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After their win over Team SoloMid, I chatted with Clutch Gaming’s top laner Colin “Solo” Earnest about the Gnar/Gangplank meta, his relationship with fellow rookie top laner Eric “Licorice” Ritchie, and K-pop dancing.

Miles Yim: Looking first at the draft against TSM, the Skarner pick stands out. He’s making the rounds in soloqueue and professionally in other regions, but you guys are the first team to bring him on stage in NA LCS. Why now?

Solo: Yeah, Skarner is kind of a new thing that’s been popping up. I think it provides a lot of early pressure, and a lot of high-tempo clears so you can invade more often and fight the lower-tempo junglers. It’s an alternative to the Kha’Zixs and the Jarvans and the Jaxs, where you can farm fast and fight the other jungler, but you still have really strong gank pressure.

The team went for an invade around TSM’s red buff to start the game, but it didn’t go so well. Was that something, once you had Skarner, you planned on doing beforehand?

We definitely had that going in that we wanted to do a level one invade, because we had such a strong level one comp with Skarner. And Braum and Ezreal, who are both really great level one champions, especially versus something like Sejuani. I think we just overthought it a little bit, tried to make it more complicated than it was. I think if we just walked in confidently, we would have been able to be a bit more successful. But props to them for handling it well, and taking advantage.

Well, you guys stabilized the game after that, in no small part due to your AD carry Apollo. He came up with some huge steals, including a Baron.

Whether he intended it or not, he did really well getting the Baron steal and the dragon steal. I think we kind of got lucky, in a sense. Obviously we don’t want to be in that position, but I’m grateful that we were able to have it swing our way, and I think we made the most out of those lucky situations…When we didn’t have Smite for objectives, I think we were really confident that we were just going to get them regardless. It gave everyone a lot of confidence in other aspects of the game, and I think it got into TSM’s head. Since they got so many things stolen, I think they were reluctant to force objectives, which gave us more time to scale and come back.

You found yourself on the Gangplank again. Clutch is 3-1 in your Gangplank games, and 0-3 in all others. [Note: Clutch beat OpTic Gaming the following day with Solo on Gnar, improving to 1-3] Why do you feel like you’ve been having success on Gangplank? What makes that pick work for you?

I think it’s the nature of how our games, and a lot of LCS games, have been going. It’s just really easy to be Gangplank and get that natural, huge gold lead—through all the different factors of passive, Klepto, and now Targon’s—and be this intimidating late game force. Your ulti for zoning, and if you have good barrels, you can win a team fight. So for us it’s just like this really strong fallback pick, which is why we picked it early. We’re confident that the laning is going to go fine, that I’m going to be racking up the gold, and when it comes time to have teamfights, we’re going to be able to play around the ulti really well. It’s been successful so far.

About a third of the games played so far have featured the top lane matchup of Gangplank versus Gnar. Why is that?

They’re just both super solid picks. Obviously Gnar has some advantages in split pushing and early laning, but they both have immense teamfighting presence. And that’s kind of what you want out of your top laner; super solid laning versus any matchup, and the ability to have strong teamfight presence. And they fill all of those factors.

Courtesy of Riot Games

[Note: We’re sitting in the press box during this interview, and Solo is watching Licorice repeatedly slam Jung “Impact” Eon-yeong out of the corner of his eye during Cloud9’s win over Team Liquid]

You played against Licorice frequently in Challenger last year, and you played him last week where he got the better of you. What are you seeing out of your fellow rookie so far?

I think he’s doing really well. I’m not necessarily surprised by that. I thought he was always a solid player in Challenger and that he would be able to hold his own in LCS. I think it helps a ton that he has this veteran squad around him. He has multiple championship winners and a team that went to Worlds last year. Every one of their members when to Worlds last year. It’s a really great environment for him to learn and to show off how capable he is. I wish the best for him. Him and I are friends; I think we both root for each other, when we’re not playing against each other, obviously…We haven’t talked too much about [our] game. We both made some mistakes, and we both had our moments. It ended up being a close one. I think we’ll be more prepared next time and get the W.

Licorice is playing Vladimir right now, and Vlad has seemingly been an answer to Gangplank in lane. But we haven’t seen that as frequently as Gangplank versus Gnar. Why do you think that is?

Vladimir does do really well against Gangplank. I am a bit surprised it hasn’t gotten more popular. The only thing I think people shy away from is if you have an AP-oriented jungler like Zac or Sejuani, you’re going to have a very AP-loaded team comp, which can make it a bit awkward for mid game. But as far as pure laning, I think it has the highest potential when it comes to facing the GP. Maybe we’ll see more of it. I definitely like the pick, and I like playing it, so you might even see it on CG.

You mentioned that Licorice is playing around a lot of veterans. You’re playing around a lot of veterans too, three in fact from Team EnVyUs. What’s it like playing with guys who already have established synergy?

It makes it really easy to walk in Day 1 and try to fit in, because there are so many kinks worked out. They obviously have a ton of history and have been successful as a squad, so I think the addition of me and [Fabian “Febiven” Diepstraten] has put us in a spot where we can contend against anyone. And if we can continue to keep working off of that, I’m confident that we’ll keep on improving.

This season isn’t actually your first time on the LCS stage. You played for Echo Fox back in Spring 2016 as an emergency stand-in when they were still getting their team together. Two years later, you find yourself back on that same stage. What’s changed for you in the intervening years? What have you learned?

I’ve improved mechanically a lot, decision making a lot through my time in competitive and having good teammates and good coaches. But I think maturity has been a huge point for me, just being able to communicate effectively with my teammates and being able to take criticism better. It’s been one of those x-factors that make you improve a lot as a player that’s kind of understated. All of those factors have been a great improvement for me.  

You played all of last year for Gold Coin United in the Challenger Series (now reimagined as Academy). What was your experience like day-to-day as a player in Challenger?

It is really different in LCS. The biggest difference, for Challenger at least, is I felt like the season goes by a lot slower. Part of that is how few games you play in relation to LCS. But also—especially on the teams I was on—we knew we were going to make playoffs, so the focus of the season was so much about making playoffs and getting to relegation than it was about doing well in the regular season. So the regular season drags on a bit. Whereas in LCS, so many good teams, right? Every week is just lightning-quick, and you have to practice as well as possible and make strong improvements just to keep up with everyone else. And every game matters. You have to be able to secure the games you have a lead in, and you can’t throw the bad games. I know everyone has those games, but you have to limit the bad games and win the ones you should win. That’s the biggest difference, the speed of the season. It’s crazy to think that we’re nearly at the halfway point of LCS; it feels like it’s gone by so fast.

As Gold Coin United, you entered the Promotion Tournament twice last year, and twice were denied LCS entry by the relegated LCS teams. Why did you think GCU hit a wall in those tournaments?

On GCU, we did play some of the LCS teams for spots, and I think we ended up beating Envy, then losing to them and Team Liquid in best-of-fives going all the way to Game 5, and then losing against Phoenix1 in a Game 5. I think the biggest factor was that when you spend a whole season scrimming and playing against other LCS teams, the stage experience really adds up, and the level of competition is so much higher than it is in Challenger. And when you get to those crucial moments in Game 5, they just have so much experience. Even if they are the ninth or tenth-place team, it’s just really hard to beat an LCS team.

Courtesy of @GoldCoinUnited on Facebook

For me, one of the best moments of team memery last year was Gold Coin United’s “New Face” video. Where did that come from? I need the backstory, please!

[Laughs] Yeah, so while we were on GCU, myself, [Richard “Rikara” Samuel Oh], [Ryan “Whyin” Karaszkiewicz], and our assistant coach [Alec “Baby Zeus” Warren], we were all into K-pop. And we really wanted to take some dance classes and learn some of the dances because it looks so fun, right? And our manager [Jacob Kuhn] at the time was all for it, but he really wanted to make some content out of it. So we came to the agreement that if he would get us classes, we would make a music video. And then when spent three or four sessions having a dance choreographer teach us all the moves, teach us the routine. Then we did half a day of filming, and we came up with the video. It got a lot of traction, but it was a shame that it got taken down on League subreddit for not being real content. Yeah, they’re no fun over there. At the same time, it was an awesome experience. It was super fun to get out of your shell and dance and have fun with your teammates, and to learn a new skill that you don’t have much practice in. It came out with this fun video that we’ll look back on and think well of our time at GCU.

Did any of your teammates surprise you with how good their moves were?

I think Baby Zeus was defiantly the best natural dancer. [Note: In the video, Baby Zeus still uses his old name BonQuish] And Jacob, our co-owner/manager was very, very good as well. Both of them surprised me at how well they could dance.

You’ve got OpTic Gaming tomorrow. What’s the gameplan looking like for that team?

I think our plan for OpTic is to just do our thing, play the comps that we want to play, and watch out for any early aggression that they’re going to bring our way. I think PoE and Akaadian are a really good mid-jungle duo, and they can pull off some early game plays that we need to worry about. They’ve had a lot of leads in their games, and we don’t want to be in a situation where we’re behind like that.

The NA LCS can be found streaming on Twitch, YouTube, and at lolesports.com.

This transcript was edited for clarity.