From LMQ to a new-look Dignitas, here are the top storylines of the NA LCS

The North American portion of the League Championship Series (LCS) Summer Split kicks off Friday

Photo via Cloud9/Facebook

The North American portion of the League Championship Series (LCS) Summer Split kicks off Friday. The top three teams will compete at Riot Games’ year end blast, the Super Bowl of League of Legends—the world championships.

Last split saw the three top teams—Cloud 9, Team Solomid, and Counter Logic Gaming (CLG)—emerge as titans, the only teams to finish with winning records. But a number of roster changes and additions to the league have left the landscape much more competitive.

Here’s everything you need to know heading into the Summer Split.

5) The Solomid Shakeup

When Team Solomid owner Andy “Reginald” Dinh placed long-time support Alex “Xpecial” Chu into a tryout phase this offseason, it shocked the scene.

Chu had built a well-deserved reputation as the league’s best support player, in large part thanks to his knack for initiating team fights. That’s a talent invaluable to a team like TSM, who lacks the teamwork and coordination of rivals Cloud 9 and CLG but has the individual skill to back it up.

When Dinh announced Chu was being replaced, it was even more shocking. Especially when the replacement was a challenger player with an incomprehensible alias, Nicolas “Gleebglarbu” Haddad. A large unknown with little experience at the top competitive level, how could TSM rely on a rookie for the all-important Summer Split, which determines whether you make Worlds?

Then Brian “TheOddone” Wyllie, the team’s jungler since the start of 2011, revealed he’d be stepping down and moving to a coaching role. While Wyllie’s decision was not unexpected due to his declining mechanics, the old guard player, affectionately nicknamed “The General,” was a TSM staple, and fans were sad to see him go.

Dinh brought in a replacement in short order, Maurice “Amazing” Stückenschneider, the German jungler for EU LCS team Copenhagen Wolves. Stückenschneider has better mechanics than Wyllie and is a more active player in applying pressure from the jungler, but throwing him into the lineup, without any kind of tryout to see if his playstyle fits or if his personality clashes with the team, is just as risky as bringing in a rookie.

With two players who served as part of the core of the team since early 2011 moving on, these offseason changes will be some of the most important in TSM’s history.

Dinh deserves the benefit of the doubt, considering how successful his last few roster moves have been. Jason “WildTurtle” Tran and Søren “Bjergsen” Bjerg are the top players in the North American LCS at their positions of marksman and mid laner.

But this time, maybe Dinh’s luck will run out. Will Stückenschneider and Haddad improve TSM? Or will they end up missing the special ability of Chu to initiate fights? Or Wyllie’s steady presence in-game?

4) America the Melting Pot

It’s a bit of a cliche to call America at large a melting pot, but it’s certainly an apt description of the North American LCS this split. Only twenty-six of the forty starters for LCS teams originally hail from North America. Twenty-two were born in the USA, and four in Canada.

There are two South Americans, both from Venezuela—though Dignitas’ jungler Alberto “Crumbzz” Rengifo has lived in Canada for seven years and earned his citizenship two years ago.

Six players have crossed the Atlantic, with two new additions hot off the plane from Europe this season.

Asia was not represented in the Spring Split, but a whopping seven players have arrived for the Summer—one Korean, five Chinese, and one Israeli.

The EU LCS, in comparison, features all 40 players from the home continent.

In the Spring we saw CLG bring in German jungler Marcel “Dexter” Feldkamp and TSM sign Danish youngster Søren “Bjergsen” Bjerg. Curse picked up Venezuelan Diego “Quas” Ruiz, who had moved to America earlier in 2013 to better pursue his pro gaming career. Evil Geniuses qualified for the league with three Europeans at the core of their team, though marksman Peter “Yellowpete” Wueppen is now benched.

This split the number of imports has increased. TSM added a German jungler of their own, Maurice “Amazing” Stückenschneider, and CLG searched across the Pacific Ocean this time for their new Korean top laner, Shin “Seraph” Woo Yeong.

Six esports immigrants made it through the promotion series this season. LMQ and their five Chinese players, and Complexity’s captain and jungler, Ram “Brokenshard” Djemal, from Israel.

Perhaps no better example of the American dream exists than Djemal, who qualified for the EU LCS with Dragonborns but never had a chance to compete due to an illness knocking him out of the lineup. Djemal moved to the United States for one last shot at his pro gaming dream, and he made it.

That’s probably the best part of the story — while some players, like Bjerg and Feldkamp, were plucked straight from Europe onto top American squads, many have moved to America with no guarantees. They’ve had to work hard to earn their chance in LCS.

LMQ wasn’t assured of making it out of the Challenger series, but they seized their opportunity and didn’t let go. Same goes for Djemal and Ruiz.

Not everyone has met with that success, or had the same determination to see their dreams in America through. Quantic Gaming, for example, brought over a team of Korean pros in September of 2013, but failed in their bid to reach the LCS.

The debate about whether it’s a good or bad thing that so many foreign players have entered the American scene is largely a moot one. Bjerg’s just as much an American as anyone else, once he’s living here and sinking his teeth in a hambjerger like the rest of the us.

Riot better be quick in grabbing those athletic visas, though, because last split, every foreign player in the league missed games. If that happens this time around, with so many new faces, it could be a bit apocalyptic.

3) The Underdogs: Dignitas and Curse

Dignitas and Curse have long been the teams nipping at the heels of those at the top of the scene. When TSM was winning tournaments, Dignitas was right behind them, but never in front. Curse is fated for fourth place, or so goes the running joke that is, nevertheless, based in fact. They’ve finished in fourth in each of the last two Spring Splits, ceding the dubious distinction to Dignitas last summer.

Both teams have done well enough to rank among the best of the pro scene, but have never reached the level of a true champion. That’s done well for them in the League scene of the past, when the team could rake in streaming revenue while putting up decent results and maintaining their standing.

This season, with their LCS competition increasing every split, and three spots at the World Championships on the line, the two teams can no longer be content with doing just enough.

“It’s not good enough to be third best anymore. You have to be first,” William “Scarra” Li, current coach and former captain of Team Dignitas, told the Daily Dot. “There may not have been risk of relegation before, or risk of not going to worlds, but now the competition is so high there’s a chance of getting relegated.”

With that in mind, both teams made big moves to improve.

Dignitas made one of the biggest changes in the offseason when they acquired the two stars powering Team Coast. Dignitas forced Coast into relegation when they bested them in the Spring Split fifth-place match.

Danny “Shiphtur” Le and Darshan “ZionSpartan” Upadhyaya upgrade the team’s weakest positions last scene—mid lane and top lane—with mechanically powerful players who showed they have the ability to carry games last season. Le often put Coast on his back with herculean efforts to keep them in games or steal wins in games that have been losses.

The additions come with Li, long-time leader of Dignitas, moving to a coaching position, where his ability to keep a positive attitude and vast knowledge of the game could help Dignitas take the next level.

Curse may not be making changes quite as big as Dignitas, but they weren’t afraid to take a gift when one fell in their lap.

When TSM ended up cutting Alex “Xpecial” Chu, Curse jumped at the chance to stick him in their lineup. Last season Curse struggled to find consistency at the support position before settling on the up-and-coming Michael “Bunny FuFuu” Kurylo. While Kurylo performed great, Chu is a luminary at his position, the undisputed top support in the North American region.

Chu is a playmaker whose ability to initiate is one of the reasons why TSM was solid during his long tenure there. He’ll team up with the enigmatic David “Cop” Roberson in the bottom lane for Curse. The last time Roberson played with a support with a penchant for playmaking, Gambit Gaming star Edward Abgarayan, who Curse imported from Russia for the 2013 Summer Split, Roberson led the league in kills.

So while Curse may be cursed to finish in fourth place every season, and Dignitas hasn’t yet shaken off their infamy as the league’s best at throwing games, both teams have taken huge steps forward. The rest of the LCS, beware.

2) The Chinese Invaders: LMQ

Predictions are varied on just how good Chinese team LMQ will be in the North American LCS. Some see them as a potential title contender, but their results make them look more middle of the pack.

LMQ’s Challenger Series performance was dominating, but they were not unbeatable. They narrowly survived the Challenger playoff finals against Cloud 9 Tempest, pulling together a 3-2 comeback win after dropping the first map.

Based off that performance, it sounds reasonable to rank LMQ a tier below the American big three, Cloud 9, TSM, and CLG.

LMQ boasts loads of individual talent. Mid laner Yu “XiaoWeiXiao” Xian is a budding superstar, and the flashy but inconsistent marksman Li “Vasilii” Wei-Jun can take over a game, if he stays off tilt. Their biggest problem as a team is typical of Chinese squads, a poor understanding of the flow of the game. That’s something that competing in NA, against strategically great teams like Cloud 9, should help them improve.

The addition of a Chinese squad also help the North American LCS overall. It ups the level of competition and introduces a fresh playstyle that should force current LCS teams to learn and adapt. It’s never a bad thing to introduce new talent and strategies into a thriving competitive ecosystem.

Whether they can truly challenge for the title remains to be seen, but it’ll sure be fun to watch the frenetic pace of the Chinese game in the North American LCS. And if it means a Chinese team representing America at the World championships, so be it.

1) Can Cloud 9 be beat?

Since entering the LCS, Cloud 9 has obliterated the competition. In their first season, the Summer Split last year, they stormed into the scene and wrecked the league, posting a 25-3 record.

Their foes said they’d be figured out, that their play style would be countered, and that Cloud 9 couldn’t be close to as dominant in the next split. Yet Cloud 9 posted a 24-4 mark this year.

Even more impressive? Cloud 9 is undefeated when it really counts – the playoffs. They’ve won 10 of 10 LCS playoff maps, including two 3-0 decimations of their closest competitor, Team Solomid, in each final.

TSM entered the split with their strongest performing roster ever, their 22-6 regular season the best they’ve ever had in three seasons of LCS play. But they were embarrassed by Cloud 9 when the stakes were highest.

At the All-Star Invitational, with a substitute mid laner in place of recuperating team captain Hai Lam, who had a collapsed lung, Cloud 9 played well enough to place them at the top of the conversation for the best team outside Asia, and maybe even the best team outside Korea, despite their loss to Chinese side OMG in the semifinals.

Team Solomid and Counter Logic Gaming reached across oceans to desperately add the pieces they hope will bring them to Cloud 9’s sky-high level. But will it be enough? Or will Cloud 9 put together another dominant season, on their way to the World tournament?