Three months ago, when the NA LCS spring season was about to kickoff between eternal rivals Team SoloMid and Counter Logic Gaming, I talked to the man who caused the Internet to almost break in the offseason. Yiliang "Doublelift" Peng moved from his ace AD carry position on CLG following the team's first championship to become the starter for their arch-nemesis Team SoloMid. The transaction sent shockwaves throughout the global scene, and it appeared TSM were on the verge of creating a super team, a true dream squad of all-stars capable of challenging the best in the world.
"I am no stranger to scrutiny and harsh criticism when unable to deliver results, and I'm sure [Bora "YellOwStaR" Kim] and I will have some pathetic games during our debut," said Doublelift in the interview before the split began. "Ultimately, the greatest players are able to press on. Bora and I will become the best bottom lane the West has ever seen, but not in the 10 days we have had to practice before LCS."
And he was completely right. The two did play some pathetic games throughout the early (and sometimes even late) parts of the season. It was awkward watching them play. Doublelift would attempt to do too much and force YellOwStaR to try collaring him, or there would be times where YellOwStar was out on the map and let Doublelift get attacked under a turret by a two- or three-man ganking squad.
But TSM worked through its issues. The bottom lane, and the team, showed up the first weekend of the postseason looking to right some wrongs from the regular season. One loss to Cloud9 to start the series was the only game TSM would drop in the quarterfinals, smashing past them in the final three matches to make it into the semifinals.
TSM's lackluster regular split forced the team into the sixth seed for the playoffs, and that meant a semifinal matchup against the Immortals, the 17-1 rookie juggernauts atop of the standings. Fast-paced, aggressive, and seemingly in sync since their very first LCS game together, Immortals were the team TSM yearned and worked so hard to be -- except for one thing.
The team was were strong, offensively gifted, and coordinated, but lacked one key element in the equation that kept them a great team instead of a championship team -- flexibility.
"I think after the first game we kinda showed that even if we didn't play better in the early-game that game we still out team-fought them," said Søren "Bjergsen" Bjerg after TSM's crushing 3-0 sweep over Immortals. "It gave us confidence that, 'Oh, if we play the early-game well we're just going to crush them.'"
TSM didn't train any differently than the first-week matchup versus Cloud9. It was all about the players. Fixing their own mistakes, and not worrying about the other team. Immortals was a great regular season team, sure, but the players on SoloMid knew they weren't outgunned. If they focused on themselves and continue their maturity as a team, not five individuals with mechanical talent, the starting five knew they could beat the rookie titans.
"I think it's partially [Heo "Huni" Seung-hoon] and Immortals getting complacent," he answered when questioned what Immortals' biggest issue was in their decisive loss. "Every team, if they do that well in NA, can get complacent at some level, and I was just expecting for Huni to pull out Ekko every single game. Like Darshan, he really likes the carry champions, and Ekko's kinda the carry version of playing a tank. You can split-push. You can still make a ton of plays...but he just never really pulled it out. ...Overall, I think Immortals didn't adapt to the patch as well as some other teams."
One of the unsung heroes through the first two rounds of the postseason has been Bjergsen's teammate and jungler Dennis "Svenskeren" Johnsen. In a meta where junglers are positioned into a strong role of a carry, the added gold to the European jungler's arsenal has unleashed him on the rest of the field in North America. Svenskeren's late-game also vastly improved, putting confidence into himself and his team that he can lockdown objectives when they matter the most.
"Sven, he just really performs when his teammates believe in him," he said. "He knows that the team, in a way, that we really like to play with him. As soon as we started winning some scrims and getting comfortable with each other, he started shining in scrims and in practice. In the series, he just takes over the jungle. He knows how to path and how to play. And I think with him it really comes down to how comfortable and confident he is. If he's confident, he'll make a ton of plays.
Comfort. Trust. Belief. These are the things no flashy names on a paper can give you. You can take the best five Korean players in the world, put them on a single team, and see them crash and burn. It's happened before with the likes of Longzhu Gaming currently in Korea's Champions, and it won't be the last time a perceived super team doesn't succeed, at least off the bat.
Winning as a team is difficult, and learning how to win as a team is even more so. It's easy to call out Svenskeren, Bjergsen, or Doublelift for getting caught or being too impulsive in a team fight, however, those are usually team issues. A lack of comfort with the guy next to them. You take a step forward, one person takes a step to the left, a second goes to the right, another is farming, and the last guy is recalling. Regardless of how well someone did on a former team or how great they look in solo queue, it's tough to find the chemistry to be a full-fledged title contender.
"I think we always got along decently," he said. "No one ever disliked each other on the team, but we still didn't have that team cohesion, and I think that's way easier to find through winning. Through winning in playoffs, through winning in scrims, you slowly build that confidence in each other. To start off, we were like, after our loss to NRG [to end the regular season], we just need to trust each other. We need to go all-in on every play. Don't question if YellOwStaR says engage. Don't question if [Kevin "Hauntzer" Yarnell] says I'm going to [teleport] and fight here. We just take every single fight we get, and then we can scale back and be like, 'Oh, maybe we shouldn't do that.' But we put a lot of blind faith in each other and absolutely instill confidence in one another."
What was once Counter Logic Gaming's calling card, the fans' and players' faith in victory, has transitioned over to Team SoloMid. This is not the TSM of old we've watched grow throughout the playoffs. Bjergsen told me this season and making the finals was a "new beginning" for the team and himself. Seven times TSM have made the finals of the NA LCS, but this one shouldn't be coupled with the others.
I love competing and have loved it my whole life. I'm so happy I get to do what I do, thank you so much guys <3
- Søren Bjerg (@Bjergsen) April 11, 2016
The seventh final for TSM could be considered the first in its new era. The five members currently on the squad, if they stick together following this season or year, have the potential to do something great -- maybe even something a North American team hasn't accomplished since 2011, like make a Worlds semifinal.
"About CLG, Darshan shines very well on split-pushers, and I think they all have their moments," he told me when I asked which member of Counter Logic had impressed him the most this split. "But I think the reason CLG are in the finals is because of their team play. No individual huge play. They all come up really huge at different times, but it really comes down to how CLG plays as a team. Some teams you look at them and say, 'This is the carry, this is the guy you need to watch out for', but CLG's more of a unit, a team."
Bjergsen knows what he's talking about. The cohesion CLG has is what TSM's been searching, striving for the entire split. On paper, a majority of people would give the clear edge to SoloMid in the final on talent alone. But Counter Logic Gaming don't pride itself on outgunning people in-lane and winning in positional matchups -- it prides itself on being an indestructible family.
For TSM to win its fourth NA LCS title, the team will need to breakthrough that unbreakable wall in the finals on Sunday in Las Vegas. "First of all, thank you to all the fans that support us through," he said, ending the interview with a message to TSM's massive (and fanatical) fanbase. "I know there are a lot of fans that will jump on the next big hype or the next big team, but there are a lot of fans who really stick with us and stick with us through poor performances. The people on the Internet who defend us when someone is saying, 'Oh this player is playing bad' or 'Bench this guy'. There are always those guys that support us and say, 'I think he's doing really well. He's going to step up in the next series.' And those fans really make a difference, especially for me.
I know that every one of my teammates sometimes reads hate on the Internet -- it's hard to completely avoid it -- and having those people stand up for you is always a nice feeling."