Before Brazil’s INTZ e-Sports upset China’s first seed at the 2016 League of Legends World Championship, a smaller upset kicked off Day 1. Counter Logic Gaming beat G2 Esports in the first match of the tournament, setting the tone for a day of best-of-one turmoil.
“People thought G2 were going to crush us and we were the second wild card team in our group,” mid laner Choi “Huhi” Jae-hyun said. "We don’t really care about the criticism, and when it actually matters, everyone just tries really hard. They all step up and we play as a team. That’s why we were able to win that game.”
Much like their arrival at the 2016 Mid-Season Invitational, very little was expected of the North American team. Then, it was due to significantly lower expectations of NA as a region based on their prior performances at the 2015 World Championship where no NA team made it into the bracket stage, including CLG. Through their finals appearance and second-place finish to SK Telecom T1, CLG transformed the prevailing atmosphere around NA.
CLG were again thought of as a weaker team, going into Worlds as NA’s second seed due to points from their spring split victory. Their form throughout the summer season was inconsistent and mediocre, their performances in playoffs ranged from passable against Team Liquid to embarrassing against Team SoloMid. Taking Immortals to all five games in a close loss during the summer third-place match, CLG were obviously learning, but still looked uncomfortable in standard lanes, and sometimes struggled to maintain their leads.
“I think we are pretty weird,” Huhi said. “Whenever we’re overrated, we play really bad, like after MSI when we went into the regular season we were pretty bad. I guess we were getting underrated again before we got to the World Championship.”
Immediately locking in the strong bottom lane combination of Caitlyn for Trevor “Stixxay” Hayes and Nami for Zaqueri “aphromoo” Black, CLG showcased a much better understanding of the current meta than their detractors may have expected. According to Huhi, they wanted to focus bottom lane priority, ensuring control of that side of the map with a strong early push.
“It’s just a strong bottom lane and we wanted it,” Huhi said. “Other ranged supports were banned like Soraka and Karma. We picked the Cait/Nami early so that they can’t really counter and we still have bottom pressure.”
Caitlyn and Nami have been a power pushing duo since Season 3, and the bottom lane control ensured by their selection allowed for CLG to be more flexible elsewhere. They rounded out their composition with Vladimir, Poppy, and Olaf.
“The Olaf pick, the Vladimir pick they’re just really strong in that scenario. We actually barely practiced Vladimir and Olaf so—” he laughed. “We saw that they picked Syndra and we were looking for a counter. Vlad is pretty good. She can’t really one-shot you once Vlad gets MR.”
More important than standard strong lanes is the role of the mid laner, who tries to push early in order to roam and affect the side lanes. Vladimir turned out to be another strong pickup for Huhi, who has always prioritized affecting his side lanes over engaging in aggressive trading in lane or pushing for solo kills. His presence in mid lane and continuous pushing allowed for jungler Jake “Xmithie” Puchero to storm around the map early on Olaf, applying pressure unhindered by G2.
“Basically if I just play the laning phase well, Vladimir is strong into Syndra but it’s hard to solo kill her because she’s more long-range than Vladimir. I used my pressure to affect the side lanes. I just told aphromoo that I was going to go.”
Huhi’s Vladimir hasn’t always worked well with CLG’s strategy this year. This past summer split, Huhi played Vladimir five times for a low 20 percent win rate and 2.67 KDA.
“Most of the time I was playing the champion wrong or we were picking the champion at the wrong time,” Huhi said, laughing. “I couldn’t really perform on that champion but this time I felt that this is a scenario that Vlad could go off so the setup was really good. We lacked practice on Vladimir but it didn’t really matter.”
Not only was Huhi able to roam around the map fairly freely, beating G2 mid laner Luka "PerkZ" Perković to side lane fights, but he used his lead to initiate CLG’s teamfights, coordinating with top laner Darshan “Darshan” Upadhyaha, who was able to frequently Teleport flank on Poppy. Once CLG was able to lock a member of G2 down, they followed up by chaining crowd control and surging into G2’s backline with Huhi leading the charge thanks to Vladimir’s Pool.
“Usually whoever is fed is the guy who screams, ‘Let’s go in!’ In that game, I was really fed and I wanted to go in but my teammates were telling me to calm down a bit,” Huhi laughed. “I actually held myself back a little bit.”
A crucial part of CLG’s victory, Huhi shook off both praise and the continuing criticism that has followed him since this past spring.
“Criticism is also, well, they criticize because they’re interested, I guess?” he said. “It’s now up to me to turn that criticism into a compliment. I just have to play better and show them that I’m capable of doing those things — like carrying the game, et cetera, so that they love me afterwards.”
Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.