Burn it all down: How CLG rose from the ashes to be competitive in the LCS again

by Nick Geracie

Counter Logic Gaming faces off against Cloud9 this Saturday in the first round of the 2022 LCS Championship, which marks the first postseason appearance for CLG since the summer of 2019.

After finishing dead last to conclude the 2021 LCS season, CLG set their organization ablaze and hired a new general manager, head coach, strategic coach and five new players. They all were meant to fit within the scope of the organization’s new vision and approach to restore CLG to their former glory, which at its height included a Mid-Seasonal Invitational runner-up finish and League of Legends World Championship appearance in 2016.

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Fast forward eight or so months from this offseason’s changes, and the process has yielded impressive results. CLG have secured the fourth seed in the 2022 LCS Championship, and due to the youthful nature of their roster, there is still room to grow going forward. Let’s take a closer look at how CLG’s complete overhaul of their League of Legends program resulted in the organization’s return to LCS contender status for the first time in three years.

From the top down

Counter Logic Gaming kicked off their 2021 offseason by hiring Greg Kim, formerly of Evil Geniuses, as the new head of CLG, but that was only the beginning of the sweeping changes that would be made by the organization in the coming weeks. CLG’s next move was parting ways with general manager Daniel "Tafo" Lee and replacing him with Jonathon McDaniel. McDaniel’s conversations with CLG began with him pitching a vision for a new chapter of the organization as well as himself after spending multiple seasons with Golden Guardians as their assistant general manager.

“When I first joined Golden Guardians was after their initial run in 2018 where they finished 10th place in both splits and had a lot of troubles like roster issues,” McDaniel said. “It was not an unfamiliar situation because we had kind of done something similar over at Golden Guardians. It was something I had a game plan on in terms of how to do it because I’d done something similar before, but just in a slightly different direction.”

Read more: Why ‘Players’ is a crowd-pleaser for League of Legends fans and those outside esports

When McDaniel joined Golden Guardians, the plan was to grab a few key players who were available ahead of the 2019 season to bolster the organization’s LCS program like top laner Kevin “Hauntzer” Yarnell, mid laner Henrik “Froggen” Hansen and support Kim “Olleh” Joo-sung. For 2022 CLG, targets of similar experience and pedigree were not available. As a result, McDaniel offered a different approach.

“Ultimately, there were a lot of players at the top end of Academy that -- in my opinion, at least -- really deserved a chance in LCS,” McDaniel explained.

Before any signings to CLG’s roster were made, though, McDaniel had to hire a head coach and brought on Thomas “Thinkcard” Slotkin, a long-time veteran of the LCS scene who had worked closely and recently with McDaniel as the head coach of Golden Guardians Academy in 2021.

Photo credit: Colin Young-Wolff / Riot Games via ESPAT

“Going into that offseason, Jonathan was very upfront with the expectations for CLG,” Thinkcard said. “That’s kind of why he took the job, and when they interviewed me, I was very blunt about how I expected the development of CLG to go -- there was going to be no throwing money against the wall. Hopefully going to Worlds, and if not, firing everybody to try again is just not a viable business model. It doesn’t foster really any player growth at all.”

After hiring Thinkcard and strategic coach Chris "Croissant" Sun shortly after, CLG were ready to put together a roster that aligned with the vision of their staff.

Roster rebuild

Hopes were relatively high for Counter Logic Gaming’s 2021 roster. It concluded LCS veterans Eugene “Pobelter” Park, Andy “Smoothie” Ta and Jason “WildTurtle” Tran as well as “Broxah” Brock-Pedersen and Finn "Finn" Wiestål who were both fresh off of Worlds 2020 appearances.

Although visa issues hamstrung CLG in the short term, the roster never came together as intended. CLG finished in ninth place in the 2021 LCS spring split, and by the time the season ended, they had fallen to 10th place with an abysmal 12-33 record.

On legacy and name-brand value, CLG’s 2022 roster was far less impressive at first glance.

Jungler Juan “Contractz” Garcia had some experience in the LCS, even as recently as the previous summer with Evil Geniuses, but he had struggled to maintain a full-time position with an LCS team for the majority of his career. Mid laner Cristian “Palafox” Palafox had a rocky rookie season, albeit with flashes of potential, on FlyQuest in 2021. Top laner Thomas “Jenkins” Tran had impressed in his LCS debut in 2021, but only in a handful of games as a substitute for Barney “Alphari” Morris on Team Liquid.

Photo credit: Counter Logic Gaming

AD carry Fatih "Luger" Güven showed promise in the 2021 LCS Academy league after turning heads in the Turkish Championship League, but he had never played an LCS game. His duo partner, support Philippe "Poome" Lavoie-Giguere, had only a handful of LCS games under his belt from when he, alongside Contractz, came in to shake things up for 100 Thieves in the 2020 LCS summer split.

The lack of experience didn’t deter CLG from these players, however. In fact, it was just what they were looking for ahead of the 2022 season as opposed to veteran players.

“Instead of doing that, we’d much rather have a lot of younger players that we feel still have room to grow, but also are ready now,” McDaniels said when breaking down CLG’s approach to 2022 roster construction.

Outside of going for younger talent, there was a methodology to how CLG wanted their roster to play. The current CLG squad is very aggressive, and they began the year by having Contractz foster that aggression present in the bot lane duo and Palafox in the mid lane, while Jenkins was left to absorb pressure on the weak side of the map in the top lane. However, in the spring, CLG finished in eighth place with a record of 6-12 and missed the postseason for the fifth split in a row.

Rewarding the faithful

After a disappointing performance from Jenkins, CLG made a single roster swap ahead of the summer split and promoted Niship “Dhokla” Doshi from CLG Academy. Dhokla, who hadn’t been an LCS starter since 2019 with OpTic Gaming, had absolutely torn apart the Academy scene at the start of year and was named the MVP of the 2022 LCS Academy spring split.

Photo credit: Nick Geracie

Following Dhokla’s promotion, CLG bootcamped in South Korea ahead of the summer split for four weeks. With Dhokla fully integrated into the roster, CLG started off the summer 3-0 for the first time in five years.

Read more: How CLG’s coaching staff has helped team to a 3-0 start in LCS summer

“Coming into this year, my mindset was to just be confident in my gameplay. I do believe in myself and that I'm a lot better than I have previously played, so I just need to showcase that,” Dhokla said in an interview with Inven Global. “This past spring, I had a really good split and that got recognized, so I'm looking forward to showing that in the LCS as well.”

Dhokla has been a definitive upgrade over Jenkins for CLG, but there have been plenty of other factors to the team’s return to competitive status in the LCS. After working with a robust coaching staff featuring multiple positional coaches -- top lane coach Brandon "Brandini" Chen, mid lane coach Tanner “Damonte” Damonte and AD carry coach Apollo “Apollo” Price -- CLG’s consistency in their decision-making and execution of their trademark aggressive play became more frequent. Crucially, Contractz bounced back from a rough spring to have arguably the best split of his career this summer, and he looked far better in general with a much-improved team around him.

McDaniel attributes the improvements not just to CLG’s competitive approach, but also to the five starters on the roster for buying into the vision that he and the rest of the organization’s front office and staff have strived to implement across all levels.

“I do think, individually, a lot of them do just kind of step up across the board and fit into the ‘greater sum of their parts’ aspect of the team,” McDaniel said. “People are willing to do things that they don’t necessarily think is the best or what they want to do because they know it’s the right thing for the team to get better. I think that mindset and stuff really kind of pushes a lot of that forward.”

The entirety of CLG has bought into this attitude.

“There’s not a lot of pressure from upper management,” Thinkcard said. “We just have to keep improving day to day.”

CLG is undeniably better than they have been in three years of LCS competition, and qualifying for the 2022 world championship would be sublime. However, that won’t change the process-oriented, improvement-focused approach that has led the organization to its current level of success.

“Obviously, it’d be an amazing thing to have happen, and I’m really glad we’re even within distance of making it happen,” said McDaniel. “But obviously, for me, it doesn’t really change our approach. As long as the players are consistently improving … that’s a bunch of steps toward ‘mission accomplished,’ but that mission continues beyond this summer split.”

Counter Logic Gaming enter their first postseason appearance in nearly three years not as an underdog, but as the superior seed in their Round 1 matchup against Cloud9. Win or lose, the way in which the organization has gotten to this point is something that should continue to reward the CLG faithful for the foreseeable future.

Lead photo credit: Colin Young-Wolff / Riot Games via ESPAT

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