity among the community within the game they are leaving. It's a big deal for a lot of pro-gamers who stream their practice and exhibition matches on TwitchTV as part of their pro careers and have very close ties to their fans.

 

 

“TwitchTV has become a personal portal for me and so many other pro-level players in that it lets us go well beyond other social media like Twitter and Facebook,” Riley insists. “It lets us connect with fans in way that gives them a first-hand experience and a more sincere interaction with pro-players. Plus, the fact that it's live and that fans can engage with us via chat first-hand is big. It really helps us grow as players and personalities.”

 

As TwitchTV has become a mainstay of the eSports world, many established pro-gamers have had to parley and explain that they can either enjoy their new gaming interests on stream with their fans or they can do so privately off-stream.

 

“I knew I was going to be playing LoL more and more and I could easily have just done it off-stream and kept my TwitchTV account relatively inactive,” Riley reveals. “Yet, TwitchTV is a means by which players, professional or amateur, can share their experiences with the world. If there is any particular game that fans are not particularly fond of, it's totally up to them if they want to tune out. But they'll miss out on the whole 'hanging out' aspect that makes TwitchTV so great.”

 

“I'm glad that a lot of my fans stuck around, but I will admit that my viewership is significantly less than when I primarily streamed Marvel vs. Capcom. Still, I know that whenever I tweet that I'm about to stream fighting games, all my old viewers come right back and are very excited to see what I'm about to play and what I'm up to.”

 

Some of the better and more level-headed fans will stick around and follow a pro-gamer on their new endeavor and oftentimes players bring with them a group of fans from one genre to the next. Riley confessed that a number of people were put onto and now love LoL as a result of watching his stream. In this sense, pro-gamers can become ambassadors for both the game they left behind and the game they're picking up. 

 

“I'm happy to say that my stream has convinced a lot of people to pick up LoL who may have never even considered it. To see them enjoy it makes me hopeful that one day there won't be so much bitterness when pros transition from one game or genre to another. Some of my fans from the fighting game community even admitted to having played LoL long before I did and that was probably the most encouraging thing.”

 

If it took years and numerous tournament wins to establish a following in the fighting game community, I wondered how much work Riley would have to do in order to make a splash with the LoL community, even in an era of so many social media tools. Just how high would the climb be to establish any foothold in the LoL community and perhaps bolster his fan base with their numbers?

 

 

“In the same way that my stream gave a lot of insight into fighting games and helped bring up players in the community, I'm hoping I can do the same for LoL in the future. The most important thing is getting up to at least Platinum level, which I'm very close to,” Riley points out (he's ranked Gold I as of this writing). “Then I think more viewers will tune in and actually feel I'm worth paying attention to because they know they'll actually see some legitimate skill in action.”

 

“I'm also doing some casual things like putting my musical talent to use as I did with the Quinn and Valor and Nami piano solos I did on my stream and on YouTube. Those videos got a lot of views and provided me with some new fans. I have even more music planned and I'm hoping little things like that will hopefully get the LoL community to cross-pollinate over to my stream.”

 

For some pro-gamers there is little choice in the matter and their migration to League of Legends is simply a result of waning fan interest in their previous game. A shrinking community for any competitive game brings along with it a decrease in major tournaments, sponsorships, and prize money.

 

Team MRN's Zach "Nientonsoh" Malhas was a top 10 ranked Heroes of Newerth player and Rank 1 World of Warcraft PvP player, riding high on each game's success until a shrinking competitive community led him to move to greener pastures. His teammate Tyler "ecco" Spesic began his competitive career in Halo 2 and eventually became a Grandmaster in StarCraft 2 before taking up LoL. Their stories aren't unique and as the fan base and prize money begin to shrink for other games, LoL starts to look mighty appealing for players hoping to make a career out of competitive gaming.

 

 

As more pro-gamers move over to League of Legends, it's inevitably where the world's best talent and skill will be. It's a huge appeal to the competitive nature of pro-gamers who want to test their skills against the best of the best.

 

“I know for me personally, and I believe this applies to a lot of other pro-gamers as well; I'm so competitive that I want to be playing a game that has a lot of the best players in the world,” Riley admits. “More importantly, it's hard for me to just play something and move on unless I've fully mastered it to the best of my ability. That's very much the case with LoL and I see myself playing it for a very long time until I hit Diamond level and prove that I'm one of the best in the world. For me it's not so much a matter of going pro in LoL as it is becoming one of the best. If I get scouted as a byproduct of all the time and effort I put into it, then that would certainly be amazing.”

 

Some professionals have to keep their transition anonymous until they can guarantee they can make a financial living after they transition to LoL. If they reveal that they're giving up their old game, they could very well be giving up their sponsorships along with their one guaranteed source of income. It's a tough position to be put in and it's something that could be the deciding factor for some pro-gamers.

 

“I'm lucky that my sponsor Performance Design Products (PDP) fully supports me as a player no matter what game I choose to play at a high level. They're well aware of the numbers associated with LoL and they've actually nurtured my interest the game. PDP is one of those great sponsors that recognizes how player success translates into better sponsor exposure overall. I genuinely love my sponsor and their AfterGlow products have honestly made me a better player so it's great to know they support the decisions I make,” Riley explains.

 

 

“All of us at Team AGE (AfterGlow Elite) represent some of the most talented players that our team director Sebastian “OneHandedTerror” Jennings has been able to pool together. As a gamer himself, Sebastian understands our diverse competitive passions and trusts us enough to support whatever games we play. He's also Social Media & PR Manager for PDP and is very much involved in my progression in LoL because he's eagerly anticipating what the future may bring as a result of Team AGE players crossing over into multiple games. For example, our team has arguably the best Marvel vs. Capcom 3 player in the world in Chris Gonzales and he's famous for being a multi-game specialist. He's consistently a top finisher in every single game he competes in at fighting game tournaments.”

 

League of Legends' free-to-play model is a nice incentive for pro-gamers who do have to train in secret. This no-cost barrier to entry and ease of accessibility has played a particularly large role in allowing newcomers to jump into the LoL craze.

 

“You can't downplay how important it is that League of Legends is free-to-play for everyone,” Riley admits. “It's hard to compete with free and that has made it hard for other games to compete against LoL in the eSports world. There are plenty of players who will try it just because it's free without any prior knowledge of the genre or game mechanics. It's easy to establish a fan base for a game that literally anyone with a decent computer and an internet connection can play.”

 

“There's also so many free tools and guides online that can help people become better players. Websites like MOBAFire and LoLKing have great communities and voting systems that help the best guides and tutorials rise to the top. It's amazing how many free resources there are considering how easy and accessible League of Legends already is for beginners. Riot has done a great job with the game's modes and customization options to allow players to learn via in-game tutorials or play against bots. I've never seen anything quite like it.”

 

 

As the free-to-play model provides a quick entry point for casual players, it's the prize money and the attention that keeps LoL on the radar of pro-gamers seeking to make their living in competitive gaming. With the current Season 3 LCS, Riot has created an international league and set up an infrastructure for salaried pro teams, weekly free HD broadcasts, and millions of dollars in prize money. As someone whose claim to fame over the years is the result of a number of high profile money-matches I had little doubt that the potential prize money for LoL championship play was a major draw for players like Riley.

 

“One of the more obvious things that draws pro-gamers to League of Legends is the money that comes from competing at major tournaments. The game is so heavily watched and has such a healthy fan base that tunes into tournament streams and attends live events that pro-gamers want a part of that spotlight. Riot's business model is one of the best ever in terms of the support they provide for teams and players. It's just ingenious.”

 

Indeed, Riot set the standard by being the first developer to actively support the eSport community around its game. This direct support is something pro players have taken into consideration when calculating a means to support themselves financially. Riot has created a culture that supports teams and players in a way that allows them to compete at a high level, get maximum exposure, and make a living playing the game to the point that they can focus all their energy purely on being the best.

 

So long as that holds true, it's likely the competitive eSports world will see more pro-gamers transition to League of Legends alongside a new crop of high level players looking to make a name for themselves in their first ever competitive eSport. It's uncertain what the broader implications this migration of pro-gamers to LoL will be in the long run, but for now, LoL is the biggest eSports spectacle on the planet, bigger than any that have come before it.

 


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Comments


George Morgan
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So I understand that this is an opinion piece. However the author states that StarCraft 2 is struggling for viewers which couldn't be further from the truth. LoL is a very impressive game and it dwarfs the competition. If starcraft is struggling for viewers however then so is every other game out there. Struggling? Not even close. StarCraft and the FGC may have fewer viewers than LoL, but they still have and will continue to have a very impressive amount of viewers.

Zoran Cunningham
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Firstly, this is not an opinion piece. Nowhere in the article is there a stated preference for one game or genre over the other. What follows is observation of the economy and community surrounding eSports. Please read the entire article.

Second, StarCraft 2 is experiencing an observable lack of growth compared to a year or two ago when everyone thought the sky was the limit. This comes from official statements made by casters, players, and numerous existing articles on Forbes and other reputable sites. Even Blizzard admitted to lagging behind LoL and having to pick up the pace in terms of league development and player/team support. Struggling does not suggest the game is dead-to-rights.

Third, the FGC is showing upward growth in terms of community interest and tournament schedules, but it has nowhere near the developer support or prize money of other games/genres. It's greatest asset is that players and fans are incredibly passionate.

Bob Johnson
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@Zoran

Struggling does imply dead to rights a lot more than it implies a solid fanbase still. ;)

Ozzie Smith
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SC2 is much smaller in Korea than SC1 was. SC2 failed to retain the majority of SC1 fans there, and many of them have moved to LoL or just away from eSports and competitive gaming in general (many moved to MMOs as well).

Luis Guimaraes
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That's something that's happening very often lately.

With the use of term "eSports", I wonder how long it'll take for leagues and developers to create supercool triathlon-like categories of competition.

That would benefit all involved games by raising general interesting, promote variety of genres in the scene, and make for very interesting dynamics and meta-games with the cross-game skill of top players. Would carry the very meaning of "eSports" to the extreme and would of course be very awesome to watch.

If we could watch two teams of 5 players battle a best-of-three out of CSGO, LoL and Trackmania2 Stadium... that would be great. If teams could ban/choose games in each genre, that would be even better.

Will Buck
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There used to be a great show on G4 called 'Arena' where they basically did a 'triathlon of gaming'. It was fun to watch, and I'd definitely love seeing something like that thrive.

Gamers really do take the 'separation of games' way too seriously, I've been a huge DotA and LoL fan but I still very much enjoy watching professional Street Fighter and Starcraft games. Maybe it stems from a burden of knowledge for each of the different games to appreciate the high level of play, I'm not sure, but really growth for any is good for all I think.

Michael O'Hair
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These are the End Times.

Preeti Khanolkar
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This was awesome and really informative! Thank you!

Emanuel Hoogeveen
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I've *tried* to enjoy LoL matches, but I don't see the appeal at all. If anything, the very concept of the game irritates me, and the people involved aren't entertaining enough by themselves to get me into it.

Now having said that, when you watch someone for a while you'll either come to enjoy their personality or come to despise them, and there's enough streamers that there's someone for everybody. And if you have even a passing interest on LoL, watching competitive play for long enough is bound to get you interested.

Still, I wish eSports wasn't turning into a scene of a few monolithic games like StarCraft (2) and LoL. I understand that this makes it easier to commercialize them (since it's a bigger competitive community), but the lack of variation is just so utterly dull. If I had to choose a competitive genre to commericialize, I would go with speedruns: high standards of play, informative commentary, lots of variation in games and categories, and a great community. There's nothing more exciting than watching the end of a successful run live, hoping for that final stretch to go right, or watching several top tier speedrunners duke it out in a race against the game and the limits of their ability.

Ramin Shokrizade
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So if I am reading this right, this is several pages explaining that RIOT spends more money than anyone else on eSports prizes and tournament hosting, and thus people who play for prize money are being forced to switch to LoL to continue making a living. Somehow the most relevant statistic (how much money RIOT spends on eSports every year) is missing from the story. Is this just an honest oversight, or does it reveal a bias in the article?

Zoran Cunningham
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Fair point Ramin. I'm honored a brilliant economics minded consultant such as yourself would take the time to read and comment on my article. Thank you.

I have contacted Riot on numerous occasions inquiring on exact numbers and requesting an interview but Riot has never been willing to grant me exact figures or information.

What I can infer from my research is that Riot is likely investing at least $10 million a year just in growing LoL as a leading eSport. A minimum $5 million is going toward player winnings/salaries for teams in five global regions. They've also invested heavily in partnering with challenger tournaments, assisting development leagues, opening satellite studios worldwide, and securing stadiums to house their LCS series.

If Riot ever decides to give concrete numbers, I'd be incredibly happy to update my findings.

Ramin Shokrizade
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Zoran, thank you for that clarification. You can see how without discussing that detail the article can give the impression that professional gamers are rushing to LoL because it is a better or more fun game. I'm sure this is the conclusion RIOT would like people to come to and thus they feel this investment is well worth it. LoL is a good game, but I don't think this is the primary reason why these professionals made the switch.

Robert P
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I agree with Ramin. Like everything else in life; you go to where the food is.

In my opinion dota is a better game, but their prize pools has been much smaller I've heard. They have the international coming up, and they're allowing the public to help fund the pool.
It'll be interesting which game ends up being the bigger moba, though LoL has some pretty insane numbers right now.

Tyler Shogren
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I don't think 32 million players are playing LoL for the prize money alone. There's a more complicated dynamic at play here.

Christian Nutt
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The only data I've ever heard on this comes from an interview I did with Riot:
http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/185920/

There may be one statistic that shows you just how serious the company is about this initiative: "Our expenditure this year was more expensive than actually making the game in the first place, so we're investing a ton into eSports," Rozelle says.

WILLIAM TAYLOR
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I've got a friend who watches SC2 and his theory on the decline is that the world has realized that it will never be able to compete with South Korea in SC2 and they've moved on to games where they might have a shot at winning like LoL.

Anyways, I like how one of the first things mentioned as to why dude transitioned into LoL is that they paid better for tournament wins.

Ron Dippold
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This might be mostly the money that Riot is dumping into it, but I'd like to think that the efforts they're making at cleaning multiplayer up and their unprecedented efforts at having a non-toxic community (penalizing players for using the f-word? And that's 3 letters, not four. Unthinkable!) have something to do with it.

Yeah, yeah, dream on.

Rodolfo Camarena
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Great read and interview by my friend, Loren. I've seen his facebook posts about LoL and although I've never thought about playing it. Learning about the amount of people playing it and tournaments available (as well as prize money) I'm not intrigued in playing it, myself.

My coworkers at my former job (Zynga) use to play LoL during their lunch breaks while I scouted SRK (shoryuken.com) and watched streams of fighting game events I couldn't attend due to work.

Can't wait to start playing. You know what's a plus? I can now play alongside my grandma! < true story.

Samuel Green
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Ramin mentioned it but it needs more visibility. Riot/Tencent spend the most money on eSports, that's why it's popular. That's why there's stigma that people leave games to play League of Legends... it's like when any sports player goes to another team just for the money.

If you're passionate about your career (in sports or anywhere else), you want to be in the most challenging and exciting space available. League of Legends is far from challenging or fascinating, especially compared to SCII or Dota 2. LoL is big in eSports because it pays people the most money, that's why. Dota 2 & SC2 are far more exciting and impressive eSports to watch.

If anyone disagrees, watch The International 3 (Valve's yearly Dota 2 tournament) and prepare to be amazed at what the general public is missing out on when they watch League of Legends matches.

Terry Matthes
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I honestly just think it's about money. Whoever is putting the most out there for prize pools is going to get the players. E-Sports isn't big enough yet to be choosey as a true pro gamer. If the only money you have coming in is from prize winnings or sponsorship you're going to play whatever game is giving you the best chance of a pay off.

Biili Claudiu
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Aatrox Champion Spotlight
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eyCfxyhuZqU/

Kim Oberoi
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While League of Legends certainly isn't for everyone, it appeals to a very, very broad spectrum. It has a lot of things that tailor to casual players - a quick level ramp, near instant matchmaking, even co-op vs AI. On the complete other end of things, it is the most played game in the world, and is the biggest eSport now (having surpassed Starcraft in the last year) so the majority of competitive gamers are being drawn to it now. Riot is, as far as I know, the first game company to salary professional players themselves - all of the teams at www.lolesports.com are salaried by Riot in addition to what their sponsors pay them. It's by far the most appealing choice for professional games who want to live off their passion simply because it has the largest following and the biggest potential for cash flow.

That said, in regards to "it's not THAT hard," it strongly depends on what you consider skill. There are a ton of little intricacies to League of Legends that are not apparent for new or inexperienced players. On the other hand, there's certainly something to be respected in twitch reactions (I was CAL for Counter Strike for a bit - a bit like MLG is now, a long time ago) and the ability to micromanage (I am TERRIBLE at Starcraft.) It really all is based on what you're into.

John Cunningham
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I'm not a professional researcher or journalist, but it seems as though there are some things that should have been a few other things mentioned in the article. There has been a falling out between Blizzard and KeSpa over IP rights, specifically broadcasting rights. It started before Heart of the swarm was released and went on for several years. I'm not a SC2 player so I'm not certain about this last bit, but it has been said that this falling out is in part responsible for SC2 not having LAN functionality built in, as well as other deficiencies in the game. Here's a quick link about it.

http://wiki.teamliquid.net/starcraft2/Korea_e-Sports_Association

Another thing that I think I would like to point out, is that the CoD Modern warfare numbers do not represent the total amount of players for the CoD series. The CoD Black Ops games by Treyarch contribute significantly to these numbers. Could the fact that Infinity Ward, the developers for Activision of the CoD Modern Warfare games that are coming out with a new title "Ghosts" be the reason the Black Ops games don't seem to be represented?

I'm not trying to rain on your parade, it's a good article. I just have questions. I'm sure you know about that feeling I always get. The more answers I find, the more questions those answers bring up.


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