The Team Dignitas that got a 3-1 win against Cloud9 and will face Team SoloMid on Sunday isn't the same team that re-entered the North American League of Legends Championship Series at the start of 2017. Its transformation from the Spring Split to now was slow, with many sensitive pieces, and the biggest moves came from a quick adaptation to patches and a roster overhaul.
When Team Dignitas first came back to the NA LCS under the Philadelphia 76ers banner, it did so with a splash.
The team shed its typically mediocre to relegation-level rosters for star pickups in top laner Kim "Ssumday" Chanho and jungler Lee "Chaser" Sanghyun, players praised in South Korea who were at one point referred to as the best in the world at their respective roles.
Those two brought with them expectations for top three or four, but those predictions were tempered by the rest of the roster. Despite individual promise in all five members, Dignitas came with the most question marks of any team on the LCS docket.
For the first seven weeks, Dignitas spent its time stuck in the bottom four and bleeding losses. A marginal uptick coincided with the signing of coach David "Cop" Roberson, and Team Dignitas managed to sneak into the Spring Split playoffs in their first split after re-emerging in the LCS but lost 3-0 to Phoenix1 in the first round.
The roster's main attractions in Ssumday and Chaser became almost an embarrassing blemish for Dignitas' strategic play. Dignitas could only play around their top laner and collapsed otherwise. An uncoordinated dive in a game against Team SoloMid near the end of the Spring Split resulted in a double kill for Kevin "Hauntzer" Yarnell when Chaser committed far down the lane, and it served as a caricature of how the duo typically operated.
The Spring Split version of Team Dignitas could not have upset Cloud9 to find a place in this NA LCS semifinal.
The Dignitas Summer Split could have ended like Spring. The team made radical changes to the roster, starting with the replacement of Chaser with Lee "Shrimp" Byeonghoon and the introduction of Terry "Big" Chuong to the starting support position. It still didn't feel ideal, and an 0-2 Week 5 at the hands of Team EnVyUs and FlyQuest showcased some of Dignitas' struggles, with the bottom getting caught far forward while clearing mid, and Ssumday overextending without jungle pressure.
Altec and Adrian "Adrian" Ma joined with the final departure of Alex "Xpecial" Chu, the original starting support of the 2017 Dignitas roster. In the official announcement, Team Dignitas initially resolved to keep both BIG and Benjamin "LOD" deMunck in the rotation.
"When Adrian wasn't on the roster yet, we had Big. He made a lot of calls and was the only one who talked a lot," Johnny "Altec" Ru said. "I think that it kind of wasn't the correct playstyle for us. We really needed everyone to have input on it."
Adrian finding a permanent spot on the roster in Week 6 marked an almost immediate turnaround with a win over Counter Logic Gaming.
"At the end of last split," Joshua "Dardoch" Hartnett said on the LCS broadcast before the match, "it seemed like Dignitas was learning to play around bottom side, and then, when the new split came around, they were just like, 'F--- it,' and then just camped for Ssumday again. ... They're the same team as well. They just kind of play around top side, and if it works, they snowball and win. And if it doesn't work, they're a mess mid to late game."
Dignitas proceeded to shut CLG out of Game 1 by drafting strong lanes across the board and opening the map for Shrimp to farm on Nidalee. The pressure exerted by Dignitas' new bottom lane, Altec and Adrian, gave the team a new dimension apparently in under a week's time.
"I just recently started scrimming a week ago," Adrian told Slingshot Esports. "We're just splitting time between the four bot laners, and me and Altec were the best fit. It was really easy getting into the team."
Adrian opened up the communication so BIG didn't have to make all the calls. The flow of communication transferred to the map, and Dignitas started to support its bottom lane more often with each subsequent game, using tempo advantages to swap and improving its map play.
As far as the team was concerned, it wasn't just that Adrian and Altec were skill upgrades. Adrian's outgoing personality added communication both in and outside the game.
"I think I'm a really friendly person, and I like to hang out with them a lot," Adrian said after just two weeks on the official roster. "I feel like we're already pretty close as a team."
"Adrian brings everyone together," Altec added.
The new bottom lane unlocked more flexibility for Team Dignitas in draft as well, and it began to showcase a rarity among even the top LCS teams: an ability to stay ahead of the meta. Team Dignitas' creativity and skill in drafting came out most vibrantly after the radical shift to teamfighting comps on Patch 7.14.
Dignitas chose Kalista but snatched up potential counters such as Maokai and Cassiopeia in its first draft against Team SoloMid in Week 7. In Game 2, Dignitas brought out Sivir and Janna as an effective combination to reset fights. Its teamfighting composition worked well with Maokai priority, and Taliyah picked to get early advantages and open the map as well as deny TSM a terrain ability to shut down Sivir collapses.
Dignitas identified these drafting priorities before the likes of Team SoloMid, which went for the likes of Xerath and opened itself up to losing matchups in both mid and bot lane, even on red side, in Game 2.
"We just discussed as a team what we would do for drafts every day," mid laner Jang "Keane" Laeyoung told Slingshot after the match, "strong champions, weak champions. I actually think we had good drafts last week and this week."
Team Dignitas kept a clear enough grasp on meta to even experiment with the likes of Karthus, and Shrimp's suite of jungle picks like Graves and Nunu raised eyebrows but fit snugly into compositions situationally. Add an upgraded bottom lane and Dignitas felt like a team with a clean understanding of its own identity coming into the 2017 Summer Split quarterfinals against Cloud9, primed to knock smiles from the faces of C9 supporters.
"I love that bottom lane, and I think it's very strong," Caster Aidan "Zirene" Moon said right before the quarterfinal, "but you can't ignore the pedigree of Cloud9 in terms of Cloud9's history as an organization. Out of all playoffs, all the years they've been there, they've only lost best-of-fives in playoffs to TSM."
Team Dignitas opened the set with a major statement. It prioritized Jarvan IV, the strongest jungler in terms of a cross section of both early lane presence and team fight prowess, in conjunction with Maokai in the top lane for crowd control to punish the pushing Gnar lane. With a powerful early bottom lane matchup, Dignitas had control of both side lanes within four minutes as Adrian invaded to get a ward on Cloud9's blue buff.
Aside from the Game 3 loss, each match followed a similar pattern. Team Dignitas' strong side lanes took over the match while Keane kept mid reasonably pushed. At the last gasp, Cloud9 managed a teamfight win, but it didn't provide enough to turn the tide.
The only members of Dignitas remaining from the Spring 2017 lineup, including the coaching staff, are Ssumday and Keane. Roster and staff changes don't always pay off in the LCS, but Team Dignitas has demonstrated that change is its specialty, both in personnel and in the game.
The NA LCS could use a healthy dose of change. Team SoloMid has often shrugged its shoulders and not had to adapt too much to the meta, and Cloud9's basic playstyle formula for victory hasn't changed in years. A team like Dignitas adapting quickly to patches and finding success should be a wake-up call for North America's usual top teams.
"I think it would be so cool to knock out both TSM and Cloud9 since they've always been to the finals," Adrian told Slingshot after the Cloud9 series. "It would be really cool not to see a TSM/C9 final always."
It wouldn't be the first time Dignitas has shaken things up.