The time has come to sift the gold from the sand in North America. Playoffs berths will be decided in the next two weeks, and the race for a spot at the 2016 League World Championship will begin in earnest.
Team SoloMid still reign supreme in the region, with Immortals immediately behind. Through the past few weeks, Counter Logic Gaming have made their end-of-season push up the standings, while Team EnVyUs and Cloud9 have started to look disorganized and unsteady on the Rift.
However, there isn't just one race in the NA LCS, there's two: one for a spot in the Finals, and one to stay out of relegations. With only two weeks left in the Summer Split, there are three teams at the bottom of the standings that had promise going into the split but failed to come together — Echo Fox, NRG e-Sports and Apex Gaming. Rather than worrying about a potential Summoner’s Cup bid or a even an appearance in the domestic playoffs, these three now have to worry about staving off demotion to Challenger status.
Ahead of this season, Echo Fox were widely regarded as a possible playoff team. They spent four weeks of the Spring Split mired in visa issues, unable to field their intended starting roster. By the time the lineup of Park “kfo” Jeong-hun, Anthony “Hard” Barkhovtsev, Henrik “Froggen” Hansen, Yuri “KEITH” Jew and Terry “BIG” Chuong were able to regularly play together on-stage, it was already too late for Echo Fox to make a playoff run.
Yet they made a strong case for themselves in Weeks 5 and 6, going on a 4-0 run against Renegades, NRG e-Sports, Team Liquid and Team Impulse. Unfortunately, they failed to push that run to the end of the season, closing out the last three weeks of the split with a 1-5 record.
Echo Fox chose to stay with the same roster for the Summer Split, and hoped to boost their potential with a bootcamp in Korea. The team looked ready to prove that their seventh-place finish this spring was due to lack of practice time together — that they were talented enough to earn a playoff spot with the same lineup starting every week.
Instead, they were the first NA team fully eliminated from Summoner’s Cup contention. Their dismal 1-13 series record and 21 percent overall win rate is good enough for last place in the NA LCS, and falls among the worst in the world. In the five major regions, only Korea’s CJ Entus, China’s Saint Gaming and the LMS’s Team Mist and eXtreme Gamers have performed worse.
In spring, Echo Fox found their footing with all-important initiations from top laner kfo on the likes of Malphite and Nautilus. Relying on Froggen’s steadfast mid lane control, Echo Fox farmed into the mid and late game, forcing their opponents to fight them or turning around teamfights thanks to kfo’s timely engages. While KEITH was not known for his laning prowess, he performed well in teamfights, aided by crowd control from kfo and his support, BIG.
This summer, Echo Fox shifted focus from their 5v5 teamfight-heavy style to more split-push oriented compositions with kfo on Irelia, Jax and Fiora. kfo seems committed to freezing his lane so he can farm early and split away from his team as quickly as possible. The Fox top laner didn't have the highest kill participation in the spring season — he tended to group in the mid-to-late game but generally didn't participate in early skirmishes — but his already low 62.4 percent has dropped to 51.1 percent in summer, the worst of all NA tops.
Despite Froggen’s strong CS differential at 10 minutes — 1.9, good for fourth in NA LCS Summer — he still averages a negative gold differential at 10 minutes, because of how little global gold the team is earning. Echo Fox is an average of -1,577 gold behind their opponents at 15 minutes, the worst of any NA team.
They want to set up kfo to carry as a split-pusher, but lack the map and jungle control to do so. Froggen has taken to roaming more often this split than he has in previous years to try and add map pressure, but this has yet to translate into victories, or even improved map control.
Also hurting Echo Fox has been KEITH’s suspect positioning. This past spring KEITH had the second-worst CS differential at 10 minutes (-5.4) and the worst CS per minute at 8.1 of any NA AD carry, but he made up for it in his teamfighting, piling damage on opponents while BIG and kfo backed him up. The loss of kfo as a tanky frontline initiator has hurt KEITH, who has similarly poor early CS numbers this split without the same teamfighting prowess to balance them out.
On paper, NRG’s roster looks stronger than it was last split. The acquisition of AD carry Oh “Ohq” Gyu-min was one of the larger offseason moves in NA. Meanwhile Diego “Quas” Ruiz returned from retirement to become NRG’s top laner, and the team picked up former TSM junger Lucas “Santorin” Larsen and former Dignitas support Alan “KiWiKiD” Nguyen.
Last split, NRG’s early gold deficits were a running joke. Even their wins were almost always played from behind, and NRG was an average of -1,577 behind their opponents at 15 minutes, second worst of any team that season. The team had no proactivity whatsoever, from early to late game, and tended to simply watch themselves be pushed back towards their Nexus. Much of this was pinned on jungler Galen “Moon” Holgate, who failed to provide early pressure for the team.
For their first two series of the Summer Split, things were looking up. Quas was rusty, and the team was uncoordinated, but Santorin looked better than expected, and the team as a whole was more proactive on the map than their Spring counterparts.
Since then Quas has improved and Santorin has continued to perform well throughout the split, yet as a whole, NRG still lags behind their competition, at times looking even less active than they did in the spring. Mid laner Lee “GBM” Chang-seok starts with early laning deficits, having unfortunately devolved from a reliable, steady presence to an early liability that is regularly -6.8 CS and -132 gold behind his opponent at 10 minutes, the worst of any NA mid laner. GBM looks rough on every champion besides Viktor, and often mispositions in teamfights. The Ohq-KiWiKiD pairing has also been largely unsuccessful for NRG, with the latter often caught out during routine vision rotations.
Currently in seventh place, Apex’s hold on their position just outside of relegations is tenuous. At 5-9, the only comparatively easy opponent that they’ll have is Echo Fox for their first series of Week 9. Their upcoming matches include second-place Immortals, a rising Counter Logic Gaming and fourth-place Team Liquid.
Apex kicked off the season surprisingly strong on the back of impressive carry performances from new top laner Jeon “Ray” Ji-won, using Ekko, Fizz, and his signature Jarvan IV from his LoL Secondary Pro League days. They bested NRG and CLG before falling to Team EnVyUs in Week 2. At that time it was clear that Apex had the tools and players in place to make a serious run at playoff contention. The question was whether this team would come together and continue to improve throughout the split.
One of Apex’s more interesting statlines this season has been their jungle control, which has remained strong as a byproduct of Shrimp’s penchant for farming until the mid and late game. Of all NA teams, Apex has the second-highest jungle control at 53.9, impressive considering their overall place in the standings and 43 percent win rate. It’s far easier for teams to kill more jungle monsters when they control more of the map in more games — the fact that Apex has stronger jungle control than TSM speaks volumes, considering that TSM is an average of 1,916 gold ahead of their opponents at 15 minutes while Apex languishes at -461 behind.
Shrimp’s focus on farming provides Apex with an opportunity to take control of the map themselves, even while behind. Shrimp has the second-lowest First Blood rate of any NA jungler this split (26 percent) but the second-highest CS differential at 10 minutes (4.4). Only Immortals’ Kim “Reignover” Yeu-jin has higher.
That being said, Apex rarely uses this to their full advantage, and they often don’t garner early leads they can snowball off of. This is largely because of the flip side of Shrimp's active jungle control — his inactivity in lanes. If Apex’s laners get ahead early, it’s usually due to their own mechanical prowess, like Ray’s solo kill onto Cloud9’s Jung “Impact” Eon-yeong this past week. Shrimp also appears out of sync with his solo laners in ganks, something that was also on display in Apex's games against C9, where William “Meteos” Hartman and Impact were able to capitalize on Ray and Shrimp’s poor skirmishing synergy.
Shrimp isn’t the only one who often looks uncoordinated. Veteran NA support Alex “Xpecial” Chu has landed some stunning four-man Alistar knockups that have been all for naught without his team to back him up. This is something that plagued Xpecial during his time on Team Liquid in previous splits.
Another issue with Apex has been their struggle to find a gold allocation that works for them. At the beginning of the split, they relied solely on Ray to carry the team, donating him the majority of their minion waves past 15 minutes. Ray still receives the highest amount of CS past 15 minutes of any NA top at 29.6 percent — ahead of both Echo Fox’s kfo and Immortals’ Heo “Huni” Seung-hoon — but Apex have tried to give mid laner Jang “Keane” Lae-young a larger share of these resources as well, at 29 percent. This leaves very little for Apollo “Apollo” Price, who receives the second-lowest share of his team’s CS post-15 minutes of any AD carry in the NA LCS this season. His lack of resources could also explain why Apex sometimes struggles to get Apollo involved in teamfights in a meaningful way — he has the third-lowest damage per minute of any NA AD carry, at 442.
While Keane has stepped up, improving into a far more well-rounded mid laner than his days with Gravity or even with Apex in the Challenger scene, the team have yet to make the most of his and Ray’s carry potential, squandering leads with poor decision-making. Apex has a tough schedule ahead and relegation looms, although they can take solace in similarly difficult schedules for their closest competitors, NRG and Phoenix1.
Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.