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With their experience and newfound "patience", can CAG "keep punching [the playoffs] wall until it breaks"?

The Japanese squad has never qualified to the playoffs before. Will it finally change in Charlotte?

CYCLOPS athlete gaming head into the Six Charlotte Major as one of only four teams to have an unchanged roster. The first tournament with fans is one that’s not only in a new era — in COVID times — but also features an immense amount of new faces. 

Five teams are entirely new to the international stage, while seven additional teams have made changes since their last international appearance. Furthermore, of the 80 players participating, a whopping 33 have never played internationally before.

While some may have expected CAG to dominate their domestic circuit, APAC North, like Team Liquid in the BR6, they had a season more reminiscent of DarkZero and Team BDS where their top four placement was not guaranteed until late into the stage. In their first match of this season, the Japanese giants crashed to a devastating 2-7 loss to FAV gaming, who had just survived relegation the season prior.

“One problem that we always had is that when we start a big tournament or an important tournament, the first match always goes bad for us. It’s a mental factor,” lamented outgoing CAG analyst “Hybrid”, who will be mutually parting ways with the team after the Major. “I don’t really know why, maybe it’s because the players need some pressure on to start performing well, but if you look also at the Majors, usually we always lost the first match … like in a very bad way.”

The facts check out. At SI 2022, CAG lost 0-2 in their opener to Rogue, 3-7 to BDS at the Mexico Major, 3-7 to DarkZero at SI 2021, and 0-2 to Rogue at the Raleigh Major. Starting well is not one of CAG’s strong suits, at least internationally.

Yet, with the Charlotte Major marking a fifth international appearance for four of their players (and the fourth for the other), one would imagine this issue would have been isolated and solved in the three years and immense experience the team has had together. But try as Hybrid and CAG coach “Fuji3” have, it is still an area of mystery for the team. 

CAG after elimination at the Mexico Major against Team oNe. (Photo: Kirill B.)

All Hybrid can do is offer a theory; that CAG’s players, like most in APAC, are very young and lack real-world experience to maintain their mental fortitude in challenging situations. The oldest player on CAG is SuzuC, who is aged 22. Hybrid himself is the third-youngest in the squad.

With teams like Rogue and Chiefs ESC featuring sports psychologists, a question then arises; why have CAG not added someone to fill that role in their team?

“We’ve been talking about a psychologist for a… after the Team oNe match [at the Mexico Major], we already discussed about it and I brought it back after this last SI,” revealed Hybrid. But one reasons has been a significant barrier to that step. 

“The psychology figure in Japan is not all that… it’s not seen all that well. It’s seen that if you have a psychologist, you are sick! … If I’m one-against-five, I can’t do anything more, it’s democracy,” he continued.

Nevertheless, the experience should come in handy in Charlotte, said Hybrid. Poor starts aside, CAG have been hailed as the toughest team at the Mexico Major, by eventual champions Team oNe, and should boast a deeper understanding of LAN play than the other 12 teams at the event.

The experience also helped CAG “way more in APAC”, said Hybrid, citing his team’s dominant 14-0 run to the Japan League 2021 title and the$135,000 that came along with it. In comparison, their international fortunes have been much more limited despite their constant unpredictability on that stage. Tough a fight as they may give international teams, CAG have never made it past the group stages of international tournaments.

Mounting a sustained challenge has only been a success for three APAC teams — Fnatic, Nora-Rengo, and DWG KIA. Of those three, only one still exists, but it’s not headed to 2022’s first Major. But with all that experience, what’s the CAG plan to convert it into a sustained challenge internationally?

“Keep punching that wall until it breaks!” laughed Hybrid, before getting serious. “It’s something that it’s not all that easy because obviously comes back to … APAC is some years behind the rest, like actually in terms of time, because it joined after [in] the [global] competitions. And even though I thought it was [only] going to catch up later, actually APAC is showing — also thanks to DWG — that there’s a possibility for us as well.”

This time, things may be different. CAG fly to Charlotte having pulled off a huge upset victory in the APAC Playoffs — a 2-1 victory over the best APAC team in 2021, DWG KIA. But Hybrid maintained that any of the top APAC teams could have pulled off the run the Koreans had in 2021, had they the fundamentals DWG had. Even in their 2-1 win, CAG won their two maps after playing 26 out of a possible 30 rounds — proof, said Hybrid, that all of the APAC teams are neck-and-neck in terms of potential results.

“We could have literally played one round… whoever won that round could have went to the Major and [it] wouldn’t have changed anything,” he mused. “I think it’s just a matter of time [until an APAC team wins a title], because APAC has been improved … also internally — nationally.”

CAG also head into this Major with a key lesson learnt — patience. While they are still incredibly aggressive, perhaps the most of any top-flight team in the world, they have been able to hold their nerves and stop themselves from peeking and chasing kills in man advantages. Yet Hybrid quickly cautions that this lesson is still inconsistently deployed in games and their preparation since the end of the APAC Playoffs will determine how they perform in Charlotte.

So, now in a group with Team Liquid, XSET, and FURIA — who will be playing from Mexico City after failing to secure US visas — where do they aim to place? Where can they place?

“I don’t even have to say,” smirked Hybrid, holding back a grin. “No, no, no. The best possible result … obviously for the players is to win everything, and for the org, and Fuji3 and [team manager] “KYON” it’s the same thing. But, for me … passing that group stages, for me, would close in a perfect possible way this chapter of my career.”

“These group stages… shenanigans for us have always been something that gives you a strike, a punch right in the face, and it’s always hard to come back, but we always came back,” finished Hybrid. “We were destroyed mentally after the Team oNe match [at the Mexico Major], and that was clear during the last stage of the last season, but we came back and I assure you that none of the players … is someone that is easy to give up.”

Catch CAG back internationally at the Charlotte Major, which will run from May 16 to 22.