Counter Logic: Good process, tragic results. (Part 2/2)
I wrapped up my last article (Part 1 of this series, which can be seen here) by diagnosing two so-called "Counter Logic" mentalites that cropped up during the role-swap of HotshotGG into the jungle. These issues would continue to haunt CLG for the rest of Season 2/3.
To re-iterate, these flaws were:
1. CLG is able to recruit talented players, but they are too determined to mold them to fit their idea of how the game should be played. This would frequently turn star players with extremely apparent skills into struggling role players.
2. Rather than picking up a new player, CLG would try to role-swap a veteran into a new role (oftentimes citing a lack of North American talent.) These role-swaps were used to cover up weaknesses rather than emphasize strengths.
These flaws were painfully apparent for the rest of Season 3, but in spite of widespread criticism, these problems were largely resolved in CLG's Season 4 decision-making. In fact, CLG made very intelligent roster decisions in Season 4 that were derailed by largely unforeseen factors. When judging teams for their roster decisions, it occasionally makes more sense to judge a team for the logic behind their decisions rather than the final result. In traditional sports, an unforeseen injury can derail what looked like a promising roster move. Likewise, meta-shifts or unexpected synergy issues can sabotage a seemingly shrewd roster decision.
This article will contrast the poor decision-making of Season 3 with the improved thought processes of Season 4. I will try to explain why I think that CLG's poor finish did not tell the whole story of their greatly improved management skills.
Rather than devote extensive time to each Season 3 move, I will try and move through them quickly while diagnosing possible problems.
CLG's first Season 3 roster move involved benching Voyboy, putting Hotshot back in the top lane, moving Chauster to the jungle, and bringing on Locodoco as support. (This move technically occured in the pre-Season, but I'm including it here as it helps illustrate similar problems as the other examples. CLG made this move to try and improve the team's underperforming solo laners. Although CLG had one of the best bot lanes in the world, CLG believed that splitting up Chauster and Doublelift was the best move to improve. Replacing Chauster in the bot lane was Locodoco, who was supposed to bring a revolutionary Korean mindset to the team. Unfortunately, this team rarely won games because of these swaps. Locodoco was a very weak support who could only play Nunu. Chauster was an above-average jungler with a very strong Lee Sin, but the team's weak laning meant he was constantly compensating for failing lanes.
Instead, CLG won games because Doublelift was at the peak of his powers and the team was skilled enough to successfully protect him during the teamfights. As a result, CLG enjoyed the most success they had since the Saintvicious era. But in spite of their relative success, CLG only looked like a fringe top 8 in the World at best and nothing like a championship contender.
Once again, CLG had role-swapped to cover weaknesses rather than emphasize strengths. CLG once had one of the best bot lanes in the World but replaced it with a mediocre one. Chauster's versatility and shotcalling did transition into the jungle, but these role-swaps have historically worked best when a "sure-thing" is brought in rather than a project like Locodoco. (Examples include Chauster's original move to support making way for Doublelift, YellowStaR's move to support for Rekkles, and inSec's move to top lane for KaKAO.)
Locodoco would soon leave the team, and rather than recruit a dedicated support player (Nhat Nguyen and Bloodwater both performed really well at tryouts) CLG decided to try and role-swap another out-of-position star. Modern day fans of aphromoo may be surprised to learn this, but he struggled with serious nerve issues as an AD Carry and continued to do so as CLG's support in the 2013 Spring Split. The team would also replace mid lane stalwart bigfatlp with amateur superstar Link. In spite of the team's great promise, they would underperform in the LCS and were forced to play in the relegation round. This team suffered both from nerve issues coming from their new players (Link and aphro) and the extreme erosion of Hotshot's skills in the top lane.
The Summer Split saw another complete re-vamp of CLG's roster. Chauster would return to the support position and the team would bring in ex-mid laner bigfatlp to play jungle and former MRN AD Carry star Nientonsoh to play top lane. This was a big step for the team: they finally removed the dead weight of HotshotGG in favor of a mechanically skilled top laner. However, the replacements were not ideal for Season 3 Worlds contention, because all three of CLG's new pick-ups spent much of the split learning their new positions.
A quick glance at CLG's history shows three extremely disparate lineups used throughout Season 3, only one of which was able to gain any measure of success. (The Locodoco squad, which technically played in the pre-Season.) CLG's roster decision making suffered greatly from the aforementioned issues 1 and 2, but a new problem also arose.
3. CLG would constantly roster-swap and bring in line-ups with strong growth potential, but would break up those line-ups before any positive results materialized.
A lot of the moves that CLG made in Season 3 made little to no sense for immediate contention, but made more sense under a long-term view. After all, training skilled and mechanical players to play new roles is quite possible. Not a lot of supports in the world have the aggression and mechanical skill of aphromoo. It would also have been possible for extremely intelligent players like bigfatlp or Chauster to adjust to their new positions. However, CLG never kept these players long enough for long-term results to materialize, leading to another over-used community meme about CLG's "potential."
Breaking up the best bot lane in NA for Locodoco and aphromoo in the support positions did not work out well for CLG in the short-run, but knowing what we know now, aphromoo would grow into a top-tier support and Locodoco has been a relevation as coach for TSM. (Don't forget that a big part of CLG bringing him on had to do with him introducing a better infrastructure.) Unfortunately, CLG was unable to reap the results of their incredible growth. Had CLG kept Chauster in the jungle with aphromoo support, it's quite possible that aphro could have became the support star he is today much earlier.
A related problem also showed with CLG's last-second roster moves in Season 3. Nientonsoh would go on to become a solid and oftentimes underrated top laner in Season 4, but his first season was married with inconsistency and a shaky laning phase (notwithstanding his game-winning play vs. TSM on Elise.) Likewise, bigfatlp's jungle play was also a clear work-in-progress. Too often, his ganks would devolve into sitting in a bush with Nocturne for 10 minutes, leading to massive farm deficits. Even the legendary Chauster struggled as he was forced to re-develop his laning mechanics and synergy with Doublelift. Because the Summer Split is all that matters for Worlds contention, it was fairly un-wise to turn the most important games of the year into a constant learning process.
At the beginning of this article, I stated that CLG demonstrated strong improvement in Season 4. To an outsider, this would seem almost hilariously false. In Season 3, CLG managed a (fairly poor) 5th place finish, but Season 4 CLG was just a single game away from relegation. However, an in-depth look at CLG's roster moves in Season 4 demonstrates that they had turned over a new leaf.
CLG would begin by the season by removing bigfatlp from the starting lineup. Soon after, Chauster would soon step-down from the starting roster and retire from League of Legends. Shortly after these moves, many community members began joking that team owner HotshotGG was planning on a return to the starting lineup. Although such a decision would be "classic CLG," the team instead took a very reasonable next steptheybrought on solo queue jungler TrickZ and former CLG member aphromoo to fill their empty roster spots. Rather than give these members the spots immediately, the team would instead play them on a try-out basis at IEM Cologne.
This move was a far-cry from CLG's usual failures. Instead, the team decided to try out a solo queue player in TrickZ and go for a safe bet in former support aphromoo. Unfortunately, TrickZ underwhelmed and the team cut him. However, it was definitely worth a shot to see if they could discover the next hidden NA jungle talent. To an outsider, bringing back aphromoo looked a classic CLG move, but by giving him a try-out, the team was able to check if he had dealt with his longstanding choking issues. Indeed, aphromoo was the bright spot of CLG in the entire tournament and managed to earn a starting spot on CLG's roster. In the next split, he would go on to become arguably the best support in North America.
After picking up a strong support player in aphromoo, the team was on the look-out for a new jungle player. Once again, CLG made a good decision by looking overseas. Many analysts, most notably former CLG coach MonteCristo, have stated numerous times that jungle is the hardest professional position to learn because of how much it differs from solo queue. While teams should always be on the look-out for new talents, a team looking to immediately contend (like CLG) is almost always best served by grabbing a battle-tested veteran.
CLG would nab former Lemondogs jungler Dexter, an extremely talented player with both LCS and international experience. Dexter made an immediate impact on the team and immediately contended with Meteos for the title of "Best Jungler NA." With Dexter on the roster, CLG was able to finish third place in the LCS Spring Split, only narrowly losing a 2-1 semi-finals series to TSM after a monumental collapse in Game 2.
Unfortunately, top laner Nien would decide to step down after CLG's disappointing third place finish, citing a difficulty dealing with community criticism. This left CLG in a state of flux heading into the summer split. Although Nien was never the shining star of CLG, he was an extremely effective role player who teamfought extremely well. In fact, many of CLG's members stated that with one more split of experience, Nien could have grown into a world-class top laner. (Keep in mind that he had only been playing top lane for a single year.) CLG would go on to pick up Korean prospect Seraph, in a move that came with a great deal of community support but eventually ended with very harsh criticism. To an outsider, it looked like CLG had fallen back into the old problems of before, particularly problem number 1 (CLG tried to turn star players into role players.) Indeed, Seraph's poor play for CLG has led to a new community meme of CLG starving their top laners, usually for Doublelift's benefit.
However, I have a drastically different opinion, both of Seraph's play on the team and his initial recruitment to the team. During the recruitment process, Monte made it abundantly clear what his criteria were for CLG's new top laner. To reiterate, the team was looking for a self-sufficient top laner with strong mechanics who played meta champions. Other comments by CLG members echoed these desires: multiple CLG members pointed out that the "plug and play" nature of the top lane meant that almost anyone could fit into their team dynamics. At the time, many other competitive teams around the world were also oriented around self-sufficient top laners who mostly played tanky or supportive champions and farmed without jungle help. (Indeed, this meta would continue for the rest of the season as champions like Lulu and Maokai replaced Shyvana and Dr. Mundo.) There was not a lot of scouting information available on Seraph, but his one game in OGN on Shyvana made it seem like he could fulfill this role.
For much of the summer split, Seraph played the supportive top lane role very well. This may easily be forgotten in wake of CLG's epic collapse, but the team was leading the LCS for the vast majority of the split. At the same time, eventual NA champion TSM spent most of the split struggling against the top teams and eventual runner-ups Cloud9 were also unable to crack the top 3 of CLG/Dig/LMQ.
While it's true that CLG eventually collapsed and their split was meaningless in a getting-to-Worlds context, it still has meaning in a historical context. The standings clearly showed that CLG was the best team for a large portion of the Summer Split.
A big part of this was their smart roster moves. In Season 4, none of their three pick-ups (Seraph, Dexter, and aphromoo) were role-swap players. Instead of just grabbing talent and hoping for the best, they recruited these players with a very clear goal in mind and strong ideas about what roles they would play. When the team was on point, these results translated into victories and CLG was one of the strongest teams in the LCS. Eventually, the team did eventually collapse and Seraph complained about not getting to carry. Because of this, many fans accused CLG of returning to their old problems. This mindset completely dismisses several months of strong play from CLG and everything that their management said about Season 4 roster moves. (See my note at the bottom of the article for a longer breakdown of my opinion on Seraph.)
In fact, CLG's collapse had to do with factors such as a lack of infrastructure and team cohesion rather than poor roster moves. As an outsider, it is impossible to truly tell what went on inside the CLG lineup. (Even shows like Chasing the Cup can only give us a vague idea of what's happening instead of the actual truth.) However, it was pretty clear that something had begun to negatively effect the team. This is where CLG went wrong. Issues like attitude and such cannot be predicted before a roster swap is made, but it can be fixed with another roster move. It's impossible for anyone to nail every single roster move. Even a team like TSM, which has a rich tradition of success, made roster miscues this season with Gleeb and to a lesser extent, Amazing. The difference is that TSM were willing to take a risk and cut bait mid-season, a path that CLG should have strongly considered when the team began dissolving. There is strong evidence that shows a mid-season roster swap can help the team more than it damages continuity. In fact, 3/8 of LCS champions won after swapping rosters mid split. (WildTurtle over Chaox, Puszu over nRated, Lustboy over Gleeb)
Ultimately, I believe that CLG's season 4 failings fell a far cry from their issues in Seasons 2 and 3. Hopefully, they can make even better roster decisions in Season 5. So far, it's looking pretty good. By picking up an established talent in ZionSpartan and trying out new prospects, it seems like CLG can once again avoid the classic pitfalls that befell them in Seasons 2/3. The addition of Dignitas legend scarra as coach can hopefully also strengthen their infrastructure. In spite of their rich history of mediocrity, it's quite possible that an awesome future lies in store for Counter Logic Gaming.
As a side note: "Let Seraph carry"
While I do think that Seraph is a talented player with a lot of potential, I don't think that CLG "starved" him or "held him back" (or at least not to the team's detriment.) The noise about "letting Seraph carry" seems to completely disregard several critical facts.
Firstly, many fans seemed to argue that Seraph was completely starved, either by Doublelift literally entering his lane and taking CS or by denying him all empty lane farm. Instead, the team asked him to play a similar role to Nien. Nien was often allowed to play carry champions (both his greatest highlights and most notable miscues occured on carry champions such as Jayce, Elise, and Jax) and also often split-pushed with TP, meaning that he took empty lane farm. Likewise, a quick look at CLG vods shows Seraph often playing champions like Ryze or Irelia and split pushing empty lanes. He just didn't get a lot of jungle ganks...and few competitive teams in any region played a top-lane oriented style. Considering CLG's early successes and the risk of a dramatic style change right before Worlds qualifications, it's strange that fans would want them to completely transform their playstyle.
Secondly, the team brought Seraph on to be a role player. Every successful team, even the World Champions Samsung White, have role players that get less jungle pressure and help than the team's focal points. CLG made it abundantly clear to both the community and potential try-out candidates that they were looking for a role player in the top lane. In fact, almost all teams employed role players in the top lane because of the Season 4 metagame. It's quite strange to hear fans complain that Seraph was forced to pick champions like Lulu or Maokai considering that ZionSpartan, who almost every fan would call a "carry" top laner, frequently picked those champions as well.
Finally, Seraph himself actually lacked strong individual performances on carry champions (he had a horrible record on his supposedly strong Nidalee) Even in games where Seraph did get gold and got ahead, he was unable to carry CLG to victory, (perhaps due to his nerve issues) so it made sense for them to continue putting resources elsewhere.