Repeat and redemption. After a season of offseason criticism, Counter Logic Gaming defended its title as the top team in North America against their rivals, Team SoloMid, in the one of the greatest LCS finals of all time. The team entered the series, which went a full five games, as the overlooked reigning kings -- not the preseason super team that lifted the championship trophy in front of a packed house in the Mandalay Bay Events Center.
"CLG's roster is an enigma," captain and back-to-back champion Zaqueri "Aphromoo" Black said when I asked him to sum up his team's split in one sentence. "Most people, on paper, [say], 'These guys -- they're just awful! I don't know who this guy is. He's going to play like s---, garbage.' And every single time, we just show up for playoffs no matter what. It doesn't really matter if people think that way. We're always going to prove that [CLG] is here to f---ing play."
Aphromoo was right. Every time Counter Logic Gaming succeeded this season, the team's achievement was quickly brushed aside, and the masses were ready to see them fall off as the postseason drew closer.
But they kept winning. And winning. And then they grabbed one of the first-round byes, slipped by Team Liquid in the semifinals, and finished it off with the biggest win in the organization's history -- defeating the team's former ace, Yiliang "Doublelift" Peng, who left the team for greener pastures at TSM during the offseason.
"I was definitely nervous the first two games," said Trevor "Stixxay" Hayes, finals MVP and, coincidentally, Doublelift's replacement in the starting five this split. "I was mechanically choking, but after [those two games], I was able to refocus. ... I think I played super well the rest of the series."
Over the course of the playoffs, CLG have simulated the best-of-five format in their practice regimen. Instead of short scrim blocks, management preferred to put the players through what they'd expect from a long, grueling series--and practice the steps to get through certain mental blocks.
Turn the AC down, have small, 10-to-15 minute breaks between games, and visualize playing in an actual playoff series. The training would come in handy, since both of CLG's postseason matches during playoffs went the distance.
"I think I played much, much better than he did today," said Stixxay when asked about his matchup against Doublelift in the bottom lane. "Not that I'm better than him, but I think today I definitely showed up."
"At the beginning of the season, I said Stixxay would be better than Doublelift by the end of the year," said Aphromoo, telling me about the evolution of his new rookie AD carry partner. "And just so happens, it happened halfway through the year."
Aphromoo describes Stixxay as calm--steady.
He isn't the type of player who will try to be the ace every single game. But if he ever has an idea for a pick to play in a crucial moment, his captain and bot-lane partner will fully trust in the rookie's call, like today's Tristana pick in the climactic fifth set of the finals. "He really doesn't ever have to feel like he has something to prove to me because I already believe."
"Aphro is the kind of person who only wants the best for everyone," said Stixxay. "If you ever have questions or anything, he's never going to shut you down because he's a higher [level] person than you or whatever. He's always willing to help anyone--everyone on the team. Any questions I have, I can ask him. He always helps me out, and he's just like a really friendly person. I think he was probably the most impactful player this whole series for me because he helped me keep my mentality a lot better than it used to be. Aphro is probably the best teammate you could ask for."
Although it's a back-to-back championship for Counter Logic Gaming, it's not quite a continuous reign. The two championship teams are completely different stylistically when it comes to the starting lineups, with the former being led by Doublelift as the ace AD carry, and the current team playing more of a teamwork-based offense where anyone can step up at any time.
"I'll start with this year's iteration," said Aphromoo when I asked about the main differences between the 2015 championship team and the current title squad. "This year's [team] definitely has a better mentality. I would say higher skill cap, in being that we have two rookies on the team who can just pop off any time they want to if they get put in that position. We can always rely on them. And we don't have to play one forced style like the last CLG iteration had to, where it was just like -- consistent safe farming mids that are teamfight-y, Darshan gets to counterpick every single time, Xmithie plays tanks, as well as, you know, just snowball bottom lane and get objectives that way."
One of the unsung heroes throughout the season was coach Tony "Zikzlol" Gray, who has now helped his team capture two straight championships in a row. In his first season as the head coach, he was able to take a roster with rookies and seemingly spare parts and turn it into a well-oiled machine that took home the trophy in Vegas.
"Tony is by far the best coach in NA," said Stixxay. "I'd say probably [best] in the west. He's super good at what he does because he has like--I don't know what his brain thinks but he knows exactly what to think. He thinks about every possible situation in pick/ban, so we almost never get a bad draft. Even in practice, we always have good drafts and are happy with our champion picks. If we ever have any complaints or anything, we tell him and he fixes it."
"I don't think everyone on the team last split had a voice," said Aphromoo. "And this split, that is definitely one of our focal points from our coaching staff--to make sure everyone knows that they're important. That they can affect the environment or the play style however they want to. As well as make sure it's tactful so people understand when you're criticising them that it's not to offend them."
"So when we rebuilt the roster, that was basically the idea behind it," Stixxay explained the formation of CLG's mentality--creating a true team for this split. "We wanted five players who were not only friends in-game [but also] out of game and could always talk to each other about any criticism and be fine taking criticism. Honestly, that environment from the beginning was the best for us and helped us grow a lot, so we always have trust in our teammates."
In the end, that's how the season finished. After various big money teams entered the fray and filled the offseason with flashy signings, it was CLG that would take home the championship win. None of the big Korean imports lifted the trophy. It wasn't the super team of TSM. It wasn't the regular season juggernaut, Immortals.
It was an organization that bought into the idea of forming a true team. Not five championship-caliber players thrown together on a paper-perfect roster, but five players who could come together to create a championship team.