Team Dignitas sputtered to a disappointing six wins last season, and needed to eek out a relegation series win over Team Fusion to keep their spot in the NA LCS.
Now, four weeks and eight games into the Summer season, Dignitas have already matched their previous campaign's output.
At 6-2, Dig sit in second place, tied alongside the reigning champions Team SoloMid. Coming into a season where they were expected to hover around the league's bottom echelon for a second straight split, Dig's resurgence has been the summer's biggest surprise. After getting through a soft schedule in the first few weeks, they've solidified themselves as legitimate contenders with late-game victories over fellow champion hopefuls TSM and Team Liquid in back-to-back weeks.
As a team that was on the brink of elimination from the premiere league, the biggest reason for Dig's rapid improvement comes from their Korean imports. Gamsu and CoreJJ, two inexperienced players from the Korean scene, joined the team last season and looked aimless for a large part of the spring split. Between the team's countless jungler changes and the constant losing, the two players had bright spots, but those short glimmers of hope would be quickly doused out by a blowout from one of the league's top teams.
The shift in the top lane has allowed for fewer pure tank lineups. Gamsu, wanting to do damage and be a part of the brawling across the map, is thriving in the new environment, going from a measly 55 percent kill participation last season to being around 68 percent in the summer split. Every time Dignitas find themselves in a fight, he's a part of the scuffle, diving, scrapping, and doing his best to disrupt the other team. Gamsu's Week 4 performance was the best of the season as he took part in 95 percent of his team's kills en route to a 9.8 KDA and a 2-0 record.
With Gamsu's growing champion pool in the top lane, CoreJJ has also matured this season. CoreJJ was one of Dignitas' better pieces last season, as he showcased his carry potential and put up big numbers even in defeats. His biggest problem, however, was the needless deaths he piled up.
Dig's starting AD Carry only trailed Team 8's Maplestreet last season in grey screens, dying 44 times in 18 regular season games. TSM's WildTurtle tied CoreJJ in deaths, but their offensive output wasn't comparable as Turtle grabbed 108 kills next to CoreJJ's 54. While having an AD Carry die that many times is never a good thing, at least if you can die and bring down three people with you every time, you're making a difference. In CoreJJ's case, he was dying and not getting out the damage needed to make up for his mistakes and overly aggressive play.
His aggression is still comparable to last season, but it's been more controlled this time around. CoreJJ and Kiwkid are starting to click as a bot-lane unit, the latter standing in as a good pillar to reel in and save CoreJJ when he gets too anxious. His kill participation and damage percent for the team is down with Gamsu's development as a carry in the top lane, which could be taken as a dip in his effectiveness on the time. The biggest takeaway from CoreJJ's start to this season from last is that he's been keeping his deaths down, racking up a healthy amount of assists, and playing a better team game than he did last season when he tried to do too much on his own.
Shiphtur, Dig's once ace carry in the mid lane, has taken a step back with the arrivals of his Korean comrades. Once an assassin specialist and the player Dig threw all their hopes at in carrying them to victory, he's played a steady, zoning role this season. He's played a lot of long-range mages, split pushing, and helping out his team from all parts of the Rift. Yes, his kill participation is going down but his damage has gone up and put him among the leaders in outputting offense in the league.
Although he's no longer Dignitas' sole focal point, he's evolved his play to compensate his team's evolution. While some players would be set in their ways and demand their team's attention, play the champions their known for, and continue on as the ace, Shipthur's adaptation is a large part to Dig's success through the first four weeks.
Dignitas' seemingly endless jungle carousel appeared to be finished with the Azingy, that is until Helios was added to the mix. Eliminated in the promotional do-or-die match against Team Dragon Knights, the former Champions Korea winner joined Dignitas during the third week of the season. Azingy did well at the start of the split, putting up big games on his signature Zac and making plays in the early game to get the team rolling. The problem though was his champion pool and the fact that he lacked the same experience as Helios or the strong voice in the shot-calling role that the former CJ Entus Blaze jungler brought to the table.
The differences have been clear since Helios started playing with the team in Week 3. Azingy had more influence in the early game, pulling off ganks in lanes and starting the snowball early, but Helios, while he hasn't been able to replicate those same numbers or have nearly the same kill participation, has displayed his late-game prowess. When things get close and everything comes down to a single fight, objective contest, or rotation to barrell down an open lane, Helios shines. It allows Kiwikid, as he mentioned in his most recent winner's interview, to have less weight on his shoulders when it comes to shot-calling, and gives the team a clear direction to pull off their win conditions.
Helios' scorelines aren't going to be the prettiest, and that's okay. What Helios is to the team is larger than big numbers in the assist column or picking up kills. With three capable threats at top, mid, and AD Carry, he's the person along with Kiwikid, that needs to harness the team's individual talents and make them a complete squad. Dignitas have always had talent and could put up large kill numbers, but they've also continually given up games from dumb objective decisions, fighting at Baron when there was no reason to, and having indecisive shot-calling when one right call could secure a victory.
Whatever you think of Dignitas' chances to win the entire league, it's now clear that we can't overlook them as a legitimate playoff team. They've beaten two of the best teams in the league in the late-game, not needing a fast or somewhat lucky laning phase to spearhead a victory. Dignitas are going up against the best teams in North America — no matter what you think of NA's overall strength (or lack thereof) — and are getting it done in ways that they've struggled with in the past.
The Phantoms of the NA LCS might turn out to be an apparition come the time the NA LCS heads to New York City to crown a champion. For now, though, the time for overlooking Dignitas is over.
And for Dignitas, the time for setting their sights on a first NA LCS championship are just beginning.
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.