Four enter, one leaves: NA Gauntlet Preview

by theScore Staff Sep 1 2016
Thumbnail image courtesy of Riot Games / Riot Games Flickr

Redemption. Relevance. Legacy. Progress. Every team and every player participating in the 2016 North American Regionals tournament has something they’re striving for, embodied by the prize of representing North America at the 2016 World Championships.

The four teams competing in the tournament earned their spots by accumulating championship points during the spring and summer splits. The teams have been seeded based on their points totals, as explained on the official LCS website.

On Friday, Sept. 2, Team EnVyUs and Team Liquid will kick things off in first round of the gauntlet. The winner of that series will face Cloud 9 on Saturday. Whoever emerges from round two will take on the Immortals on Sunday in a final showdown to book a ticket to the World Championships as North America’s third seed.

Let’s break down the contenders.

Fourth Seed: EnVyUs

Spring finish: did not participate
Summer finish: 5/6

Describing EnVyUs’s summer split as an emotional rollercoaster would imply that there were multiple high points. Emotional cliff dive might be a more apt description.

The team’s respectable start to the season was fueled by smart macro and disciplined, team-oriented play, but soon the issues inherent to their roster began to bubble to the surface. The team identity EnVyUs had been fostering completely crumbled under the weight of poor drafting and sloppy individual decision-making. The second half of the season was not kind to Shin “Seraph” Woo-yeong and his teammates, to put it mildly.

In the quarterfinals, the downward spiral continued. EnVyUs’s 3-1 loss to Cloud9 was marred by more questionable champion picks and random individual plays. After graciously accepting a late-game throw in the first game to take a series lead, EnVyUs started to fall apart. The worse things went, the more the impulsive tendencies of Kim “Procxin” Se-Young and Noh “Ninja” Geon-woo presented themselves. By the end of the series, EnVyUs had averaged a -3,138 gold difference at 15 minutes with just 46.4 percent jungle control. They held a meaningful gold lead in just three of the series’ 139 minutes of game time. Describing their defeat as “crushing” would be underselling Cloud9’s performance.

The beauty of a gauntlet-style tournament, though, is that every participating team has a legitimate chance to win their way through. Cloud9 showed last year that a sudden run of form can produce very unexpected results. With a few weeks off to reflect, EnVyUs have another chance to fix their issues and catch their opponents by surprise.

It starts with playing to the meta, especially for Ninja. Having pocket picks is an asset, but I would prefer not to see a steady rotation of Pantheon, Jayce and Lissandra when other, more standard options are available. That seems like a relatively straightforward fix, though if Ninja isn’t willing to commit to practicing the meta champions, these could just be symptoms of a larger problem. The more pervasive problem is addressing Ninja’s and Procxin’s over-aggression, which seems to stem from a lack of mental fortitude. Fixing that is, unfortunately, a long-term problem.

If EnVyUs can find the answers to those problems, they still have power in the top lane with Seraph’s ability to get out of his lane and influence the map. Benjamin “LOD” deMunck has more to give, as well, if he gets the chance to approach teamfights cleanly. Winning the first round against Team Liquid is definitely within reach, and if they can build some momentum, anything is possible.

Third Seed: Team Liquid

Spring finish: 4
Summer finish: 5/6

Like EnVyUs, Team Liquid are another team whose summer split fell apart in a bloody 3-1 quarterfinal loss. Where EnVyUs see the gauntlet as a last chance to redeem their second-half freefall, Team Liquid seem to have a more future-minded approach to the tournament, treating it as a chance to play with a new roster configuration to help inform their offseason moves.

Phil “Jynthe” Vu will be back after replacing the much-maligned Jovani “fabbbyyy” Guillen in the third and fourth games of the quarterfinals against Counter Logic Gaming. Despite the early excitement of his surprise arrival, Jynthe didn’t perform meaningfully better than fabbbyyy, netting a pitiful 53.8 percent kill participation and averaging just 397 DPM to slightly edge out fabbbyyy’s 358 DPM from the first two games. The gauntlet will be a second look for Jynthe, a chance for him to prove that he’s worth keeping around.

More dramatically, Team Liquid has parted ways with star jungle Joshua “Dardoch” Hartnett and will be bringing in their third-string mid laner, Lyonel “Arcsecond” Pfaender, to replace him. For the record, Galen "Moon" Holgate of Team Liquid Academy would not be eligible for this series, since he played in the Challenger Series after the LCS roster lock.

The complete unexpectedness of this move tells a lengthy story all on its own. If Team Liquid believe they have a meaningful chance to win through the gauntlet and qualify for worlds, then surely they’ll field the roster that gives them the best chance to win. In other words, it’s apparent that Team Liquid became so disillusioned with a Dardoch-centered lineup that they’re more confident taking a player with zero LCS experience and playing him out of position, instead.

With Dardoch out, it’s almost entirely useless to speculate on how Team Liquid will perform. Kim “FeniX” Jae-hun and Samson “Lourlo” Jackson are still the same snowbally solo laners they were before, but what will they be able to accomplish without Dardoch’s threat out of the jungle? Will the team shift even more of its carry burden onto FeniX’s shoulders? Will Matthew “Matt” Elento be able to fill the shot calling void and be more assertive and decisive in leading the team? Everything is an open question.

At one point, it was a given that Team Liquid would build their future around the young core of Dardoch, Lourlo and Matt. Now nothing is certain except that Team Liquid’s roster will look quite different when 2017 rolls around, and their showing in the gauntlet may help determine just how much change is on the horizon.

Second Seed: Cloud9

Spring finish: 5/6
Summer finish: 2

Throughout the summer regular season, Cloud9 sat on the periphery of the “top team” conversation. They looked formidable in some matches and questionable in others, trading wins with Team Liquid and Counter Logic Gaming but failing to take a series off of either Team SoloMid or the Immortals. That changed in the playoffs, when Cloud9 finally put the pieces together and took down the Immortals in a hard-fought five-game set. Their momentum wasn’t enough to upset TSM in the finals, but Cloud9 proved without question that they had grown into much more than also-rans.

A big part of the team’s playoff success was centered around one man: Jung “Impact” Eon-yeong. His phenomenal Gnar performances had some people claiming him as series MVP, despite Cloud9’s loss. Some will claim that Impact’s incredible showing throughout the playoffs was a sudden surge in form. That narrative is true to some extent, but it undersells how good Impact was throughout the regular season.

The real difference between the regular season and playoff versions of Cloud9, and the regular season and playoff versions of Impact, was the growth in Cloud9’s macro play and shot calling. For much of the season, Cloud9 were inefficient in how they played to the map objectives. They often failed to create situations where they could take towers, even if they were picking up kills. In the playoffs, Cloud9 stepped up their efficiency with better tower focus, and it showed through in their much-improved early game stats. As a result, Impact and his teammates had more opportunities to work from a position of strength.

Whether Cloud9 faces Team Liquid or Team EnVyUs in the second round of the gauntlet, they will be very heavy favorites to win their way into a rematch with the Immortals. Even though Cloud9 defeated the Immortals in the semifinals, there are parts of their game they need to work on if they want to produce a repeat.

Foremost on their list should be shoring up their early-game vision control, which is an area in which the Immortals have clearly outclassed them.

Wards Placed at 10 Mins  Pink Wards Placed at 10 Mins
Cloud9  23.5  4.2
Immortals  26.9  4.8

2016 summer playoffs

The more information Cloud9 have about their opponents’ movements, the better they’ll be able to maneuver the early game with both proactive and reactive plays. Much of the burden here falls on William “Meteos” Hartman, whose individual play hasn’t been up to par in the postseason. Meteos ended the playoffs with a team-worst 64.1% kill participation, and was the only player on Cloud9 to average negative CS and gold differences at 10 minutes. Meteos needs to get himself back on track by gaining more information for his team in the early game, which will allow him to be more involved in creating positive plays.

With the improvements Cloud9 have achieved over the course of the split, there’s good reason to be optimistic about their chances of winning through and making another trip to Worlds, but beating the Immortals could be more difficult the second time around.

First Seed: Immortals

Spring finish: 3
Summer finish: 3

The Immortals earned their spot as the final boss of the gauntlet through their consistency. They were unable to reach either the spring or summer finals, but held their heads high and won the third-place match both times. Their ability to bounce back from disappointing semifinals results won them the chance to spend Saturday watching their upcoming opponents play, which gives them a scouting advantage, and will leave them better rested for the final series. All told, the Immortals should feel good about their reward for taking the bronze medal games seriously.

Just as Cloud9 have some elements of their game to work on, the Immortals need to make some fixes ahead of what will most likely be a rematch against Impact and friends. Surprisingly, one of the problems that needs fixing is the relative underperformance of Kim “Reignover” Yeu-jin.

Throughout 2016, Reignover has been the best jungler in North America by a wide margin. His ability to create leads for Heo “Huni” Seung-hoon is the core of the duo’s success, dating back to their time on Fnatic in 2015. When Reignover is at his best, he owns games from start to finish, controlling both sides of the jungle and propelling his teammates forward.

In the playoffs, that version of Reignover was missing in action. Reignover’s customary dominance of the early head-to-head has faded. He produced just two First Bloods in ten games and consistently fell behind his opponents in farm and gold.

[email protected]  KP  DTH%
Spring Regular Season  +7.3 71.1%  17.8%
Summer Regular Season  +5.7  73.6%  17.4%
Summer Playoffs  -1.4  68.9%  20.1%

Reignover’s repeated attempts to snowball Huni were too predictable, leading to some failed ganks and tower dives. In the semifinals, his pathing was frustrated early and often by shallow invades from Meteos with help from Impact and Jensen. Against CLG, Reignover seemed to withdraw into his shell, becoming more passive. That allowed Jake “Xmithie” Puchero to take more initiative and outpace Reignover through the series, helping CLG push the Immortals to five games.

Whether Reignover’s struggles stem from damage to his confidence, the shifting meta game, or even something as simple as fatigue, there’s no time to sit back for thorough diagnosis and recovery. The Immortals have a best-of-five to win in just a few days, and they need Reignover to be on top of his game.

There are other issues to solve, as well. Jason “WildTurtle” Tran’s weak laning was exploited throughout the playoffs, producing a -5.0 [email protected], and the team as a whole was too eager to fight, not playing with enough discipline and control even when they had the lead.

The Immortals coaching staff have their work cut out for them as they prepare for an expected rematch with Cloud9, especially because they’re working under heavy pressure. If the Immortals don’t make it to the World Championships, their entire year will be seen as a failure. After making such a splash with building their roster prior to spring, then dominating the regular season so thoroughly in both spring and summer, a loss in the gauntlet would firmly label them as chokers, and changes to both the roster and staff would be likely to follow.

The weight of narrative may not be on the Immortals’ side. After all, Cloud9 have never missed Worlds since they joined the LCS. Losing is not an outcome Adrian “Adrian” Ma is prepared to accept, so it’s up to him and his teammates to try to dictate their own future.

Tim "Magic" Sevenhuysen runs, the premier source for League of Legends esports statistics. You can find him on Twitter, unless he’s busy giving one of his three sons a shoulder ride.