Saturday's semifinal showdown between defending champions Counter Logic Gaming and surging No. 4 seed Team Liquid will be go down as a memorable best-of-five series in LCS history. CLG was doubted coming into the split as the defending champs, overlooked due to the departure of its ace, AD carry Yiliang "Doublelift" Peng, and his subsequent signing to rivals Team SoloMid.
The champion, the team usually seen as the one to beat in the preseason, was pegged this season as an underdog. What would they do with a rookie, Trevor "Stixxay" Hayes, in the AD carry role and having to fill the gigantic shoes left by Doublelift? They were a challenger while still holding the title around their waists.
Even when they surprised their critics by grabbing the 2-seed in the regular season, they entered Saturday's matchup with Team Liquid in a series that was expected to go either way. Liquid, a squad consisting of a nice balance between veterans and rookies, believed they were on their own road to a first championship like CLG did the season before, rolling through first-round opponent NRG last week in a blowout sweep.
CLG made a statement on Sunday night: We're the kings of North America. Hype who you like. The rookies of Liquid. The monsters of Immortals. The super team of Team SoloMid. Until someone dethrones us, regardless if we're the favorites or not, we're the team to beat in North America.
After an explosive five-game series in which CLG fell behind 0-1 and was able to turn it around into a 3-2 scoreline, the champion's belt stayed intact.
"Well, by the time it gets to Game 5 in a series I realized that your animal instincts come out," said Zaqueri "Aphromoo" Black, the team's in-game leader and star support, following his team's thrilling semifinal victory. "It's just going to be a bloodbath, and that's basically what happened. It was a cycle of these five-versus-five death ball fights where anything you messed up could swing it in the enemy's favor."
The final game of the contest came down to those massive team fights. Liquid repeatedly baited Baron after getting an early lead, and it was the composure and coordination from CLG, which allowed a comeback to occur. It was a dirty, scrappy finale in the semifinals, with Counter Logic grinding out the victory through better late-game synergy and shot-calling.
"In the beginning of [Game 5] when they had the lead, I was definitely the reassuring voice," he said. "The No. 1 game plan going into the TL series was not to let [their] bottom lane do what they want to do. So Game 4, they got to do that. We picked very bad picks into their bottom lane, since their lane beat us level one. ... They tried to replicate that in Game 5, but we picked a better lane that time ... and tried to hold them off."
GG to TL, @Liquid_Matt one of the best supports in NA, you played a hell of a great series man... keep it up.
- Zaqueri Black (@aphromoo) April 10, 2016
As Aphromoo explained, Team Liquid's bottom lane of former world champion Chae "Piglet" Gwang-jin and rising rookie talent Matt "Matt" Elento had become the biggest bullies in all of North America. They pushed around NRG's bottom alone the week before by not allowing them a single kill, and their snowballing dominance was CLG's biggest obstacle from returning to the Grand Finals for a second straight postseason.
Aside from Piglet and Matt being able to flex their laning muscles in game four, CLG's defense was able to subdue the talented bot-lane for a large stretch of the match.
"Well, I did talk to him after," he told me about his positional opposition for the series, Matt. "When we shook hands, I was like, 'Hey man, you're really f---ing good. Keep it up.' And even though he's sad, I thought he played really, really well that series."
As Matt learned the harshness of the professional world today as a rookie, Aphromoo has already been through it in his lengthy career. Now one of the best supports in all the western scene and a high-level in-game leader, he can see that all the roadblocks and strife throughout his multiple LCS seasons has hardened him into possibly a back-to-back North American champion.
"Last year, I would say the biggest difference in how I feel [about making the grand finals], last year I definitely took it by the reins and probably dictated our game-plan style how we should be playing it," he said. "It was OK, but we really didn't adapt coming up to worlds. This split, coming into the finals, it's a lot easier for me to take a backseat and focus on my play. For this whole season it's been what I'm doing, and I've been able to focus on setting up the right plays."
The highlight that will be forever attached to this possibly historic series will be the double teleport engage that finished off any of Liquid's last hopes of winning the series. As Piglet farmed away near his base in the middle lane, a teleport began to channel from one of the lingering minions in front of the AD carry. Piglet stayed confidently in the lane, only expecting one champion to pop out from the spiraling blue tornado -- but then there were two enemy champions staring him in the face.
"Only [Darshan "Darshan" Upadhyaya and Choi "Huhi" Jae-hyun] were alive, and there were only two people up for their team as well. So they based, and Huhi and Darshan both talked to each other. It was both of their calls. They were going to [teleport] on the same minion to end the game. And Huhi told Darshan to go first, and then Huhi would later [teleport] on the same minion. ... [Piglet] thought one [teleport] was coming in, so Darshan popped out and [Piglet] was like, 'This guy can't kill me.' Then Huhi popped out the second time and it was over right there."
This match was especially important for one of the masterminds behind the double teleport play, Huhi. A former highly ranked South Korean amateur player, he has experienced ups and downs since moving to North America a few years ago. He toiled around the minor leagues before getting signed by CLG last year. He sat on the bench behind current Immortals mid lane Eugene "Pobelter" Park during his team's run to the domestic title and an appearance at worlds.
This season was middle of the road for their mid laner, despite being above average for his team. He wasn't bad. He wasn't necessarily good either. He was solid for the most part, but he did have a tendency to get caught in games. Against Liquid, however, Huhi was a giant, playing one of the best playoff series from a mid laner in recent memory. He was smooth and synced well with the rest of his teammates.
After one of North America's best matches, Aphromoo believes the support staff coming into the scene is the big reason why he thinks the region is becoming stronger. The money and purchased talent has been there for a year or so in North America, but the infrastructure behind the players hasn't been up to par. With the additions of better analysts, coaches and management, to go along with best practice structure, the NA LCS is in a position to vastly improve for one of, if not the first time.
Of those strong support staffs he named are the two teams entering tomorrow's semifinal for the chance to meet CLG in Sin City in the grand finals. Aphromoo's former bottom lane partner, Doublelift, will bring his all-star lineup into battle against the 17-1 Immortals, the top team in the regular season with only a single dropped map all split -- Counter Logic Gaming being the ones to stop the flawless run of matches.
"My prediction is going to be TSM winning the series," he answered when I put him on the spot to see which team he thought would be challenging him next weekend. "Five games. I'm pretty sure TSM is going to take it, and that's basically based on the past month of them playing. Immortals has been playing the same way and no one's really been able to figure out how to beat it. I mean, we were their only loss [through] countering it. But I think TSM has a really good game plan heading into the match, and they should be able to come out on top."
Finally, winding down the interview, I inquired if he had any words for the loyal fans who stuck with CLG even through the departure of their superstar player and questionable offseason.
"To those fans, I very much appreciate you guys looking past all the hate, the bandwagoner stuff. You're not really blind to what people pass around, what they say, whatever. It means a lot that they would stay for us; even coming into the series today it was like 70 percent Team Liquid fans out here."
"Most people really like to follow the players they like, so you really can't doubt them for that. But for people who really do like CLG for CLG, they definitely see growth and that we're a family over here and we definitely care about everyone, including staff and all the other teams that we have for other games. We all hang out together, and we know it's very, very important that everyone sticks together."
"And even though we're going to make the trek over to Mordor, it's going to be OK."