There are nine seconds left before TSM top laner Kevin “Hauntzer” Yarnell respawns. Immortals jungler Jake “Xmithie” Puchero sees an opening, and as his team turns away from the Baron, circumventing the TSM flank, he kicks Bjergsen’s Galio into three of his teammates while top laner Lee “Flame” Ho-jong tries to zone out Dennis “Svenskeren” Johnsen, Vincent “Biofrost” Wang, and Yiliang “Doublelift” Peng.
It’s the perfect opportunity for TSM.
Bjergsen taunts Eugene “Pobelter” Park and Kim “Olleh” Joo-sung while AD carry Cody “Cody Sun” Sun attacks him. While Bjergsen whittles down their health, Doublelift fires an Enchanted Crystal Arrow that hits and stuns Pobelter. At 28:13, Pobelter falls. A second later, Xmithie joins him. The fight and the Baron are TSM’s.
After the fact, Xmithie laughs. Given his personality, he might have briefly laughed it off in the moment, unflustered and always looking ahead.
“If you’re not really mentally capable of staying calm, you’re not really good enough to be on a team,” he says. “So my mentality is, if the plan goes really bad, we just have to move onto the next plan. There’s no point in harping on it in game. Those things happen.”
It helps that Immortals still bested TSM in the series, 2-0.
“I’m still indifferent,” Xmithie says amicably after Week 1. “I like to keep myself open.”
When he was still with Counter Logic Gaming, Xmithie was often asked why he had a certain jungle route or set up a specific play, especially if it succeeded. His explanations were almost always lost in translation. They made sense and covered matchup specifics and champion specifics, but they never told the entire story, the story of a veteran jungler who moved more on instinct than anything else.
How do you explain instinct and years of experience?
That instinct is now one of the stories behind Immortals’ 7-1 start in the North American League of Legends Championship Series summer split.
“You can say I’m the mediator,” Xmithie says. “Everyone wants to do solo plays, everyone wants to do their own thing, and then we have to decide what’s the best option for everyone to win the game. Everyone is just giving me information and then it’s mainly my decision where everyone goes.”
Midseason is an odd time in competitive League of Legends. It’s a welcome break from a grueling regular season schedule for most, an international tournament for the best, and a final roster shuffle for teams to prepare their worlds-hopeful lineups.
With fewer available free agents than the main offseason in the fall between the League of Legends World Championship and the spring split, and most players happily ensconced on their teams, organizations wishing to make changes usually do so for the purpose of jump-starting their team, not refining it.
Such was the case for both Counter Logic Gaming and Immortals.
Although CLG’s lineup of top laner Darshan “Darshan” Upadhyaha, jungler Xmithie, mid laner Choi “Huhi” Jae-hyun, AD Carry Trevor “Stixxay” Hayes, and support Zaqueri “Aphromoo” Black had been successful in previous splits, this spring was a significant downturn. They finished fifth/sixth after a stunning loss to FlyQuest in the playoff quarterfinals, well below their expectations.
At the same time, Immortals was grasping at anything to save its season. Since the team entered the LCS in 2016, it finished at or near the top of the regular season standings twice. While Immortals failed to advance in playoffs throughout the 2016 season, the one-two punch of top laner Heo “Huni” Seung-hoon and jungler Kim “Reignover” Yeu-jin made a formidable team.
Immortals grew accustomed to being at the top, and its spring iteration of Flame, jungler Joshua “Dardoch” Hartnett, mid laner Pobelter, AD Carry Cody Sun, and support Olleh failed to impress. Not only did Immortals not finish at the top of the regular season standings as it did in 2016, the team landed just outside of playoff contention and watched as Dignitas took the final playoff spot.
Both teams needed a change. Immortals was directionless and looking for someone to take charge of an odd hybrid roster with veteran North American talent, veteran foreign talent, and a rookie AD carry. CLG needed to shake things up and breathe new life into a successful veteran core. Experienced jungler Xmithie headed to Immortals, while the volatile jungle phenom Dardoch landed on CLG.
The swap dominated headlines, even with the Mid-Season Invitational running concurrently. Would Dardoch throw CLG off-balance? Would Xmithie be enough to help a lagging Immortals team?
Which team would win the trade?
With that question equipped in the minds of NA fans and analysts, the summer split began.
Three weeks after the TSM series, Immortals wins its seventh best-of-three, a 2-1 victory against Team Dignitas. Immortals is still somewhat inconsistent in game, but visibly improving by the week. The third game against Dignitas is a thoroughly one-sided affair. Just after four minutes, Dignitas jungler Lee “Shrimp” Byeong-hoon inexplicably tunnels to and then flashes on top of Flame, despite the fact that he’s outnumbered and his own top laner, Kim “Ssumday” Chan-ho, had just fallen. At the end of the skirmish, Flame has double buffs to match Xmithie’s own, and the game spirals out of control for Dignitas.
“I’m pretty sure both teams knew what the result was going to be,” Cody Sun says after the series. He shakes his head and laughs. “At the end, I think they just tried their best to kill Olleh. It kind of turned into a fiesta at the end where we were just trying to end the game as fast as we can.”
Cody Sun is the youngest member of this Immortals team, one of three notable North American rookies who entered the competitive scene at the beginning of the year. The Immortals AD carry didn’t have a similarly auspicious start like his rookie counterparts in Echo Fox’s Matthew “Akaadian” Higginbotham or Cloud9’s Juan “Contractz” Arturo Garcia. While those two inspired confidence in North America’s native talent pool for the jungle position, Cody initially looked lost, failing to coordinate with his laning partner Olleh and the rest of the Immortals team.
“In the beginning Olleh and I just didn’t know each other,” Cody Sun said. “It took us a while to get that synergy. Honestly, Olleh has taught me a lot about how to play bot lane and do my role. We just improved a lot, and we’re just a lot more comfortable.”
If there was a “Most Improved” award in the NA LCS, Cody Sun would be a prime candidate. He and Olleh have learned how to trade against their opponents and communicate more effectively with their teammates. Their development is one of the reasons Immortals is the top team in North America through four weeks of the summer split.
Yet he attributes the team’s success not only to personal maturation and his own adjustment to the competitive scene, but the arrival of Xmithie.
“Now we have a really decisive shot-caller in Xmithie and everyone listens to him,” Cody says. “He just makes the plan for the game and we’ll just execute it.”
Xmithie admits communication was difficult at first, since the team hadn’t yet experienced that type of leadership or in-game shot-calling. The most important factor in their newfound coordination, he says, was the team’s willingness to try anything.
Under Xmithie’s guidance, the addition of coach Kim “Ssong” Sang-soo, and further development of their bottom lane, Immortals has transformed into a more malleable team that can play around any lane.
“We can pick playmakers bottom and play through those playmaking supports,” Cody Sun says. “But if we have a matchup top that needs those resources, we can play through that too. We’re just really flexible and comfortable right now.
“We have really strong laners. Everyone is really strong mechanically, and Jake is really smart in his jungle routing and tracking the enemy jungler. So I think for us, if we can get a lead early, we can be really decisive with that lead.”
Counter Logic Gaming is cited as one of North America’s top teams after a 2-0 Week 1. Despite a Week 2 loss to TSM and two messy Week 3 wins against FlyQuest and Phoenix1, CLG remains one of NA’s best. Dardoch appears to have given the team a much-needed kick, and all members are serious and motivated.
“I feel optimistic because we’re playing like hot garbage in our own eyes but we’re still winning,” Dardoch said after a 2-1 win against Phoenix1. “I am always feeling really happy looking toward the future because if we do the things we need to do in every game. When we can consistently stay there, there’s no team in NA that’s going to match us. That’s why I feel this way. It’s all about getting there.”
On his previous teams, Dardoch was seen as a savior and then a catalyst. He helped lead Team Liquid to playoffs in last year’s spring split, where he and TL narrowly lost to none other than CLG. CLG went on to win the split and impress at the Mid-Season Invitational. Team Liquid devolved into a mess of internal issues that summer and Dardoch left the team to join Immortals this spring. On Immortals, he again was relied upon as an early-game, aggressive jungle carry.
Now on CLG, Dardoch finally has a chance to learn. His relief is palpable.
“When I joined (CLG), I thought I knew a lot about macro game and how to play the game and all that stuff. I just thought that I didn’t have the tools,” Dardoch says. “Then Zaq (Aphromoo), we sit down a lot during the week 1-v-1 in VOD review and stuff, and he teaches me the things that I’m missing in scrims.”
He pauses and laughs incredulously before continuing.
“The amount of knowledge he has about the game is actually insane, and his pattern recognition is matched by no one in LCS.”
Like Xmithie with Immortals, integrating Dardoch onto CLG has been a process, one that hasn’t always been easy. Dardoch speaks of a few rough practices before the team was able to accept his more aggressive and proactive early-game jungling. CLG has strong players who already communicate effectively because they’ve been playing together for years. The task of accepting a new, younger member into the fold is daunting, but the members of CLG are united in their goals.
“When critiquing ourselves we hold ourselves to a much higher standard than what our opponents are actually at,” Dardoch says. “We could probably skirt by at the same skill level, get top three, win the gauntlet, but then go to Worlds and get smashed. We look towards the future a lot and if we can get to that level, it won’t matter what our LCS opponents play.”
Due to their respective spring split finishes, Immortals and CLG need to either win the summer split or win the regional finals to represent North America at worlds. Even then, this question could still be up for debate.
Currently, both teams and both junglers look stronger for the trade.
Immortals needed a strong veteran voice to unite the players. Xmithie’s arrival coincided with the acquisition of Coach Ssong along with the development of Cody Sun and Olleh as a duo.
“When we just started out with Jake our scrims were just average,” Cody says. “There was no way that we could tell whether we’d do really well or just mediocre in LCS. We just took one game at a time just preparing for opponents weekly and it’s been working out for us.”
Ever the realist, Xmithie is already prepared to help his team through its inevitable downturn, hopefully avoiding the pitfalls of stagnation to which prior iterations of Immortals fell prey.
“It’s the honeymoon phase, so I’m still waiting for that phase to be over,” Xmithie says. “Usually that’s when everyone is pretty happy about it, so I’m just waiting for when we get a slump.”
Counter Logic Gaming needed a change. It received a talented young jungler in Dardoch with a similar hunger for international success.
A stronger Immortals and CLG also push the teams who were at the top, Cloud9 and TSM, to improve. With both teams evolving after their jungler trade, North America as a region benefits.
Cover photo courtesy of Riot Games/Slingshot illustration