The quest to defend its championship crown and make an unprecedented ninth straight domestic final was anything but easy for North American League Championship Series squad Team SoloMid. Last Friday kicked off with the unveiling of the club's 2016 summer split championship banner and ended with TSM distraught; it matched its loss total from last season on the first day of the 2017 campaign, dropping to Cloud9 in a 0-2 series. Come Sunday, the team, on the verge of going down 0-2 again and finding itself in a hole early in the season, bounced back to win a sloppy decision over Immortals by a 2-1 scoreline to survive the weekend with a .500 record.
"Well, it feels a lot better than losing," said three-time league MVP Søren "Bjergsen" Bjerg, describing his thoughts after a razor-close series that could have gone either way. "We have a lot of things to work on, though. I don't think we had that much improvement two to three weeks before the season with scrimming because we didn't have much to work with. We were winning a vast majority of them, and it was hard for us to figure out what our weak points were and improving from them, but now we have these games where we played sloppy every single game. [Also] we have LCK games where we can watch and see how they execute. I think that's just going to speed up our progress really fast."
Defending champion in name and almost roster, there is one major difference between last year's NA juggernaut and 2017's iteration. Gone is Yiliang "Doublelift" Peng, and in his place is former TSM starter Jason "WildTurtle" Tran, who returns to the club after a year of playing with Immortals. Not only was Doublelift one of the leading candidates for MVP during the summer split, but he was a large part of TSM's improved shotcalling in 2016, taking a large role in making decisive plays around the map. His absence, at least in week one, was notable. TSM's cohesion, while still having the main core intact, looked shaky in both of its matches.
"I think what Doublelift did really well was he was always looking to make plays," Bjergsen said. "He was always looking to close out his lane, always looking to make Baron calls, and he was a very aggressive player. To some degree, he was so aggressive that it lessened the amount of how other players could call since he was such a massive voice on the team. And now, in scrims, everyone is more comfortable, more calm, they're more willing to take risks and make plays, but on stage we were missing everyone constantly looking to make plays and playing aggressive.
"I didn't feel Doublelift's absence as much in scrims, but on stage it became a little more apparent that we weren't, at least for now when people are still getting back into it, we weren't as aggressive and as decisive. But I think that's going to change fast. I think this was a big wake-up call for us."
New to this year in the professional scene is the 10-ban system, up from six in the past. Bjergsen's take? He likes it, and thinks it'll help every player get better:
"It gives the potential of a certain role unexpectedly getting kind of screwed over from the draft and you needing to play a champion that you might not be as familiar with, or a matchup you're not as familiar with," he said. "I think that's going to help every player grow, because you can be put in those positions. Are you going to step up, or are you going to falter? I really like that."
Regardless of the new strategies emerging with the ban system, Bjergsen still thinks it'll be TSM and Cloud9. "And that's not saying other teams are worse," he said. "I just think TSM and C9 are going to be the strongest teams, and the other teams are going to have to work to catch up."
And why shouldn't Bjergsen believe TSM will at least be in the top two by season's end? The team has demonstrated time and time again, regardless of how it starts, the end result is always the same: TSM standing in the finals, facing off against either arch-nemesis Counter Logic Gaming, rival Cloud9, or, if we're going all the way back to the inaugural LCS season, Good Game University. When Andy "Reginald" Dinh, owner of TSM, says his team is ahead of the pack, even following a loss, it can seem cocky on the surface, but why doubt a proven track record? No other team, not even SK Telecom T1, the one and only dynasty in the history of League of Legends, has participated in every one of its domestic finals.
International success is no near a certainty, but North America? Until proven otherwise, TSM is king.
"I've matured and grown up in the NA LCS," Bjergsen said, reflecting on the three years since he first signed with TSM as a bright-eyed European teenager. "It's pretty much been life ever since I got here. I eat, breathe, sleep League of Legends and my team, so I can't say how much different I would be if I was maybe home in school or playing in EU LCS. I'm pretty happy with my growth as a person, and I still think I have a long way to go in terms of what I can bring to the team. I think in the last year or so with us working with Weldon [Green] and more of these lifestyle coaches, it's really opened up my eyes for leadership and trying to take what I have and making my teammates more comfortable, make [them] more ready, make them accountable. And not just being a winning player, but a winning team."