Counter Logic Gaming has been through a lot. An offseason of so-called turmoil. The departure of the team's star player of nearly five years, Yiliang "Doublelift" Peng, who left to join their biggest rivals, Team SoloMid. Another starter who departed from their domestic-winning squad, Eugene "Pobelter", has helped his new team, Immortals, to start 9-0 in this split. A rookie from the minor leagues coming in to take over for their former ace. And a new head coach having to step in to make everything work.
The captain of this reconstructed CLG ship is Zaqueri "Aphromoo" Black. A veteran who has been around since 2011, Black doesn't look like the in-game leader of a team on the downturn. In a bright pink jersey to celebrate Valentine's Day this weekend, CLG's captain was loose after putting yet another mark in the win column. A season that some critics thought would be a return to mediocrity for the defending champions has turned into a crusade to defend their crown.
"For CLG, me as a person, if I'm not in control of the situation and leading, I feel like we're not doing everything as [efficiently] as we can be," Aphromoo said. "That's usually when I start getting frustrated, you know, people aren't listening to me and stuff like that."
Counter Logic pride themselves on their ability to read and play around the objectives on the map. The reigning champs of North America are at their best when top laner Darshan "Darshan" Upadhyaha is split-pushing and Aphromoo is pulling teams apart with decisive shot calling.
"I think I developed my style back in the spring split of 2014 when [Christopher "MonteCristo" Mykles] was with us," said CLG's in-game leader about when he started to fully step into the shoes of captainship. "Monte definitely helped me learn how to stop people from doing bad habits, and then call and execute [a plan] based on [the situation we were in]."
Aphromoo credited both Mykles, his former coach, and former CLG mid laner Austin "Link" Shin as essential parts to his progression as a player and leader. Doublelift, his former bottom lane partner, also helped him learn how to take blunt, straightforward criticism and improve from it. CLG's support has gone from a player who wilted under the judgment and pressure of the bright lights to a poised veteran of the game.
"[Trevor "Stixxay" Hayes] is a safe kind of player -- doesn't want to [be the reason] the team loses," answered Aphromoo when asked how it's been transitioning from a multitime all-star to an untested rookie. "It's important I reassure him all the time.
"I'm always watching making sure he's OK, as well as everyone else on the team."
Doublelift, although no longer his teammate, is still beside Aphromoo -- in one way, at least. TSM, CLG and Cloud9 -- the only three teams to have ever won the NA LCS -- are tied in second place with records of 6-3, each trailing the undefeated Immortals by three games.
When questioned on what the biggest differences were between his former AD carry and his replacement, Aphromoo was direct. "Doublelift tunnel visions more than Stixxay. ... You can see it in their games right now, where [Doublelift] will die when [Bora "YellOwStaR" Kim] leaves his lane. So, I had to adapt myself to watch him to make sure he was OK. But when Doublelift is in the moment, he's really good."
In terms of what the biggest difference with Stixxay is against Doublelift, Aphromoo explained that his bottom lane partner is simply new. Doublelift has traveled around the world, played the best players and knows what to expect from every situation. Stixxay is learning on the fly, sharpening his metaphorical knife as the weeks go along in the competitive NA LCS.
"If you could go back in time a few years and tell yourself something, what would it be?" I asked, nearing the end of the interview.
Aphromoo, in thought for a few seconds, replied, "Keep streaming."
"Don't let [disparaging remarks] get you down and get past you. I took a lot of criticism my first year [as a pro] that was on Reddit, and all the social media stuff like that. It was hard for me to deal with it [at first], and then I dealt with it later in my career pretty well. I realized that it didn't matter, and I just had to focus on myself."
CLG returns to the Rift Sunday against Doublelift and TSM. Aphromoo, having already won the first return meeting against his old AD carry, can sweep the season series with a victory. Before he walked out, though, I asked a question that was lingering in the back of my head.
"Do you think you can beat Immortals in a best-of-five and repeat as champions?"
"Of course," Aphromoo laughed as he made his exit.
Direct and to the point -- exactly like his leadership style.