When Riot Games revealed the 10 teams that qualified for the newly-franchised North American League Championship Series, a special free agency period for players resulted in a quick feeding frenzy. Among them was Clutch Gaming -- a team owned by the Houston Rockets -- which announced its lineup only two weeks after it was accepted as one of the franchise teams. The roster included three core members formerly of Team EnVyUs -- Nam "LirA" Tae-yoo, Apollo "Apollo" Price, and Nickolas "Hakuho" Surgent -- along with H2K Gaming mid laner Fabian "Febiven" Diepstraten and Gold Coin United top laner Colin "Solo" Earnest.
Compared to high-profile acquisitions from teams like Team Liquid or Team SoloMid, Clutch Gaming's hybrid roster was generally sorted towards the middle or bottom of preseason rankings. Pundits and analysts believed that the experience LirA, Apollo and Hakuho had together during their time on nV was offset by Solo's lack of LCS experience and Febiven's perceived inconsistencies.
"Basically, me and Nick wanted to play together. We did well as a duo. There was no reason to split up," Apollo said. "When nV got the axe or whatever, we talked and we were like, 'Yeah we should try to play on a team together.' And then LirA wanted to play with us as well. We just felt like we were a good three that should stay together."
"It's kind of normal to have question marks around this team," Febiven said, shrugging off the preseason evaluations. "Our top laner played LCS before but he's still kind of a rookie. My bot lane and jungle have never really made it far or went to international events. It was kind of a question mark here, question mark there, but we're meshing really well together."
Now, Clutch Gaming is ahead of both TL and TSM, sitting third overall in the NA LCS standings behind Cloud9 and Echo Fox. With the team's latest win over FlyQuest, it became the third team to qualify for the playoffs. Players credit the team's growth to the lauded system that Clutch Gaming has in place with three main coaches and analysts -- Anand "Curry" Agarwal, Naser "Empyre" Al-Naqi and Alec "Baby Zeus" Warren -- all who have LCS experience under head coach David "DLim" Lim.
"[The coaching system] took a bit of getting used to, I have to admit, but it's much better," Apollo said. "It feels less stressful in a way since you have so many people helping you, so many people working with you rather than working on it yourself."
Apollo stressed the importance of feedback going both ways. Coaches and players alike are willing to receive and give feedback in a continuous, ongoing conversation about the game.
"They're not always right and we're not always right so we just work it out and they're really good about pointing out our mistakes," he said.
"It's all about sharing information, being ahead of the meta, staying good mechanically, never losing motivation -- those are the type of people we have on our team," Febiven added. "The important thing is to grow. This is not a short-term project. This is a long-term project and this is our mindset. As long as we see progress in ourselves, we will want to get better."
It wasn't always smooth sailing for Clutch, especially at the beginning of the split. Clutch Gaming split Weeks 1 and 2 with wins and losses before dropping both of their games in Week 3. The brunt of criticism fell on LirA, who had been a brilliant jungler on nV but seemed far more passive on Clutch's early season scaling compositions.
"At the beginning of the season, we had a lot of weaknesses so we asked him to sacrifice," DLim said. "We had to play that way -- we had to scale for late game because we just weren't that good at certain things."
After a shaky 2-4 start to the split, Clutch Gaming saw steady improvement week to week. Although its Week 4 victories over TSM and OpTic Gaming were not the team's finest moments, Clutch has raised their record to 7-1 in the last four weeks. The team developed a strong jungle/mid attack with Febiven's strong mid lane priority and LirA's Skarner. More importantly, the roster has gelled and improved as a unit over time.
"[LirA is] such a smart and cerebral player. He's one of the smartest players I've worked with," DLim said. "Now that the team is at a much better level of macro, it's a lot easier for him and the team to play the game he envisioned. He's always going to look a lot better when it's a more controlled game."
It remains to be seen as to whether Clutch, or first-place Echo Fox, can make a serious run at C9, TSM and Counter Logic Gaming's stranglehold over the NA LCS title. Even after their latest 2-0 week against OpTic and FlyQuest, Clutch still has a lot of room to grow. DLim called their first showings on the newest patch of 8.4 "subpar" and "mediocre."
"I just think this past week's practice was a bit lackluster," he said.
He chuckled and shook his head, "And if the guys ever see this interview I encourage them to work a little harder this week."
Continuous growth week by week is what secured Clutch a playoff spot and the current third-place standing. But the team is still looking ahead.
"We just want to keep winning," Febiven said. "Because this is not enough."