The regular season was a nightmare for Team SoloMid. It suffered through a string of losses, went through a head coaching change, and the players got frustrated over their lack of improvement. Following a loss to NRG Esports to end the 2016 NA LCS Spring Split, the two-time former two-time champions dropped to a sixth seed in the postseason -- and this supposed "super team" was anything but super walking into the apparent gallows of a first-round matchup against Cloud9.
A best-of-five loss for Team SoloMid would have ended its campaign and -- quite possibly the roster, as currently constructed. For an organization that has never missed the NA LCS Grand Finals, failure wasn't an option Saturday -- it was a battle of survival for TSM's starting five.
And survive TSM did -- reversing an 1-0 deficit on the way to a 3-1 victory over old rivals Cloud9.
"The last two weeks we basically did nothing but practice," said TSM's jungler, Dennis "Svenskeren" Johnsen, after the team's convincing win in the quarterfinals. "We scrimmed a lot more hours. ... We also had Weldon Green the sports psychologist as well, which helped us for two weeks."
TSM's issues this season haven't been about its individual stars. Svenskeren has had a handful of games where he performed superbly in the first 15 minutes of the set before tripping up late through a lack of synergy with his teammates. It was a team of all-stars on paper, but that's all this team was in the first nine of weeks of the season -- fragile paper the in-sync squads of North America could rip through.
"Weldon helped us a lot because we ended the season pretty bad," Svenskeren said about Green. "He kind of reset everyone's mindset for playoffs. So we didn't hold any grudges against any team members. Everyone started fresh."
From talking to various TSM players over the nine-week regular season, I never got an inkling the members were against one another. The biggest takeaway was how driven all five players were, even after weekends where they didn't play their best. SoloMid wasn't happy because the players knew they could do better with the talent around them. They wanted to be the team going on an Immortals-like run, buzz-sawing through the other teams in the ladder.
"Basically I think we have five better players, on each position," he said when asked about what Cloud9 lacked Saturday. "I don't think there was much they could do. The first game we didn't have any practice against global team comps, so it threw us off. We just decided to ban Twisted Fate and Gangplank because we were too scared of playing against TF ult. But when those were [gone] we took a lot more fights."
Svenskeren has been trying to adapt to his squad all season long, and Saturday might have been the start of his turnaround in an otherwise lackluster first North American season. On a team with like-minded, aggressive players, it has all been about learning how to share. There is only so much gold that can be distributed in League of Legends, and it has been a constant learning experience with the likes of Søren "Bjergsen" Bjerg and Yiliang "Doublelift" Peng also in the starting five.
It's like basketball. You can put the five best scorers in the world on the same court, but there is only one ball. It's better to have one or two primary scorers while the rest of the team excels in other parts of the game, with defense, rebounding, playmaking and the like. It has been Svenskeren's mission this season to be less selfish and learn how to go from being an ace on SK Gaming to being more of a facilitator on TSM.
"[Lee "Rush" Yoon-jae's] season was definitely better than mine, but I think he's a greedy player," he said on the subject of his jungle opposition against Cloud9. "He's not willing to give up for his team. He always goes for camps and gets caught out when there is no way he should be able to be on [that] side of the map. And we actually punished him [today] for doing that."
While the 2015 summer MVP Rush was attempting to push the pace and force the tempo in Saturday's quarterfinal, Svenskeren let the game come to him for one of the first times all season. When the results mattered the most, Svenskeren was able to be flexible for his team and Rush couldn't -- leading TSM to its decisive victory in the final sets.
"I think we're pretty good friends now," he said, talking about the improving relationships inside the team house as the split went along. "It all comes through success. If you're not winning then you're obviously not going to like your team as much. Since Weldon helped us reset then it wasn't really a problem."
The quarterfinals were against an old rival. The semifinals will be against a new one: Immortals, the clear frontrunning team in the NA LCS regular season with an outstanding record of 17-1. The winner of the match will punch its ticket to the Las Vegas finals where it will meet one of Counter Logic Gaming, Team Liquid, or NRG Esports in the sixth NA LCS Grand Final.
"I think it's going to be really hard," he said, giving his thoughts on Team SoloMid's upcoming best-of-five against Immortals. "But I think we can do it. It's going to be a really hard match. I think it'll go to five games."
So, in the clash against the top-seeded Immortals, what is one element of his team's gameplay in which Svenskeren believes TSM is stronger?
"We got Bjergsen, so we can beat them," he said.
Trust in his teammates, and trust in his team.