In the League Championship Series, surviving relegation is rarely the end to your struggles.
A trip to relegations usually doesn’t speak well for your chances in the following season. But so far in the League Championship Series (LCS), Dignitas and Giants Gaming, two teams that were one series away from falling out of the LCS two months ago, are both sitting at or near the top of the standings with 3-1 records.
Granted, both teams have faced relatively easy schedules. Each has two wins against the only two winless teams in each of Europe and North America. But one of the reasons those teams are winless is their failure to overcome what was supposed to be easy prey.
At the start of the season, Dignitas and Giants Gaming were favorites to suffer relegation yet again. And this time, no one was thinking it would be the kind you can win your way out of: The last place team in each league is automatically replaced.
But their start to the season will go a long way towards keeping both teams in the LCS. While it’s likely they’ll both falter some when the schedule gets tougher, there are plenty of reasons to think that the Dignitas and Giants Gaming teams we’re seeing this season aren’t as inept as last year’s versions.
The American side was one game away from falling out of the LCS, barely surviving their relegation series against Team Fusion 3-2 by winning a fifth match thanks to a single play by support player Alan “KiWiKiD” Nguyen. But they’ve looked better than ever to start the Summer Split.
They lost their opening game to Counter Logic Gaming, but quickly recovered by decimating Cloud9 in a surprising upset predicated on early pressure. Then, this week, they followed up by securing two victories over Team Dragon Knights and Team8, two of their primary competitors in avoiding those relegation slots.
Unlike Giants Gaming, Dignitas entered the Summer Split with the same five-man roster they took into Spring, flirting with finding a replacement for jungler Andrew “Azingy” Zamarripa but instead continuing with him on the roster. It’s paid off—Zamarripa is the catalyst for Dignitas’ early season success.
He’s put up a 7.0 KDA, placing him tops on his team, third in the LCS among all junglers, and seventh in the LCS overall. And it’s thanks to his play on the champion Zac, an uncommon pick that’s proven effective in his hands. Zac and his ability to gank from over a screen away has allowed Zamarripa and Dignitas to punish foes like Cloud9 for picking immobile compositions.
Of course, there are warning signs that Dignitas’ success won’t continue. Zamarripa’s seeming inability to play more champions and his past inconsistency certainly don’t breed confidence.
But the team is being proactive in trying to maintain that success. During the offseason, the team attempted to recruit former Winterfox jungler Shin “Helios” Dong-jin, but couldn’t contact him before the roster deadline as the player had returned home to Korea. Despite their early season success, they’re unafraid to follow through on that move: they’ve actually replaced Zamarripa this week, bringing Shin onto the team. A veteran of both the Korean and North American scenes, Shin provides much needed leadership, a deeper champion pool than Zamarripa’s, and a steadier hand in the jungle. Last season, Dignitas struggled thanks to ineffectual jungle play with a revolving door of players. The start of this one shows how the team can perform with an impact from the role. A more consistent player in Shin could be what Dignitas needs to continue their success.
Support player Alan “KiWiKiD” Nguyen credits the team’s coaching staff with aiding their improvement. The team entered the Spring season without a coach behind them, but with Sam “Rico” Harbi behind the bench, brought on March, the team looks stronger. Still, their pick and ban phase needs work, something they’ll have to fix heading into a tough week three.
This week Dignitas faces two of their fellow 3-1 teams, Team SoloMid and Gravity Gaming. That’s a stiff test, and one that Dignitas likely won’t escape from with a victory.
“I’m feeling pretty good,” Alan “KiWiKiD” Nguyen said about the tough schedule, after their win on Sunday. “I actually feel like we can truly and solely take them on and I think they should be scared.”
Nguyen delivered the line with a bit of a snicker, like he might not really believe the words. But Dignitas is certainly more dangerous than anyone believed entering the Split.
Across the Atlantic, Spanish team Giants Gaming is sitting pretty with their own 3-1 record. Last split they avoided auto relegation thanks to a tiebreaker over Meet Your Makers. But this one they’re tied for third in the standings—and playing like they deserve to be there.
Unlike Dignitas, this is the sophomore season for Giants. Entering a season after learning what it takes to compete in a professional league has to be a boon for Giants. Also unlike Dignitas, the team made a roster swap in the offseason. Bringing in a Swedish player in Oskar “G0DFRED” Lundström may seem like an odd move for a team used to speaking Spanish—especially when they made him their shot caller. But it’s paid dividends.
The team still relies on its one star, mid laner Isaac “PePiiNeRo” Flores, to dictate the pace of the game. He leads the EU LCS in gold per minute with 432.89. He deals the most damage with a whopping 809 Damage per Minute, a full 100 ahead of the next ranked player. But this season, instead of Flores making plays and Giants floundering afterwards, they’re capitalizing on them and securing objectives as a result.
Lundström’s addition and his leadership seems to be the catalyst for that. He’s also made a difference in his lane. Last season, AD carry Adrián “Adryh” Pérez looked like he didn’t belong in the LCS, but so far he’s putting together a solid season with the third highest DPM stat.
“It’s harder to communicate because of the language barrier,” Pérez said after their win against Copenhagen Wolves in week one. “We have never talked in English before. Some of our English is a little bit sloppy. Overall in the bot lane it has been a big improvement. I’m getting pretty well with him. He’s the aggressive player I’ve always wanted to play with.”
In that match, PePiiNeRo’s Xerath became the late game focus for Wolves, freeing Adryh up to score his first quadra kill. He may not set the world on fire as an AD Carry, but if Giants gets other players to step up around PePiiNeRo, then Giants really might accomplish their preseason goal: making the playoffs.
While it’s still quite plausible one or both of Dignitas and Giants Gaming end up in relegation again this season, their hot starts should give them a boost in avoiding it. Plus there are plenty of reasons to think that both teams have made some of the necessary improvements to put together better results—maybe not the results that will keep them at the top of the standings, but that could see them challenging for the playoffs. And that’s perhaps more than either team expected at the start of the season.
Photo via Riot Games/Flickr