On the early afternoon of July 29, Counter Logic Gaming dropped a bomb on their website: the team headed to Korea to practice for playoffs, and there would be a stand-in squad to go through Week 11. CLG’s reasoning behind the move is that the players needed to set themselves up for a potential playoff takeover, and in order to renew Seraph’s visa without major inconveniences occurring during the playoffs. The starting unit’s Korea trip allows some veterans and new faces to band together and show what they are capable of in the current LCS circuit. Long-time NA followers may meet HotshotGG’s stand-in return with anticipation, but they will also be shocked (or delighted) at the apparition of Shan “Chaox” Huang in a CLG uniform. Due to the old CLG/TSM rivalry during HotshotGG’s full-time playing career, CLG Chaox sounds dissonant and compelling at the same time, illogical yet fitting.
In order to understand CLG’s moves, let’s contextualize later events in the North American LCS. CLG had an admirable run as one of the Top 2 (or Top 3) teams during the split, but Week 9 and 10 showcased how vulnerable they were against picks, ranging from EG’s straightforward destruction to Team Curse’s accidental yet effective Tristana/Evelynn-centric picks. CLG showed resolve in their game against LMQ, despite their costly positional mistakes during a Baron attempt. CLG’s compositions relied on breaking even, so as to take advantage of better team fights for the most part, but they let their fundamentals slip.
With that in mind, Korea’s more punishing teams would force CLG to make adjustments at the core, on how they approach the game and how they synch. In a land where teams routinely (and leisurely) disengage from unfavourable situations, snowball from the tiniest of advantages, and have overall better-caliber teams than in North America, such a choice seems to be wise. If CLG proceeds to solve team play issues during the boot camp, they may very well be on their way to North American dominance, no matter how temporary that may be.
Another by-product of the move is the possibility to elaborate strategies without the opposition’s knowledge. The scrimmage circuit does entail trial by error, a mix of creativity, reasoning, and straight-up mad scientist experimentation. The issue with scrimmages is that teams would reveal some of their cards upon successful experimentation, as was the case with the 2013 Evil Geniuses’ Zac/Aatrox dive composition core (a core that ultimately defined the European meta at the time).
Secrecy could be one of CLG’s biggest assets going towards the playoffs, but another one is just sheer quality. As Dexter stated last year in his time with the Lemondogs, “Scrims at Worlds […] helped us more than one entire split in the LCS.” Preparation against finalists SK Telecom T1 K and Royal Club Huang Zu, as well as Samsung Galaxy Ozone and OMG did help in deepening the understanding of the game from the five players, Dexter included. LD may not be standing in the LCS anymore, but another player, Tabzz, went on to belong to one of the most successful European teams of the 2014 Summer Split. Scrim partners may or may not include top-caliber Korean teams and China/South East Asia’s finest, and that would allow CLG to gain flexibility and a wide array of strategies in their playbook.
Another event also prompted the bold CLG call: the lack of preparation time between the North American Regionals and the 2014 World Championship. European teams may have a full month ahead of them, but NA teams may have 15 days at best to prepare. This would not account for jetlag, scheduling issues, and travel time. With that in mind, CLG will prepare for 15 days in Korea prior to the playoffs and trade short-term success for a potentially rampageous performance during Worlds. Remember that two weeks ago, MonteCristo went utterly berserk on Riot’s NA Playoff schedule and the game studio’s decision to hold it during PAX Prime. That decision could spell doom on NA teams’ chances at performing feats of strength at the world stage due to underpreparation, but CLG showed resourcefulness and worked around that constraint.
The decision is not without risks and backdraws. For one, CLG could still secure a Playoff Semifinal spot, albeit marginal (5.98% cumulative chance). The chances of a sixth place finish do exist, and if the substitute roster does not gel, it may become reality. A sixth place finish would be disastrous for PAX Prime, as it may undermine the integrity of the season rankings. That would undoubtedly lead Riot to rethink the LCS format (especially superweeks) and brace themselves for the odd scheduling hiccup. Riot would also have to change their stance towards postponing games, a stance they rigidly rejected in Gambit Gaming’s case on the Week 5 LCS London event. Due to the non-matching reflection of CLG’s power level at the time, a team such as Cloud 9 or Team SoloMid may face CLG in what could have been a semi-finals match-up. Chaox, HotshotGG and company may avoid that scenario, but the possibility is there.
On that case, if we go under the that the North American Regionals would crown a Top 3 and have two contestants for a prize position gun each other towards a Relegation decider match; this could spell trouble for the less favoured side. Also, if CLG was to go down on the first quarterfinal set, their preparation towards Worlds would no longer count, and the team’s financial board would be constrained to count its losses. Readers may think that I am insulting HotshotGG, Chaox, Nien, ThinkCard and Kwon Kon, but I hope they practiced in secret days before the CLG announcement went public.
Fortunately for Doublelift and crew, we are not quite there yet. Life has its ways to reward risk takers and throw curveballs, and CLG’s decisiveness may very well put them on the League of Legends World map. In doing so, they would raise North America’s standings, propose an alternative to Korea’s cramming method, and allow CLG to reach the Promised Land that Dexter coveted: a 2014 Season World Championship crown, or the first semi-final appearance from a North American team since Season One.
In the end, in spite of my inability to overlook the risk factor, I salute CLG for their bold move and for the ability to think forward. A few months from now, North American fans may fondly remember the time when one of their representatives conquered Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea.