When the North American League Championship Series moved to a best-of-three format last summer, the Battle Theater was built. A supplementary space to the larger Battle Arena, the theater is a more intimate and less raucous stage, where players can easily see out into the crowd, recognizing familiar faces of fans and family.
Counter Logic Gaming and Phoenix1 have already taken their seats when I walk in with a group of friends Sunday. The front rows are already peppered with hardcore fans, and I advertise the back row of chairs as better seats for watching the game. Others trickle in throughout the first game of the series, the smell of concession stand food wafting behind them. By the end of Game 1, a strong CLG win, the Battle Theater is almost half-full.
The occasional audience cheer starts, often when P1 makes a play — the audience seems slightly skewed in P1’s favor — but the booming audio of in-game sounds is the prevalent track, accompanied by the voices of CLG themselves.
“CLG are loud,” one of my friends says.
“Yeah,” I reply. “They always are.”
The last time I watched CLG onstage, it was to the tune of an uproarious Air Canada Centre crowd that drowned out my compatriots in the press box, nevermind anything that was happening onstage hundreds of feet below. Discussions of then-CLG jungler Jake “Xmithie” Puchero’s jungle pathing were punctuated by cheers after every play, regardless of whether Immortals or CLG emerged the in-moment victor. CLG was surely loud then too, but I could only surmise this from movements onscreen and player cameras. I couldn’t hear it.
Now in the Battle Theater, CLG’s voices can be heard from every corner of the room. By contrast, P1 is just short of silent in game, despite joking around and teasing each other before the two teams entered Champion Select.
On a computer or television monitor, mouths are moving rapidly, faces scrunching in disgust or laughter, small motor tics that are always visible. But hearing their voices in person is different. CLG talks constantly and somehow seems to be in unison rather than competing for airtime. Only one player is quieter than the rest — the team’s new starting jungler, Omar “Omargod” Amin.
“He is trying to find his role on the team,” AD carry Trevor “Stixxay” Hayes says after the match. “Even us, we’re trying to figure that out, and he’s trying to figure that out as well. So far we know that it means he’s going to be quieter in comms where Josh would be like, ‘This is my opinion, we should do that.’ Omar is a lot more quiet. When we tell him something we have to teach him the specifics of how to do that.”
Stixxay was referring to Joshua “Dardoch” Hartnett. Until recently, Dardoch was the starting jungler for CLG, and OmarGod a substitute. The transition began with OmarGod swapping in for Dardoch a few games. Then Team Liquid announced July 25 the reacquisition of Dardoch, who initially came up through the TL organization as a rookie last year. CLG released a statement later saying that Dardoch “did not align with our focus on teamwork and culture.”
That was CLG’s motto for the better part of the 2016 season. It was the mantra even when the team faltered at IEM Katowice, the rule before winning the NA LCS spring final, the aphorism when it advanced to the Mid-Season Invitational Finals to challenge the dominion of SK Telecom T1.
It might be difficult to remember that as CLG’s motto because it’s not what comes to mind when most of the North American League of Legends community thinks about CLG. Rather than an NA powerhouse like TSM, CLG is labelled “the friendship team” of the region, a title that has been bestowed upon some truly great lineups like 2014 Oh My God and 2015-16 ROX Tigers, but carries with it a hint of deficiency. When many fans in the community speak of a friendship team, their words are often laced with the implication that said team is overperforming in the standings given the talent on paper.
This was certainly a recurring theme when CLG’s 2016 lineup was discussed. Darshan “Darshan” Upadhyaha was too inconsistent. Xmithie was too predictable and not proactive enough. Stixxay was a brand new AD carry who would never live up to Yiliang “Doublelift” Peng in the house that Doublelift helped build. And mid laner Choi “Huhi” Jae-hyun? He was just bad. Support Zaqueri “Aphromoo” Black was the only CLG player to escape heavy criticism throughout the 2016 NA LCS Spring split.
It wasn’t until the team made it to the MSI Finals that year that the NA community began to ease up on CLG. After CLG qualified for the World Championship on circuit points and gracelessly failed to make it out of the group stage, even CLG fans wondered if second place at MSI would be this lineup’s greatest achievement.
After a disappointing spring split this year, CLG entered the summer having traded Xmithie, its previous jungler, to Immortals for the young and talented Dardoch.
CLG wanted to represent the region at worlds again. CLG wanted to be the best team in North America. CLG wanted to raze through the summer split without dropping a series.
“Win everything” was back. Perhaps it never left.
Dardoch suited CLG’s team goals. Regardless of his rocky history on other lineups, his desire to win was never questioned. The jungler cited that as a reason he left Immortals for CLG, and the team united under those goals. Yet, the defining characteristics of CLG remained its teamwork and unity.
“Going into every game looking to win as a team, being able to get through problems pretty quickly, that mentality of looking out for each other, reassurance. Off of that, it will eventually lead to clean games in terms of micro and macro.”
To Aphromoo, the team’s captain and veteran support, this is the ideal CLG: Teamwork first, and wins will follow.
“Win everything” means nothing if the team doesn’t have a strong foundation.
CLG’s success in 2016 is still described as unlikely, unexpected, and unimaginable. But the members of the team never felt that way, and their focus on creating a unified five, greater than the sum of their parts, was the deciding factor.
OmarGod made his LCS debut in Week 6 in a Friday match against a struggling FlyQuest side, the same team (save an AD carry swap) that had unexpectedly eliminated CLG in the spring quarterfinals months earlier. Dardoch started Game 1, where Huhi stole the show with his surprising pickup of Vel’Koz as a counter to Hai “Hai” Du Lam’s Corki.
Huhi took the Vel’Koz into Corki again in Game 2, but it was OmarGod who had the audience’s attention as another homegrown North American rookie jungler. His arrival to the LCS stage was quickly overshadowed by Twitter and Reddit speculation on the inner workings of CLG, and just how well Dardoch was actually fitting in on the team.
“Honestly, Josh has been with us for a while so he already knows a lot in terms of the macro, where he’s supposed to be,” Aphromoo said the following week, the competitive weekend prior to Dardoch’s return to Team Liquid. “We don’t have to direct him as much. He definitely plays carries better than Omar does. Omar is more of a team-fighting type of jungler. It helps us reset in terms of bringing his fresh mindset in.”
Following a tough Game 1 loss to Immortals that week, OmarGod was chosen to start Game 2. CLG won with OmarGod on Gragas, as the team shifted to accommodate his simpler pathing, with Huhi and Aphromoo leading him. After the win, OmarGod stayed in for Game 3 and an eventual 1-2 series defeat after Immortals pinched his jungle pool in the draft.
Unintentionally, Aphromoo returned to his ideal version of CLG when describing the pride he had in his teammates integrating OmarGod for the Immortals series.
“He doesn’t see what we see; it’s his third game on stage essentially,” Aphromoo said. “But I like the fact that all of our teammates are trying to help him be the best that he can be. I think that’s pretty cool and he takes it in stride.”
The unlikely loss to P1 in Week 9 brings OmarGod’s first full week as CLG’s starting jungler to a close.
“There were a number of things that went wrong today because we replaced our jungler that we had for seven weeks in the LCS, so we’re trying to teach our new jungler what we want from him, and that’s a process in and of itself,” Stixxay says. “It feels like we’re not really able to improve, and we just have to do our best to maintain where we were before with Dardoch.”
Despite the loss, Stixxay is affable and relaxed. Throughout the split, CLG players — including Dardoch when he was still with the team — have been resolute and critical in victory, confident and proactive in losses. They are always looking ahead to what’s next, rather than dwelling on the past. OmarGod fits that mindset perfectly.
“He’s fine with anything happening,” Stixxay says. “Essentially, if we get behind early, he’s not going to get demoralized by that. He’s just like, ‘Oh, that happened and this sucks but what can we do next?’ And that’s the exact mentality that we want to have.”
While OmarGod was previously used as a possible mentality reset between games in a series, in choosing him as their starting jungler, CLG has essentially undergone a full team reset of their own with only one week of regular-season play left in the split. The team is back where it started at the beginning of the summer, trying to ensure their new jungler’s comfort in the name of improvement and success.
“It’s not so bad that we’re losing right now, and I honestly kind of expected it because after we have a roster change eight weeks into the split it’s not going to go perfectly,” Stixxay says. “It’s just a number of things, and I’m not saying it’s even the jungler’s fault because I don’t think Omar played bad.”
“It’s League,” he adds with a short laugh. “Stuff is going to happen, we’re going to get behind sometimes and we just need people to think of what to do next. Omar is really good at that.”
Stixxay is perhaps the brightest spot in the organization right now, a testament to the fact that the CLG system can work even if the team’s success rate has dipped a bit as a result of Dardoch’s departure. At the beginning of the 2016 competitive year, Stixxay was the new kid on CLG, and his only prior competitive experience was on CLG Black, the organization’s Challenger Series team. He made his high-profile debut at IEM San Jose 2015, replacing Doublelift, the legacy CLG AD carry.
Stixxay admits that he doesn’t yet consider himself a veteran, but he thinks it’s now his time to step up and help lead, like others did for him throughout the 2016 season. That makes him a good confidant for OmarGod as the young jungler finds his own way on CLG following Dardoch’s separation with the team.
“He told me, ‘Hey, I’m getting so many hate comments on Twitter and stuff,'” Stixxay says, shaking his head. “I was like, ‘Trust me, don’t worry about it. I got that my whole first split.’ And it eventually got to me where I’d be playing the game and I’d see these comments in my head and I’d be like, ‘Maybe I’m actually bad.’ So I told him to just not read that stuff and focus on the team mentality. More than anyone else’s opinion, the team’s opinion matters.”
For Counter Logic Gaming, there’s little else to say. More than anything, it comes down to the team.
Photos courtesy of Riot Games