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The Road to Worlds: an in-depth look at Team SoloMid

by theScore Staff Sep 18 2015
Thumbnail image courtesy of Robert Paul / The Score eSports

It all started in the summer of 2011, with five North Americans trekking over to Sweden to compete in the first League of Legends world championship. In a world without Korean and Chinese teams, the Western powerhouse made it all the way up to the Top 3, only losing to France's Against All Authority in both the upper and lower bracket.

Team SoloMid would return next year as their region's top seed, automatically getting a spot in the quarterfinals instead of having to battle through the strenuous group stage. America's hope would once again be eliminated in the bracket stage, this time getting swept in the quarterfinals by Azubu Frost, the reigning victors of Korea's Champions.

2013 once again saw TSM make the Summoner's Cup tournament, but it would be their worst finish in the team;s storied history. Luck wasn't on their side in this tournament, as they were grouped with the competition's two favorites, Korea's SK Telecom T1 spearheaded by their prodigy Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok and China's OMG with regional MVP Yu "Cool" Jiajun. It was the second straight Worlds where TSM were ousted by a Korean team, continuing their horrid record against squads from that region that stretched back over a year.

Last year was a resurgence for North America's dynasty, this time Lady Luck smiling down on them with a group that didn't have a South Korean team occupying it. Along with dodging the heavy favorites, TSM's biggest rival for advancing to the quarterfinals, SK Gaming, had to play the first three games of the tournament without their star jungler, Dennis "Svenskeren" Johnsen, due to suspension. But, as it always has gone for TSM at Worlds, their run came to an end at the hands of a South Korean champion, this time to the eventual winners, Samsung White.

For five years now, Team SoloMid have found a way to the biggest tournament of the year. Strife, slumps, and roster changes have warped the team over the years from a purely North American team to now a mashup of international talent, but they've always found a way to make it to Worlds.

The Road So Far

To say that TSM have had an up-and-down year coming into the World Championships would be a massive understatement. No team has had their stock rise so high and then plummet as far down as SoloMid this year, as they won the IEM World Championship tournament in Katowice back in March before having all their goodwill being burned away over the next few months.

TSM entered the year by making only one change from the roster that lost to the world champions Samsung White last Worlds, as their German jungler, Maurice "Amazing" Stückenschneider, was swapped out for Lucas "Santorin" Tao Kilmer, a prospect from Denmark who was playing on the Challenger squad Team Coast before being picked up by TSM. The move was a highly disputed one, as TSM's 2014 team was seen as one of the best starting fives in the franchise's history, finally defeating their rivals Cloud9 in the NA LCS summer split and then taking a game off the eventual world champions in the Top 8 at Worlds.

The entire 2015 season for TSM, from the preseason to now, has been anything but consistent. They began their year by going to IEM San Jose as one of the tournament favorites, yet they fell in the semifinals to the upstart Unicorns of Love, the zany, unorthodox former amateurs from Europe.

That loss sent their fans into a panic as well as the North American community on a whole. Santorin was heavily criticized for his flat play during the tournament, and the comparisons between him and Amazing had already started to pick up steam. Those doubts would slowly fade away as the Danish rookie went on to win the Rookie of the Split award during the NA LCS spring season. After looking like a ticking time bomb during the preseason, TSM reverted back to their overall team experience and late-game prowess to cruise into a top spot in the spring regular season and a decisive second straight victory in the playoffs.

TSM's high point came in another IEM tournament, this time the IEM World Championships held in Katowice, Poland. Although considered an elite North American team, they were given little chance to make the finals of a tournament that possessed the GE Tigers, Korea's hottest new team, Europe's SK Gaming, and CJ Entus. It had all the makings of another underwhelming international competition for TSM against Korean competition.

Then, the stars aligned. TSM won the entire tournament in a daze of a weekend that saw the two Korean teams rip apart at the seams, SK Gaming fall flat on their face, and the Chinese underdogs, Team WE, fall to SoloMid in the finals. TSM's strategy of slow, plodding play into the end-game worked out against the erratic field of teams, as their longest tenured player, Marcus "Dyrus" Hill, was tormented in the top lane but the rest of the team scooped up objectives as their enemies gnawed on the sacrificial lamb.

The victory was the worst thing that could have happened to TSM. The win put more pressure on their shoulders than they had ever hoped coming into the year, going from a constant Worlds participant to now becoming a team that was looked to actually be a threat when the Summoner's Cup tournament came around.

SoloMid's style of play was dissected and easily broken down when they made their way to the Mid-Season Invitational in Tallahassee. The international competition was higher as the champions from the major regions took turns knocking out TSM in the early stages of games and never letting them orchestrate their ultimate goal: get into the late game in a decent standing with Søren "Bjergsen" Bjerg, the team's hard carry, in a position where he could win the game with his technical prowess along with the team's stellar coordination in team fights.

Instead of letting Bjergsen and the rest of TSM get their way, the top teams punished every little thing that the North American champions committed. They picked on Dyrus in the top lane and snowballed those early kills into putting more pressure on the map, never letting the customarily safe TSM take a breather to regroup and farm. By the time TSM would be hoping to ramp up Bjergsen into a late-game omni-carry, they were already dead, steamrolled by faster, more versatile and offensive teams.

The summer season continued their downturn from MSI. Although they were able to qualify for their fifth straight trip to Worlds, they come into the event as the team in the worst condition statistically out of the sixteen squads vying for the Summoner's Cup. TSM went 2-4 in their final six regular season games and limped into the postseason. They were able to dispatch an equally slumping Gravity in the quarterfinals and the late-game clumsy Team Liquid in the semifinals, but everything came crashing down when they lost 0-3 in the playoff finals against arch-nemesis Counter Logic Gaming in New York City.

The Current State of the Team

TSM have tried to change up their play since the MSI debacle that killed any optimism they had after winning the IEM world title. Those results have been mixed at best. Dyrus came into his own at the start of the summer split and was the main reason for TSM defeating Gravity in the playoffs, however the team always seemed to fall back and depend on Bjergsen to pull through in difficult situations.

The biggest factor to the extreme reliance on Bjergsen is the lack of production from the bottom lane, as Jason "WildTurtle" Tran experienced his worst year as a pro-gamer. While Turtle has always been overeager in his approach to the game, he's always carried out his AD Carry duties in a fashion that has helped his team. He might die a few times due to a few harebrained decisions, and that usually turned out alright — WildTurtle would pile up enough bodies on the opposing side to make up for his mistakes.

For the most part, the same mistakes that have plagued Turtle are still there, but the heads on the enemy side are staying intact. Without WildTurtle being a consistent secondary carry or even primary carry at times to take the load off Bjergsen's shoulders, the team continuously has to rely on their ace mid lane to pull victories out of his hat with carry heroics in the late-game.

TSM are a 'four-protect-one' team. The four players on the map do whatever they can to help Bjergsen succeed: ward the map so he can feel safe or roam, gank or protect him from the opposing team, and give him a large enough buffer from the players trying to kill him so that he can be the biggest carry by the time they need him. If TSM can get past the 30 minute mark at even a slight disadvantage, they're a team, for all their archetypal faults, that can win in the late-game. They have the experience to be able to make smart plays around objectives, team fight well, and give Bjergsen the best chance to rack up kills to start the end-game push to victory.

While the secret service protecting President Bjergsen might work in the NA LCS and get them to Worlds, their style of play won't fly against the best teams in the world. Similarly to MSI, SoloMid will be punished if they try to play the same way in all of their games. The top teams at the tournament won't let them farm up for 30 minutes, let Bjergsen get into a good position, and then have a gentleman's duel at the 40 minute mark when TSM are a good enough team to beat teams more individually talented than them.

For TSM to even take a game or two at Worlds, they're going to need to match the pressure and flow their opponents set against them. Jang-sik "Lustboy" Ham, the team's veteran support, will need to be a catalyst in TSM's change in tempo. The best North American support last year, when he transferred to the team right before summer playoffs, he's had a lukewarm second half to the year as the bot-lane duo looked lost at times against the better tandems in NA.

Forget four-protecting-one. TSM will need to be making teams react to them instead of the other way around if they want any chance of advancing to their second straight Top 8.

Outlook for Worlds

TSM's chances at Worlds are dire.

They're in a group with LGD, KT, and Origen, three squads that can all push the pace and make TSM's lives a nightmare in the lane phase. There's also the fact that the Worlds patch will not be in TSM's favor, boosting teams like KT and Origen who have top lane carries that love to split push and can be dynamic in their style. Against Gravity Dyrus showed that he can be the focal point of the team in victory, and he'll need to play the best games of his entire life to match up with the likes of KT's Ssumday and LGD's Acorn.

The biggest silver lining in this seemingly impossible situation is that TSM, without question, are the ultimate underdogs of this tournament. No one believes they can advance in this group of death, and many don't even think they can win a single game. If they look at this situation as a positive, TSM can enter the tournament with clear minds and the mindset of enjoying themselves and creating havoc.

Tyler "Fionn" Erzberger is a staff writer for theScore eSports who covers the North American LCS and Korea's Champions.