My mindset heading into IEM San Jose was to take everything I saw with a grain of salt. Out of the six teams entering the two-day competition, only Origen had a strong end to 2015 and fielded a roster that knew how to play with one another. OG's only swap was in the mid lane between Xpeke and their new signing PowerOfEvil. The one squad with a stable roster, LGD Gaming, are possibly the one in most need of a facelift, as the Chinese champions fell apart at the 2015 World Championships and continued their stagnant play in San Jose.
However, the main narrative of the tournament wasn't the world class European Worlds semifinalists with their new star mid laner or the crumbling Chinese super team that was expected to compete for this year's Summoner's Cup. With the offseason drama surrounding CLG, TSM and Doublelift, all eyes were on the two North American rivals. While TSM entered the tournament with a new roster that was headlined by a trio of carries, CLG came to San Jose with a questionable roster that didn't have nearly as much hype as their long-time rival. Instead of splurging on a flashy Korean or an established star, CLG replaced their former ace with Stixxay, and Huhi took over for the departing Pobelter in the mid lane.
Back in August, Counter Logic were in complete control of North America's most famed eSports rivalry. They had finally conquered their postseason curse and defeated their arch-nemesis in the NA LCS Grand Finals, sweeping them in a one-sided series. Come Worlds, neither team impressed. CLG traveled to Europe as a possible Top 8 contender, but failed to make it out of a favorable group stage. Meanwhile, TSM only managed to pick up a single win in a difficult Group D. Now, in the middle of the offseason, it appeared that TSM had once again gained the upper hand in the longstanding conflict with their new star-studded lineup.
While that might be the case in the future, this weekend proved that both teams have their fair share of growing pains to go through if either want to compete with the game's elite.
Follow the Leader
Before TSM fans start opening up eSportspedia to look for obscure Koreans that their team can import to improve their roster, I implore them to take a deep breath and go for a walk. Against LGD Gaming, TSM's new starting five showed a glimpse of what they currently possess: a lot of mechanical skill. When it comes to skirmishes and making plays, this is the best team that Team SoloMid has ever put together. Bjergsen can play as many utility champions in the mid lane as his heart desires, playing in-between an aggressive early-game jungler, Svenskeren, and Doublelift, an ADC that has traditionally been the ace on his squads.
Against LGD, a team that needs a new coach as well as other changes to their roster, TSM played like a group that could challenge the world. The lack of strong shot calling and team synergy didn't prevent TSM from succeeding on Saturday because LGD is in the exact same place — they have a lot of talent on their roster but lack shot calling. So when SoloMid did make mistakes and played loosely around objectives, LGD was unable to make them pay. When it was all said and done, TSM won a sloppy 2-0 series between two squads that didn't have the shot calling necessary to challenge the best teams in the world.
Luckily for TSM and their fans, they've only played together for less than a week. LGD, though, have been together for a year now and are playing below the level they should be at. LGD don't have the excuse of being a team that is coming together for the first time. TSM shouldn't have a knee-jerk reaction from their semifinal blowout loss to Worlds semifinalists Origen, but LGD, after failing at Worlds and falling face first at IEM San Jose, should be looking to make some changes to their roster and, most importantly, get a coach that can get them back on track.
The communication will come.
The teamfighting prowess will follow.
The synergy will take time to forge.
The new coach and support staff will help them improve.
What TSM need to focus on now is a voice they can trust in the late-game. Bjergsen was the main shot caller for the team last year, and that's where TSM failed in the World Championships as they did well up until the mid-game when indecisive object control spiraled out of control. Bjergsen is TSM's ace. He's an MVP, one of the best mechanical mid laners in the world, and is one of the west's best player. While it would be great to see him come into his own as an in-game leader, it would be easier if TSM could find another shot caller on the team that would allow Bjergsen to do what he does best: win games with his technical skill and playmaking ability.
In the coming months before the NA LCS spring season kicks off, it'll be TSM's job to find the leader in their lineup. kaSing, who said he would decide if he stays with the team after San Jose, is likely the best candidate to take the reins as the squad's in-game leader. Although the tournament didn't have a fairy tale ending for kaSing, he still played well for a support linking up with his new starting AD Carry for the first time and playing with three other new teammates. If he doesn't stay and TSM are forced to look elsewhere for a new support, then getting a confident, experienced shot caller should be their top priority.
Neo TSM have the raw technique to be one of the best teams in the western region. All they need now is a voice that can lead them there.
The Darshan Show
Similarly to TSM, CLG's run in the tournament started the same way against teams that clearly lacked shot calling. The Unicorns of Love and the Jin Air Green Wings were both deploying rebuilt rosters of their own. The Unicorns, who lost their best player, PowerOfEvil, to Origen, replaced him with former SK Gaming mid laner Fox, and made changes in the jungle and support roles. Jin Air were also a team that have been constantly tinkering with their lineup, playing inexperienced rookies in their solo lane positions in SoHwan and Kuzan.
The first two matches for CLG in the tournament should henceforth be known as the Darshan Show. Changing his ID from "ZionSpartan" to his real life first name, it was clear that Darshan was CLG's new ace. Whenever CLG needed someone to make a big play or take over the game, Darshan would carry on a champion like Riven or Jax. In his highlight game of the competition, Darshan stunned Korea's Green Wings by pulling off a backdoor play on Jax that saw him destroy Jin Air's Nexus before they could recall in time to stop him.
Stixxay fit in perfectly as CLG's new AD Carry, supplementing Darshan by cleaning up any stragglers that his top lane companion couldn't get to. Aphromoo led the team as he did in the summer season with clean rotations against the disjointed Unicorns and Jin Air Green Wings, trading kills for objectives and gaining control over the Baron area consistently to grab that all-powerful buff.
It wasn't until they faced off against Origen in the finals where they found themselves out of their depth. OG is one of the best shot calling teams in the scene and a Worlds semifinalist. PowerOfEvil can be considered a mechanical upgrade over Xpeke, and while it'll take time for him to get a feel for all of his new teammates, his aggressive play and natural skill was enough to make him shine at the event. CLG couldn't keep up with one of the game's best and fell in three straight games, sending them out of the tournament knowing that they need more months of practice and league play to even have a shot to get to Origen's current level.
Darshan has grown over the past four years of playing professional League. Huhi, who had a rocky tournament, will need to get better in the mid lane if CLG wants to go far in the spring split against cash-infused competitors like NRG and improved old challengers like C9. For his first tournament, Stixxay did well and should get the chance to play more games for CLG in the spring split to solidify his starting spot. All together, CLG's disappointing offseason could turn out to be the best thing that happened to the organization if they can come together with Zikzlol as their coach.
Watch out, Los Angeles. The Darshan Show is coming to your studio this spring.
Tyler "Fionn" Erzberger is a staff writer for theScore eSports who covers the North American LCS and Korea's Champions. You can follow him on Twitter.