“Win Everything” is not only the the motto that Counter Logic Gaming has used for most of 2016 or the slogan perched above the flatscreen TV that they use to go over replays. It's become their reality.
After a disappointing showing at IEM Katowice, CLG’s wins continued to mount despite doubts that this group of individuals could win North America, let alone be competitive on the international stage. Now, following their 3-1 victory over Taiwan’s Flash Wolves, CLG have become the first North American team to make it to the finals of a Riot-run international tournament.
No stranger to landmark victories, CLG's latest iteration managed to find success in the preseason, clinching North America’s first win over a Korean team in a best-of series after beating the Jin Air Green Wings at IEM San Jose in November. Six month later, they’ve managed to take a game off of SK Telecom T1 at MSI, something that their North American brethren were unable to achieve.
With that said, there’s a significant difference between beating the Jin Air Green Wings in a best-of-three series and beating SK Telecom T1 in a best-of-five. There’s an even greater difference between beating SK Telecom T1 in a best-of-one series and beating them in a best-of-five. CLG’s motto may be “Win everything” accompanied by “Respect all, fear none” — the latter of which can be overheard as final words from Coach Zikz before he walks offstage after Champion Select — but now they'll face off against a team that does little else but win competitions, both domestically and internationally.
CLG's offseason was greeted with a large amount of doubt and a small fan exodus that followed superstar AD carry Yiliang “Doublelift” Peng to rival organization Team SoloMid. This was after a widely disappointing 2015 World Championship appearance that saw CLG, along with fellow NA squads TSM and Cloud9, fail to make it out of the group stage. Losing Doublelift appeared to be a decision synonymous with their brand's name, and his replacement, former CLG Black AD carry Trevor “Stixxay” Hayes, was viewed as a downgrade. Mid laner Choi “Huhi” Jae-hyun was seen as less reliable than his 2015 counterpart, Eugene “Pobelter” Park, who left the team to join Immortals after CLG announced that Huhi would be their starting mid laner going forward.
Pobelter’s decision looked like a particularly sage one following Immortals’ 17-1 regular-season run through 2016 NA LCS Spring Split. Despite the fact that CLG was the only team to topple Immortals in the regular season, they were still unlikely finals victors, with Immortals predicted to similarly dominate the playoffs regardless of who they faced. Yet Immortals fell to a rising TSM, who went on to meet CLG in the 2016 NA LCS Spring Split Finals. Against the odds, CLG came together as a team and stayed true to their motto.
By contrast, SK Telecom T1 rode high into League of Legends Champions Korea Spring 2016 as reigning world champions, reigning domestic champions, and with only one substantial roster change in the top lane —losing mid laner Lee “Easyhoon” Ji-hoon mattered little with Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok back in the driver's seat. Top laner Lee “Duke” Ho-seong came to SKT after an impressive 2015 season spent dragging NaJin e-mFire as far as he could alongside AD carry Oh “Ohq” Gyu-min. While the loss of Jang “MaRin” Gyeong-hwan to LGD Gaming was mourned by SKT fans, Duke was seen as a suitable replacement and veteran jungler Bae “bengi” Seong-woong was fresh off of another career year. SKT’s strong infrastructure and leadership was expected to help Duke bring into the fold en route to another LCK championship.
A changing jungle meta left SKT scrambling to find additional champion picks for bengi to execute his trademark vision net rather than becoming more of a duelist or DPS carry in teamfights. Duke, never one for many words, didn’t talk nearly as much as MaRin, and this showed in obvious communication errors along with poorly-timed Teleports. SKT began to rely on late-game teamfights and the prowess of their AD carry Bae “Bang” Jun-sik, with Faker leading the way through the control of his lane early and crowd control in teamfights late.
Eventually, SKT settled on starting Kang “Blank” Sun-gu throughout their undefeated run at IEM Katowice. The team continued to struggle in the beginning of LCK Spring 2016's second round robin, but used their IEM performance as a springboard, improving throughout the remainder of the split, playoffs, and finally a somewhat unanticipated finals victory over regular season kings ROX Tigers.
The narratives for both of these teams going into MSI couldn’t have been more different. Pegged as another NA team that will fall at the hands of their international counterparts, very little was expected of CLG. SKT was expected to win the entire tournament, possibly without dropping a game, especially following their 2-0 Day 1 start. Yet SKT stumbled in the group stages while CLG soared. Having righted themselves against China’s Royal Never Give Up in their Friday semifinal, SKT are now on the precipice of capturing the only international title they don’t yet own, with pesky upstart CLG standing in their way.
Ranged Supports with Wolf and aphromoo
One of the more curious storylines at this year's MSI has been the rise of ranged supports. These supports were routinely used by Immortals throughout the 2016 North American League Championship Series Spring, and spread to teams like Team Liquid and CLG in the waning games of the spring split and throughout the playoffs.
Flash Wolves attempted to try out ranged supports against CLG and failed miserably in all but one of their games. Support Hu “SwordArt” Shuojie is the Flash Wolves’ primary initiator and placing him on the likes of Soraka and Karma visibly hurt the Taiwanese side’s teamfights and skirmishes. In their one Game 2 win over CLG, SwordArt was able to roam more effectively thanks to an Ezreal pickup for AD carry Hsiung “NL” Wenan — the one champion on which NL can be self-sufficient.
CLG replied with a Sona pickup in Games 3 and 4 — a direct response to SwordArt’s Karma. Even with early leads from the Flash Wolves in both matches, CLG clawed their way back thanks to the Flash Wolves’ penchant for fighting at disadvantageous times with a lack of vision. The star of these games was aphromoo, who stymied Flash Wolves with Crescendo, often confusing the Taiwanese team and nullifying jungler Hung “Karsa” Hauhsuan’s Lamb’s Respites.
SKT will not play this game. Wolf has shown that he can be effective on ranged supports, specifically because his team does not rely on him to be their primary initiator. While SKT has, at times, struggled with vision placement — compared to previous iterations of the team and other Korean squads — they will not make the same mistakes that Flash Wolves did, such as over-aggressing with little to no vision of their opponents. Furthermore, Bang is a stronger AD carry than NL, with vastly superior decision-making, positioning, and champion pool. While ranged supports are still likely to be contested in this series, SKT will give aphromoo far fewer opportunities than Flash Wolves, simply by making fewer mistakes.
When pressed in a Riot broadcast interview about CLG’s “Respect all, fear none” philosophy SKT coach Kim “kkOma” Jung-gyun had this to say:
"I don't think we instilled that fear through yesterday's game," he said. "But if they do a best of finals and we play against them tomorrow, I will let them experience that fear through their whole body and mind tomorrow at the game."
The name SK Telecom T1 is enough to strike fear into the hearts of many teams. Even when they’re not at their best, SKT has proven that they can stall games out, relying on late-game teamfighting from Faker and Bang. CLG win through intimate knowledge of their own team’s strengths and weaknesses. This is something that SKT cannot take away from CLG, and keeps CLG grounded, without fearing their opponents. Yet, SKT in a best of five will not give CLG the same amount of mistakes as other teams, and even they themselves in a best of one, did. Furthermore, they will punish CLG’s mistakes immediately and decisively, giving the North American side fewer openings.
If CLG, against all odds, manages to knock off SKT, it would be an unprecedented victory for North America on top of a year of similar, smaller feats for the NA squad. However, it will be difficult for CLG to win everything now that they’re up against SKT. All they do is win.
Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore esports. She is picking SK Telecom T1 to win the 2016 MSI Final. You can follow her on Twitter.