Saying that North America has been criticized as a region since the end of the spring season would be an understatement.
The former longstanding kings of NA, Cloud9, are coming off of their second straight LCS Grand Final loss to Team SoloMid, which ultimately led them to make their first roster swap in two years with Hai stepping down to make way for Incarnati0n. Counter Logic Gaming resembled more of a social media reality show than a professional team during the offseason, as Link was replaced by the mid lane tandem of Pobelter and Huhi. TSM were the standard-bearers for their region, winning the IEM World Championships halfway through the regular LCS season and giving their fans hope that NA could give the world's best a run for their money.
That, along with the notions of C9 being the same five forever and CLG's Golden Age were dismantled over the one month break. Simply put, the NA LCS champions were embarrassed at the Mid-Season Invitational, losing to each of the other four major regions. Coming into the Summer season, TSM are looking to keep their spot atop North America and win a chance at international redemption at Worlds. Meanwhile, C9 and CLG's reloaded rosters are looking to recover from last season's dispiriting playoff exits and new teams such as the Korean-powered Dragon Knights and Enemy eSports are looking to make waves in their first season as premiere league organizations.
No NA teams enter this season without criticism. TSM's performance at the IEM World Championships made the NA LCS, for at least a few months, a region full of promise and hope. With an offseason of turmoil, changes, and drama, this is a league with no more heroes. It's simply a league with 10 teams all wanting to prove that, past all of the drama and criticism, they are the group of players that will bring pride back to the North American region.
Everything was too perfect at the IEM World Championships.
TSM only dropped a single map throughout the event (that being to Taiwan's Yoe Flash Wolves in the semifinals), and capped off the tournament with a 3-0 sweep of China's Team WE. While not perceived as the clear-cut No. 1 team in the world, that honor was still being given to China's EDG or Korea's SKT T1 following Katowice, Team SoloMid were perceived as legit contenders to do well at Worlds in October. Albeit in a condensed competition format, Bjergsen and co. beat CJ Entus, marking the first time TSM had ever eliminated a Korean team from a tournament, and they went untouched in the finals against a team that upset the GE Tigers a day earlier.
Since that tournament, it would appear that the IEM world title has hurt TSM more than it's helped. The win gave their fans and NA watchers alike the expectation that TSM (and by association the NA LCS) are one of the strongest teams in the world. Sure, they may not be on the same level as China or Korea, but close enough where they could give them a run for their money. The highest placing teams from that tournament, Team WE, the GE Tigers, and Yoe Flash Wolves all failed to win their respective region and compete at MSI. Although the Wolves and the Tigers fell unceremoniously to ahq and SKT in their respective league's finals, Team WE were the closest to toppling the eventual champion, taking EDG to five games before falling in the climactic game. The only team to look better than they did at IEM are CJ Entus, a team who has thrived since the introduction of the Cinderhulk meta.
Let's make this clear: Team SoloMid aren't a bad team. World contenders? Not until they fix up their predictable archetypical roles and can be more flexible in their compositions. The loss at MSI was a cruel reminder of the reality that NA are still a step below the two regions who've occupied the finals of Riot's past five major international tournaments, but that doesn't mean they still aren't the favorite coming into the summer season. While you can point out what EDG, SKT, and others did to TSM in Tallahassee, it's not like the other teams in NA didn't know what style TSM were going to play. The difference was that the top laners of the tournament, Koro1, Huni, and MaRin, were able to exploit the surrendering of Dyrus and snowball that advantage in ways that NA teams during the Spring campaign could not.
The main question for TSM this season is who'll flinch first: them or the rest of North America? As long as the rest of NA doesn't punish TSM for their over-reliance on the mid lane and their discarding of the top lane, TSM can continue to win games through the power of Bjergsen's playmaking and objective control around the constant assassinations of Dyrus. If the teams do start penalizing TSM for their ways and you see players like Impulse's Impact cash in on the free gold that TSM offers up, you'll see the reigning champions make sweeping changes in how they play. One of the biggest reasons why TSM were dissected in Katowice was because the rest of North America were never forcing them to change. Summer will be the time where either NA or TSM will have to change their way of playing, or we might see a mirror image of the Mid-Season Invitational results at Worlds this fall.
Cloud9 were at a crossroads at the end of last season. They could stick with their long-time roster or they could make their first major roster change in two years. The decision, while seemingly obvious to upgrade their roster, could either payoff in spades for the boys in blue and white or blow up in their faces.
If they had stuck with Hai and played out the summer campaign, they would have all but confirmed their spot at Worlds. Even during a season that saw them go through adversity and strife, C9 ended up in second place at the end of the regular season and in the playoffs behind TSM. With their synergy, communication, and understanding of each other as a core five, C9 could have practically sleepwalked through the summer campaign and found themselves in Paris to start the 2015 World Championships. While they would have more than likely lost to TSM for the third straight NA LCS season and probably had a ceiling of, at best, making Top 8 at Worlds again, it was the safe, reasonable choice.
With Hai stepping down and the team moving forward with Incarnati0n, a player with endless solo queue and online results but no pro experience, C9 are done playing it safe. There is a chance that the move destroys their cohesion as a group, Incarnati0n can't transition from the amateur scene to the world of pros, and C9's all but assured Worlds spot slips away to the likes of returning rosters like Team Impulse or Team Liquid. But if Incarnati0n can adapt to his teammates and everything that comes along with being a professional player, it adds a new dimension to C9's game. Meteos will need to step up more as the team's shot-caller and Sneaky, along with Balls, will need to learn how to facilitate with a more carry-focused starter in the mid lane.
Everything could come crashing down for C9's house of cards that they spent two years building to be steady and reliable, but the dream of winning the NA LCS title again and aiming at a top place at Worlds outweighs the certainty of the comfortable status quo.
One of the preseason teams predicted to take the spring season, Team Liquid went through a roller coaster of emotions in their first season under the Liquid brand. Piglet was delayed the first week due to visa issues, and Keith responded by subbing in and playing well. Piglet struggled early, not linking up with the team well, and the whole squad struggled to play around their proposed ace ADC. It was a tug of war for a majority of the regular season between Piglet, the big name preseason signing from SK Telecom T1, and Keith, the amateur player who came out of nowhere to play exceptionally well with the team whenever given the chance. They finally settled down and stuck with Piglet, the 2013 world champion living up to his moniker by the end of the playoffs when they finished third place behind finalists TSM and C9.
This season looks to be one of stability for Liquid, as Piglet looks to have acclimated to his new surroundings and teammates. TL were close to knocking out the old C9 last season, taking the first two games of the series before the postseason experience from Cloud9 helped them pull of a reverse sweep that eliminated Liquid from championship contention. With Korean imports Piglet and Fenix now having the valuable time playing in North America and getting used to the communication aspect of playing with their teammates, they might now finally live up to the hype that they were close to reaching last season before crumbling against C9.
Piglet wants to carry, and if he can do just that to the level that he showed during the latter stages of the Spring season, Liquid have all the tools to break the streak of TSM vs. C9 NA LCS Grand Finals at four.
Team Impulse were always considered a 'summer team,' and by that people meant that although Impulse could do well in the spring season and make some noise, they wouldn't realize or even touch their full potential until the summer campaign came along. TiP finished fourth in the Summer season, losing to TSM in the semifinals and then getting ousted by Liquid in the third place match.
With the temperatures rising in Los Angeles and the summer upon us, this is the season where Team Impulse is supposed to thrive. Impact and Rush are the best one-two punch in the league when it comes to top laners and junglers, the two Korean imports starting off slow in the spring season but coming to life as the campaign went along. A dangerous tandem that brings a factor to the Rift like no other team in the league, look for the Korean Bash Brothers to have a field day all season long, the two mechanically gifted players looking to feast on their opponents at the position if given the chance.
TiP are already ahead of schedule with their Top 4 finish last season, and they're now aiming for a finalist spot that will propel them towards one of three tickets to Worlds for NA. We'll need to see if Apollo and Adrian can keep up their solid production in the bottom lane, the positions that were considered Impulse's weak spots entering the previous season. And we haven't even mentioned XiaoWeiXiao, the regular season MVP from NA LCS' last summer season, continuing to put up big numbers in the middle lane.
An all-around opposing lineup, the worst months of Impulse are behind them. Now it's time to see this assumed "Team of Summer" in action.
Counter Logic Gaming
CLG's offseason was chaotic, to say the least. The Golden Age of Counter Logic Gaming was in full force until the final week of the season, where they lost their Top 2 spot to Cloud9 in a tiebreaker to send them down into the quarterfinals. CLG faced TL in the first round and lost all three games in a soul crushing sweep, ending all the good vibes and praise directed at CLG through their regular season run.
After the loss to TL, Link left the team in dramatic fashion, releasing an 18 page letter about his time on Counter Logic Gaming. He was replaced by the two mid laners who lost in the relegation rounds, Pobelter from Winterfox and Huhi from Fusion. Instead of getting the two players to use as metagame pieces to throw off the competition like SK Telecom T1 in Korea, the two players share a similar style of playing and fondness for carrying games through assassins and playmaking champions. Neither player has had much success winning in a premiere league before, but they will hopefully help CLG discover their new mid laner for the future.
As is usually the case with CLG, all the pieces are there for them to be successful and it's now up to management and team members alike to put everything together. Zion was a big pick-up for CLG prior to the spring split, yet, outside of a few games, he's been saddled in the familiar top lane role of being utility and a tank for the rest of the team to stand behind. With the addition of two mid laners who like carrying the game and being a centerpiece, Zion will most likely have to settle back into that role as the mid and Doubelift will be the assumed tandem of carries on the squad. CLG have three positions where they all have players who want to be the carries of the game, akin to the Gogoing-Cool-Uzi trio of the Spring LPL season and it'll be interesting to see how it'll work for CLG with their two new players on the roster.
Golden Age? Not quite. But, and I know this has been said for the past six NA LCS seasons, they do have a roster that possess the capabilities to finish Top 4 by the playoffs end.
...I'll save that last line for the 2016 Spring NA LCS Preview just in case.
A Top 6 finisher last season, Gravity return to the NA LCS with two changes to their starting roster. Cop, an LCS mainstay, has stepped aside, wanting to get more into the field of coaching and learning how to lead his own team in the future. He's being replaced by Altec, the second half of Winterfox's pillars, and will be aspiring to keep Gravity's bottom lane with Bunny as one of the league's best duos.
The biggest mystery surrounding the team is the departure of veteran StVicious for Korean jungler Move, a player who played in the LSPL during the early part of the year with EDG's secondary team, AD Gaming. While you'd think that would mean he has a lot of professional experience at least in the Chinese scene, that isn't the case with Move. Due to ADG having BaeMe and Ray, two other Koreans on the squad and the league only allowing two non-Chinese starters per match, Move found himself on the bench for the majority of his stay.
Gravity are an interesting team and are most comparable to C9's situation. With the same roster they had last season, Gravity could feel safe finishing anywhere around fifth to seventh place. Instead of picking up a solo queue jungler from NA or even an established European player, they went the route of someone who has potential to create a stellar partnership with Keane in the mid lane and be a more active, playmaking jungler. Of course this could fail: Move could be a bust, Altec may not perform up to expectations, and Gravity may find themselves close to the relegation round. However, if everything works out for Gravity and Move is the player they think he can be, they can go from first round cannon fodder to a team with aspirations of breaking into the semifinals and beyond.
They were expected as a contender to be automatically relegated before the start of the spring season, but Team 8 turned a lot of heads with their performance in the most recent regular season as they fought for a playoff spot up until the final game of the season where they lost a tiebreaker to Team Liquid. It was a hard loss for T8 to swallow, as the scrappy team that scratched their place into the Top 6 failed to clear their final hurdle into the postseason.
Team 8 are back for the Summer campaign with only one change to the starting roster, AD Carry Maplestreet being replaced by Fusion AD and former CLG top laner Nien. The ace player for Fusion during their Challenger run in the spring, Nien was a game away from the NA LCS with his Fusion comrades before losing a disappointing fifth game to Diginitas in the relegation rounds.
The roster swap could change the dynamic of T8, who prioritized their top and mid lane as their primary threats last season. Nien is a more forward and influential ADC when it comes to carrying the game, giving T8 another weapon that could work in their favor if they can balance out a new style with their incoming player. After falling one game short of the playoffs last season, Team 8's goal this time around will be to make up for that moment by breaking into the top six and securing a playoff birth.
Dignitas have been a team in the NA LCS since the beginning, and that fact was that they were one game away from relegation. Following a quick 2-0 start, Dignitas staggered the next two maps against Fusion, needing a victory in the final game to save their spot in the NA LCS.
The longstanding organization will bring back the same five players they used for the final half of the split. The story is the same for Dig as it was last season: they're a solid group of players and their Korean tandem of Gamsu and CoreJJ along with the carrying potential of Shiphtur in the middle lane give them three threats that could bring a lot of victories if deployed correctly. Kiwkid and Azingy, the supporters and utility for the team who came up big to keep Dig's spot in the LCS, will need to be consistent all split long if they hope to challenge for a playoff spot.
Team Dragon Knights
With four Korean speakers in the starting lineup, you might as well call TDK "The Korean National Team and Smoothie." Along with former LCS starters Kez and Seraph, TDK brought in former Team WE mid laner Ninja and former CJ Entus Blaze AD carry Emperor to bolster the lineup.
Team Dragon Knights are the hardest team to place coming into the season. Ninja and Emperor didn't have the best spring seasons in China and Brazil respectively as they both ended their runs on down notes with losses. Ninja. and especially Emperor, have shown the ability to be players worthy of being starters in the strongest two premiere leagues in the world, the LCK and the LPL, but they've also shown that they can find themselves on the outside looking in if the meta doesn't shift their way or they fall into a slump.
This team could finish anywhere by the time the season ends. Emperor could possibly regain the form in his Blaze heydays, carry TDK to the upper half of the standings and threaten the established teams vying for Worlds. But there is also an even bigger chance that Emperor, Ninja, and the rest of the team can't come together so quickly, Smoothie has a rough time as a rookie and the only non-Korean speaker on the squad, and TDK are back in the relegation rounds or worse, auto-relegated when the final week of the regular season comes to a close.
The kings of the Challenger scene, Enemy eSports are a little different from their newcomer brethren Team Dragon Knights. Although their lineup might not have the same potential with Korean imports like Ninja and Emperor on the roster, they're an all-around sturdy team that have less chance of crashing and burning with their roster.
A team built from some of the best pieces the NA solo queue has to offer, the only returning LCS player not making his debut is their mid laner, Innox. The former top laner of Evil Geniuses last year, Innox is in a new position and role on the red and black devils, wanting to make an impact in his return back to the premiere league of NA LCS. Players like their bot-lane duo of Otter and Bodydrop continuously tried to qualify for the LCS, but finally found their salvation with Enemy in the most recent NACS season where their dreams came to fruition.
Enemy were wire-to-wire the best team in the NA Challenger circuit during the Spring season, winning the regular season and then winning the playoffs in impressive 3-1 fashion over the old Dragon Knights roster. With a good support and management staff behind the players and a roster that will give trouble to every team in the league, this should be the beginning of a long stay in the NA LCS for the Enemy eSports team and organization. While a Top 4 finish may be out of the question in their inaugural run, don't be too surprised if you see the grinning devil logo by the time the postseason kicks off, wanting their chance to usurp Team SoloMid like the other eight teams entering the 2015 Summer NA LCS season.
Tyler "Fionn" Erzberger is a staff writer for The Score eSports who covers the North American LCS and Korea's Champions. You can follow him on Twitter.