Early in the dawn of League of Legends history, the best region in the world was North America and the best team in North America was Counter Logic Gaming. They were the first and oldest of the major teams—the winners of the World Cyber Games and the victors of the Newegg Winter Wanfest, both in 2010. Though their fifth place finish in the first-ever World Championship was a disappointing conclusion to their initial foray into esports, this early era was a rewarding one for fans of the young team. Gold was plentiful—in-game, out of it, and in the form of accolades and trophies as they worked their way through National ESL, IEM Cologne and MLG Raleigh.
That early era is like something out of a mythological dawn for the modern CLG fan. The roster's barely remembered—who even remembers that Riot caster Sam ‘Kobe’ Hartman-Kenzler used to jungle for the team? Who remains fluent in deciphering the arcane mysteries of Jijispeak? What they remember, mainly, is that this team used to be good. They used to be kings. And though they've been derailed since IPL 3 Atlantic City, though their every attempt to tap into the ominous power of Korean esports has thus far failed, there was the hope that they might one day reclaim that crown of glory.
This year, as the 2015 World Championship approaches, their fans' sorely tested faith may finally be rewarded.
You gotta have faith
The current roster is easily the best the team has ever looked, though not without undergoing one last dramatic phase as it has cycled through its fifth top lane change in three years and similarly numerous alterations to every position but AD carry. For a while, this looked like the darkest time for the eldest North American team—flirtations with relegation and a constant incapability in the face of historic rivals Team Solomid.
But this time, it seemed to work. For the first time since 2012, Counter Logic Gaming's found a berth at the League of Legends World Championship—and as North America's first seed at that.
"In the past years, we failed over and over again," says Aphromoo. "Pretty crappy, but finally we found the recipe for success with the pieces we pulled in this split. Which is, you know: Coach Chris, ZionSpartan, Xmithie... brought in Pobelter as well. It was easy. Easier than past years, just because individuals as well as management staff took more of the load than past rosters, where people hated each other and didn't really try as hard as they could have."
"We started being actual people instead of working at a regular job," Aphromoo says. "We actually have friendships outside of the game with each other, instead of just talking League of Legends most of the time." He credits head coach Chris ‘Blurred Limes’ Ehrenreich for much of the changes in the organization's internal culture. Ehrenreich enforces a group-oriented culture even outside of the game, including meals and gym work together, as well as compartmentalizing work done on and off their computers.
Aphromoo recounts their practice methodology, noting that "usually after the games, instead of being in the practice room environment, we just do our group discussions outside. So actually standing up and not sitting down for long periods of time and just keep sitting in that high-pressure environment, talking about mistakes and all."
The overall result: a greater collective identity, smoother internal interactions and treating each other as "actual people instead of just players.” Not coincidentally, it also got a lot easier to win—including a dominant victory over TSM, who had CLG's number in all previous LCS splits.
You'd think they'd be happier about winning
"There definitely wasn't any relief," says Darshan ‘ZionSpartan’ Upadhyaha, CLG's top laner. “I realized that it was nice to win NA, but it wasn't really my goal. 3-0ing TSM was definitely an accomplishment, but it wasn't the accomplishment I was looking for—to win Worlds and prove that I'm the best and we're the best. That's what I'm shooting for, and I'm not really looking for anything less."
"I think Doublelift appreciated [winning NA LCS Summer 2015] more than I did," says Aphromoo. "I wasn't happy with our performance in the finals particularly, if only because it was pretty sloppy."
But improvement focuses aside, the team is entering Worlds with an overwhelming confidence in their own capabilities.
CLG versus the world
The start of the 2015 competitive season was marked by a massive wave of changes in the eastern hemisphere. China's teams, sick of playing second fiddle to the perpetually dominant Korean scene, decided that if they couldn't beat them, they'd make the Koreans join them. With the backing of some of the richest oligarchs of their state, whole rosters were bought out—Samsung lost both the 2014 world championship team and its sister team as well, along with coaching staff. KT Rolster was similarly affected, as was CJ Entus—and in the wake of EDG's ascendancy over SKT T1 during the mid-season invitational, many anticipated that this would be the year that KeSPA's stranglehold over League of Legends' highest honors would at last be broken.
But that perception is not without its dissidents. "For China, definitely the language barrier—just because they don't speak the same language brings them down a couple notches," says Aphromoo. He explains, "just because of that fact, they can't really get the necessary information they need in a couple seconds. Whereas if you speak the same language, you definitely have the advantage when it comes to decision-making against the China region, as well as the teamplay-centric playstyle that they succumb to."
Aphromoo estimates that the gap's largely closed between the major regions, at least at the uppermost level—but that Korea still has an overall advantage. "I'm only really scared, team-wise, of SKT T1. Not really scared of any of the China teams. I think KT's pretty good as well."
But though they aren't particularly scared of any of the matchups at this year's tournament, there are definitely teams and players that they would particularly like to test their mettle against. Aphromoo's disappointed that Mata, last year's world championship winning support, won't be in attendance, and expects only KOO Tigers to be particularly interesting in his group. ZionSpartan, given the current metagame's top lane focus, looks forward to the other high-profile players in his role. Ssumday, Zzitai and Marin are in his crosshairs as he looks to prove that, despite all the naysayers, North America can stand up to their international counterparts.
"I don't think that the Korean and Chinese top laners are that much better mechanically than the North American top laners," says ZionSpartan. "They play much better towards winning the game and as a team, and use Teleport a lot better. But I feel that, in terms of individual skill, it's not that big a difference. I think people have a big misconception that North American players are way worse than players of other regions, and I don't think that's true at all."
He acknowledges that Korea and China does have greater average strength (their historic performance speaks for itself), but believes it’s more about infrastructure and culture than deficiency in North America's players. "I think the solo queue is a bit better in Korea, and I think the infrastructure is a little better—just in terms of things like scheduling. People are a lot less likely to be late [to scrims or practice] and things like that, and I think that little extra bit of seriousness levels up their play. That ends up making the difference."
He and Aphromoo believe that CLG have largely overcome those shortcomings, and have little to fear from even the best that Worlds can toss at them. "I just think we're gonna do really well and make it," says Aphromoo. "I don't feel really scared about anything—I dunno, a 50% chance we'll make it. If we face SKT earlier, like a baby grand final... unfortunate, but I still think we can beat them."
"It's hard to say, because I haven't played against every player," says ZionSpartan, wrapping it up. "But I personally feel by the end of the tournament, we'll prove that we're the best team in the world. And that's all that matters."
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