8 storylines to watch in the LCS this season

This week the “offseason” label drops from League of Legends

This week the “offseason” label drops from League of Legends. The League Championship Series begins on Thursday, marking the triumphant return of esports’ largest regular league.

Ten teams in each of North America and Europe will battle every week in the bright lights of the best production values in the business. This year, the fifth season of Riot Games’ League of Legends esports competitions, features a number of structural changes to the system, like an expanded playoff schedule. It also features an even more competitive field of teams, especially in Europe, where three squads look like true title contenders.

These are some of the top stories to watch for heading into a brand new season of LCS play.

1) What will the Korean imports bring to the table?

The Korean exodus, which saw everyone from the country’s best players to relative unknowns leave to compete in other regions around the globe, was the story of the offseason.

The story of the season will how those players perform. We’ve already seen the star talent that chased Chinese dollars obliterating the LPL. But will the twelve Koreans who moved to the League Championship Series, four in Europe and eight in North America, fare the same?

The answer to that question will decide the standings next season.

For China, who brought in the cream of Korea’s crop, the result was obvious. For North America and Europe it’s much more muddled. The incoming talent is a mixed bag of washed-up pros and stars seeking redemption, talented backup players looking for their big break, and solo queue legends.

The big-name signings, like Chae “Piglet” Gwang-jin and Ryu Sang-ook, may have been at the top of Korea at some point in their careers. But more than a year has passed since then. Most of the incoming talent is more similar to Counter Logic Gaming’s failed experiment, Shin “Seraph” Woo-yeong, who showed the perils of importing a Korean player last year by playing at a level in the bottom half of LCS top players.

Dignitas already gave us a taste of this year’s Korean crop, and it was lacking at Intel Extreme Masters in Cologne. But does that doom the rest of the field to fail? It’s almost inevitable that some of these incoming talents will not only succeed, but thrive. Guessing which ones will, though, is a fool’s game.

2) Can Cloud9 improve without a roster change?

The best team in North America is the only one in the region that did not change a part of its roster. There are good reasons for that—the team is dominant domestically and there’s no obvious slot in which to upgrade. But that means that, if they want to boost their level, and they need to to challenge for a World Championship, they need to find other ways to improve. That isn’t as easy as you might think.

It’s rare for a team to reach another level of play without a roster change. Many fans seem to take an attitude that a team or player “just” needs to fix some particular problem, and they can reach the next level. But fixing an inherent issue in play is never “just” that simple. Esports journalist Duncan “Thoriin” Shields covers the topic ad nauseum in some of his videos.

If Hai Lam can “just” fix his champion pool. If Peter “DoubleLift” Peng “just” fixed his decision making.

The fact of the matter is these players are maxing out their time in League, and have been for years. Improving game skill isn’t a linear equation where time puts in equals results, at least once a player nears their peak ability. It often takes some kind of epiphany for a player like Lam to really reach another gear. That often doesn’t happen without something to shake up the status quo, like a roster change.

That’s what makes Cloud9 so interesting heading into this season. While their results in the Western scene can’t be criticized, there’s a rising tide of pressure on them to hit it big on the world stage. This is seemingly the final experiment: Can this current roster, the most dominant lineup in Western League of Legends history, challenge the world?  The team’s said they’d likely never make a change, and perhaps they’ll be content keeping that promise if they continue to dominate domestic competition. But this offseason there already were rumors a move could be made, should the right player become available—in this case, Bae “Dade” Eo-jin, former mid lane general of Samsung Galaxy Blue.

The addition of coaches behind the bench opens up some interesting options for Cloud9 in the future. Potentially moving Hai Lam to support, where the team can maintain his top notch shot calling but take less of a hit mechanically as a result, and putting Daerek “LemonNation” Hart and his infamous notebook behind the bench is certainly an appealing option—whether for a new mid laner or a more mechanically proficient support player.  But it’s something we won’t see happen, likely for another year.

This year Cloud9 will try to buck years of history and really take that next step. If any team can float to new heights, it’s Cloud9, one that’s bucked trends surrounding League of Legends since they entered the scene and obliterated it.

But it’s hard to see that happening without the right roster change. Especially if Cloud9 can’t find consistent competition locally—often it takes the right rival to bring the best out of a player or team.

3) Who is this year’s dark horse?

At this time last year, ROCCAT and SK Gaming were slated for the bottom half of the LCS standings. The unknown Polish team ROCCAT lacked any recognizable talent. Their upset of Ninjas in Pyjamas in their promotion series was supposed to be a mistake. SK Gaming lost their star power and put together a largely uninteresting roster of mid-tier veterans and a young, unknown mid laner.

Today they are two of the three favorites in Europe after a year that saw them consistently rank among the region’s best teams.

This season there’s an inevitable dark horse waiting in the wings, ready to ascend and surprise by reaching the Riot World Championships.

My pick is Team Impulse. The way they’ve constructed their roster, taking on high-upside players like Lee “Rush” Yoon-jae and combining him with veterans like Jung “Impact” Eon-yeong should give them the power they need to ascend in America, if Lee can make good on his promise as a top solo queue jungler in Korea. If Lee proves to be a weapon then Impulse will have something no team in America truly has save Cloud9.

4) Team Liquid—the next American champion?

Team Liquid

If anyone “won” the offseason in North America, it was Team Liquid. The former Curse Gaming boys made the highest profile signing of the offseason when they added world champion marksman Chae “Piglet” Gwang-jin, giving America’s top support Alex “ Xpecial” Chu a real weapon in the bottom lane.

They followed it up by joining one of esports’ oldest and most storied organizations, shedding the “Curse” moniker and in theory the Curse curse—forever doomed to fourth place finishes.

Could America finally have another true championship contender?

The Summer Split of 2014 was the first time Cloud9 failed to win the LCS championship since they burst into the league—but it doesn’t look like they’ll make that a habit.

Team SoloMid finally dethroned America’s top team, besting them in a thrilling five-game series at PAX in September. But their ascendence seems to be short-lived. At the Intel Extreme Master San Jose tournament last month, Team SoloMid looked pitiable with their new jungler Lucas “Santorin” Tao Kilmer Larsen, losing to European cinderella Unicorns of Love. Cloud9 were their incredibly consistent and dominant selves, topping Europes’ best team Alliance before easily dominating the Unicorns in the finals.

Team SoloMid managed to beat Cloud9 off a peak performance, one that their IEM showing seems to indicate they may struggle to replicate, even after they work Larsen into the lineup.

That leaves things open for Team Liquid to take over. But they’re not without their own question marks, especially with their new Korean imports. Chae was once one of the top players at marksman in Korea, but his last season locally was poor by any standard. Mid laner Kim “FeniX” Jae-hun is largely an unknown with little experience in OGN play. Those two players fill the carry roles and they’ll need to step up and carry for Liquid to reach Cloud9’s level.

The “can-anyone-beat-Cloud9” storyline is a tired one after seasons of Cloud9 dominance, even with a slip last Summer. But it’s an important one for the growth of the North American League of Legends scene.

5) The relegation war

The best change to the League Championship Series format doesn’t affect the top of the league, but the bottom. For the first time ever, a team is guaranteed to be relegated. Instead of watching Gambit Gaming and Copenhagen Wolves wallow at the bottom of the standings, biding their time before their relegation series, this year they’ll be battling for their lives.

Any fan of the English Premiere League knows that the tale at the bottom is almost as interesting as the one at the top. The bottom of the standings will be a dogfight all season long, with pro gaming careers directly on the line.

6) Europe: a new champion?

Alliance dethroned three-time champs Fnatic last year in the Summer Split of the LCS. This year, we could have a new champion.

While Alliance managed to sign Europe’s top free agent, Martin “Rekkles” Larsson, an upgrade over another top tier marksman in Erik “TabzZ” Van Helvert is lower impact than the moves made by SK Gaming and ROCCAT.

You can argue that SK Gaming features three players at the top of their positions in Europe with Dennis “Svenskeren” Johnsen, Simon “Fredy122” Payne, and Konstantinos “FORG1VEN” Tzortziou. ROCCAT will field superstars in Marcin “Jankos” Jankowski and Oskar “VandeR” Bogdan, now bolstered by Erlend “Nukeduck” Holm.

Two of Europe’s top challengers both improved by leaps and bounds. Can Alliance survive the heat?

7) Coaches in picks/bans

The addition of coaches to the pick and ban phase brings the League Championship Series closer to the standard of other similar multiplayer online battle arena leagues around the globe. The cumulative effect it will have on teams in the league, though, is a different question, and one worth watching through the season.

It’s long been an aphorism that coaching is required to succeed in League of Legends. It’s something that’s separated the Western scene from Korea. Having a coach lets players focus on their own individual play and teamwork instead of spending time on other activities like research and strategic planning. But to do that you need a coach that’s up to snuff, that the players trust to make the right decisions for them. Can the Western coaches do the same?

We’ll start to find out this season. A good coach could very well decide who reaches playoffs, or avoids relegation.

8) The Challenger scene

The Challenger scene is more competitive than ever before, and with good reason—the stakes are larger than ever before, with a guaranteed LCS spot on the line and a higher profile.

The competition level is increasing exponentially as talent floods into the scene from around the world and teams gear up to win one a spot in the LCS. More challenger teams are investing in infrastructure like coaches, team houses, and even importing players from across the ocean. The challenger team Roar, which features former Team SoloMid marksman Shan “Chaox” Huang, bootcamped in China to prepare for the upcoming season.

For the second straight year, one of the Europe’s true contenders begins in the challenger scene—Origen. The lineup captained by Enrique “xPeke” Cedeno-Martinez could easily have slotted into Fnatic’s LCS spot and be considered a top contender for the league title, if things played out differently. Willfully moving to the Challenger league turned out to be a career killer for Alex Ichetovkin when he moved to Ninjas in Pyjamas. Will it be for Martinez? With the way the challenger scene is shaping up, nothing is a sure thing.

The League Championship Series kicks off on Thursday when the newly re-branded Elements, the defending champions, takes on their former rival Fnatic at noon ET. The long offseason is finally over. It’s esports time.

Photo via Riot Games/Flickr