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North America's Changing Landscape: Emily Rand's NA LCS Primer

by theScore Staff Jan 15 2016
Thumbnail image courtesy of Riot eSports Flickr

The story of the North American offseason was not marked by specific player acquisitions, but by a flood of new investors in the scene that hoped to be a part of or capitalize on League of Legends' burgeoning success. Upcoming NA LCS organizations include the venture capital outfit Immortals, similar group NRG, whose investment was spearheaded by the co-owners of the Sacramento Kings, and former NBA player Rick Fox's fledgling team, Echo Fox. Long-time OnGameNet caster Christopher "Montecristo" Mykles also owns a team in this Spring Split, Renegades, and all of these newcomers join beloved NA brands – Team SoloMid, Counter Logic Gaming, and Cloud9 among others – or the more infamous likes of Team Impulse, to create an interesting looking landscape for the upcoming competitive split.

In no particular order, here are the teams of the 2016 North American League Championship Series.

Cloud9

One of the more interesting stories of the 2015 North American Regional Finals, Cloud9 is always a team that one can't completely brush off. Inevitably, they find a way to climb back to the top of North America and make an appearance representing the region at yet another international event.

To say that Cloud9's run through the 2015 Regional Qualifier was improbable is a gross understatement. The team had struggled mightily following mid laner Hai "Hai" Du Lam's departure and supposed retirement after their 1-3 loss to Team SoloMid in the 2015 NA LCS Spring Finals. This was hardly the fault of his replacement, Nicolaj "Jensen" Jensen (previously known as Incarnati0n). Jensen quickly rose from questionable starter to one of North America's best mid laners in the latter part of the summer season through the regional qualifier.

His initial struggle to integrate with his new teammates instead indicated the void in communication that came along with Hai's departure.

Hai's strengths are his poise under pressure and decisive nature. One may stick this under the sometimes misused term of "shot-calling," but they could be more accurately described as highly valuable leadership skills that simply don't come naturally to everyone. Provided that he has a team that will follow his lead, Hai will look somewhat successful, even if his mechanics and actual play are called into question. For example, as a jungler he lingered in lanes, sometimes taking farm from laners, and had lackluster pathing. However, when it came time to make a decision, he did so without hesitation and lead C9 through the regional qualifier.

It remains to be seen as to how many games Hai will start as C9's support – former Gravity support Michael "Bunny FuFuu" Kurylo has been announced as their starter in C9's opener against Immortals – but his continued presence on the team cannot be ignored. Additionally, the acquisition of jungler Lee "Rush" Yoonjae should bring an interesting, and likely aggressive, upgrade to C9's early game.

An obvious area of weakness that C9 neglected to address this past offseason is top laner An "Balls" Le. Darius highlights during Worlds aside, Balls lagged behind his top lane competition throughout the summer, even on once-signature champions like Rumble. Balls doesn't have to be spectacular, but in order for Cloud9 to see success this split, he'll at least have to be serviceable.

Team SoloMid

One of North America's most well-known League of Legends brands, Team SoloMid made significant roster moves this offseason that have both TSM fans and NA enthusiasts salivating.

Most notably, TSM picked up the esteemed former EU support Bora "YellOwStaR" Kim, whose leadership and self-assurance helped steer Fnatic to an 18-0 summer season record as well as a World Championship semifinals appearance. All of his former teammates have nothing but praise for his ability to lead a team and offer a calming presence throughout the high-stress environment of a LAN tournament. By his own admission, YellOwStaR had thought about retirement, but TSM gave him another opportunity to play where he wouldn't have to go through a rebuild. Instead, TSM is – top laner Kevin "Hauntzer" Yarnell aside – a group of talented veterans who look excellent on paper.

Transitioning from another home-grown North American League of Legends brand, former Counter Logic Gaming AD carry Yiliang "Doublelift" Peng headlines this new TSM squad along with TSM's undisputed star, mid laner Søren "Bjergsen" Bjerg.

The typical narrative surrounding Doublelift is that he's an uncompromisingly selfish player who gobbles up resources and requires constant attention. While his selfishness may be a bit overblown, there's no doubt that his CLG's teams inevitably molded around him as a primary resource recipient and carry. Of all players in the summer regular season, he received the highest gold share at 28.8%.

In contrast, Bjergsen too has been categorized as a resource hog. However, this was seemingly born more out of necessity. It's likely that, alongside Doublelift and potentially Hauntzer, he'll transition into more of a secondary or utility carry for his team. This new TSM team can focus on a more top and ADC-focused dual carry threat, using Bjergsen's flexibility to fill whatever role the team needs him to play.

Lastly, Hauntzer cannot be underestimated. Even with Gravity’s underwhelming-at-best team play, Hauntzer managed to salvage teamfight after teamfight, showcasing innate impressive positioning. He still needs help learning the long lane, but with veteran European jungler Dennis "Svenskeren" Johnsen's ability to create pressure and dictate the pace of a game, Hauntzer should receive far more help on TSM than he ever did on Gravity.

Immortals

One team inevitably emerges head and shoulders above the preseason pack due to the nebulous whispers of scrim results. This year, that honor goes to Immortals, the venture capital outfit that bought and rebranded Team 8, revamped their entire roster, and are now many fans' favorite to leap out ahead of the pack come the start of the 2016 NA LCS Spring Split.

Immortals will be relying on the touted top-jungle synergy of former Fnatic duo of breakout rookie top laner Heo "Huni" Seunghoon and junger Kim "Reignover" Yeujin to take them to the top of the standings. The two famously met while trialing for SK Telecom T1 prior to their subsequent signings with Fnatic and were a package deal in their more recent migration to North America. Huni is the headliner, with an affable and charming nature outside of the game and his flashy carry style on the rift. Lingering questions regarding his champion pool remain, but Huni should remain a poster child for the top lane highlight reels due to his aggressive nature. At his side is Reignover, who will be tasked at dictating the pace of Immortals' matches by exerting necessary pressure.

Mid laner Eugene "Pobelter" Park may draw criticism for his lack of flash and perceived inability to carry, but he rarely is completely bulldozed by his lane opponent. For Reignover, this is crucial. While on Fnatic he had Fabian "Febiven" Diepstraten who not only held his own but took control of the lane, opening up the map from the center and allowing Reignover to roam freely. While Pobelter lacks Febiven's playmaking ability, he usually manages to stay resolute against presumably superior opponents and his reliable nature should be something that Reignover can count on.

Another strong pickup for Immortals is former Team Impulse support Adrian "Adrian" Ma. Adrian maintained a notable 80.8% kill participation throughout the 2015 NA LCS Summer Split – third best among North American players – all the while placing the largest amount of wards per minute (1.48) of any player in the summer season. If Adrian synergizes well with Reignover, the two will easily contend for the best jungle-support duo, and likely carry Immortals to a Top 3 finish.

That being said, where things could fall apart for Immortals is in their other bot lane pickup. Of all AD carries last summer, former TSM AD carry Jason "WildTurtle" Tran dealt the third least amount of damage to champions and fourth lowest percentage damage for his team. These statistics are accompanied by an affinity for dying as he had the lion's share of his team's deaths at 23.8% – the worst among the summer’s starting ADCs. Immortals will be tasked with integrating WildTurtle into their game plan while ensuring that his brash positioning isn't a liability.

Counter Logic Gaming

This year marks a true breath of fresh air for the Counter Logic Gaming faithful in that their star AD carry, Doublelift, was released from the team and swiftly landed on the roster of their erstwhile rival, TSM. Entrusted with filling his rather large shoes is former CLG Black AD carry, Trevor "Stixxay" Hayes.

Stixxay won't require as many gold resources as Doublelift, but he may need a bit more help from jungler Jake "Xmithie" Puchero along with his laning partner Zaqueri "Aphromoo" Black. His first professional appearance with the team came at IEM San Jose, where CLG somewhat surprisingly eliminated a young, disorganized Jin Air team in the semifinals before immediately (and somewhat gracelessly) falling to Origen’s more coordinated lineup. At the tournament, he showcased a fair amount of poise under pressure in addition to a more relaxed secondary cleanup carry role. Stixxay won't bully or outduel opponents regularly, but he'll hold his own and his safe playstyle lessens the chance that he'll be a liability, even with his LCS inexperience.

The carry burden now falls to top laner Darshan "Darshan" Upadhyaha (formerly known as ZionSpartan), a role that he seems more than happy to step into following Doublelift's departure. Again, IEM San Jose is an admittedly small sample size, but it showcased a split-pushing CLG with Darshan leading the charge.

Less impressive at IEM was Choi "HuHi" Jaehyun, who fills the mid lane vacancy left by Pobelter, who, as previously mentioned, wasn't a showy star but held mid well as a control point on the map. HuHi's attempts at this have been lackluster and he additionally shows an affinity for odd carry champions – Kindred mid being the most noteworthy – that lend themselves to a higher risk, higher reward outcome.

If this CLG roster fires on all cylinders, expect impressive carry performances from Darshan, playmaking from Aphromoo with Stixxay firing from the backline in teamfights while HuHi takes up the mantle of secondary carry. However, if HuHi continues to be a coin flip in the mid lane, the map could collapse back onto CLG easily, denying Xmithie chances to create pressure. Xmithie was much improved by the end of the 2015 Summer Finals, but has yet to fully silence critics regarding his champion pool, and certainly won't be aided by an aggressive, oft-reckless mid laner.

Team Dignitas

Recipient of massive amounts of offseason ire for their roster moves, Dignitas enter this new season relying on two up-and-coming European talents to form the backbone of their 2016 team: top laner Lennart "Smittyj" Warkus and jungler Thomas "Kirei" Yuen. Key roster departures include top laner Noh "Gamsu" Yeongjin, who is already dazzling European audiences as a new addition to Fnatic, jungler Shin "Helios" Dongjin, and AD carry Jo "CoreJJ" Yongin. The ever-present Danny "Shiphtur" Le remains in the mid lane and support Alan "KiWiKiD" Nguyen is joined by former Team Impulse AD carry Apollo "Apollo" Price.

There's no question that KiWiKiD is the name that Dignitas took the most heat for retaining. His aggressive nature backfires on him more often than not, and his missteps are so spectacularly obvious to audiences that they stick in the mind for seasons to come. It will be up to the much-maligned support to prove his doubters wrong and Apollo is an interesting AD carry choice for KiWiKiD to be paired with, simply because he doesn't play a hard carry or aggressive style. While on Team Impulse, Apollo was the least proactive of his teammates, preferring the cleanup role.

As it stands this roster has an interesting conundrum to solve: who is going to carry?

If carry junglers were in vogue, Dignitas would have fewer problems to worry about going into this season. Kirei showed flashes of brilliance in Dignitas' matches against Qiao Gu at IEM Cologne, making the statement that he is certainly a jungler to watch for in the upcoming NA LCS split. His early pathing shows creativity and promise, but his mid to late game decision-making will require help from his teammates and clear communication – as is typical of fresh junglers in a new professional environment. However, as the game currently functions, Kirei cannot be Dignitas’ primary carry, which leaves the team with the candidates of Smittyj, Shiphtur, and Apollo. Apollo isn't a hard carry, Smittyj showed problems playing the long lane and being patient when necessary – again IEM Cologne is a small sample size – and Shiphtur, for better or for worse, has remained the same for the past two years.

NRG eSports

Led by co-owners of the Sacramento Kings, NRG eSports entered North America with a solid ad campaign, one of the world's strongest mid laners in Lee "GBM" Changseok and a strong support staff that included Origen’s former head coach.

On paper, this roster is intriguing not only because of GBM's presence, but also thanks to former SK Telecom T1 K and Team Impulse top laner Jung "Impact" Eonyeong and former Winterfox and Gravity AD carry Johnny "Altec" Ru.

During his time on Gravity, Altec showcased impressive team fight positioning which slightly decreased by the end of the season, presumably because he didn't trust his teammates. All too often, Altec was overly relied upon to be self-sufficient while additionally digging his team out of early deficits with his team fighting prowess. By the end of the summer split, and in the regional qualifiers that followed, Altec’s play was overly cautious, a habit that NRG will have to break in order to really tap into his natural talent.

Meanwhile, Impact can play a more conservative utility style but is also able to step into a harder carry role with ease. Alongside GBM, NRG have three legitimate carry threats to work with, all of whom possess deep champion pools for their respective positions. This means that, if they can figure out the gold distribution numbers for each iteration of their team dynamic, they could be the best team in North America.

Naturally, this is a tricky thing to do, and will require strong communication in addition to increased presence from jungler Galen "Moon" Holgate, who was sometimes overwhelmed by Challenger opponents like Cloud9 Tempest's (now Echo Fox's) Anthony "Hard" Barkhovtsev. Helping facilitate comms will be support Kevin "KonKwon" Kwon, the lone survivor of Team Coast's original qualifying roster. KonKwon is reportedly incredibly adept at feeding his teammates information, and this will be a tremendous boon for NRG as they work to find their required team synergy.

NRG bought out Team Coast's spot, and a lingering rule requires that three of the five qualifying members must be present on opening day. As a result, Impact and Moon will cede their starting spots to Cristian "Cris" Rosales and Lee "Shrimp" Byeonghoon respectively for the team's first match of the regular season against Renegades.

Echo Fox

On paper, Echo Fox is an interesting experiment. The name that immediately will draw fans' attention is that of veteran European mid laner, Henrik "Froggen" Hansen, previously of Counter Logic Gaming Europe, Alliance, and most recently Elements. A western League of Legends mainstay, the court of public opinion has cast Froggen somewhere between a mid lane god unfortunately tasked with carrying inferior opponents, and a selfish player who refuses to give up his position in the mid lane – and his subsequent farm – in order to help his team.

However, on Echo Fox, he'll be the main carry threat, unless former Team Liquid and TSM substitute AD carry Yuri "KEITH" Jew has a yet unbeknownst hard carry side, or unknown Korean top Park "kfo" Jeonghun turns out to be a stronger prospect than anticipated.

In solo queue, kfo was known for playing carry tops, and Froggen can go for utility waveclear or hard carry depending on what the team needs. KEITH has proven adept at playing a more janitorial style of AD carry, so the only obvious liability for Echo Fox is support Terry "B1G" Chuong (previously known as Baby or Babyeator) who had some mechanical misplays and awkward roams during his time in the NACS.

The glue that could bind Echo Fox together, making them a potential playoff threat, is former C9T jungler Hard, who showed a strong sense of where to be on the map at what time, in order to exert timely pressure or get his lanes ahead. With a reliable veteran mid laner like Froggen, Hard's map will be a bit more open to him, and it's up to the LCS rookie jungler to recognize when his opportunities arise.

Team Liquid

Prior to the start of the season, Team Liquid announced that they would be signing a 10-man roster in the hopes of exploring new avenues that a larger roster can provide – presumably game-to-game substitutions as well as a constant roster to scrim against. It remains to be seen as to whether Team Liquid will use their substitutes effectively, or at all. The most interesting addition to this larger roster is jungler Joshua "Dardoch" Hartnett. An up-and-coming jungler in his own right, Dardoch may be asked to take over for the veteran Christian "IWillDominate" Rivera, who has expressed somewhat of a desire to retire soon.

Team Liquid underwent an interesting experiment last year when they first wooed and then benched former SK Telecom T1 K AD carry Chae "Piglet" Gwangjin. His replacement at the time was KEITH, now of Echo Fox, and the team operated differently depending on which AD carry they chose to field.

When Piglet was on the rift, the entire team revolved around feeding him resources, be they gold, ganks, or peel and protection. In service of keeping Piglet safe, top laner Diego "Quas" Ruiz was placed onto utility or tank champions. However, when Team Liquid fielded KEITH, Quas displayed impressive prowess on more carry-oriented champions, while KEITH was tasked solely with the role of cleanup.

New Team Liquid top laner Samson "Lourlo" Jackson should be a fine fit for what the team wishes to do, which is feed Piglet. As long as Piglet is Liquid's AD carry, the vast majority of resources will likely be given over to him so that he can be the team’s primary damage threat. Supplementing him should be mid laner Kim "FeniX" Jaehoon, who earned accolades for his Azir play last split. Unfortunately, he hasn't shown the same proficiency on any other champion during his tenure on Liquid, becoming a downright liability in teamfights when he falls behind his laning opponent. On the whole, Team Liquid's team fighting last split was rather poor, and this trend will likely continue with their new roster. However, at their best, Liquid should be able to rely on the occasional outplay from one of their carries in order to finish middle of the pack, or potentially break into the top four provided that another team underperforms.

Renegades

If smart, somewhat quirky, branding had a more significant part to play in winning an LCS title, Renegades would well ahead of the North American pack. Even in the challenger scene, when they were known as Misfits, they garnered a good deal of attention, and their rebranding to Renegades took League of Legends Twitter avatars by storm.

Headlining their roster is former Moscow5/Gambit mid laner Alexey "Alex Ich" Ichetovkin along with another veteran presence in former Dignitas jungler Alberto "Crumbzz" Rengifo. In the NACS, Renegades had a fairly risk-averse playstyle, likely due to the sturdiness that these two naturally bring to a team. That being said, it was rare to see one of them completely take over a game.

The key component of Renegades is recently-announced AD carry Aleš “Freeze" Kněžínek, who previously was a highlight on the Copenhagen Wolves, even as his team crumbled around him towards the end of the 2015 EU Summer Split. Freeze managed to boast impressive numbers despite the Wolves’ off-the-rift issues. He should have a bit more to work with on Renegades, specifically in terms of team environment. His laning partner, support Maria "Remilia" Creveling is wonderful on Thresh and Morgana, but there are lingering doubts regarding her champion pool, especially at a higher level of play. Additionally, top laner Oleksii "RF Legendary" Kuziuta is often hit or miss.

A cursory glance at their roster, even with Freeze, places Renegades slightly out of playoff contention, simply due to the wealth of talent on other teams. They'll have to increase their in-game coordination and outsmart their opponents to have a shot.

Team Impulse

There's very little to say regarding Team Impulse this year. Ever since their star mid laner Yu "XiaoWeiXiao" Xian was banned for elo boosting last year, Team Impulse has been on a downward, disorganized spiral and now sports a roster of random pickups, some of whom have never seen competitive play in North America, or their respective home regions. The two most recognizable names are XiaoWeiXiao's replacement mid laner Austin "Gate" Yu, now in the support position, and AD carry Brandon "Mash" Phan. Adding insult to injury is the fact that visa issues will keep some of their starters out for the first week of competitive play, forcing the already lackluster roster to play with emergency substitutes Kenneth "Ken" Tang and Meng "beibei" Zhang in place of Korean imports Kim "Procxin" Seyoung, formerly of MKZ and Japan's DetonatioN FocusMe, and Choi "Pirean" Junsik.

Recently, auto-relegation was removed from the League Championship Series in both Europe and North America. Based on their current assembly of talent, Team Impulse could make a notable case for bringing it back.

Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore esports. Her love for the 2013 KT Rolster Bullets will never die. You can follow her on Twitter.

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