While many were left looking for answers, a deeper look proves this result was anything but unexpected. Although fans were given just brief glimpses of the turmoil behind the scenes in the TSM organisation, the smoke that flowed forth should have made obvious the fire that was burning within.
Just four short months ago, TSM failing to advance out of the quarter-finals would have been almost unthinkable. After taking a 2-0 lead in the Spring Split Finals against a stacked Team Liquid, TSM would fall in a heartbreaking reverse sweep where a few critical mistakes would allow Team Liquid to claw back from an early deficit in the decisive game five.
Their excruciatingly close Finals, paired with a strong late Split surge, placed TSM in a prime position to challenge for the top spot in the Summer Split. Instead, TSM struggled out of the gate and failed to find their footing in an inconsistent and unimpressive Summer Split that saw them stumble into the Summer Playoffs with a 10-8 record.
The most blatant sign of TSM's internal struggles is the jungle carousel that plagued TSM throughout the Split. Entering the split with jungler Matthew "Akaadian" Higginbotham as their starter, TSM would switch between Akaadian and substitute Jonathan "Grig" Armao on an almost weekly basis. Hinting at their inability to find consistency with either jungler behind the scenes, it would take TSM until almost the end of the Split to formally name Akaadian their starter, releasing a video announcing the decision to their fans.
Two weeks later, he was gone.
In a move that clearly showed the struggles and discourse within TSM, after starting the final week jungler Mingyi "Spica" Lu would start for TSM in their playoff series against Clutch Gaming. In addition, both Akaadian and Grigne were left off the substitute list, giving TSM no other options should the decision to start Spica implode.
The move reeked of desperation for TSM. Barely scraping by on a weekly basis, TSM must have known a dramatic change would be needed or they would quickly fall in the playoffs. Although Spica had shown promise on TSM's academy team and in their final week, starting him without any fallback plan was TSM's hail mary pass.
In addition, TSM was pulling every resource they had to try to fix their main squad mistakes. TSM founder and former player Andy "Reginald" Dinh became more heavily involved, and TSM Academy coach Peter Zhang was pulled up to work with the main squad. Reading between the lines, TSM's staff and players understood they were in trouble and were trying everything to fix their problems before it was too late.
Heading into their series against Clutch Gaming, TSM was riding past successes to a perception of strength they did not deserve. They had put together a miserable string of performances over the past couple weeks of the season that included come from behind victories against bottom-tier teams, Baron steals that saved them the game, and blow out losses to middle of the pack squads.
Now, TSM has to face the gauntlet after being humbled at the hands of Clutch Gaming. For TSM to be successful, they need to quickly improve on their early game decision making and understanding of how to play through their win conditions. The bot lane was a mess in the series against Clutch Gaming, failing to capitalise on lane dominate compositions and looking thoroughly outclassed. Top laner Sergen "Broken Blade" Ã‡elik appears to be a shell of his Spring Split self as he continues to have one of the worst gold differences at 15 minutes and has failed to be the carry he was once thought to be.
While their defeat to Clutch Gaming was a surprise to some, the struggles TSM faces internally should now be a mystery to none. Success on the Rift for the organisation must first be had behind the scenes if they ever hope to rally and claim the LCS final position at the World Championships in the gauntlet. What once seemed almost a certainty, TSM's recent performances have diminished TSM's chances of appearing on the Worlds stage to a distant dream at this point in the season.