Finding The Road

Because we have to, we have to take first. When was the last time we took first? So long ago. I have not taken first in my life. In my whole life I have never taken first... in like anything. This tournament was the one where I finally realized like damn, I don't have to worry about myself anymore. I have to worry about the team.

- Doublelift after a disappointing OGN Spring Season 2012

You can't have the sweet without the bitter, and victory can only be more sweet for every loss getting there. On Sunday, August 23rd, Counter Logic Gaming finally won a championship after a four year long drought of victories - an eternity in eSports. There they stood, on the biggest stage in the world and the first team to ever win a championship at Madison Square Garden. But despite the team's excellent run coming into playoffs and a 3-0 sweep over Team Impulse, there were seeds of doubt. Doubt from critics -- doubt from other players, and doubt from the fans. After four years, five splits, and continuous playoff slumps, it was understandable. How many times have Team SoloMid made the finals since the start of the LCS? Every single time. Who was their opponent four out of the six times? Cloud 9. Could CLG really regain their former glory?

The story just seemed too good to be true.

 

Déjà Vu

There it was. Team Liquid got up with smiles on their faces and went over to shake the hands of Counter Logic Gaming after a 3-0 victory in the quarter finals of the 2015 Spring Split. There was no excess celebration from the members of Team Liquid. A few smiles here and there. The story of the series was instead reflected on the actions and faces of the members of CLG. Xmithie and ZionSpartan, the newest members of the team, stood around unsure of what to do. Aphromoo looked at the rest of the team and raised his eyebrows. Link and Doublelift, the two oldest members of the team, just sat in their tall chairs going through the motion of packing their equipment. Link fiddled with one of the keys on his keyboard, head down, pressing the key over and over as if it was the only thing keeping him sane. One by one, the team walked off the stage looking down at their feet. Was it time to give up, what could they have done better, where should they go from there?

For a moment, it looked like the team would implode after years of criticism. Scarra decided to leave the team after only a single split of being the head coach. "I wanted to prove to the organization and the players that I could do this. I feel like with our results being 6th place, I haven't followed up on that promise," Scarra told Travis in a Gamespot interview. Both Doublelift and Scarra would cite differences in their philosophy on the role of a head coach as further reasons for the unexpected resignation. It was not just Scarra that had thoughts of leaving the team however. Every player was being scrutinized for their dedication and role on the team.

And Link finally had enough. Every team has its own internal struggles, but the burden of being on one of the most popular teams and continually failing to meet the high expectations will take its toll. Pobelter and Huhi were candidates to compete with Link for the mid position after both had respectively failed in their relegation matches. But for Link, who had already had to compete for the spot in the previous split, he decided enough was enough and stepped down from his position as starting mid-laner. He was finally free from the enormous amount of stress that comes with being a professional gamer. The long hours of scrims, the haunting glow of the monitor late at night, the angry voices hissing every waking moment at your back -- the grind.

It was tempting for his teammate Doublelift. Why not just follow and be free at last? Years of criticism can break even the strongest of minds, and Doublelift was slowly starting to believe it himself. He was washed up, fed up, and didn't want to be a player anymore. He was seriously considering becoming a full-time streamer. But he didn't.

I don't want to play anymore, I was actually considering becoming a full-time streamer.

At the management level, HotshotGG knew that he was on thin ice. This was his last chance to prove himself. He took his collective experience of managing a team for the past four years - through highs and many lows - and publicly declared that if things didn't change that he was the sole person to blame. "I know that my remaining chances are limited, and I can't afford to make any mistakes for everyone's sake. It's a bit cruel, and I feel like I'm writing my own death note with this post, but I intend on stepping down when the time comes. Until then, I will do my best."

 

The Smallest of Changes, The Greatest of Changes

In the end, only Scarra and Link had left the team. Chris Ehrenreich became the new head coach and Eugene "Pobelter" Park and Jae-hyun "Huhi" Choi became the new mid-laners. The team took the risk of employing Ehrenreich, who had no experience coaching competitive League of Legends, but had traditional coaching experience. Pobelter and Huhi were two mid-laners that were on teams not good enough to even make the LCS. The talent was there though and sometimes the lack of expectations allow for better results, free from the inhibitions of outside pressure.

Chris instituted set schedules, a more effective way of discussing scrims, and promoted team bonding through regular sessions of basketball. Meanwhile Tony "Zikzlol" Gray was able to focus solely on the strategic aspect of League of Legends, learning and improving upon the picks and bans process. Additional analysts were provided for Tony later on in the split giving him more information to better formulate strategies.  A sports psychologist, Weldon Green, worked with the team throughout the split to strengthen their mental fortitude.

It all clicked. The team finished the split with a 13-5 record, with four of their losses all coming consecutively in the middle of the split. This time the team was thankful that the losses occurred, because it meant that they could learn from them. This time the team took the time to realize that "it was the best time for [them] to lose in the middle of the season rather than in later of the season." This time they finally realized how and what it meant to be a team, not just play on one. After a 3-0 sweep against Team Impulse, they were on their way to The Garden.

 

The Path to The Road

The team wasn't allowed to sleep on the plane ride to New York City. By the time they arrived it would be nearing dark and they only had a couple days before they would take the stage. They grabbed a slice of pizza that New York City is famous for and went straight to bed to get ready for scrims the next day. There was no time to be affected by jet lag, however minimal it might be. This was their moment, everything they had worked for this year culminated down to one result in the next few days. But each player also had his own personal agenda: something to prove and something to prove to themselves. Pobelter needed to prove that the results of his past teams were not a reflection of his own skill and that he did have the potential everyone thought he did so many years ago. Xmithie had the chance to remind people that he was once considered one of the best North American junglers and contributed to Vulcun's dominant early game in Season 3. ZionSpartan was a previous LCS finalist and constantly left out of conversations of the best top-laner in North America. Doublelift and Aphromoo had the largest burdens to bear and wanted to prove that they were the strongest bot-lane duo in North America and could take CLG to a championship win after so many failed splits.

Three time NBA champion Rick Fox gave the team words of encouragement.

Friday and Saturday passed. Pobelter was not feeling well. He was still recovering from a cold and Huhi who was still practicing with the team was in consideration for playing on the stage Sunday night. CLG had just watched Team Liquid defeat Team Impulse for third place, consequently denying them an automatic qualification for Worlds. They watched from the upper seats as Team Liquid got up to shake hands with the members of Team Impulse, each embrace and handshake sealing one of the open doors to Worlds. But what did Worlds matter when the ultimate goal was not qualification, but winning? Going to Worlds wouldn't redeem the players of anything. Going to Worlds wouldn't prove anything to their critics. The moment the team found out they were going to compete for the Finals at Madison Square Garden they dropped everything and practiced like they had never practiced before.

One fan of the team knew what it meant to be a champion. Three-time NBA champion Rick Fox met with the CLG players and gave them a talk they would never forget. Here was someone standing in front of them who not only played in the very arena they were about to play in, but won three championships in a row with greats like Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal. They also learned a lesson, one he would later tweet out, that the players had no reason to be star-struck. This was their championship to take, "This is your world - you are the star, I'm just a fan in this equation."

 

Judgement Day

One down, two more to go. CLG just beat TSM with a convincing Game One victory: 17-3 in kills, a 13k gold lead, and an obvious mismatch between ZionSpartan and Dyrus. In an effort to avoid being counterpicked by ZionSpartan, Dyrus proceeded to blind pick a safe utility top-laner in Nautilus for Game Two. Bjergsen in the meanwhile took the Yasuo pick away to try his own hand at the wind swordsman. Not enough... not enough. ZionSpartan showed off the limits of what one could do with Gnar: a dazzling escape using stuns, slows, and sidesteps that led to a double-kill and a last second flash-ultimate kill off of a teleport. Xmithie continued to abuse Gragas' ability to disengage and isolate targets for the team. Pobelter in an incredible sequence of events, cold be damned: drew TSM away from Baron, flashed the pick from Bjergsen's Gathering Storm, re-engaged with Viktor's full combo, went invulnerable using Zhonya's Hourglass, and killed off Bjergsen.

And if CLG fans did not quite believe just yet, Doublelift and Aphromoo saved a potentially disastrous fight minutes later that electrified The Garden.

"Are you guys ready?"

ZionSpartan reaches his Mega-Gnar form, flashes forward, only to miss the stun against the wall on all three targets.

"Oh..."

Down went ZionSpartan, down went Pobelter, and Xmithie who had already been chunked down earlier in the skirmish attempted a last ditch effort to save the fight -- knocking back three TSM members into Doublelift and Aphromoo. It looked over for CLG. The crowd was cheering, not for CLG, but for TSM who looked to come out ahead with a near clean ace.

"You're good, you're good. Peter play safe. I got you!"

Aphromoo walks down two steps and unleashes a full-channel Monsoon. He knocks back Bjergsen, WildTurtle, and Lustboy in separate directions. Doublelift gets a crit against Santorin, the kill, and the reset. Bjergsen and Lustboy are still too far to do anything as Doublelift gets another kill on WildTurtle. The crowd thunders once more, but now no one is quite sure whether it's for CLG or TSM. No one can believe it.

Pentakill. And all doubt was gone. CLG fans were screaming in joy and TSM fans were screaming in disbelief. The collective roar from the crowd would not get louder than that moment in the entire series. The team knew it, even if TSM did not quite know it, that this series would end cleanly. They had TSM's number.

2-0.

3-0.

It was all over. The confetti burst from the sides and the ceiling. The lights flickered from the vibrant blue and red and then washed the crowd in a clean white. Hundreds of thousands of people would watch the CLG players huddle around, jumping, screaming in elation. Over fifteen thousand people would witness CLG walk over to shake the hands of the disappointed reigning champions live at The Garden. And CLG fans all over the world would embrace each other, cry, and smile through tears as they finally had their faith rewarded. At the heart of it all was one man, HotshotGG, who could stand amongst brothers, tall, proud, and vindicated of the criticism he took over the years. CLG had just won their first championship in four years and they had done it by sweeping their rivals in one of the most historic arenas in the world.

It was a surreal moment as the crowd chanted three letters over and over, a chant that had never been so loud and clear in a long time.

CLG.  CLG.  CLG.

 

I mean I'm speechless, it's been years of blood, sweat, and tears for all of us. It's truly magical to be here. Thank you guys, you guys have been brothers for the past three years. You mean so much to me... and this means so much to me. So thank you.

- HotshotGG

 

Written by Chris Han (@itsSlicer)
Photo Credit: LoLeSports Flickr / Riot Games