With around 32 million players, League of Legends is the most popular esport, or competitive game, in the world. That success comes largely thanks to its developer, Riot Games, who have organized a worldwide system of leagues that feature the best players and the highest competitions.
This League Championship Series (LCS) is the closest thing any esport has to a big, official league, like the MLB or the PGA tour. Over a ten week period, North American and European divisions will compete to claim a spot in the playoffs. The LCS culminates in the World Championships in November. Last year, South Korean side SK Telecom T1 swept China’s Royal Club and took home $1 million.
After a stellar 2013 that saw the LCS bring in a record-breaking 32 million viewers, the 2014 season, which launched Jan. 14, looks to be even more exciting.
Last week, we laid out some of the major stories of the offseason. But that’s only scratching the surface. The LCS hosts 80 world-class players across Europe and North America who compete for 16 teams, each with their own unique story. Below, we introduce you to the teams and players to watch, ordered according to their final ranking in 2013. These are the teams that are just starting their marathon season in the West’s biggest esports league. You should get to know them—and watch them.
2013 Ranking: No. 1 – Cloud 9 (Last season, 25-3)
Cloud 9’s stunning debut season saw them mop the floor with the best teams the US could field. Now, the reigning champs of North America are back for round two. All-star jungler, Will “Meteos” Hartman, set records last season and set a new standard for other players in his position. With his leadership, Cloud 9 made it all the to the quarterfinals of the World Championships last September, where they were finally felled by Europe’s Fnatic. In a testament to Cloud 9’s ability to adapt, however, the club trumped Fnatic without dropping a game at the Battle of the Atlantic, the major offseason Leage tournmanent. For now, the team looks unstoppable.
No. 2 – XDG Gaming (20-8)
XDG (then known as the oft-misspelled Vulcun) came out swinging last year with a powerful roster that, at times, looked world class. The team is headlined by mid laner Zachary “Mancloud” Hoschar, whose outstanding efforts netted him the most kills ever in a season—168 in just 28 games. However, trouble could be on the horizon for XDG. In a much-discussed move just last week, the team swapped jungler Jake “Xmithie” Puchero and marksman Christopher “Zuna” Buechter. The debut of these new positions may very well set the tone for XDG this season.
No. 3 – Team Solomid (14-14)
Known affectionately as TSM, Team Solomid has a rich history in the LCS. They took third in the very first season back in 2011. The team hasn’t made a habit out of that success, and many fans have begun critizing them for becoming stale, citing their fall from a 21-7 record in the Spring to a mediocre 14-14 in the Fall. Has their talent diminished? Rather than sit back, owner/player Andy “Reginald” Dinh, r made an aggressive move over the offseason, benching himself. As a replacement, he brought in Swedish up-and-comer, Soren “Bjergsen” Bjerg. TSM victories since the roster change have many fans hopeful that Bjerg can right the ship and send TSM once again to a first place finish.
No. 4 – Team Curse (13-15)
Curse had a disappointing 2013. European star support player Edward Abgaryan brought little life to the team and most of the summer was spent scrambling for positioning to avoid relegation. With Edward sent back to Europe, the team has reformed in hopes for vengeance—and so far, it looks like they definitely are out to prove something. Their Venezuelan top laner, Diego “Quas” Ruiz, jumped from anonymity to greatness after an outstanding run with Gold Gaming LA during the offseason. Curse was praised for spotting that talent and grabbing him early. Meanwhile, jungler Christian “IWillDominate” Rivera is on a redemption run of his own after a year-long ban from the LCS in 2012 due to toxic behavior towards others in game, including taunting and harassment. Only time will tell whether Curse will be able to bounce back and utilize their new talent.
No. 5 – Team Dignitas (13-15)
Led by the affable William “Scarra” Li and the entertaining Michael “Imaqtpie” Santana, there isn’t much not to like about Dignitas. The team has been around since 2011 and have been a stable fixture to the North American scene ever since. However, some recent roster instability has fans a bit worried that Dignitas is running on fumes. Offseason matches have gone poorly for Dignitas, perhaps another indicator it’s backsliding. While Dignitas’s position is secured for now, they’ll have to work hard this season to remain in the LCS.
No. 6 Counter Logic Gaming (13-15)
CLG is a team of extremes. Yiliang “Doublelift” Peng, the team’s marksman, is well known for consistently earning the most gold in game, often with a single-minded focus on himself—and sometimes at the cost of his teammates. However, the new season may see a transformed CLG as they seek to upgrade their team members and strategies. Analyst Christopher “MonteCristo” Mykles is directing the team from Korea, where he studies all the top-level strategies as a commentator for the biggest Korean league. Meanwhile, the team’s new German jungler, Marcel “Dexter” Feldkamp, got turned around on his flight and will be joining the team sometime in the future. Until then, the team will have to hope their existing lineup can keep them afloat in the LCS.
No. 7 Team Coast (9-19)
The number two team from the spring of 2013 had quite a fall from grace in the second half of the year. A 9-19 season put the team entirely in the fan doghouse, and Coast will have an uphill struggle to get out of it. Still, there are some good signs. Leading the charge for change is mid laner Danny “Shiphtur” Le, whose performance towards the end of the season left many impressed. Backing him up will be the team’s new marksman, Apollo “WizFujiin” Price, who dropped his plans for a computer science major as soon as Coast came calling. Both Le and Price will have to set an aggressive tone, but combined they might just have the skill to bring the team back on the map.
No. 8 Evil Geniuses (5-23)
The record above is a bit of a lie—the completely reformed Team Velocity is now known as Evil Geniuses, and features three members of the former number three European team of the same name. Led by Scotsman Stephen “Snoopeh” Ellis, EG has claimed some of the better free agents to fill out their roster. After a decisive win against Determined Gaming to keep their spot in the LCS, the Evil Geniuses are going into 2014 with their heads held high.
2013 Ranking: No. 2 Fnatic (Last season, 15-13)
With the EU’s former top squad, the number one Lemondogs, having disbanded in spectacular fashion, Fnatic are aiming to secure their place atop the European throne. Last year, the team finished first place in both playoffs, and will settle for no less than a repeat performance in 2014. The team’s newest addition, 17-year-old mid-laner Martin “Rekkles” Larsson, would have joined last year if age restrictions hadn’t kept him on the bench. Finally, Fnatic is armed to the teeth and have never looked more formidable.
No. 3 Alliance (15-13)
The rebranded Alliance, formerly Evil Geniuses, feature 3 all-new players to the organization. The new team has some of the best talent on the continent, including a rival team’s former captain, Patrick “Nyph” Funke. With mid laner Henrik “Froggen” Hansen at the helm, Alliance are aiming to carve out a brand new legacy for themselves in the new year. The second arm of Alex Garfield’s cross-Atlantic LoL empire, Alliance has a lot of hype to live up to.
No. 4 Gambit Gaming (15-13)
Gambit Gaming have a storied history in the European scene, and have basically been a top contender since they were formed in 2011. Last year saw some turmoil for the team, however, as support player Edward Abgaryan moved to the States to compete with North American team Counter Logic Gaming. Over the offseason, Gambit and Abgaryan mended fences and he’s back with the team. And what a team it is. Three members of Gambit were voted the best in EU at their respective positions for the 2013 All-Stars, and they’re sure to be pushing to hold onto their titles.
No. 6 Millenium (13-15)
Last year’s Team ALTERNATE is now playing under the French brand, Millenium. Despite the change, the team looks ready for a solid run this year. Newcomer Kevin Rubizewski will be playing in the top lane and seeks to firm up some of Millenium’s weaknesses from the previous year. Team Captain Alvar “Araneae” Martin Aleñar has spearheaded the changes during the offseason and has put his team in prime position for a resurgence.
No. 7 SK Gaming (13-15)
It’s hard to look on the bright side for SK Gaming. Since September, they’ve lost five members off their team, including their team captain Patrick “Nyph” Funke and well-known streamer Carlos “ocelote” Rodríguez Santiago. However, the new blood for SK may be just the ticket for a fresh start. The team’s chances may very well rely upon the impeccably named Adrian “Candy Panda” Wübbelmann, who will be setting the tone for the team from the bottom lane. SK has definitely gotten bruised this offseason, but they’re definitely still in the hunt.
The Wolves suffered a major setback in 2013 when their LCS team left the organization to join rival Ninjas in Pyjamas prior to the summer season. They spent the entire rest of the year building a new squad and are now back for a second go. Headlining the team are Joey “YoungBuck” Steltenpool and Viktor “CowTard” Stymne, two experienced players who finally have a stable roster from which to launch their assault on the region. The Wolves are a young and hungry team that should make a big splash this year.
Formerly named Kiedyś Miałem Team, ROCCAT are another young team that are finally stepping up to the big leagues. Long in the shadow of former-LCS all-Polish team, Meet Your Makers, ROCCAT are finally taking center stage. And what a stage it’s going to be—mid laner Remigiusz “Overpow” Pusch’s performance late last year in the qualifiers was flashy and, as his name suggests, overpowering. He managed to win against some of the best mids Europe has to offer. The stars are aligning for ROCCAT, and they may very well become a new world power for League of Legends.
SUPA HOT CREW XD
With the most eccentric name in the pro scene, there’s much to like about the Supa Hot Crew. They formed with one goal—to reach the LCS through the online qualifiers. They fell just short when they fell 2-3 against SK Gaming in the final stage, but got a second chance when the Lemondogs were disqualified. They didn’t waste it, and won the final slot into LCS just three days before the 2014 season. Mid laner Amaury “Moopz” Minguerche has already made a name for himself with excellent in-game decision making, while newcomer Rasmus “MrRalleZ” Skinneholm is getting recognition for something outside of the game—at 6’ 7”, he’s one of the tallest players in the world. Look for Supa Hot Crew to be winning hearts and minds this season with their personalities and talent.