In a closer third-place match than anyone expected — save maybe the teams themselves — Counter Logic Gaming and Immortals trade blows. Prior to the fifth and final game, the charged atmosphere in Toronto’s Air Canada Centre only rises. Once the game starts, fan fervor continues to build on its own energy, cresting as Immortals are declared the winner.
Unlike the four games preceding it, Game 5 is a blowout by Immortals, and the frenetic atmosphere dissipates instantly as Immortals exit the stage following their third-place victory. As the crowd exits, so does their energy. When Immortals reach the press box for post-match interviews, they’re visibly tired. By the time CLG reach the press box to do interviews, every ounce of energy has been sapped from the building, save CLG’s mid laner, Choi “Huhi” Jae-hyun, who is animatedly interviewing with another member of the press.
Once it’s my turn to interview him, I tell Huhi that I’ll try to make this quick, since he’s presumably exhausted. Huhi shakes his head amicably, bowing slightly while gesturing for me to sit.
“It’s no problem,” he says with a smile. If he’s lying to be polite, I can’t tell.
“Honestly, it’s one of the best losses I’ve ever had,” he says. “We tried our best. The crowd was so cheerful for us, I actually loved the crowd at this event, it was just so energetic. The games were pretty fun until Game 4. Game 5 was the only game where I felt like, ‘Oh, we’re losing,’ and I felt a little bit bad.”
Following their 3-0 loss to Team SoloMid last week in the semifinals, little was expected of CLG in this third-place series. CLG crumpled against TSM, looking wholly lost following the disabling of Aurelion Sol after a bug in Game 1. This weekend, they pushed Immortals to five games, and appeared far more cohesive and confident, due in no small part to a revitalized force in their mid lane. A force which, if harnessed correctly, could help the team find their footing once again, in time for another international tournament.
Summer has been a rough season for both CLG and Huhi. Despite their impressive 2016 Mid-Season Invitational performance where CLG earned second place to Korea's SK Telecom T1, CLG had a slow start to the summer split. Headlining the season opener alongside erstwhile rival TSM, CLG were quickly dispatched 2-0, and lacked their previous cohesion that had accompanied their understanding of the map and objective trading. CLG finished fourth with a 10-8 series record and a 54 percent win rate. Their win over Team Liquid in the summer quarterfinals was seen as more of a failing by TL than a decisive victory for CLG.
Their match against Immortals meant little to CLG in the only measurable that matters to most — standings. At this point in time, win or lose, CLG's destiny was in the hands of TSM. With TSM's victory over Cloud9 the next day, CLG automatically qualified for the 2016 World Championship on circuit points thanks to their 2016 North American League Championship Series Spring title.
Yet, the loss to Immortals appeared to reinvigorate Huhi, who praised his team for their performances compared to the previous week. Inevitably, this leads to a discussion of Aurelion Sol, a champion that Huhi debuted in professional play during CLG’s run at the 2016 Mid-Season Invitational.
Due to his movespeed and ability to push out the mid lane, Aurelion Sol is seemingly the perfect champion for Huhi, allowing him to keep mid pushing while affecting CLG’s side lanes. Yet, following a bug in Game 1 against TSM, Aurelion Sol was disabled and the game remade. CLG did not look the same after the ban.
“Compared to last week, after the Aurelion Sol ban, this series [against Immortals] was just better,” Huhi says. “ We were prepared for the Aurelion Sol global ban. Before we didn’t know that he was going to get global-banned. We kind of screwed up in that moment. We had our own draft and we couldn’t really execute that.”
All of CLG’s successes in the past year have come from coordinated teamwork that has overcome any and all questions about the specific names on their roster. Despite the loss, Huhi proud of his team and hopeful for CLG’s future.
“We were more decisive. Last week, I guess people were more scared — we over-respected TSM,” he says. “So after that series, we decided that we just have to be confident in our plan and our plays. That’s why we looked so much more confident when we had a lead and an aggressive mid laner especially.”
Aggressive isn’t often a quality ascribed to Huhi. He often falls in under the nebulous title of a “team player” when people are stuck as to how to describe his playstyle or role on CLG. If you only listened to the rumors that have built throughout the season regarding Huhi’s performance, he would likely rank among the worst mid laners in the region. Throughout the summer split, Huhi has borne the brunt of criticism levied against his team.
“Nowadays I only go to look at comments when I play well,” Huhi says, laughing a bit and shaking his head. “When I play bad, I know that I’m going to get a lot of critics and honestly, I agree with those. So I know that I played bad, but I know that I can be better, and that’s what my teammates usually tell me. They know I can play way better.”
Mechanical misplays are the most obvious, identifiable mistakes to a viewer. Unfortunately, Huhi’s most egregious errors are often mechanical, displaying perfect teamfight positioning, knowledge of his own power at any given time and ability to outtrade his opponent but missing a crucial skillshot to make the most of his calculated movements.
When he pulls out an exceptional Syndra performance against Immortals in Game 1, the crowd and the casters are stunned. Just after six minutes, Huhi sees an opening against Eugene "Pobelter" Park's Karma, and aggressively goes all-in with a stun, burst damage and Ignite. At 6:22, Pobelter is dead. Julian "Pastrytime" Carr's voice cracks in disbelief as he announces the solo kill.
Huhi ends the match with a 14/1/12 scoreline on Syndra en route to a CLG Game 1 win. When the casters hand the broadcast back to the analyst desk, all four members are beside themselves with awe.
“You did not expect the the level 6 Syndra taking ignite and actually solo-killing Pobelter, a defensive support like Karma,” Alberto “Crumbz” Rengifo says, still sounding astonished at the result. “He didn’t respect it and it snowballed so well. Huhi played out of his mind.”
“Ideally the way that I want to play the game is 1-3-1 when I play a splitting champion as well to pressure all three lanes and collapse or get free towers in side lanes,” Huhi says. He shrugs off my praise of his Syndra, always bringing it back to team performance and his role within CLG’s unit of five.
“Sometimes my teammates put me in a 4-1 comp such as Syndra and Cassio. I just want to play how they want me to play. That’s why I like to roam a lot too, because I like to help my teammates.”
Huhi’s description of CLG’s communication reflects his team-first attitude, but this hardly seems something that can solely be ascribed to Huhi himself. It’s an important facet of this CLG team — their ability to rise above others’ perception of their individual performances and beat opponents as a team.
“We have a rule,” Huhi says. “Whenever someone has CC and they use it in a teamfight, they always count down their CC and there’s one guy who is confident enough — it could be me, Darshan or Jake — they just call out ‘I’m going to CC this guy,’ and one of us will be like, ‘I’m here with follow-up.’”
As I’m wrapping up the interview, I can’t help but ask about his time in Korea while on Bigfile Miracle and how it compares to CLG. His description paints an entirely different picture than CLG’s well-oiled machine.
“When we were Bigfile we were pretty trolly,” he admits, laughing. “Especially since our coach was Firebathero. So he told us to do these things to get the attention of the fans.”
The crowd has left, as has the majority of the press, but Huhi still has energy to spare, with a quiet brightness that fills the press room, even as it looks out onto the empty stadium floor. Dust filters through the spotlights. Banging echoes up from the stage as breakdown and preparation begins for the finals on Sunday.
With his audience gone, the memory of the crowd still sticks with Huhi. He reiterates that this was the best and most energetic crowd he’s experienced. On this day, all Huhi had to do to gain fan attention was play at an exceptional level — the kind of play that startled his harshest critics and might even go a bit towards changing the prevailing atmosphere surrounding his performances.
Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.