“The best hope for North America is . . .”
Whichever team name appears at the end of this sentence, regardless of year or event, always seems to somehow falter. Whether their predicted victory was simply buoyed by fan frenzy, or their more legitimate strength bested unexpectedly, North America’s lack of success at international events has become somewhat of a running joke in the League of Legends community. Since 2013 and the distinct separation of the LoL eSports world by specific regional boundaries, North America has pinned their hopes on Cloud9 at two World Championships — and briefly a third, until they lost their remaining three games after a 3-0 start in 2015 — along with older NA mainstays Team SoloMid and Counter Logic Gaming.
This year, North America sends the two latter teams to the IEM Season X World Championship in the hopes of a similar, uplifting tale as the IEM Season IX World Championship, which saw NA heroes Team SoloMid sweep China’s Team WE 3-0 in a final that no one had predicted.
Team SoloMid’s Unlikely Season IX Championship
There was only one team expected to win the IEM Season IX World Championship in Katowice last year: Korea’s GE Tigers. The Tigers had unexpectedly swept through the first round robin of League of Legends Champions Korea Spring 2015 without dropping a series, and were shoo-ins for the IEM championship according to nearly every analyst and even fan, regardless of team. On the opposite end of pre-tournament expectations was China’s Team WE, the last-place husk of what had once been one of the LoL Pro League’s greatest teams.
At that time, TSM were first place with an 11-3 in record the 2015 NA LCS Spring regular season. Placed in Group B with CJ Entus, Gambit Gaming, and Team WE, TSM easily exited the group as its primary winner, earning a semifinal against Taiwan’s Yoe Flash Wolves. Team WE was somewhat surprisingly the second team to exit Group B and faced the GE Tigers in what most assumed would be a quick 2-0 blowout by the Korean team. However, Team WE managed to take advantage of the one area where they had any sort of competitive edge: the jungle. Lee “Spirit” Da-yoon outperformed Lee “Lee” Ho-jin (later called “Hojin”) and carried his inferior team to victory against what was presumably the best team in the world at the time.
This knocked out TSM’s most formidable adversary in the tournament, and set them up for a finals against Team WE, a team which they had already dealt with in the group stages. TSM had done their homework for WE, and proceeded to ban out or pick away Spirit’s Nidalee — the champion on which he could solo carry the hardest — while focusing on deep vision in game to keep track of his jungle paths. This neutralized Spirit, who was WE’s largest carry threat, resulting in a 3-0 victory for TSM, and North America’s first international victory at a tournament with Korean teams since 2011 when Chicks Dig Elo won the World Cyber Games which was attended by NaJin e-mFire.
TSM in 2016
Many things changed in North America’s competitive landscape in the 2015-16 offseason, as larger sponsors and venture capital outfits entered the scene with fresh brands and new teams. Some, like Immortals, have taken NA by storm while others, like NRG eSports, have shown a lack of coordination and communication. TSM has never been shy about importing foreign players, and has made a habit of doing so in order to stay on top of the region. One of their most notable acquisitions, Ham “Lustboy” Jang-sik, left the team prior to 2016 Spring in order to become a part of Longzhu Gaming’s coaching staff in Korea. Their headlining import, Danish mid laner Søren “Bjergsen” Bjerg, became the foundation for their 2016 iteration which includes former Gravity top laner Kevin “Hauntzer” Yarnell, former SK Gaming jungler Dennis “Svenskeren” Johnsen, former CLG AD carry Yiliang “Doublelift” Peng and former Fnatic support Bora “YellOwStaR” Kim.
On paper, it’s the perfect roster, provided that the team distributes their resources wisely between primary carries Bjergsen and Doublelift. In practice, the team has shown signs of promise, but has generally underperformed in comparison to their own expectations. In YellOwStaR’s introduction video, he reiterates that this is a team that not only wants to win the NA LCS title, but be competitive on an international level, unlike the vast majority of their NA predecessors. They enter this tournament fresh off of one of their worst showings, a Week 7 drubbing at the hands of Team Liquid.
It’s difficult to pinpoint TSM’s exact problem, or several problems, from an outsider’s perspective, simply because they appear to be communication and dynamic-based rather than any one specific person. Individually, some of TSM’s players are having a strong split. Hauntzer has been a steady presence, in spite of early team struggles that put him behind in a laneswap, and has the second-best CS per minute (7.4), and third-best damage per minute (388) of any top laner in the region. AD carry Doublelift has been statistically strong with the highest damage per minute of any player in the 2016 NA LCS Spring at 688, outperforming the likes of Cloud9’s mid laner Nicolaj “Jensen” Jensen and TSM’s former AD carry Jason “WildTurtle” Tran. Doublelift also has the highest CS difference at 10 minutes with 5.9. This last statistic is a good indicator of where Doublelift’s priorities lie: in lane.
TSM has made it the team’s job to try and play around this as best they can, which seemingly handicaps YellOwStaR. What made YellOwStaR so successful on Fnatic last year, and in years past, is his roaming coupled with an intelligent mind for the game. TSM’s more democratic approach to shotcalling likely means that his voice is lost, which takes away one of his greatest strengths. He and Doublelift looked specifically uncoordinated in the aforementioned Team Liquid game, both dying early and often without jungle help. For his part, Svenskeren was previously known as a more aggressive carry jungler, but seems to be lost on this new TSM team.
TSM still has time to learn together, possibly not for this tournament specifically, but for their future in the NA LCS. After three abysmal laneswap performances in the beginning of the season, they learned and adapted so Hauntzer is no longer stuck woefully behind from the start of a game. They’re a team of veterans with the capacity to adjust, yet hopes are not high for this iteration of TSM at IEM Katowice this year.
Taking the opposite approach to TSM in the 2015-16 offseason was Counter Logic Gaming. Following a disappointing performance at the 2015 World Championship where the team failed to make it out of what was widely-considered to be the easiest group, CLG released their star AD carry Doublelift on Oct. 31 2015. This came as a shock to many, as Doublelift had been the face of the CLG brand since 2011, with his image carrying further than even founding member George “HotshotGG” Georgallidis. Additionally mid laner Eugene “Pobelter” Park was listed as a substitute for Choi “Huhi” Jae-hyun, swapping their Summer 2015 roles. Pobelter left the team shortly afterwards and landed on the now first-place Immortals, while Huhi has been inconsistent for the team ever since.
Counter Logic Gaming’s first tournament together was IEM Season X San Jose, where they surprisingly made the finals with their new roster. Stixxay performed admirably at his first-ever professional event with CLG making it all the way to the finals before falling to Europe’s Origen. In addition to Stixxay’s debut, CLG at San Jose showcased how the gold distribution for the team post-Doublelift era was about to shift. Previously, the majority of CLG’s gold was given to Doublelift who received 28.8 percent of the team’s gold throughout Summer 2015, and 27.7 percent during the playoffs, the highest of all NA ADCs in both cases. San Jose gave a sneak peek at how the team would develop in 2016, with Stixxay taking more of a backseat to top laner Darshan “Darshan” Upadhyaha.
Currently, the team splits their resources fairly evenly between Darshan (21.8 percent), Huhi (23.1 percent), and Stixxay (24.4 percent, the third-lowest of all NA AD carries). CLG’s team is built on smart map movements and overall macro play. No team in North America aside from Immortals understands how to trade objectives as well as CLG, and they rarely lose something without taking another resource on the map in return. Additionally, they tend to spread opponents across the map with a 4-1, or most recently a 1-3-1, spitpush centered around Darshan and his array of carry tops.
Unlike TSM, CLG is coming off of a fantastic Week 7 prior to this tournament with a good deal of confidence and momentum in their favor. The team’s upward trend began in Week 6 against the weaker opponents of Team Impulse and Renegades. In these matches, CLG began to push their early advantages more, rather than wait and patiently check off every objective from their list. A team already well-aware of objective trading, CLG instantly became a more formidable opponent by further recognizing the openings that adversaries were inadvertently giving them.
Additionally, jungler Jake “Xmithie” Puchero showed off his more aggressive side with strong performances on Nidalee and Gragas. Using these games as a springboard, CLG put Xmithie on Udyr in their Week 7 game against Immortals and executed a strategy focused on shutting down Immortals’ jungler Kim “Reignover” Yeu-jin and top laner Heo “Huni” Seung-hoon. Aiding Xmithie was support Zaqueri "aphromoo" Black, who roamed and harassed Reignover in his own territory, delaying his progress. They then set up a 1-3-1 splitpush while Huni’s Quinn had been set behind far enough that he couldn’t out-duel Darshan’s Fiora or Xmithie’s Udyr. CLG brought out the Udyr again in their second Week 7 match against Cloud9, besting them as well and taking sole possession of second place in the NA LCS. Both matches are important to CLG’s evolution, as it shows them finally able to match proactive opponents with an equal amount of aggression that is more importantly tempered with discipline and strategy.
Holding out for an NA Hero
North America’s chances of winning this tournament are surprisingly brighter than last-year’s outlook. With SK Telecom T1 sending their substitute jungler Kang “Blank” Sun-gu, Fnatic struggling to integrate Spirit into their lineup, and the Qiao Gu Reapers a bit of a questionmark following their 0-2 defeat to Royal Never Give Up last week, many have chosen CLG as a likely semifinalist from the more difficult Group B.
Meanwhile, TSM has an oddly equal chance of making it out of their group, primarily due to the fact that it’s a group of teams with similar problems along with Korean challenger team ESC Ever. Like TSM, Origen is a group of veteran players seemingly struggling with internal issues rather than in-game prowess. Similarly, RNG is a loose collection of strong individual players that does well because support Cho "Mata" Se-hyeong yells at them. In the best-of-one group format, anything can happen.
These chances become slightly slimmer depending on opponents if CLG or TSM make the semifinals. They then will have to beat their adversaries in a best of three, which will prove more difficult, especially for TSM who has looked so variable from one game to the next.
Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore eSports. You can follow her on Twitter.