"I'm someone who is always looking for improvement," said Team SoloMid's in-game leader, Bora "YellOwStaR" Kim, last weekend at the North American League Championship Series. "I'm always reflecting on what I'm doing wrong or what I'm doing right. And if I can't find out what I'm doing wrong, I'll ask people around me what I can change. Whether in-game or outside of the game, what do you guys think I can do better for us to be [stronger]?"
As the primary shot caller for TSM, YellOwStaR has been in a constant process of adapting this split. First, he had to learn how to play with four new players on a squad that never played together before. After that, he was thrown into the bottom lane with Yiliang "Doublelift" Peng, putting him under the spotlight to perform as one of the world's best bottom lanes right from the get-go. More recently, the team dropped their head coach after not grabbing the results they wanted in the regular, and that's made the legendary western support change-up his approach once again.
TSM, on the surface, is experiencing a good season. With a roster of five that's never played together before and a coaching change in the middle of the season, the team is 8-6 and firmly in a playoff spot. For a majority of squads that drastically changed lineups in the offseason, this wouldn't be alarming. It takes time for a championship team, regardless of the team's individual talent, to come together and learn how to win as a unit.
But SoloMid isn't like a majority of teams. The offseason moves in the winter were made to make it not simply one of the best teams in North American history, but the best team in NA LCS history. Immortals, who are currently 13-1 and had a 12-game win streak to start the season, are where TSM believe they should be. Stumbling into the playoffs isn't an option for the experience-laden squad with a starting five filled with all-stars.
"We've definitely improved way more," said YellOwStaR on the subject of his bottom lane duo with Doublelift. "I felt like before he was a bit scared of me not making the right choice for him, so I know now how he wants to play. We're more on the same page, so we're going to be way more coordinated, and I can feel that he's going to trust me more in how we're going to play the laning-phase and teamfights."
IEM Katowice will be the next stop for the six-time NA LCS grand finalists, and they're no stranger to Poland. TSM actually enter the tournament as returning champions from last year, as they surprised the world by taking home the championship in a tournament filled with surprises. The heavy favorites to win it all last year, the KOO Tigers, flatlined in the semifinals against China's Team WE, and the resourceful TSM were able to fly past the underdog LPL team in the grand finals to hoist the IEM chalice.
This time, similarly to 2015, they enter with questions abound. Last year it was all about how they could vary up their stagnant, one-trick pony play style of cruising into the late-game until their ace, Søren "Bjergsen" Bjerg, took over and won the game. This time around, Bjergsen and TSM have weapons around him where that issue won't be an issue. The hurdle SoloMid will have to clear is the exact opposite from last year -- how can they work together to make sure all the firepower is used correctly? The TSM of 2015 weren't the greatest team when it came to having a wide array of strategies, but they knew how to play together. They only played through Bjergsen's strengths, yet it worked at IEM last year due to how well the five of them understood what to do at every point in the game. This year, they have the pieces to play around four different players as carries -- it's just a matter of finding that communication and trust.
"I'm really excited," he quickly replied when asked about heading to Poland for IEM. "Even though we haven't shown the TSM people would like to see, I believe that playing against good teams at an international event, an actual tournament, will break our routine and [we'll] work really hard. [We] know we're going to face world-class players, and we all want to perform. As competitors, we just want to win. I think we can perform [well] over there."
For YellOwStaR, IEM will give him the unique chance to compete possibly against three of the better supports in the world in his group.
In TSM's first game of the tournament, they'll take on the only minor league team at the event: EVER, the winners of Korea's KeSPA Cup and IEM Cologne. The team is led by their ace and tempo-master at the support role, the rookie phenom, Kim "KeY" Han-gi.
"[KeY] really impressed me when [EVER] played at IEM Cologne," he said about his first round opponent. "I watched him play and he's really good. I'm usually not scared of facing players because that's not the right mindset going into a game, but I can never know how good he is until I play against him."
The next support in the group I asked him about is one he knows very well from his time in Europe. Alfonso "mithy" Aguirre Rodriguez clashed many times with YellOwStaR during last year's summer EU LCS split, where their two teams, Origen and Fnatic, played in the grand finals. After going through the whole season and semifinals undefeated, YellOwStaR and Fnatic finally dropped games to Origen in the finals, though eventually winning in the end 3-2. Both teams would then go on to make it to the semifinals of the World Championships in their home continent of Europe.
"I think he has a really good synergy with [Jesper "Zven" Svenningsen]," he told me. "Although this year they don't look as strong as last season, I have the same feeling about their bot-lane and my [ours]. I struggled a bit early because there were big changes to the pace of the game, and it was way faster. It's not the same meta as Worlds last year, so I can see we had the same problem adapting. But I'm pretty sure he's really good and has good work ethics."
The final member of the 'Support Four' is also the most decorated. Cho "Mata" Se-hyeong is arguably the greatest support player in League of Legends history, with having won the Summoner's Cup in 2014 and winning the MVP award in the grand finals. While 2015 was a forgettable year for the South Korean, 2016 on a new team, Royal Never Give Up, has recharged the all-time great. Now on one of the leading teams in China, Mata is looking to add more gold to his already bustling trophy case.
"I used to really look up to him when he was on Samsung White," he said. "I got to play against him [on Samsung White] and I was actually super scared even scrimming against them. Scrims were over after 15 minutes, and I was like, 'How was that possible?' 'How are they so good?' And then when they split up, I was happy that such a good team was not going to be together for the next year so other teams could compete. At the same time I felt sad, because they were so strong and dominant that it was frustrating playing against them. And every time I played him and [Gu "imp" Seung-bin], it was the first bottom lane that I was scared to play against."
That is the type of player YellOwStaR is. Imp and Mata were one of the only players that ever made him feel fear when playing against, yet he felt bittersweet when they split. For him, playing against them showed mistakes in his style of play that he needed to fix. Those frustrating, agonizing, and painful 15 minute losses to Samsung White in scrimmages eventually helped him make it to the semifinals of Worlds with Fnatic in 2015.
The bigger mountain to climb for YellOwStaR, the better.
"TSM won Katowice last year, and I want this to happen again," he said. "It would mean a lot to us. Even though we might be struggling for now, I think we're going uphill. I really expect our team to get out of group stage and actually qualify for the [semifinals]. That would give us a huge boost going forward into the [NA LCS] playoffs. Seeing how we've progressed, I expect a lot from us going into the tournament."