“Coming into the international tournament we definitely learned a lot. Being able to play against all the teams and making it all the way to the finals we have a lot of knowledge that we can use for our play. Going into NA LCS I think that NA as a region will do a lot better at Worlds this time around.”
Counter Logic Gaming support Zaqueri “aphromoo” Black, MSI broadcast interview.
There’s a memetic saying repeated by Counter Logic Gaming fans that goes, “Win X to give the fans false hope.” This phrase can apply to the first game of a best-of series, a strong start in the regular season, a strong finish in the regular season prior to playoffs, a successful playoff run, or even an unexpected second-place finish at the 2016 Mid-Season Invitational. Regardless of how well CLG performs, their greatest accomplishments are leveraged as a means of giving false hope to their savvy and self-deprecating fanbase that's been conditioned to see CLG falter at the finish line.
Counter Logic Gaming have made a name for themselves through defying the expectations of others, regardless of how high or low they are. Their recent run at the 2016 Mid-Season Invitational set high expectations for CLG in the 2016 North American League Championship Series Summer. They’ve thoroughly defied these with a shocking 1-3 series record.
Next to nothing was expected of the 2016 NA LCS Spring champions at this year's MSI, which is in stark contrast to their 2015 counterparts: then-IEM champions Team SoloMid. Last year saw TSM fall gracelessly in MSI's group stages while Europe’s Fnatic rose above initial assumptions and established Europe as a stronger region in the League of Legends community’s collective mind. This year, Europe’s G2 Esports faltered in similar fashion, as they looked flat and behind their more creative international counterparts. Prior to the tournament, CLG were expected to finish outside of the top four, furthering NA’s role as a perpetually-defeated warrior.
Even after CLG's eventual loss to SKT in the 2016 MSI Finals, they remained positive. Spurning SKT coach Kim “kkOma” Jung-gyun, who stated that he would make CLG feel fear in both body and mind, the NA squad was overwhelmingly proud of what they had accomplished despite the finals loss.
“Playing against SKT definitely was pretty amazing,” aphromoo said on broadcast following their MSI Finals defeat. “I’m not that sad coming out with the 0-3 loss. I thought we played pretty well but our execution just wasn’t really there and we know what we need to work on coming into next split.”
The general feeling from CLG was that they had learned a great deal from their international experiences, and were ready to apply those lessons to the upcoming LCS split. While their MSI performance did wonders for NA’s stock as a region, expectations were that CLG would return to Los Angeles as conquering heroes and build on their international success.
Their first best-of-three series of the NA LCS Summer Split came against erstwhile rival TSM, and resulted in an unanticipated but not disheartening loss. TSM had struggled to find their identity for much of the 2016 NA LCS Spring Split, but they finally found themselves as team during their spring playoff run. In the 2016 NA LCS Spring Finals, they were bested by CLG — a team who, at that time, had a superior dynamic honed throughout the regular season, a failed IEM appearance, and their own grueling playoff run.
The departure of Bora “YellOwStaR” Kim has only strengthened TSM, and while homegrown rookie Vincent “Biofrost” Wang has neither YellOwStaR’s experience nor his list of achievements, he has formed a strong laning partnership with AD carry Yiliang “Doublelift” Peng which has seemingly shored up their communication issues. CLG gave TSM a good fight in the season's opening set.
It was their second series of the season, a 2-1 loss to Apex Gaming, that spawned questions of what could possibly be wrong with CLG.
“Initial thoughts after the loss . . . not much. It’s just disappointment,” aphromoo said after falling to Apex. “And obviously, then comes after what we could have done better.” Acknowledging that Jeon “Ray” Ji-won’s Fizz took them by surprise, aphromoo admitted that they didn’t have the best grasp on the current metagame.
Following patches 6.10 and 6.11, the current meta is one that seemingly suits top laner Darshan “Darshan” Upadhyaha. However, CLG focused on Ekko and Trundle picks in Week 1, and although those matches were still on 6.10, other NA top laners were already starting to show just how powerful carry top laners were in the new metagame. While CLG have shown innovative picks and adaptation in the past, this creativity has so far eluded them in NA LCS Summer Split. CLG have looked a step behind other NA teams in drafting and, far more importantly, have not drafted to their strengths.
Previously, when integrating then-rookie AD carry Trevor “Stixxay” Hayes into the fold, CLG relied on Darshan to splitpush on the likes of Fiora and Jax, setting up a 4-1 splitpush that kept opponents spread on the map. Rather than engaging in 5v5 battles, CLG deftly out-maneuvered their opponents, focusing on objectives almost as if each individual member held a checklist of what they were supposed to take on the map. This lead to more proactive teams like Cloud9 and Immortals taking advantage of their overly-cautious nature. CLG evolved again, further spreading opponents on the map with a 1-3-1 splitpush that used both Darshan and jungler Jake “Xmithie” Puchero. This allowed them to hand Immortals their only loss of the 2016 NA LCS Spring Split.
Throughout the playoffs, CLG continued to grow, focusing more on teamfighting with Stixxay playing on ranged favorites like Caitlyn and Tristana. They relied on their young AD carry to defeat TSM in the finals, and brought their teamfighting and objective control to the 2016 MSI. Throughout the spring, CLG were aware of their weaknesses and opportunity areas and developed unique and creative ways to overcome them both in the draft and on the Rift. By the end of their MSI run, they were a finely-tuned instrument — when all players played their respective roles, they were far greater than other rosters despite losing to those teams when simply listing names on a piece of paper.
On paper, and now in practice, CLG’s domestic competition has levelled up. TSM isn’t the only team that got strong through offseason adjustments, as Cloud9 have finally committed to moving forward without relying on the veteran presence of Hai “Hai” Du Lam by putting together a talented team that looks increasingly more coordinated with every passing week. Team EnVyUs have put together a roster with pre-existing synergy and a surprisingly strong identity — although they are untested against top-tier teams. Even teams like NRG eSports and Apex look better for their offseason changes. However, CLG is rarely ranked on paper against other teams anymore — their performances last split and at MSI proved this to be a fruitless endeavor. First and foremost, CLG are a team. They win as a team, they lose as a team, and they adapt as a team.
In the first two weeks of the summer season, CLG have faced the best team in NA (TSM), the dangerous Apex, who are a middle-of-the-pack squad who have built a strong identity around their new top laner Ray, and a rising C9 squad, all of which have ended in losses. Their only win has come against Team Liquid, who are seemingly in the process of trying to sort out their own internal issues. CLG’s summer matches all have one thing in common: they lack their spring ability to recognize their own strengths in order to overcome their weaknesses.
Darshan has been unimpressive on Ekko, Trundle, and Swain, while mid laner Choi “Huhi” Jae-hyun has suffered the same mid control issues he had previously shown. In the NA LCS Spring Split, CLG's lack of mid lane control was first mitigated by Darshan drawing top lane pressure, followed by the team's ability to spread opponents across the map. Even CLG's Aurelion Sol pickup at MSI — despite its zero percent win rate — showcased the team's ability to cleverly come up with other ways to control mid lane and subsequently the map.
Without CLG’s smart pressure to spread opponents on the map, both Huhi and Darshan have looked worse. Xmithie has given more attention to CLG's bot lane, who have sometimes squandered these advantages due to overly-aggressive plays that underestimate the capability of their opponents. Most recently, against C9, CLG was overwhelmed in the laning phase, not respecting C9 AD carry Zachary “Sneaky” Scuderi and Michael “BunnyFuFuu” Kurylo’s playmaking abilities in Game 1, and overcommitting to mid lane dive that C9 turned in their favor in Game 2. Each time CLG tried to make an aggressive move, it was countered by C9’s vision control or superior positioning.
Going forward, CLG have a lot to work on. They’re faced with an increasingly strong region in NA LCS Summer and still have the same roster that famously did not stack up on paper to the overall weaker field of Spring opponents. Yet, this is usually where CLG thrives. Now that expectations are low, they can hopefully learn from their mistakes in Weeks 1 and 2, finding another style, champion pick, or creative way to make up for what they may lack individually, proving to their faithful that their hope will still be rewarded.
Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.