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10 Players to Watch: Part 2

10 Players who swapped to new teams over the offseason and are looking to prove their worth.

All I’m saying is if they let The Matrix have a sequel, then it’s only fair that I get to have my article be two parts long. You can read Part 1 here if you happened to miss it — this list of players focuses on some veterans who swapped teams over the offseason and now must once again evolve so as to not be swallowed by the rising tide of new players.

Last year, on a live stream after Aphromoo left Counter Logic Gaming, he received a donation from Huhi with this message: “Zaq, i woke up crying today and i remember you being in my dream. I’ll never forget our previous experiences together past few years and thank you for being my best friend. I love you zaq <3.” An emotional Aphromoo stretches back and does his best to not cry upon seeing that.

The two are reunited now after a disappointing season for both of them. Counter Logic Gaming struggled at the bottom of the standings all year despite high expectations, and while the 100 Thieves managed to make it to Worlds, it kind of felt like their year might have been even more difficult. Between roster shuffles and tons of media speculation about internal struggles, it was clear that they were battling through some issues behind closed doors. With these two serving as a core for 100 now, though, I think they’re poised to make a dominant run through the LCS.

Things are already looking a little brighter. Huhi says, “It was pretty funny — for the past couple days when I first joined and first moved in — whenever he saw me, he was like, ‘Hey Jae… I still can’t believe that you’re on my team.’ Like every single time he saw me. Like, me too. I can’t believe I’m on 100 Thieves now and we’re both pretty happy about it.”

The two have a deep history together and already know how to communicate with each other. Huhi says, “It’s great to have the in-game leader, but also a really vocal friend that also cares about me genuinely. We literally talk about every problem that we see to each other, but also problems that we can’t talk to others about yet — even for in-game issues. We sometimes don’t feel comfortable to talk about it to them because we don’t know how it will affect them, but for us we for sure know that it won’t bother each other. We can straight up say it and it feels pretty good.”

The fresh environment will be good for Huhi, who has known nothing but CLG since he first came to America. From the get-go, his career has been a bit of an upward struggle — when he joined the team, CLG was one of the premier organizations in the league. Fans were understandably puzzled by their decision to import a mostly unknown entity considering the wealth of talent that was leaving Korea at the time. But back-to-back titles, including the 2016 Spring Split that Huhi helmed, assuaged doubts. Since then, though, he’s come to be known for being a bit inconsistent except for his unique Aurelion Sol pick.

Reflecting on his time with CLG, he says, “I think it was a successful period, but also it was a lot of regret and painful experiences. I joke about how recently there was the ‘thank u, next’ song — one taught me pain, etc. I kind of felt that towards CLG. They taught me happiness. There was a time when I first joined where we won the championship and everyone was really close to each other. Everyone just genuinely loved playing the game. We had one goal. We had a lot of up and downs towards the end — more downs. Those taught me patience and pain, too.”

For a player like Huhi who has never known anything but CLG, this could be the moment that forces him to evolve as a player. Imagine if he was as threatening on every single champion as he is on Aurelion Sol — that, I think, is the bet 100 is making by signing him. That’s the bet all of his fans are making as they continue to cheer him on. This year, he says he hopes to win the MVP — a common motif among players who’ve swapped rosters this offseason is they are all trying to reassert their individual prowess.

“I know there’s lots of doubt — even I have doubts for myself, so obviously fans will have doubt,” says Huhi. “[But] 100 Thieves still saw the bright side of me and trusted me. So if they trust me, then I have to trust myself. I have to believe that I can be the best and just go for it.”

As Huni poses for the photographer for one of our pre-season prep days, he inhales and tells us he’s trying to hide his stomach. When we tell him the shot will likely just be from his torso up, he instead puffs his pecs. And before the shoot ends, he takes a moment to dance along to the music that’s playing. This is the enigmatic energy that is Huni — he carries the same kind of gravity off the rift as he does on it, and to me he’s one of the easiest players to be around in the League.

But this is his fifth team in five years, which almost makes it seem like the opposite is true. He says, “I really like to challenge myself and get new adventures and new experiences. I feel like one of my strengths is I get used to teams really easily and really quickly. I think it’s really good for my life, too — I learn a lot about social [differences] between teams. But these days I think I actually want to stay on one team, too.”

I think being good at adapting to new teams is fine, but I wonder what would have happened if some of those rosters were given a chance to grow (or maybe the decision to part was on the teams). I look at teams like Fnatic in 2015 and feel like we never got a chance to see their peak. Of course there are lots of reasons to change teams, and Huni at least has grown tremendously as a person and as a player because of the many different environments he’s had to adapt to, but it’s been a very unorthodox path.

Last year didn’t go the way he wanted, but I still think it was pretty successful for FOX given where they were in 2017. Whatever your criticisms of Huni are as a player — and there are plenty to be sure — it is also true that he wins a lot of games. The 22-14 record he posted with FOX was his lowest win rate yet as a professional over a full year  — but that’d be a career year for a ton of players in the league, including most of his new teammates. And no matter what situation they’re in, as long as Huni is in top lane, you never count his team out.

He says of the stint on FOX, “I learned a lot — like how I should help teammates and how I should be a leader. I’ve actually played a lot as a professional, but even on Immortals I was trying to be like, ‘Play around me.’ But for 2018, I think playing either around me or around teammates was way easier because I actually got older and got experience from 2017 Worlds. I feel like I got way better at that kind of stuff — being a team leader or being more vocal and bringing my teammates up.”

He had to do a lot of leading considering all the different roster moves FOX made throughout the year. A lot of people consider the summer split Huni’s worst yet as a professional player, but I don’t think that’s entirely fair to him. When you consider how volatile the meta was that split and combine it with the sweeping roster moves FOX made, I think you can forgive his individual performance.

And while he is on a new team this year, this will be the first time he stays in the same region for consecutive years. Maybe that will prove to be just enough stability for the most unpredictable player in the league.

“I really love American customer service. I really feel like in America the customer is king,” says PowerOfEvil when asked what he liked the most about America. “I think that’s insane. It’s really cool. I really miss refill — it’s insane as well. I really love being able to drink as much as I want and always getting refills.”

I thought about his response in context of his role on OpTic last year, where everything revolved around him. On that team, he essentially was king. Given the experience levels of the teammates around him, that’s probably what made the most sense. And in talking to him, you realize very quickly that he’s someone you do want to play around because he’s vocal and accountable.

I thought he had one of the strongest individual performances in the league last summer especially. He acknowledges that he had a strong year and is grateful for the recognition he received from his peers especially, but he says, “It’s a team game so I’m just trying every game to do my best. I think OPT for sure helped me — they enabled me in the games. We played a lot around mid. I think I used these resources in a good way and we won a lot of games because of it.

“This was for sure another reason for me to come back to NA to show what I’m worth — because I’m respected by most of the players, I can be on the top. I can bring back the former glory of CLG.”

CLG has had to watch as other teams have sprinted past them — at this point they’ve been reduced to a point where fans aren’t even memeing them that much for being “counter logic” anymore. In the past, their identity was something akin to heartbreak. They were the team you loved cheering for not because you expected to win, but because you expected to lose. Only last year it became a little too real.

PowerOfEvil, too, struggled to recapture the magic that propelled him to international recognition at the 2017 World Championship with Misfits. He was the same (if not better) dynamic player that maneuvered all over the map to help his teammates, but it just wasn’t translating into the kind of success that I’m sure he’d come to expect and demand. Put these two wayward pieces together and you have a pairing that is all too eager to win again.

Coming back to NA was a fairly easy decision for PowerOfEvil, though. He says, “I learned a lot as a person [in 2018]. For me, as a German, I could always just drive to Berlin — it’s nothing special. Living in LA is completely different — it’s a different culture. You meet so many new faces and players. You learn how this other region communicates and how they treat each other in and out of the game.

“As a player, I learned a lot on OPT — being a leader and I guess taking nerves or helping the nerves of the younger players on stage. We had a lot of long games on OPT — 50, 60 minutes, and most of the time we sadly lost them, but I think I learned a lot on how to control the emotions of my teammates and how to help them play calm and collected. I think I learned how to be even more creative on OPT. We did a lot sneaky Barons and a lot of crazy stuff to win games. I think being creative and becoming a better leader and helping younger players and explaining how certain moves are made on the map.”

So, to CLG fans, I say prepare yourselves for some high-risk plays and perhaps some 50-60 minute thrillers. If that’s not a sign of a return to glory for CLG, then I don’t know what is.

“I want to beat Clutch just to prove that they’re wrong,” says Hakuho.

The new FOX support is joined by both Apollo and Solo from Clutch as they try to find footing in their new home. A lot of early predictions are that this FOX team will finish towards the bottom of the standings, but I think a lot of that kind of depends on what happens with Hakuho and his partner, Apollo.

The two were regarded as one of the strongest bot lane duos in the Spring Split as Clutch surprised the league by knocking out TSM in the playoffs to finish the split in 4th place. But they fell off in a big way in the summer. I think that happened to a lot of bot lane pairings — blame this on their slow adaptations or even an inability to do so to the mage meta, but it’s also true that we’ve pivoted back to a meta where the standard marksman and support duo can be effectively played.

And seeing as how the CG roster was deeply gutted over the offseason, there were probably more things at play than just individual performances. Hakuho says, “The second split — people kind of started breaking down a bit. [Spring] was the honeymoon phase — [some of the issues] started but it didn’t go that bad because we were doing well. But second split it kept going so we couldn’t really improve, which was our issue.”

Before the gauntlet last season, I remember people talking about who had a chance to make it through to get to Worlds and without fail, people would forget Clutch was even participating. They looked so haphazard throughout the duration of the Summer Split that they were completely written off by then. It was so strange for me to see that because the meta had already shifted back at that point and they were still the same roster of players that were maybe best known for being consistent in the spring. But that just speaks to how much of a mental grind the season can be for players — sometimes your spirit breaks before your play.

This year, for Apollo and for FOX both — there is a bright star in their roster that should hopefully keep the mood light. Beyond being a goofy stream personality, Rush is a former NA LCS MVP and should jostle the rankings of North America’s top junglers. He’s also quickly risen to become the team’s leader according to Hakuho, and it’s not just because he’s popular.

“Rush is actually really smart and he plays really strategically,” says Hakuho. I think longtime fans of Rush have seen that when he does try, though, he’s a very cerebral player. Hakuho continues, “In scrims he takes it seriously but he’s still the same goofy guy. Usually he streams behind me so I’m just listening to him and Apollo and it’s always pretty funny.”

I think a lot of the reservations around this roster are justified, but if you take Hakuho and Apollo’s Spring Split form and combine it with a motivated Rush, then perhaps they’ll surprise everyone. Hakuho has been at times on the cusp of stardom and also as a bust, so this could be a make-or-break year for him.

When I first heard rumors that Jensen was leaving Cloud9 for Team Liquid, my reaction was basically just, “What.” And months later, as the season is about to begin, honestly that’s still my reaction. While Goldenglue played a critical role in C9’s ascent in the Summer Split, the team was still unmistakably at its best when Jensen was free to pop off. With Jensen, you truly felt like the sky was the limit in mid lane. Replacing him will be a monumental task for Nisqy.

“I am not the same type of player or person as Jensen,” says Nisqy. “I bring different stuff to the team, and I feel like we’re going to be a… I wouldn’t say better [necessarily], but a version that’s cleaner than before in my opinion. That’s my goal as a player. Just give me a chance and trust the process, I guess.”

He’s hopeful that he can match-up well skill-wise thanks to spending his last year in Europe, where he says the average quality of mid laners is just higher than in NA. And the last time Nisqy was in NA, I thought he proved he was among the upper tier of mid laners in the league as well. But having individual skill is one thing and being able to mesh into the team is another.

A lot of people will remember Vitality’s perseverance at Worlds at last year, but maybe they are quicker to forget that the EU LCS had another three or four teams that were close to that level — including Nisqy’s Splyce. Those who watched the whole year would also note the large strides he made in his gameplay between Spring and Summer as well, and I think that capacity to learn could be a huge factor for Cloud9 going forward.

So with that in mind, it was surprising to me to hear him say, “I think I’ve improved more just in this month than in the past year. Just from coaching — mostly from Reapered and other players. They all help me with their tips. Just mostly communication wise — how to think about the game. It’s not like… he didn’t teach me anything. It’s not like he went into a custom game and was like, ‘Oh you should do this or that.’ It’s more think about the game this way, communicate this way. I got like 2 or 3 tips and my perception of the game already changed a lot because of that. I think it’s really great. It’s only been a month, so I can’t wait for the long term.”

Reapered’s a widely respected coach — especially by his own players, and Nisqy has demonstrated the aptitude to apply whatever he is told to make his game better. But that’s the silver lining to this situation. At the end of the day, Cloud9 lost maybe the best individual player in the League in Jensen, and anything short of a Top 3 performance from Nisqy will definitely be considered a downgrade. He can’t just be good. He needs to be great.

The Spring Split, fortunately, is still time for players to grow. Already he is finding his foothold on Cloud9. He says that the team is already ribbing him for being a “1v9” player — even when he is feeding, because he’s always making bold claims about his ability to play X champion or Y champion. But in order for C9 to elevate past their Semifinals run at Worlds, perhaps becoming capable of being a 1v9 player is exactly what he must become.

The LCS returns on Saturday, January 26 at 2:00 pm PST as Team Liquid takes on Cloud9.

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2019 LCS Spring Split Tease