Breakthrough: A 2016 LPL Summer Promotion and Playoffs primer

by theScore Staff Aug 8 2016
Thumbnail image courtesy of 刘一村 / LPL / 一村‘s album

The League of Legends Pro League has completed with hardly a second to breathe before the 2016 LPL Summer Playoffs and 2017 Spring Promotion begin on Aug. 10. With the World Championship looming, the League of Legends Pro League has become a more focused point of interest, but with a playoffs featuring eight teams, many of which are not recognizable from the last World Championship, digging in might appear daunting. If you choose to brave the rich and, at times, obscured League of Legends Pro League anyway, you should come with a knowledge base.

The sharks have teeth

As soon as LGD Gaming didn’t qualify for the League of Legends Pro League playoffs, it appeared obvious that promotion would have an extra bite to it. If you told a rookie player, “Sure kid, you can play in the big leagues, but you have to take out a team featuring Gu "imp" Seungbin, Jang "MaRin" Gyeonghwan, Wei "We1less" Zhen, and Chen "pyl" Bo first,” that would be daunting enough. But the LSPL teams that may join the promotion tournament also have veterans hungry for redemption, as well as the mechanically impressive rookies, Young Miracles, eager for a second shot at qualifying.

This is easily the most competitive League of Legends Pro League Promotion tournament yet. Six teams will vie for three LPL spots following the auto-qualification of the first place LSPL team. Young Miracles' group of near-complete rookies (only Lee "Marilyn" Yunsang has LMS experience) have intimidatingly high levels of talent aside from a tendency to lose games around Baron. Gao "Ning" Zhenning and Shi "Ming" Senming's laning reaches terrifying highs against their LSPL peers that demands steeper competition.

Kim "Doinb" Taesang's Newbee Young will not collide directly with Baek "Swift" Dahoon's Newbee. But after the very public scuffle between the two Koreans, resulting in Doinb's removal from the flagship roster, it's almost certain the mid laner, along with his new jungler and solo queue star, Kim "Clid" Taemin, would love nothing more than to see their positions reversed next year with NBY in the LPL and Swift fighting his way back. As NBY won the LSPL regular season, they're guaranteed at least Top 2 in the LSPL playoffs, meaning they could autoqualify, but also have no chance of facing Newbee if they do drop to promotion.

That doesn't mean that Doinb vs. Swift is the only notable feud that might resurface in promotion. Liu "AhrI" Xudong, the support for NBY, used to play with Oh My God's AD carry, Han "S1mLz" Jin in 2014 League of Legends Secondary Pro League on WE Academy, qualifying together for the LPL. After AhrI parted ways with WEA, allegedly amicably, S1mlz started an extended weibo feud with AhrI, accusing him of constantly bringing his girlfriend around the team house and calling him and players like him "the reason Chinese teams can't beat Korean teams." WEA's level dropped visibly after AhrI's departure, and they had to fight to stay in the LPL. With AhrI as an instrumental playmaker for NBY, and Oh My God slated to defeat Saint Gaming in the first round of Promotion, the two are almost certain to clash for a spot if NBY falls to Young Miracles in the LSPL final. Perhaps revenge really is must delicious after a cooling period.

If Star Horn Royal Club secure second in the LSPL, a feat that seems unlikely, they may also clash with Oh My God, reprising one of the LPL's favorite rivalries. Though the OMG roster is entirely new, the SHRC roster has familiar faces in Choi "inSec" Inseok and Lei "corn" Wen, both of whom went to the World Championship with SHRC in 2014, defeating OMG in the semifinal. It would be somehow poetic if they climbed over OMG to get into the LPL again.

The group stage imbalance

Not all groups are equal. If one wants to find evidence that Group B was weighted with more strong teams than Group A, one need only look at the final match scores. Only EDward Gaming and Snake eSports finished the split from Group A with a positive match record, while all of Group B’s playoffs teams finished with more best-of-three wins than losses, and even second-place Group A team Snake only finished with one more individual game win than fourth place Group B team Vici Gaming.

That means that I May and Vici Gaming are heavily favored to slip past the first round regardless of Game Talents’ point advantage over Vici. Game Talents’ main offense comes from relying too much on Bong “republiC” Geuntae to dominate laning phase. To get their wins in regular season, they abused a gimmick pick strategy with Leblanc, Jhin and support Trundle, but that won’t help them in the playoffs. Their complete lack of understanding of how to play the map and trade turrets early is mortifying, but that means they might get an initial boost from the removal of lane swaps, should the first round of playoffs be played on Patch 6.15 — still not enough to put them over the edge.

Invictus Gaming have one of the worst bottom lane duos in the league, even after serial roster changes, and at times tunnel so hard on getting Song “RooKie” Euijin ahead that they put themselves in compromising positions to do so. Neither iG nor Game Talents are expected to make a splash, and one wishes at least one extra team from Group B could have made the cut instead.

The third team at Worlds

As with most major regions, two distinct top teams sit above the rest in the LPL: EDward Gaming, and even with stutters, Royal Never Give Up. A swathe of four other teams feasibly vie for third place, and my pick for the strongest teams may surprise.

It’s not Snake eSports. Of I May, Snake, Team WE and Vici Gaming, I’ve been the least impressed with Snake. Most of their wins came from teams within their own group, which had offensively low competition relative to Group B. Though they overcame Team WE and Vici, both sets occurred before either team’s upswing toward the end of the season, and both sets lasted three games.

Snake’s core struggle is the same as it has always been. They found one strategy that worked for them, and they failed to adjust it as their competition reacted. This split, it’s Lê "SofM" Quang Duy. While SofM’s statistics are impressive with 20.2 percent of team damage and incredibly high CS numbers, Snake feels like it’s too much about SofM, and as other junglers have deciphered his pathing, they’ve set him behind. Snake have had almost no answer after that.

Part of the problem comes when solo laners give up their own advantages to assist SofM in the jungle, the enemy team wins the skirmish, and then SofM reverts to a more selfish farming style instead of assisting his lanes. When Snake lose on the jungle frontier, they need to adjust their strategy, and they adamantly refuse to do so.

One help for them may come through in the change to lane swaps. Snake went from last split’s lane swapping team to this split’s — lose the lane swap before it starts by not even coming away with the first turret — team. Standard lanes will also open up teams with more proactive junglers more, but this isn’t necessarily an advantage when almost every team in playoffs fits that requirement.

I May have had a similar problem. Following a strong start, it became very clear where I May excelled and where I May lagged. Pick compositions allow IM to shine the best with Yun “road” Hangil playing engage. Snagging an enemy player out of position granted IM their significant early game leads, as IM could react quickly to take an objective and were above even EDward Gaming for gold leads at 10 minutes.

Mid game indecision and the denial of road’s key engage picks have left IM meandering for another option. The less-than-elite level of their laners means IM also struggle in team fights and don’t necessarily get ahead in standard lanes. Despite IM sitting very close to Team WE in the standings, they feel far more breakable.

That leaves WE and Vici Gaming, two teams with obvious flaws. WE make too many mistakes in the early game with Xiang “Condi” Renjie often pressuring the wrong lane or the team orchestrating failed dives. They instead rely on disengage to allow them to play scaling compositions or simply avoid fights entirely until they feel confident they can take them and win them, playing primarily around Jin "Mystic" Seongjun. At times, they expect Condi to have miracle Baron steals, and rather than actually contesting the objective, will wait around for it to be taken and for Condi to feed unremarkably.

The difference between this split’s Vici Gaming and last split’s comes from tiny improvements to their AD carries. Both Xu “Endless” Hao and Pi “XuanXuanPi” Xiaoxuan won’t tussle in standard lanes with the gods of their role, but they’ve learned to look after themselves in team fights and output modest damage. This opens up the possibility for Choi “DanDy” Inkyu to have a more creative approach to the early game, taking over the jungle and ensuring he gets himself and his solo laners ahead by keeping constant tabs on the enemy jungler.

Standard lanes wound and aid VG in that they open up one of the most creative junglers in the world to surprise and overwhelm the enemy, but they also expose weaker low pressure laners to the opposition. They then struggle in full teamfights unless Lee "Easyhoon" Jihoon has a comfort pick. If Vici Gaming overcome Game Talents in the first round as I anticipate, this will set up another quarterfinals collision between WE and Vici Gaming. The best of five results will give viewers a strong indication of who will represent LPL at Worlds.

This year’s rivalry

In a history of dominant LPL rivalries, EDward Gaming have stood as a titular character for the past three years. In 2014, their main opponent was Oh My God until Star Horn Royal Club overtook them as OMG’s main foe at the World Championship. For most of 2015, the second strongest team felt like LGD Gaming, who managed to usurp EDG at the end for the first World Championship seed before humiliating themselves and self-destructing so irreversibly that they now find themselves in the Promotion Tournament.

For all of EDward Gaming’s dominance, the past two splits, and at the 2014 World Championship, EDward Gaming’s constant string of regular season wins has partly betrayed them. “As an LPL coach for many years, I know that if we keep winning from the first game until the end of the season, that might not be a very good thing," said Coach Ji “Aaron” Xing at the 2015 World Championship. "If we can experience failures, this can help us to learn more.”

Though EDward Gaming didn’t spend last spring dominating the league, they seemed like the favorites to win as playoffs wound to a close. Royal Never Give Up dispatched them handily on their way to the Mid-Season Invitational, despite the team publicly saying multiple times that, based on scrim results, they didn’t think they could defeat EDG.

While appearing unbeatable, EDward Gaming have glaring flaws. Kim “deft” Hyukkyu and Tian “meiko” Ye will almost always look to skirmish early, even if it means attracting the enemy jungler or making a mistake that sets them behind. Ming “clearlove” Kai rarely ganks for Chen “mouse” Yuhao, leaving him vulnerable to getting camped. Why do EDward Gaming have a worse record against lower tier teams than top tier teams? Coincidentally, teams like Newbee, LGD Gaming and Invictus Gaming are host to teams with stronger laning top laners who have abused EDG’s neglect of mouse.

Against Snake, EDG showed adaptation, ganking more for mouse against Li “Flandre” Xuanjun, but they used this approach as well last season in quarterfinals only for top lane to be a strong liability against Royal Never Give Up in the final anyway. The removal of lane swaps also takes out EDG's one consistent mechanism for getting mouse leads, as they played well around him in non-standard scenarios.

EDG’s efficiency in reading information in mid game, however, makes them difficult to crash into, and mouse makes up for weaknesses with strong Teleports. One misplay, and EDG can take several objectives at once, allowing them to add an extra 1,000 gold to leads on average from 10 to 15 minutes, and then another 1,000 from 15 to 20 minutes after that.

Royal Never Give Up have some of the same, but also some different problems to EDG. They focus on bottom lane to the neglect of their mid and top lane. Jang “Looper” Hyeongseok and Li “xiaohu” Yuanhao average the lowest percentage of team gold of players in their roles, putting extra pressure on Jian “Uzi” Zihao when he’s gifted almost every free lane to farm. This made it difficult for RNG to use their solo lane skill advantages against EDG, but they may find themselves more able to adapt, as Liu “Mlxg” Shiyu has a near even split of jungle quadrant starts throughout the regular season, as opposed to clearlove’s heavy bias for blue buff area start on blue side.

The most difficult thing to predict regarding RNG, however, is the terrifying amount of improvement they made as a team in a short time period from last split’s regular season through their Mid-Season Invitational semifinal appearance. Their constant gains in macro and focus have been attributed to Cho “Mata” Sehyeong’s leadership in putting in extra effort to help improve his Chinese teammates’ game knowledge and skill, enabling them to make their own calls.

Both RNG and EDG have byes to semifinals again, and with RNG sitting on the less threatening side of the bracket, the two teams are poised for another final collision. When it happens, it will be a war between two of the most driven team captains in the LPL. If they meet in the final again, both teams will come out with a ticket to Worlds, as one will qualify through accumulated points, and the other by winning the season.

But the coveted first seed is a matter of pride, and after two splits away from the LPL trophy, EDward Gaming’s lips are pursed to kiss it again.

Photo credit: 刘一村

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