Emily Rand's NA LCS Finals Preview: Forgoing the Script

by theScore Staff Apr 14 2016
Thumbnail image courtesy of Riot Games/lolesports / NA LCS Spring 2016 / Riot Games

The word “scripted” has been tossed around community circles with a wink and a smirk prior to the upcoming North American League Championship Series Final. Counter Logic Gaming and Team SoloMid are two organizations essential to the growth of League of Legends within North America, rising alongside the game’s burgeoning popularity in its infancy as an esport in 2011 and 2012.

These teams’ rich histories coupled with their own rivalry since before the LCS era are a goldmine for storylines and resonant narratives, especially when considering the 2015-16 offseason.

Yiliang “Doublelift” Peng, the face of the CLG franchise who was unceremoniously dumped by the brand synonymous with his name, now takes on his former team in the colors of their erstwhile rival, TSM.

Eager to prove that their squad doesn’t need Doublelift to be successful — in fact, quite the opposite — CLG also looks to validate their style of team building this year over TSM’s assembly of stars. Counter Logic Gaming is the only other team besides TSM and Cloud9 to win an NA championship. As reigning champions, the title is now theirs to lose.

Yet, in spite of the readily-available storylines for their upcoming finals clash, across 2016 NA LCS Spring, neither team followed the script given to them by the prevailing atmosphere of the offseason. Eschewing what was expected, here are their separate paths to their finals reunion.

Counter Logic Gaming

The initial community reaction in the 2015-16 offseason and the start of the 2016 NA LCS Spring Split was not kind to CLG. Trevor “Stixxay” Hayes was seen as a significant downgrade to Doublelift, and many questioned the team’s judgement. Fans left the organization in droves, as LoL fans are more wont to follow their favorite players over a specific team or brand.

CLG also lost mid laner Eugene “Pobelter” Park, who immediately began lighting up the region with his new team, Immortals. Questions arose around new mid laner Choi “Huhi” Jae-hyun, especially after CLG’s second-place finish at IEM San Jose. Even in their wins against the Jin Air Green Wings and Unicorns of Love, Huhi occasionally looked out of place, and made noticeable mechanical errors. There were further questions about his champion pool, especially when he brought out Kindred in the mid lane. Top laner Darshan “Darshan” Upadhyaha stole the show, and this led to commentary that CLG was too one-dimensional and top-lane focused.

This particular criticism of CLG only grew as the season wore on, in spite of their relative success. With an initial 6-4 record in their first five weeks, it looked like the star-studded roster of TSM had finally clicked, C9’s magic had returned with their shotcaller support Hai “Hai” Lam and Immortals were running the table. CLG was presumably to drop or hover at about fourth place, especially given the lingering narrative that their roster on paper was subpar to many of the other NA LCS squads.

If Season 5 taught teams anything regarding the game's direction, it’s that synergy and communication are paramount to success. Huhi’s mechanical misplays or Stixxay’s presumed inferiority to Doublelift mattered little when the team could be at the right place at the right time when it mattered. Where the rosters of TSM and NRG eSports continued to struggle, CLG rose significantly. They adapted, they worked together, and they became the first team to hand then-undefeated Immortals their first loss on the back of remarkable support-jungle synergy from Jake “Xmithie” Puchero and Zaqueri “aphromoo” Black.

One of the greatest boons to CLG this split is that they were actually punished by a few of their NA counterparts in addition to international opposition at the Season X IEM World Championship in Katowice. Occasionally bringing out wonky picks like a top lane Yasuo for Darshan against Team Liquid in Week 8, they were duly put in their place. With a strong understanding of how objectives are traded, and enough synergy to communicate where to be on the map, CLG took these losses and became stronger for them — unlike Immortals, who were dismissed by TSM last week in the semifinals for failing to do this exact thing. In their own semifinals match against TL, CLG again adjusted and adapted throughout the series. Coupled with their team’s natural creativity and understanding of how the game is played, the NA title is theirs to lose.

Team SoloMid

It’s not often that TSM is an underdog. Naturally, underdog is relative in this context — TSM are still favored due to their talent on paper — but typically when TSM is in a final, they are either favored or at least have a better regular season record under their belts. The tables have turned a bit for their upcoming showdown against CLG. This time, CLG are the reigning champions and TSM look to knock the crown off of their heads. It’s not a position that TSM are used to, and they come off of their worst regular season record in franchise history.

The paper perfect roster gathered in the 2015-16 offseason was a TSM fan’s dream. Centered around mid laner Søren “Bjergsen” Bjerg, the team acquired AD carry Doublelift, lauded former Fnatic support and in-game leader Bora “YellOwStaR” Kim, former SK Gaming jungler Denis “Svenskeren” Johnsen, and up and coming former Gravity top laner Kevin “Hauntzer” Yarnell. This same roster failed to click during the regular season, wholly lacking any sort of identity or organization.

At IEM Katowice, TSM showed that they could adapt, but their evolution was severely hampered by obvious communication issues. Their laneswap was still atrocious, and while the individuals on the team knew what to do, they were rarely on the same page, especially come mid-to-late game. The late game in particular was where TSM would gift opponents wins by failing to recognize their own win conditions. ESC Ever’s comeback group stage victory will forever remain the most egregious example of this, but as late as the final week of regular season play, TSM was still lost in the late game, allowing opponents to win in spite of seemingly insurmountable leads.

This all changed in the playoffs, first against Cloud9 and then against Immortals. Even when Immortals jumped out to a large lead in the early game, TSM were able to fight their way back in thanks to Hauntzer’s Maokai and the overall squishiness of Immortals’ three team compositions. In both of their series, TSM not only showcased a superior understanding of the current meta, but they finally found an identity with Svenskeren and Bjergsen forming a two-pronged attack and Doublelift playing a more sustained damage or cleanup role. One of the more noticeable statistics surrounding TSM’s rise through the playoffs has been their redistribution of resources away from Doublelift and towards Svenskeren. In a meta that favors carry junglers like Graves and Nidalee, this suits Svenskeren perfectly.

Last week against Immortals, Hauntzer showed off his engage timing on Maokai, leading the his team to victory in two of their three wins. The flashier option of Ekko will presumably be prioritized by CLG for Darshan, but Hauntzer’s initiation prowess should not be underestimated. On Maokai, he becomes unkillable early on, and is easily able to guide TSM’s fights so Svenskeren, Bjergsen, and Doublelift can clean up. Maokai has also run rampant through recent LPL and LCK matches in China and Korea, making the Twisted Treant a likely top priority pick.

Speaking of specific picks, CLG brought Rageblade Tristana to the table against TL in a loss after TL banned Trist three games in a row. This year’s CLG team has not shied away from occasionally taking an odd pick here or there if they feel like it suits them. In spite of the loss against TL, they're a team that may continue to explore slightly oddball picks to take TSM by surprise.

Stripping away the all-too-easy narratives, these are two squads that have changed, learned, and transformed throughout the season, making this a finals a must-watch. Where CLG was presumed inferior on paper, they've elevated their team dynamic to new heights. First it was the 4-1 split push from Darshan in the top lane, which evolved into a 1-3-1 on the back of Xmithie and early plays from aphromoo that transformed him into a mid and late game monster. This past weekend had highlight performances from Stixxay, who has grown considerably into his position. CLG has a myriad of ways to attack TSM and a creative streak to boot.

Meanwhile, TSM has used the NA LCS playoffs better than any other team in the region, becoming more comfortable in their own skin by the game. In shifting focus back to Bjergsen, and donating more resources to Svenskeren in the jungle, they may not have become the team that they were expected to be. But, now that they're firing on all cylinders, they're a team capable of wresting the NA crown back into TSM's hands.

Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.