League of Legends as a game has shifted significantly since its inception as a competitive esport. Gone are the days where players could simply stomp in lane and win their team the game. More than any season before it, Season 6 features a myriad of ways that teams can mount a come back provided that they coordinate effectively enough on the Rift.
Season 6 has shown that the coordination between a team's five members is necessary for success — something that isn’t predicated on acquiring the best talent. This isn’t to say that talent means nothing, more that we've seen that a team can own arguably the best talent in the region and leave much to be desired if they can’t communicate efficiently. Communication, or a lack thereof, won and lost a series in the 2016 North American League Championship Series Quarterfinals this past weekend. Team SoloMid's superstar lineup finally ironed out their communication issues, winning their series 3-1 against a Cloud9 team that wins games with their superior coordination. On Sunday, Team Liquid blanked NRG eSports 3-0 with both teams showcasing the strengths and weaknesses of their respective communications systems.
Cloud9 vs. Team SoloMid
Already painted as one of this season’s greatest disappointments, Team SoloMid entered their series against Cloud9 as sizeable underdogs. It was never in doubt that the talent on TSM’s roster was capable of beating C9, but rather whether that talent would be able to communicate at all with one another to achieve a series win. Signs from their final regular season match — a loss to NRG eSports — strongly suggested not.
Their fellow quarterfinalist was TSM’s exact opposite. Provided that C9 had support Hai “Hai” Lam in the game, their team was likely to win even if they made map mistakes or misplayed their compositions. C9’s proactivity, often to the point of recklessness, was their greatest strength — catching opponents off-guard with their aggression. As long as the team was coordinated, they could out-skirmish nearly everyone in NA by dragging them into early fights that their opponents didn't want. TSM was particularly lackluster in fights this season, due to their nonexistent synergy, and this all-too-often cost them games. Above all, TSM had no identity, and players like support Bora “YellOwStaR” Kim and jungler Denis “Svenskeren” Johnsen never quite found their footing in the regular season.
From their 3-1 series win over C9, it’s obvious that TSM took a look at Svenskeren’s lack of participation and decided to make a change. Of all junglers in the 2015 EU LCS Spring regular season, SK Gaming’s Svenskeren had the second-highest kill participation — Meet Your Makers’ Cho “H0R0” Jae-hwan was the only one with a higher kill participation at 78.6 percent. Svenskeren's 74.6 kill participation rate was the highest on his team as nearly every move SK Gaming made was dictated by him. Summer brought much of the same, as Svenskeren’s 71.2 percent kill participation was fifth among EU starting junglers and second on his team.
Throughout his time on TSM, Svenskeren has struggled to get involved. At 66.8 percent, he not only had the second-worst kill participation on his team, but the lowest of all NA junglers. Mid laner Søren “Bjergsen” Bjerg often provided more early pressure by roaming than Svenskeren did from ganking or counter-jungling his adversaries.
A beneficiary of Svenskeren’s inclusion, Bjergsen received more attention and resources against C9 than he had during the regular split. The added jungle pressure from Svenskeren helped Bjergsen in lane, as he bested fellow Dane Nicolaj “Jensen” Jensen repeatedly, including a stunning 11/0/6 performance on Zed in Game 3, and a Vel’Koz counter-pick to Jensen’s Azir in Game 4.
After a season of struggling to find an identity, Bjergsen's return to the primary carry role has allowed TSM to overcome the communication issues that have plagued them all season. More surprising was the choice of Svenskeren as the team’s second focal point over AD carry Yiliang “Doublelift” Peng. In Games 2 and 4 against C9, Svenskeren ended with more gold than Doublelift, including an11/0/8 Game 4 performance on Graves that made him TSM’s primary breadwinner.
Aside from their obvious communication issues, the bane of TSM’s existence has been the standard laneswap. Top laner Kevin “Hauntzer” Yarnell, along with the rest of the squad, were repeatedly punished for their inability to execute their outer turret trades correctly in a laneswap scenario, which inadvertently handed significant amounts of gold to their opposing laners. C9 took advantage of this in Game 1 and punished TSM with an early top lane turret dive. By Game 3, TSM adjusted their lane assignments following the initial turret trade. They then concentrated on the mid lane almost immediately with roams from YellOwStaR, Hauntzer, and Doublelift securing First Blood onto C9 jungler Lee “Rush” Yoon-jae for Hauntzer’s Maokai.
TSM still looks sluggish in the swap, but their noticeably-improved coordination allowed them to adapt and adjust over the series, something that C9 failed to do. With a tough semifinal matchup against top-seeded Immortals this weekend, they’ll have to continue bettering their synergy and execution in order to knock off NA’s best team.
Team Liquid vs. NRG eSports
One of the larger questions going into this matchup was how each team’s respective rookies would perform under the pressure of a playoff series. Team Liquid had continued to improve throughout the split with their three rookies, top laner Samson “Lourlo” Jackson, Joshua “Dardoch” Hartnett, and support Matthew “Matt” Elento, all adjusting to the LCS stage with a surprising amount of ease.
TL’s quarterfinals opponent, NRG eSports, also relied on two LCS rookies, jungler Galen “Moon” Holgate and support Kevin “KonKwon” Kwon. Neither rookie had a strong, breakout season, and Moon was continuously under fire for his lack of pressure, which was cited as one of the primary reasons for NRG’s atrocious -1577 average gold deficit at 15 minutes. With five rookies between them, both TL and NRG’s quarterfinal matchup was in the hands of how gracefully their rookies performed under pressure.
Like TSM, NRG’s problems this split rested on their lack of communication and synergy. Similar to Svenskeren, Moon wrestled with finding his place on the Rift, and often appeared to have significant issues communicating with NRG’s lanes, especially top laner Jung “Impact” Eon-yeong and mid laner Lee “GBM” Chang-seok.
By contrast, Dardoch appeared to almost immediately fit into TL’s established system, and their team dynamic improved by the week. Presumably, with Matt to communicate the intentions of TL’s duo lane — even with AD carry Chae “Piglet“ Gwang-jin dictating the pace of the lane himself — Dardoch was able to immediately coordinate with his side lanes upon taking over the TL jungle position, one of the things with which Moon obviously struggled. Since the jungle tended to collapse inwardly, towards NRG’s side of the map, due to Moon’s lack of pressure, this necessitated fairly frequent roams from GBM, who often fell behind in lane as a result, further pressing NRG back towards their base. Meanwhile, TL mid laner Kim “FeniX” Jae-hoon has seemingly had little to no problem coordinating with Dardoch, and Dardoch’s constant pressure has only aided FeniX, turning him into a laning monster.
This is hardly to make excuses for NRG as a developing hybrid roster, but rather to point out the differences in how the hybrid rosters of both NRG and TL seem to have formed their separate communication systems. Dardoch was immediately able to coordinate with his lanes while applying pressure on the map for TL, where Moon unfortunately looked lost or behind in relation to NRG’s lanes. The ease with which TL was able to find a team dynamic and implement it proved to be their greatest strength, both throughout their rise in the regular season and their 3-0 drubbing of NRG in the 2016 NA LCS Spring Quarterfinals.
Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.