Sometimes the offseason feels endless, sparsely populated by only a handful small tournaments — a veritable desert when compared to the massive slate of in-season games. We are now nearing the end. The 2017 NA LCS Spring has the distinction of starting last, after the four other major leagues kickoff. New imports have been recruited, rosters have been set, and now all that's left is to actually play the game.
Here are a few storylines to watch out for as we head into the 2017 NA LCS Spring Split.
Throughout the 2016 North American Challenger Series, Juan “Contractz” Arturo Garcia was hailed as one of the strongest native talents in the scene. While on the failed Challenger Series experiment known as Ember, Contractz was their standout player. His presence was sorely missed when he was unable to play in the 2016 NACS Spring Playoffs due to age restrictions.
There’s always a mystique that surrounds an underage player when they’ve shown prowess in scrims or the challenger leagues but are unable to play at the highest level until they turn 17. Performing with new team and, more importantly, at a higher level of competition, doesn't always live up to performances in the lesser leagues.
With Rasmus “Caps” Winther starting for Fnatic and Andrei “Xerxe” Dragomir starting for Unicorns of Love over in Europe, Contractz isn’t the only rookie entering the scene with high expectations and those expectations are compounded by the fact that he’s starting for one of the most popular teams in his region: Cloud9.
Contractz's jungle style is fairly aggressive, shaped by the teams he’s been on previously, especially his recent split on Cloud9 Challenger. He’s grown accustomed to having his lanes pushing at most times — C9C often won by simply rolling over their opponents in lane while Contractz moved wherever he pleased. This means that some of his more aggressive invades, especially if he doesn’t have an invade buddy or pushing lanes, won't work out. Contractz died often on C9C, and while these statistics don’t mean much in a vacuum, he’ll have to curb his enthusiasm and better coordinate with his team if he wants to succeed in the LCS.
Fortunately, much like C9C, Contractz is surrounded by experience. Mid laner Nicolaj “Jensen” Jensen is not only a laning beast, but he's vastly improved his map pressure and laning movement over the past year. He will be able to provide the mid lane pressure that Contractz needs. Zachary “Sneaky” Scuderi has been a steady presence for C9 since their LCS debut, and Jung “Impact” Eon-yeong spent the latter days of the 2016 NA LCS destroying his opponents while looking far more coordinated than he ever had with his C9 teammates. The pieces are in place for Contractz to succeed. All that’s left now is to see how he performs.
The Mystery of FlyQuest
Running concurrently with Contractz’s debut are the returns of his former Cloud9 Challenger teammates’ to the NA LCS. Cloud9 once ruled the NA LCS, winning two straight NA LCS titles and making it to all but two NA LCS finals. Their original lineup of An “Balls” Le, William “Meteos” Hartman, Hai “Hai” Du Lam, Sneaky, and Daerek “LemonNation” Hart are immortalized as one of the best and most successful lineups in NA history.
Now, the boys are back in town, sans Meteos or Sneaky, dividing NA fans into two distinct camps — those who remember and love the C9 of yesteryear and fans who wonder why the new FlyQuest (formerly Cloud9 Challenger) ownership retained four of their five qualifying players instead of seeking out younger talent and imports like the rest of NA. Now, all eyes are on FlyQuest to see just how far they can go in a region that bulked up on high-profile imports this past offseason.
A possible template of this split’s FlyQuest is 2015 CJ Entus, or even Cloud9 themselves in the 2015 NA LCS Summer Split. Then, Hai’s swap to the jungle position first saved their chances at the Regional Qualifier and then won them a spot at the 2015 World Championship. There’s something to be said about relying on existing synergy and experienced talent. CJ’s roster of veterans, which included a role-swapped Kang “Ambition” Chan-yong, gave SK Telecom T1 the closest fight in the LoL Champions Korea Spring 2015 playoff run and still finished third in the Summer 2015 regular season. Yet, they didn’t make it to the 2015 World Championship, and they had an obvious skill ceiling. They were a team on borrowed time with a definite end.
Going into this split, FlyQuest resembles 2015 CJ. They retained Balls, Hai, LemonNation, and AD carry Johnny “Altec” Ru from C9C, betting on team synergy and Hai’s leadership rather than new talent. The only newcomer is former NRG eSports and Team Liquid Academy jungler Galen “Moon” Holgate.
Moon had his own struggles within the NA LCS last year. Because NRG Esports was a festering stew of a team, it’s impossible to know just how much internal issues played a role in Moon’s lacklustre performances. Still, Moon is far more prone to passivity than prior jungler Contractz. It’s difficult to imagine Moon going on the same aggressive invades — even for deep vision —the same way Contractz did.
That being said, Moon is now surrounded by some of the best veteran talent that NA has ever had. If any unit is going to help him with his rumored stage fright, betting on three of the famous C9 five is a strong bet. Moon and Altec are the two players who can lift this team above their visible skill ceiling. If they’re to do this, they’ll have to use another strategy than the one they showed in the NA CS. There, C9C was known for obliterating teams in lane, and had an average 1834 gold lead at 15 minutes over their opponents which they used to steamroll their way to victory. This isn’t going to work in the NA LCS since there are other teams who can do it better with stronger individual laners.
The Battle for the NA Top Lane
The NA top lane talent pool has deepened thanks to the arrival of Korean imports like Immortals’ Lee “Flame” Ho-jong, Team Dignitas’ Kim “Ssumday” Chan-ho, and Echo Fox’s Jang “Looper” Hyeong-seok. Many are expecting these three — especially Flame and Ssumday — to run rampant over their laning adversaries, garnering significant kill and CS leads with or without jungle help. Top lane has been a bit of a sore spot in NA for a while, and the three high-profile Koreans entering the scene this spring all have domestic experience in Korea as well as extensive international experience. The battle for the glory of the NA top laner begins this weekend.
This does present a steeper challenge for homegrown top laners like Team SoloMid’s Kevin “Hauntzer” Yarnell, Counter Logic Gaming’s Darshan “Darshan” Upadhyaha, FlyQuest’s Balls, Phoenix1’s Derek “zig” Shao, and Team Liquid’s Samson “Lourlo” Jackson. Even previously embedded imports like C9’s Impact and Team EnVyUs’ Shin “Seraph” Woo-yeong could struggle against the region's imported talent. However, the situation for native top laners isn’t as dire as some would make it seem.
Many of the teams with NA tops are also betting on existing coordination and team synergy. TSM’s only change was the addition of Jason “WildTurtle” Tran, with whom the organization is already familiar and whose playstyle is well known. Aside from WildTurtle, Hauntzer is surrounded by the same supporting cast. WildTurtle isn’t likely to draw the same amount of pressure as Yiliang “Doublelift” Peng. TSM will need Hauntzer to continue to improve and call for a bit more help from jungler Dennis “Svenskeren” Johnsen. Counter Logic Gaming is betting entirely on their roster from last year, and they were fairly successful, even with ups and downs from Darshan in the top lane. Similarly, the aforementioned FlyQuest is also counting on Balls’ experience and coordination with the rest of his team, as are C9 with Impact and Seraph on nV.
One of the more interesting situations could play out on TL. Once denigrated for his small champion pool, Lourlo has become a strong tank player and the meta suits him well. If he can coordinate better with his team than some of the other imports, TL could be a surprising upstart in the rankings. Above all, the new top lane arrivals should generally improve the level of play, but rarely has a team won the title on strong lanes alone. The latest arrivals to the NA top lane are more individually skilled than their domestic counterparts, but they in no way guarantee victory.
A Link to the past (and TL’s future)
Team synergy is a tricky and elusive thing, even for an entirely domestic roster. A caveat to all preseason assumptions is always written, “if the team comes together, if they coordinate well enough, if they learn to communicate.” These reservations accompany the three previous storylines. They also surround the new TL squad — a hybrid roster built around the return of AD carry Chae “Piglet” Gwang-jin to the starting lineup and the homecoming of lost-long NA mid laner Austin “Link” Shin.
Link was a late addition to TL, joining the team after their somewhat shaky performance at IEM Gyeonggi with Greyson “GoldenGlue” Gilmer starting in the mid lane. Although he’s known for his memetic manifesto and adding “donezo” to the general League of Legends esports lexicon, Link is also one of the few players that ex-NA pros cite as strong enough to make a significant return to the NA LoL scene, should he be inspired to do so.
Throughout last year, TL struggled to find a winning roster permutation that could carry their team to an NA final. The organization’s problems have never been in raising their own homegrown talent, or even in failing to import strong players, but in making that roster play as a unit once assembled. Internal disagreements plagued the organization last year by their players’ own admissions. On paper, this new TL roster is an interesting beast that should prove intriguing to watch, one way or the other. Link is a large part of this. He now receives the chance to prove his fans and former adversaries correct with this upcoming season.
Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.