Taipei's League of Legends Master Series survived its first-year baptism with flying colors.
After three years of consistently monopolizing Southeast Asia's Garena Premier League championship title, the Taiwan/HongKong/Macau representatives were spun off in 2015, forming what was technically a brand new fledgling premier region. The GPL was dropped to Wild Card status while their former champions now owned two seeds to the World Championship.
Those seeds sprouted with a vigor unmatched since 2012, when the Taipei Assassins won Season 2. Both AHQ E-Sports Club and Flash Wolves defied international expectations by making it to the quarterfinals, securing a 100% participation rate in the Top 8 for the region — outgunning China's LPL, which was expected to outperform their island peers by a large margin.
They also did better than any of their peers since 2013 — and that was when the Gamania Bears were automatically granted a playoff slot, instead of having to fight for it. After winning the world title once, the Taiwanese teams faded into obscurity: when the original TPA squad disbanded, the region struggled and largely failed to claim any sort of international relevance until last year. There's no doubt that the formation of the LMS has greatly bolstered the region's competitive strength.
Now they need to prove it wasn't a fluke.
XGamers (formerly known as Heat Wave)
The team formerly known as YoLMS bashed down the Gash Bears to make it into the circuit as the spring split’s second rookie team — an impressive feat considering that the Gash Bears, the revival of the Gamania esports franchise that went defunct in 2014, spent a lot of money to recruit both veteran Taiwanese talents and foreign imports.
In contrast, XGamers is decidedly lacking in veteran talent. Only team captain and jungler Yo has prior LMS experience, due to his tenure on the ill-fated and since-disbanded Logitech Snipers. The rest of his team are, to put it bluntly, no-namers — occasionally seen on solo queue streams, but otherwise former amateurs. Such was evident during their qualification match against the Bears. The jungle/mid synergy demonstrated by Yo and SuwaKo, assisted by Suki's support play, was the biggest contributing factor to their win. And within that dynamic, it was Yo that served as glue for the team, outpacing and outmaneuvering Bears jungler Naz (Yo's former coach on the Snipers) to bind together his team into something like a cohesive unit.
Unfortunately, that paints a rough forecast for XGamers. Yo's efforts were enough to make the Gash bears cash out, but his efforts aren't particularly special in contrast to the LMS' upper-tier junglers — and if he gets disrupted, then his team demonstrates significant weaknesses as individual laners. AD carry LBB and top laner Exciting have a lot of room to improve their individual mechanics and teamfighting skills.
Formerly known as Deft Carry, COUGAR was the first new team to qualify for the spring split, dismantling what was left of the Assassin Snipers after the preseason roster shuffles. While COUGAR is entirely made up of rookies — none of their players have been in the LMS before — jungler SpeaR and mid laner JeffeRy in particular racked up quite the bodyounts on their way to the top.
Most of the focus will be on JeffeRy as the season rolls in, as he's reportedly the best LeBlanc player on the island, but jungler SpeaR deserves a lot of the credit too. His pathing and gank timings were devastatingly effective against AS, inducing paranoia in every lane while Mihanna was poking around emptied jungle camps — which were stolen by SpeaR earlier.
The thrust of SpeaR's contributions come at some noticeable costs: they are a very strong early-game team, but AS's resilience nabbed them two games in the best-of-five set due to COUGAR's poor phase transitions. Furthermore, Week 1 is going to be tough for the rookie squads as neither JeffeRy or Spear will be available. Macau player Kuku (formerly of the same Assassin Snipers squad they'd just defeated) will be substituting for JeffeRy in the meantime. They'll have to scramble to catch up.
Last year, Midnight Sun was the LMS’ most promising rookie team. Coached by former world champion Lilballz, the team quickly grew around jungler Empt2 and top laner LOFS's strong mechanics. While they couldn't quite breach the ceiling imposed by the LMS's big four teams (AHQ, Flash Wolves, HK Esports and Taipei Assassins), they were generally expected to grow into worthwhile rivals for their more veteran seniors.
And then four of the five players tried to get around their contracts illegally, and were banned.
The remnants of Midnight Sun are largely unknowns. Mid laner M1ssion's tenure on the Taipei Assassins was as an invisible substitute. while CorGi — the only remaining original member — is left without his usual support. The rest of the team are, as of yet, untested by competitive play. In fact, since they didn't need to play through the qualifiers, there have been no public demonstration of their capabilities. Rumors are that they're doing relatively well in scrims — but preseason scrims amount to little compared to the rigors of the competitive season.
Machi E-sports might be a bit cursed, as hip hop star Jeffrey Huang's passion project was riddled with teething problems since its inception, such as losing key players to Elo boosting bans in the middle of the year. For an amusing week, it also meant that Huang was the oldest eSports pro in the world, having to substitute for his absent players while the organization scrambled to find substitutes.
Overall, 2015 was better for them as they successfully recruited strong mechanical players in Fiesta and Republic from South Korea to bolster a lack of available talent outside of bot lane duo Dee and Dreamer. But with the new split, and continual communication issues with a dual-language team, only the bot lane double-Ds remain.
And yet if any team is going to be a dark horse this spring, it may be Machi. The Dee/Dreamer bot lane has been devastatingly effective, even as they weathered through so many storms throughout the organization's short history, and they're complemented extremely well by mid laner Apex, who proved himself to be one of the most promising new mid lane talents during his summer stint. The main setback is top laner Bobo, who was less than impressive last year, while new jungler Taizan is also an unknown quantity.
Hong Kong Esports
To the chagrin and dismay of Hong Kong Esports fans, former Season 2 World Champion Toyz has officially left the roster — and with him, AD carry star Raison, who was fundamental to HKE's closely fought campaign for the top of the LMS summer ladder. Even without Raison, the sheer fury of Toyz's play brought them within a single set of unseating the Flash Wolves for the second World Championship seed last season. Their replacements — Chillyz in mid and GodKwai as AD — are both veterans of the Hong Kong Challenger circuit, but few expect them to match their predecessor's caliber. Certainly not at the beginning of the year.
That throws the weight of the team onto jungler DinTer and support star Olleh's back. And to be fair, both of them are considered some of the very best players in their respective roles. DinTer was a former Taipei Assassins player coming from the generation after Toyz's departure from the team. His leadership and increasingly brazen jungling skills are expected to prove to be the backbone of the current HKE in absence of the team's usual carries.
Speaking of the Taipei Assassins, the founder of the Taiwanese LoL eSports legacy still kicks around, though the luster to the name has faded over the years. 2015 was a disappointing year for an organization used to garnering back-to-back regional championship titles (excluding 2013, after the original team disbanded). Though they'd stayed within the Top 4 (even beating out a sluggish AHQ during the spring split), it was clear almost from the onset that they were never catching up to the Flash Wolves or HKE. At least not during Season 5.
Their situation worsened in the summer, after AHQ shrugged off their slump, rampaged through the LMS spring playoffs, and kept their dominance into the next split. In many ways, former mid laner Chawy was the only reason why they managed to stay afloat in the top half of the circuit — but Chawy was suspended for a split due to prior Elo boosting allegations and ultimately left the team during the preseason.
There's some good news for the team this season. Bebe's back — the team's original AD carry has returned from his stint as captain of the Assassin Snipers. early reports are that the AD carry changes made for this year have benefited him greatly. Morning, too, has improved steadily as the team's top lane anchor. Though he was formerly known for stage fright, alternating between blowing up Moscow 5 single-handedly and choking to Vietnamese mid laners, years of professional play has shaken off that inconsistency and has provided TPA with a solid foundation.
Nobody expected the Flash Wolves to show up at Worlds. While jungler Karsa and mid laner Maple were respected players in the LMS, AD carry NL wasn't particularly well-considered at the time. Top laner Steak, in particular, was expected to get chewed up like his namesake on the international stage.
Instead, he made a meal out of those that had underestimated him. And rather than NL choking, it was Korean recruit Kkramer that slipped up, taking an inopportune Cocoon to the face and costing the team a crucial fight during the Group Stage. NL, who played throughout the rest of the team's Worlds run, was a run-and-gun maniac, knocking teams off-guard with deft footwork while Karsa snuck up behind them to finish off the unwary and take objectives.
Speculations after Worlds had Karsa and Maple targeted by North American and Chinese team scouts — a rumor strengthened by Steak's retirement. But the team held fast: Steak switched to team analyst instead, former substitute MMD was made a starter, and the rest of the team decided that they'd much rather stay together for another year than chase glory elsewhere. The uncertainty of MMD's performance is offset by the Flash Wolves' strengthened support staff and increasingly driven team culture, and they look to swing yet another LMS finals appearance this spring.
AHQ E-Sports Club
Much like the Flash Wolves, AHQ's players have shrugged off attempts to split them up. Even Westdoor couldn't resist sticking around: his announced retirement lasted just a few weeks before he changed his mind as the taste of victory on the world stage was still tantalizingly fresh to him.
Unfortunately for his fans, Westdoor might be playing fewer games than expected this split. AHQ is experimenting with active substitutes now, recruiting former TPA and Singapore Sentinels ace Chawy as a co-starter in the mid lane position. But what's unfortunate for Westdoor's fans is a big boon to the team as a whole, as Chawy's considered to be an even better player overall, and one with a champion pool deep enough to cover for Westdoor's shortcomings.
It's rare for championship-winning teams to come out of the preseason even stronger than they were before, but the Chawy upgrade is a clear-cut case of it, expanding AHQ's repertoire of strategic options that were previously locked up by Westdoor's limited assassins-only champion pool. The preseason and post-season patches were also kind to their new strategic focus: AD carry AN was an increasingly crucial keystone to their plans over the course of the summer, and now has all he needs to shine even brighter. With an LMS title and Worlds quarterfinals finish in hand, AHQ has everything they need to start building a dynasty.
Editor's Note: Due to a recent name change, Heat Wave are now referred to as XGamers,
James Chen is a freelance writer seen on PC Gamer, LoLesports, theScore eSports and elsewhere. There isn't a bigger LMS fanboy anywhere. We've looked. You can follow him on Twitter.