Kicking off the 2016 North American League Championship Series Spring, Team SoloMid faced erstwhile rivals Counter Logic Gaming in a headliner game between two of the region’s most beloved brands. In the 2015-16 offseason, Team SoloMid assembled an incredibly talented lineup of players to complement their superstar mid laner Søren “Bjergsen” Bjerg, who had been a beacon of hope, carrying the team through even their darkest of times since 2014.
Their new AD carry Yiliang “Doublelift” Peng was fresh from their longstanding adversary CLG’s curbside. Jungler Dennis “Svenskeren” Johnsen had been seen as the lone bright spot on SK Gaming throughout the 2016 EU LCS Summer Split, while former Fnatic support Bora “YellOwStaR” Kim had led his team to a World Championship semifinals appearance. Lastly, Kevin “Hauntzer” Yarnell was a rising top lane talent whose team fighting had shone at times on Gravity in 2015 NA LCS Summer, in spite of the team’s downward spiral towards the end of the split through the 2015 NA Regional Qualifier.
Loading up onto Summoner’s Rift in Week 1, this new TSM team looked excited as the age-old chant of “T-S-M” echoed through the studio. The game began like the majority of Season 6 games have begun: with a lane swap that results in a mirrored turret push. More often than not, this results in each team taking the two tier-one outer turrets before awkwardly posturing around the mid lane.
This is likely what would have happened, had Team SoloMid received the memo.
Instead, TSM seemed a bit stuck in the past, with Hauntzer’s Mundo following Svenskeren’s Elise through the jungle for a lengthy amount of time. His opponent, Darshan “Darshan” Upadhyaha farmed freely in the bot lane on Jax, while Hauntzer was sent into the top lane at level one with no backup. CLG's collapse onto the defenseless Hauntzer with their top laner, jungler, AD carry, and support, killing him easily before taking the turret. At five minutes, Hauntzer was two levels and 23 creeps behind his opponent, setting him and TSM at a significant early disadvantage.
Practice makes perfect and after a few more games of Hauntzer playing the role of former top laner Marcus “Dyrus” Hill in the early game, TSM managed to learn the standard Season 6 lane swap. As a group of veterans — Hauntzer excluded — one would expect TSM’s collective experience to guide the team picking up on new tactics. Yet, throughout this Spring Split, TSM has struggled in a manner that is not quite indicative of their win-loss record or fourth-place position in the NA LCS. They’re often scattershot or haphazard with their map play, and have been slow to recognize advantages given to them by opponents, instead throwing away leads with overly-aggressive positioning or inattention, even in their wins.
Across their group stage performance at the IEM Season X World Championship at Katowice, the audience was treated to the further evolution of this team. Team SoloMid had the pleasure of playing in the opening match of Katowice against Challengers Korea team ESC Ever. Unfortunately for the North American squad, it was an unmitigated disaster.
Once again, coordination questions arose when TSM failed to understand their own win conditions. Locking in a pick and split push composition around Hauntzer’s Fiora, Svenskeren’s Elise, and Bjergsen’s Lissandra with Doublelift on the scaling Ezreal, TSM pushed out to a large early advantage. At 20 minutes, TSM were up 3-1 in turrets, 10-2 in kills, one dragon and 7K gold. All they had to do was set up a split push with either Bjergsen or Hauntzer —both of whom had taken Teleport — and continue to run ESC Ever around the map, picking off their players in uneven skirmishes if necessary.
Instead, TSM inexplicably committed to fighting ESC Ever 5v5, where Ever’s composition around Nautilus, Twisted Fate and Bard was far more effective. Team SoloMid ended up losing this match to ESC Ever thanks to an unfortunate team fight at Baron. Ever aced TSM and pushed up mid lane to win — until this point they had still only taken one turret the entire match — ending the game at 36:55 with a 6K gold deficit.
This wasn’t the first time that TSM stubbornly stuck to fighting their opponents rather than sending Hauntzer off on his own to push a side lane. Their odd refusal to split and push side waves occurred several more times in their best-of-three against Europe’s Origen, but the wheels were starting to turn. Slowly, but surely, Hauntzer began to separate from the team. In their final game against Origen, TSM won by executing a split push composition with Hauntzer once more on Fiora and Bjergsen on Twisted Fate. Suddenly, in this third game of the series, they were properly spreading Origen across the map. TSM forced Origen to react to their moves and capitalized on Teleport or Destiny/Gate advantages, making picks and securing objectives. In their match against Ever shortly thereafter — their second face-off against the team that day — TSM had the upper hand at almost all points of the game in both of their matches. They punished every mistake made by the Korean challenger squad to earn their place in the semifinals.
"We made a lot of wrong decisions today," Bjergsen admitted in a post-game interview on stream with Eefje "Sjokz" Depoortere following their 2-1 victory over Origen.
"We know what we should be doing and in scrims and sometimes in other games, we are doing the right things, and we know we can do the right thing. It's just about keeping our confidence."
TSM still have internal issues. At times, even in their wins, they barely appeared to be talking to one another, evidenced from both player cameras and their slip-ups on the Rift. It's not clear whether these stem from general play style mismatches, a lack of chemistry, or something else entirely it’s likely that no one will ever know outside of the team themselves.
However, their group performance at IEM Katowice proved that repetition is still a powerful teacher, especially when lessons are put into practice immediately. More importantly, the players of Team SoloMid are still more than willing to learn.
Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore eSports. You can follow her on Twitter.