History is impossible to ignore.
In the case of Team SoloMid and Counter Logic Gaming, it seeps into their every meeting in the North American League Championship Series, even a regular season matchup. These aren’t two teams that came into their own through the LCS system, they were part of the first wave of teams in the world to spread League of Legends as an esport. They made LoL history before the LCS was created.
The upcoming 2016 NA LCS summer semifinal will be the fifth time that TSM and CLG face each other in a best-of playoff series. TSM owned the matchup until last year, with CLG’s stunning 2015 Summer finals sweep at Madison Square Garden. CLG’s most recent 3-2 victory in the 2016 NA LCS Spring finals tipped the scales in their favor — they now own a one game lead over TSM in their cumulative playoff meetings, CLG 7, TSM 6.
Yet, the prevailing atmosphere surrounding these two teams until this past split was that the rivalry between TSM and CLG was so one-sided in TSM’s favor that it could hardly be considered competitive, even with CLG’s surprise sweep in New York. TSM had cases full of trophies and accolades where CLG had none. CLG fell to TSM routinely in the regular seasons of the NA LCS — 2013 Summer aside — and took on the role of a scrappy younger brother who, try as he might, could not defeat his older sibling.
Only last year, like the well-worn younger brother narrative, CLG grew up. They finally beat TSM in a playoff series — a final, no less — forging a new chapter in the story and renewing the rivalry between the two franchises.
In the 2015-16 offseason, TSM committed to a star-studded roster on paper, while CLG assembled a team that worked well together on the Rift — keeping team dynamic first in mind above raw mechanical skill or prior accolades. TSM faltered, finding their stride just in time to make a run at the finals in the 2016 NA LCS Spring playoffs, while CLG maintained a steady course throughout. They were the only team to defeat first-place Immortals in the regular season and, despite a small hiccup at the IEM World Championship, were consistently strong. Their coordination and communication ultimately won out, and they defeated TSM 3-2 in the 2016 NA LCS Spring finals.
Going into this split, CLG were the expected contenders alongside Immortals, while TSM was a bit of a question mark due to their relatively unknown rookie support pickup, Vincent “Biofrost” Wang. If veteran support Bora “YellOwStaR” Kim had trouble adapting on this new TSM team, how would a rookie who had only played in the North American Challenger Series fare?
Biofrost was just what TSM needed, and the team went on an incredible regular season run, winning 14 best-of-three series in a row before their undefeated streak was broken by Phoenix1 in Week 8 of the 2016 NA LCS Summer split. Returning from their successes at the 2016 MSI, CLG were sluggish at the start of the split and visibly had trouble adapting to meta shifts while TSM thrived. TSM won both of their regular season series handily, without too much contention from CLG, and look like one of NA’s strongest teams to date in the region’s history.
Like all of the upcoming playoff matchups, the new patch changes must be taken into consideration, and it’s here where CLG loses favor. Of all teams in the four major regions of NA, Europe, Korea and Taiwan, CLG had swapped the fifth most throughout the summer regular season and many doubted their ability in standard lanes. Against Team Liquid last week, CLG proved that they were no slouches on the new patch, embracing their team dynamic in a post-laneswap world. CLG became KT Rolster-lite, pulling out Aurelion Sol for mid laner Choi “Huhi” Jae-hyun in their Game 4 clincher.
This is where CLG have shone across the past three splits and at the 2016 MSI. When the world is against them, no one believes in them, and the history or the meta is not necessarily on their side, they find a way to win. When everyone tells them that their roster can’t stack up to the offerings of other LCS teams, they beat them with superior coordination and understanding of the map. Above all else, 2015-16 CLG are good at finding the way that they work best, even as the game changes around them.
Make no mistake, TSM are the expected victors in this Sunday’s semifinal. Recent meta shifts favor TSM, a team that already excelled with strong early lanes. TSM already swapped the least of any NA team this past split, and averaged a whopping 403 experience lead over their opponents at six minutes in standard lanes. CLG languished behind with a lowly -310 experience deficit in standard lanes at six minutes, the second-worst of all teams in the region ahead of only Echo Fox. Regardless of their early lane assignments, TSM were an average of 1,615 gold ahead of opponents at 10 minutes this past split where CLG averaged -7 gold in the same time.
TSM love to punch early, and they know how to snowball their leads to victory with jungler Dennis “Svenskeren” Johnsen initiating teamfights and mid laner Søren “Bjergsen” Bjerg immediately backing him up so that AD carry Yiliang “Doublelift” Peng can deal massive amounts of damage. Despite their ingenuity, CLG will have a hard time keeping up with TSM’s early game, especially without a laneswap to buy time until mid game. A large amount of pressure will be on CLG jungler Jake “Xmithie” Puchero, who has had a strong split individually, to create initial pressure against TSM’s overwhelming laning phase.
You could make the argument that CLG has TSM right where they want them. TSM’s dominant regular season has set the expectation that this is a near-certain loss for CLG, a lucky charm for a team who appears more comfortable as an underdog than they do as an expected winner. However, TSM also have CLG right where they want them — heavily-favored once more in yet another clash between these two historic franchises.
Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.