Offseason Game Plan: Team Vitality

by theScore Staff Nov 15 2016
Thumbnail image courtesy of EU LCS / lolesports flickr

Vitality’s first year in League of Legends was a disappointment in nearly every way.

The French team’s initial all-European roster looked, on paper, like one of the best in Europe. A third-place regular season finish in the spring split brought credibility. Then a 3-1 quarterfinals loss to Fnatic derailed their promise. In response, Vitality replaced two of their starters with Korean imports and went on to stumble their way through a disjointed, out-of-sync summer split that saw them barely avoid the Promotion Tournament.

With that kind of downhill trajectory, the stage might seem set for a clean sweep and a fresh start, but a full rebuild would be a mistake. Most of Vitality’s original roster is still viable, and the September signing of AD carry Pierre “Steeelback” Medjaldi was a promising move. Vitality shouldn’t settle quite yet — a new jungler should top their wish list, and the coaching staff have a lot of work to do to prove that they can turn their team’s strategic woes around — but Vitality are closer to being competitive than their seventh-place summer finish made it seem.

Summer of Struggle

Vitality’s issues in the summer split can be summed up very simply: they didn’t play like a team. That manifested in two core issues. First, Vitality were terrible at teamfighting. Second, their shot calling and rotational play were unfocused and lacked clear purpose.

In teamfights, Vitality struggled to coordinate on initiations or target selection, entering fights at different times and trying to accomplish different things. It seemed that the players weren’t talking about how they wanted their fights to work, so when one player stepped up to make a play they often did so without the support of their team. Since their teamfights weren’t working out, Vitality often just didn’t fight at all: their 0.58 combined kills per minute was the lowest in the EU LCS in the summer split.

With so much time spent out-of-combat, Vitality had plenty of time to play around objectives, but their macro game was similarly underdeveloped. Despite spending a fair amount of time split pushing, Vitality didn’t manage minion waves and rotations well, usually settling for objective trades rather than gaining direct advantages. Vision control and information flow were part of the problem, because despite placing the most wards in the EU LCS with an average 3.71 wards per minute, Vitality often failed to use their vision efficiently. They would stack too many vision wards in one area, or would focus their attention on the unwarded parts of the map instead of the areas where they had control.

Vitality also had consistent issues with finding the right play call at the right time. It felt as though they were reading plays out of a playbook without proper understanding of when each play should be called, or a shared understanding of how the selected play should be put in motion.

All of these criticisms relate to basic, fundamental concepts of professional LoL. Communication, play calling, efficient use of vision, and team fight coordination are the foundations of what sets a team apart from five players randomly thrown together in solo queue. Still, without having a firm grasp of any of these things, Vitality managed to win 16 of 37 games and split their season series with G2 Esports, the eventual summer champions. The individual skills of Vitality’s roster showed through here and there, making it that much more frustrating that they were unable to get on the same page and put those skills to real use.

Seeking Solutions

Vitality’s past problem-solving attempts revolved around their Korean imports, both of whom had been signed prior to the summer split in an attempt to upgrade the team’s skill ceiling. ESC Ever and Apex alumnus Park “Police” Hyeong-gi came in as AD carry and LSPL player Kim “Mightybear” Min-su was signed for the jungle.

Neither signing panned out especially well. Police sat out week two in favor of Danish rookie Victor “Reje” Etlar Eriksen before taking back the starter’s role for the rest of the split, while Vitality gave Mightybear 16 games before despairing of his 25.3 percent death share and 68.0 percent kill participation and bringing back Ilyas “Shook” Hartsema, who had been the team’s starter in spring.

Personnel changes didn’t solve Vitality’s problems. That doesn’t mean further roster changes aren’t necessary, but rather that the issues extended beyond the players. On the coaching front, Vitality had parted ways with one of their analysts after the spring split, but they made no other public staffing changes during the summer, and so far seem to be retaining head coach Kévin “Shaunz” Garhabzadeh during the offseason. With most of the team’s issues boiling down to teamwork, the coach should be on the hot seat, but experienced coaches are very difficult to come by. Replacing Shaunz would not be an easy task, and Vitality may want to see him work with another iteration of the roster in spring before deciding to go a different direction.

If Vitality’s import experience has made them gun shy about bringing in more Koreans, and if they plan to remain loyal to Shaunz, then domestic signings are the best route forward. On that front, Vitality may have already made the best move possible when they added Steeelback so early in the offseason.

Slotting in Steeelback

Steeelback was a relatively low-key signing in terms of buzz and conversation, especially coming so close to the start of the World Championships, but the former Roccat AD carry was a huge addition who was not only an upgrade in a key position, but also a great fit for the team’s strategic identity, at least on paper.

Steeelback is a consistent, reliable cleanup carry. He positions well to stay out of danger and does his job in teamfights, and his +6.9 CS difference at 10 minutes led all EU LCS ADCs in the summer regular season, excluding Kostas “Forg1ven” Tzortziou-Napoleon’s five games with H2K at the end of the split. In most of Roccat’s games, Steeelback was the lone bright spot, keeping his team relevant when everything was crumbling around him and quietly putting together one of the best seasons of any AD carry in Europe. Steeelback doesn’t play an All-Star style, but in the right environment he can be an immensely valuable player. If Vitality retain the rest of their summer lineup, Steeelback may find himself in that right environment.

During the summer split, Vitality tended to play around their solo laners, Lucas “Cabochard” Simon-Meslet and Erlend “Nukeduck” Våtevik Holm. Shook mostly ganked for the top and mid lane, trying to help Cabochard become a split push threat on champions like Irelia, Gnar, Trundle, and Fiora while protecting and enabling Nukeduck’s aggressive laning.

When Vitality found success, it was often tied to Cabochard’s side lane pressure and Nukeduck’s proactivity. Cabochard’s average 7.9 CS per minute was second among EU top laners in the summer split, and Nukeduck was 4-0 on the playmaking Twisted Fate and also had some strong Lissandra games early in summer. Unfortunately, opponents tended to attack both Cabochard and Nukeduck in lane, forcing them to dodge ganks and limiting their ability to get early leads. Vitality usually reached the mid-game on even footing, averaging +75 gold at 15 minutes as a team. But because of their challenges with teamfighting and macro, going even wasn’t good enough. Relative to their performance in the early game, Vitality’s win rate was 7.8 percentage points lower than expected, the second-worst mid/late rating in Europe.

A solo lane-oriented team wants specific services from its AD carry and jungler. First, the AD carry needs to be self-supporting: he needs to lane well without making himself vulnerable or demanding too much of the jungler’s time, and should be able to do his job in teamfights without needing heavy peel or babysitting. Second, the jungler should play for ganking and map control, not power farming to build up his own strength but creating advantages for his laners through smart pathing and good vision.

Steeelback fits that AD carry profile very well, and should be well supported by Raymond “kaSing” Tsang. During summer, kaSing’s champion pool was heavily focused on protection, featuring Karma, Braum, Morgana, Janna and Tahm Kench. In lane, those types of champions can ensure relatively smooth passage to the mid game. Later on, if Steeelback positions well he can free up kaSing to spend more time covering the solo laners in teamfights. On paper, in other words, Steeelback’s niche in this Vitality lineup seems very well defined.

Shook’s ability to add value from the jungle is another question.

All Shook Up

Stylistically, there are parts of Shook’s game that seem encouraging. Shook is a gank-first jungler who, as previously mentioned, tended to play around the solo lanes during the summer split. His ability to create early plays was his biggest strength.

Shook’s execution on that identity, though, was somewhat lackluster. In the summer split, he averaged 1.8 kills and assists at the 15-minute mark, fifth-best among junglers. In other words, while his ganking was by far the most visible part of his game, his ability to generate early kills was just middle-of-the-road.

The problem was that if Shook didn’t get his ganking game rolling, he often struggled to find a fallback play pattern where he could still help his team win. Ideally, a jungler should add vision control, teamfighting (either through initiation or damage output), and other qualities to their ganking ability. Shook, however, placed the second-fewest and cleared the fewest wards of any EU LCS jungler, had the lowest average damage per minute and damage share of any EU LCS jungler and also farmed the least of any EU LCS jungler. His attempts at smite-stealing key objectives rarely worked out, and despite playing more tanks and utility champions than Mightybear and eschewing Kindred and Graves, Shook didn’t show up consistently as a teamfight initiator, either. Altogether, if Shook’s ganking didn’t pay off, he generally went quiet, unable to find other ways to affect the game.

Each European on Vitality’s 2016 summer roster had issues and inconsistencies. Cabochard didn’t do enough to turn his split pushing into direct gains. Nukeduck didn’t seem able to put all of the pieces together for a meaningful stretch of time and line up multiple strong performances in a row. KaSing had league-leading vision stats but wasn’t efficient enough and wasted many of his teamfight initiations when his team wasn’t ready to follow up.

Unfortunately, Shook’s shortcomings were more severe than the others’. His negatives were paired with fewer positives, and he wasn’t so much inconsistent as ineffective.

Step by Step

Vitality have taken a very important step towards a successful 2017 by adding Steeelback, a player who perfectly fits their AD carry needs. To properly balance their roster, they should do everything they can to bring aboard a different jungler who can improve on Shook’s early-game contributions while also adding value in other parts of the game.

There are no clear-upgrade European junglers floating around in free agency at the moment, but Vitality don’t need to find a superstar; they only need someone with a bit more versatility and a different voice. The ideal approach would be to try out Shook alongside some other options, giving Shook a chance to redeem himself while testing out potential replacements.

One player worth trying out is Maurice “Amazing” Stückenschneider, most recently of Origen. Amazing is a highly experienced veteran with a gank-first mindset. He earned a 44 percent First Blood rate in the summer split, third among junglers, but his early farming was weaker and his vision output wasn’t much higher than Shook’s. If Amazing could add better communication than Shook, that might be enough value to bring him aboard, but based on his play in 2016 he wouldn’t be a guaranteed improvement.

From the challenger scene, Charly “Djoko” Guillard has some of the characteristics Vitality is looking for, with a 70 percent First Blood rate in the summer regular season, team-leading kill participation, and good vision numbers. He and his Millenium teammates weren’t able to break into the LCS, and Vitality has shown that they prefer to sign established veterans rather than taking a chance on less experienced players, but Djoko is the right kind of player to try out.

If Vitality can pick up the right player in the jungle or coax more out of Shook while retaining Cabochard, Nukeduck, and kaSing, they’ll have all the pieces they need to make a run up the standings next year. That said, team management should give the coaching staff a short leash: if an offseason of reflection and a preseason of practice can’t bring the roster together to work as a team, the organization can’t afford another wasted split due to weak communication and failed fundamentals.

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.