From an unemotional perspective, Counter Logic Gaming's 2016 season was a rousing success. Somehow, though, the takeaways from the year, at least from an outside perspective, are less a sense of pride and more feelings of frustration and a hunger for change.
Last year’s highs and lows have brought CLG’s management to a crucial decision point for the upcoming offseason: should they buy into their successes and stay the course or should they take their failures to heart and invest in some form of a rebuild?
The first place CLG would likely look for change is in their solo lanes — discontented fans are calling for the team to replace one or both of Choi “Huhi” Jae-hyun and Darshan “Darshan” Upadhyaya — but CLG’s greatest strength is their unity. Despite drop-offs in performance from both players throughout 2016, there aren’t many free agents that would be a surefire personality fit while still providing a mechanical upgrade.
Before CLG can chart a path forward into 2017 and beyond, they need to take stock of who they are as a team, where they’ve come from, and what trajectory they’re on. Only then can they decide what course corrections to make, and whether or not to replace any pieces of their roster.
A Question of Identity
Unity is the heart of CLG’s identity as a team, and their main source of strength. All five players buy into and support one another, and that team cohesion manifests as mental strength, resilience, and the ability to become a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Over the past 18 months, CLG have repeatedly proven that they have the best mindset and mental strength in the West. In the past, CLG have competed under the motto “Respect all; fear none,” and that approach has driven them to great success, despite deficits in player skill and experience level compared to many of their regional counterparts, let alone their international foes.
CLG’s mental strength is both fueled by their coaching staff and veteran leadership. Their coaching framework was established by Chris “Blurred Limes” Ehrenreich, a college basketball coach who joined CLG ahead of the 2015 NA LCS Summer Split and used his coaching background to improve CLG’s professionalism, team environment, and practice structure. Ehrenreich and his strategic coach, Tony “Zikz” Gray, went on to lead CLG to their first ever NA LCS title. Though Ehrenreich and CLG parted ways before the 2015 World Championship, his legacy has been visible through Zikz’s continued excellence in the unified head coach and strategic coach role, and in CLG’s ever-present self-belief and unity.
On the player front, support Zaqueri “Aphromoo” Black has shown that he is a poised, vocal leader. The partnership between Aphromoo and Zikz has been a key component to CLG’s recent success, to such an extent that CLG’s ownership, when forced to play favorites a year ago, chose Aphromoo over longtime AD carry Yiliang “Doublelift” Peng. With a team filled with veteran players, CLG were one of North America’s most even-keeled, steady rosters in 2016, despite filling out their roster with two rookies, Trevor “Stixxay” Hayes at AD carry and Huhi, a low-profile Korean import, in the mid lane.
The stories of those two rookies have played out in different ways, with each player symbolizing a different aspect of the overarching CLG narrative. One player’s path through 2016 was a constantly rising overachievement, undermined by doubters at every step; the other’s was a series of peaks and valleys so steep that it left fans and analysts disoriented.
Stixxay was asked to fill Doublelift’s shoes and rose to the challenge, improving throughout the spring split and then boldly stamping his name on the North American scene by cleaning up the spring-championship-winning teamfight in Game 5 against TSM. He went on to look like one of the best AD carries at MSI. But just as the common storytelling around CLG has questioned their actual strength, despite their achievements, criticisms have been constantly sent Stixxay’s way, chief among them being that he only looks good because the team plays around him and gives him so many resources. That’s a familiar narrative from the Doublelift days, however, and given Stixxay’s use of those resources, it’s clear why CLG chose to play that way. Stixxay was one of CLG’s best players throughout the second half of the year, and he has done everything possible to cement himself as one of North America’s best new homegrown talents.
Unlike Stixxay, Huhi can’t be accused of overachieving. Throughout the year, Huhi has been responsible for both some of CLG’s biggest accomplishments and some of their darkest moments, exemplified by their victory over the ROX Tigers and losses to Albus NoX Luna at the World Championships. Aside from teasing the world with his stellar Aurelion Sol pocket pick and a surprising Syndra carry in the summer playoffs, the CLG mid laner has visibly fallen short due to inconsistency and frequent mechanical mistakes, earning himself plenty of attention as a scapegoat.
Naturally, Huhi wasn’t the only weakness in CLG’s performances this year. Difficulty reading the meta got CLG off to a slow start in summer, and an over-reliance on preparation rather than improvisation contributed to their poor performances against “weaker” opponents. CLG also struggled to provide Stixxay with a reliable second source of damage to take pressure off him to carry.
Pointed fingers have singled out Darshan, as well, based on his challenges picking up farm in the mid and late game and his resulting inability to add consistent value as a split pusher. For some reason, though, it is easier to think of Darshan’s year as a strong start and a late drop-off, while Huhi gets less credit for his spring contributions.
|Darshan - Spring Regular Season||3.5||62.5%||+0.9||7.5||404|
|Darshan - Summer Regular Season||2.3||55.3%||+3.3||6.5||400|
|Huhi - Spring Regular Season||4.2||72.7%||+2.1||8.2||596|
|Huhi - Summer Regular Season||3.2||67.3%||-4.9||8.5||575|
From a purely roster-oriented perspective, it’s clear CLG’s solo lanes were their weak points in the second half of the year. Ultimately, both Huhi and Darshan deserve to be scrutinized as CLG plan out ways to improve themselves going into 2017.
Change vs. Stability
Going into the 2016-17 offseason, CLG know that the NA LCS is rapidly improving around them, and they need to find the best way to keep pace. CLG are armed with arguably the best coach in North America, a bot lane duo they can build around and a jungler who is a good personality fit and a reasonably consistent performer (though not an All-Star). To reach the next level, CLG must decide whether to replace one or both of their solo laners.
CLG should explore the free agent market in both the mid and top lanes, but should only pull the trigger if they find a near-perfect candidate. There are many players who have more individual skill than Huhi or Darshan on paper, but personality fit is equally important for a team like CLG, and salary demands are also a factor. Given those circumstances, “upgrading” the solo lanes is much easier said than done.
What CLG is looking for is one laner who can reliably carry with damage to alleviate some of the pressure on Stixxay and one role player who can play a wide champion pool and work around the resource needs of the two main carries. CLG don’t need to prioritize playmaking as highly as some other factors, given Aphromoo’s abilities as one of the best playmaking supports in North America. Both Darshan and Huhi are reasonably versatile in playing damage or utility, so CLG have some flexibility to work with.
Out-of-game, CLG need to prioritize personality and communication to help maintain their team identity. They should be very careful about fishing the import market. If they do look for foreign players, they should follow TSM’s lead and look first at Europe before turning to Korea. It is rare to find a Korean player who is as fluent in English as Huhi, and the right combination of language and personality will be hard to come by.
In the top lane, one domestic candidate who might fit CLG’s profile is Sam “Lourlo” Jackson, currently still on contract with Team Liquid. Liquid are likely to undergo a serious roster rework, which may free up Lourlo for a transfer. His preference for duelist champions like Irelia could help add another dimension for CLG, though his tank play might not be an upgrade over Darshan. Within the Challenger scene, Colin “Solo” Earnest acquitted himself well as part of the now-disbanded Team Liquid Academy, playing mostly Gnar, Shen and Trundle, and may be worth trying out in a supporting role if CLG is able to nurse more damage out of the mid lane.
In the mid lane, domestic options are few and far between, with a relatively shallow pool of Challenger players to peruse. The import market is a bit more promising: Hampus “Fox” Myhre recently declared his free agency and departure from Europe’s Schalke 04. Fox led EU LCS mids in CSD@10 in the summer regular season and specializes in aggressive teamfighting, which could make him a good fit if CLG like his intangibles as well.
Other appealing options may be freed up in the coming weeks as players make free agency announcements, and CLG should certainly keep an eye on the news for those developments. They should also put in due diligence in scouting solo queue and Riot’s upcoming NA Scouting Grounds. But if they can’t find the right candidates, CLG should not be afraid to bank on Darshan and Huhi having bounce-back years in 2017. Taking the long view, it’s evident that both solo laners can be — and relatively recently have been — better than we saw in the summer split and World Championships.
Compared to many of the alternatives, Darshan and Huhi are both still serviceable players, and many of CLG’s issues are fixable through coaching. An offseason of targeted practice might be able to put both players back on track. In the end, given CLG’s profile as a team, stability may provide as much value as change.
Tim "Magic" Sevenhuysen runs OraclesElixir.com, the premier source for League of Legends esports statistics. You can find him on Twitter, unless he’s busy giving one of his three sons a shoulder ride.