Shifting scenes from the sunny skies of Los Angeles to the glitzy nights of Las Vegas, the North American LCS final could be a Hollywood script in disguise.
Counter Logic Gaming, after years of ineptitude and mediocrity in the playoffs, cleansed its demons the best way imaginable: sweeping its eternal rival and three-time LCS champion Team SoloMid in New York City's historic Madison Square Garden--lifting the trophy for the first time since the organization's inception.
It was the accumulation of years and years of desperate hard work and setbacks. Every time it appeared that CLG was learning its lesson, the team would stumble in the postseason and take three steps back. Finally, for the loyal fans who persevered and continued cheering for the team during dark times, there's a light at the end of the tunnel.
North American champions.
Well, the good times didn't last long for CLG, as the team reverted back to its inconsistent form at the World Championships in Europe and fell out of a favorable group in the first round. Not too long after, the team's franchise player--CLG's identity before the LCS even began--Yiliang "Doublelift" Peng announced he'd be departing the team.
Less than an hour later, a video popped up from Team SoloMid, with Doublelift throwing away his iconic Counter Logic Gaming jersey in the trash and joining his archrival, TSM's ace and two-time league MVP, Søren "Bjergsen" Bjerg.
The offseason would only continue to bolster TSM's super team with a mechanically gifted jungle ace from Europe's SK Gaming, Dennis "Svenskeren" Johnsen. A talented prospect in the top lane from Gravity, Kevin "Hauntzer" Yarnell. And to top it all off, the captain from the best western team of 2015 and one of the best in-game leaders of all-time, Bora "YellOwStaR" Kim.
It was a new generation of Team SoloMid.
With the exit of its longest tenured player Marcus "Dyrus" Hill, it was time to turn the page on TSM's legacy. The loss to CLG in Madison Square Garden pushed the team to do everything in its power to make sure it'd never happen again. It was the dream team of western players on paper, consisting of a good mixture of experience levels and responsibilities.
Counter Logic Gaming's offseason wasn't nearly as glamorous.
Instead of breaking the bank or splashing into the headlines by signing a top European or Korean AD carry, the stalwart organization decided to promote from within. Trevor "Stixxay" Hayes, a player for CLG's challenger team the year before, was given one of the most difficult jobs for a newcomer in all of sports: stepping into the shoes of the former face of the franchise.
Historically, CLG has been known to try and make splashes to change the dynamic of the team. Big names came and went, and the organization was often left to pick up the pieces. Since winning the title and losing Doublelift, the team has taken the exact opposite road to make it to the final.
Don't try to make a super team. Make the perfect team. Forget about the flashy names from other countries that'll only mess up your team's chemistry. Don't pick up a guy who surrounds himself in drama because he has some nice mechanics. Pass over the incredible Korean player who can't communicate with his teammates.
CLG's success this season came from turning the team into an unbreakable unit--a family. When I talked to the players on the team throughout the season, they'd say the same things: they enjoyed being around each other, they backed each other up if something went wrong, if one player needed a hand to get up from the ground, all four of his teammates would extend their arms.
In Counter Logic Gaming's biggest win of the season over Immortals, ending the team's perfect season, Darshan "Darshan" Upadhyaya, the team's thought-of ace, explained he was only allowed be the split-push player he is because of his teammates' abilities to open up the map. The team also has one of the best leaders in the west--Zaqueri "Aphromoo" Black--but throughout the game, there are different shot callers at various points.
When trying to pinpoint a way to defeat a team, it's common to focus its weakest link. For many, that weak link would be its new starters, Stixxay or Choi "HuHi" Jae-hyun, but CLG doesn't let either of its newer players get exposed.
Huhi can get caught out at times, but he's picked up steam over the season and has become one of the keys to the squad's semifinal win over Team Liquid. Stixxay, in the same series, was able to keep himself relevant against Liquid's elite bottom lane. CLG made sure TL wouldn't be able to get ahead through the bottom lane discrepancy alone.
When CLG won its first championship last summer, the word thrown around was 'faith'. Faith from the fans. Faith in breaking the postseason curse. Faith in becoming champions.
The players and management don't need to say the word anymore. It's already ingrained into their personalities and mindsets. Faith in the team. Faith in the family. Faith in Counter Logic Gaming.
TSM, the super team, are still learning what CLG has already accomplished. While CLG had a successful regular season, having finished second-seed, TSM struggled. It learned pretty quickly it didn't matter how much journalists and analysts lauded the roster on paper if the team couldn't perform on Summoner's Rift.
Similar to my interviews with CLG during the regular season, TSM also had a main theme in its interviews--the drive to win.
From week one, the team was never going to be happy with its performance until the championship was in its hands. The team went out and picked up five individuals who all wanted to taste victory more than anything. But even with top-level mechanical talent, it was a long process for the players to come together as a team.
There were times when TSM would barely take wins over teams at the bottom of the standings. More often than not, the players could only look at the post-game screens with disdain. Everything they worked for and put into the season was to succeed in the playoffs--and from there, qualify for the Mid-Season Invitational. Then, the summer season. And ultimately, the World Championships.
Last year, TSM was a top domestic team, even winning the IEM World Championship, but fell on its face at major international competitions when faced up against teams with stronger lineups. Bjergsen couldn't single-handedly win games, and the same strategies the team used in North America wouldn't work against the likes of SK Telecom T1 and KT Rolster.
The blueprint for this new era of TSM wasn't to come out of the gates and smash teams like the Immortals. While the Immortals pummeled opponent after opponent with one-dimensional gameplay, TSM has been working on being the antithesis of its former self.
TSM wants to be able to run a composition around Svenskeren. If the meta favors the bottom lane, the team wants to be confident in playing around Doublelift and YellOwStar. Bjergsen is always there to carry in the mid lane, and Hauntzer has shown glimpses of being an ace with the right backing.
I'm not trying to say TSM's more lackluster performances were part of some super secret plan. But in the year-long circuit of League of Legends, you want to be playing your best games and coming together at the end of the year--not the beginning.
It's great to achieve an amazing regular season. But if you lose in the semifinals like Immortals, it's all for naught.
No one cares who was atop of the standings in week eight of the LCS in spring.
They care about who can close in on the World Championship competition come autumn.
TSM has started to come together at the right time. The players have begun to trust in each other. I wouldn't say they're at the same level as the starting five from
CLG, but it's a difficult comparison, when many teams in the world don't the same amount of trust as CLG.
Nowadays, Bjergsen and Doublelift are trusting in Svenskeren's abilities in a jungle carry meta. The team is rallying around YellOwStaR's leadership. The so-called dream team, which was laughed at in the first weeks of the split, is finally becoming a reality.
The final is set. Sunday, Aphromoo and his brothers from Counter Logic Gaming will look to defend its North American championship versus Doublelift and his band of super teammates under the TSM banner.
Under the bright lights of Las Vegas and in front of over 10,000 fans at the Mandalay Bay Events Center, the world will learn who was right and who was wrong in the offseason.
The family of Counter Logic Gaming.
The super team of Team SoloMid.
Let the movie begin.