Five (other) storylines ahead of the NA Challenger qualifiers
With the release of the NA Challenger Series Open Qualifier bracket, every eye was drawn to one thing - the presence of Cloud 9 in the bracket with a roster featuring seven current or former LCS players, including three of their current nominal starters. While indeed a shocking and intriguing story, the manner in which it has overshadowed everything else in the bracket is unfortunate - unavoidable, but unfortunate.
Hence, this article will not be on the C9 team; rather, it will look to explore the interesting matchups, themes, and teams in the qualifier that aren't C9. While by no means the most loaded Challenger Series qualifier we've ever seen, there are a number of standout rosters and players on show, and good matches from the very first round of competition. Hence, let's get right into it.
Damonte vs Avalanche
Up until the release of the brackets, and the revelation of the existence of the C9 challenger team, the big public story was the sudden departure of Tanner "Damonte" Damonte from Avalanche eSports mere hours before the bracket lock, and a subsequent public feud between Damonte and a former teammate on social media as a result.
While the ethics of Damonte's decision can be debated, it's harder to disagree from a self-interest perspective with where he's landed. Damonte joins fellow Echo Fox substitute Jonathan "Grigne" Armao, former LCS starters Oleksii "RF Legendary" Kuziuta and Ainslie "Maplestreet" Wyllie', and rising talent and top-15 Challenger John "Papa Chau" Le, in a roster that has an on-paper (and on-op.gg) advantage over every other team in the qualifier bar Cloud 9.
Yet, even sans Damonte, it's actually his former team - Avalanche - who are the clearest threat on their side of the bracket. Kieran "Allorim" Logue and Zaryab "Zary" Ali Syed have been slowly building their reputations over the last few months in the Challenger scene, and this is the rare case of a Challenger roster that brings together sufficient talent to spar with the best as well as experience and synergy as a team - not only did they play this split of the Serpentis Pro League, they looked like one of the more impressive teams doing so, finishing with a 10-1 record.
While the loss of Damonte is deeply disappointing, they have at least found about as good a replacement as they could have - Brandon "Easy" Doyle comes in off an 8-2 regular season as the starting mid laner for LAN's Galactic Gamers, having previously played a full split in NACS spring 2015 with CLG Black. With neither team able to meet one another before the bracket finals, and hence Avalanche having the time to gel with their new mid-laner, this should be a great final if both teams make it, and it's actually difficult to stake out a clear favourite at this point.
How far can Maryville go?
While we're still waiting to see Maryville go up against the best of the best - they were disqualified from the North American Collegiate Championship, and are currently awaiting Collegiate StarLeague's Final Four at Dreamhack Austin (having qualified without dropping a game to date) - it's hard to dispute that they're at least one of the best collegiate teams, and it's almost impossible to dispute that they're the best-looking. Since the school reached out to Enemy's Dan "Clerkie" Clerke last autumn, they have built up what looks from the outside to be perhaps the strongest program on every level in collegiate eSports in terms of publicity, infrastructure, and most importantly, the roster.
There's no formal affiliation between the 'Maryville plus grill' roster and the program, but it is in effect an identical team; four of the five members are the same (including notable scene names Tony "Saskio" Chau and Marko "Prototype Black'" Sosnicki), with the only exception being the replacement of John "Papa Chau" Le with former LCS support Maria "Remi" Creveling.
With one of the softer draws in the first two rounds, and on the correct side of the bracket (i.e. away from Cloud 9), it's not impossible to see this team making a deep run. Certainly, they don't lack in confidence; both Clerkie and Prototype Black have been notably outspoken in the past on the strength of Maryville in relation to NACS and even LCS teams. While most would have to say that at least one of Avalanche and 'the monkeys' will be a step too far, if Maryville can get rolling they could be dark horses to take it all.
Talent emerging from C9's shadow?
Cloud 9 will win the right side of the bracket; that's unfortunate, but not only does it seem very unlikely that any other team in the bracket full stop could take them down in a Bo3, there really aren't any standout teams on that side of the bracket anyway.
That's not to say that there isn't talent, however. In terms of dynamic queue rank, four of the top five players in this entire tournament are on this side of the bracket - granted, two of them are on Cloud 9, but there's also Team Checkpoint's Hyowon "LOLFILL" Lee and KR Players's Andrew "WayOfTheTempest" Stark. Between those two, a number of other recognisable names with scene experience (such as the trio of Lyonel "Arcsecond'" Pfaender, Paul "Indivisible" Nguyen, and Alvin "iMysterious" Ngo on NA Players), and rising talents such as Sain eSports' "Kinoscorpia" and Brendan "Flamboozle" Robinson, there are a number of players that could conceivably make their ways onto NACS rosters after their teams are eliminated; it'll be intriguing to see which, if any, can emerge in the destruction that Cloud9 are likely to wreak.
Qualifier super-teams: will they blend?
A number of teams in the roster, by all appearances, have been very recently put together. 'the monkeys' is the most prominent example, but the present Frank Fang Gaming roster with Ryan "ShorterACE" Nget and Steven "Poppers OP" Cooper, the Team Checkpoint roster with LOLFILL and Dillon "WelcomeToHeaven" Stayner among others, and the aforementioned NA Players are all examples of teams with significant individual talent that seem to have been put together very close to the deadline.
While the latter two of those teams can consider themselves unlucky owing to the bracket draw, the former both should on paper have strong shots at making a run all the way. The question is: for teams that have been so recently assembled, will the synergy be there? While the sheer individual talent should grant victories almost by default against that handful of D1-D3-dominated teams in the tournament, a near-supermajority of players in the tournament are at least Master tier, and it doesn't take an impossibly huge leap of faith to see, for instance, a potential shock of 'the monkeys' by Flash Point eSports (with Challenger jungler Omar "OmarGod" Amin).
One of the new aspects of the qualifier system as opposed to the old ladder system is that, while super-teams could be formed in the previous system in short order, there was still the ladder grind ensuring that any team coming in would have hundreds of hours playing with at least the majority of that team in ranked 5s. Mike "Wickd" Petersen's 'team brun sovs' (later Denial eSports) may have been formed a week before the lock, but still had to play 85 games together in said week to secure their spot. The spring qualifiers did not present many particular challenges in this regard because of the bracket draws; there could be more chances here.
Can an under-ranked team make a run?
On the flip-side of the super-team question is that of whether any of the lower-ranking teams can make a run. A number of teams with long histories and often decent local and regional tournament records, but seeming to lack that dominant individual skill by reputation or dynamic queue ranks, are in this bracket; examples include Serpentis Pro League standouts Heirtom Airlines (8-3 in Division 1 this split) and Canadian scene mainstays DatZit Gaming Fire.
In truth, the answer is almost certainly 'no'. When those teams have historically come to either qualifiers or serious Challenger tournaments, they've typically been crushed. DatZit Gaming actually provides one of the more recent examples of this; coming into last winter's HTC Ascension off the back of, among other things, securing top seedings with both teams on the ranked 5s ladder, their two squads went a combined 3-11 in matches and 8-23 in games. The gulf in talent and experience tends to show itself quite viciously even in Bo3 scenarios, and it's difficult to see any squad building up any momentum for a run with how the bracket's drawn.
The NA Challenger Series Open Qualifier kicks off on Saturday 23rd April. Bracket image courtesy of lolesports.