What happened to Clutch Gaming?
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Of all the new teams that joined the NA LCS prior to the start of the 2018 season, our expectations for Clutch Gaming were among the highest.
After all, they signed three-fifths of the Team EnVy roster that surged to a playoff spot following the 2017 Summer Split. The two players they replaced were EnVy's weakest, and new mid lane import Fabian "Febiven" Diepstraten was supposed to propel them to greater heights in 2018.
But it was not to be. After a strong enough start, boosted by beating up on bottom-tier teams, Clutch Gaming seemed to find their signature win in week eight when they beat league leaders Echo Fox. But then they collapsed, going 1-4 following that win. They made playoffs but as the sixth seed, right where EnVy finished last summer.
What went wrong with the team as they stumbled to a finish?
The team's problems start with what happens outside of Febiven's mid lane. They still don't quite know what they have in inconsistent rookie top laner Colin "Solo" Earnest. And they typically can't generate any significant pressure at all from the duo lane. That leaves an immense burden on the shoulders of the Dutch mid laner.
It's not like they never prioritize Solo in draft or in-game. His two most commonly played champions have been Gangplank and Gnar, both fearsome split pushers that can wreck teamfights. He's also one of the few brave souls that has tried top lane Jayce this split.
He's got the fighting part right, and his damage numbers prove it. The problem is knowing when to push and getting the side lanes in control. In Clutch's tiebreaker loss to TSM, despite having Gnar and Orianna, two champions that can transition to side lane safely, Clutch refused to spread their resources out.
They moved Caitlyn from mid to top and had Solo join the team for Baron vision, even though there was no need for him to be there. And then, despite having grouped in the area, they retreated into their jungle and watched TSM sweep all the wards so that Mike Yeung's Skarner could make a game-changing pick.
The issues Clutch have exhibited boil down to trust between the players. Trust that ADC Apollo Price's Caitlyn can hold mid while jungle and support maintain vision for Febiven. Trust that Solo will know when and where to use his teleport. Trust that the team composition they chose can work against one of the better teams in the region.
The man that has to find a way to get the team back on the same page is jungler Nam "LirA" Tae-yoo.
The glue guy
It's weird to think of LirA as Clutch's "glue" guy, the person charged with holding things together. After all, he's the lone Korean on the roster, the player who has the biggest language and cultural gap to bridge.
LirA started getting some MVP hype last spring when people noticed how aggressive he was for a Team EnVy squad that didn't really have any winning lanes. But the jungle meta has shifted a lot since then. Counterjunglers are out in favor of tanks with engage.
Early in the split, LirA would still be caught jungling on the wrong side of the map, and that put his laners in desperate situations. This is not the level one play Clutch fans want to see.
That play is the fault of the duo lane more than the jungler, but the point stands that it often looked like Clutch's laners were helping the jungler, rather than the other way around.
Things got better near the end of the split, but the synergy between the jungle and the lanes still needs improvement. In the loss to Cloud9 that dropped Clutch to sixth, LirA's face hardly moved on the player camera as he and Febiven were severely outplayed on an early mid lane gank. On the other side, C9 jungler Dennis "Svenskeren" Johnsen's mouth was constantly moving as he jumped in to give his team a two-kill lead.
For LirA to be more than a cute MVP candidate—and for Clutch to play up to the level of the big boys—the team needs more trust and communication. Their mechanical skill might never be up to the level of a TSM or Team Liquid. Their only hope is to play the map better and to play as a team better.