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CLG Head Into Playoffs as the Underdogs - Again

Let’s set the scene: It’s the beginning of the 2016 Summer Split, and Counter Logic Gaming are fresh off the Mid-Season Invitational at Shanghai. CLG are currently the golden boys of America, changing up their usual colors to don the red, white and blue. They’ve weathered so many doubts throughout the season, with people questioning Huhi and Stixxay, wondering if Doublelift’s departure would be too large a blow to the team, and still managing to take the Split and head to Shanghai. They were the only team to fell the Immortals during the regular season, they took down longtime rivals TSM to take the prize, and they still faced doubts from the community. CLG responded by taking games off RNG and SKT, and making second place at Shanghai.

All of this background just highlights the year's most intriguing LCS mystery: Why are Counter Logic Gaming stumbling so hard in the summer? They achieved a record of 10-8 in the regular season, and they’re entering the playoffs ahead of the troubled Team Liquid and new kids EnVyUs. A lot of things have contributed to their change in fortunes, but there’s no denying that Counter Logic Gaming have gone from America’s sweethearts to the summer underdogs.

No ego, all teamwork

CLG's great strength, the thing the entire team is built around, is an almost radical commitment to teamwork over star performances. After Doublelift’s white-hot season, fans have mocked CLG for giving him away willingly. Except the entire Counter Logic Gaming philosophy that took them to a number-one finish in NA, followed by their second-place finish at MSI Shanghai, is that they don’t need an ultra carry to take them to the finish line — they just need teamwork.

CLG has even received some extra help from changes in the League of Legends meta that have nullified, or at least hamstrung, the "core" carry while demanding greater team performance. So, with a game that favors their style, why haven’t they been performing at the level expected of them?

To CLG's credit, they haven't made it easy to answer that question. Their commitment to team unity doesn't stop at the edge of the Rift. Every player has been careful not to throw anyone else under the bus, and they each take every loss as a shared burden. The problem comes when the burden is unequally shared, but the team's philosophy doesn't always seem to allow them to recognize and address individual issues.

Problem players

The first problem lies with their carries. Trevor "Stixxay" Hayes and Choi "Huhi" Jae-hyun. Stixxay went off at Shanghai, impressing the world’s best teams and pulling off some audacious, mechanically intensive plays. He simply hasn’t lived up to that level during the summer. It’s hard to tell whether he had a surge on the international stage, or whether he’s experiencing a slump — with a career so short, it’s difficult to establish what Stixxay’s baseline is. With that being said, if CLG plan to go toe-to-toe with the Immortals or TSM, Stixxay’s going to need to step it up.

Huhi is a little more complicated. CLG, when speaking about their mid-laner, has framed the issue as the team failing to play around Huhi, as opposed to Huhi failing to perform. The mid-laner’s main strength has been that he’s tirelessly untiltable, moving with CLG and doing his best to be what the team needs, even if he falls short. Some players will fail a Shurima Shuffle and tilt into a black hole, but Huhi keeps his head up and continues to apply pressure or do what the team needs. As the rest of CLG falters, however, they become less able to draw pressure away from the mid lane — or less able to rely on Darshan or Stixxay to show up huge. When Huhi needs to be the one making the big plays, he can stumble, and the rest of the team falls short.

Perhaps this would be less of an issue if the team’s top laner, “Darshan” Upadhyaya was more consistent. During the Spring Split, Darshan broke open games with his aggressive split push style, a calculated audacity that forced teams to address his Fiora or lose towers, inhibs and gold leads. During the Summer, Darshan’s aggressive nature has looked a little more aimless.

A region in flux

Counter Logic Gaming achieved something unusual in the summer — this would be the first time that they maintained the same roster for two Splits in a row, after many years of changes and kicks and shuffles. This is, of course, a major advantage — honeymoon period aside, it’s a huge pain to have to regain synergy, figure out a new roster and integrate a new player in with old policies.

While Counter Logic Gaming remained solid, the rest of North America levelled-up. Consider two of the teams who ranked above CLG during the regular Split: Team SoloMid and Cloud9. Both of them underwent changes to both coaching and rosters, and both of them saw significantly improved results. CLG’s infrastructure is nothing to sneeze at, and it's likely that if the rest of the region had remained stagnant, they would continue to dominate.

The truth is, a static roster can be a huge benefit, as long as the players do not become complacent. While it’s unlikely CLG have been resting on their laurels and toasting each other over their achievements, it’s possible that their successes have made it more difficult to improve. Stixxay, for instance, is no longer a hungry young ADC struggling to fill Doublelift’s shoes — he’s proven himself as part of the team. It’s possible the team is asking themselves how they can push themselves, or suffering from some burnout, and the result is that they’re squandering the benefits from staying together.

However, the other teams are hungry for their throne, and are planning accordingly. When the competition invests in a new support, an upgraded top laner and strong coaches, they have an advantage before anyone even steps onto the stage.

Game plan

While CLG has a few problems, they also have some major strengths heading into the playoffs. It’s impossible to discuss the team without bringing up the two anchors that form the team’s foundation: Zaqueri "Aphromoo" Black and Jake "Xmithie" Puchero. These two players form the team’s core, and consistently show up in games.

Consider that despite ranking beneath Cloud9 heading into playoffs, Counter Logic Gaming was able to take a 2-1 victory off of them, with Aphromoo and Xmithie key elements of that victory. Both of them have strong champion pools and are easily able to flex to meet their team's needs. Whether Aphromoo is busting out Bard for the big plays, or picking up Karma as a more defensive pick, he’s rarely faltered throughout the Summer. Xmithie has been similarly solid, continuing to play utility-heavy junglers like Gragas and Rek’sai. While he’s not styling hard like Svenskeren, he gets the job done, and he’s consistently turned in solid performances. Having a stable core of supportive players can help push the team’s carries at a core moment — and if MSI proved anything, it’s that CLG are capable of showing up when it's important.

CLG will also be adapting to the playoffs lane swap meta changes, meaning that the early map is going to look a lot different. The playoffs are going to reward players who adapt to these changes, and if CLG can beat the other teams to the punch, they’ll reap the benefits. Aphromoo, Stixxay and Darshan are going to need to make the biggest changes; luckily, Aphromoo and Darshan are both veterans who have survived many, many metas.

Counter Logic Gaming went through MSI as the teamwork-focused squad who focused on the needs of the five over the strength of the carry. They’ve largely been rewarded for this approach, but summer has tested them. A stronger North America, combined with a few struggling members of the team, mean that Counter Logic Gaming are farther from regaining their throne than many people anticipated early in the Split. The upcoming meta changes may end up favouring them, however, and the team’s been making improvements throughout the Split.

In some ways, the question about Counter Logic Gaming is bigger than just the NA championship: It’s the question of whether a teamwork first, no-ego approach can work. In many ways, CLG have already succeeded by keeping their heads high and weathering the storm of criticism that comes with a few unfortunate losses. It’s easy to be a team when the accolades and victories are rolling in; it’s substantially harder to stick together when times are tough. CLG have already made big strides this Summer Split — now, they hope to pull things together and reclaim their throne.

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