Crossing Chilpae-ro and Sejong-daero at Sungnyemun Square, a row of camera shops greets the five members of Counter Logic Gaming as they walk. It’s just past noon on a Thursday, and they’ve gamely agreed to an outdoor video shoot. Player development coach Mike Schwartz says that it’s one of the first times his team has left their hotel at all.
Nestled behind the camera shops lies Namdaemun Market, the largest traditional open-air market in Seoul, South Korea and a stark contrast to the finance buildings that crowd the view from CLG’s ninth-story practice room. We set up in front of one of the ubiquitous Nature Republic stores as the girl tasked with bringing in customers to peruse a variety of sheet masks and facial products looks on with curiosity. A catchy, but forgettable, Kpop song blares from her storefront. Darshan “Darshan” Upadhyaha immediately wanders off into the market before his time to film while the others stand off to the side of the street, taking in the homey atmosphere.
“I didn’t even know this was here,” one of them murmurs incredulously to Schwartz.
But North America's second seed at the 2016 League of Legends World Championship, Counter Logic Gaming, are not in Korea to see the sights. The North American team which shocked international fans with their second-place performance at the Mid-Season Invitational have struggled through the summer split, and look far from the form they showed in May. If they want a hope of a repeat performance on home soil next month, they'll need to make the most of this Korean bootcamp, and the rare convergence of many of the world's top teams on the mecca of esports.
Later on that afternoon, the Nature Republic girl asks us what we’re filming. When we tell her that they are a North American League of Legends team she nods sagely, but is confused when we tell her that the event is in North America, not Korea.
“Oh. They came here because Koreans are good at LoL?” she asks. It’s the best summation of why an NA team would come to Korea for a mere few weeks prior to a tournament that’s being held in their own country.
By their own admission, CLG may not have gone to Korea had all other North American and European teams decided not to bootcamp there. Even Royal Never Give Up, a Chinese team that can scrim Korean squads from China with fewer ping issues than an NA team, jetted to Jeju Island for a Korean bootcamp. China's first seed, Edward Gaming, are also bootcamping in Korea.
“There’s literally no other choice,” Darshan says after CLG’s narrow 3-2 third place match loss to Immortals. “If we could have, if the other NA teams would stay in NA then there’s a chance we might have stayed but no other NA teams are going to stay to practice for Worlds so if we don’t go to Korea, we aren’t giving ourselves a fighting chance to practice against the best teams. Not only other NA teams but all of the Korean and Chinese teams. The solo queue is better and there’s just better scrim partners. All around if you can go, it’s better.”
It’s September 15 the day that we pay CLG a visit during their bootcamp. By their estimation, they’ve been confined to their practice room for 14 hours a day between scrims, reviewing scrims and solo queue.
“We might as well be in any place because we’re just here,” Darshan says. “We could literally be in LA. The only thing different is the food because we just play the game all day.” He later concedes that he’s primarily stuck to the Subway attached to their hotel for food as mid laner Choi “Huhi” Jae-hyun expresses how difficult it can be to find Korean food to the entire team’s taste. They have few stories from solo queue, but joke that they’re still trying to wrap their heads around specific regional insults as they purposefully stifle their laughter.
“It’s mostly random players who say that my mom will be in the sky and stuff,” AD carry Trevor “Stixxay” Hayes says flatly. “My mom is a flight attendant so it kind of makes sense.” He delivers this punchline as if he doesn’t understand the joke while bot lane partner in crime Zaqueri “aphromoo” Black laughs. When asked to explain the Korean insult, Huhi quips that he’s French and doesn’t understand.
Exhausted and dragged into a video interview at 11 a.m. after staying up late scrimming, the members of CLG are ever affable and naturally play off of each other. Their default nature is relaxed and comfortable, putting anyone at ease as they make jokes about their unglamorous lifestyle. It’s easy to see how this team has grown together, continuously spurning criticism from the NA community and proving that they are one of the region's best.
On Wednesday, May 4, 2016, these same five players enter the booming Shanghai Oriental Sports Center to take on home crowd favorite RNG at the 2016 Mid-Season Invitational. As they load up into the game, a confused analyst desk tries to make sense of CLG’s history of weak international performances and insistence on ranged supports that are currently en vogue in North America.
“I kind of feel like NA has its own meta,” caster Martin “Deficio” Lynge says. “Ranged supports like Soraka being used in there, Rageblade Tristana, no Sivir coming in, CLG is a team that doesn’t really use Azir or Maokai very often, there are some big questions for some of the S tier picks.”
CLG kicks off Day 1 with a loss to RNG and a win over the LoL Masters Series’ Flash Wolves. The only people who don’t believe that CLG will be eliminated in the group stages are still Sam “Kobe” Hartman-Kenzler, who has grown a “faith beard” in solidarity and CLG themselves. With each passing day of the MSI group stages, CLG proves that their knowledge of how their own team works as a unit is far superior than names on a piece of paper.
Days later, when CLG meets RNG again, they win off of the back of a teamfight ace at 41 minutes. Kobe’s voice cracks as he starts screaming, nearly incoherent but overwhelmed with sheer joy.
“Ahhhhh, I never doubted ‘em! I never. Doubted. Them.”
Defying low expectations set from CLG’s failure to make it to the bracket stage of the 2015 World Championship, their less-than-paper-perfect roster going into the 2016 North American League Championship Series, their lackluster performance at IEM, and general disillusionment with NA as a whole, CLG place second to Korea’s SK Telecom T1.
“I thought we played pretty well but our execution just wasn’t there,” aphromoo says after SKT sweeps them in the MSI Finals. “We know what we have to work on coming into next split and SKT is just a really, damn good team.”
Yet, despite their surprising MSI performance, CLG struggles throughout the 2016 NA LCS summer split. Their first series is a crushing defeat against TSM that acts as a springboard for TSM’s initial 14-0 undefeated run before they fall to Phoenix1 in Week 8. Meanwhile, CLG is an even .500 prior to Week 8 with a 7-7 record, tied for fourth with Team Liquid. CLG finishes in fourth overall with a 10-8 series record. Huhi is singled out as the weak link, Darshan comes under fire for underperforming throughout the season, and their semifinal against Team SoloMid is marred by an Aurelion Sol bug that overshadows a 3-0 drubbing at the hands of TSM.
Seven days later, TSM are crowned winners of the 2016 NA LCS Summer Split and CLG are granted the region’s second-place seed at the World Championship through circuit points. Their automatic qualification sparks a community debate of how much the spring season should count towards the game’s largest international tournament. With side-eye glances at both Cloud9 and Immortals, who are preparing for the regional gauntlet and had stronger performances throughout the split, fans argue that CLG doesn’t deserve to go at all despite an impressive performance against Immortals in a draining 3-2 loss. The echoes of disappointment that followed CLG’s NA LCS spring finals victory over TSM — then, fans argued that TSM’s roster was better on paper and could represent the region at MSI in less embarrassing fashion — are palpable.
On the busy streets of Namdaemun Market, aphromoo muses over how to address those who doubt CLG going into the World Championship.
“I’ve thought about this question a long time while I was here at the bootcamp,” aphromoo finally says. “And the only thing I can say is that I have nothing to say. At all. And I’ll see you guys in Worlds.”
Simultaneously jovial and stern, it’s apparent that aphromoo has familiarized himself with deflecting what criticism he can and protecting his CLG teammates. He doesn’t command the team like ROX Tigers’ captain Kang “GorillA” Beom-hyeon, but sets a warm tone throughout, facilitating conversation while using jokes to smooth over their more awkward pauses. When jungler Jake “Xmithie” Puchero has trouble explaining how Immortals jungler Kim “Reignover” Yeu-jin has helped him out at bootcamp, it’s aphromoo who steps in after Xmithie jokes that CLG Reignover is coming.
“Reignover is very helpful, he works with Huhi and I,” aphromoo says. “He helps Jake out a lot in telling the team what a jungler really needs. We realize more how the role is supposed to be.”
During aphromoo’s one-on-one interview, a passing motorcycle and a few camera adjustments disrupt the filming. Noticing that the rest of the team has found an iced coffee stand behind him, aphromoo hands Darshan a bill.
"Go get me one," he says. "You can buy yourself one too."
“Thanks dad,” Darshan replies, taking the money. There’s a touch of sarcasm mixed with genuine respect. “You want one too, dad?”
“Yeah, that’s why I gave you money dog, I didn’t give you money to go buy [one for] yourself.” Both Darshan and the camera crew fidgeting around aphromoo smile.
His genial nature and affectionate attitude towards his teammates have led aphromoo to become CLG’s default spokesperson. Win or lose, he’s always willing to talk about how the team can improve, changing the conversation from what CLG did wrong to what they will do in the future to perform better.
“At MSI I gave them all the advice that I could and look how it turned out, pretty damn good,” aphromoo later says. “It’s important that they’re already accustomed to the whole system of international competition. It doesn’t matter who you’re playing against — you’re going to play your game, they’re going to play their game, two metas clash and whoever is better at it than the other team, usually they’ll win especially early on.”
The first test for this iteration of CLG’s roster was not the more intimate setting of Riot Games’ studios on Olympic Boulevard, but at the SAP Center in San Jose for Season X of the Intel Extreme Masters in November 2015. There, new AD carry Stixxay and CLG finished in second place to Europe’s Origen, surprising their fans and detractors alike.
“I’ve never really been nervous to play onstage anywhere,” Stixxay says. Stixxay appears to thrive in the high-pressure environment of a finals match or the international stage more than the every day series in a regular season and so does CLG as they’ve sloughed off the skin of failing at international events, flying in the face of others’ low expectations. They joke that the lower the forecast is for CLG’s success, the better they’ll perform when the time comes, knowing full well that they haven’t shown their best throughout the summer split.
"I think [the fans] have the right to criticize us," Xmithie says with a short laugh. "I feel that I can't really say much to defend us right now since we are not playing that well, but hopefully in this bootcamp we can learn a lot."
Many things have changed since CLG's introduction to the Shanghai crowd in May but a similar sentiment prevails. Pitted against the tournament favorites, the ROX Tigers, and Europe's G2 Esports along with wild card representative Albus NoX Luna, getting out of groups will be incredibly difficult for CLG.
The Tigers are a far more formidable foe than the team that CLG met last year, also in Group A at the 2015 World Championship. If it hadn't been for their collapse at the 2016 MSI, G2 would be a first seed essentially making this year's Group A a group with two top seeds. The current G2 appear far stronger now than their spring iteration with one of the best bot lanes at Worlds. CLG only lost three games in the group stages this past MSI, one to RNG, one to SKT and the other to the Turkish team, SuperMassive. They also lost a game to paiN Gaming in the group stages of the 2015 World Championship. Wild card teams are a tricky trap for CLG specifically and cannot be underestimated.
Yet, CLG similarly should not be underestimated by their Group A opponents. They're a smart team that, given time, can usually discern what their own greatest weaknesses are and find a way to overcome them by playing to their strengths. They know where they want to be.
As we wrap up the shoot, producer Lisa Doan and I watch as the team walks past the Sungnyemun Gate and up Sowol-ro, in what we would later discover is a more roundabout way back to the hotel.
"You think they know where they're going?" she asks.
"I hope so."
Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore esports. She's going to watch Re:Zero when she has the time on aphromoo's recommendation. You can follow her on Twitter.