A Different Energy
As Joshua 'Dardoch' Hartnett finished his Tiamat on Lee Sin in game two of NRG vs Team Liquid in the NA LCS quarterfinals and then proceeded to nearly get a pentakill, I realised that this unfortunate iteration of NRG Esports was finished. Sure enough, the next game would be just as brutal and NRG dropped out of the NA playoffs in one of the most dominant best-of-five series ever seen in the region.
Going in to Spring 2016, NRG was hyped up, and rightly so; they had Jung 'Impact' Eon-yeong, Season 3 World Champion; Galen 'Moon' Holgate, a highly respected rookie jungler; fan-favourite and top OGN mid laner, Lee 'GBM' Chang-seok; Johnny 'Altec' Ru, one of the best ADCs in NA; and Kwon 'KonKwon' Koo-hyuk, a rookie with the benefit of being bilingual (Korean and English) to hopefully aid communication. And yet, as seems so common with hyped rosters, they completely fell apart, showing no signs of what was expected from them in the preseason aside from the occasional glimmer of hope in the occasional match.
So, understandably, the lineup was completely revamped, with GBM, the star of the show, being the only player to survive the purge. The new members, while certainly coming as a surprise to many, are rather familiar faces: Diego 'Quas' Ruiz in the top lane, Lucas 'Santorin' Larsen in the jungle, Oh 'Ohq' Gyu-minat at ADC and Alan 'KiwiKid' Nguyen at support. Each name has its own eyebrow raise and each one for a different reason but there is hope behind this roster, and perhaps even more than last season's.
Stolid as a Rock
Even before he arrived on the scene, Quas was a respected player. Getting challenger (even in NA) on 150 ping is no mean feat, yet Quas seemed to manage it from his home in Venezuela with ease. Playing for Curse (now Team Liquid) in Season 4 and 5, he always showcased a huge champion pool with a hugely diverse pool of picks, be they meta, off-meta or unheard of (see: Swain).
In Spring 2015, Quas, at one point, played a total of nine champions in a row, almost unheard of diversity. Simply put, a champion ocean. His picks and his carry performances definitely put Quas in the running for best top laner in NA. This all happened while his team struggled to synergise with new ADC Chae 'Piglet' Gwang-jin and Kim 'FeniX' Jae-hun struggled in the mid lane, so the burden was often put on Quas to take the helm, a role he was rather successful in.
With TL's synergy issues fixed going into the Summer Split, many believed them to be able to step up as the best team in North America and while they ended up winning the regular season, it was by no means a cut-and-dried affair. Despite their regular season victory, Quas' own play began to worsen and worsen. As top lane meta shifted more and more towards tanks and TP play with less emphasis on the laning phase (in which Quas excelled), he began to look a far weaker top laner, with his extremely poor TP usage even being looked at as a fatal reason why Team Liquid did not qualify for Worlds. After said failure, Quas took time off due to personal issues and is only now returning once again to the LCS.
For NRG, this pick-up is by no means a poor one, in fact, as far as non-import top laners go, probably one of the better ones, but Quas' fall off in late 2015 (while possibly being partly attributed to his personal problems) cannot be forgotten. While personal play is a problem solved by Quas himself, good TP play requires good communication, something which may be lacking considering the expected language barriers in NRG.
Overall, much like most of NRG's roster swaps, this has potential. Quas can be a great top laner and has proven himself on the stage many times before. As stated previously, he was probably the best native free agent available but I cannot help but worry about Quas in an environment with poor communication. The meta right now is massively focused on TP and we have seen before how ineffective Quas can be in this regard on TL, a team which actually had communication problems similar to how I would expect NRG's to be. The boon for NRG, however, is that, much like Impact, Quas can play all styles successfully, particularly carries, which should help to lift the burden of carrying from GBM's shoulders, and his dominant laning phase should create some pressure on the map, something NRG sorely lacked last season.
A Precarious Pick
Spring Rookie of the Split 2015 in NA, part of the IEM World Championship winning TSM roster and NA Spring Split champion, many believed Santorin could be the next big talent. He played a style of being Søren 'Bjergsen' Bjerg's third summoner spell (much akin to how he played in Challenger when he was Mash's third summoner spell as well), he would set up perfect vision around his lane and then add more pressure allowing Bjergsen's standard lead to ramp up to even greater totals until he essentially took over the game. When not camping for his mid laner, Santorin would be farming up for teamfights in which he would play exceptionally as seen by his Meteos-esque KDA in Spring.
Yes, much seemed to signal towards Santorin's greatness, until his passivity and lane camping was completely exposed at the Mid-Season Invitational and he was seemingly only able to watch as other lanes collapsed around him and Bjergsen's ten CS lead in mid granted TSM no winning advantage. Then, Santorin was turned on, called out as the major reason for TSM's failures: his invisibility on the map, his completely lack of pressure anywhere, his non-existent synergy with Ham 'Lustboy' Jang-sik, all of which was not entirely unfounded. Santorin would leave TSM that year after Worlds, with bittersweet memories of his time there, but with the pungent aftertaste of failure so apparent in his mouth.
In Spring 2016, Santorin competed in EU challenger and, to be blunt, was rather disappointing. It was not so much that he played poorly, it was more that he did not play particularly amazing, which is what one would hope for considering he was a strong jungle talent in NA for a time and competing in a fairly weak EU challenger split. He would later return to NA and only looked worse in NA challenger, perhaps with a lack of synergy to be blamed.
Moon was no star for NRG, and his replacement was undoubtedly needed but this change is definitely NRG's most perilous. Santorin performs best when he has at least one strong lane, something he should have in Quas and Ohq, which he can abuse to grant his team a lead. He has been known to be inactive, however, and the last thing NRG needs is another jungler who AFK farms camps while exerting no pressure on the map. While mid lane was his clear focus on TSM, GBM is not at all known for his laning phase and thus Santorin would probably be best suited channeling his Coast days and putting pressure on bot, or perhaps letting go of his Dyrus PTSD and showing face in the top lane. Or maybe Santorin can become a carry threat from the jungle. It is definitely possible in this meta and, after all, he does have 9.5 out of 10 mechanics.
An Explosive Element
In OGN 2015, Ohq of NaJin e-mFire was anticipated as perhaps the next Korean ADC to stand alongside the likes of Gu 'imp' Seung-bin, or even the Chinese ADC, Jian 'Uzi' Zi-Hao. Flawless mechanics, strong laning, excellent teamfighting, the only black mark on Ohq's card was his occasional loss of all forms of decision making (coined as 'Ohq moments') in which he would make an absolutely bewildering play to all viewing, usually resulting in his death. Despite this, his reputation as a rising star remained and so it came as a surprise to many when he ended up in NA challenger on Team Dragon Knights.
There, it must be said, neither he nor his team dominated as expected but when it reached playoffs and eventually the promotion tournament, Ohq stepped up massively. He alone almost brought an end to the NA legacy team of Dignitas and in the final qualifying match against Apex Gaming, a series TDK were swept in, he still performed admirably, trying his best to 1 v 9 his way into the LCS.
No-one saw Altec's massive performance drop off coming, but even had he performed well last split, this is far and away NRG's best roster move. Ohq has the potential to become one of the best players in the World and it is slighty surprising that this roster move has been a relatively quiet one. With Altec's poor performance last split and GBM's style of play, I would argue that NRG lacked a true hard carry player. This is an issue no more and had Ohq even played on NRG in the spring, I believe he could have fixed many of their problems. In his career, GBM has never really played with an aggressive ADC, or a superstar, and honestly I feel GBM is more suited to a secondary carry role where he can put in a primary carry performance if need be. Ohq could very well be the key to unlocking this whole lineup for NRG.
The final piece of the NRG puzzle in an unexpected one but, in my opinion, the next best roster change for this lineup after Ohq. KiwiKid is a fan-favourite, popular and famous but, mainly, for all the wrong reasons. Beginning as a top laner on Dignitas, KiwiKid was terrible, and ended up transitioning to support where he was equally terrible. But KiwiKid's endearing positive attitude not only granted him many fans, it also granted him the desire to improve and better his play, which he definitely did.
In Spring 2015, KiwiKid's champion pool was small, Annie being the main part of it with a few other picks available. He eventually found his stride on Alistar (saving DIG from relegation) and even Thresh in Summer, and, in an event many seem to forget, actually found himself at the top of NA for a short while, many a time off the back of his rash and reckless engage. As seems inevitable with DIG, however, they fell, and no one looked worse on the team than KiwiKid, posting incredibly high death scores, possibly why he holds the all time record for deaths in the LCS.
I, however, believe that KiwiKid's high death count is less poor play and more just an inability to not try to make plays. Ahead or behind, he does not give up on landing that Thresh hook or Alistar combo or Bard stun, and (in a way similar to CLG's Choi 'HuHi' Jae-hyun) when the play does not go well, as will happen with repeated tries, it looks terrible, but when the play works, it may just win you the game. The bot lane pairing of Ohq and Kiwi, while a travesty in some minds, is one I am personally excited for, not the least because of the pairing's penchant to occasionally lose their minds (OhKid moments anyone?) but also because their aggression should compliment each other rather well. And after the stagnant and stale Spring Split for NRG, can more aggression really be a bad thing?
As a whole, I think NRG fans can be cautiously optimistic about this lineup. While, on paper, I do not think the roster is necessarily an upgrade (Ohq is probably the only player better than his predecessor, the rest are most sidegrades) but, changes were inevitable for NRG and I think they have done rather well. They maintained their strong core of GBM whilst pairing him with others who can actually carry, hopefully relieving him from the strategy of relying on him alone to win for the team. Communication issues are a definite worry for NRG, as GBM lamented in an interview about the previous roster, but as GBM's English improves, the team's calls should parallel this development.
Unfortunately, I cannot really imagine this roster making Worlds. To me, there is little that would make me put this team above CLG, IMT, TSM or even TL. Instead, I would put them in the wildcard bracket with Cloud9 and perhaps EchoFox. Miracle runs are possible in League of Legends, and we have seen them before. This roster has the potential to make the top of NA standings, it also has the flaws to reach the bottom. Playoffs should be NRG's primary goal and then try to make the gauntlet, and make that final push to the World Championships. It can be done, and NRG are hungry.
Einstein once said that energy cannot be destroyed, only changed. I guess we will find out.