The long wait is finally over for North America. Counter Logic Gaming became the first NA team to ever make a Riot-sponsored international final on Saturday, taking down Taiwan's Flash Wolves in an impressive 3-1 victory. Other than Team SoloMid's triumph at the IEM World Championships last year in Poland over Team WE of China's LPL, the semifinal victory could be the most important event in the history of North American League of Legends.
Saturday's semifinal will be remembered for the incredible job done in the bottom lane by CLG's Zaqueri "Aphromoo" Black and his signature line of ranged supports. Going into the competition, ranged support picks like Soraka and Janna were seen as something weird the North American region practiced and no one else paid attention to. Now, with only the final best-of-five to go, the 'eccentric' support meta from the once disregarded region of NA has become the standard. At the front of the revolution in the bottom lane is Aphromoo, garnering respect from players throughout the tournament, including his opponent Lee "Wolf" Jae-wan from SK Telecom T1.
Game one was a vintage CLG affair, as the boys in stars and stripes played around an efficient lane swap to gain a massive advantage in the early-game. Flash Wolves were caught completely off guard, reacting slowly to North America's rotations and roams on the map, which lead to all three lanes falling heavily behind. With the gold advantage, CLG was able to unlock its ability to dive under towers at will. Aphromoo's Bard and Jake "Xmithie" Puchero's Kindred kept the team's carries safe as Kalista and Ekko eliminated Flash Wolves' main targets.
Everything CLG preached in interviews came to life in the first game of the series. The players respected Flash Wolves, but showed zero fear when it came to attacking in the mid-game. CLG's carries believed in Xmithie and Aphromoo to save them; likewise, the play-making pair had complete trust in their carries getting the job done. Seamless lane-swap, coordinated moves around the map, and machine-like team-fighting has been the CLG way of doing things thus far in the competition.
Over the next three games, CLG's faith in one another would be tested. The second game was the complete opposite of the first. This time, it was the Wolves who came out on the hunt early, executing the advantageous lane-swap and getting the lead in the laning phase. Unlike the first set, the tempo was entirely on the Taiwanese champion's side. CLG was forced to play reactionary and its only option was to stall the game out until its Azir/Caitlyn-centric composition would become more valuable.
But just as CLG did in game one, the Flash Wolves didn't let the North Americans regain their standing. The Wolves continually clashed against the farming CLG, and forced it into contests in the jungle and around the Baron pit. Instead of taking the foot off the gas pedal and letting CLG play comfortably, FW made sure to constantly press the action. CLG was lured into fighting at Baron and lost convincingly. The NA champions were never given the chance to set up for a base defense like in its 17k gold comeback against Royal Never Give Up.
Game three was what I called a mentality breaker set. CLG won game one convincingly, while the Flash Wolves came back with a vengeance in game two. The third set would test which team could persevere through adversity and take hold of the series again.
We saw it happen yesterday in the SKT T1 vs. Royal series. SK Telecom T1 fell apart in game one, turned the tide in game two, and then started to dismantle RNG in the third game. When the fourth set came around, Royal was on the ropes and the defending world champion from Korea knocked RNG out in front of its hometown crowd. The close loss to SKT in the third game broke the mentality of an internationally inexperienced Royal team and set it up for the fatal blow in the next set.
CLG was seemingly on the same timeline as RNG. Flash Wolves got ahead early in game three like the previous set, and Aphromoo's unorthodox choice of Sona wasn't working out. The Sona pick, despite being good in the late-game with her utility and game-changing Crescendo stun, is made of paper and can get torn to shreds in a split-second.
However, the North Americans held on. It didn't waver under the pressure. While RNG broke -- to be fair, SK Telecom T1 was a much stronger team than the Flash Wolves -- and let itself get trampled, CLG didn't falter. It held on when it was down 6,000 gold, knowing it would only take a single team fight from the Sona/Ekko composition to get back in the game.
Flash Wolves obliged, not pressuring effectively like it did in game two and meandering around the map with subpar vision. It wasn't long before that exact team fight CLG was looking for came to it, and the Flash Wolves wasn't quick enough to curb the Sona selection. Aphromoo made his ultimates count in the mid-game, and the Wolves' poor vision and carelessness in getting caught out allowed CLG to claw its way into a lead.
The ones who broke in game three were the Flash Wolves. The mantra of "Respect all, fear none" rang true when the third and fourth sets were finished, with Aphromoo's Sona working in both games. The Flash Wolves had no more tricks up their ban/pick sleeve when it came down to the final game.
The biggest difference in the series came in the form of the AD carry match-up. Aphromoo proved himself as a world-class support and possibly one of the top three in the entire world this tournament. However, it's not like his adversary, Hu "SwordArt" Shuo-Jie, isn't close to or equal in skill.
The real mismatch was between Trevor "Stixxay" Hayes and Hsiung "NL" Wen-An. Both were seen as the weakest links of their teams, but Stixxay turned himself into a pivotal part of his CLG's success while NL continued to be an anchor for his squad in his limited champion pool. When his two best champions, Ezreal and Lucian, were banned out or taken away from him, NL was either invisible or a detriment to his team. Stixxay, on the other side, has played well on a variety of different marksmen and used NL's own Ezreal against him in the final games to win the series.
"Aside from the Wildcard team, CLG is the worst team here," SwordArt stated on opening day of the group stages before playing North America's champions for the first time.
Two weeks later, the team he believed was the second worst team at the event ended up in the finals after going a combined 5-1 over the Flash Wolves.
CLG made history on Saturday. It'll need to do much more though if it wants to go from making history to going down in history as the Mid-Season Invitational champions. A five and a half year drought has ended. Now, the world champion awaits.