Represented in Riot Games’ Mid-Season Invitational promotional material as a fallen warrior with a gash across its emblem, the North American League Championship Series accepted the underdog status that the community cast upon them. The tagline “Who will own the rift?” was the theme of this most recent international competition, and everyone presumed that NA had no chance.
With venture capital money flooding into the scene at the start of the year — accompanied by a small wave of imported talent — NA was met with a modicum of hope prior to the season’s start. Yet, the foul stench of the region’s 0-10 back half of the 2015 World Championship group stages lingered. Immortals bulldozed their way through the 2016 NA LCS Spring regular season, and were all but a predetermined favorite to represent North America at MSI. However, the overestimation of their personal playstyle, which had mostly gone unpunished, led to their earlier than anticipated playoff exit. Counter Logic Gaming rose above the rest, taking the title of spring champion and presumably the mantle of the fallen warrior at MSI.
Only they didn’t fall until the very end, shocking all but themselves by making it to the MSI finals before succumbing to the overwhelming might of SK Telecom T1.
Often, the results of a region’s last international representative — even if it is a completely different team — dictate the prevailing atmosphere of that region within the community. This is natural, and not necessarily a problem until it’s paired with how few international League of Legends competitions exist. Metas, team lineups, and entire regional landscapes can change over the course of a month, never mind the six-to-seven months between the World Championship and MSI.
Now, CLG returns to NA, hungry for another chance at international fame and potential success. Opposing them is a stronger region, with many organizations making proactive roster decisions this past offseason, and stronger teams replacing last split’s bottom feeders. They will all have to make their way through a grueling best-of-three season that will test their mettle and adaptability in ways that many of them have yet to face.
Just how good is North America? That’s up for these 10 teams to decide.
Counter Logic Gaming
Largely responsible for the recent change in public perception towards NA as a competitive region is MSI darling Counter Logic Gaming. CLG entered the competition as the aforementioned beaten warrior and emerged with the same popularity and respect that Fnatic received last year for hanging tough against SKT in their 2015 MSI semifinal match.
What makes CLG such a strong unit is that they obviously recognize their own weaknesses, devising drafts and strategies to support the team’s many strengths. This has manifest itself in several iterations of CLG as different players have stepped into the spotlight when needed, only to give a teammate his chance to shine when ready. Darshan “Darshan” Upadhyaha took center stage at the beginning of the season with CLG’s 4-1 split push compositions that were designed to efficiently snowball the top laner. Later it was veteran jungler Jake “Xmithie” Puchero when CLG devised a 1-3-1 split push around his jungle Udyr. At MSI, AD carry Trevor “Stixxay” Hayes basked in the glow of fame with his teamfight prowess. All throughout the season, postseason, and support Zaqueri “aphromoo” Black played at a consistently high level, applying pressure in and out of lane along with crowd control in fights and skirmishes.
There is nothing to suggest that CLG won’t continue their winning ways. Although individuals can be mentioned, ultimately CLG wins as a team and they know themselves better than any prospective opponent. This automatically puts them ahead of the rest of NA, especially considering they haven't made any roster changes.
A team that remained mostly intact since last split, Team SoloMid survived the offseason with only one roster move that came about following Bora “YellOwStaR” Kim’s return to Europe and his home team of Fnatic. But while Vincent “Biofrost” Wang may be seen as an on-paper downgrade, he’ll likely suit TSM better than YellOwStaR despite the latter’s veteran presence and strategic knowledge.
YellOwStaR and TSM were never truly happy together. Plagued with internal communication problems from the start, YellOwStaR didn’t seem to quite fit in with what TSM wanted from their bottom lane. Having acquired Yiliang “Doublelift” Peng in the 2015-16 offseason, TSM struggled with where to dispense their resources and attention. Focus inevitably shifted to Doublelift, but with the AD carry’s affinity for laning and YellOwStaR’s love of roaming and vision placement, the two wanted different things in the early game. Coupled with the fact that jungler Dennis “Svenskeren” Johnsen had failed to provide the same early pressure that characterized his play on SK Gaming, TSM had a rough regular season.
This all changed during TSM’s playoff run. In a favorable meta for DPS carries in the jungle, TSM allocated more resources to Svenskeren, with the gold coming directly from Doublelift’s pocket. It remains to be seen as to whether or not they’ll stick with this strategy or readjust their resources on the new patch, but the other key component of TSM’s postseason success — mid laner Søren “Bjergsen” Bjerg — is a formidable threat to opponents as always. Biofrost will likely stick with Doublelift in lane more than YellOwStaR did, making the most of Doublelift’s laning dominance. The most important thing for TSM will be to find an identity and stick with it, rather than wavering through the season only to pick up steam in the playoffs.
Decided as North America’s MSI representative prior to the playoffs, Immortals' successful regular season results played a key role in their inability to fulfill the destiny that the community had laid out for them. Without being adequately challenged to adapt in the regular season, Immortals entered their semifinal match against TSM with only one loss on the season and a successful scrim record on off-meta picks, only to be swept. The defeat spurred Immortals to adapt, besting Team Liquid six days later to take a bittersweet third place finish.
It’s doubtful that Immortals will suffer the same hubris in the 2016 NA LCS Summer, especially with a best-of-three series system, which should punish stagnant teams far earlier in the season than a best-of-one round robin. Like CLG, they retain their lineup from spring, and with renewed focus, Immortals will likely be one of NA’s most formidable teams.
Prior to jungler Joshua “Dardoch” Hartnett’s recent suspension, Team Liquid appeared to be one of NA’s strongest squads — a team that had invested in up-and-coming domestic talent and actually found success. Dardoch was one of the region’s most aggressive and impressive junglers last split, as his playstyle made for interesting comparisons between Immortals’ Kim “Reignover” Yeu-jin, who utterly dominated the season, and CLG’s Xmithie. His aggression and control over TL’s early game earned him rookie of the split, and, in many ways, was seen as one of the reasons why TL would finally earn a spot at the World Championship.
Whatever happened between Dardoch and TL, it likely wasn’t pretty. This couldn’t have been an easy decision for the organization to make, especially with how well Dardoch performed in the spring. With both of their import slots filled by mid laner Kim “FeniX” Jae-hun and AD carry Chae “Piglet” Gwang-jin, the fact that Dardoch is a talented NA resident makes TL’s last-minute search for a replacement all the more difficult. The logical choice would be former NRG e-Sports jungler Galen "Moon" Holgate who signed with Team Liquid Academy in May.
Fresh off of an impressive season of his own, Piglet still anchors TL, and can take over games if given the opportunity. With another impressive spring rookie in support Matthew “Matt” Elento, TL’s bottom lane is one of the region's most formidable. Yet, they’ll have trouble translating their incredible laning dominance into actual team wins if TL’s early spring performances are any indication, and the absence of Dardoch will certainly hurt TL’s chances at an elusive spot above fourth place.
Unlike last year's top four finishers, Cloud9 made a myriad of roster changes in the offseason due to the organization expanding the team to a 10-man roster before using a subset of five players for their challenger side. The challenger team includes former shotcaller Hai “Hai” Lam returning to the mid lane, formerly retired support-turned-coach Daerek “LemonNation” Hart, former top laner An “Balls” Le, and their 2016 Spring jungler, Lee “Rush” Yoon-jae.
Mid laner Nicolaj “Jensen” Jensen and AD carry Zachary “Sneaky” Scuderi head up C9's LCS squad alongside veteran top laner Jung “Impact” Eon-yeong, who most recently played for NRG eSports last spring. William “Meteos” Hartman has returned to the C9 jungle for the upcoming split, and Michael “BunnyFuFuu” Kurylo will finally receive another shot to prove himself in the support role with the presumed departure of Hai.
As other teams across various regions — Longzhu Gaming being the most recent example — have proven, a top-tier 10-man roster matters little if an organization can’t muster five players with a semblance of coordination. Cloud9’s challenger five are listed as the main team’s substitutes, making it possible for them to play if necessary, but hopefully C9 will stick it out and see how their presumed main roster can come together as a five-man unit, even if it means a few rough performances.
Previously, C9 used Hai as a cure-all when in reality he was more of a strong bandaid covering the team’s obvious weaknesses with his decisiveness. This new squad are strong individually and have the necessary talent in place to compete for a top spot, provided that they come together.
Despite a fairly strong lineup that included former Jin Air Green Wings star Lee “GBM” Chang-seok, NRG eSports struggled mightily in 2016 NA LCS Spring, severely undercutting expectations. All too often, the team found themselves with little to no early pressure, sometimes winning games with as much or less gold than their opponents until the final hits on their adversaries’ nexus. They had the second-worst gold differential at 15 minutes of any team in North America at -1,577 — the only team below them was Team Impulse with -2,107.
Regardless of composition, NRG almost always found themselves in a hole due to a wholly lackluster early game. Much of this can be pinned on jungler Moon's inability to pressure the map, but NRG rarely showed much fight when falling behind and their losses were entirely a team effort. The team fell apart, ending spring with a dismal 3-0 beating at the hands of Team Liquid in the quarterfinals.
NRG made a few interesting acquisitions in the offseason, the most significant of which being the signing of AD carry Oh “Ohq” Gyu-min. Ohq is immensely talented, albeit reckless, and will be paired with much-maligned former Dignitas support Alan “KiWiKiD” Nguyen. At first this seems like an overly-aggressive recipe for disaster, but there’s something to be said about the fact that they’ll likely be on the same reckless page. If they can communicate well enough to coordinate an offensive together, they’ll take opponents by surprise.
Former TL top laner Diego “Quas” Ruiz will return to competitive play this split with NRG, and the team is rounded out with ex-TSM and Huma jungler Lucas “Santorin” Larsen. For NRG, it won’t be a question of talent on paper, but how well their talent comes together.
Stymied by visa issues at the beginning of the split, Echo Fox were not able to come together in time to make an unlikely playoff run despite obvious growth throughout the season. The organization has fully committed to these five players for the upcoming summer split, with AD carry Yuri “KEITH” Jew’s Korean challenger ladder status updates accompanying videos and pictures of their Korean bootcamp.
Due to Echo Fox’s inability to field their starting roster — Week 1 aside — until Week 5, it was difficult to gauge the team’s strength in spring. Summer will be Echo Fox’s first full season together, a true representation of what identity these five players have as a unit. Even amidst their troubles last split, Echo Fox showed promise. Veteran Henrik “Froggen” Hansen was a steady, sometimes overwhelming presence in the mid lane, while top laner Park “kfo” Jeong-hun showcased impressive engage sense in teamfights as well as laning prowess. Keith was often able to clean up fights, showing that his true value as an AD carry lies outside of his oft-scorned laning phase.
Echo Fox already had all of their pieces in place, but now they have ample time throughout the summer season to adapt, adjust, and prove themselves.
Upon transferring to Renegades with fellow Team Dragon Knights teammate Noh “Ninja” Geon-woo, top laner Shin “Seraph” Woo-hyeong famously said that Renegades were now the second-best team in the NA LCS. Perhaps Seraph’s words were a bit optimistic, but there’s no doubt that Renegades remarkably improved after Seraph and Ninja’s arrival.
Now at the helm of Renegades’ former LCS spot — after a host of offseason troubles for Renegades resulting in the team’s permanent ban from Riot-sanctioned competition — Team Envy retained both Ninja and Seraph along with support Nickolas “Hakuho” Sergent. Joining the team is former Team Impulse jungler Kim “Procxin” Se-young, AD carry Benjamin “LOD” deMunck, and AD carry Zachary “Nientonsoh” Malhas.
Make no mistake, Ninja and Seraph are at the core of this team. Procxin is an aggressive jungler who makes rash decisions, but appeared to mesh well with Seraph when the top laner substituted for Wang "Feng" Xiaofeng in Weeks 2 and 3 of the spring season. LOD will finally get a chance to prove himself as an LCS starter rather than convenient AD carry substitute for teams in need, and Nientonsoh returns to competitive play after a season-long sabbatical.
It’s an intriguing lineup that neatly organizes the three Korean-speaking players in top, jungle, and mid with a domestic bot lane. Envy’ largest hurdle for 2016 NA LCS Summer is the stiff competition they’ll face throughout the split. This roster could come together, but not likely in enough time to make a postseason push.
Fully committing to a 10-man roster, Apex Gaming has changed significantly since their challenger days, which only saw substitutions between junglers Seo “Eve” Jun-cheol and Lee “Shrimp” Byeong-hoon. Now Eve is no longer with the team due to a suspension, and Apex has filled out every player spot with available talent.
Top laner Jeon “Ray” Ji-won, formerly of Edward Gaming, is an interesting pickup, as is legacy jungler Danil “Diamondprox” Reshetnikov. Former Team Dignitas mid laner Danny “Shiphtur” Le and AD carry Apollo “Apollo” Price were also acquired in a deal that included Dignitas’ challenger spot and LA gaming house.
The new Apex Gaming is an odd amalgamation of veteran and rising talent mashed together in a 10-man lineup. There’s no telling what permutation of players Apex will choose to start the season, or whether they’ll stick with that lineup from game to game, let alone series to series. Larger rosters and constant substitutions have thus far proven unsuccessful in League of Legends because they fracture necessary synergy and team coordination required for in-game success. Former LCS pros Brandon “Saintvicious” DiMarco and Alberto “Crumbz” Rengifo have a tough task ahead of them as coaches, proving that a larger lineup can work in an increasingly team-oriented game.
A late entry into the fray, Phoenix1 is the rebirth of Team Impulse — who were banned from competing in Riot-sanctioned leagues for not paying their players — under a new ownership group that includes the vice-chairman of Paramount Pictures. No stranger to exceeding low expectations from his time on TiP, support Austin "Gate" Yu returns along with his laning partner, Brandon "Mash" Phan.
Solo queue jungler Rami “Inori” Charagh will make his LCS debut, as will top laners Brandon “Brandini” Chen and Derek “Zig” Shao. Andrew “Slooshi” Pham returns to competitive play to fight for the mid lane spot with TiP’s starter from last split, Choi “Pirean” Jun-sik.
This team features some previously untested talents — Zig and Inori, in particular — who should be interesting to watch. Unfortunately, this roster doesn’t look to have the firepower to stand up to other, more organized and experienced lineups in the region.
Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.