This year hasn't unfolded the way Team SoloMid's League of Legends planned from TSM top laner Kevin "Hauntzer" Yarnell's perspective.
"From anyone's perspective," Hauntzer said, laughing the way you do when the only other alternative is to grumble in frustration.
TSM had just completed its third 0-2 weekend of the North American League Championship Series Summer Split, losing to FlyQuest because the former juggernauts grossly underestimated the speed and lethality of its opponent's backdoor play. It was the kind of darkly comical finish TSM's detractors won't soon forget, a slow-motion car crash of a sequence that had the commentators audibly rubbernecking before the outcome was assured.
By the time TSM understood it was in checkmate, it was far too late.
"We didn't realize that they could actually end the game," Hauntzer said of the team's fifth loss in six matches. "We just thought they were going to get a few towers, maybe inhib, get set up on Baron and play the game that way. Before the game, I knew they were willing to go for the backdoors, but I didn't think they could do that."
Seven months ago, the mood around TSM was different, jubilant and hopeful as the team announced a revamped roster at the Kimpton Hotel Palomar in Beverly Hills, California.
The acquisition of a championship-caliber bot lane from European LCS in Jesper "Zven" Svenningsen and Alfonso "mithy" Aguirre Rodríguez, plus both the 2017 NA LCS Summer Split Rookie of the Year in Mike "MikeYeung" Yeung and Coach of the Split in Kim "SSONG" Sang-soo all but ensured TSM's continued domestic dominance.
"I reached out to every single player that I wanted: the best coach, the best bot lane in the West and even the best jungler that was in free agency," owner Andy "Reginald" Dinh said that day. "And I got them all."
Hauntzer echoed his owner's confidence when he took questions in the hotel's game room.
"I think the biggest thing with our roster change -- the biggest benefit -- will be consistency," he said back then. "With the previous roster, there were a lot of high highs and low lows. But with the new roster, I think we'll have a better ability to adapt to the meta, figure out the meta picks faster and be able to play them well."
He also lamented the previous roster's communication issues. MikeYeung and Mithy's vocal natures would benefit the team, replacing the comparatively quiet Vincent "Biofrost" Wang and Dennis "Svenskeren" Johnsen. Biofrost is now with Counter Logic Gaming, and Svenskeren landed with Cloud9.
"If we started losing before, it would just kind of get silent and the team would shut down," Hauntzer said. "We wouldn't know what to do. But now I think, if that happens again, we'll try to problem-solve in-game, and it'll be more helpful if we have more people's input."
That's not at all how the story has gone since then.
Consistent results and decisive shot-calling were supposed to be TSM's calling cards this year, a method by which the team would achieve elusive international success. Instead, those goals remain as distant as they were in December as the team continues to slide.
The 2018 season has been a banner year for TSM in all the wrong ways. It marked the first time the organization failed to make a domestic final, crumbling in spring quarterfinals at the hands (and hooks) of Clutch Gaming. TSM's pair of 0-2 weekends that split equaled its total of winless weeks from the past two years; entering Week 7 this split, the squad has already suffered three, a new team high.
A 5-7 match record with three weeks left is another all-time low. Since the league expanded to 10 teams in 2015, TSM has never entered Week 7 with a losing record, having at this point been tied for first place in five out of the past seven splits. With only 10 championship points from spring, TSM must make summer playoffs or miss out on the world championships this team was constructed for.
But a record is merely a result, not a cause, and the causes for TSM's decline change depending on who you ask. It's difficult to diagnose the problem from afar, but some players have tried.
OpTic Gaming jungler Matthew "Akaadian" Higginbotham suspects that the gap has closed between TSM mid laner Soren "Bjergsen" Bjerg and the rest of the league.
"I scrimmed TSM once while I was in challenger, and he made my mid laner look bronze," Akaadian said. "You just have these really strong mid laners coming over from everywhere like Korea, Europe. I have [Tristan "PowerofEvil' Schrage] on my team, so when I play Bjergsen, it's just the matchup. There's not usually a player skill difference."
"We're just not knowledgeable enough about how to play the game in this meta. In terms of mid game, macro calls, stuff like that, we just have a lot of voices on the team. One person would say one thing, the other person would call it off and say another thing, and people who aren't talking will be like, 'Guys, what do we do?'" Kevin "Hauntzer" Yarnell, TSM top laner
Clutch Gaming top laner Colin "Solo" Earnest personally suspected TSM's problems might lie in the jungle. Since starting every game in spring for the LCS side, MikeYeung was relegated to TSM Academy over the midseason break in favor of then-Academy jungler Jonathan "Grig" Armao.
Results haven't changed since the swap, and Solo thinks it was because the complexion of TSM's roster didn't change either.
"I think having a new jungler has been a scapegoat for them," Solo said. "When you have someone who's really unestablished like MikeYeung -- you have Grig now -- and you put them on a team that has a bunch of multi-champions, people who have success internationally as well, it creates an environment where it's really easy to scapegoat.
"They're really good players, but they're obviously struggling, and instead of getting better themselves, it's kind of passed off as being, 'Oh well, we have a new jungler, normally this wouldn't happen. Once it gets a little better, then we'll be better.' I think that's kind of a big issue for them."
Yet Solo and Akaadian are outsiders. They can't know what goes on internally at TSM, what the root of the problem is when all they can see are leaves and branches. Hauntzer can, and in his mind, the problems are systemic.
"We're just not knowledgeable enough about how to play the game in this meta," Hauntzer said. "In terms of mid game, macro calls, stuff like that, we just have a lot of voices on the team. One person would say one thing, the other person would call it off and say another thing, and people who aren't talking will be like, 'Guys, what do we do?'
"That's where the confusion comes in: the hesitation in-game. ... We're calling off a lot of each other's plays, and we end up not doing anything, and we're not decisive in our engages."
It's a stunning admission on multiple levels. How can a team stacked with world-class veterans, players who have won titles across a variety of metas, suddenly be at such a knowledge disadvantage? How is it possible that TSM, which cited more active communication as central to its roster retooling, now suffers from too many cooks in the kitchen? Isn't that what the team wanted?
The problem with TSM is that there isn't just one problem, but a web of them. Lack of meta knowledge compounded by "elitism" in scrims that may have precluded them from learning from the meta's best practitioners. Hesitancy in shot-calling. Too many voices. Stylistic uncertainty. Inexperience at the jungle position. An improving league closing the gap between top and bottom teams.
And the mounting pressure from one of the game's most vocal fan bases as the floor for success, qualifying for worlds, increasingly looks like a ceiling.
"Our coordination as a team, our synergy as a team, our general play style, is kind of lost," Hauntzer said. "We're focusing on everything, and not focusing on one thing, so that really halts our improvement quite a bit. Other teams like to play one style, and they just stick to that style. We know we're all really good players, and we want to play all styles, but right now it might be too ambitious for this team."