Headlines from North America's offseason were dominated by the entrance of non-endemic power players into what had previously been a more relatively home-grown scene. Brands that had risen alongside the growth of League of Legends as a competitive eSport like Team SoloMid, Counter Logic Gaming, and Cloud9 made way for the buzz around the likes of NRG eSports, Immortals, and Echo Fox. Expectations varied with each announced roster, but excitement levels remained at a constant high. This shot of money and talent was just the perceived cure that North America needed following a poor performance at the 2015 World Championship, where all of the region’s teams failed to exit the group stages.
Last year saw the rise of the hybrid roster, and its subsequent fall in both domestic leagues, and most notably at the 2015 World Championship, thanks to dismal performances from all three Chinese squads (all hybrids). This didn’t deter North American organizations – both incoming and incumbent – from using their maximum amount of import slots in 2015-16. Of all the teams this split, only Counter Logic Gaming entered the season without filling both of their allocated import spots, with mid laner Choi “Huhi” Jae-hyun as their one foreign player. Currently, Dignitas is only using one of their import positions on jungler Thomas “Kirei” Yuen, but had started the season with a European top laner in Lennart “Smittyj” Warkus.
New organizations to the region – the aforementioned Echo Fox, NRG eSports, and Immortals – not only committed to using their two out-of-region allowances but made it a point to build entire rosters around two specific imports of their choosing.
The most noteworthy of these teams was NRG eSports, who purchased their 2016 LCS Spring spot from Team Coast. Funded by the deep pockets of the Sacramento Kings’ co-owners, NRG proceeded to build a roster around top laner Jung “Impact” Eon-yeong and mid laner Lee “GBM” Chang-seok. Impact had prior experience on Team Impulse's hybrid roster, a promising team that failed to make the World Championship following mid laner Yu “XiaoWeiXiao” Xian’s ban for elo-boosting. More notably, Impact was part of the SK Telecom T1 2 team that won the 2013 World Championship.
Unlike Impact, GBM had trudged through seasons of failure before ever finding success. First on CJ Entus Frost and then on the Jin Air Green Wings Falcons, GBM had suffered from a small champion pool coupled with a farm-heavy playstyle that was made to look outdated by his proactive and mobile opponents. It wasn’t until 2015, and an immense amount of practice, that GBM blossomed into a premier mid laner.
GBM and Impact are surrounded by young talent on all sides. Challenger jungler Galen “Moon” Holgate is inexperienced, but showed flashes of untapped potential during his short time on Team Imagine. Johnny “Altec” Ru spent the majority of 2015 on the disorganized teams of Winterfox and Gravity, but showcased top-tier ability in spite of them. His laning partner, Kevin “KonKwon” Kwon is the sole survivor of the Coast purge and currently has the third-highest KDA (3.6) and most wards placed per minute (1.57) of any NA support.
RELATED: The Zilean and Poppy Pairing
In spite of their talent, and said talent’s proven ability to run creative compositions that require in-game communication, NRG often look lost and confused. Instead of taking advantage of opportunities given to them in champion select, they’re sluggish in the early game with an average -957 gold differential at 10 minutes. A large amount of NRG’s issues can be attributed to Moon’s inability to apply early pressure, power-farm until mid and then join the team as more of a skirmishing force with resources, or counter-jungle his opponents out of relevancy. Instead, Moon’s inactivity becomes the team’s inactivity, and NRG simply falls further and further behind, resulting in a slow loss.
No game exemplified the team’s problems quite like Saturday's match against Counter Logic Gaming. CLG could have further pushed their advantages in the early game – Jake “Xmithie” Puchero isn’t exactly the king of early pressure himself – leaving opportunities that NRG could have taken but ignored. NRG chose to sit back passively as CLG deliberately moved their way around the map, advancing forward on the back of top laner Darshan “Darshan” Upadhyaha’s split-pushing Fiora.
NRG's great mystery is how they can appear so in-sync one moment and horrifically disjointed the next. They showcased glimpses of brilliance in Week 2 with a poke composition against Immortals, and later a Week 3 coordinated blanking of Team SoloMid. However, against Team Liquid in Week 3 and CLG on Saturday, none of their players appear to be speaking to one another, and most seem hopelessly confused, making the few brilliant individual plays – like Impact’s Baron steal and knock-up today – go to waste.
While NRG eSports seemingly suffers from more standard communication issues with which nearly all hybrid rosters struggle, Echo Fox hasn’t even had the chance to develop any sort of synergy – strong, poor, or otherwise. Today was Echo Fox’s first outing since Week 1 with their listed starting lineup, as visa issues hampered the team’s ability to field their starting five.
Echo Fox is built around one specific import: Henrik “Froggen” Hansen, a LoL veteran and superstar who has been in the competitive scene since Season 1. Their other foreign slot is occupied by top laner Park “kfo” Jeong-hun, a Korean solo queue player plucked from the Challenger ladder. The team’s most important acquisition may turn out to be jungler Anthony “Hard” Barkhovtsev, whose plays on Cloud9 Tempest were raw but showed a surprising amount of intelligence, particularly regarding where to apply pressure and when. With a strong laner like Froggen holding down the center of the map, Hard will have even more freedom of movement to impact his other lanes, or further Froggen’s advantages.
On Saturday, Echo Fox looked oddly synchronized in playstyle, but slightly off in timing — which is to be expected from a roster whose professional debut came weeks ago and is only now returning to the stage. Multiple teamfights could have gone far more heavily in Echo Fox’s favor had Hard waited a few seconds longer or kfo come in a few seconds sooner. In spite of this, Echo Fox came out ahead in these skirmishes regardless with their players showing that they know exactly how to play fights. This is incredibly promising for Echo Fox, although their inability to field their starting roster for weeks means that they’re starting with a significant deficit. In a field where the middle of the pack is already ahead, Echo Fox will have to go on a tear just to avoid relegation. Fortunately, Saturday's win over Renegades proved that they likely have the talent. It remains to be seen as to whether they have the time.
Last, but hardly least, is Immortals. North America’s currently undefeated darlings, Immortals are steered by the core of former Fnatic top lane and jungle duo Heo “Huni” Seung-hoon and Kim “Reignover” Yeu-jin. The sturdy Eugene “Pobelter” Park has looked strong throughout this season in the mid lane, and much-maligned former TSM AD carry Jason “WildTurtle” Tran is steadied by support Adrian “Adrian” Ma.
Immortals’ greatest strength is that they are seemingly well-aware of their own individual weaknesses, but are already communicating on a notably higher level than any other roster in North America. Reignover is indubitably the best jungler in the region right now, and he primarily uses his stifling pressure to get Huni ahead. Adrian is tasked with taking care of WildTurtle on the disengage and healing supports of Janna and Soraka. This allows WildTurtle to get away with some overly-aggressive positioning that would have killed him otherwise, as shown in their game against Dignitas.
Additionally, because Immortals are able to communicate so well, they’re also one of the few teams in the region that are able to act decisively. Making quick movements as a unit is the primary reason that Immortals excel at objective trading while opponents often fail to keep up with even their most obvious rotations.
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.