Like 2015 Fnatic and 2014 Cloud9 before them, 2016 Team SoloMid now enters the World Championship as the Western team to beat. A quick glance over the past four World Championships tells a tale of Korean dominance with China not so far behind until their dramatic collapse at the 2015 tournament. Since the Season 2 World Championship, five of the eight total finalists have come from Korea. China has produced two Worlds finalists, and Taiwan’s Taipei Assassins took home the Summoner’s Cup in 2012.
No North American team has reached the semifinals of a League of Legends World Championship, since TSM made it to the losers' finals in Season 1. Now, TSM aim to change that narrative.
Team SoloMid were the clear winners of the 2015-16 offseason. Once again centering their team around star mid laner Søren “Bjergsen” Bjerg, TSM acquired talent from both Europe and North America to produce a stacked roster that had fans and analysts slavering to see in action.
Their two most notable acquisitions formed what looked to be one of the West’s strongest bottom lanes in Yiliang “Doublelift” Peng and Bora “YellOwStaR” Kim. A former rival of TSM, Doublelift, was ousted from Counter Logic Gaming — an organization almost synonymous with his own personal brand — and appeared on TSM’s doorstep within 24 hours, eager to prove them, and the world, wrong. New TSM top laner Kevin “Hauntzer” Yarnell was a rising NA star from the now-defunct Gravity Gaming and Dennis “Svenskeren” Johnsen had dazzled EU LCS audiences even as SK Gaming fell further in the EU standings and viewers’ esteem.
The question for TSM going into this past spring was not of when the team would come together, but how quickly. Most fans expected another strong regular season from TSM. The team's previous iteration had run its course. Between TSM’s 2015 World Championship group stage exit and top laner Marcus “Dyrus” Hill’s retirement, it was time for the team to move on. On paper, the organization's celebrated new roster seemed to herald an even brighter future for one of NA scene’s founding fathers.
Instead, TSM could never get all of their pieces to fit together, and finished the 2016 NA LCS Spring Split in sixth place, their lowest finish in NA LCS history. The playoffs proved to be just what TSM needed to find their stride, but, by the time the finals rolled around, they were still slightly behind CLG in terms of coordination. CLG had slowly improved throughout the course of the split, and relied on a strong team dynamic, smart objective trading, and efficient management of their resources to secure their wins. To paraphrase CLG’s comms prior to their Game 5 showdown with TSM at Mandalay Bay, TSM had just learned to be a team, whereas CLG’s teamwork had been honed throughout their regular season and playoff run. CLG went to the 2016 Mid-Season Invitational and performed well above expectations, finishing the tournament in second place just behind Korea’s SK Telecom T1. Meanwhile, TSM went back to the drawing board.
It’s unlikely that rookie support Vincent “Biofrost” Wang was the only puzzle piece that TSM needed to succeed. TSM’s 2016 NA LCS Summer Split dominance is a product of a myriad of factors, most of which are impossible to know from the outside looking in. Yet Biofrost’s arrival ushered in a new era of communication and coordination that made a dramatic difference on the Rift. TSM lost only one best-of-three series in the regular season and only dropped a single game to Cloud9 in the 2016 NA LCS Summer Finals en route to another North American title.
This has led to no small amount of anticipation for their performance at the 2016 World Championship, where they're expected to do the best of all western teams in attendance.
TSM were similarly thought of as favorites to go far at an international event at the 2015 Mid-Season Invitational. The results couldn’t have been more contrary to their initial favorable outlook.
Surprise winners of the 2015 IEM World Championship at Katowice, TSM were touted as the best western team in the world at that time. The 2015 EU LCS Spring Split Finals series between Fnatic and Unicorns of Love had been a 3-2 bloodbath that made both teams look shoddy, whereas TSM were coming off of a 3-1 finals win over C9. Yet, Fnatic rose to prominence throughout the 2015 MSI tournament, taking Faker's SK Telecom T1 to five games in their semifinal bout. They performed well above all expectations, relying on the duo of top laner Heo “Huni” Seung-hoon and jungler Kim “Reignover” Yeu-jin along with then-Fnatic support YellOwStaR, who stood out as their team visibly improved the deeper they went into the tournament. TSM only managed to take one game during the round robin group stages — a victory over Turkish International Wildcard representative Beşiktaş e-Sports Club.
While Fnatic took teams by surprise as they grew their coordination and map movement, TSM appeared stale. Teams figured them out easily and TSM were ill-prepared to shift their gameplan. Thy bore no small amount of criticism for sacrificing Dyrus, placing Bjergsen on the likes of Ziggs and Urgot, and generally struggling to find a playstyle that opponents could not take advantage of early. It was impossible to tell prior to the tournament that teams would so easily best TSM — little by the way of their Summer performance, and Fnatic’s performance, previewed their diverging paths at the 2015 MSI.
Now TSM are fresh off of one of the organization’s most dominant regular season stretches, and only dropped one game to C9 in the Finals and they have to deal with the rising hype and promotion that surrounds their upcoming 2016 World Championship appearance. Similar buildup accompanied NA teams in the past, only to see them shown the door time and again during the Round of 8.
For North American fans, the conversation now shifts from this specific iteration of TSM’s journey to the 2016 World Championship to how they could potentially break North America’s Worlds Semifinals-less streak.
The first, and most obvious, fact cited in talk of TSM as a possible semifinalist is that the current metagame appears to fit TSM like a glove. Strong lanes are where TSM have thrived over the past split. Doublelift has been incredible this past summer with Biofrost by his side. Bjergsen can smoothly transition from DPS carry, to waveclear and zone control, to ruthless assassin, to teamfight maestro depending on what TSM wishes him to be for that particular game. Svenskeren learned how to stymie his adversaries in their own jungles and has became TSM’s primary teamfight initiator while Hauntzer also had a career split. TSM’s bread and butter was already strong lanes that overwhelmed opponents early, allowing them to snowball their advantages to inevitable victories. Now, the time has come to see how their lanes stack up against international competition in a meta that wholly supports their preferred playstyle.
Amidst the rise of Hauntzer, Doublelift’s stunning split, and Bjergsen’s continued reign over the NA mid lane, has also been the much-improved performance of jungler Svenskeren.
A glance at Svenskeren’s pathing while on his former team, SK Gaming, reveals a distinct lack of understanding of how to facilitate his teammates in their lanes, rather than becoming the team’s carry. As SK Gaming crumbled around him, Svenskeren went to work. When SK Gaming won a game in the 2015 EU LCS Summer — all six of them, good enough for a ninth-place finish overall — Svenskeren had something to do with it. Of all EU junglers that split he did the most amount of damage per minute (305) despite having fairly mediocre numbers across the board.
Upon arriving to TSM, his adjustment took time and no small amount of effort. He often looked lost on the map and coordinated poorly with his lanes. It wasn’t until the 2016 NA LCS Spring Playoffs that Svenskeren began to look comfortable, and these matches deferred to his preferred carry playstyle. Becoming a DPS carry for the team meant greater resources that allowed him to take over games on Graves and Nidalee. Yet this dynamic was not sustainable for TSM in the long term, especially with how many resources it took away from other members of the team, mainly Doublelift, as the meta shifted away from carry junglers.
This past summer, Svenskeren has once again faded into the background — no longer a DPS carry but still a key part of TSM’s gameplan. He has a significantly better understanding of how and when to affect his side lanes, partnering with Bjergsen for ganks, dives and teamfight initiation. His increased presence on the map eased enemy pressure on TSM’s lanes, allowing them to exert their own pressure or farm more freely.
The question now is how TSM will continue to play their game against stiff international competition. Their group — composed of Splyce, Samsung Galaxy and Royal Never Give Up — is already tough one, but a necessary challenge for a team that wants to be the best. It’s now up to TSM to eschew the narrative that North American teams either choke, or are simply outclassed come Worlds quarterfinals.
Their time is now.
Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.