For a few hours on Sunday afternoon, the line between hope and despair teetered back and forth between two of the rookie clubs of the split, Apex Gaming and Team Envy (NV). Apex needed seemingly divine intervention to make the postseason, including losses by NV in its two weekend games.
Apex had to defeat playoff teams Team Liquid and Counter Logic Gaming, and Apex's glimmer of hope stretched into a belief it could actually make the playoffs after NV lost to Phoenix1. Apex took care of business against the pair of postseason squads: a 2-1 victory against Team Liquid, and a 2-1 win against Counter Logic Gaming. After a split that was anything but smooth, the Lions of Apex, inconsistent or not, could get into the postseason as the 6-seed as long as NV's slide continued against Echo Fox in the final match of the regular season.
"Pretty much, we were like, 'F--- it,'" said veteran support Alex "Xpecial" Chu after Apex's triumph over defending champions CLG. "We played, like, three scrim sets this week, which is about nine games. Usually, we play around two a day and in [a week] 10, so we played, like, nothing. The reason why we did so well was -- I mean, not to brag or anything -- this week I pretty much said to myself, 'I'm just going to say everything and make all the decisions as much as I can, and just say it and have my team listen to it.' And that worked out really, really well in our games, and I honestly think that's the reason why we're doing so well, because one person having all the control makes it 10 times easier to play the game."
One of the biggest narratives this split behind-the-scenes for teams has been the decision between being a "democratic" club or a "general-led" club. In the case of Cloud9 -- once led by the singular voice of former captain Hai "Hai" Lam -- it's switched from having a general-led team to becoming more of a democratic squad, with all the team members having input in how to play around the map. For some teams, having five voices can be the ticket to the success, but for others, it could cause disconnection, chaos, and disagreement if all five members aren't on the same page or speak the same language.
When it comes to having one voice, it can succeed if that player has the right mindset and experience, but could also cause problems by neglecting other members on the team.
"Honestly, I don't really care too much," said Xpecial on the chance NV could slip up against Echo Fox to allow Apex into the postseason. "I mean, yes, I want to make playoffs, a chance to go to Worlds. I think we'd beat Cloud9, but in the end, two days ago, I was thinking we're done. And for us to be at this level, we don't deserve to go to playoffs if NV wins. They are in control, and it's up to them to lose it. And yeah, I want to make playoffs, but at the same time, we didn't perform this whole split. There's really no reason for us to deserve playoffs or anything like that. Yeah, we're a stronger team than NV right now, sure, but we lost to them twice already."
And he was right.
If you were to select a team to go up against Cloud9 out of the bottom five teams in the league, Team Envy probably would be your third or fourth pick directly behind Phoenix1, Apex, and maybe even NRG Esports. Envy's second half of the season has been a disaster; on paper, stats, and by simply watching the teams play, Apex was the stronger team. Except, as Xpecial mentioned, when Apex had the opportunity to wrangle away the sixth-place spot from NV, the Lions lost, giving Team Envy the all-important tie breaker in head-to-head matchups.
"I think I really wasted my last two and a half years," he said. "If I had my knowledge I have now two and a half years ago when I first left TSM, I'd be leading teams to a good spot. Except that, I just didn't know, and it really sucks because I've had the knowledge the whole time. I just didn't have confidence in myself and anyone have confidence in me to lead the charge. Personally, I don't like to be the guy that is super hard on people -- making sure they follow the calls and whatnot -- but that's apparently what's needed for a team. Maybe it's different next year or was different before, but my perception right now is that I have knowledge, I should have been the guy doing that from the very beginning."
After I had finished the interview, NV pierced any sort of hope Apex had left in its season, sweeping Echo Fox in a standard affair. But in my last question to Xpecial, I asked in the scenario where NV did beat the hapless 1-16 (now 1-17) Foxes, what he wanted to say to the fans of him and Apex heading into the offseason.
"I think this last week is a good representation of where we should be," he answered. "We've been learning a lot throughout this whole split, and it sucks it came so late in the season. But thanks you guys for supporting us, and I'll be back next split. We'll go off. [We're] definitely going to do way better next split as a team than we are during this split because things are different now."
The summer of 2016 will be remembered as a learning experience for Xpecial and the rest of Apex from the players to management.
Hopefully when the calendar turns to the new year and the 2017 split begins, the spring will be remembered as the season where Xpecial and Apex took what they learned in the summer and applied it to becoming a force in its sophomore stint.