An unsteady state: Kelsey Moser rates the LPL's summer season teams

by theScore Staff May 21 2016
Thumbnail image courtesy of Riot Games/lolesports / MSI 2016 / Riot Games

Royal Never Give Up placed first in the Round Robin stage at the Mid-Season Invitational. They performed significantly better than anticipated, but that doesn’t mean that the League of Legends Pro League as a whole is considerably more competitive. With teams like LGD Gaming heavily downgrading their roster and the mid lane shuffle still a mystery, it’s hard to decide whether Royal will join the 2016 LPL Summer as the clear favorite head and shoulders above the rest or simply succumb to the quagmire.

No matter how you look at it, the LPL is still rebuilding. RNG and EDward Gaming found success based on a central leadership figure driving home a point. That means there could still be two strong teams in the league, but that’s discrediting teams like WE that showed promise before the playoffs closed out.

As with last split, the LPL continues with the group format. The first round will feature teams playing one another within a single group, the second round is the intergroup round, and finally teams will play one last round of intragroup competition before the top four teams in each group advance to the playoffs, and the bottom two play in promotions.

Group A

A lot of teamfighting-focused squads populate Group A. Group A also has almost all Korean mid laners with the exception of Saint Club’s Hou “Otto” Guoyu who shares his position with Korean mid laner Yang “Snoopy” Yomyong and may not see play time. Because of uncertainty around Newbee Gaming and EDward Gaming’s potential ramp-up time, this group feels like it will be the weaker group overall.

Game Talents

The clear last place team in Group A is Game Talents, with a combination of players from Masters3 and Energy Pacemaker All. Wang “Wu Shuang” Haili rounds out the roster as the newest jungle addition. After Huang “crisis” Zhen’s performance in proving he deserved his starting spot on EPA, one may wonder why the team would bother to sign Wu Shuang at all. The glut of LPL jungle talent just means that signing a Chinese jungler is an easy luxury, like a morning coffee.

Bong “Republic” Geuntae’s laning phase was a reliable constant for EPA last split, and his growing synergy with crisis was a plus. The addition of Masters3’s bottom lane makes Game Talents feel stronger, but the duo’s laning phase was lackluster. They could see a climb as a result of Jinx buffs, but expectations are low.

Game Talents simply lack the experience to make their roster work. Taking the best picks from relegation-level teams might give them a boost, but they’re still relegation-level.

Invictus Gaming

The permanent addition of Wong “Tabe” Pak Kan has me split. This is either a good or bad thing. Tabe spent most of this spring with an account in Diamond I on the Chinese server, and his Braum may be better than Liu “Kitties” Hongjun’s, but not by much. Tabe allegedly brings a strong shot-calling voice, but whether that compensates for the fact that An “Rain” Hyeonguk is the worst AD carry in the LPL remains to be seen.

Song “Rookie” Eujin is still the best mid laner in the LPL, but teams discovered Invictus Gaming’s formula halfway through the season. Rookie and Liu “Zz1tai” Zhihao keep lanes frozen to allow for easy jungle ganks. iG also took a hit with a shift away from carry tops. Why bother with solo lanes at all when one can binge kill the bottom lane? This time around, iG should sadly finish in the bottom two.

Saint Gaming

I admittedly may overrate Saint Gaming because I find the players that comprise their roster are entertaining in concept. Three promising young junglers and rotating members in every position except top and support give Saint Gaming a lot of options, but this isn't always a good thing.

Choi “Acorn” Cheonju is the obvious crown jewel, and if his leadership capabilities are strong, he could fashion this team into one that understands wave control well. A lot of this team will depend on Acorn’s ability and patience in dealing with young Chinese players, which I’m sure Cho “Mata” Sehyeong can attest is not simple.

Qu “Styz” Ziliang and Otto are far from rookies, but they’ve had an inability to find success. Otto’s playstyle displays his obvious talent, but he’s volatile. Styz had a very restricted champion pool and famously did less damage to champions than Peng “Aluka” Zhenming, primarily a tank player, when he was WE’s AD carry. Styz and Li “xq” Yingjie both displayed promise on LGD Gaming in the past, so talent exists.

Yu “x1u” Jie famously told press he just wants to make playoffs once. This could be his split to do so.

Snake eSports

Probably the worst of the Pool 2 teams, Snake eSports have made a series of confusing roster changes since the benching of Ceng “U” Long. They drift further and further from a cohesive team identity and more toward cost-efficient imports with high individual skill. Lê “SofM” Quang Duy adds to the list. While Zeng “Zzr” Zhangran developed a more teamplay-oriented style around creative jungle pathing, SofM has a reputation for all-ining without a plan and relying on his individual skill which, in the LPL environment, is unlikely to completely overwhelm his opposition as it did in the Garena Pro League.

SofM won’t start immediately, as he isn’t on the Week 1 roster. Snake are also likely to bench Kwak “Ella” Nahoon, which spells disaster for a team requiring a peel support. Very little safeguard will exist for Li “Flandre” Xuanjun’s reckless nature, and I foresee this team moving further and further from an identity.

Like iG, Snake had a simple formula other teams figured out. Don’t let them lane swap, and they’re easy to deal with. They failed to adapt and drifted lower in the standings. If they still don’t have any new tricks, things look dismal for Snake’s chances at Top 4.

Newbee Gaming

Newbee Gaming should theoretically be a strong team. When Bae “Dade” Eojin told his stream viewers that Newbee beat Royal in scrims, this excited a lot of fans, even with public knowledge that Royal frequently lose scrims against other strong to mid-tier LPL teams.

Dade told his fans on stream that he felt mislead by the organization because he believed he would be able to start on the roster, and that Kim "Doinb" Taesang was leaving the team before the spring split. Despite this, he felt Newbee was a strong team, but attributed most of their strength to Jian "Uzi" Zihao. Thanks to Uzi's skill, Dade said he would be interested in rejoining and re-signed with the roster, but the ADC has since left the team.

It’s possible Dade did know Uzi would leave before signing with Newbee again, but it’s puzzling given his statement. Since Dade has been temperamental in the past, this raises a lot of questions about Newbee, especially if they’re still in the throws of the Baek “Swift” Dahoon and Kim “Doinb” Taesang shakeout. As a result, I have to consider Newbee weaker than they look on paper.

With both Dade and Yu “Peco” Rui preferring a more scale-for-late-game approach, this could be an instance where Bao “V” Bo is finally freed to play his preferred carry style. His lane seems the most logical one to gank early. V's own performance could be the sink-or-swim factor for Newbee.

EDward Gaming

As anticipated, EDward Gaming should be the best team in Group A. Lee “Scout” Yechan moving to the starting position raises questions, but Ming “clearlove” Kai expressed that more stability will be beneficial to the team. Heo “pawN” Wonseok’s ongoing back injury will be treated in South Korea while Scout starts.

EDward Gaming’s environment and infrastructure makes them an easy bet, even with mid lane uncertainty. Now that Zhao "Mitty" Zhiming also cannot start for the team, clearlove’s presence as a central figure should keep the club relatively stable.

Recently, someone asked me, given the players in the LPL, what team would I build. Despite the fact that Mata is easily the best support in the LPL at the moment, I would still build a team with Kim “deft” Hyukkyu, Tian “meiko” Ye, and clearlove to retain the strong synergy between meiko has with both his jungler and his AD carry, given meiko's increased performance level.

This same core remains the same. As long as the solo laners can at least put forth a stable level, EDG should be guaranteed Top 2.

Group B

One-to-one comparisons of RNG to EDG, Team WE to Newbee Gaming, and Vici Gaming to Snake eSports makes Group B feel like a stronger group overall. The Group B competition is likely to succeed in the playoffs if teams remain stable. That’s a huge if in the LPL.

LGD and Oh My God remain wildcards, especially with changes to their rosters. I May is the most difficult to predict, as this team likely would not have qualified through the Promotion. Now that they’re here, however, they have a serviceable ceiling.

LGD Gaming

Relegation is definitely possible for LGD this split. Even with higher level Chinese players, LGD’s lows saw them drop games to every team in their group. Chen “pyl” Bo and Wei “We1less” Zhen are taking indefinite breaks for health reasons, leaving less experienced and less talented stand-ins.

pyl is a major contributor to comms, but this role will be taken over primarily by jungle and top in this iteration of LGD. It’s possible Jang “MaRin” Gyeonghwan’s improved Mandarin Chinese will be a saving grace for LGD, but positional downgrades and obviously continuing internal problems make it hard not to predict bottom of the table for LGD.

I May

Yet another team with two-to-three junglers. If I had my say, Mitty (Fireloli) would never see play again and would return to permanent mascot status, but perhaps this is the split he surprises me by varying predictable jungle pathing and landing skillshots. Kang “Athena” Hawoon and Kang “BaeMe” Yanghyun both satisfy the same function of holding mid lane, exerting only minimal pressure and not feeding.

Shek “AmazingJ” Wai Ho is greedy for jungle pressure. Without constant presence from his jungler top lane, he’ll be caught out. He can compensate with basic level carry performances, but this doesn’t always justify the attention his jungler sends his way.

Xie “JiJiao” Jinshan has steadily improved in the League of Legends Secondary Pro League, but the best player on the team is support Yun “Road” Hangil, who has often lead the charge with his play-making. If I May make it out of the relegation zone and into the playoffs, it will be through a heroic feat by Road or the implosion of a Top 4 team.

It may seem I’m being harsh on I May, but almost every player has made appearances on EDward Gaming’s LPL squad to underwhelming results. I May be surprised in the coming split, but there’s no reason so far to suggest I Will be.

Oh My God

OMG defied expectations in 2016 LPL Spring and have since made small talent upgrades. It’s heavily implied that Xie “icon” Tianyu will start the split over Yu “Cool” Jiajun. Both new junglers are skill upgrades over Zhu “Quan” Yongquan, but the problem remains that the team is replacing their main shotcallers with young, inexperienced players. This could ultimately spell a breakdown in focus.

Overall, this seems like an upgraded Oh My God with more focus on talent investment for the long term. This is the Oh My God we expected from the team’s mission statement to invest in inexperienced local talent. Based on this roster, they may be able to retain their spot for next season without duking it out through the Promotion Tournament this time around.

Vici Gaming

It may seem curious to rate Vici Gaming so highly, but the team has acquired an AD carry upgrade in Pi “Xuan” Xiaoxuan, albeit a modest one. Choi “DanDy” Inkyu has finally accepted his role as a brute force carry, and Lee “Easyhoon” Jihoon is in a group with mid laners that won’t pressure him extensively outside of Royal Never Give Up’s Li “xiaohu” Yuanhao.

Zhu “Loong” Xiaolong is the biggest question mark. Despite definite improvements in form, he needs to get even more of an edge to remain a stable player. Keeping top and mid pushed out is priority for a carry jungler like DanDy who cannot necessarily rely upon his bottom lane.

This is the last split of support Duan “caveMan” Deliang's rookie year. Any improvements he’s made in the short offseason to shotcalling and individual skill will be telling for his longevity as a pro.

Team WE

At the moment, I only have confidence that EDward Gaming and Royal Never Give Up can actually succeed. Following these two teams, it’s Team WE and not Newbee Gaming that I consider the favorite for third place. Team WE have established a strong system around a low econ top, a mid laner who prioritizes laning phase, and a bottom lane that scales for team fights.

In the regular season, a near-aimless early game was propped by Xiang “Condi” Renjie’s ability to steal Barons and generally low Baron control by other teams. As time wore on, it became apparent this strategy wasn’t viable, and Team WE improved aspects of their play in the early game, specifically around Rift Herald and dragon control.

With the highest dragon control and first blood rate in 2016 LPL Spring, WE’s natural tendencies are buffed by the coming patch and emphasis on dragon. Their overall team dynamic and steady improvements in form by support Yoon “Zero” Kyungsup make them a solid top three contender that can definitely look to overcome Newbee Gaming.

Royal Never Give Up

Expected to sit at the top of the standings after consistent improvements throughout 2016 LPL Spring and the addition of Uzi, there are some caveats to RNG’s rise. Mata put in extensive work during the Mid-Season Invitational to get RNG off the ground, and he may not be as focused in the lower pressure regular season until playoffs.

It’s also rare that a team on which Uzi starts immediately finds success. Because of his very specific playstyle, teams have often had to adapt to him slowly. The RNG that comes out at the end is designed to play around bottom lane, given xiaohu and Jang “Looper” Hyeongseok’s tendency toward stable rather than flashy, carry play. Yet it might not be a seamless transition to the top of the standings.

This is the most logical roster move for Uzi since he left Royal in 2014, but it may take time for the team to have the results they should have on paper.

The Shakeout (Power Ranking)

After examining the teams and how they stack up within their groups, it’s time to narrow down the teams that look like they have a shot at making the World Championship and how they shake out relative to the whole of the LPL.

1: Royal Never Give Up

2: EDward Gaming

3: Team WE

4: Newbee Gaming

5: I just don’t see it happening

With minimal roster changes, a few downgrades, and the nagging feeling that the LPL still has a long way to go, the competition for World Championship seeds should be between four teams. At the moment, Royal Never Give Up’s recent improvements and questionable mid lane changes to Newbee and EDward Gaming make RNG the favorite. But the power spectrum could shift easily across the top four by the end of the split.

Kelsey Moser is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.