Trust the process, indeed. After Team Dignitas was brought back into the North American League of Legends Championship Series fold with the Philadelphia 76ers' acquisition, expectations were high. Money was spent accordingly, and the team brought in two notable South Korean imports in the last offseason, most notably one of the best top laners of the last two years, Kim "Ssumday" Chan-ho, as the club's new ace. Unlike the team's basketball equivalent, it didn't look like the team would need as much meticulous building to become a contender. The team, as is, was expected to challenge for a title from Day 1.
Unfortunately for Dignitas, winning isn't so simple. Ssumday shined in the early weeks, but even if his individual play was heralded, his coordination with his team left a lot to be desired. There was an obvious disconnect between the squad's gameplay in the upper half of the map and the lower half. On the top side, you had two South Koreans who didn't speak much English, and in the lower part of the map you had a bottom lane that communicated in English. In the middle of it all, you had Jang "Keane" Lae-young, the team's de facto leader with the difficult task of piecing together the two differing halves of the Dignitas starting lineup.
The team had an experienced South Korean coaching staff, the head coach having worked with Samsung Galaxy, but the team wasn't responding. Ssumday was split-pushing and having games where he would pick up heaps of kills, but the team had no clue to what to do around him. The team's jungler, Lee "Chaser" Sang-hyun, who needed to play a crucial supporting role, was abysmal for the first few weeks of the season, having little to no impact on the map.
"When I see [Team Liquid], I see them just throwing darts at a wall, hoping one of them sticks... Whereas for [Dignitas], we were very much about identifying the problem and actually doing whatever we can to fix it." Alex "Xpecial" Chu
Dignitas' worst loss of the season came against Immortals near the end of the first half of the 2017 spring season. In a matchup that was even on paper in terms of talent, Dignitas did nothing versus Immortals, and in one game let their opponents walk over them to a victory, not contesting once as IMT picked up two Barons, an Elder Drake, and then waltzed into Dig's base. It was an embarrassment. A team that spent so much money in the offseason to be at least a playoff team in its first split was drifting further and further away from the postseason.
Something needed to change, fast, because in the NA LCS, last place doesn't reward you a higher draft pick -- it just gets you relegated.
"The biggest thing that's changed [since our rough start] -- well, it wasn't really a change, it was more of a gradual progression," said Dignitas' veteran support Alex "Xpecial" Chu, one of the longest-tenured players in the league. "The [South] Koreans really started learning English a lot more, and then also, [new coach David "Cop" Robinson] has been really helpful. Just him, Mike and Joe -- our managers -- they've been really helpful helping us not be mentally unprepared."
At the halfway point and nearing the end of the regular season, two of the bottom teams in the league, Dignitas and Team Liquid, also coincidentally two of the biggest spenders in the offseason, decided to make crucial changes. Dignitas decided to overhaul their coaching system, parting ways with their South Korean braintrust and bringing in former Gravity head coach Cop to help the team. Team Liquid focused more on its lineup, first changing Chae "Piglet" Gwang-jin to mid lane, and then bringing in Yiliang "Doublelift" Peng for a short sprint split contract and Adrian "Adrian" Ma on a permanent deal. One team changed from outside the Rift, and the other changed from the inside.
Team Liquid was eliminated from playoff contention this past weekend following another 0-2 week.
"When I see TL, I see them just throwing darts at a wall, hoping one of them sticks," said Xpecial. "And I wouldn't say it's worked out, but it would have been better if they kept [the team] the same. Whereas for us, we were very much about identifying the problem and actually doing whatever we can to fix it. When I see TL, I see an AD carry going mid who has never really played mid ever... instead of doing that, why not add a player like [Gold Coin United's Kim "FeniX" Jae-hun], for example. Basically, I feel like TL doesn't identify their problems correctly and they've kept a player that is not worth keeping for so long.
"AD is not worth importing [a foreign player for] in North America. AD carries in North America, with exception of a few, have been doing rather well. I don't want there to be going, 'Oh I hate Piglet' or whatever, but objectively, looking at TL, they haven't been doing well with Piglet. People say he's a world class AD carry, but compare him to [Phoenix1's Noh "Arrow" Dong-hyeon], and I don't think there is a comparison. Arrow is actually 1v2'ing the lanes sometimes, and he's actually popping off. [With] Piglet we don't really see that, and I'm baffled to see why they have him on the team for so long."
At least for Dignitas, the new strategy has worked out for the time being, Cop helping turn around the aimless unit of players and getting them to work together. Above all else, the South Korean players and their improved English have started to bring some chemistry into the team, with the players actually working as one. Gone were the two halves and Keane trying to piece things together, and here was the real Dignitas, a team that has the talent and maybe now the coordination to be a threat in the playoffs.
The main thing Xpecial notes that makes this Dignitas club special is in fact the duo of Ssumday and Chaser, the two players who looked most isolated from the team on the Rift at the beginning of the season.
"Our [South] Koreans are very embracive of the culture and are working super hard to [learn] English," he said. To Xpecial, Chaser and Ssumday aren't learning English because they have to or just to comprehend others around them -- they're trying so hard because they want to be able to communicate and experience North American culture to its fullest.
Team Dignitas will look to secure a spot in the 2017 NA LCS spring split playoffs this weekend, first facing Cloud9 on Friday before their regular-season finale on Sunday against Immortals in a match that could decide which side advances on.