The Thorin Treatment: TSM at Worlds
Team SoloMid (TSM) being eliminated from the Season 6 World Championship in the group stage was shocking and disappointing for many analysts and onlookers. Yet the reaction and definitive conclusions arrived at or put forth by many fans and community members seem disproportionate and unduly reductive, erasing all of the team's strong play in their own region and painting their results at Worlds as if they had to be the way the games played out and TSM have now been exposed as having been over-rated or simply only good against NA teams.
Of course, a team with grand expectations, such as TSM rightfully had, of being a probable semi-finalist and perhaps even contending for a spot in the finals, betraying such expectations with a mediocre group stage performance, which yielded elimination, is shocking to the system and forces one to question one's paradigm and hierarchy of teams. Even so, it seems unreasonable and illogical to write off one of the best Western teams of all-time as if failing to reach even the top eight of the competition was an inevitability, even in hindsight.
Masters of North America
TSM's dominance in the North American region is arguably the most impressive domestic run of any team in the history of Western League of Legends. Of course, one must put aside the Moscow Five team which was legitimately the best team in the world for a good two thirds of 2012, but once the Russian-based squad has been eliminated, TSM's record fares very well against all comers.
C9's 30:3 and 29:4 splits, including play-off results, were a marvel of their age, but were to some degree a product of the Best-of-1 (Bo1) format of LCS back then and the bizarre super-weeks, which saw teams playing four or five opponents in a single week. TSM's near flawless record in the NA LCS in the Summer split saw them winning 17 of 18 Bo3 series, where teams had plenty of opportunity to come back into a series or bounce back from a loss, if they were indeed better than Bjergsen's boys. Adding in their two Bo5 series wins in the play-offs, the record improves to 19 out of 20 series won over the Summer.
Looking at individual game counts, to contrast against past NA teams, we see that TSM went an incredible 41:7, over the split and play-offs, which amounts to a mind-boggling 85.42% win-rate, less than 5 percent points lower than the 90.90% of C9's 30:3 split, and with 31.25% more games played.
TSM were utterly dominant against their direct rivals over the split, in a manner never before witnessed in North America. Doublelift and company went 8:0 in series against CLG, C9 and IMT, the three best other squads in NA LCS, and 18:3 in individual games. The closest record, in terms of games, was against C9, who won ~23% of individual games against TSM over the entire split, hardly to be considered any reasonable kind of parity. Contrast that against the impressive record of TSM 2012, who won six straight tournaments against primarily domestic competition - ignoring the MLG which pit them against Korean champions Azubu Blaze, and yet saw themselves routinely tested by CLG and dropping games to teams like Curse and Dignitas.
Remove TSM from the Summer split and you get a very competitive slug-fest between C9, CLG and IMT to see who will take the crown and match-ups almost entirely dictating who finishes where in the play-offs. This might not have been the strongest NA LCS split, but it was certainly not the weakest or one without good competition, TSM simply made it look that way by virtue of their absolute dominance in all respects.
Decent enough in the group stage
It's not as if TSM performed terribly in the group stage of Worlds itself, although they did display more games below their best or average level than we saw across almost the entire Summer split in NA. The team was up 2:1 in games and 3:2 in games, finishing eventually on 3:3, an okay 50% win-rate. That's a win-rate which could have gotten them into the play-offs. Had RNG beaten Splyce twice, hardly a ridiculous scenario to entertain, and TSM beaten RNG even once, also not some egregrious stretch of the imagination, then we would have been looking at a tie-breaker scenario and TSM having a chance to go to the play-offs.
Consider also that TSM's run of form saw them split games with Samsung, handing the Koreans their only loss so far in the tournament; losing both games to RNG, in admittedly harsh fashion; and handling Splyce on both occasions. That run of form does not add up to a complete systematic break-down or failure on the scale of G2's this year or CLG's the previous.
TSM not only could have gone through without winning more overall games, but in most cases were a single win away from progressing and with a reasonable chance of having gotten that, if not a good one, in contrast to the infamous "if we'd beaten SK and then won the tie-breaker against SHRC and then gotten the easier side of the bracket" line of reasoning their old German Jungler has been known to trot out to explain their S4 Worlds campaign. From what was a competitive group, TSM ultimately underwhelmed and yet still were not far from progressing.
As many have pointed out, put into any of the other three groups, where they would have been the number one seed and thus replaced ROX, FW or EDG; TSM would probably have progressed even with the level of form they displayed in Group D.
Underwhelming but also a little unlucky
Of course, TSM's performance and final results were underwhelming, since they came into the tournament with such high expectations from all corners and the pieces to justify a high placing and quality campaign of game wins. The drop from the heights many imagined they would reach to the depths of their worst games was immense, but not inevitable or nearly as definitive as is being suggested by some. Even with their weakened form in the group stage, contrasted against domestic play, TSM may well have gone on to peak in the play-offs and had time to fix some of their issues and right the ship. Many times before, strong teams have been seen delivering shaky group stage performances, but going on to perform much better, and more in line with their strengths, in the difference environment of bracket play.
At this year's MSI, SKT exited the group stage in fourth place, the worst play-off berth, and yet shone blindingly on their way to the title, looking much more like the team that had won LCK Spring. At S5 Worlds, the KOO Tigers managed to lose twice to Flash Wolves in the group stage, only to beat rivals KT, European powerhouse FNATIC and then take the only game win off SKT that Faker's men suffered over the entire tournament. At S4 Worlds, OMG were a nexus hit away from perhaps seeing themselves spectating the play-offs, only to scrape by and move on to said bracket play, where they then stomped Korea's NJWS and played a very competive 2:3 series against SHRC which saw them narrowly losing out on a spot in the final.
Consider this thought experiment: how much weight will anyone put on the losses of ROX Tigers, the tournament's favourite, to CLG and ANX in their group, if they go on to hoist the Summoner's Cup? TSM gets no chance to redeem their campaign, due to being eliminated, but it's unreasonable to suggest they could not have, especially since their form against RNG was significantly worse than we have seen in a large sample size of games, admittedly mostly against weaker opposition than RNG.
For those imagining that previous sentence resolved the problem itself with its caveat, let's remind ourselves that the TSM which beat SSG in the group stage here at Worlds certainly could have beaten RNG in one game. Even if they perhaps couldn't, due to match-up weaknesses or RNG's hot form against them, there are teams better than RNG that TSM likely could have taken a game from, placed in another group or with other teams in theirs.
Plenty of problems
TSM at Worlds displayed plenty of problems they did not in North America. Doublelift was a legitimate MVP candidate on domestic soil, displaying a chasm between himself and all others at his position, but was arguably the biggest offender in terms of drop-off on the international level. Shown up by Uzi, who has a tendency to get more than a little hot at Worlds competitions, it's not as if we can isolate the ADC match-up entirely, as the TSM man's Support was arguably more outclassed, as Mata showed Biofrost the difference between a world champion and a rookie.
Bjergsen battled through sickness to provide some solid games and the occasional big carry performances, as Splyce know only too well. His only real moment of anguish being that near inexplicable Zilean game against Samsung Galaxy. With two other players struggling, in the form of his botlane, and his Top laner facing much steeper competition, one can hardly slight Bjergsen as a star player and consider his effort to have been wanting.
The most startling drop off for TSM was in their macro decision-making and play once the game arrived at the mid game, as many analysts and commentators noted. Where their strength in the early game in NA, coupled with solid shot-calling in the mid game, saw them closing games out at that point in an average game, now they were slipping up, being punished and no longer finding themselves in positions of advantage. MonteCristo had commented, prior to Worlds, that TSM were not punished by opponents like C9 and that teams like CLG were not equipped with the tools to do so, and this is a conclusion which does seem to have been reasonably borne out by contrasting TSM's international and domestic performances.
With all of the above cited, is it reasonable to suggest all of those problems had to be on display at this World Championship? The last point perhaps would always have been an issue, but individual performance certainly could have been better from Doublelift. If even one of TSM's flaws is not as apparent or present at all, they likely see themselves playing in the bracket stage.
Setting the record for the jump to conclusions
TSM were not frauds, in as much as seeming impossibly strong at home and then being exposed abroad. Their dominance was not an illusion which means they never could have shown strong performances against Asian competition. Having more international competitions in the calender year would not have thoroughly and repeatedly illustrated that TSM were incapable of competing against Asia's best. More likely, having multiple chances to compete internationally would have seen TSM able to showcase what they were truly capable at their best. It would probably have given them opportunity to learn from the mistakes which were punished on this occasion and adapt to the strength of international opponents. It's not as if Bjergsen would have been sick at every one or Doublelift would have transformed into Zuna each and every time.
For other Western teams, more international competition may well have further highlighted the gap between the top Western teams and the top Asian teams, but that seems far less likely in the case of TSM. RNG may well have blown themselves up or failed to start entirely given more tournaments to play in. H2k could easily have shown their penchant for under-performing in big games given a few more of those. The Samsung which showed up at Worlds might have played more like the one which was smashed by KT in the play-offs of LCK Summer.
More international competitions would likely reveal TSM's true level in a manner much more pleasing to Western fans than the small sample size from which so many are drawing drastic conclusions now. Sadly, there are no more opportunities within a reasonable time-frame for TSM. MSI or the next Worlds are the competitions TSM must wait for, if indeed they retain the same roster, and thus a wait of at least half a year or more likely sits between them and a chance for redemption or a campaign where the engine was well and truly running throughout.
They were underwhelming on this occasion and some of their fans may have made the schadenfreude of seeing them fall from such great heights delicious to some - the author included, but one cannot and rightly should not ignore the massive potential TSM have not only displayed but with consistency at home. Another day, another group and another chance could well have seen us talking about a TSM semi-final next week. A couple of bad games cannot erase the excellence of TSM as one of the best Western teams in history, nor that there were many alternative realities in which not much had to change for TSM to have come close to the expectations their domestic play had garnered for this international campaign.
Photo credit: lolesports