Do NA LCS teams have a vision problem?

No, they don't need glasses. This is about seeing the map.

Image via Riot Games

There are a lot of ways to tell when you’re watching the NA LCS. There’s the fondness the teams have for putting all their resources into the mid lane for a good, old fashioned ARAM. And who can forget the inability of NA teams to adapt to meta changes, which might actually have caused Riot Games to shorten the length of the Worlds group stage.

There’s another defining characteristic of NA teams that isn’t as easy pick up on. That’s because it’s something that the teams generally lack: vision.

NA LCS teams suck at placing wards. So far in the Summer Split, NA teams are the worst among major regions in wards per minute. Just how bad is it, and what can teams do to reverse the effect?

Wards don’t lie

How do we know that NA is the worst at warding? Well, based on data from League stats site Oracle’s Elixir, NA LCS teams place an average of 3.324 wards per minute (WPM) this summer. There are two other major regions that track ward data: the EU LCS and LCK. Their averages? 3.325 WPM for European teams and 3.642 for the South Koreans who consistently lead the pack.

The difference between NA and EU doesn’t sound that bad. Not until you consider that the average game time in Europe is nearly three minutes faster than NA.

There is a messy but historically-consistent relationship between game length and WPM. Faster games tend to feature fewer wards. This makes sense on a basic level, because the longer the game goes, the more time supports have their vision item. And the importance of vision around late-game objectives like Baron and Dragon often necessitates a focus on wards. Over the years, the tie between game length and WPM looks like this:

Those graphs represent all games played in the NA LCS, EU LCS, and LCK in 2017 (both splits) and the 2018 Spring Split. But what about this summer?

The removal of the Tracker’s Knife before the 2018 Summer Split has changed the scatter plot some. But the basic relationship remains:

The fact that the relationship between WPM and game length is roughly linear allows us to do some rudimentary forecasting. This is the part where, if you’re an Echo Fox fan, you may want to avert your eyes.

It’s not pretty

When comparing the stats across regions, it’s quite clear who’s dropping the ball and dragging all of NA down. By using the linear relationship between average game time and WPM (again using data from NA, EU, and the LCK), we can forecast how many wards each team should place. We can then compare their actual averages to their forecasted numbers:

All year, Echo Fox has been a team that wants to fight regardless of where they have vision. Smart teams have figured that out that they can punish that by simply bringing more people to the fight, people Fox never sees coming. Now we have proof that Echo Fox’s vision control is indeed abysmal.

But it’s not just Echo Fox. If we look at the first set of forecasts labeled “WPM Forecast,” only two teams, Team Liquid and CLG, have a positive differential. But by including the data from their fellow NA teams into the forecast, we lower the bar. When you exclude NA games and use only data from EU and LCK to forecast (WPM Forecast 2), the picture gets worse.

Compared with the more aspirational sample set, Liquid and CLG aren’t better than average, they’re just mediocre. Everyone else in the region sucks even more.

Is there any hope of fixing this problem before Worlds?

Trust the process

The problem with the NA’s deficiency in warding is that it’s been a persistent one. They’ve built years of bad habits that will take more than one article to undo.

Since 2016, NA teams have finished dead last in WPM in five straight splits—and with a week left in this current split, they’re still behind EU by a tad. NA teams tend to play pretty fast, but they aren’t always the fastest in the world. So that doesn’t explain it.

Breaking the numbers down by position, the weakest one by far for NA is support. That’s bad news since the support has the greatest impact on overall WPM.

But before blaming things on the support, remember that warding is a team game. Split push solo laners can go behind enemy lines to ward as they please, but support champions simply can’t go into fog of war alone. It takes all five members communicating and working together to inch a support’s ward line farther into the enemy jungle.

This style of coordinated team vision is a historic weakness of NA teams. That’s why they like to pile into mid and ARAM—it doesn’t require advanced knowledge of the map or much vision control.

To be clear, we’re not saying that higher WPM is automatically better. There are lots of bad teams that drop a ton of wards. What we are saying is that NA’s best teams aren’t as good at using vision to support their objectives, with its a top laner split pushing or a Baron bait. Need even more evidence? Take a look at the WPM stats in the last few World Championships.

This is a stunning display of ineptitude. Out of nine entries, NA teams have only placed in the top half once. You would think that pure luck could produce better results than that.

But that’s the thing—warding doesn’t happen by chance. It’s a deliberate process that unfolds slowly throughout the game. Seeing a support—with help from his teammates—cautiously layer his wards to provide coverage that won’t be discovered and swept is a magical thing.

So when Worlds roll around later this year, don’t be disappointed if your favorite NA team doesn’t do well. Chances are, they literally can’t see what’s happening.

All statistics via Oracle’s Elixir.