It began with a conversation in the offseason. After picking up former Counter Logic Gaming coach Tony "Zikz" Gray, Team SoloMid founder and owner Andy "Reginald" Dinh met with Zikz and general manager Parth Naidu to discuss organizational changes for TSM.
The conversation wasn't about putting together a winning lineup, although that was certainly discussed in tandem. TSM has had multiple iterations of domestic success dating back to the inaugural League of Legends Championship Series split. If TSM isn't outright winning LCS titles, they're at least making it to the world championship stage to represent NA as one of the region's top teams. Even with last year's powerhouse lineup failing to make it to the League of Legends World Championship for the first time in the organization's history, TSM remains one of North America's strongest LoL brands. Players still want to play for TSM.
Yet, while TSM's domestic history is strong, their international history is not. Once TSM leaves Santa Monica for Taipei, Paris, Wuhan or even San Francisco, their fortune shifts. This is the fate of many League of Legends teams with domestic success. What helps a team win in its home region might be easily countered by stronger teams on a different stage. This is what Reginald, Zikz and Parth discussed: improving TSM to the point where they could win on both stages.
"Winning in NA is not guaranteed, right? But we decided that things really needed to change because even if you look at all of our past iterations or all the championships that we have won, a lot of it is winning because we pick late-game comps and we scale and we rely on our North American opponents to play bad," Reginald told Ovilee May after his team beat Echo Fox in the quarterfinals.
"When we go to the international stage, we pick to scale and we pick to play for late game and a lot of our games end really early. What we decided was that we wanted to go for a more versatile playstyle. One that will win if we play well and execute well and one that will lose if we don't."
China's Royal Never Give Up had a similar fate at last year's world championship. In sticking to a scaling, bot-lane-centric style around AD carry Jian "Uzi" Zi-Hao they did themselves in during the quarterfinals and took scrim partners Flash Wolves, who lost in the group stage, with them. All three of South Korea's teams struggled to adapt to the solo-lane focus played by teams like G2, Fnatic and eventual world champions Invictus Gaming. This isn't a TSM thing -- it's frequently a universal struggle.
The first challenge, according to veteran TSM mid laner Søren "Bjergsen" Bjerg is recognizing the difference between scrims and stage practice, as well as practicing a variety of compositions while still succeeding in a single-game setting.
"I think best-of-one hurts that quite a bit because you're not really able to take a risk on a high-execution team comp and then failing. It's like, 'Oh, we're just done for the day.' And maybe that's all we practiced and we went 0-2 that week," Bjergsen said.
He cited Golden Guardians as a team that was playing around with more early-game-focused compositions, especially with picks like Lee Sin, Draven or Lucian. These team compositions require more precision to snowball than a composition that can stall and wait for easier front-to-back teamfights. Bjergsen also brought up the discrepancy in risk-taking from scrims to stage, something that coaches and players often lament when trying out compositions with higher risks onstage. Losses carry more weight in a scene where teams play single games rather than sets or best-of-threes.
"[Stage] always feels a little bit different," Bjergsen said. "You might not see the same things or enemy laners aren't playing as volatile in their losing matchups, so I think it's definitely a lack of execution thing and the best-of-one doesn't help. Defaulting to playing a control mage, a braindead front-to-back with engage, that's hard to fail on, but it's not necessarily the most optimal way to play.
"It's the easiest way to get the wins, and everyone needs the wins, unfortunately," Bjergsen said. "In best-of-threes I think we were always losing the first game because we were playing what we thought was best, not necessarily what we were the best at, but that really hurt us last year because we weren't just drafting to win every single game, and that can kind of hurt a team in their growth."
The other problem is that international talent will always be stronger by default. This goes for any team that attends an international event from any region, regardless if that region is considered to be the strongest or the weakest, because the teams that qualify are the best that each region has to offer. Players are stronger and teams are smarter than the domestic field.
"In earlier years, the international teams were much better at initiating fights and flanking," Bjergsen said.
He added that this was true whether those teams were playing more standard 5-on-5 teamfighting compositions, or skirmish compositions that relied on split pushers leveraging their pressure and occasionally flanking from the side.
"They were really crisp and decisive and that's something that NA has been really behind on, so we had to pick more of these braindead engaging champs," Bjergsen said. "Also, when I play internationally, the matchups will play out how they're supposed to play out, where in NA people don't always fully understand the strength of their matchup or aren't able to fully execute onstage, maybe they're a little nervous or something like that. In NA you can cut corners a little bit, picking weaker matchups or them not fully abusing it. In international tournaments, people push their individual matchups and champion limits a lot more."
TSM is thinking internationally, but they have to beat Team Liquid first. In-season, Team Liquid could be characterized as a more standard 5-on-5 team that relied on scaling as a default to win the region, but last week against FlyQuest (and a few times in-season with a 4-1 setup around top laner Jung "Impact" Eon-yeong's Jayce) they showed a different side of them that will test TSM. TL are also the gold standard in NA for the front-to-back type of 5-on-5 teamfighting that NA teams use to rack up wins in-season. Their international aspirations will surely be scrutinized and criticized should they lose to TL this weekend.
The key to victory for TSM, according to Bjergsen, is consistency.
"Late game it's pretty obvious to us because we have a lot of experience," Bjergsen said. "I would like it to be more proactive and early-game focused, and I think we have the players to do so and especially the champion pools to do so. Our consistency is not great, especially in the early game we've just had a lot of really bad early games. We were going back to playing more and more late game because we weren't confident in our early game. But if we can be more consistent early, I think we can be more confident."