Inspiring isn’t the word that springs to mind when thinking about this week’s North American League Championship Series matches. With relatively poor performances on the part of NA teams at the Season X IEM World Championship, fans at least had thoughts of their top teams Immortals, or even Cloud9 from which to draw strength. That is, until Week 8.
The impending threats of relegations or playoff seeding failed to galvanize more than a few teams this weekend. North America may have become the world’s proverbial punching bag, and their playoff race is shaping up to be just as disorganized as their play on the rift. A few more teams qualified for postseason spots in spite of the mess, and only a week remains before the road to the finals in Las Vegas begins.
Roses really smell like –
Immortals remain at the top of North America and clinched a first-round playoff bye this past week with their Day 1 win over NRG eSports. They also are still in the running to become the most dominant team in NA's history over 2013 summer's Cloud9 (25-3, 89 percent win rate).
The question remains as to what Immortals’ overall run means in the grand scheme of things, especially considering their Day 2 game against Dignitas. By grace of Dignitas’ inability to recognize when they should push minion waves and poke turrets without engaging rather than siege with a full 5v5 initiation onto the opposing team, Immortals were handed their fifteenth win of the season. When asked on broadcast about the game after their surprising win, support Adrian “Adrian” Ma simply said, “We didn’t even know what would happen that game, we don’t know what went wrong.”
It’s a polite way of saying that they were gifted a victory, and while there’s something to be said about an ability to capitalize on opportunity, Dignitas all but had the game won until they misplayed a top inhibitor turret siege. Immortals have dominated NA due to their overwhelming amount of communication and overall team synergy, but cracks are beginning to show — particularly when jungler Kim “Reignover” Yeu-jin is unable to apply early pressure. Dignitas jungler Thomas “Kirei” Yuen always appeared to be right with Reignover, stymying some of his pressure and turning his ganks into favorable situations for Dignitas. Top laner Heo “Huni” Seung-hoon also has yet to play a tank this split — Cho’gath aside — and his oft-squishy damage dealers have recently become greater targets for Immortals’ opponents. They haven’t been fully punished for this with a loss since Counter Logic Gaming neat them, but Week 8 did little to assuage fears that Immortals play style won’t be exploited by other NA LCS teams in the future.
Their next incarnation
There’s no doubt that Nicolaj “Jensen” Jensen is on a tear, the likes of which haven’t been seen in North America since Søren “Bjergsen” Bjerg’s first split on a 22-6 Team SoloMid team in 2014 Spring. His team inevitably finds a way to set up an advantageous skirmish, and Jensen cleans up, almost always ahead in lane prior to fights breaking out. He averages a 4.5 CS differential over his opponents at 10 minutes, which has translated into an average of 207 gold in the same time. Jensen tops all NA players in damage per minute at 695, and deals nearly a third of Cloud9’s total damage. In spite of having a lower kill participation than most NA mids (72.2 percent) Jensen’s early laning leads are a huge part of Cloud9’s winning record this split, as he joins the team with item and resource advantages.
Cloud9 find a way to win, but it’s all-too-often without wielding their team compositions as intended. Against Renegades on Saturday, they ran a poke composition around Jensen’s Varus and AD carry Zachary “Sneaky” Scuderi’s Corki, yet failed to take more than three turrets with it prior to 48 minutes. Instead, they continuously scrapped with Renegades, chipping away at their map advantage through teamfights.
With that being said, how much does this matter for Cloud9’s outlook going into the NA LCS playoffs and possibly beyond?
Believing in Cloud9’s chances at the NA LCS title is understandable. Believing in this team’s chances at an international competition is something else entirely. A European or Korean team would be able to punish Cloud9 early without making the same back timing mistakes and minion wave mismanagement shown by Renegades that eventually turned the tide in Cloud9’s favor when fights broke out.
Returning from a disappointing finish at IEM Katowice, Counter Logic Gaming looked sluggish this past week. They dropped their first Week 8 game to Team Liquid on the back of an odd Yasuo pick for Darshan “Darshan” Upadhyaha which was supposedly a counter to Nautilus in lane that obviously didn’t pay off. Additionally, other NA teams are beginning to fight back against CLG by forcing them to teamfight rather than spreading opponents on the map with split-pushing or global pressure.
CLG was previously seen as North America’s greatest hope heading into IEM Katowice, but exited the tournament early due to their own misplays and inability to recognize when to press their advantages. Much like Immortals’ Week 8, CLG’s most recent performances do little to assure fans and NA proponents that the region is strong enough to compete at an international level.
It’s difficult to talk about Team SoloMid, as their most significant problems are obviously internal, and impossible for an outsider to understand. That being said, it’s easy to see that this team still isn’t working together or communicating well. While many have pointed the finger at support Bora “YellOwStaR” Kim, he’s only the most obvious indication that TSM's players are either not talking to each other or talking over one another as nearly all of his initiations go without any followup. The team also shifted from placing the majority of the carry burden on mid laner Bjergsen to AD carry Yiliang “Doublelift” Peng, which hasn’t worked out as well as they had hoped. While Bjergsen’s Lulu is incredibly strong, it also means that he’s thrust into a more supportive role, and Doublelift has been unable to translate the vast amount of resources that TSM has given him into team victories.
Owner Andy “Reginald” Dinh hasn’t hesitated with making roster changes in these types of situations in the past, which creates an odd atmosphere around this specific TSM team. They picked up the players that they wanted in the offseason, but something still isn’t clicking and time grows short for this team to pull together. Yet, in spite of their communication issues, they’re still fourth in the region with a guaranteed playoff spot, which may buy this specific roster a bit more time to gel.
Just soldier on with it
After weeks of losing passively without communicating with each other, NRG eSports finally picked things up following the two week LCS break. Not only did AD carry Johnny “Altec” Ru return to the starting lineup, but jungler Galen “Moon” Holgate finally appeared assertive and decisive on the LCS stage. His ganks didn’t always work out, but he applied pressure consistently and even scored First Blood for the first time this season. He later had a key Baron steal from TL following an NRG mistake, firmly placing the game momentum in his team’s favor while mid laner Lee “GBM” Cheong-seok cleaned up the low-health TL members on Zed.
Moon’s breakthrough comes at a crucial time, as NRG makes their final playoff push. Their win over Team Liquid means a split against one of their closest opponents in the standings, and they only need one more win to clinch a playoff spot. Naturally, there are still some kinks to work out. Since the team took this long for its individuals to coordinate with one another, there are still obvious moments where the team are not on the same page and calls are split. The most egregious example of this was top laner Jung “Impact” Eon-yeong’s ill-fated tier-two mid turret dive against Immortals on Saturday, but other erroneous decisions – specifically a fight at the tier-two top turret initiated again by Impact – could have easily cost them the game. However, even the most obvious of their miscommunications this weekend were far preferable to watching the team passively lose as they have in weeks past.
With Week 9 matches against Counter Logic Gaming and Team SoloMid, NRG technically has a tougher schedule – according to win/loss record anyways – than both Team Liquid and Echo Fox. This team has creativity and personality in spades, all that remains is for them to actually bring those traits to the Rift on a consistent basis.
When thinking of Team Liquid, top laner Samson “Lourlo” Jackson isn’t likely the first player that comes to mind. Lourlo has spent the majority of the season on tanky top laners like Nautilus, Poppy, and Gnar with the occasional Maokai and Tahm Kench. His one outing on a more carry-oriented damage dealer came on Quinn in a loss to Cloud9. For Team Liquid’s assortment of players, putting Lourlo on tanks suits the team perfectly. Not only does it provide a strong frontline for star AD carry Chae “Piglet” Gwang-jin, but it also allows carry jungler Joshua “Dardoch” Hartnett to play the likes of Lee Sin, Graves, and Elise.
On Sunday, Lourlo’s champion pool was specifically targeted by NRG eSports as the team banned out Poppy and first-picked Nautilus. They then chose Trundle on second-rotation, eliminating another tanky top that could have been a possibility for Lourlo. This left Lulu for Lourlo, which made him a non-factor in most fights, especially when compared to NRG’s Impact on Nautilus. Team Liquid has been a team on the rise lately, thanks in large part to Dardoch’s overwhelming map pressure and Piglet’s ability to fire from the backline. Without Lourlo comfortable on a tank champion, Team Liquid looks a lot shakier.
Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.