"How many matches do we have left? Eleven?" Counter Logic Gaming's captain Zaqueri "Aphromoo" Black asked as we sat down in a half-empty office on the second floor of the LCS Arena to talk following his team's 1-2 loss to Immortals.
"Yes," I answered, quickly trying to do mental math like I was in the third grade again.
"2-16, then, that's what we're going for," he replied, laughing at the predicament he and his team find themselves in.
When the season began began four weeks ago, it seemed impossible that we'd ever see CLG as underdogs again in the North American region. It had just won its second straight NA LCS championship and, in even more impressive fashion, got to the finals of a major Riot international tournament by facing SK Telecom T1 in the finals of the Mid-Season Invitational. Sure, an 0-3 loss wasn't the fairy tale ending the team hoped for, but Counter Logic finally, for the first time ever, seemed logical. The team was working in perfect sync, the thought-of weak links were performing well over expectations, and Aphromoo was leading a team as good as we've seen from a North American side.
Yet, turn the calendar a month into the future, and here we sit. Aphromoo's CLG is 2-5 overall in the league and watching from outside a playoff berth in seventh place behind the 3-4 rookies from Apex Gaming. The disrespected champions, who failed to be denied last split, are now the respected champions failing to find their footing in an ultra-competitive league. The meta has shifted, the teams around them have gotten better, and a likely three-peat has turned into CLG fighting merely to get into the postseason.
"Mainly, I'd put it on meta, but I don't really like to make excuses," he said. "Most of the time, we're going through top or going through bottom, and before that was the meta. Now, everyone is playing around the mid lane, so we as a team are not used to playing around mid lane. We didn't really do that last split. Going into playoffs and going into MSI, no one played around mid lane."
The perceived catalyst for CLG thus far has been the team's mid laner, Choi "Huhi" Jae-hyun. A sacrificial lamb of sorts last split, a la Marcus "Dyrus" Hill of TSM's LCS title run in 2015, Huhi was the ultimate team player when it came to giving up resources -- and sometimes his life -- to benefit his teammates around him. While teams would throw ultimates and other spells to erase him from the map, the lack of attention and/or peeling from the rest of the team would allow Trevor "Stixxay" Hayes or Darshan "Darshan" Upadhyaha to pick up the necessary kills.
"Having mid control is centered around your mid laner, jungler and support," he said. "So I'd say the three of us are really at fault for most of these losses. It's always about contesting vision. You have to clear this, you have to clear that. What three champions you have -- usually the three, I call it the 'Triforce' is what we call it, and one of the has to have [crowd control], one of them probably has to be a tank, and then the other one has to do straight-up damage. And you usually have to have the three core champions you pick for that and then battle against them and know where they are. It's always an information game, processing around it. Early ganks mid will happen more often than not now, consecutively, so we're pretty poor at doing that."
If there is a silver lining at all in this slow start by the champs, it's the fact that CLG plays its best games when they're overlooked or disrespected. All last season, even when the team was atop the ladder for a majority of the split, it felt like every other team in the league was the hot story of the week, except for the returning winners. It wasn't until Stixxay completed his multi-kill in the fifth game victory of the NA LCS Finals in Las Vegas over TSM that people started to really talk about CLG. Even then, the discussion switched from which team would dethrone them in North America to which Asian team would embarrass them at the Mid-Season Invitational.
Pressure, and faith within themselves and one another, is what this truly counter logic team thrives on.
"I stopped reading Reddit three weeks ago, when we had a bad start at the beginning," Aphromoo said when I asked how Huhi and the rest of the team is dealing with the criticism from the community. "And so did [Huhi], and so did Darshan. All we have to do is work on our mind control, and [Huhi] is definitely very good at taking a lot of heat and criticism because people have done that to him in the past before. He's pretty much used to it. I think the thing that keeps him going is definitely our 100 percent belief in him as a team and a coaching staff. So you're 100 percent -- you believe Huhi can be a carry mid laner. He can be up there with Bjergsen, etc., as long as you work as a team?"
"Yeah. Usually the reason why carries look so good is because of the support around them. So it's usually support, jungle, they go get the vision. They enable you to go for that dive and go for that one vs. one kill. We're going to pull these people here so you have the space in order to do that. Our mid control is very poor, with myself, Xmithie and Huhi, and we're just really trying to focus on that."
Moving over from CLG's issues to its rival's success, we talked a little about Aprhomoo's former bottom lane partner in Yiliang "Doublelift" Peng. After dispatching of Doublelift in last season's final and going on to do so well at MSI, it's been the reverse this season, as TSM has gotten off to a startling 6-0 start at the top of table. Doublelift has done well in the first three weeks, linking up alongside rookie Vincent "Biofrost" Wang in TSM's revamped bot-lane duo.
"YellOwStaR and Doublelift were polar opposites," Aphromoo said. "So it's really hard to play bottom lane when one wants to do this and the other wants to do that. Now that they have a bottom lane on the same page, it's a lot cleaner. They can lose gracefully [if needed], as well as punish people. And overall, it's helped their team cohesiveness in going for the same play they want to go for. I'd say there is no lack of understanding within the team, and Biofrost has allowed that to happen. Plus, he is a rookie, so he definitely has a lot to learn from the four veterans on the team."
Where Doublelift and Biofrost are currently is where Aphromoo and his sophomore AD carry Stixxay want to be by the end of the split. A completed three-peat in Toronto's Air Canada Centre this coming August over Doublelift and his sparkling rookie support would be the perfect end to a three split arc of redemption -- and ultimately triumph.
Before we can even think of any of that, though, Aphromoo and CLG need to, you know, actually make the playoffs -- something that wouldn't happen if postseason started tomorrow.
"Well, everyone goes through the s--- show if you're doing really bad at the beginning of the season or all the way up to playoffs," he said. "People just instantly assume things. 'Aww, man, you gotta change this, you gotta change that,' and those are the type of people that you don't really need when you want to achieve success. You can't really achieve success if you keep changing everything. So this is our first split that we kept our same roster, and we're going to have problems eventually -- we just so happened to adapt really quickly and fix them throughout last split and the split before."
"I just want the fans to know that we're working 150 percent our best effort to figure out why we're losing and trying to do it better. Even in LCS games, we're trying to work [on it] to make it a lot better. And even though we might do it as well as other teams, it's going to happen, and just look forward to us still being able to make playoffs. I have no doubt in my mind."