The year is 2017, Dignitas upsets Cloud9 in the Summer Split quarter finals after an incredible end-of-season run to turn around their record. Losing to TSM sends them to the Regional Finals, where a mentally defeated and exhausted DIG shows up just to be swept by FlyQuest in their own inaugural season. And if that was not enough of a damper, Dignitas failed to put together a compelling enough franchise application and were out of the LCS.
They would forever be remembered by their baron throws, memes, and having basically every popular player/personality on their roster at some point… (Seriously though, look at this abridged list: Imaqtpie, Jatt, IWillDominate, Saintvicious, scarra, Crumbz, Apollo, Ssumday, Xpecial, CoreJJ, Darshan, Voyboy, Razleplasm, Brokenshard, Kim and on and on.) Nevertheless, they would not return in the new franchise, their League of Legends run was over. (Unless…)
Dignitas originally joined the LCS in Riots first official LCS Season in 2013 after having competed in many major tournaments in years prior. They had their first exit from LCS in 2016 after a 4-14 Spring Split record led them to an unsuccessful relegation tournament. They rejoined for one last season in 2017 before the league franchise. Despite their League of Legends fallout, they continued on in other esports, and later made several improvements to their org, including a rebrand away from the classic ghosty-alien and naming a new CEO, Michael Prindiville. (Both of those are super important to remember, but one maybe more than the other.)
Now the year is 2018. Enter Clutch Gaming, backed by the Houston Rockets, one of several new NBA backed orgs. The LCS cowboys started off strong, galloping straight to the 2018 Spring Finals in Miami for the 3rd place match. The success was short lived though, as the Summer Split plagued them with coaching swaps, player substitutions, management changes, etc. In the offseason, they pulled a TSM, purging all but one of their starters and rebuilding from there. Despite a high ceiling, the new team failed to make any waves in the Spring, finishing 9th place. It was no secret by the end of the split that they wanted to sell. And in April, ESPN reported a sale to Dignitas, which was finalized and made official in June.
Though the sale took place at the beginning of the split, Riot’s official policy does not allow teams to rebrand mid season. Clutch Gaming was still Clutch Gaming. The problem was, there was little to no improvement in their record, and the org was providing fewer resources than a team needs to be successful. But Dignitas was paying attention. They eventually made a judgement call to start investing in the team immediately with hopes to propel them to the postseason, and maybe even Worlds. So after Rift Rivals, they stepped in marking their unofficial return to the LCS.
By the time they got more involved, however, there was much work to be done. Prindiville first attended the Cloud9 game in Week 1, where Clutch lost 24-5, to check in on the team. “I took note of how the players interacted with the coaches, the structure around them, the lead up before the game… Quite frankly it was appalling and it needed to change.” From there, Prindiville and his team worked to find solutions to the noted problems and come up with a system that would work for the Clutch Gaming squad. Changes needed to be made, but they needed to be done correctly. You can’t solve a circular problem with a triangular solution.
Though no changes were made between the “thrashing” from Cloud9 and Rift Rivals, those weeks were not idle. Prindiville hired on the Clutch team manager, Andrew Barton, and promoted him to General Manager for DIG. Then he got to work researching what ceiling this Clutch squad could reach and what it would take to get there. Their eventual plan was simple, Clutch needed a complete culture rebuild. The players needed their mentality reset, and they needed leadership pushing them to work harder and believe in themselves. “In reality we are a sports team. I think people need to understand this is sports, and you need leaders to lead these players on to winning.” Barton explained. When they decided to start pouring in resources, the first major change they made was the catalyst to kickstart their plan into high gear.
The Dignitas staff hired on Thomas "Thinkcard" Slotkin and promoted Connor "Artemis" Doyle from their Academy Team, running a two coach system. They made a lasting impression as well, not just on the record, but on their players and fellow staff. “The biggest immediate change would be the coaching staff, I can’t give them enough credit. They turned the team around completely.” Tanner “Damonte” Damonte told us after qualifying for Worlds. DIG staff thinks similarly as Barton claimed, “Artemis will be one of the most sought after coaches in the LCS eventually because this guy has all the leadership capabilities that you need.” But new coaches weren’t going to make any difference without some real work on team culture. And those corrections are far more complex than a simple personality change.
That same week, Prindiville had a meeting with the team to remind the Clutch squad who they were, whose family they were joining, and what it meant to become Dignitas. “We rule with love… This org is a family, and you don’t turn on your family.” And that’s just how he and the staff set it up. “I would give a lot of credit to [Prindiville] for the culture change.” Damonte said. “He just came in and laid down the law. He just said ‘We’re not a losing team.’” Prindiville showed that he believed in them, but also focused on the work it would take for Clutch to perform at their highest level. “This is the NBA of esports, if you’re not fully dialed in you need to get a new job.” Prindiville says. Barton conveys the same sentiment. In a separate interview, he said bluntly, “I want everyone working their asses off every single day. We are an esports team, and with that I believe comes the responsibility and duty to work every day. No matter what.”
The Clutch players weren’t alone though, they had a family now, and as many proud parents do, Prindiville, Barton, and their staff demanded a lot from the team. But it wasn’t just hard love, it came with support. Barton reflected back on DIG’s first few weeks saying, “The players and coaches were seeing that this is an organization that really cares. Look, they’re bringing in all these new people, changing up small things like even the food we’re eating. Just very small, basic things that needed to be changed, and it means the world to the players.”
Just as the players had high expectations put on them, the staff did as well. Prindiville makes it clear to all who work with him how much it takes to be a part of the family. Work ethic is important, and the staff have followed through. “Thinkcard and Artemis’ preparation and dedication is insane.” Prindiville says. And even more so, “When we won today, there were six or seven staff members on stage going nuts. Every single one of those people have poured their heart and soul into this job.”
And while their results didn’t improve immediately, the whole organization remained focused on the goal ahead, always aware that they wouldn’t run out of work. As long as they remained in playoff contention, the team wasn’t letting off steam. “When I played on Echo Fox, the culture was not there - this winning culture. When I got home from scrims, I didn’t want to put all my effort into solo queue sometimes. I would slack a little bit.” Damonte recalled from his debut split, “But I didn’t feel like that at all this year. When I got home from scrims I wanted to hop into solo queue and keep improving because I knew that we could do it.”
When InvenGlobal spoke with Michael Prindiville about how he curated this team culture and how he took and molded their mentality to one capable of winning, he gave us a couple responses. “Building culture is about listening to people,” he says. “Empowerment is about clearing out barriers, making clear paths for people to express themselves.” This ability to express themselves is evident when watching their content from failing in the third place match in detroit. Damonte comes out loud and proud saying, “I do not want to play against CLG, FlyQuest, TSM and lose. These ******* teams are not better than us. We deserve to be at Worlds. We need to try ******* harder. That’s how I feel. We can do it.”
This is in direct juxtaposition to his reflection on the Spring Split team when he said in another interview, “This is the first time I played on a team where instead of people confronting each other… just nothing will be said. For this team, when stuff is going poorly, people will just shut down.” The work that Prindiville, the coaches, and other DIG staff started this Summer really took hold of this team and lit a fire in them. And it was crucial for their success. Later in that same Spring Split interview, Damonte foretold the future saying, “It’s going to make for a great story if we pull it off,” acknowledging that, “Our culture will definitely matter a lot if our team ever wants to be good…”
Their work eventually paid off, as we all know now, but Clutch Gaming (and maybe more importantly the incoming Dignitas staff) didn’t have the benefit of knowing that at the start. They had belief that they were good enough, but they needed more than that. Clutch needed the empowerment and encouragement provided by DIG. At the end of the season, they got there. It all came together. “We believe in each other, trust each other, and play for the team. That's how we win.” Heo "Huni" Seung-hoon told us after qualifying. Definitely not reflective of what Damonte expressed back in Spring.
In their last weeks, Clutch brought their behind the scenes work to life. In Week 9 of the regular season, they rolled out their hybrid Dignitas jerseys going 2-0 to secure a playoff spot. In the quarters, they defeated Spring Finalist TSM sending them to a semis match against Team Liquid. Though they lost, Clutch made it a Silver Scrapes series, taking the tournament favorites to a full five games. The defeat sent them to Detroit in the third place match, where they were reverse swept by CLG which in turn sent them to the bottom of the Regional Finals, requiring three straight wins to qualify for Worlds. Clutch, of course, did the impossible; they completed that Gauntlet to become the 3rd NA Worlds representative.
The most beautiful thing about the most recent Dignitas run (other than the incredible 9th to Worlds redemption arc) is it almost exactly mirrors their last split as the original ghost/alien team. They qualified for the playoffs due to a fantastic late season run, beat TSM in the Quarters (rather than Cloud9 the other old dog fan favorite), and then went on to lose to TL in the semis (the new age TSM). TL went on to win the Finals like TSM did in 2017. Then they played and lost to CLG in the 3rd place match sending them to the Gauntlet needing to win all three series to qualify. In both years, they had to make the exact same run. The first match was against FlyQuest, followed by CLG who just beat them for 3rd place, with the final boss being the team they previously upset in the quarters (Cloud9/TSM).
In 2017, DIG failed, and then sadly departed from the LCS. In 2019, DIG succeeded, and are being welcomed back to their LCS spot.
The key difference is in 2017, DIG went in mentally defeated, immediately swept in their first series. But this time around, tilt was never a question thanks to the work the DIG staff and Clutch players put in. The true redemption arc lies not just within the 9th to Worlds marathon, but rather with the org successfully rebooting and correcting their past mistakes, destroying that barrier just as CEO Michael Prindiville intended.
At the end of our conversation with Prindiville, he said “At this point in time, we’ve told what I think is the best story in esports.” Damonte was right, and so was Prindiville, Barton, and all the staff and fans who believed in the Clutch/Dignitas dream. In Latin, Dignitas refers to the overall weight of your credibility and prestige. For three players on Clutch (and the org itself), this is their first ever Worlds, and for Dignitas, it’s their first time going since the official launch of the LCS. From the jersey change, to the hiring of Andrew Barton, to this boost in credibility, this Clutch Gaming squad has truly become Dignitas.