CLG’s 2016 spring of dreams: The sports anime team of the LCS Part 1

When people say what draws them to esports and sports, you’ll often hear two philosophies: to watch the best of the best play their game at the peak level of competition, or for the story lines that weave themselves on and off the playing fields.

This piece is for the second group. This article started in my mind as a joke, as I was looking back with a friend on past NA LCS splits playoffs and remembered just how insanely storybook like Counter Logic Gaming’s (CLG) run to win the Spring Split in 2016 and their performance at MSI was. In my mind, it was the greatest sports anime style narrative we’ve yet to see. (Rivaled by Cloud 9’s Cinderella story to Worlds in S6, mind you.)

I mean, THIS happened so anything is possible folks…

What do I mean by this? Well, think about it. Long time team, they had just come off a big win but now were thrown into question, lots of pressure on the roster, and a bunch of faces old and new, veterans and no name rookies, who managed to stick it to the pundits and win it all.

Hell, even the archetypes are there: the Leader (Aphro), the Cutesy dopey one (Huhi), the Downplayed ace (Stixxay), the Steady and silent one (Xmithie), the Pretty one (Darshan), and the Mr. Serious Coach Guy (Zikz… kind of).

The narrative practically writes itself folks. There were ups and downs, moments it looked bleak and others where they shined as a team, not as individuals. They coalesced, they backed each other up on and off the rift, and they showed that team work meant more than flashy players and big transfers. They also lost in heart breakers, they had to buffer themselves to the community’s constant criticisms, and ultimately to have faith in each other.

With MSI behind us, and the NA LCS ultimately losing their top seed at the next Worlds, lets take a look back a brighter time for North America, a time where, funny enough, the team representing the region was not seen as the best team there. They were criticized harshly going into it, and many felt that perhaps they would not be the best showing for the NA LCS internationally. It turned out, they were. This is the first part of a two part series, so be sure to check in tomorrow for our dramatic conclusion!

The Set Up

I still remember the shock of the off season between Worlds 2015 and the NA LCS Spring Split 2016. Losing  Eugene “Pobelter” Park seemed like a blow enough. Pob was, as I always said, a solid, if not uninspiring, Mid laner. The perfect fit for CLG, who often had… on and off Mid laners. That was fine. Maybe the team had some crazy import in mind, right? After all, Faith has always been part of the CLG fandom. But that wasn’t all.

Then the unthinkable happened. Yiliang “Doublelift” Peng traded in the blue and gray for the black and white of long time rivals TSM. Why not top it all off with picking up two almost unheard of rookies in Trevor “Stixxay” Hayes and Choi “Huhi” Jae-hyun, and CLG pulled a full CLG and went counter to everyone’s expectations. They finally found the solution, the team that got them that coveted NA LCS Finals and Worlds appearance. It was supposed to be the Golden Age. Then they decided to remove two key players and replace them with untested rookies.

The rag tag team of dreams, NA’s hope at MSI. Courtesy of Riot’s Flikr.

The scene was left scratching their heads, as eternal rivals TSM looked to rebound after an off performance during their last Summer’s playoff showing, having gotten arguably the strongest ADC in the West from the very team that beat them. TSM’s rivals, of course, were left with two rookies, Stixxay having been promoted from CLG Black, while Huhi was reportedly scouted in Korea for his talent. But they both had big shoes to fill, and while being surrounded by some of the most storied veterans in Top laner Darshan “Darshan” Upadhyaha, Jungler Jake “Xmithie” Puchero and Support Zaqueri “aphromoo” Black, CLG fans felt that maybe, just maybe, they’d be able to pull out a playoff win in Summer.

Alongside the player changes, CLG brought on a new head coach by the name of Tony “Zikzlol” Gray, now a household name as arguably one of the best coaches in North America, there was a lot of new faces and questions mixed with hopes.

Nobody expected that the team would amount to much in Spring. Even CLG didn’t. A win on domestic soil seemed a great showing, but the impressive showings didn’t end there: they also went on to place second at Riot’s Mid-Season Invitational, after showing up against international teams and only falling short against Korean juggernauts SKT. Then again, what would a good sports anime be without the unlikely happening?

Our protagonists

Archetypes in Anime aren’t really set in stone. Sure, there are tropes and there’s kind of constant themes throughout, but archetypes are always kind of murky grounds. Some will disagree with the ones I find almost ever present. Some will say I forgot some. Hell, it’s even likely you’ll disagree with my identification of the players in their archetypes. That’s fine, I’m not claiming objectivity here. But if I were writing the show, this is how I’d envision the players.

Darshan: Even his teacher calls him Zionspartan… but fans now call him Darshan, and arguably last Spring was some of the best times for the one they call Darshan.

He was a monster in the Top lane, eloquent in the lane swap meta, and a menace when left to split push to victory. If fans of the NA LCS had a dime for every time Darshan would split push to win with Fiora or similar split pushers, they’d have a lot of dimes. It wasn’t quite the Flame Horizon in the Top lane, but it was pretty damn close, and many of the W’s in CLG’s Spring Split could be chalked up to the dashing Darshan.

Darshan, probably thinking about how to style his hair or like the next song to cover… Courtesy of Riot’s Flikr.

Of course, it’s not just about how the players played, but their place in our overall story, right? Darshan could’ve been the kind of Clutch Player, the one who shows up when the team needs him the most and somehow pulls off the victory. But I think the other side of Darshan plays out more in my mind: He seriously was the pretty boy of the group. Amazing facial hair and style aside, he also sings amazingly. If he were to walk onto stage, I feel like he would have to have a flower background and a close up zoom in, as his eye sparkled or something. Next to Huhi, Darshan would probably have the most fanart of himself if we’re being totally honest.

Xmithie: Xmithie has been a staple in the NA LCS since his time way back in Season 3 with Team FeaR and Team Vulcun. He’s been a stable force in the scene, never quite as strong as some of his flashier compatriots in the Jungle, yet Xmithie never failed though to remain a rock and foundational piece for many a team. Hell, he was the unchallenged Best Lee Sin NA for a while folks…

Over the shoulder eye brow raising smoulder. Courtesy of Riot Flikr.

But more than that, Xmithie fit into the CLG story line as that Steady and Silent one. For the entirety of the Spring split and into MSI, Xmithie put in production for the team, helping his lane mates get ahead and maintaining overall map control.

He was there where and when the team needed him and read the game to know who to set up and get ahead. In some ways he was like a tactician for the squad, if not for Aphro’s obvious influence in that department. He was, however, always the quietest member it felt like. He wouldn’t be the player dominating a scene in the show, but he would show up at the right time to help a fellow player. The strong, silent type that always held a place in your heart for his sincere concern for his fellows.

 

Huhi: Huhi came in as a heavily scrutinized player, always at the center of criticism for the team and seemingly always the one that had to go. Still, through all of this, it seemed like the bubbly personality of Huhi persisted on. While notorious for his pocket picks like Aurelion Sol, Huhi’s performance on the rift has always been polarizing. He’s either the one surprisingly carrying his whole team on his giant space dragon back, or the one that’s the anchor for the early game of the team. Huhi was always a polarizing player, but he was never a negative player.

If you don’t find this image heart warming and wholesome, I ask you kindly, but firmly, to leave. Courtesy of Yahoo Esports.

It was his off the rift presence that was the perfect fit for somewhere between the comedic relief and the adorable one of the group. Just check his Twitter, and see the beauty that is the HuhixHaru.

It was, however, I think Huhi’s defining feature in my mind of his overall positive attitude in the face of adversity. He always seemed happy, always ready to try and prove himself again, and never daunted by opponents or critics. He would keep the team cheery and would offer his positive attitude to the team atmosphere.

Stixxay: Fans of CLG may have forgotten this, but Stixxay was considered once one of the weakest members of CLG for a time. Not many should be surprised by this, as stepping into the shoes of ace ADC and Best in the West Doublelift is definitely a tall task. But Stixxay never seemed fazed by those who didn’t believe in him. He was always stepping up, and I think the shinning moment of his Spring career was the Tristana play that propelled them to their victory over TSM and onto the MSI tournament.

From Zero to Hero in no time flat. Courtesy of Riot’s Flikr.

In a lot of ways, Stixxay would seem our protagonist for this show. The young kid, stepping into the ace role for a team, under heavy scrutiny by fans and pundits, and with a kind of self confidence in himself and his team that felt slightly above what one might feel was warranted. He and Aphromoo set out to prove everyone wrong, the young gun under the mentorship of the leader and brain in the botlane duo of Rush Hour.

Interviews with Stixxay showed this side time and time again: he felt he was good, damn good, but not in a pretentious way, not by putting others down or overstating his point. He felt he had the mechanics and just needed the time to ripen and he could match Doublelift’s legacy. Well, as a spoiler, it seemed he wasn’t too far off, and while a discussion of whether he’s ‘better than’ Doublelift or not would be a hotly contested debate, it’s safe to say that the rookie has proved himself, long before gaining the moniker of Big Dixxay.

Aphromoo: If ever there was a franchise player to match the level of Doublelift, it could be argued that it would be Aphromoo. Support, as a position, occupies a unique role within League of Legends: they’re both the ones to set up the plays and their lane mates success, while also generally tasked with the shotcalling role. In short, the best Supports are often the ultimate altruistic leaders. Aphromoo is no exception to this role either, often being praised as the driving force behind CLG’s success, being the leader the team needs on and off the rift.

There are certain players whose reputation transcends their on the Rift abilities. Aphromoo is one such player. Courtesy of Riot Flikr.

It’s the perfect plot line too. The mentor, the veteran, the one left behind the famous departure of lanemate Doublelift. Aphromoo had to prove himself not only mechanically as a player, but to prove himself to the team captain and mentor everyone believed he could be. He was given the untested, gifted, and highly coachable player that was Stixxay, and their role in the team ultimately became the lynch pin for their success.

While Darshan was known for his split pushing, Huhi his pocket picks and Xmithie for his selfless jungling style, it was the Bot lane duo that often was tasked to face some of the best and strongest opponents and carry. If it’s not a saying, it should be, that behind every God ADC is a Support who whipped them into shape, and look no further for proof of this then the Lethal Weapon duo that is Stixxay and Aphromoo.

Zikz: An untested team needs a leader, but it also needs a coach. Zikz stepped into the role of Head Coach before the roster was finalized, replacing William “scarra” Li and being promoted from Head Analyst position. Fans will remember Zikz for his simple, elegant style, a classy suit and non-distracting hair gave him the appearance of a largely non-menacing coach. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Zikz has established himself in the coaching role, holding one of the longest tenures as such, in a position that largely has seen more revolving doors than an European Super Team.

“Ok guys, if we destroy their Nexus first we win. Break!” Courtesy of Riot’s Flikr.

So how does Zikz play into this story? Well, he’s the behind the scene coach, the one who propels his team, prepares them to the best he can, and then sits there and watches as his work and tactics unfold before his eyes. Zikz was always there with his team, laughing, encouraging, being one on one with many of the players, and arguably a lot of CLG’s success can be placed as a fact of his impressive coaching. He was a strong Runner Up for the Coach of the Spring Split in 2016, and is a constant contender for the best coach each split.

He also plays the role of the coach who not much is known about. He’s been a relative silent force in CLG’s presence, and while this fits that narrative well of the behind the scenes coach who is stronger than he comes off, it also gave him the kind of mysterious aspect to him. All he needs is some glasses to push up his nose menacing when a team falls into his well laid trap and he’d be perfect.

Tune in tomorrow for Part 2 everyone!

Is That a Jojo Reference? Courtesy of Riot’s Flikr and bad MS Paint skills.

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Six Takeaways from the MSI Group Stage

The Mid Season Invitational concluded on Sunday, with SKT, WE, G2, and Flash Wolves all advancing to the bracket stage of the tournament. It was a close competition as there were a ton of surprises and close games throughout the tournament. Outside of SKT and maybe WE, every team had its shares of ups and downs throughout the tournament. It’s always interesting to have the top teams from around the world compete. It gives a glimpse at how each region stacks up to one another and gets us more excited for Worlds. Here are some key takeaways from the tournament:

Is the gap closing?

Photo by: Riot Esports

As we’ve come to expect, Korea’s SKT Telecom T1 finished atop the standings.

They did drop two games during the group stage. Once, to the Korean slayers, Flash Wolves, and another to WE. Despite this, SKT still looked quite dominant throughout the tournament. Even when they’re behind, they don’t look the part. Their strength is definitely in the mid-late game shot calling where they almost always know exactly what to do to earn the victory.

SKT could fall behind one thousand gold or so in the early game, but take one big team fight to retake the lead in the mid game. Once the tournament goes to best of 5’s, I’m honestly not sure if they’ll drop a game. They’ve had a chance to scout the competition now. Head coach Kim kkOma Jung-gyun will have a week to prepare SKT which will be more than enough to get his team ready to take another MSI title.

TSM’s International Struggles Continue

North America’s champs, TSM, took a heavy defeat Sunday as they lost out on NA’s chance at a number one seed for Worlds. Failing to make it out of the group stage of MSI just adds to the TSM legacy of under performing at international events. The team had a poor start to the tournament, just barely edging out Vietnam’s Gigabyte Marines in the play-in stage.

Most of the blame was shifted to jungler Dennis “Svenskeren” Johnsen for getting caught out multiple times on aggressive invades throughout the tournament. ADC Jason “Wildturtle” Tran also received much of the criticism, specifically costing his team a game against WE face-checking at baron with both summoner spells up. Head coach, Parth Naidu, also received a lot of criticism from the community for his drafts. In their tiebreaker match, he banned Kog’maw and Twitch when FW hadn’t played either of those champions the whole tournament.

Overall, it felt like TSM were scared to make plays. In both their matches against G2, they failed to snowball their leads and let G2 back into both games. Game one would have been lost, had it not been for some small misplays by G2. TSM had no idea how to properly close out games, ultimately being the biggest reason for their failure to get out of groups.

Gigabyte Marines Are Fun To Watch

Nobody was really talking about these guys coming in, but Vietnam’s Gigabyte Marines can hold their heads up high. They played phenomenal for a wildcard region and showed that the GPL has some tough competition. From the beginning of the play-ins, Gigabyte Marines’ aggressive early game has given teams troubles and they were able to take some games off some of the top teams, finishing 3-7.

Jungler, Đỗ “Levi” Duy, Khánh made a name for himself this tournament. He was a major part of his team’s success, and analysts even said that he should be imported into a major region for summer. His Lee Sin and Kha’zix were a treat to watch and everyone is hoping to see more of him in the future.

If Gigabyte Marines can keep this momentum going, we can definitely expect to seem them again at Worlds 2017.

G2 Redeems themselves

Photo by: Riot Esports

After a whole year of international tournament stumbles, G2 esports was finally able to play well and earn a spot in the knockout stage for MSI. This has to be relieving for all members, after much of the hate that ensued after their last MSI and Worlds performances.

Their mid laner, Luka “PerkZ” Perković, had a phenomenal tournament, finally getting to showcase his skill on the international stage. Star ADC, Jesper “Zven” Svenningsen, also had a great tournament. G2 often built their comps around him to allow him to carry in the mid/late game.

Jungler Kim “Trick” Gang-Yun didn’t have the greatest performances. He was often reactive to many of the aggressive junglers in the tournament. G2 has shifted to putting him on supportive junglers such as Nunu and Ivern to allow for Zven to carry. It’ll be interesting to see if G2 decides to keep with Trick after many of his international struggles.

G2 can finally breathe a bit as they earned a number one seed for EU at Worlds 2017.

Flash wolves overrated?

Taiwan’s Flash Wolves came into MSI as most people’s 2nd best team to SKT. Most thought they’d take second easily after a dominant showing at IEM and in their championship run. That was not the case as Flash Wolves struggled heavily early in the tournament.

Specifically, it seemed like other teams were exploiting top laner, Yau “MMD” Li-Hung, one of Flash Wolves’ weaker members. Early in the tournament, he struggled to make an impact on the team, often falling behind. As the tournament went on though, MMD’s confidence seemed to come back as Flash Wolves was able to do just enough to beat out TSM for the last spot in the knockout stage.

Flash Wolves are an explosive early game team. Sometimes this can also be their downfall though. The “Korean Slayers” will get a chance to take down SKT in a bo5.

WE Surprises

Photo by: Riot Esports

Maybe team WE wasn’t expected to do that bad, but many people didn’t expect them to do this well. WE was getting ranked around 4-5th position due to many people just not really knowing what to expect.

Team WE doesn’t adhere to the Chinese stereotype of chaotic games. Their macro is solid and they know how to push their leads well. They’ve shown the ability to play a number of unique champions, such as mid laner Su “Xiye” Han-Wei pulling out Lucian in their victory against SKT.

Jungler Xiang “Condi” Ren-Jie showed he can compete with some of the best. He was 2nd in KDA among junglers and was first in kill participation percentage with a whopping 70 percent. His early game plays helped setup his team to snowball leads.

Top laner Ke “957” Changyu had some great performances on carry split pushers like Fizz and Kled. He was a nuisance for the enemy team, pressuring side lanes and getting picks in team fights.

WE look like big contenders to contest SKT for the MSI title. They’ll need to get through EU’s G2 first though.

Cover photo by: Riot Esports

Tune into the MSI Knockout Stage this Friday, Saturday, and Finals Sunday

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