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Emily Rand's NA Mid-Season Review: Historical context

by theScore Staff Jul 7 2016
Thumbnail image courtesy of Riot Games/lolesports / NA LCS Summer 2016 / Riot Games

Another LCS split, another attempt at an undefeated run. Spring had the former Fnatic duo of Seo “Huni” Seung-hoon and Kim “Reignover” Yeu-jin with their new team Immortals running rampant over the North American League of Legends landscape. While Immortals fell in the playoffs, eventual NA Spring champions Counter Logic Gaming came in a surprise second-place at the 2016 Mid-Season Invitational, vastly improving the region’s stock before a substantial international audience.

Mid-Summer Split, NA is still improving, but the undefeated team on top is now Team SoloMid. TSM's rise to the top of the 2016 North American League Championship Series isn’t shocking, but their utter dominion of the region — 10-0 undefeated series run with a 20-3 overall game record for an 87 percent winrate — is a bit more surprising, especially with NA’s top teams looking significantly stronger than the previous split and the introduction of a grueling best-of-three schedule.

Here are NA’s teams in the order of their 2016 NA LCS Spring finish — Phoenix1 taking the place of Team Impulse, Team EnVyUs taking the place of Renegades, and Apex Gaming taking the place of Team Dignitas — and how they’ve lived up to or defied initial expectations.

The Former Top Three

Counter Logic Gaming

Fresh off of a strong 2016 Mid-Season Invitational performance, Counter Logic Gaming were poised to take over a new, stronger NA field. Prior to the start of the Summer Split, CLG were atop many pre-season rankings, expected to continue to push NA forward using what they learned at MSI as a guide, and follow a similar trajectory of Fnatic’s 2015 Mid-Season Invitational surprise success.

Sixth place with a 40 percent winrate is not where CLG, or anyone, expected them to be.

CLG’s greatest strength throughout the 2016 NA LCS Spring Split was their ingenuity in covering up major individual weaknesses of the team with their dynamic as a five-man unit. Surprisingly, this dynamic was flexible and changed over time. It began with top laner Darshan “Darshan” Upadhyaha stepping up, a key part of CLG’s 4-1 splitpush style. This later evolved into a 1-3-1 that separated both jungler Jake “Xmithie” Puchero and Darshan in side lanes with the rest of the team more often than not grouped up and pushing mid. During the 2016 NA LCS Finals and through the 2016 MSI they became more of a teamfighting unit, relying on Xmithie as another source of DPS from the jungle while Darshan and support Zaqueri “aphromoo” Black locked down opponents by chaining crowd control.

At all of these points, CLG had clear weaknesses. Xmithie did not begin the spring split with the same amount of pressure from the jungle as he displayed come season’s end. AD carry Trevor “Stixxay” Hayes was still acclimating to his new home and discovering his role on CLG, eventually leading to breakout performances in the Finals and at MSI. Mid laner Choi “Huhi” Jae-hyun was a lightning rod for criticism, but made up for his lack of mid-lane control by roaming and aiding side lanes. CLG was not a perfect five-man unit, but they knew themselves better than any team in NA, working together to mask their deficiencies.

This split CLG, by their own accounts, failed to adjust to the meta initially. However, what began as shaking off the rust and acclimating themselves to the new League of Legends landscape has now spiralled into a complete lack of understanding and general underperformance. Even when things look good for CLG, they all-too-often squander their early advantages by overextending for kills and misidentifying opportunities to press their lead. All of this was on full display in their 2-0 loss to TSM this past weekend, especially in Game 2, where CLG used Huhi’s Aurelion Sol and Xmithie’s Nidalee to apply early pressure, only to disrespect their lack of vision and push for a kill onto Yiliang “Doublelift” Peng. The end result was a two-for-nothing swing in TSM’s favor. From this point, TSM continued to collapse on CLG, concentrating their efforts and breaking up CLG’s map pressure.

It’s easy to point to one CLG player or the other and cite underperformance, but the reality is that the team no longer understands how to cover these same weaknesses that were always there, even in the spring season.

Team SoloMid

TSM entered the spring split as heavy favorites, with a roster that looked perfect on paper, befitting one of NA’s most decorated franchises. This included former Fnatic support Bora “YellOwStaR” Kim — often credited ahead of Huni and Reignover with much of Fnatic’s 2015 success — former CLG mainstay Doublelift, and former SK Gaming jungler Dennis “Svenskeren” Johnsen.

Yet, despite their talent, TSM struggled during the regular season in a somewhat similar fashion to 2016 NA LCS Summer CLG. They misidentified areas of opportunity, disrespected vision, appeared wholly uncoordinated in teamfights, and had no idea how to execute the standard laneswap — often leaving top laner Kevin “Hauntzer” Yarnell several levels and kills behind his laning opponent when all was said and done. YellOwStaR and Doublelift were rarely of a similar mindset with the former wishing to roam and the latter focused on garnering laning advantages while Svenskeren presumably struggled with where to donate his early attention and time. The team completely lacked an identity and not even star mid laner Søren “Bjergsen” Bjerg could help carry them out of it.

This all changed during playoffs. Suddenly, Svenskeren was receiving more resources — sometimes more than Doublelift — stepping into a carry role alongside Bjergsen. They tore through the 2016 NA LCS Spring playoffs, only falling after a close 3-2 final with CLG.

What a difference a split and one substitution makes. Despite being a rookie, support Vincent “Biofrost” Wang has been just the missing piece that TSM needed to truly discover their team dynamic.

Having found his place on the team during their spring playoff run, Svenskeren has settled into the key role of primary initiator. Svenskeren has the largest percentage of his team’s deaths than any starting jungler in NA despite remaining well below the highest raw amount of deaths — 75 total from Apex Gaming’s Lee “Shrimp” Byeong-hoon. Of TSM’s players, Svenskeren is tied with Hauntzer for the highest death percentage, but his deaths ensure that the rest of the team stays alive, cleaning up the fights that he initiates on Rek’Sai and Gragas. This is a far cry from his regular season performance this past spring, where he was invisible in many of TSM’s losses.

While TSM funneled the majority of their resources into Doublelift during spring — and lost any semblance of team identity since Doublelift and YellOwStaR did not mesh together well — they’ve shifted slightly this split, giving both Bjergsen (24 percent) and Doublelift (24.4 percent) an almost identical share of the team’s total gold. Similarly, they receive almost the exact same amount of CS post-15-minutes with Bjergsen taking 28.7 percent and Doublelift 28.4 percent. One of the major issues that TSM had in spring was where to donate not only their gold resources but time and attention.

The simple addition of Biofrost and his synergy with Doublelift in lane has led to new heights for a TSM team that now seems wholly comfortable with themselves as a unit. This has led to smoother transitions from the laning phase into their mid game, something with which other NA teams have struggled. That being said, it’s not inconceivable that a team like Immortals or a vastly improved CLG or Cloud9 could defeat TSM — going undefeated in a best-of-three season is a daunting and improbable task — but currently, no other NA team understands how to turn their early lead into a victory like TSM.

Immortals

Coming into the Summer Split with the same exact team, all eyes were on Immortals in the upcoming best-of-three season. Known as a creative team willing to test the perceived limitations of the current meta — often met with heavy criticism — Immortals stuck to their winning formula in the 2016 NA LCS Spring playoffs and were quickly swept 3-0 by a rising TSM.

A best-of-three season would have prevented this stagnation, forcing Immortals to shift accordingly with the meta. Of all teams from Spring, Immortals were one of the more scrutinized units going into the new season of series rather than best-of-ones.

Immortals remain a creative and aggressive team who prey on opponents’ indecisiveness by recognizing advantageous situations. Most recently, in their series against C9, Immortals challenged C9 to a base race seven-and-a-half minutes into the game that left C9 on the back foot while Immortals wiped neutral objectives off of the map.

This is where Immortals excel more than any other NA team — clearing their own, and opponents’, jungles while stockpiling Dragons, turrets, Rift Heralds, and Barons. Of all NA teams this split, Immortals have the best Rift Herald control (58 percent), second-best dragon control (65 percent), second-best Baron control (70 percent) and best jungle control (54.8 percent). Their ability to recognize when to press opponents and favorably trade objectives was Immortals' key to success throughout the spring split and they’ve reprised it this summer.

Led by Reignover, Immortals’ strong jungle control hints at these priorities. They will always take something, and more often than not, that something will be more than what their opponents are taking. Even if a fight appears to be against Immortals, they will turn that fight into some objective gain. Their aggressive style has more than a few drawbacks, and their few game losses have come at the hands of teams willing to meet their aggression with similar creativity and proactivity, or teams that recognized how to trade favorably against Immortals (TSM). It’s difficult to see Immortals finishing any lower than third place in the regular season. Their true test will be proving that they’re adaptable enough to make it through successive, best-of-five playoff series.

The Spring Playoff Contenders

Team Liquid

Team Liquid received full marks for immediately making necessary roster changes in the 2016 NA LCS Spring split, bringing in Matthew “Matt” Elento and promising jungle talent Joshua “Dardoch” Hartnett in the second week. While the team still initially struggled, Dardoch rose to become one of NA’s best junglers in the spring regular season, while Matt and veteran AD carry Chae “Piglet” Gwang-jin were one of the most fearsome NA bot lanes, often winning their lane on their own with little to no jungle help. Their close 3-2 fall to CLG in the Spring Semifinals almost felt more like an accomplishment than a failure — providing one of the best NA series of the year — and stood as a promise of what this team could accomplish going forward into the summer split.

Unfortunately, what followed was Dardoch’s suspension due to “insubordinate behavior” according to TL. The team lasted a mere three games — two losses to nV for a series loss and one loss to TSM — before Dardoch returned to the team during the TSM series. Two series later, Piglet was benched in favor of AD carry Jovani “fabbbyyy” Guillen.

Once again, Piglet finds himself on the outside of TL looking in while another NA challenger marksman takes his place. This time, instead of Yuri “KEITH” Jew, it’s fabbbyyy, the famed gatekeeper of solo queue, who has stepped up and filled the AD carry role well during TL’s recent win streak. Throughout their struggles in 2016, TL has not hesitated to make roster moves for the good of the team going forward, a blueprint that other teams may increasingly follow as the game becomes all the more team-oriented.

Individually, there’s no doubt that Piglet is the stronger player. He was arguably the best AD carry in the 2016 NA LCS Spring split, despite weaker numbers than Immortals’ Jason “WildTurtle” Tran, and brought a steady carry presence that few NA players are able to provide. Yet, gone are the days when one player can take over a game and single-handedly carry their team to victory. What matters more in today’s professional LoL matches is team coordination and communication, something that TL apparently struggled with when Piglet and Dardoch were both on the same roster. In the current meta, Dardoch is a more important cog in the TL machine, simply by being a jungler — the role that has the most early map impact and can dictate the pace of the game.

Most recently, TL overcame C9 2-1 in their Week 5 series, showing calm and cool heads in a grueling series that included a game remake. If they can keep this poise throughout the season, there’s little doubt that TL will continue to improve, giving Immortals, C9, and possibly TSM another strong contender at the top of the NA LCS standings.

Cloud9

Last split was Cloud9’s final attempt at relying on revered team leader Hai “Hai” Lam as their stopgap between suffering through initial struggles to ultimately become a stronger team. The 2016 NA LCS Spring C9 roster had a highly visible skill ceiling but — perhaps with their miserable start to the 2015 NA LCS Summer split fresh in their minds — the organization seemed unwilling to fully commit towards moving forward. C9 finished third this past regular season due to mid laner Nicolaj “Jensen” Jensen’s phenomenal performances combined with Hai’s proactivity, which still often caught opponents off-guard. Come playoff time this wasn’t enough, and C9 was easily outdone by the superior talent of a rising TSM in the spring quarterfinals.

C9 finally committed to blowing up their roster between their embarrassing 2016 NA LCS Spring playoff appearance and the start of the summer split, sending Hai, top laner An “Balls” Le, and jungler Lee “Rush” Yoon-jae (who later returned to Korea) along with support-turned-coach Daerek “LemonNation” Hart to head up their new NA Challenger squad. Building their new LCS team with Jensen and AD carry Zachary “Sneaky” Scuderi at the core, C9 acquired former NRG top Jung “Impact” Eon-yeong, and their own prior jungler from C9’s Season 3 and Season 4 heyday, William “Meteos” Hartman. Most importantly, they picked up legendary Korean player Bok “Reapered” Han-gyu as their coach — someone who can teach them a macro game beyond their previous strategy of simply being more proactive than their domestic opponents.

Despite a few hiccups, including recent Week 5 losses to both Team Liquid and Immortals, C9 have been an interesting and fun team to watch this split, showcasing improved understanding with nearly every game they load into. Their largest weakness has been a recent lack of proactivity, which has led to C9’s opponents taking advantage of their meek early game attitude and punishing them repeatedly, taking over the tempo of the match.

This began after C9’s 2-1 series loss to TSM in Week 3. While they followed that loss with two strong sweeps over Team EnVyUs and NRG in Week 4, C9 became a much more reactive and cautious team, as evidenced in both of their losses to TL and Immortals. C9 should be able to recover — even in the Immortals set, they still were able to recognize advantageous times to take turrets and fight until Immortals completely took over — but need to focus more on what they’re ceding to opponents when they try to play it safe. Playing it safe isn’t inherently bad, although it’s contrary to what has made C9 such a successful organization.

NRG e-Sports

It’s difficult to remember now, due to the team’s continued lackluster performances in both the 2016 NA LCS Spring and Summer splits, but NRG was one of the more talked-about new teams going into the spring season. Built around former Jin Air Green Wings mid laner Lee “GBM” Chang-seok, top laner Impact and AD carry Johnny “Altec” Ru, NRG looked like a promising team on paper prior to the Spring spit. In actuality, NRG had a dismal early game, falling behind their opponents by an average of -1,577 at 15 minutes. Even in their wins, it was difficult to recall how NRG managed to get a gold lead, if they did at all, and their losses were full of the team slowly bleeding out resources and kills until their opponents were knocking at their nexus.

NRG’s only strength in spring was their ability to occasionally pull off creative and intricate compositions, although they still struggled to make their case as a strong NA team come the end of the split, finishing fifth with the same 9-9 record as sixth-place TSM. While TSM rose in the 2016 NA LCS Spring playoffs after a subpar regular season, NRG fell flat on their faces. All of NRG’s weaknesses were on full display in their embarrassing 3-0 loss to Team Liquid in the spring quarterfinals.

Of all the previous 2016 NA LCS Spring playoff contenders aside from CLG, NRG e-Sports have fallen the furthest — from sixth to their current eighth place spot in the 2016 NA LCS Summer standings. Despite having an arguably better roster on paper — acquiring AD carry Oh “Ohq” Gyu-min and jungler Lucas “Santorin” Larsen among others in the offseason — NRG have not translated this talent upgrade into success on the Rift. Santorin has provided a surprising amount of early pressure and a strong teamfighting presence, but NRG’s deplorable mid-game gives any early game advantages right back to their opponents. GBM’s mid lane control has dipped significantly not only from his Jin Air days but from last split and both Ohq and his support Alan “KiWiKiD” Nguyen have been caught out of position by opponents, resulting in unfavorable objective trading.

The good news is that this NRG team wants to win, even while behind. Aside from a few games at the beginning of the split, NRG will no longer slowly be pushed back into their own base without trying to get back into the game. They still suffer to get early advantages, and if they do manage to pull ahead early, there’s no guarantee that they’ll keep them due to their mid game woes, but at the very least they’re willing to put up a fight while losing, which isn’t something that could be said of their spring iteration. NRG are also still capable of pulling off creative compositions or pocket picks — top laner Diego “Quas” Rivera’s Illaoi top and Ohq’s Twitch can be dangerous threats to adversaries — but they’re quickly running out of time if they want to make a late run for playoff contention. With the rest of the NA field stronger than spring, it’s difficult to imagine NRG eeking through, although their talent is certainly capable.

The Rest

Echo Fox

It’s easy to rag on the former Team Impulse entity, Phoenix1, who just won their first series in Week 5 against Apex Gaming. Yet Echo Fox enjoys a much more optimistic outlook in the court of public opinion despite having an identical series record of 1-9.

Fraught with visa issues and substitutions for much of the 2016 NA LCS Spring split, Echo Fox had a surprising amount of coordination for a team that was not together onstage for about three weeks. Park “kfo” Jeong-hun was a strong laner with good teamfight initiation sense, and while AD carry KEITH was fairly poor in lane, he made up for it with choice teamfight positioning, cleaning up fights. Anthony “Hard” Barkhovtsev was a promising young jungler and veteran mid laner Henrik “Froggen” Hansen provided the same stellar mid lane control that so characterized the playstyle of his entire career. Echo Fox finished seventh in the 2016 NA LCS Spring — out of playoff contention, but also out of relegation.

This was the season for Echo Fox to come together as a team, but it has yet to click for them. Placing kfo on more carry-oriented champions like Fiora, Jax and Irelia rather than his spring staples of Malphite and Nautilus has led to a lack of teamfight initiation for Echo Fox and a weird affinity for deep lane freezes. KEITH’s positioning has been highly suspect, and he still frequently loses lane. Froggen has played 11 champions — only nV’s Noh “Ninja” Geon-woo has played more this split — and roamed more than usual in an attempt to apply his own pressure outside of lane, but none of it has worked for Echo Fox.

Team EnVyUs

nV started the split off strong, defying expectations with strong synergy between top laner Shin “Seraph” Woo-yeong, jungler Kim “Procxin” Se-young, and mid laner Ninja. Their bottom lane of Benjamin “LOD” deMunck and Nickolas “Hakuho” Surgent had their own dynamic, and the team came together well in 5v5 engagements. This penchant for late-game teamfighting, coupled with their early objective focus, allowed nV to sprint ahead of the NA pack in the early weeks of 2016 NA LCS Summer.

Unfortunately, an objective focus doesn’t necessarily mean strong map awareness or macro play. Increasingly, nV has lost out in early objective trading against more proactive opponents, failing to recognize when they should take a dragon or turret and losing subsequent skirmishes. Procxin — despite overperforming initially — has appeared worse by the game as of late, missing skillshots and over-aggressing.

That being said, the fact that nV came together so quickly remains beneficial, and should propel the team into playoffs, provided that they can stave off potential adversaries like NRG and Apex.

Phoenix1

Since the addition of their starting jungler Rami “Inori” Charagh, Phoenix1 has appeared stronger, even managing to earn their first win against Apex Gaming recently.

That being said, it’s difficult to imagine P1 moving much further in the standings, simply due to the strength of the field and comparative lack of talent on P1. P1 are not a team that can be taken lightly but, provided opponents prepare, they will remain at the bottom of the region.

Apex Gaming

On the back of top laner Jeon “Ray” Ji-won’s impressive Week 1 carry performances against CLG and NRG, Apex appeared to be a team that could sneak into playoffs, should they continue to improve.

Unfortunately, Apex have struggled to find another solution besides Ray carrying from the top lane. Despite massive improvement from mid laner Jang “Keane” Lae-young — who used to get by on wacky pocket picks without knowing how to actually lane properly — Apex haven’t found a winning formula outside of Ray’s initial NA debut. Last week they handed P1 their first series win and are an underwhelming 2-6 in series after their 2-0 Week 1 start.

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