Synergy, always synergy: Inside Counter Logic Gaming's final playoff push

Yahoo Esports
Counter Logic Gaming huddle before a League of Legends game. (Riot Games/lolesports)
Counter Logic Gaming huddle before a League of Legends game. (Riot Games/lolesports)

It’s rare to see both teams smiling after a match in the North American League Championship Series.

It’s even rarer when the final game of that match takes nearly 70 minutes to finish.

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“How many inhibitors have died this game? I’m pretty sure it’s at least 20-plus,” Aidan “Zirene” Moon says moments before Game 3’s 66:46 conclusion. CLG siege Team EnVyUs’ Nexus yet another time, saddled with a team composition that is difficult for nV to kill, but unable to out-damage nV in full 5v5 fights. They’ve tried to close out this game multiple times, buffed by both Baron and Elder Drake.

This particular siege feels like the hundredth time CLG have tried to push down nV’s Nexus. It’s likely only the tenth. Armed with two Zz’Rot Portals and a Banner of Command, CLG finally end the game.

Above the roar of the crowd — thinned out by the game’s length and a general lack of importance — Julian “Pastrytime” Carr screams.

“CLG with the longest game of spring 2017!”

CLG mid laner Choi “Huhi” Jae-hyun buries his head in his hands, rubbing his eyes vigorously before looking up with a grin. Next to him, AD carry Trevor “Stixxay” Hayes and support Zaqueri “Aphromoo” Black congratulate each other before moving on to shake hands with nV. Wan and tired, Stixxay rises from his chair, his hospital bracelet still loose around his wrist.

Over at the nV desk, AD carry Apollo “Apollo” Price smiles at Nickolas “Hakuho” Surgent. They both laugh while Apollo rubs behind his ears before putting his glasses back on.

Everyone is exhausted and giddy.

Fated to finish in last place and doomed to the 2017 summer promotion tournament, nV had nothing to play for but pride. They took CLG to three games, ending the regular season with the split’s longest game. With playoffs already clinched, the only thing that the win grants CLG is the higher, fourth-place seed.

Yet both teams appeared to give this series weight. Stixxay, who had been absent in CLG’s 0-2 loss to Immortals the day prior due to an emergency hospital visit that ended in a diagnosis of both mononucleosis and tonsilitis, returned to play nV against his doctor’s wishes.

“I said that I would rather come back and play in LCS today,” he says, laughing. “It kind of sucked to watch my team play without me. It was just really weird to watch.”

Despite rushing to return to the LCS stage, Stixxay admits that this was a rough performance from his team and that they had trouble getting into the right mindset for the nV series.

“I wouldn’t really take too much from these games,” Stixxay says. “For me personally I hadn’t played League in two days. It kind of sucks to play a set like that where you know it doesn’t mean anything. We needed to fix our mentality from the first game to the second game.” He pauses, shakes his head, and laughs.

“I don’t even know how to describe the third game.”

His laning partner shares a similar outlook.

“Even though playoffs were on the line seeding-wise, I don’t think that was prevalent in our minds as much,” Aphromoo says. “We were just trying to have a clean game. Unfortunately the last game was uh…that was not fun.”

Counter Logic Gaming, NA LCS Week 1 (Riot Games/lolesports)
Counter Logic Gaming, NA LCS Week 1 (Riot Games/lolesports)

CLG have a knack for drawing out games. They floundered in the beginning of the split, struggling to adjust to a meta that made top laner Darshan “Darshan” Upadhyaha their primary initiator rather than Aphromoo or Huhi.  

Halfway through the split, CLG recognized that this style of play was not their forté and returned to what they know best: a 1-3-1 split push isolating top laner Darshan in a side lane along with one other member of the team. In this final game against nV, it’s Huhi on Ekko.

“Before I was a splitter with Darshan, we used to run a lot of 1-3-1 comps,” Huhi says. “Since the meta changed we go for anchor mid instead of me splitting. Instead of assassinating champions, I usually play Ori or Viktor. We changed our jobs and we had to learn. Now, I think we just came to the conclusion that we can just play like our style instead of fully meta.”

At the beginning of the 2017 NA LCS spring split, CLG were expected to storm through the early season, having retained their roster. Although these starting five were never fully embraced by North America as the region’s best team, community outlook on CLG going into the split was favorable. Alongside TSM and possibly Cloud9, CLG were expected to top the standings.

The word “synergy” is tossed around in League of Legends esports as haphazardly as the ubiquitous “shotcalling” (which recently has also become a verb). If a team is failing, they lack synergy. If they are succeeding, they have strong synergy. If they are solidly in the middle of the pack, their synergy may be inconsistent, especially in North America, where teams are typically composed of hybrid rosters hot off the offseason presses.

Counter Logic Gaming is not one of these teams.

“Usually you would expect to have pre-existing synergy but that’s always something you have to work on,” Aphromoo says. “Taking breaks or being away from your teammates during the offseason will usually break down what you’ve built up. It’s all about building it back up again. We’re going to take these next two weeks for playoffs and hopefully grow a lot.”

When synergy is used as a shortcut for a lack of roster changes or an all-encompassing description of team unity, it undermines the myriad of nuances that go into building a League of Legends team. Just as “communication issues” are used as a blanket characterization of how a team’s in-game comms work, simply stating “synergy” misses the ups and downs that occur on any team, even between members who have played together for years.  

It also misses what even a slight shift in the overall meta can do to a team.

“It’s not specifically the champions for us,” Huhi says. “It’s how we are going to play as a team. After break we kind of forget everything we used to do, small details, good habits.

“We just have to remember those kinds of things and bring it back so we can get the kind of advantage that we used to get before.For us, adjusting to the meta is the team discussing how we’ll be able to play the game and how we want to pressure the map.”

Huhi after CLG’s 2-1 victory over nV. (Riot Games/lolesports)
Huhi after CLG’s 2-1 victory over nV. (Riot Games/lolesports)

Based on the past few splits, a slow start for CLG is now a pattern, not an outlier. The first few weeks of the new season are spent relearning how to play as a team and how to  adjust to   changes brought to the overall metagame in the offseason.

Sometimes, one of these actively hinders improving the other. A lack of team coordination can lead to struggles  adapting to a new meta. By contrast, a foreign meta that doesn’t naturally play to a team’s strengths can challenge communication, especially when the meta necessitates that a player switch his role on the team — from tanky initiator to DPS teamfighter, from split-pusher to primary initiator.

At odds with the community’s pre-season expectations, CLG kicked off 2017 spring with a 2-4 series record and a 6-8 game record in their first three weeks. They came under heavy criticism for sticking with the same roster when every other team in the region had made roster changes.

Yet the members of CLG cite the longevity of their roster as the reason for any and all successes of the team. Their friendship is both a curse and a blessing that can carry the team to greater heights.

“Since we’ve been together longer, it’s easier to be pissed off at each other,” Aphromoo says. “You’ve been with these people for so long, and they keep doing the same things that piss you off, it’s like, ‘We’ve already talked about it.’ Team communication is always a thing that we have to get past and it’s not like a problem we can solve one time.”

In the ever-shifting team environment, strong communication is never a guarantee. Instead, it’s something that CLG commits to improving week by week. Having played with each other for over a year now, the members of CLG aren’t afraid to be more direct in their criticism.

“During the honeymoon phase, whatever mistake they make, we’re just like, ‘It’s fine dude. You’re great.’” Huhi says. “But when you’ve been on a team for a year, a year and a half now, every mistake we see we’ve seen at least a 100 times — in scrims, in LCS, in games, in solo queue. Whenever we see that we might get more mad because we’ve seen it so many times and it doesn’t get fixed. At those times it’s harder, people will maybe be more aggressive to each other because we’re closer than others.”

This aggression is why Huhi believes that not every roster could have the same team for an extended period of time. With the wrong group of players, criticism can quickly turn into simmering anger or perceived personal attacks.

“As long as the five players are open-minded and have the right personality, I feel like maintaining the team will be better because you do want to fix problems as soon as possible,” Huhi says. “The only way to do that is to give direct criticism and point out every single mistake until that guy fixes it. Whenever we have a problem, that’s what we’re trying to do.”

“It’s not a grudge you hold,” Stixxay adds. “Everyone cares so much about each other on CLG and everyone knows that we just want to help people improve so we know it’s not a direct attack on people. We’ve known each other for so long. If it was someone who was on the team for a couple of months we would be like, ‘Well, that guy’s an asshole.’ We understand and we know how to not get mad at each other for it.”

The ability to directly criticize each other is what CLG are now banking on to advance in the NA LCS playoffs and hopefully the 2017 Mid-Season Invitational. After all, they’ve been here before with this exact roster.

Victorious CLG at the 2016 NA LCS Finals (Riot Games/lolesports)
Victorious CLG at the 2016 NA LCS Finals (Riot Games/lolesports)

Turn back the clock one year and Counter Logic Gaming was second only to Immortals in the 2016 NA LCS spring regular season. Although they had hiccups at the IEM World Championship, CLG was generally accepted as NA’s second-best team, or at least in contention for that spot with third-place Cloud9.

That is, until Team SoloMid finally hit their stride in playoffs. TSM tore through Immortals, quickly dispatching NA’s de facto first-place team en route to the Spring Finals at Mandalay Bay. There, they faced familiar adversary CLG, who were coming off a grueling 3-2 victory over rookie jungler Joshua “Dardoch” Hartnett and Team Liquid. Even after another hard-fought 3-2 win over TSM in the finals, expectations for CLG at the 2016 MSI were low.    

Represented as a fallen warrior who only experiences defeat in the MSI promotional video, North America, and by extension CLG, had little hope going into the tournament. Against all odds, CLG placed second at the 2016 MSI with an 0-3 loss to SK Telecom T1 in the finals.

To make it back to MSI, CLG will first have to survive playoffs. Unlike 2016, they don’t have an automatic bye to the semifinals and will face FlyQuest in the quarterfinals on Sunday, April 9.

“For playoffs, FlyQuest is the best we could have gotten so everyone is really happy about that,” Stixxay says. “I know Zaq doesn’t like playing against FlyQuest since Hai is the only person that can mess with his shotcalling.”

“Playing against FlyQuest is annoying,” Aphromoo says. “I hate playing against them. They cheese all the time and Hai always go for 50/50 calls and forces you to make a decision. I know I’m going to be annoyed when I play that series but I do think we have the upper hand. Hai is really good at being decisive. It’s going to be a shotcalling battle.”

Like CLG, FlyQuest has relied on a similar core of players that have extensive experience as a unit. By contrast, they’ve had the opposite trajectory throughout the split — starting off strong and finishing with a whimper, going 2-4 in the final three weeks of the season. Despite FlyQuest’s late-season struggles, Aphromoo groans when thinking about the team. He holds up one hand and starts counting the off-meta champions that FlyQuest loves to throw into their team compositions.

“Kill me,” he jokes.

Above all else, CLG know how to adapt and adjust as five-man unit. Although they’re hardly a favorite in the upcoming playoff bracket — especially after their tight 2-1 victory over nV — they’re well aware of their problems. What remains is fixing those problems before playoffs begin.

“I do hope the best NA team goes to MSI and I know it will be us. Bias,” Aphromoo says. “For this roster in particular I think we have all the tools necessary to compete internationally. All it comes down to is the five players and how we deal with our problems and getting over them and improving. That’s literally it.”

If CLG does manage to represent North America once more on the MSI stage, it will be because they decided to stick with their current roster, not in spite of it.

Emily Rand’s love of the 2013 KT Rolster Bullets will never die. You can follow her on Twitter @leagueofemily

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