LOS ANGELES — Tanner “Damonte” Damonte, 21, remembers watching the League of Legends Championship Series in high school when he was still an amateur playing League for the love of the game.
He watched the creation of the North American League of Legends scene from the beginning, where future team owners such as Team SoloMid’s Andy “Reginald” Dinh and George “HotshotGG” Georgallidis laid the foundation for what the LCS has become today. When Reginald retired from competitive gaming to focus more on TSM as a brand and organization, though, he made another decision that would influence the future of the LCS more than he ever did while he was playing on Summoner’s Rift.
That choice was to bring over from Europe a shy, lanky teenager with heaps of potential named Søren “Bjergsen” Bjerg. Nearly six years later, Bjergsen is a broad-shouldered man with a gruff, Viking-like beard and has played in North America for almost his entire career. In that time, he has won everything you can in the LCS, taking home the highest individual honor of Most Valuable Player four separate times and leading TSM to five domestic championships.
When Bjergsen came to the United States to play in the LCS, he was the outlier. In a field of American and Canadian players, he was one of the few import slot players, a representative of the Danish flag in Los Angeles.
But Bjergsen is far from the only international mid laner in the LCS now.
Out of the six teams who qualified for the LCS summer split playoffs, Damonte, who plays for Clutch Gaming, is the outlier. He is the only North American-born starting mid laner in the playoffs. Along with Bjergsen, Team Liquid’s Nicolaj “Jensen” Jensen (Denmark), Tristan “PowerOfEvil” Schrage (Germany) and Yasin “Nisqy” Dinçer (Belgium) are the starting mid lane European players in the playoffs. Lee “Crown” Min-ho, the final mid laner in the group of six, is a South Korean import.
Gone are the days where most LCS teams would gamble on an inexperienced homegrown player to see if they will sink or swim on the big stage. Instead, with the resources available to franchises through big-money owners and venture funding, teams scoop up players from regions with larger pools of intriguing prospects and experienced talent on lower-ranked teams.
When asked how it feels to be the final North American mid standing, the Clutch Gaming mid laner laughed.
“It feels damn good, honestly,” Damonte said.
In the quarterfinals of the LCS playoffs, Damonte lined up against Bjergsen and TSM in a single-elimination match to see which team would keep its hopes alive to win the league. Although TSM, like Bjergsen, had the experience and legacy advantage over the inconsistent Clutch Gaming squad and their American mid laner, it was Clutch which got off to a hot start and never slowed down, taking the best-of-five series in decisive 3-1 fashion.
Clutch will face Team Liquid, the No. 1 team in the LCS, and Jensen on Sunday for a spot in the summer split final.
“As a team, we just played really well,” Damonte said. “It’s not even like this was some crazy upset. I feel like we were the only people who really knew that. There were some people catching on in the end that [we] weren’t way worse than TSM, but we knew going into this match we’re a good team and TSM is struggling to find their identity right now.”
Clutch started its inaugural spring split with a 5-13 record and a ninth-place finish in regular season play. Damonte said there were two key moments in turning that abysmal start into a .500 summer split and a semifinal berth.
First, it was the addition of their AD carry, Cody “Cody Sun” Sun, and the instant stability he brought to the team’s bottom lane.
“Cody has to be the most undervalued AD carry in all of LCS history,” Damonte said. “This guy is unbelievably good. He’s so consistent. He’s a good teammate.”
The other big change in the team was, well, the team itself. During the middle of the summer split, Clutch Gaming, formerly owned by the Houston Rockets, was acquired by old-school LCS organization Dignitas, merging the two brands together. The result, outside of Clutch’s jerseys changing from red and black to the iconic Dignitas colors of black and yellow, has been a more streamlined, stress-relieving relationship between the players and the franchise.
When Clutch was under the Rockets banner, the team was run like it was part of a traditional sports league. There was also a chain of command that delayed approval of requests from players at times; if Clutch wanted to make a change, it would have to go up the food chain and back down again before anything could be put in place.
The new Dignitas-owned Clutch Gaming, backed by a group that is more in tune with esports than traditional sports, has allowed the team to be more flexible and thrive. Dignitas is owned by the Philadelphia 76ers but also has years of experience in not just League of Legends but other esports, including Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Rocket League and Super Smash Bros.
Dignitas was an organization built on personalities and homegrown talent. It might have never won a league title or even made a league final — the team’s most memorable moments coming when it threw away large advantages — but the fans loved the outfit for the underdog it was. Damonte isn’t afraid of carrying on the Dignitas legacy of being a big personality, though he does want to change the reputation of the black and yellow from plucky underdogs to perennial title contenders.
Next for the Dig-Clutch Frankenstein is another team piloted by a Danish mid laner, with the three-peating Team Liquid waiting for them in the semifinals. When prompted with the choice of playing either Counter Logic Gaming or Clutch Gaming in the round of four, Team Liquid chose Clutch, putting the underdogs once more in the position of needing an upset for the ages to make it to the final at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit.
For Damonte, the semifinal series against Jensen will be the biggest match of his career. Since Damonte began watching the LCS as a high schooler, all he’s ever wanted is to walk onto the final stage and look out toward a packed house, mimicking what he saw from the great players of the past.
He wants to win it all. He wants to give longtime North American fans — and domestic mid laners — their day in the sun.