At Riot-run international events, North America is certainly not king.
With no World Championship finals appearances, no semifinal appearances following the Season 1 World Championship, and four quarterfinals appearances — two of them gifted by seeding in Seasons 2 and 3 — over the years, NA lags behind their international counterparts.
With that said, NA's international woes extend beyond Riot tournaments as the region's trophy case is notoriously vacant outside of their own domestic championships. Team SoloMid’s Season IX IEM World Championship title is perched on a lonely shelf next to the 2013 Battle of the Atlantic title, sparsely surrounded by a few other IEM titles — Season VI Cologne, Season IX San Jose — and more emptiness behind the glass. Just last year, TSM bombed out of the MSI group stages as they only managed to secure only one win against International Wildcard representative Beşiktaş e-Sports Club.
After this past year’s Season X IEM World Championship, Counter Logic Gaming appeared to be continuing this trend. Following a 2-0 week in the 2016 North American League Championship Series Spring Split — including handing Immortals their only loss of the regular season — hopes were high that this NA representative could make a serious run at netting their beleaguered region another IEM World Championship title. CLG were creative and smart, making the most of a few oddball picks, most notably their recent 1-3-1 splitpush with jungler Jake “Xmithie” Puchero’s Udyr. They were a likely semifinals candidate at the least. Instead, CLG showcased uncharacteristically shoddy map play coupled with overly-aggressive dives and a general misuse of Teleports.
Following a disappointing group stage loss to Fnatic, CLG Coach Tony “Zikzlol” Gray was still optimistic, reiterating that IEM Katowice was a learning experience for future international events.
"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," he said after IEM. "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.”
Upon returning to the 2016 NA LCS, CLG had a 1-1 Week 8 that included a funky top lane Yasuo pick for Darshan “Darshan” Upadhyaha, and did little to instill confidence that this team could take even the domestic spring season, especially against the seemingly unstoppable Immortals. CLG’s willingness to try new and unusual picks continued to punish them in their semifinal matchup against Team Liquid, where TL left up AD carry Trevor “Stixxay” Hayes’ pocket Tristana pick in Game 4 and beat CLG anyway. After a grueling 3-2 victory over TL in their semifinal match, CLG headed to Las Vegas to face long time rival TSM.
Again, CLG showcased a penchant for slightly off-meta choices, favoring Caitlyn over the more popular Sivir pick. Tristana, with an initial mid-game focused build around Guinsoo’s Rageblade, made an appearance in their all-important Game 5 against TSM, and Stixxay’s Tristana prowess was a key component of CLG’s eventual victory.
The NA LCS Spring Finals marked an important turning point for CLG, one where the team began to pivot from their overwhelming objective focus which combined their newfound teamfighting success into the mix. One of the more striking facets of this current CLG is their tenacity. They now fight opponents at every turn, often forcing enemies to overcommit when taking objectives from the American side.
CLG wasn’t always this scrappy teamfighting squad. Earlier in the 2016 NA LCS Spring Split, proactive opponents like Immortals and Cloud9 forced CLG into disadvantageous skirmishes early on. Drawn into these teams’ tempo, CLG made more mistakes and seemed to be a team that could only get by on outmaneuvering opponents on the map. Their 1-3-1 splitpush strategy against Immortals stood as a shining example, pigeonholing CLG into the role of methodical masterminds, a reputation that grew during the split and continued through the finals.
Yet, CLG was ever-evolving, with more and more of a teamfighting focus shown in the spring playoffs and finals. Stixxay stepped up, firmly taking over the role of CLG’s primary carry after admitting that he took a serious look at his much-maligned teamfight positioning against TL in their semifinal match. Throughout the season he has been helped by Darshan, Xmithie, and most of all his laning partner, Zaqueri “aphromoo” Black, who provided key crowd control for the AD carry both in and out of fights (which allowed him to tightly position on the backline). As the meta has shifted, CLG have followed, adapting their gameplay accordingly while keeping in mind the strengths and limitations of the individuals on their roster.
Above all else, CLG are a unit of five that understands themselves and how to play optimally to suit their team specifically. The 2016 Mid-Season Invitational group stages saw a CLG that was still fully prepared to pull out weird and creative picks — mid laner Jae “Huhi” Jae-hyun’s Aurelion Sol stands as a creative adaptation to their oft-lack of mid lane control — while simultaneously keeping in mind the objective trading and map movements that had so characterized the team throughout the 2016 NA LCS Spring Split.
|2016 MSI Group Stages||Counter Logic Gaming||MSI Field|
|Combined Kills per Minute||0.83||0.71|
|Gold Difference at 15 Minutes||1120||-224|
|First Turret Rate||90%||42%|
|Jungle Control Rate||48.4%||50.3%|
|Wards Placed per Minute||3.48||3.61|
Compared to the MSI field, CLG has an impressive 90 percent first turret rate, reiterating their objective focus above all else, accompanying a whopping 1120 gold lead at 15 minutes, the best of all teams at the tournament. The rest of the field stands at 42 percent and their upcoming semifinals opponent, Taiwan’s Flash Wolves, are at an even 50 percent. This turret control is even more impressive when considering how few times CLG opted into a lane swap during the group stages, despite their proficiency at them.
This lack of laneswaps has also pitted jungler Xmithie in a 1v1 matchup against his jungle opponent in a race to apply early pressure or powerfarm until the mid game. CLG does lack jungle control compared to their opponents — 48.4 percent against the 50.3 percent average — but Xmithie has made up for this by applying more early pressure than previously shown throughout the NA LCS and crucial teamfight damage as another DPS carry. Xmithie does the second-highest damage to champions per minute at 400 — only 89 behind first-place Kang “Blank” Sun-gu — of any jungler at the tournament. His quick thinking, exemplified in a now viral Lamb’s Respite to keep Dragon alive for the Smite steal, and teamfight positioning has made it difficult for opponents to punish CLG, especially in teamfights.
CLG will have to watch out for Flash Wolves Hung “Karsa” Hauhsuan, who has shown intelligent adjustments in the jungle throughout the tournament. He additionally has tempered his famously aggressive style towards more meta-appropriate pathing that applies pressure counter to his opponent, which is something that CLG will need to be weary of in their semifinals matchup.
The Flash Wolves are another team that have made a name for themselves in knowing their own weaknesses and leveraging their strengths to cover them. AD carry Hsiung “NL” Wenan is a particularly exploitable target for Flash Wolves’ opponents in a similar fashion to the much-maligned Huhi on CLG. Both teams are well-aware of their respective flaws, which is one of the reasons that this matchup is particularly interesting. Neither team has the best lineup on paper, but they make necessary moves to cover their sore spots by working as a unit.
CLG’s adjustments in the group stages bode well for the American side. While Huhi has still shown a penchant for mechanical errors in teamfights, he’s made up for it with strong roams that affect CLG’s side lanes, applying pressure at the least and sometimes netting a kill or objective to accompany his map presence. This has made their lack of mid lane control a non-issue, especially with the smart Aurelion Sol pick, which uses the dragon’s passive movespeed from Comet of Legends to get in and out of side lanes quickly.
Similarly, Flash Wolves are accustomed to NL’s positioning errors — the AD carry has been with the team almost since the organization’s inception, and played with his support, Hu “SwordArt” Shuojie on the Gamania Bears. Flash Wolves are at their best when they place NL on a comfort pick like Ezreal, allowing him to farm safely in lane and subsequently unlocking SwordArt for roams on Alistar or Braum. Unfortunately, Flash Wolves are likely to struggle against CLG, as the American team has shown that they’re well aware of Flash Wolves’ gameplan from Champion Select alone. CLG beat Flash Wolves both times they met in the MSI group stages, banning SwordArt’s Alistar, thereby denying Flash Wolves their primary source of teamfight initiation.
In this battle of two teams that know how to cover their own weaknesses, the matchup comes down to playstyle and how well each team can exploit the other’s weak point. NL is a larger target than Huhi, especially if CLG keeps his partner SwordArt from applying roaming pressure. North America has never made it to the final of a Riot international event, but this likely to change this coming weekend. Using their game knowledge, map play, creativity, and above all, understanding of themselves, CLG look to foray into uncharted territory for North America. Prior to the event, Darshan famously said in a Riot interview that he wants to restore pride to the region, in light of low expectations from the domestic community. CLG did just that in the group stages, and now stand proud with a wealth of home support at their backs.
Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.