The air was full of rumors leading up to the 2016 Spring Split. Rumors of multiple, monied franchises entering the North American League of Legends scene. Rumors of the Sacramento Kings ownership funding a new esports outfit. Rumors of mid laner Lee “GBM” Chang-seok headed to NA after a career year with the Jin Air Green Wings.
These rumblings heralded the arrival of three new esports teams: Immortals, Echo Fox, and NRG eSports. NRG turned out to be the new team funded by the owners of the Sacramento Kings, as well as GBM’s destination in NA.
By contrast, NRG's opponent in the quarterfinals, Team Liquid, have seemingly been around forever. Though the roster has only had one year under the Liquid banner, as Team Curse they've been an NA staple since Season 1. Liquid entered the 2016 Spring Split fresh off of their best regular-season finish to date, though they weren't quite able to clinch a spot at the 2015 World Championship.
These two teams have had very different routes to the postseason, which should make their matchup an interesting one to watch.
1. Veterans and Rookies on the Big Stage
The crown jewel of TL’s roster since last year has been former world champion AD carry Chae “Piglet” Gwang-jin, who was acquired after SK Telecom T1 K’s disappointing end to 2014. In spite of a rough initial start, TL eventually molded around Piglet with top-turned-mid laner Kim “FeniX” Jae-hoon as their secondary carry.
Both Korean imports have Champions Korea experience, with FeniX playing top lane for Jin Air Green Wings and Piglet renowned for his carry performances on SKT T1 K at the OGN Champions Summer 2013 Finals and the Season 3 World Championship. Piglet and Fenix led Liquid to third place in the 2015 NA LCS Spring Playoffs, breaking the Team Curse "fourth-place curse."
This year, Team Liquid had to hedge their bets by surrounding FeniX and Piglet with rookies. Top laner Diego “Quas” Ruiz left the team voluntarily, support Alex “Xpecial” Chu was released and Christian “IWillDominate” Rivera retired after one game with TL at the beginning of the season. Taking their places were top laner Samson “Lourlo” Jackson, support Matthew “Matt” Elento and jungler Joshua “Dardoch” Hartnett — all rookies to the LCS stage.
Likewise, NRG eSports is an amalgamation of veteran and rookie talent. Their two Korean imports are mid laner GBM and former SKT T1 K top laner Jung “Impact” Eon-yeong. LCS rookies Kevin “KonKwon” Kwon and Galen “Moon” Holgate, along with former Gravity and Winterfox AD carry Johnny “Altec” Ru, round out the roster.
The success of either NRG or TL rests on how well their rookies perform under the bright lights of the playoff stage.
2. Dardoch and Moon
The jungle will be the setting of one of the more important head-to-head matchups in this series, between aforementioned rookies Dardoch and Moon. Where Dardoch has taken North America by storm, Moon has been called NRG's weakest link, and criticized for his lack of map pressure and team involvement.
|2016 NA Spring Split||Dardoch||Moon|
|Percentage of Team Damage||18.2%||14.7%|
|Wards Placed per Minute||0.67||0.78|
|Wards Cleared per Minute||0.46||0.47|
|Percentage of Team Gold||19.8%||17.6%|
|CS per Minute||4.2||3.6|
|Gold Difference at 10 Minutes||289||-240|
The biggest disparity here is in the amount of resources the two junglers generate. Among all NA junglers, Dardoch's gold lead at 10 minutes is second only to Immortals’ Kim “Reignover” Yeu-jin, and his CS per minute is tied for second. Moon is last among NA junglers for both statistics. NRG are hilariously slow starters, averaging -1577 gold behind their opponents at 15 minutes, to TL’s average lead of 357. Moon's weak early game is a big factor in NRG’s initial lag in gold, just as Dardoch’s aggression and constant pressure often puts TL ahead early.
Dardoch engineers nearly everything that TL wants to do in their early game, and nearly all fights go through Dardoch, as evidenced by his strong kill participation rate — the highest of all NA junglers and fifth-best of all players in the region. Moon has not had a similar impact on his team until recently, spending most of the split looking lost and unable to effectively pressure NRG's lanes.
In the team's more recent matches, however, Moon has stepped up. Even with a few risky pathing choices and positioning errors, his proactivity has helped NRG immensely. He recently scored his first two First Bloods, skyrocketing from zero percent to 13 percent participation.
With Moon taking a more aggressive stance, NRG seems like they're no longer willing to go quietly when they fall behind. It remains to be seen whether this confidence will carry into NRG’s playoff series, but NRG will need Moon to be at his best to go up against Dardoch and TL.
3. Poppy and Nautilus Fascination
Across 18 total games played during the regular season, Lourlo has spent six games on Poppy and four on Nautilus. He's played one of these two tanky utility champions in two thirds of his games, with a 100 percent winrate on Poppy and a 66.7 percent winrate on Nautilus.
Team Liquid’s opponents started to recognize about halfway through the split how heavily the team was prioritizing Poppy. Liquid's games have a 66.7 percent pick/ban rate for Poppy, above the NA LCS average of 64 percent; of the six times TL picked her, she was first-picked three, and second-picked three. Liquid has never flexed Poppy into support or jungle like other teams, always sending her to the top lane for Lourlo.
In contrast, Nautilus has only been banned once against TL, and he's been last-picked three of the four times Lourlo has played him. North America’s priority on Nautilus is comparatively low — 21.1 percent pick/ban rate, the lowest of any of the major regions — so TL are likely aware that the champion will not be prioritized by their opponents.
Although teams have started to regularly target Lourlo with Poppy bans, the only team to break his full Poppy/Nautilus combo was TL's upcoming quarterfinals adversary, NRG. In their second match of the season, NRG banned Poppy and first-picked Nautilus on blue side, forcing Lourlo onto Lulu. The game went to NRG.
This isn’t to say that Lourlo can’t play champions besides Poppy and Nautilus, but the team clearly prefers to have him on a tanky utility champions with engage. TL's other main source of engage is support Matt, but he has spent his recent games on the disengage-oriented Janna rather than hard engage champions like Alistar — leaving the team even more reliant on Lourlo.
With Maokai likely returning to the regular top lane rotation on 6.6, TL now have a third option to go to if Nautilus and Poppy are targeted by NRG. Although Lourlo has only played the champ once this season (a loss against Immortals), Maokai's new scaling magic resist — something most tanks already have, though it's been denied to Maokai until now because of his power — certainly makes him an appealing option for what the team wants from their top laner.
4. The Return of Piglet
Piglet’s introduction to North America was rocky at best. He and his new team did not coordinate well at all, which led them to replace him with Yuri “KEITHMCBRIEF” Jew in Weeks 5-6 of 2015 NA LCS Spring.
It wasn’t until the 2015 Spring Playoffs and 2015 Summer that Team Liquid and Piglet figured out how to work together. The new strategy saw the team pour most of their resources into getting Piglet ahead, while placing FeniX on comfort picks like Azir, as a secondary carry. Piglet received the largest percentage of TL’s gold in 2015 Summer, at 26.4 percent, and repaid his team with the highest KDA (9.9), second highest damage per minute (579), and smallest percentage of his team’s deaths (11.4 percent) of all NA AD carries that split. Team Liquid took care of Piglet, and in turn, Piglet took care of them.
This year, Piglet has quietly had his best split since Champions Summer 2013. Although the team had a fairly rough start adjusting to their new rookies, Piglet kept his team in the game, dazzling audiences and opponents with fantastic Lucian performances, even though they sometimes ended in heartbreaking losses.
With more gold going to Dardoch in the jungle, Piglet has arguably done more with significantly less in 2016 Spring. No longer is the majority of TL’s attention focused on Piglet, nor does the largest percentage of gold go to the bottom lane — that honor belongs to FeniX at 25.6 percent. Yet the veteran AD carry still has the second-best KDA (6.3) of all NA AD carries, dishes out the most damage per minute on his team (618, which is also fifth-best of all players in NA), and is less than a percentage point behind FeniX in damage share. Piglet is no longer the only answer Team Liquid has, which makes him even more dangerous and efficient than last year.
5. Synergy, Always Synergy
It’s easy to get bogged down in the minutia of 1v1 matchups with these two teams, especially with their mix of veteran and rookie talent. However, the real story behind both of these squads is synergy — or lack thereof.
Team Liquid took a risk on three rookie talents and gave their team time to develop and grow as a unit. They’ve had their rough spots, but steadily improved throughout the season, and ended on a high note with wins against Dignitas and Cloud9.
Similarly, NRG eSports’ roster took time to gel, but they've been on a more tumultuous rollercoaster ride than TL, with much higher peaks and lower valleys. NRG is capable of fantastic games — their Poppy/Zilean win against Team SoloMid stands as one of this season’s more fun and creative matches — but they haven’t been able to coordinate consistently until very recently. This quarterfinals match will be a test for both teams, and it will likely be decided by which team has the best dynamic.
Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.