Ch-ch-changes: A Pre-Season Recap
Whether you are new to following the North American League of Legends Championship Series or a multiple-season veteran of watching VODs and Riot Games Twitch.tv streams, the beginning of a new season can be a little overwhelming. The start of the 2015 NALCS season is bringing in a lot of change from the re-branding of teams to crazy roster swaps and more, and even those stalking the League of Legends subreddit and lolesports.com are likely to have missed out on something.
So, what exactly should a fan know going into the new season of the NALCS?
More of the Same
Experienced spectators will be familiar with at least four teams by name in 2015.
Long-time favorite Team SoloMid (TSM) will go into the near season no doubt with the intent to show off just how wise their recruitment of Choi “Locodoco“ Yoon-sub and Jang-sik “Lustboy” Ham really was. Coach Locodoco and support Lustboy played important roles in TSM’s successful turn-around in the Summer Split last season and their results in the Group Stages at Worlds. However, TSM will also be playing with another new jungler. Lucas "Santorin" Larsen, most recently of Team Coast during their NA Challenger Series run in the summer of 2014, will take on the mantle vacated by Amazing.
Stat-wise, Santorin was an effective Challenger Series jungler in Summer 2014, playing in six games for a 5.33 KDA. To put this into perspective, the only Challenger jungler to beat his KDA in the Summer series was InfinityDes of NDG by .34, and InfinityDes only took part in one game. The next jungler to take part in more than two games, Inori with four games total, scored a KDA of 3.29. Comparing him to another well-known jungler who made it into the LCS during the promotion and Expansion tournaments, Saintvicious of Gravity (then Curse Academy) scored a 3.26 KDA over seven games. NA LCS junglers in the Summer Split of 2014 tended to score only slightly lower KDAs over more than four times as many games. That being said, much more goes into a player’s performance than a KDA, and this is especially true with a team’s jungler. Santorin will have a lot to compete against in terms of map control coming out from competitors such as Meteos and Crumbzz. With Bjergsen and WildTurtle on the team, TSM needs someone to help LustBoy establish vision and objective control while setting up the stage for others to carry more than they need a carry jungler.
Team Dignitas returns to the NALCS stage after losing two big LCS names. ZionSpartan, the popular carry-oriented top laner that made his name in Team Coast earlier in 2014, was picked up by Counter Logic Gaming in the pre-season. Yeong-jin "Gamsu" Noh will be replacing ZionSpartan. In another big loss, Imaqtpie decided to retire from the professional scene to stream full time. Imaqtpie took the spotlight at the beginning of the 2014 season as he was largely responsible for the team’s outstanding start to the Spring Split with his outstanding Jinx play, and his departure means that Dignitas will field a new duo lane against well-known and praised duos from CLG, C9, and TSM that have had significantly more opportunity to find their synergy. Jo "Core JJ" Yong-in will be the AD Carry attempting to fill Imaqtpie’s shoes.
The two Korean players that Dignitas picked up, Core JJ and Gamsu, are very much a gamble for the veteran team. While at face value it might seem like a positive light to pick up a couple of Koreans to bolster their roster, fans of the LCS are becoming well-accustomed to the fact that simply being Korean or having Koreans on your team does not mean success. Core JJ, previously of Bigfile Miracle, does not come complete with excellent statistics to show off. In Champions Summer, Bigfile Miracle had a poor showing and Core JJ’s own stats do not look particularly promising. Of course the NA LCS should prove less challenging than Champions in Korea, and Core JJ could end up showing he has what it takes to dominate the scene, but the recent statistics make it possible that Dignitas picked Core JJ based on the fact that he is a Korean AD Carry and that there were few other options rather than based on his performance in Korea. Gamsu, on the other hand, is a relatively unknown value. He can boast being part of Samsung Blue, but only as a substitute. Prior to that, his team Alienware Arena failed to make it out of groups in Champions Winter. With this in mind, and noting the fact that top lane competition in the NA LCS is notoriously slim, Gamsu’s impact on the series and on the Dignitas team dynamic is hard to predict.
Counter Logic Gaming
Counter Logic Gaming has continued its cycle of top laners by bringing in Darshan “ZionSpartan” Upadhyaha as previously mentioned. Out of all of the roster swaps from the most senior NALCS teams, CLG’s acquisition of ZionSpartan might be the most interesting to watch. While CLG fans are not strangers to new top lane players or to getting their hopes up, evidenced by still-popular memes, ZionSpartan made a name for himself because of his ability to perform in the top lane of Team Coast and carry them to victory. Many attribute CLG’s revolving door in the top lane to their tendency to give their top laner very little assistance. If that really is the case, ZionSpartan is going to be their best shot at a player who can hold his own in the top lane and potentially even win lane without jungle assistance against other North American top lane combatants. Also filling a now-vacant CLG roster space is Jake "Xmithie" Puchero, ex-jungler of XDG with a comfortable level of competitive experience.
Cloud 9 should be the most familiar team to those who follow the NALCS scene. While their fan base may not have the same presence as TSM or CLG, Cloud 9 has consistently placed in the top of the NALCS since they first took it by storm, and they also have not made any roster changes. Cloud 9 made it out of Group Stages in Worlds 2014 and they are a team praised largely in the West for their cohesion and excellent team play. With these two factors considered, there should really be no surprise that C9 would want to maintain their current roster. The real question in regards to C9’s Spring Split 2015 will be whether or not they have recovered from faltering in the Summer of 2014.
Old Faces, New Names
The pre-season 2015 brought with it a number of teams changing their brands largely due to Riot’s policies regarding name sponsors and team ownership changes. Familiar faces still occupy these teams, but some roster changes were also made to accompany the name change.
Most notable of these changes come from Curse. The team formerly known as Curse in the LCS has merged with and been re-branded as Team Liquid. In addition to the new name, the team’s roster has also experienced a small but significant change. Former solo lane star Voyboy, popular first for his play in the top lane and later as mid laner for Curse, has stepped down from the team’s roster. He is replaced by Kim "Fenix" Jae-hun. AD Carry Cop, often criticized for passive play and praised for consistency, moved to Curse Academy (now Gravity) and is replaced by Gwangjin "Piglet" Chae. Liquid’s acquisition of Piglet is poised to be one of the most noteworthy acquisitions of foreign talent in the NALCS. While TSM’s Bjergsen set the NALCS on fire in the past and many other teams have also brought in Korean talent this season, Piglet is known for his time on SK Telecom T1 K, a record-setting team from the Korean scene. Together with highly-praised support Xpecial, the Team Liquid bot lane may have what it takes to blow the opposition away this season. A couple of star players can make a big difference to a team’s success in an environment where roster swaps abound and teams are not usually known for flawless team play and decision making, and Team Liquid should definitely be on everyone’s “to-watch” list for this very reason.
Evil Geniuses took highly-anticipated mid-laner Eugene "Pobelter" Park, combined him with veterans such as Krepo and Snoopeh, and created a team that made a lot of fans. Unfortunately fans did not translate to results for EG. With the additions of foreign talent Dongjin "Helios" Shin and their second young star Altec, Jungle and AD Carry respectively, the team’s chances began looking better than ever. Unfortunately they were not able to get their act together in time. This season they return re-branded as Winterfox and have lost all of their veteran European players.
After losing Krepo and InnoX, Winterfox picked up Donghyeon "Avalon" Shin for the top lane and Hyeonsu "Imagine" Jang to support Altec in the duo lane. Though both are Korean players, Winterfox is not likely to experience the same language barrier other teams might suffer from, especially with their Jungler, Helios, being a Korean play himself. However, Winterfox’s newest additions are also untested, not having any true positive or negative statistics to reference in the competitive League of Legends realm. The Spring Split of the new season will be an important display of their ability. Will they take the competition off-guard and become feared elements, or will they have too slow a start and not be able to capitalize on any potential mental advantage they might have over the NA LCS?
When LMQ came to North America, they created arguably more buzz than Bjergsen did when he joined TSM. They dominated the Challenger Series and then went on to rise to the top of the NA LCS. While LMQ did not end on top, they did earn a spot at Worlds in 2014 even after considerable and eventually relatively public internal conflict involving team management. Now they join the ranks of the rebranded as they attempt to remain strong contenders in 2015 as Team Impulse. While the roster has changed almost entirely, their new roster is promising and still features Yu "XiaoWeiXiao" Xian who gained popularity in the mid lane in 2014.
Joining Team Impulse for 2015 is a promising group of players. In the top lane is Jung “Impact” Eon-yeong, previously of SK Telecom T1. A proven talent in what is often seen as the most competitive region in the world, it is likely that Impact will give the NA LCS top lane, typically professed as having a lack of world class talent, a lot to look out for. Yoonjae “Rush” Lee, a Korean solo queue star, takes to the jungle to fight on Team Impulse’s behalf. Though he does not boast a wealth of competitive experience, many big names have come out of Korean solo queue’s top ranks in the past. Adrian “Adrian” Ma will be the team’s support. Fans might recognize Adrian from the story of Robert Morris University’s e-sports scholarship program. Articles regarding the scholarship appeared all over the web last year, and there is little doubt that the event brought e-sports, especially League of Legends, one step closer to public recognition in North America. Adrian has already achieved a lot with just that story behind him, but he will now try to couple that great start with success on the Rift while supporting AD Carry Apollo “Apollo” Price, also known to fans as WizFujin.
“New” on the Block
Ok, maybe Team Coast is not really new to the scene. Experienced NA LCS viewers will know Team Coast. They were relegated after Spring Split 2014, losing their LCS spot to compLexity. However, don’t let the familiar name and emblem fool you. This is a different Team Coast than the LCS witnessed previously. Coast returns to the LCS with an all-new roster. Their various Spring Split 2014 players have largely filtered out to other LCS and Challenger series teams (CLG and Dignitas to name a couple), but Team Coast no doubt hopes to make an even stronger showing than previously.
Cristian "Cris" Rosales takes to the top lane, Matthew "Impaler" Taylor to the jungle, Jesse "Jesiz" Le the mid lane, and Brandon "Mash" Phan and Jamie "Sheep" Gallagher the AD carry and support positions. While the roster may not be the same Team Coast from 2014, many if not all of these names will be familiar to veteran fans. What should new followers know about the new Team Coast roster? To start, three of their players were part of Curse Academy. You may hear this referenced, particularly in any matches against Gravity. Gravity is the rebranded Curse Academy. What you need to be aware of if this is mentioned is that they did not really play for Curse Academy at the same time. More important to know are the stories behind Impaler and Jesiz. Both come from the EU LCS, with Impaler most recently known for his time in SUPA HOT CREW and Jesiz his run with SK Gaming. Jesiz went to Worlds with SK Gaming in 2014, but they failed to make it out of the group stages. The EU LCS, featuring players such as Froggen and xPeke, has a lot of tough Mid Lane competition, and Jesiz was certainly outshone. While he may face less veteran names in lane in the NA LCS, the competition will still be tough. Jesiz will need to prove capable of overcoming the likes of Bjergsen and Pobelter to make this a meaningful acquisition.
Team 8 had a few unfortunate run-ins with Team Impulse’s past life, but after hard work and a heart-felt rallying of support by top laner Steven "CaliTrlolz8" Kim, they have finally arrived to take on the NA LCS. With Slooshi8 in the mid lane, PorpoisePops in the jungle, mapplestreet8 and Dodo8 in the duo lane, and CaliTrlolz8 in the top lane, Team 8 may be Spring Split 2015 freshest faces. Though maplestreet8 and PorpoisePops each have some amount of competitive experience in the scene, they are a team with no serious veterans or superstar names when compared to other teams. What does this mean for Team 8? It means a blank slate for the most part, but it also means obstacles to overcome. No one should be surprised when they see Team 8 at the bottom of any pre-season power rankings.
So what is there you need to know about Team 8? One name that stood out from their team after the Challenger series was CaliTrlolz. He was spoken of as a player who prefers unconventional top lane picks that do not fit the most recent top lane metas. He is another top lane player that gives hope for the NA LCS top lane to start evolving and becoming a bit more exciting this season. A deferment from his pharmacy school has given him the chance to shine on the LCS stage this season, and it will be up to Team 8 to make good use of him and try to carve out a space for themselves amongst the growing competition.
Gravity, formerly known as Curse Academy prior to their rebranding, comes to the LCS full of players looking to prove something. AD Carry David "Cop" Roberson, Support Michael "Bunny FuFuu" Kurylo, and Jungler Brandon "Saintvicious" DiMarco are all returning personalities in the NA LCS. For those just joining us, Cop and Bunny FuFuu each played for Team Curse (now Team Liquid) during the 2014 NA LCS season. Cop has been both praised and criticized for his consistent play. Depending on who you ask, he either admirably performs at a reliable average level almost every match or he fails to perform at all, playing an entirely too passive game. Cop and Bunny FuFuu will need to step it up this split if they plan to go head to head against the duo lanes of the top NA LCS teams. Meanwhile, Saintvicious, veteran competitive jungler, will need to prove that he is not outdated when standing next to the likes of Meteos, Impaler, and Helios.
Jang "Keane" LaeYoung and Kevin "Hauntzer" Yarnell, Gravity’s mid and top laners respectively, have little competitive experience backing them up as they enter the 2015 Spring Split. Neither player has been tested heavily against teams at the LCS level or above. The important thing to note about both of these players is that they did not help carry the team to the LCS by beating a relegated LCS team. Gravity entered the LCS via the Expansion tournament, and so there is not a basis to judge what this team can do quite yet, not relegated LCS team to use as a starting point for Gravity’s strength. The best guide we have, other than their loss to CLG in the Promotion series, is the competitive history for Cop, Bunny FuFuu, and Saintvicious. With no superstar laners to rely on, Gravity will need to rely on strong team-oriented play, making smarter decisions about objectives, teamfighting, and vision control than many of their NA LCS competitors. It seems doubtful that there will be any one lane able to give Gravity a strong enough lead on its own unless one or more players evolve during this split.
Drawing a Conclusion
Taking away any kind of solid conclusion in regards to the first split of 2015 is difficult. You might be able to make some claims about who the bottom of the pack teams will be, but there appear to be some legitimate threats to the dominance of Cloud 9 and Team SoloMid this year. A new roster does not necessarily mean a lack of synergy, and some of the new rosters in this year's LCS have very strong contenders.
It seems likely that Cloud 9 will end up in the top three, though their Summer 2014 performance suggests that securing the top spot, especially against a more difficult gauntlet of teams, will not be easy. It is definitely possible that Team Liquid will be able to break into the top three this split and that TSM might drop out of the top three depending on which foreign talent acquisitions pay off. Beyond these vague and uncertain guesses, most predictions are just about pointless until we have witnessed what the new rosters can accomplish together as a unit.