"[In Season 2], TSM was running, like pick whatever champions, these 12-15 champions, we’re going to invade blue buff at seven minutes. Let’s go team… That would be their strategy. They did that strategy for all of Season 2. They were much more than just, but like, you could just bet they would contest your seven-minute blue."
Team SoloMid has always been a team set up around a mid laner. This hasn’t changed since their inception when Andy "Reginald" Dinh lead the team in Season 1. When he finally made the decision to retire at the end of Season 3, Reginald selected one of Europe’s most promising prospects in Soren "Bjergsen" Bjerg to replace him, and for at least the next two years, TSM remained a team focused on mid.
2016 was supposed to signal a new era for TSM. When they didn’t advance out of their group in the 2015 World Championship, the organization underwent a massive overhaul, picking up North America’s most beloved domestic star, Yiliang "Doublelift" Peng and building from there, adding coveted veteran names and publicly fighting over lauded jungler Dennis "Svenskeren" Johnsen to express a commitment to change. This wouldn’t just be Team SoloBjerg, the name would become more symbolic of the organization’s long-standing history, as it is in every other esport in which it participates.
That didn’t happen, at least not completely. After nearly dominating North America in the 2016 Summer season, pundits debated whether Doublelift or Bjergsen were more deserving of the title of MVP. Gold was distributed in such a way that it made it difficult to tell whether the main carry was their mid or bottom lane. Yet at the World Championship, an event TSM entered with the right practice focus and schedule, after having done everything right throughout the season, they fell on an archaic piece of strategy: an obsession with securing and denying the opponent mid laner’s blue buff. A lack of control over the blue buff when TSM played from red side destabilized a roster that was projected to advance much further than it did two international events in a row.
Not only did many expect Team SoloMid to make it to the bracket stage at the World Championship, but 71.92 percent of players in the Intel Extreme Masters Fantasy Pick’em chose TSM to win IEM Oakland, with or without an AD carry substitute. Yet TSM fell short, leaving both events at the same stage in which they entered them and boasting a particularly disappointing win rate when they played on red side relative to blue. But being able to identify simple weaknesses is a blessing for TSM and their fans. It means their overall approach doesn't have to be thrown out, and the climb to greatness is in the details.
During the World Championship Group Stage, a fascination with bottom lane 2v2 control slowly developed. An ability to secure pushing lanes in the 2v2 with a stronger matchup often came in tandem with being able to invade the red side team’s blue buff and establish vision control. This lead to a blue side win rate of over 60 percent in all groups except Group B where the average game time lasted longer due teams often having an inability to close seamlessly. Group D, TSM’s group, had the second highest blue side win rate at 66.67 percent.
This strategy should have theoretically played into TSM’s wheelhouse. With the use of Teleport from Kevin "Hauntzer" Yarnell in the NA LCS, TSM often looked to secure advantages in their bottom lane 2v2s. They played off their 2v2s to get vision in the enemy jungle and then control the river area to pick up dragons. It was because of this strategy that TSM were in particular known for their impeccable dragon control, but dragon control when TSM played on blue side often came with control of the opponent’s blue jungle.
What TSM gain from controlling the enemy blue buff isn’t immediately obvious, but the strength of denying the enemy mid laner's blue buff has contributed to the rise of junglers like Lee Sin and Rek’Sai that don’t require a blue buff. One of the major criticisms levied at Olaf picks is that Olaf often starts blue, which can open up the option for the enemy jungler playing a champion with no mana costs to gift blue to his mid laner and allow his mid laner to control the lane early on.
In Team SoloMid’s games at Worlds and IEM, Bergsen received 67.7 percent of the blue buffs TSM secured among the first six to spawn on either side. The team secured 57.4 percent of the first six blue buffs spawning in their nine games. These numbers varied drastically depending upon the side of the map on which TSM played.
If TSM played on blue side, Bjergsen averaged three of the first six blue buffs spawning (with the team as a whole averaging 4.25), and his opponent averaged only .25 blue buff (with only Samsung Galaxy’s Lee "Crown" Minho securing a single blue buff in the game SSG lost to TSM). If TSM played on red side, Bjergsen averaged 1.8 red buffs of the team’s 2.8 of the first six in a game, but his opponent also averaged 1.8, which equalized the potential advantage he gained in lane completely.
The ability to secure early blue bluffs for the mid laner grants a team strong push from constantly spamming spells. This gives a jungler more freedom to invade, as his mid laner has less of a tradeoff for assisting him right away if he isn’t trapped under his own turret clearing a wave. As a result, a team has more ability to secure objectives, the mid laner can roam more often, and contesting early vision becomes easier.
If the enemy is more easily able to secure blue buffs when TSM plays on red side, this shuts down a massive strength of the roster. While a CS difference at 10 is an imperfect metric for lane control and advantages, Bjergsen averaged a 20 CS lead over his opponent at 10 minutes in TSM’s four blue side games, but only a 2 CS lead in red side games. The only two games in which he fell behind in CS were also red side games against the Unicorns of Love’s Fabian "Exileh" Schubert. This at least captures the difficulties faced by Bjergsen on red side in recent tournaments, which is correlated to his opponents’ higher access to blue buffs.
As this data sample is very small, anecdotal examples may carry more weight. Of the nine games TSM played at Worlds and IEM Oakland, Samsung Galaxy’s Crown received the most of the six blue buffs of any opponent TSM faced in the game they won in Week 2. The benefit of Crown receiving three of the first six blue buffs on the map prevented Bjergsen from abusing a buff advantage and translated into Crown being able to constantly put Bjergsen on the defensive with several highlight outplays. Though Samsung fell behind early, this kept them in the game and delayed Team SoloMid’s snowball of their advantages.
The question then becomes where the failings of Team SoloMid on red side occur. In general, Svenskeren spent more of his time on the top half of the map than the bottom, though not by a large amount. In the first 15 minutes of games after camps spawn, Svenskeren spent 51.5 percent of his time not dead or in base on the top half of the map and 48.5 percent of his time on the bottom half.
Though Svenskeren didn't spend a significantly larger percentage of his time on the top side of the map, these slight differences are consistent with the enemy jungler’s higher tendency to secure the bottom river scuttle when TSM play on red side. It also reflects a slightly looser emphasis on warding on the bottom half of the map. TSM’s mechanism for getting bottom side ahead is often to gank for top and mid first, then use Teleport advantages to snowball the bottom lane. In scenarios where getting bottom control early is paramount, this doesn’t always translate to blue buff control.
Playing on blue side also often facilitates dives. Being able to secure the red side blue buff area opened up Royal Never Give Up in the final game of Group D to easily dive and grant Jian "Uzi" Zihao a triple kill.
Team SoloMid could have combated this by being aware of the emphasis on blue by their opponents, which is something they didn’t always face in NA LCS. More defensive wards on red side and a higher emphasis on bot lane control could have made their blue buff area less open to invasion and their first tier bottom lane turret less susceptible to dives.
Ultimately, Doublelift, WildTurtle and Vincent "Biofrost" Wang needed to step up in place of Bjergsen when Team SoloMid could not deny the opponents their blue buff. At IEM Oakland, Team SoloMid chose to last pick their support on red side, reflecting their understanding of the importance of being able to control the bottom lane and prevent blue-side invades. This didn’t translate to any advantages, and TSM lost control.
Team SoloMid also could have looked to emphasize invading the raptor camp more early in the game to deny opponents the ability to clear wards around the dragon area. SK Telecom T1 have found a great deal of success emphasizing this strategy, and it plays off the team’s greatest strengths in mid and jungle synergy, which also happen to align with TSM’s in Bjergsen and Svenskeren.
While not all of TSM’s losses can be placed on this over-emphasis and loss of blue buff denial, it’s a definite weakness that contributed to a 75 percent blue side win rate relative to only a 20 percent red side win rate at the World Championship and IEM Oakland. Ultimately, one can look harder at TSM and discover that what let them down wasn’t their practice regime, their individual players, or commitment to success, but finer strategic elements. For one thing, they couldn’t rely on a strategy that has been a staple of Team SoloMid since their inception: controlling and denying the enemy’s blue buff. This strategy has made TSM about their mid lane, even now, and when they couldn’t execute it, they stumbled hard in several of their games.
Looking forward, this should be a relief for TSM and other organizations in the west. They struggled on red side, but these strategic elements can be examined again, looked at over and over. What they did this year, applying hard practice hours and a commitment to victory, was truly admirable. And it’s something they can take with them going forward. Just because they tried it once and it failed doesn’t mean they won’t a second time as long as they can identify weaknesses — even long-standing ones — in strategy and move forward.
TSM in 2016 represents great gains for themselves and the West. They adapted their roster and picked up talents in other roles and expanded their repertoire of lanes to play off. Now, they need to take it one step further and look for remnants of weakness that have clung to the organization's mid-centric constitution, that have kept them from adapting in crucial moments.
2017 is a new year, and we can still have a new TSM to go with it.
Kelsey Moser is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.