It's easy to give up when things aren't going your way: the team is too old, the meta isn't right, the players look to be on their last legs. After a 2014 season that saw both of their teams fail to make the qualifiers for Worlds, it appeared that it was time for CJ to start rebuilding from the ground up. An organization once king of League of Legends was no more, now simply a remnant of brighter, happier memories in the distant past.
The 2015 preseason was not kind to CJ Entus. While some of their top players like Flame and Swift left for China, they didn't go the route many expected — dropping their old players and going for younger, lesser-known amateur players that could hopefully one day bring back CJ Entus to the glory days of 2012. Instead, they kept their core players that had all been on the team for over a year, picking up a few solo queue talents who were either put on their B-team practice squad or left on the bench. With the new KeSPA rules stating that all Korean organizations could only house one full-fledged team, CJ opted to make a seemingly awkward, makeshift roster of their leftover pieces from the players that didn't leave them after their year of constant failures.
Shy was to start in the top lane, having played with CJ Entus since the Summer season of Champions in 2012. He played the game for only six months before becoming a pro, rising through the ranks and winning a premiere title in his first season as a professional. Since his peak in 2012 and the early parts of 2013, Shy had become mostly known as a tank and utility player, shoehorned into the role of meat shield due to a champion pool that has shrunk throughout the years.
The jungle was possibly their worst move on paper, transitioning long-time CJ Entus Blaze mid laner Ambition into the role. Despite being a former jungler in his early days, that didn't mean much when the announcement was made to go with the veteran instead of dipping into solo queue or another option from a different team. In addition to the fact that he hadn't played the role continuously for over three years, Ambition was limping by the end of his tenure as a mid laner on Blaze. Once seen as the best mid laner in Korea before Faker hit the scene, Ambition was a shell of his former self by the time the 2014 season ended.
Mid was the roster decision that made the most sense. CoCo, the newest member to the CJ family having joined the squad in early 2014, was still a player who was steadily improving on a lacklustre Frost team that was put around him. He and Swift were putting together a mid/jungle partnership that could have rivaled the best in Korea if the rest of their team could keep up with them. His biggest weaknesses were a limited champion pool and that his right-hand man left him to go join the LSPL team Qiao Gu in China before the 2015 season.
CJ's bottom lane appeared to be where a roster move almost needed to be made if they wanted to contend in 2015. Space and Madlife were partners for countless seasons for CJ Entus Frost in Champions, and each season was the same: they never created a good partnership, Space was a dead weight in his role, and Madlife looked to be moving towards the end of his legendary career. While the two got along outside the game and were close friends in the team house, none of that mattered when they hit the rift as the duo looked like complete strangers inside the game. Madlife would do one thing, Space would do another, and the final result usually saw both of them facing grey screens as the opposing team destroyed their Nexus.
CJ Entus always possessed the reputation of being a family. This family first mantra was never more apparent when CJ announced their 2015 roster, Ambition making the change to a new position, and the criticized, disconnected bot-lane of Space and Madlife returning for another shot at trying to create a chemistry that seemed like an impossible task.
The Champions Spring 2015 preseason started as you would expect from a team that was lagging behind the rest when it came to adaptation and talent on paper. Simply put, they were blown out and embarrassed in their first few games together. Ambition, for all his experience as a professional, looked lost in his new role. Space was still Space, sauntering along in the bottom lane with little influence on the game. Shy was old in terms of pro years. Madlife looked uninterested. Coco's champion pool was as tiny as a puddle. Following years of mistakes when it came to compositions, strategies, and laughable failures in Blind Pick ace matches that kept their teams from finals and championships, the sticking with your brothers ideal that CJ were trying to push was looking like it would eventually lead them to a possible relegation if nothing changed.
Five months later and here we are, CJ Entus now hold a 4-0 record atop the Champions Summer standings. They made it to the semifinals the previous season, giving the eventual champions SK Telecom T1 the toughest fight they could imagine and pushing them to a climactic game five where their weakness in Blind Pick came back to once again eliminate them from Champions. Still, after the first few games of the preseason where it looked like CJ were on the road to destruction, they are now not only one of the top teams in Korea, but a legitimate contender to make the World Championships in Europe this fall. With a lineup on paper that seems inferior to a few teams below them in the standings, notably NaJin, how are the ancients of CJ striving in 2015?
While the family motto can and has hurt CJ, their experience can't be matched by any team in the world. Three of their players have been around since the start, and outside of Coco, they've all been playing under the CJ banner for well over two years. Although they don't have the glitz and glamor of other teams with bright new faces and shiny solo queue heroes, CJ Entus know what to do when they fall behind. They will hit their bumps and get absolutely destroyed in first games of a Bo3, but they'll fall back on all the years they've played the game and come back to take a series.
One of the biggest factors to CJ's success is the change in format. Instead of a Bo1 or the Bo2 group format from last year, CJ Entus now get to play at least a Bo3 every time they step foot into the OGN studio. CJ might not have the best coaching staff when it comes to preparing for Blind Pick or having a variety of strategies to play with, but they know how to work with what they got. At their core, CJ are a team fighting squad who can turn an all but conceded loss into a victory with timely team fights, superb flanks by Shy and Ambition, and big plays from Madlife. You can change the meta, introduce new champions, and bring in new dynamics, but the CJ players know each other like the back of their hand — Shy knows what Madlife is going to do before he even presses a button and vice versa. That's the strength of playing on the same team and environment for the entirety of their careers.
While CJ were a good team from the very start of the Spring Split's regular season, you can't talk about their upswing without mentioning the introduction of Cinderhulk. CJ Entus are great at team fighting and reading opponents after a game or two to break them down, but that doesn't fix their problems when it comes to their players having small champion pools. Shy likes utility and tank champions. Ambition, who either looked amazing or awful on Lee Sin, was best on less micro-intensive champions like Nunu or Rek'sai that got boosted by the Cinderhulk enchantment. Coco has his stable core of champions, but the additions of Cassiopeia, Azir, and Vladimir to the meta widened his pool considerably. The bottom lane was aided less by the changes, but gave more variety to the AD champion pool for Space to experiment with, and Madlife was able to continue making plays with his skillshot-centric supports.
The Cinderhulk meta brought CJ to the forefront of Korea. Along with CJ, SKT's Bengi and Ambition finding new lives with the new item, and bruiser-heavy players like GE's Lee falling to the wayside. The changing of the meta boosted CJ in the second half of the season, getting all the way up to the semifinals where they were one game away from going to their first Champions Grand Final in two years.
The future looks bright for the old boys at CJ Entus. While the meta is shifting and bringing in new picks to the top lane and jungle, CJ have been able to adapt. Ambition, although still not the greatest Lee Sin on the planet, can still perform on the champion and fall-back on his comfort picks of Nunu or Rek'sai if his mechanical play isn't up to par. Shy is also shedding the tank and utility only archetype that followed him since CJ Frost fell into their year long slump, showing up on Rumble so far during the Summer season and being able to be a damage threat if needed. But if CJ need him to be a tank, he can still do that as good as anyone in the world, knowing when to teleport, flank, and soak up damage while the rest of his brothers clean up the fight.
Things can change and CJ could implode in the second half of the Summer season. It's happened before and could happen again with CJ, having their darkest turn when things seem their brightest. If that unlikely scenario happens, CJ will do what they've always done. They'll stick together. They'll nurture their practice squad team, and they'll stick with the veterans that have brought them to this point. Outside of the most fanatical of CJ Entus fans, no one expected this team to be where they are now, fighting SKT for the top spot in Champions and closing in on one of the three tickets to Worlds.
One day the family will need to change, and the stars of the past will need to ultimately fade into the background.
Today is not that day.
Tyler "Fionn" Erzberger is a staff writer for The Score eSports who covers the North American LCS and Korea's Champions.