If any League of Legends team deserves the moniker “America’s Team,” it's certainly Team SoloMid. They've built the largest fan following in NA, eclipsing the region’s other darling, Counter Logic Gaming, and their fanbase continues to grow week by week.
TSM won the first-ever NA LCS regular season title, and followed it up with the Season 3 NA LCS Spring Championship, beating out Vulcun and Good Game University. Throughout the first split of NA LCS, no team seemed equipped to beat TSM's coordination and experience.
Season 3 marks a major turning point in competitive League of Legends for many reasons, one of them being that it was the year the League Championship Series launched in both Europe and North America. As the winner of the Season 2 NA Regional title, Team SoloMid was given an automatic spot.
Meanwhile, in the first-ever NA LCS qualifier, a relatively unknown squad called Cloud9 (previously Quantic Gaming) failed to make it out of groups, falling to Azure Gaming and eventual LCS competitor Team MRN.
Cloud9 was the team that would break TSM’s stranglehold on NA, successfully qualifying for the LCS through the Season 3 Summer Promotion Series as Quantic Gaming, before cruising through the Season 3 Summer Split. They achieved the then-highest regular-season winrate in NA LCS history, at 89 percent, which was only recently bested by Immortals.
Since then, the two teams have constantly nipped at each others’ heels, vying for the top spot in North America. Of all NA LCS titles so far, only one does not belong to either TSM or C9 — the recent 2015 Summer Championship won by CLG. They have faced one another in four of six total NA Finals and have each won two titles from the other.
Now facing off Saturday in the 2016 Spring Quarterfinals, one of them certainly won’t make the Grand Finals, and the other faces a difficult Semifinals challenge against either CLG or Immortals. With the teams' rich histories, there's a lot to watch for in this Quarterfinals series.
1. Team SoloMid’s Super Team
This season I just wanted to buy the best players. And that's not how it works. Just because you have a big paycheck doesn't mean you're going to build the best team.
— TSM owner Andy “Reginald” Dinh in his Drive feature
Every offseason, there is at least one organization — sometimes one per region — that tries to build a “super team” by plugging top-tier talent into every position on their roster. This past season, for the first time since their inception, North America’s super team was Team SoloMid.
TSM are no strangers to importing talent from other regions — currently, the name most associated with the TSM brand is European import Søren “Bjergsen” Bjerg — but the 2015-16 offseason marked the first time that the team attempted to rebuild with internationally recognized talent. AD carry Yiliang “Doublelift” Peng was acquired from Counter Logic Gaming, a player once synonymous not only with the CLG brand but the rise of LoL in North America. Paired with him in the bottom lane was support Bora “YellOwStaR” Kim, a Season 1 veteran who was fresh off of a record-setting season with Fnatic. Likewise, jungler Dennis “Svenskeren” Johnsen had been around since Season 1, and made a name for himself as one of Europe’s rising jungle talents through his time on SK Gaming in Seasons 4-5. The only relatively unknown player on TSM this season was top laner Kevin “Hauntzer” Yarnell, who'd impressed on Gravity in 2015, even when the team began to fall apart towards the end of the Summer Split.
This is the lineup that has been responsible for TSM's worst regular-season finish in their extensive NA LCS history. At sixth place, the star-studded roster is now known more for gifting their opponents a victory through late-game mistakes than anything else.
North America is no longer TSM’s playground, especially with newer, high-budget organizations coming on the scene, like Immortals, NRG eSports and even Echo Fox. Both Immortals and NRG finished ahead of TSM in the regular season standings — the latter only just barely, but with a 2-0 season record against TSM. At 6-12 in seventh place, Echo Fox appears to be far worse than TSM, but they didn’t have their full roster until Week 5, which casts some doubt on their final placement.
TSM’s roster indubitably has the talent to compete with these newcomers, but lacks any semblance of unity. Their uncoordinated play has been their downfall.
2. NA's Danish Mid Laners
Following TSM’s exit from the group stages of the Season 3 World Championship, mid laner Andy “Reginald” Dinh announced his retirement to focus solely on building the TSM brand. Replacing him was Bjergsen, a talented Danish mid laner who had become a young rising star while on the Copenhagen Wolves and Ninjas in Pyjamas.
While Reggie may not immediately come to mind as a legacy NA mid, at that time Bjergsen had big shoes to fill, since Reggie was also the team’s in-game leader. Bjergsen took NA by storm, immediately becoming the region’s most well-known talent. With the addition of support Ham “Lustboy” Jang-sik in late 2014 Summer, Bjergsen and TSM managed to best Cloud9 in an NA LCS Finals for the first time since C9 qualified for the league.
Meanwhile, when Cloud9’s Hai “Hai” Du Lam retired after the 2015 Spring Split, another Dane — Nicolaj “Jensen” Jensen (then called “Incarnati0n”) — was chosen to fill his position. No one, including C9 themselves, realized just how much of an effect Hai’s departure would have on the team. Jensen was a mechanical upgrade, but Hai’s leadership was obviously missed. Upon Hai’s return to the team as a jungler in place of William “Meteos” Hartman, Jensen’s play began to improve remarkably, especially when it came to coordinating with the team.
After his rocky start with Cloud9 in 2015 Summer, Jensen has been having a career split. He’s impressed on Orianna, LeBlanc, Twisted Fate and most recently Varus, with stunning individual outplays that fit C9’s skirmish-heavy playstyle.
On TSM, Bjergsen has quietly kept pace with his Danish counterpart, in spite of TSM’s significantly lower winrate.
|2016 NA Spring Split||Jensen||Bjergsen|
|Percentage of Team Gold||24.3%||24%|
|Percentage of Team Damage||31.3%||27.3%|
|Percentage of Team Deaths||19.2%||15.6%|
|Damage per Minute||676||558|
Jensen has taken center stage on Cloud9 as their primary carry. He deals the highest percentage of his team’s total damage and does the most damage to champions per minute of any player in North America. Although C9 and TSM having similar combined kills per minute, at 0.78 and 0.73 respectively, Jensen racks up more kills than any other NA mid.
Interestingly, Jensen and Bjergsen are tied in KDA — which is primarily due to how often the C9 mid laner dies. Bjergsen is a safer and more efficient player who has taken on a more secondary carry role this past split, using Lulu and his pocket Syndra pick to support Doublelift as TSM’s primary carry. It will be difficult for Jensen to take advantage of Bjergsen in lane, but all bets are off once C9 starts grouping in twos and threes for skirmishes. Regardless of who wins, this is definitely a mid lane clash to watch for.
3. Insufficient Direction
Cloud9 have exactly what Team SoloMid lack: direction. Hai's legendary status as shotcaller may be a bit exaggerated, but there’s little doubt that he brings stability and decisiveness to a group of players that would otherwise — based on what we saw in 2015 Summer — be fairly lost on the Rift. Their ability to quickly make a decision, any decision, and stick with it, led C9 to their third-place regular season finish this spring, while TSM finished sixth.
Indecisiveness about what to do with their composition and where to be in the mid-to-late game often costs TSM the game, even if they have a significant early advantage. This led to a shocking ESC Ever group stage win at the IEM Season X World Championship in Katowice, and more recently a loss to NRG eSports in their last game of the 2016 Spring Split.
It seems like there are too many players talking on TSM and not enough listening, leading to split calls or poorly-chosen teamfights. Cloud9’s confidence in making calls and seeing them through is definitely going to give them an edge in this Quarterfinals matchup.
4. Jungle Inclusion
TSM's acquisition of Svenskeren has been one of the more memetic roster moves of this past offseason. The team openly fought with Europe’s H2K over the jungler, and eventually won. Svenskeren went with TSM to IEM San Jose, along with temporary support substitute Raymond “kaSing” Tsang, where the team exceeded expectations, fanning the flames of the dumpster fire that was LGD Gaming. While they were quickly dispatched by Origen in the Semifinals, Svenskeren initially looked good with the team.
Unfortunately, his NA LCS performances have been mediocre at best. The Svenskeren statistic that immediately jumps out is his low kill participation. At 66.8 percent, it's the worst of any starting jungler in North America. Even the much-maligned former TSM jungler Lucas “Santorin” Larsen managed a 76.9 percent kill participation in the 2015 Summer regular season. TSM opponents likely worry more about Bjergsen showing up on a roam than Svenskeren applying pressure to TSM's lanes.
In contrast, Cloud9’s jungler Lee “Rush” Yoon-jae is having an excellent 2016 Spring. Excluding Hai, C9 members have a lower kill participation across the board, due to their focus on smaller two- or three-man skirmishes, yet Rush still has a stronger participation rate than Svenskeren at 70.9 percent.
Rush is known for his early pressure, both in lane and in his adversaries’ jungles. Cloud9 has the second-best jungle control rate of any team in North America, taking an average of 52.5 percent of their games’ total jungle CS, and this is largely thanks to Rush. If TSM are to overcome C9 in this series, they’ll have to get Svenskeren more involved while keeping Rush at bay.
5. History Lesson
With two teams so integral to the growth of the NA LCS, it’s impossible to ignore the history between them. The establishment and success of the Team SoloMid brand accompanied the initial rise of League of Legends in North America. Cloud9 overcame them immediately upon qualifying for the LCS and pushed both TSM and NA to become better.
In a way, this Quarterfinals matchup is the end of an LCS era, a gradual changing of the guard that began last year with C9’s seventh-place finish in 2015 Summer and TSM’s 0-3 loss to Counter Logic Gaming in the 2015 Summer Finals. It remains to be seen whether either team can reclaim their former NA LCS glory — but it certainly won't be both of them.
Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.