Emily Rand's NA LCS Roundup: On talent and growth

by theScore Staff Mar 21 2016
Thumbnail image courtesy of Riot Games/lolesports / NA LCS Spring 2016 / Riot Games

The arguments against the best-of-one round robin format are many, but nothing underlines how obnoxious the setup truly is like the complex web of tiebreakers possible at season’s end. Entering their final day of best of one series, the 2016 North American League Championship Series Spring had 10 possible tiebreakers on the table with only first and seventh place locked in by Immortals and Echo Fox, respectively. In the end, it turned out that NA only required one tiebreaker between Renegades and Team Impulse to decide the eighth and ninth-place spots.

Eschewing their potential tiebreakers were both Team Liquid and Team SoloMid — two teams in the middle of the pack, fighting for fourth through sixth place on the last day of the split. They’ve had divergent paths through this season with TSM banking on known and vetted talent for all five of their positions, while Liquid took a chance on three LCS rookies.

Team SoloMid’s Paper Perfect Roster

Time and time again across all regions major and minor, gathering the presumed best players on a single roster to form a “super team” does not work out. Currently, Team SoloMid stands as one of two obvious examples — Korea’s Longzhu Gaming being the other — of a failed roster that seemed unbeatable on paper. Beginning with the acquisition of AD carry Yiliang “Doublelift” Peng and ending with support Bora “YellOwStaR” Kim, TSM’s offseason roster moves were almost universally lauded. Prior to season’s start, the only question in regards to Team SoloMid was how they would distribute resources between their star AD carry and mid laner Søren “Bjergsen” Bjerg.

When TSM started slowly in their first few weeks, it was easy to understand how this would happen. New rosters take time to gel, and this was one full of veteran voices that presumably had differing opinions. In their first three weeks, TSM had a 3-3 record that included wins against Cloud9 and Team Liquid but also had some fairly punishing losses to the likes of NRG eSports. This was followed by a 4-0 streak that should have bolstered confidence for both the team and their large fanbase. Instead, it included almost-losses to teams like Echo Fox (who were playing without their starting roster) and the Renegades. The team still wasn’t coming together as hoped, particularly when it came time for TSM to group and either rotate for objectives or fight their opponents.

Their time at the IEM Season X World Championship wasn’t particularly impressive either. It included an unbelievable loss to ESC Ever in the group stages off of a late-game 5v5 teamfight when TSM had every map advantage. TSM failed to understand the win conditions of their pick and split-push composition, and while they visibly improved throughout the course of the day, these improvements didn’t stick with them when they returned to North America. Jungler Dennis “Svenskeren” Johnsen, who had appeared more involved at IEM, returned to his fairly invisible Spring 2016 ways, while Hauntzer still struggled to make his Teleports work and YellOwStaR’s engages were rarely followed-up with team support.

TSM's disorganization continued to show as they fell to NRG eSports again in Week 9, even after seemingly having every advantage in the early and mid game. Neither team played well, but NRG’s late-game scaling composition eventual won out, thanks in large part to TSM’s poor decision-making.

Whatever is going on behind the scenes with Team SoloMid is up for debate, but their players obviously aren’t communicating well with each other in game. Up against Cloud9 in the Spring Quarterfinals, this will likely be their downfall, as Cloud9 are usually quick and decisive, forcing opponents to skirmish early. It’s not impossible for TSM to beat C9, but it would take a level of coordination that the this specific roster has yet to show in any of their games.

Team Liquid’s Talent Investment Pays Off

Team Liquid started the split with two fresh faces in their lineup: top laner Samson “Lourlo” Jackson and support Andy “Smoothie” Ta. This lineup included veteran jungler Christian “IWillDominate” Rivera, mid laner Kim “FeniX” Jae-hoon, and star AD carry Chae “Piglet” Gwang-jin.

That lineup only lasted one day.

Following their surprising Week 1 loss to Renegades, Team Liquid wasted no time in changing up their roster — presumably to give their new team more time to develop. Long-time jungler IWillDominate retired while support Smoothie was removed from the starting lineup. They were replaced with Liquid academy’s Joshua “Dardoch” Hartnett and Matthew “Matt” Elento respectively.

This was a bold roster move by Team Liquid, who lost their next two games to Team SoloMid and Counter Logic Gaming as the team struggled to find their footing. Team Liquid’s first victory came in Week 2 over Echo Fox. It was a shaky win, with Echo Fox in control of the map for the majority of the match, but a win nonetheless. Lead by the aggressive Dardoch in the jungle, Team Liquid went on a three win-streak before falling to then-undefeated Immortals. After bouncing around the middle of the pack for most of the 2016 Spring Split, Team Liquid finished the season strong with a 5-1 record in their final three weeks.

Throughout even their toughest losses, Piglet was still a star, boasting impressive statistics on Lucian in particular. Since his arrival in 2015, the team has molded around Piglet as their primary carry, with everything from champion choices in the top and mid lanes to gold distribution all in favor of helping Piglet succeed. What Piglet was missing last season was a legitimate secondary threat. With former Team Liquid top laner Diego “Quas” Ruiz primarily on tanks and utility champions when Piglet was on the Rift, these secondary carry duties were given to FeniX in the mid lane. Unfortunately, FeniX was sometimes inconsistent, especially when not on one of his signature control mages like Azir.

An aggressive, more carry-oriented jungler, Dardoch takes pressure off of Piglet in the early game. Even if he doesn’t gank Piglet’s lane consistently, Dardoch is a constant threat on the map that requires opponents’ attention. While Piglet has been the most reliable player on Team Liquid, Dardoch has emerged as this new roster’s flashy star. He currently boasts second-best KDA (5.7), the second-best gold differential at 10 minutes (289), and the highest kill participation (78 percent) of any North American jungler.

Coupled with the team’s focus on ensuring that FeniX has a strong but comfortable waveclear champion like Corki, Team Liquid has continued to improve and grow as a team. Lourlo has taken over tank and utility responsibilities in the top lane on the likes of Poppy and Nautilus, soaking up damage so that Piglet, FeniX, and Dardoch can all deal consistent damage in fights. The final piece of the Team Liquid puzzle is Matt, who has excelled with his crowd control timing in both 5v5 teamfights and smaller skirmishes. He has been able to initiate when needed on Alistar – in spite of his season win rate, he was sometimes their only reliable initiation – and his signature Bard while disengaging with Janna and Braum so his team can kite comfortably.

Although their seasons began in a similar, inconsistent fashion, Team Liquid pulled ahead of Team SoloMid in the standings thanks to their burgeoning team coordination and understanding of how individuals on the team fit into a larger whole. Bringing in fairly untested North American talent to the bright lights of the LCS stage paid large dividends for Team Liquid, where the star-studded roster of TSM failed to live up to expectations.

Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.