Late 2015 already seems a lifetime away with how quickly League of Legends esports moves. One minute, a team is berated by the general public for releasing their star AD carry, the next they’re second place in their region and looking stronger by the week.
Counter Logic Gaming was not expected to go far at IEM Season X San Jose, especially without Yiliang “Doublelift” Peng. Yet the team and new AD carry Trevor “Stixxay” Hayes made it to the tournament finals with successive 2-0 sweeps of the Unicorns of Love and the Jin Air Green Wings. They dropped 0-3 to Origen in the finals, but it was a strong start for a team that many perceived at a net loss following the offseason. San Jose also marked a new look for CLG as resources naturally flowed to top laner Darshan “Darshan” Upadhyaha’s split pushing duelists, rather than being funneled into their AD carry.
Unlike San Jose, CLG entered the IEM Season X World Championship in Katowice with far higher expectations. While North America’s second-place team was not expected to win the tournament, they were thought of by many as a certain semifinalist or finalist due to recent domestic victories which included handing the formerly undefeated Immortals their first loss of the 2016 Spring Split.
“In our preparation for the two hardest matches we'd likely have all season, we finally unlocked one of the major mindset issues that were keeping us from being a disciplined team,” CLG Coach Tony “Zikzlol” Gray said of his team’s recent domestic success.
“Our recent success comes primarily from disciplined teamwork and communication. Everyone has an understanding of their role and what they need to do within the game to give the team the best chance of winning regardless of what people may think of their individual performances.”
The blueprint of the playstyle they showed at San Jose evolved from a 4-1 setup into a coordinated 1-3-1 map effort. In more recent 2016 North American League Championship Series Spring games against Immortals and Cloud9, Jake “Xmithie” Puchero has taken center stage on Udyr. This setup plays to CLG’s strengths while covering up their weaknesses in 5v5 teamfighting, spreading out their opponents into smaller, more manageable skirmishes. With Darshan in one lane, and Xmithie in the other, the rest of the team sieges the third remaining lane.
“Xmithie has consistently been a strong team player for a very long time usually lending himself to more engage champions and selflessness, but recently we've seen a change in meta with aggressive junglers coming out stronger,” Zikzlol said. “Therefore, we wanted to push him to play less team-oriented jungles and play selfishly until we find a nice balance between lane prioritization and selfishness and he's been killing it.”
The CLG jungler has recently received a larger amount of CLG’s gold share, fifth of all NA starting junglers at 19 percent. At IEM Katowice, Xmithie received the largest portion of any jungler at the event with 19.7 percent of his team’s gold. Even with CLG’s losses, Xmithie had the highest gold lead at 10 minutes (386) and averaged the highest cs per minute (4.7) of any jungler at Katowice. Combined with CLG’s average lead of 1,534 gold at 15 minutes, the highest of all teams at the tournament, the team obviously had the early game in hand for the majority of their matches.
CLG’s first game against Fnatic in the loser’s bracket best of three went smoothly. Xmithie once again locked in Udyr, and CLG split Fnatic up with Xmithie’s Zz’Rot Portal Udyr and Darshan’s Vladimir continuously pushing side waves slowly taking over Fnatic’s side of the map. The next game also seemed well in hand for CLG. Mid laner Choi “Huhi” Jae-hyun took Pantheon to the Rift, and once again CLG amassed an early lead through their use of global pressure.
But CLG made a series of overly-aggressive moves, including itchy trigger fingers on their Teleports and global ultimates. The mistakes eventually gave Fnatic multiple opportunities to crawl their way to victory on the back of AD carry Martin “Rekkles” Larsson’s Jhin.
Following their Week 7 NA LCS win over Immortals, Darshan joked around in the broadcast interview that, while they were still a bit over excited, or “hyphy,” the team was able to focus when necessary. It was this excitable nature that was their eventual downfall at the IEM World Championship. Earlier this spring, CLG was rightfully criticized for not recognizing when they could wholly press their lead in the NA LCS — either by playing the game out too slowly or handing their pressure advantages over to opponents in inopportune fights. The latter became CLG’s achilles’ heel once more at IEM Katowice.
“Adding that little bit of discipline to our game play helped make our play more clean overall,” Zikzlol said, comparing their domestic performances to IEM. “Yet we had very little time after unlocking the concept so we had issues replicating it in our IEM matches.” He added that he still believes that his team was poised for the IEM Katowice finals, in spite of contrary results.
Counter Logic Gaming faltered at the IEM World Championship, falling 1-2 to Fnatic in the Group B loser’s bracket and failing to qualify for the playoffs. Their gameplan was strong, showcasing the team’s much-touted knowledge of the map that had made them a potential favorite, but their inability to play a bit more patiently eventually cost them their chance to play for the IEM championship. Now the North American team returns to their home soil to regroup for the final two weeks of the 2016 NA LCS Spring Split. They'll enter this week with lessons learned from IEM at their disposal — having failed to meet their own and their fans’ expectations.
"Without going too into detail on specifics, we learned about international travel's harsh effects if not properly approached, how to prepare ideally for best-of matches and endurance testing days, and what we feel will be important to focus on in the coming days looking toward our last two weeks in the NA LCS before playoffs,” their coach, Zikzlol said.
“We are happy that we were able to experience all of these issues because we can better understand our approach to playing to perform for future international tournaments and how to best adapt.” As for the team’s outlook moving forward, their ultimate goal is simply to win.
"Our goal since three weeks ago has been to ‘win everything,’” Zikzlol said. “It's actually on a big black board above the television we use for replays to remind everyone what we are working toward and everyone understands how much work they must do to achieve that goal. Therefore: we're looking to beat the last four teams in the regular season, then 6-0 playoffs.”
Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.