Counter Logic Gaming at MSI: Respect all, fear none

Counter Logic Gaming at the 2016 Mid-Season Invitational. Provided by Riot Games

Player of the Day: Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok

It was a 2-0 day to end T1's shocking 0-4 slump and celebrate Faker's 20th birthday. Happy birthday to the greatest player in the game's history, and we'll see if SKT T1 can lockdown a playoff spot tomorrow against G2 Esports and Royal Never Give Up.

Fionn's Mid-Season Invitational Power Rankings (Day 4)

A Tier: RNG

B Tier: CLG, FW, SKT

C Tier: G2

D Tier: SUP

Before the second biggest competition of the year, after the World Championships kicked off in Shanghai, China, the North American representatives Counter Logic Gaming came in with a single mindset:

Respect all. Fear none.

That means, in a tournament with the four other major region champions and the International Wildcard victor, treat everyone as an equal. Whether your opponent is SK Telecom T1, the reigning Summoner's Cup winners or large underdogs in Turkey's SuperMassive, you treat them the same in preparation. When you step foot on the stage to face them, you show no fear, even if SKT's Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok is staring you down from the opposing line of computers.

Throughout the first four days of the competition, that mantra held strong for the Americans. Besides one game against SuperMassive, in which you could say CLG tried moving out of its comfort zone and was beaten for it, the NA League Championship Series champions have won convincingly or been close in all of their games. The team has taken a game off all five combatants at the MSI and is sitting in second place with one day remaining in the group stages.

CLG's scouting report coming in was troubling to pundits. How was a team that scraped by in the LCS playoffs going to perform well on a much bigger stage at MSI? North America was run out of the tournament last year, when TSM failed to make it out of the group stages and picked up only a measly win over the International Wildcard winner. Following that disaster, none of the three North American teams was able to make it out of groups at Worlds, with CLG, TSM and gauntlet winners Cloud9 failing to reach the quarterfinals.

For the past year, North America has been a joke to the other regions in the world. Instead of talking about the team's play, a majority of the conversation was centered around the drama in the scene. While the rest of the world were looked upon as contenders for Korea's crown, NA were the pitiful jester -- fun to talk about and see what hijinks it gets into but not considered an actual threat.

CLG's making it out of NA wasn't expected by many in a season dominated by talk about Immortals' 17-1 rookie run and Team SoloMid's super team configuration. But when all the drama and reality shows finished airing, it was CLG -- not any of the probable teams -- who made it out of the region. After various teams spent big in the offseason to import talent and create headlines, it was the team that bought into itself that won the split.

Respect is the word, barring "team," with which I'd describe the current iteration of Counter Logic Gaming. To be blunt, the players and management got almost none of it entering the split. I'm not going to sit here and say I saw them coming this far when Yiliang "Doublelift" Peng was dropped in the offseason. Most predictions from the community and pundits had them finishing around third to sixth in the standings. What was supposed to be CLG's coronation as reigning champions turned into talk about every team except them.

Team Liquid will beat them.

Immortals will beat them.

Team SoloMid will beat them.

Even when CLG triumphed in NA, beating TL and TSM in a pair of 3-2 playoff matches, it started over again at the international stage. This time, the narrative shifted from CLG not being able to hang with the top NA LCS teams to CLG being an unworthy NA challenger who had zero shot of competing with the likes of Korea, China and Europe.

Where were the stars on the team? Zaqueri "Aphromoo" Black could be considered the one world-class talent in the starting lineup, but surely that wouldn't be enough to stack up against the rest of the best teams in the world. Darshan "Darshan" Upadhyaya can only split-push. Jake "Xmithie" Puchero isn't clutch. Choi "Huhi" Jae-hyun and Trevor "Stixxay" Hayes are downgrades from the squad's former starters.

Flash Wolves' star support, Hu "SwordArt" Shuo-Jie, said during the tournament that he thought CLG was the weakest team, besides the International Wildcard side. CLG were picked as the fifth-placed team by myriad pundits. Being disrespected is nothing new to the NA champions; the team won the NA LCS championship against TSM in a thrilling 3-2 series in Las Vegas, and a large amount of the crowd exited en masse before CLG did its champion interview.

It didn't matter if no one respected them. The team respected everyone it faced, believed in itself and prevailed. It's OK if you don't respect CLG. They'll respect you and then make you respect them with their play.

As for the other side of CLG's mindset, the no-fear aspect, the NA champion has proven it throughout the group stages at MSI. It hasn't mattered which team CLG is facing. Stixxay will play forward and, in his own words, "pop off" against anyone in the world. The rookie AD carry has been under the microscope all season, since taking over for Doublelift, and not even a finals MVP award in Las Vegas could sway critics.

It wasn't his award to win.

He wasn't that good.

He's a byproduct of the team's system.

So far in the competition, it's true. Stixxay, as he has said in interviews, has succeeded because of his team. But it works vice versa: CLG is succeeding because of how Stixxay is performing. There have been moments in games when CLG have been down in team fights and on the verge of toppling over, and Stixxay has come up as a true ace, bursting into battle to pick up three or four kills in succession for his team's survival.

The same can be said of every player on the roster. No one on CLG is perfect. All five are flawed in their own ways. Stixxay, for example, can fall behind in CS during the laning phase, if he tries to play too forward, or he can be a little too antsy late in the game, when he wants to start reeling off kills, and result in an untimely deletion from the map. The reason CLG is 5-3 after four days of competition is the four players make up for flaws of the one.

Stixxay messes up, and Aphromoo is there to back him up.

Xmithie screws up a gank, and the team is behind him to support.

Darshan gets caught out split-pushing, and the other four turn a negative into a positive by working on the other side of the map.

We saw it all come together in CLG's marquee win of the tournament, over Royal Never Give on Friday. That gave China's champions their first loss of MSI. The team stuck together down 17k gold and never stopped believing in one another. Right down to the Nexus turrets, CLG did everything in its power to keep alive for a few more seconds. Down that amount of gold, it isn't about winning or reversing the tides -- it's about being able to breathe for a few seconds before minions and champions crash against your base.

RNG's team composition around Zed and Nidalee didn't make for the best late-game team fighting composition, and CLG exploited that in the LPL winners' push toward victory. All five players were crucial in the team's staying above water, as RNG's overeagerness came back to bite them with the American champions turning the tide while on the brink. After winning one fight, CLG kept up the momentum in the form of Xmithie stealing a key Dragon to keep RNG from getting its fifth stack.

The tournament up to that Dragon steal had been straightforward from RNG's side: Play close in the early and middle games, and then overpower the opponent in the late game with the best team fighting in the world. One big team fight, crush them and stomp to victory.

But it was CLG's team fighting that won out in the end. Xmithie stole the Dragon, and the team collapsed on the rest of RNG and wiped them from the map. A quick Baron, CLG were back in the game, and a third straight victorious team fight brought CLG its landmark win over the undefeated RNG side.

All five sides CLG gave respect to, and the American league winners took down all five. No matter that it was SKT T1's counterattack macro style or RNG's demonic team fighting, CLG showed no fear when taking them on. It split the group stages with both of those teams, but in neither game did CLG play scared or back down from one of the Asian champions' challenge.

CLG have advanced to the semifinal bracket stage with their win over Royal, and they will now prepare for the hellacious best-of-five matches to come. An entirely different beast from playing a time in a single game, the next round will test if Counter Logic (and North America) are legitimate as a world contender, or if the past few days have been a mere fluke.

It's likely whoever CLG faces in the semifinal will be favored.

The opposing team is bigger, better and more experienced and will pick them apart in a longer series in which the North Americans can't sneak one out. For CLG, nothing will change. They've believed in themselves from the start, and they will continue to do so in any event.

Respect all, fear none: the Counter Logic Gaming and American way.