Don't look now, but Counter Logic Gaming isn't done just yet.
The defending champion of North America got off to a more than inadequate start to its possible three-peat as the team labored through the first half of the split. Just a few weeks ago, it was outside of the playoff picture looking in, but CLG are back in the top six and tied for the fifth-seed alongside slumping Team Envy (6-6) with a game above rookie club Apex Gaming (5-7) in seventh.
"I thought it would feel a lot better," said starting mid laner Choi "Huhi" Jae-hyun following CLG's 2-0 weekend to get back at .500 in the standings and back into a playoff spot. "But I guess since we lost a game versus P1, we weren't really that satisfied. We're still pretty happy we 2-0'ed, and starting from this week, we knew the matches were really important because we want to get into the playoffs."
A finalist of a major tournament only two months ago in Shanghai, China for the Mid-Season Invitational, CLG has recently experienced internal issues when transitioning to the new mid-centric meta. While rival Team SoloMid (12-0) has secured all the positive press this split with its flawless match run and extraordinary 24-3 map score, the defending champs are working hard to get over its slump to hopefully remind TSM which team beat it in the North American League Championship Finals the past two splits.
"We knew how to snowball the bottom lane and the top lane," Huhi remarked, detailing how the team successfully navigated the spring split and following MSI tournament. "That was our play style before. As [the] meta shifted, we realized mid lane pressure is really important We lacked on that a lot because we always prioritized top or bottom, and now we are starting to talk a lot -- me, Xmithie, and Aphromoo -- in real life [and] in-game to get on the same page in order to have really solid mid control like the top tier teams."
CLG and TSM's roles have reversed from last season. In the spring, it was CLG that enjoyed a smooth regular season and a first round bye into an eventual championship while TSM was the club struggling to get on the same page as the postseason approached. Fortunately for SoloMid, it snuck into the playoffs and made a spirited run to the finals against CLG before ultimately losing. Counter Logic, on the other hand, is faced with the same timer TSM was burdened with last split, less than two months away from the NA LCS Finals in Toronto.
Past the trouble in the mid lane, Darshan "Darshan" Upadhyaha is going through an uncharacteristically poor split, and Trevor "Stixxay" Hayes is experiencing a sophomore slump with the shift of attention moving away from the AD carry position to the mid lane. Jake "Xmithie" Puchero has been a bright spot for the team with clutch objective steals and smart plays; however, if Counter Logic truly wants to make the World Championships in the fall, one or two players can't drag it there. CLG are only as good as its weakest link. Outpowered on paper when you look at the lineups from TSM and second-seed Immortals, it's going to have to be the team's intellect and map play that brings it to the promise land, not brute strength.
"Before, whenever I watched [NA LCS], it was kind of rough. It was fun entertainment," Huhi said. "[League of Legends Championship Korea] was really strict -- really organized teams whenever they played -- and NA LCS [fights] a lot, and that's how they win. But now, I'll say it's changed a little bit, and it kind of looks like they care about the macro game and rotations. Also, they fought a lot still, so I'll say compared to other regions, we also have that advantage. Whenever the game [turns into] chaos, we're more comfortable [in] it. I'll say NA LCS actually became a much stronger region that can be a Worlds contender."
The best-of-three format has upped the performances of teams this split. Although viewership numbers have shrunk as the summer has heated up, the clubs are experiencing the benefits of playing more games. Instead of only playing 18 best-of-one games last split, teams are already well over that figure with a third of the season left to go. The new format has also given valuable time to teams like Counter Logic Gaming that need the extra offline practice to fortify the changes in strategy and lane priority. As a whole, for the first time since 2012 when South Korea was making its way into the scene, North America and its fans possess a cautious optimism as the World Champions draw closer.
"I don't go to Reddit at all," Huhi told me when I brought up the elephant in the room: the community backlash that's risen against him. Throughout CLG's slump, Huhi's been the scapegoat, the player picked out as the perceived weak link due to the meta so heavily focused on his position. "The important thing is my team encouraging me and back[ing] me up. They're always telling me I'm really good and stuff like that. I'll say the criticism doesn't really get to me that much compared to other teams."
He went on to explain that it's "fair" if the community currently believes he can't be the mid lane carry ace CLG need to make a return trip to the NA LCS Finals. Huhi understands that his role has changed on the team, but even though he's currently not on the same level as TSM's Søren "Bjergsen" Bjerg, it's not as simple as being mechanically as good as him. It's a team effort from the support, jungle, and the side lane damage dealers to prop up the mid laner to help him succeed. As long as CLG can continue fixing its issues with the "Triforce" of Zaqueri "Aphromoo" Black, Xmithie, and Huhi -- showcased by Huhi's Player of the Game nod in the team's win over Phoenix1 -- the back-to-back champions feel it can match up with anyone in North America today.
Win or lose, it is never because of a single player for CLG. If the club's motto in the spring was "respect all, fear none," then for the summer, it should be: United we stand, divided we fall.