Clutch Gaming complete dramatic turnaround to make world championship

Clutch Gaming went from finishing ninth out of 10 teams in the League of Legends Championship Series Spring Split to a summer playoff semifinal appearance and qualifying for worlds with an LCS regional gauntlet victory on Sunday against Team SoloMid. Photo by Paul de Leon/Provided by Riot Games

LOS ANGELES -- Clutch Gaming's Tanner "Damonte" Damonte was reeling.

His team had just taken the three-peating class of the League of Legends Championship Series, Team Liquid, to the brink in the summer split semifinals. They pushed the champions all the way to a pivotal fifth game, in which Clutch withered, failing to complete the magical run to the grand final.

Following that series, his teammate Heo "Huni" Seung-hoon broke down in tears from another season wasted without a championship, Damonte coming to his aid to comfort his longtime teammate and friend.

Upstairs after the devastating loss to fulfill his media obligations, Damonte, upset but refocused, had already moved onto a new goal. A bigger goal than even making the league finals.

"We're going to worlds, bro," Damonte said assuredly, nodding along as he headed into a room for an interview. "We're going to worlds."

Three weeks later and 18 games played in-between, Damonte was back on the second floor of the LCS Arena in Santa Monica. His solemn and serious post-semifinal expression was replaced with one of indescribable joy.

He promised he would be going to the world championships in Europe in October, and after coming back and reverse-sweeping Team SoloMid in the North American Regional Finals, the last-chance qualifier to go to the biggest tournament of the year, his promise has been fulfilled.

Damonte and Clutch Gaming are going to worlds.

"It feels pretty surreal, not going to lie," Damonte said. "I feel like so much s--- has gone down that I had to deal with personally and with the team over [the course] of this year. ... It's pretty crazy and feels f---ing good."

At the beginning of the year, if there were odds in Las Vegas on whether Clutch Gaming would be representing North America at the world championship, they wouldn't have been pretty. Clutch was a team without an identity and without a real blueprint for the future. Their fan base was almost non-existent even with a fourth-place finish in Clutch's inaugural season, and the ceiling for the franchise felt middling at best.

Management attempted to change that in the offseason by signing former world finalist Huni to anchor the roster as its superstar player, but a myriad of roster changes and inconsistent results left the team at the bottom of the table with a 5-13 record in the spring season.

The summer started on a similar note, with Clutch dropping their first two games of the season. It was at that point, however, when the underwent the massive transformation that saved their season. Dignitas, one of the oldest esports organizations in existence and a former cornerstone of the LCS, bought back into the league, acquiring Clutch Gaming and taking control of the franchise.

The players were reinvigorated by the changes in the organization and newfound accessibility of the Dignitas ownership. On the Rift, the biggest addition was the promotion of Academy AD carry, Cody "Cody Sun" Sun, who returned to the LCS after having qualified for the world championship in back-to-back years on Immortals in 2017 and 100 Thieves in 2018.

The team's decision to go with Cody Sun as their new starter in the bottom lane turned out to be the best decision they could have ever made. Week by week, Clutch began to create an identity -- one based around assassins, high-damage carries and aggressive play.

In some games, the team would simply win the opening 10 minutes of the contest and snowball advantages found early into a crushing victory. Other times, Clutch's belligerent way of playing would get them in trouble. It was often a coin flip.

When that coin landed on heads, Clutch could dismantle Team Liquid, the best team in North America. When it landed on tails, they looked like that team that finished ninth out of 10 LCS squads in the spring.

"This team, it's the most I've ever been confident in my teammates, in my coach, our draft and our preparation," Cody Sun said. "I feel like we've really bonded over this crazy run. It feels like we all understand each [other] and all know what we want."

As Clutch rises, the winningest franchise in North American League of Legends history continue its descent.

Before last year, TSM had qualified for every world championship and played in every single LCS final. Since reshuffling their roster in 2018 and even more so in 2019, TSM have made it to only one league final (a reverse-sweep loss to Team Liquid) and failed to reach worlds in back-to-back seasons.

For a team that has prided itself on bringing home hardware since the start of the LCS, the loss to Clutch leaves one of the biggest esports fan bases in the world wondering what lies ahead.

The franchise's face, four-time LCS MVP Soren "Bjergsen" Bjerg, is a pending free agent this offseason.

"I think they definitely need a shuffle," Damonte said. "I think there is no way that team atmosphere can look good. I'm a consumer of TSM Legends [their documentary series], and I don't think that's how a team should function. There should not be this amount of pressure to win. Obviously winning is important, but when you get to the point where it's win or everyone is miserable, you're not going to be a good team anymore.

"They honestly seemed pretty lost in their games."

While TSM and their players ponder and discuss what's next for the storied franchise in 2020, Damonte and Clutch Gaming will be boarding a flight from Los Angeles to Berlin, home of the opening rounds of the world championship.

As the No. 3 seed in North America, Clutch will have to make it out of the play-in stage to play against the heavy hitters already waiting in the main event group stage. Huni in a postgame interview with LCS correspondent Ovilee May described his desire to play his two former teams, Fnatic and SK Telecom T1, in the group stages.

He looked to his partner-in-crime, starting jungler Nam "Lira" Tae-yoo, reassuring him that together they would dethrone two of the best teams in the world after conquering the play-in stage.

This is who Clutch Gaming are. They're imperfect, sometimes too obvious with their game plans for their own good, but their bravado is also their greatest strength. They know who they are and don't run from it. Be it Mammoth from the fledgling Oceania region or the three-time world champion SKT, Clutch is going to play as they have since their resurgence this summer: fast, loose and looking to make the biggest play possible.

"When I played on the big stage in Detroit, I got told by someone very close to me to take the first moment, just to soak it in," Damonte said. "I'm going to do the same thing in Europe. I'm going to sit down in that chair and show them this is why I do what I do.