Beleaguered by a vocal subsection of the North American fanbase even after their 2016 North American League Championship Series Spring Finals victory over Team SoloMid, Counter Logic Gaming remains the region’s most intriguing riddle.
On paper, they win little when compared to other domestic lineups. In 1v1 comparisons that so permeate team analysis and previews, CLG’s individuals are all-too-often found lacking to their closest counterparts. If the scriptwriter behind the NA LCS scenes was adhering to the popular narrative of the fan community, the famously celebrated 2016 Spring roster of TSM would have rose from their sixth-place regular season finish to take back their title from upstart CLG. Their coup de grace would have been doing so with CLG’s once-eponymous Yiliang “Doublelift” Peng, now the starting AD carry for rival TSM.
With deft notations in the script’s margins, CLG rewrote this narrative with Trevor “Stixxay” Hayes as the rookie protagonist, veteran support Zaqueri “aphromoo” Black by his side. Coordination and communication had been CLG’s greatest strengths throughout the regular season and they drew from these wellsprings once more to topple TSM — a squad that had leveraged their time in the playoffs en route to finally discovering their team identity.
In short, CLG won as a team. However, ascribing the dubious moniker of “friendship team” or a team powered by its members all getting along doesn’t do justice to the strides they’ve made on the Rift as a unit.
Chronicling CLG’s rise throughout the season and inherent strengths begins with veteran jungler Jake “Xmithie” Puchero. Widely criticized as CLG’s weakest link throughout last year and during the team’s 2015 World Championship group stages, Xmithie’s journey this 2016 season has gone hand-in-hand with how CLG has adapted to various meta shifts. Largely unnoticeable in the first quarter of the season, Xmithie spent the majority of his time on Rek’Sai and Elise showing up to skirmishes in the mid game with little to no early game ganking presence.
Drawing opponents’ attention was top laner Darshan “Darshan” Upadhyaha, who made it abundantly clear as early as IEM Season X San Jose in November that he was raring to take over the primary carry duties of the team after Doublelift’s departure, while Stixxay grew into his new position. With less focus on laning than other NA teams, CLG moved their adversaries around the map in pursuit of objectives. Their attention to detail often resulted in a plodding pace where they failed to recognize their own win conditions and dragged the game out unnecessarily. Teams willing to take more risks, namely Cloud9 and Immortals, easily capitalized on this until Week 7, when CLG handed the then-undefeated Immortals their first loss and beat Cloud9.
Winds of change for CLG were apparent in Week 6, with Xmithie picking up Nidalee against Team Impulse. Using her as a powerfarming answer to Kim “Procxin” Se-young’s Nocturne, Xmithie accrued a significant early CS advantage. This was well-timed with Stixxay’s first powerspike on Corki and mid laner Choi “Huhi” Jae-hyun’s initial burst from LeBlanc. Xmithie ended the game with a 5/0/8 statline, 93 percent kill participation, and 69 CS ahead of Procxin. Aiding Xmithie through the early game was aphromoo, who joined up with his jungler following the initial mirrored laneswap to place vision and farm the enemy jungle.
In Week 7, Xmithie and his Udyr pick became the cornerstone of CLG’s victory over Immortals, setting up an unstoppable 1-3-1 split-push with Xmithie in one lane and Darshan’s Fiora in another. Early and aggressive moves against Kim “Reignover” Yeu-jin and Heo “Huni” Seung-hoon shut down Immortals’ early two-pronged attack between jungler and carry top laner. Xmithie’s Udyr became an unkillable monster, complemented by extra minion control from a Zz’Rot Portal pickup and key Smite steals.
Again, this was all made possible by aphromoo’s early aggression, disrupting Immortals’ early jungle paths and pressure. With Stixxay coming into his own as a relatively safe laner who could be left to his own devices without worry, aphromoo opened up the map for Xmithie and CLG. CLG continued to build on their foundation of aphromoo and Xmithie, who laid the groundwork for CLG’s stifling objective and jungle control.
More recently in Game 5 of the 2016 NA LCS Finals, Xmithie’s early actions showcased just how far CLG has come in understanding and trusting each other as a unit. Champion select saw Elise locked in for Xmithie against Dennis “Svenskeren” Johnsen’s Kindred, and a last-rotation blue side Tristana pick for Stixxay.
CLG’s use of Guinsoo’s Rageblade Tristana had been touched upon in their semifinals series against Team Liquid, but CLG were unable to capitalize on the pick thanks to Joshua “Dardoch” Hartnett’s early pressure on Rek’Sai. Recognizing that Stixxay would immediately require attention to snowball, Xmithie pathed from red buff to blue buff before appearing in the top lane. Following a Flash Pulverize Headbutt combination from aphromoo’s Alistar, Xmithie was there to chain CC with Elise’s Cocoon, netting Stixxay First Blood.
This was the beginning of his early-to-mid game spike with Guinsoo’s Rageblade, before selling it late game after its efficiency had expired. Xmithie and aphromoo facilitated Stixxay, and the young AD carry duly repaid them later in the game by cleaning up teamfights en route to CLG’s second NA LCS title.
To say that aphromoo has been the backbone of CLG almost does the support a disservice. This past year, aphromoo has mentored the rookie Stixxay as well as playing a pivotal role in CLG’s early game and Xmithie’s jungle renaissance. As Stixxay improved, aphromoo was free to move around the map more frequently, disrupting opponents’ jungle routes or ganking lanes himself while Xmithie farmed. Mid lane has been a point of contention for CLG, with Huhi bearing the brunt of criticism levied at the team for occasional poor performances and lack of mid control in comparison to his domestic counterparts. One of the more important roles that an aphromoo roam has for CLG is taking pressure off of Huhi while ensuring that the map doesn’t collapse inwardly so both mid and jungle can farm.
Mid lane is a big focus when it comes to predicting how well CLG will do against their international opponents at MSI. The role of a mid laner in keeping the wave pushed up, particularly in light of the current metagame’s high-farm DPS jungle picks, is paramount to winning mid-game teamfights for all-important objective trading. If aphromoo is kept in lane, more stress will be put on Huhi to keep pace with superior adversaries like SK Telecom T1’s Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok, Flash Wolves’ Huang “Maple” Yitang, G2 Esports’ Luka "PerkZ" Perković and Royal Never Give Up’s Li “xiaohu” Yuanhao.
Comparing any of CLG’s members to opponents on paper has thus far proven fruitless — as mentioned previously, they don’t even win their own region in this exercise — but when it comes to mid lane dominion specifically, it’s difficult to imagine Huhi seizing minion control from this talented group. Freeing up aphromoo early so he can apply additional map pressure and take attention away from both Huhi and Xmithie will likely be a top priority for CLG. Opening up the map will be an essential CLG win condition, as their 5v5 teamfights also leave much to be desired, but their understanding of how to trade objectives is relatively strong.
As for their international appearances within the past competitive season, CLG put on a surprisingly admirable performance during Stixxay and Huhi’s debut with the team at IEM San Jose earlier this year, in spite of losing 0-3 in the finals to Origen. Coming off of their NA LCS Week 7 2-0 over Immortals and Cloud9, CLG’s next international showing at the Season X IEM World Championship in Katowice, was disappointing to say the least.
Squandering multiple early game leads against Fnatic in the Group B loser’s bracket, CLG failed to make it out of the group stages. Their misuse of global Teleports and ultimates in addition to choosing disadvantageous mid and late-game teamfights ultimately led to their ruin. In order to disprove NA’s much-maligned position in comparison to other regions and make any sort of run at MSI, CLG will need to be at their very best in every match — eschewing what are widely considered to be weak individual performances in pursuit of a greater whole.
Following their hard-fought 3-2 victory over TSM in the 2016 NA LCS Spring Finals, CLG are not a favorite to win MSI. They’re not even a favorite to make it to the playoff bracket in the court of public opinion, especially with a metagame favoring teams like G2 and Flash Wolves. This likely bothers CLG very little — upending others’ expectations has become a standard in their careers — but the road will be difficult, requiring every ounce of the discipline and synergy that has become synonymous with their NA LCS run.