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The Road to Worlds: an in-depth look at Counter Logic Gaming

by theScore Staff Sep 27 2015
Thumbnail image courtesy of Riot eSports Flickr

Counter Logic Gaming are back at Worlds for the first time since 2012, where they were one of the first teams eliminated in the group stages. Since then, it's been an uphill struggle for the reigning North American champions, as CLG failed to adapt to the formation of the new LCS circuit following the 2012 World Championships. While domestic rivals Team SoloMid and C9 have made constant trips to battle for the prized Summoner's Cup, it's been a test of endurance for Counter Logic's management, players, and their fans.

When things were just looking up for CLG, following three years of anguish, another dilemma hit them just before the year's biggest tournament — the organization announced that year-long starting jungler, Jake "Xmithie" Puchero, would miss Worlds due to visa issues. To replace Xmithie, the team's substitute mid laner, Choi "HuHi" Jae-hyun, was chosen to start in the jungle and play his first professional games in the role when the group stage kicked off in Paris, France.

As with the summer split, where Counter Logic ended up as first-time champions, their faith was rewarded when it was announced that Xmithie will be starting at the World Championships as his visa was approved for the European competition. The team was already practicing with both Xmithie and Huhi in the jungle position during the course of scrims in South Korea in their boot camp, so CLG will be entering Worlds with an in-tune starting five that won them the domestic championship.

Adversity has tested CLG throughout their existence as a League of Legends organization, and the renewed faith in the franchise has gotten them to the stage they've wanted to stand on for years. From here on out, however CLG's story finishes, by the end of the tournament, their placement will no longer be about words like 'faith' or 'passion'. If CLG want to leave their mark on the world stage, their talent, teamwork, and preparation will be what gets them there.

The Road so Far

The year, like previous ones before it, started out with CLG trying to find the solution to their constant postseason woes. They switched out their coaching staff for the umpteenth time, bringing in LCS veteran William "scarra" Li to take the reins of a team in constant flux. After trying to infuse the team with a Korean flare to no avail, CLG decided to take a less flashy route for the start of the 2015 spring split and pick up players who were experienced in the North American LCS.

CLG's key signing was Darshan "ZionSpartan" Upadhyaha, the Dignitas top laner who'd grown up in the LCS, playing in the first NA LCS grand finals as an 18-year-old on Good Game University. He brought the team a much needed reprieve it needed in the top lane, as Zion was adept at split pushing and playing carry champions if called upon. CLG's former top laner, Shin "Seraph" Wu-Yeong, was similarly hailed for his proficiency in damage dealing champions like Nidalee, but had difficulty communicating with the team as a Korean native playing in America for the first time.

Along with other new starter Xmithie, CLG still went on to have another split that mirrored the ones before it: start off well, stagnant in the middle of the season, and then entirely fall apart when the postseason approached. CLG let a Top 2 bye into the playoffs slip away at the end of the regular season, forced to play Cloud9 in a single map tiebreaker to see which team would join Team SoloMid in a direct trip to the semifinals. Per usual, Counter Logic lost the fateful game and were knocked into the first round against Team Liquid, as the former Curse organization eliminated them in the playoffs with a commanding 3-0 sweep.

The monotonous exit from the playoffs was accompanied by another change in the ranks. Scarra was out as head coach after one season, and he was replaced by Tony "Zikzlol" as their strategic coach on stage and Chris “Blurred Limes” Ehrenreich, a former worker from the Clemson collegiate football program. Gone was their long-time mid lane starter Austin "Link" Shin, and in was a tandem made up of Huhi from Team Fusion and Eugene "Pobelter" Park from Winterfox.

Pobelter was seen as the primary starter when the signing was announced, but there were still major questions behind the young mid laner as he joined the squad. Although considered one of the brightest prospects in the North American region for years, his perceived potential was far greater than his results. He played on Evil Geniuses which would eventually become Winterfox, bouncing around in the bottom of the standings until he was finally eliminated from the LCS in an upset loss to Seraph's Team Dragon Knights in the NA Promotional Tournament. Without an LCS team to return to, he joined CLG, the query being if he could finally breakout on a team with better pieces around him.

CLG's championship season started poorly — and by poorly, I mean they actually performed well in the opening weeks. It really didn't matter if Pobelter was immortal in his first few games of the season and CLG did well, the expectations of a big drop in performance was always looming behind them. Until they actually finished a season as a Top 2 team and made it past the LCS semifinals, the first six or so games of the regular season didn't mean anything — win the playoffs or continue to be constantly doubted and criticized.

It was in the middle of the season where the team's mettle was truly tested. The team, like they often did the later the regular season went along, started to falter from miscommunication and give away leads they accrued in the early-game. CLG dropped four games in a row and fell down the standings like a rock, leaving them with a dull feeling off deja vu as squads like Gravity and Impulse shot up over them in the ladder.

The Current State of the Team

The main issue with CLG was never a lack of talent. You can argue that teams have had better lineups than them throughout the course of the LCS, but they've continually started a capable lineup that should finish higher than they do. CLG's biggest problem was the fact that they couldn't stabilize themselves after getting knocked off balance. The end of the season would come upon them, they would lose a few close games, and instead of tightening up their play and fighting through the slump, they'd fall backwards and get completely knocked out.

The difference between CLG, C9, and TSM through the first three years of LCS wasn't talent — it was the ability to stand up after getting the rug pulled out from under them. TSM and C9 showed that even if they didn't have a perfect regular season, they'd still find little ways to pull through, sometimes by pure luck from the opposing team. The championship teams created their own luck by fighting through those stretches of adversity when it was thrown at them.

Creating your own luck was exactly what CLG did in the final parts of the summer season and the playoffs. After admitting that they were off their game during a two week stretch, they went back to the methodical way of closing out games from the start of the season and got right back into the hunt for a Top 2 seed. Their schedule at the end of the season was one of the easiest, and CLG took advantage of that fact, regrouping after getting punched in the gut in the middle of the season to steal a first-round bye from the same Gravity and Impulse teams that passed them weeks prior.

The final week of the season and securing the bye was the first part of the test to prove that CLG had finally matured as a team. Winning in the playoffs was the second and exceedingly more important second half to that test. CLG's last two playoff matches before their games against Impulse in the NA LCS summer semifinals were both sweeps, and they were up against a team with the tools to get them off balance early and roll through to another 3-0 win.

CLG's playoff performance wasn't otherworldly, yet that was the beauty of it all. CLG played like they did in their past few opening weeks of the season: confident, smart, meticulous, and the ability to shut the door on a team after getting a lead in the first few minutes of the game. They ran through Team Impulse with a sweep of their own and went onto New York City to play against their heated rivals, Team SoloMid, in their first ever NA LCS Championship.

It was more of the same from CLG in NYC. Yilang "Doublelift" Peng played like the true ace of the team. Zaqueri "Aphromoo" Black was a strong leader and playmaker. Zion exhibited his dominance in the top lane, first beginning the series on a carry champion in Yasuo and then playing a more teamfight-oriented Gnar on the final two maps of the series. Pobelter was the rock he had been all season in the middle of Summoner's Rift, playing Viktor in all three games to zone out TSM from objectives. And Xmithie, the player who was criticized heavily for weak play in the spring postseason, played exceptionally in the finals with Gragas and Ekko.

Although they're often categorized as an order-like team that plays on the defensive side, it's more so that CLG know how to get a lead in the laning phase and extend that to a quick, clean victory. They were actually the runners-up in the NA LCS when it came to combined kills per minute, only trailing behind the bloodthirsty Impulse that had similar offensive skill but lacked in terms of communication, rotating around the map, and closing out games. When CLG were at their best like at the end of the NA LCS split, they knew how to take their 1k gold lead at 15 minutes and turn that into a relatively speedy 35 minute win with as little casualties as possible.

Doublelift is the ace of the team when it comes to damage and kills, and ZionSpartan is often used in a variety of manners, ranging from the hard carry of the squad with a split-pushing champion like Yasuo or utility/tank champions that are more useful in the front of a grouped up team composition. Pobelter is a player, like Zion, that can be used in a lot of different ways, but he's been at his best when he is on a control-focused champion that can keep the peace around objectives and zone out the opposite team. When it comes to the supports, Xmithie has been playing extremely well on champions he builds as meat shields like Ekko that put him in the forefront of the action, and Aphromoo is a primary engage tool, fourth in the league in terms of kill participation while Doublelift is third.

Outlook for Worlds

CLG are a well-rounded team that won't be thrown off by the aggressive meta. They were put into one of the best groups they could have asked for, and their biggest issue with Xmithie missing the tournament has been rectified right before the tournament's start. Everything on paper points to CLG being able to get out of the group and at least make the Top 8 before having to possibly play one of the superpowers in LGD, EDG, or SKT.

North America's champions are skilled, have years of experience throughout the roster, and possess the teamwork to give a fight to even the best teams in the world.

Don't believe in faith or miracles — trust in CLG's maturity and strength.

Tyler "Fionn" Erzberger is a staff writer for theScore eSports. You can follow him on Twitter

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