The North American competitive landscape has been shaped by many things in 2016, including another influx of foreign talent, Immortals’ undefeated streak, and most unfortunately, visa issues. With the first half of the 2016 North American League Championship Series Spring Split complete, recognition is due to those standout players, stories, highlights, and lowlights of the season to date.
Narrative of the Split: Visa Issues
This past week, Echo Fox played with their full roster for the first time since Week 1. Plagued by visa issues for legacy mid laner Henrik “Froggen” Hansen and rookie Korean top laner Park “kfo” Jeong-hun, the team has had a carousel of substitutes from the NA challenger team Ember and their roster rotations have been rivalled only by the revolving door that is Team Impulse's top lane. In Week 1, Echo Fox bested the presumed worst team in North America, Team Impulse, but lost to Hai “Hai” Du Lam’s Cloud9 squad in their second match.
Unable to assemble a starting roster for their first Week 2 game, a match against NRG eSports, Echo Fox was forced to forfeit and later assembled a piecemeal roster that included multiple NACS players.
In hindsight, that NRG game will forever be undecided, especially within the context of NRG’s recent downward spiral. Both teams would have preferred to actually play, and this is a black mark on their respective records. That game was an automatic win that NRG may feel like they did not deserve and an involuntary loss where Echo Fox would have surely wanted to, at the very least, go down swinging. Meeting on the rift for the first time in Week 5, Echo Fox's full roster upset NRG. Froggen and kfo were pivotal in the win, particularly kfo who repeatedly took advantage of NRG's poor positioning and landed exquisite Malphite ultimates that turned the tide of the game in Echo Fox’s favor.
Before crowning Echo Fox as a playoff-caliber team, their strength of schedule is necessary context. In their first week, they beat Team Impulse, who are 4-6 heading into Week 6, the last-place Renegades, and a spiralling NRG eSports. Yet questions remain regarding Echo Fox and just how much of an impact their roster inconsistencies played not only for their playoff hopes but the overall competitive fabric of the entire 2016 NA LCS Spring Split. Echo Fox barely lost to both Team Liquid and Team SoloMid, games that now seem wholly winnable with Froggen and kfo in the starting lineup. This is naturally all speculation; however, such questions create somewhat of a dark cloud over the season as a whole. There’s little doubt that the standings would be different had Echo Fox started their full roster throughout the first five weeks.
Echo Fox aren’t the only team that have grappled with visa woes. The aforementioned Team Impluse saw Austin “Gate” Yu play three different positions before settling into his support role while TiP was still in the process of bringing on jungler Kim “Procxin” Se-young and mid laner Choi “Pirean” Jun-sik. Renegades played without starting AD carry Aleš "Freeze" Kněžínek and Team Dignitas have been unable to put coach Barento “Razleplasm” Mohammed on the stage since Week 2.
The best-of-one format already makes the North American landscape a volatile one – the new-look best-of-three summer split cannot come soon enough – as anything can happen on any given day. They lend themselves to multiple ties within the standings and present a far murkier picture of a team's respective strengths than a best-of-two or best-of-three points system would offer. This volatility is compounded by visa issues for multiple teams, and there are numerous questions as to how certain squads would have performed throughout the first half of the split if they had been able to start their intended rosters.
Runner up: Immortals’ undefeated run
Many words have furiously been typed lauding Immortals’ undefeated raze of North America. Many more have been split speculating the manner and date of their presumed fall. Aided by the existing synergy between top laner Heo “Huni” Seung-hoon and jungler Kim “Reignover” Yeu-jin – both of whom are on a 28-0 regular season win streak dating back to their 18-0 split with Fnatic – Immortals aren’t without flaws, but no NA team has been able to exploit those flaws well enough to break their overwhelming unity. Where NRG eSports and Team SoloMid's high-profile rosters have struggled to gel, Immortals hit the ground running with a surprising amount of coordination. The narrative of the second half of the 2016 Spring Split not only becomes "who is going to stop Immortals?" but "can anyone stop Immortals?"
Game of the Split: NRG eSports vs. Immortals, Week 2, Day 2
Immortals are indubitably the best team in North America, and one of their more interesting matches came in Week 2 against NRG eSports. Anyone who watched NRG’s matches against Counter Logic Gaming and Echo Fox this past week may be left scratching their head as to how this NRG squad is the same team as the one who resigned themselves to passively losing in Week 5. Of all the games this split, this one marks the best example of two teams loading up onto the rift with specific compositions in mind, and one besting the other in execution. Huni’s Lissandra flanks are of particular note in this matchup, as is the vision that Immortals secured to make them happen.
Runner-up: NRG eSports vs. Team SoloMid, Week 3, Day 2
This game marked the international coming-out party for the Zilean/Poppy combination, and remains the best showing of this particular composition to date.
RELATED: The Zilean and Poppy Pairing
Popcorn-fest of the Split: Immortals vs. Cloud9, Week 5, Day 2
At the 2015 World Championship Final, caster Jun Jeon-yung stated that SK Telecom T1 would certainly win the championship, but that their success would be bloodied by the then-KOO Tigers. In similar fashion, Immortals’ undefeated streak continued after their match against Cloud9 in Week 5, but with their KDAs and statistics slightly battered. This game has constant cross-map skirmishes, a stunning Kalista from Immortals’ AD carry Jason “WildTurtle” Tran, and the competitive debut of Jhin, the Virtuoso from Cloud9’s Zachary “Sneaky” Scuderi.
Runner-up: Renegades vs. Team SoloMid, Week 4, Day 2
This game is oddly fascinating. It’s difficult to recommend on any specific merit, but once you start watching, their eyes will likely remained glued to the screen from start to finish. Highlights include a 5/3/10 Draven performance from Renegades AD carry Freeze, whose damage topped all other players in a losing effort.
Best of the Split By Position
Top Lane: Heo “Huni” Seung-hoon (Immortals)
Of all of the Immortals players touted as best at their position this split, Huni's success is somewhat reliant on his team. He receives the bulk of early jungle attention to give him advantages which are then used to apply pressure elsewhere – pushing lanes or flanking for team fights. In spite of the aid he receives, Huni is still the best top laner in North America. He dishes out over a quarter of his team’s total damage — second-most on his team to AD carry WildTurtle. Huni is completely at home in the current meta and has added Fiora, Quinn, Graves, and Lissandra to his repertoire. Last year, Huni came under fire for his champion pool, particularly at the World Championship where he defaulted frequently to Riven. His recent success on meta champions while holding on to pocket picks like Cho’Gath and Ekko indicate a fair amount of growth, assuaging fears that he wouldn’t be able to adapt to changing meta shifts.
Huni’s statistics across the board are impressive. He leads all NA tops in damage dealt to champions per minute (567) and percentage of damage dealt (25.4 percent). He also has the highest KDA of any NA top laner at 4.2 and the highest earned gold per minute at 296.7. Most impressively, Huni does this all while using a percentage less of his team’s gold than he did while on Fnatic last summer. WildTurtle receives the most gold on Immortals with 25 percent, followed by mid laner Eugene “Pobelter” Park at 22.7 percent. Huni nets 21 percent of Immortals’ gold which places him solidly in the middle of the pack for NA tops. While Huni may never been seen low-econ, there’s no doubt that he’s learned to do more for his team with fewer resources than he received last year.
Runner-up: Kevin “Hauntzer” Yarnell (Team SoloMid)
For the first few weeks, Team SoloMid was completely lost in the lane swap situation, setting their top laner Hauntzer woefully behind his opponents. In spite of these early setbacks, Hauntzer currently has the second-highest CS differential at 10 minutes (4.0), the second-highest KDA (4.0), and second-highest average earned gold per minute (254.6) of all North American tops. Glimpses of Hauntzer’s team fighting prowess were visible last year during his time on Gravity, and on TSM Hauntzer almost always manages to make his presence felt regardless of how far behind he was in lane.
Jungle: Kim “Reignover” Yeu-jin (Immortals)
Reignover is not only the best jungler in North America, but is currently the best individual player in the region, and the 2016 Spring Split MVP. Sitting at a 13.2, Reignover is tied for the best KDA in the entire region with fellow Immortal Adrian “Adrian” Ma. In 10 games, Reignover has only died nine times, and while his kill participation of 69.7 percent is middling for NA junglers, there’s no doubting Reignover’s gigantic footprint on the map. Opponents have to worry about Reignover both affecting their lanes and stealing their jungle resources, and his stifling presence is immediately felt. Reignover has a whopping 90 percent First Blood participation rate – which was 100 percent until this past weekend – and is an average of 4.5 creeps ahead of his jungle adversaries at 10 minutes. He the primary reason why Immortals take the most overall jungle farm of any team in North America at 58 percent, and have the highest gold difference at 15 minutes at 2885, doubling that of their closest opponent, Cloud9 with 1288.
Continuing his affinity for odd, slightly off-meta pocket picks as seen in Europe last year, Reignover has hopped onto Rengar and Olaf with success. He has also taken Poppy into the jungle, giving Immortals yet another flexible pick to add to their arsenal. In order to attack and best Immortals, teams will first have to somehow stop Reignover’s early pressure, all tall order considering that the jungler is on track towards a career split.
Runner-up: Joshua “Dardoch” Hartnett (Team Liquid)
With a whopping 81.6 kill participation, there’s little doubt that Dardoch has made a significant impact on Team Liquid since replacing Christain “IWillDominate” Rivera following his retirement. An aggressive jungler, Dardoch’s mere presence forces teams to view Team Liquid differently and play around his early pressure. Dardoch has dealt both the highest amount (419) and percentage (20.9) of any jungler making him impossible to ignore. Look for him to continue to be a threat as Team Liquid makes their bid for a playoff spot in the second half of the split.
Mid Lane: Lee “GBM” Chang-seok (NRG eSports)
NRG eSports have had a rough past few weeks, with the team seemingly growing more uncoordinated by the week. Of all North American teams, NRG has the second-lowest gold difference at 15 minutes (-941) and has struggled to provide any semblance of early game pressure or synergy. With that in mind, their mid laner GBM is still regularly 27 gold ahead of his opponents at 10 minutes. Hardly an impressive objective number – in the middle of the pack for North American mids – GBM’s team context shows an active fight against NRG’s early game woes with a positive contribution. This is in spite of numerous losing lane matchups and next to no jungle help. At NRG’s highest heights, GBM has been a deadly Zilean, landing more double-stuns against opponents than any other player on that champion to date, and a 9/3/5 LeBlanc. On top of this, GBM has dealt the highest amount of damage (675) and percentage of damage (38.5 percent) of any overall player in the 2016 NA Spring Split thus far.
Runner-up: Nicolaj “Jensen” Jensen (Cloud9)
A steadfast presence in the mid lane regardless of who Cloud9 is starting for their support, Jensen accounts for the most damage per minute on his team (602), fourth of all NA LCS mids. In Cloud9’s wins, Jensen has been stunning, including back to back impressive Orianna performances in Week 4 that included a sub-20 minute victory against Renegades.
AD carry: Chae “Piglet” Gwang-jin (Team Liquid)
Even when Team Liquid appear utterly lost, Piglet was putting up massive performances including a 6/1/10 stat line Lucian that almost single-handedly carried his team to victory against Team SoloMid. Win or lose, Piglet has been consistently playing at a high level, doing his utmost to assure a TL victory with moments of brilliance that he’s not shown since late 2013-early 2014 on SK Telecom T1 K. Nearly everything Team Liquid does goes through both Dardoch and Piglet, who have the third-best and fourth-best kill participation percentages of any player in the entire league at 82.5 and 81.6 respectively.
Piglet has the second-highest KDA of all AD carries in North America at 6.1 and is third in damage per minute at 601. While Immortals’ WildTurtle and Team SoloMid’s Yiliang “Doublelift” Peng have higher statistics across multiple categories, Piglet has had less overall help from his team and a significantly less-vetted supporting cast, including a new jungler in Dardoch and a new laning partner in Matthew “Matt” Elento. While these have proven to be upgrades for Team Liquid overall, Piglet adjusted quickly, and did not allow any changes to affect his in-game play.
Runner-up: Jason “WildTurtle” Tran (Immortals)
WildTurtle’s runner-up status is likely contentious, as the aforementioned Immortals AD carry is statistically better in many respects to Piglet. However, many of WildTurtle’s statistics are a result of his and Adrian’s synergy as well as Immortals’ overall success. Keeping this in mind, there’s no doubt that WildTurtle improved this past offseason and has shown fewer positioning errors in team fights. He’s also been caught out far less in his team’s objective rotations, and his laning shows an impressive fierceness that was previously absent during his time on TSM last year. WildTurtle appears to slowly but surely be learning how to wield his aggressiveness without paying for it with his life.
Support: Adrian “Adrian” Ma (Immortals)
A true Immortal until his first death in their match against NRG eSports in Week 2, Adrian has had a career season thus far, showing why he was so highly thought of following his time in the eSports program at RMU.
Adrian has shown next to nothing aside from his Janna and Soraka in the first half of the Spring Split. No team challenged him to pick any other champion until Cloud9 in their recent Week 5 clash, and his Braum still aided WildTurtle throughout the AD carry’s more aggressive movements. Adrian and WildTurtle are a coordinated and united front, their statistics all the better for it with the highest KDAs in their respective positions and Adrian tied with fellow Immortal Reignover for best KDA of any NA player this split. He additionally has the third-highest wards placed per minute of any NA support at 1.21.
With contributions best seen in action, Adrian’s team fight positioning and ability usage are often peerless, particularly on Janna. He has saved his teammates countless times and turned the tide of fights in Immortals’ favor, a crucial component of their aggressive gameplan.
Runner-up: Zaqueri “Aphromoo” Black (Counter Logic Gaming)
Always a playmaker, Aphromoo additionally does the most damage per minute (178) of any NA support. Like Adrian, part of Aphromoo's prowess shows in AD carry Trevor "Stixxay" Hayes' performance, which has been consistently strong throughout CLG's successful first half of this split.
Bold prediction for the remainder of the split: Echo Fox will make playoffs
It wouldn’t be much fun without a prediction for which one can be continuously be mocked at split’s end.
Yes, Echo Fox has only played a total of four games with their actual starting roster, and yes, their three wins are against two of the worst teams in the league and a rock-bottom NRG. However, the assembly of talent on this team works surprisingly well together. Kfo’s initiation sense is good. Even when his engages came a bit too early or too late, his positioning in team fights showed thought. Jungler Anthony "Hard" Barkhovtsev has had surprisingly good statistics, including the second-highest KDA of all junglers at 4.2 and a strong kill participation of 70 percent. The crown jewel of this Echo Fox team, Froggen, has a 9.5 KDA in his four games played and a whopping 84.4 percent kill participation.
Echo Fox has a long way to go, but with obvious weaknesses visible in their closest opponents in the standings – Team Impulse, NRG eSports, and Team Liquid – along with the volatility of best-of-ones, it’s not inconceivable that Echo Fox will make the postseason, even with the recency bias talking.
Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore eSports. She has thoroughly enjoyed covering NA this split thus far. You can follow her on Twitter.