2016 was a year of unfulfilled dreams for NA fans.
Hopes were high after Immortals poached two of Europe’s finest, Team SoloMid assembled its own super team, and highly-regarded import players dotted rosters from Echo Fox to NRG Esports.
All of those teams failed in their grand ambitions. Echo Fox had a season to forget. Immortals choked in the playoffs. TSM made it to Worlds but exited the Group Stage with a whimper. Sure, Counter Logic Gaming made the finals of the Mid Season Invitational, but few took them seriously as title contenders against South Korean behemoths SK Telecom T1.
But a new year is a time to hope, and NA teams can look forward to seeing a group of new players trying to close the gap. This is not a list of best players, or even most crucial ones. But they are the ones we are most curious about and want to see the most.
Starting off the list is NA’s most frustrating player—and quite possibly its best.
The drama between Joshua “Dardoch” Hartnett and Team Liquid was a strange side note to the 2016 Summer Split. Initially suspended for feuding with teammates and coaches, the team could never survive the conflict between him, star AD Carry Chae “Piglet” Gwang-jin, and coach Choi “Locodoco” Yoon-sub. Dardoch’s talent is unquestioned, but his failure to communicate and support his teammates led to a late-season swoon that eliminated Liquid from Worlds contention.
Now Dardoch is with Immortals, quite possibly the organization best suited to add him and not combust due to their strong management philosophy. But the players still have to find a way to communicate and play together, and the coaches will still have a monumental task ahead of them.
Perhaps most concerning was Liquid’s—and Dardoch’s—inconsistent play and weak mentality. They would swing wildly from beating playoff teams to losing inexplicably. And despite those baffling losses, Liquid remained a major contender in the LCS playoffs and had a chance at Worlds. But Dardoch couldn’t handle his team’s slightest failings. He would oscillate between carrying and flaming, often unpredictably.
That is the biggest risk for Immortals, that even winning may not fix things. Dardoch must realign his expectations with an eye on competing over the long term. That would fit better with Immortals’ long-term view and the length of his three year contract. It’s something that the team, including managers, coaches, and players, will need to be aligned on.
Immortals have talent, especially in the solo lanes, but this year won’t be about talent. It will be about Dardoch maturing into a leader and learning how to play the game at an even higher level. Can he be a consistent and effective shot caller? Can he work with the coaches to develop a strong macro strategy (a weakness of both Liquid and Immortals last year). And can he maintain that level even if the team faces adversity?
Answer those questions, and we could see a historic year from one of North America’s most talented players.
We know how this team likes to play. Soren “Bjergsen” Bjerg unlocks the mid lane for Dennis “Svenskeren” Johnsen to invade and set vision. Kevin “Hauntzer” Yarnell draws pressure and carries when he’s required to, but more often waits for someone else to initiate. His flexibility and ability to learn champions gives TSM more resources on the other parts of the map.
Even the AD carry shift from Yiliang “Doublelift” Peng to Jason “WildTurtle” Tran is mostly neutral. Doublelift was a stronger laner, but that didn’t show in his performances at Worlds. WildTurtle is more inconsistent in the 2v2 but is also more apt to join fights.
That means the position with greatest potential for improvement is support: Vincent “Biofrost” Wang.
We wrote about Biofrost’s potential and how the team would handle him at the beginning of the offseason. Bringing in an experienced ADC could be a sign that he isn’t quite ready to carry that lane. Or it could that TSM thinks that the duo could be a major source of damage and they want to take advantage of Biofrost’s skills (and Bjergsen’s peak). We think it’s the latter.
Losing Doublelift’s voice will require someone to step up even more in shot calling, and that should be Biofrost. TSM’s well-oiled macro game fell apart under superior pressure at Worlds where they could not reliably win most of the lanes. Biofrost’s ability to read the map will need to improve for TSM to have proper vision and objective control against high-level competition.
It’s crazy that Biofrost has been so good in only one split of competitive play. But he needs to play at a more consistent level when faced against the best supports in the world.
Looper and Ssumday
Picking two players is cheating a bit.
But these are the two biggest import transactions in the NA LCS offseason, especially when many top Korean talents were returning to the LCK.
The addition of Kim “Ssumday” Chan-ho to Team Dignitas immediately affected expectations for the team. After being relegated and re-joining the LCS by acquiring Apex’s spot, many fans now see them contending for the NA title. With a carry jungler and a utility bot lane, Ssumday should get the attention he needs to survive. And his unparalleled teamfighting could make Dignitas fearsome in the late game.
On the other hand, Jang “Looper” Hyeong-seok joins Echo Fox, a team that survived relegations but still has major question marks. Mid laner Henrik “Froggen” Hansen is a legend, but he takes a while to get going and the other positions were big weaknesses in 2016. This team will rely on Looper to carry early in order to avoid finishing in the bottom half of the table for a third consecutive split.
Both of these players were highly respected in their respective regions, but found they no longer fit. They’ve chosen the daunting task of going to a new country while putting their reputations as stars on the line. Let’s see if they can fulfill the high expectations their fans have for them.
Choi “HuHi” Jae-hyun is a player for which expectations have generally been low. His job is to survive in the mid lane and pull off the odd roam to get another lane ahead. He doesn’t pressure and he isn’t a consistent carry. He just needs to not screw up.
But HuHi takes up a precious import slot, which makes Counter Logic Gaming’s decision to keep him for 2017 very interesting. Sure, CLG had a fantastic run through most of 2016, including an unexpected run to the finals at the Mid-Season Invitational. Their finals series against SKT was closer than the score indicated, but they still failed to win a single map. With clear flaws, namely their mid laner, it was a bit surprising that no roster change was made.
In the past, CLG has bet that HuHi’s unconventional champion pool combined with superior game planning and decision making will mask his mechanical mistakes. But teams have already started taking advantage of the team’s passivity in the middle. Darshan Upadyaha can split push all day, but hasn’t been a consistent carry for a while. Jake “Xmithie” Puchero is smart, but very careful as a jungler. The bot lane is the strength of the team, but as we’ve seen from the state of marksmen, duo lanes require so much help from the rest of the team.
That help will have to come from HuHi. Somehow, he needs to create the pressure that unlocks the map for this team. CLG are betting that internal improvement and chemistry will supersede the addition of a new player. For them to even replicate their performances in 2016, HuHi will need to be a sharper and more courageous player.
The last player was originally going to be new Cloud9 jungler Juan “Contractz” Garcia. Jungle was the weakest role on that team and Contractz was presumably brought in to inject fresh life.
Then Austin “LiNK” Shin signed with Team Liquid.
We think LiNK will eventually step in as Liquid’s primary mid laner over promising Challenger player Grayson “Goldenglue” Gillmer. Goldenglue is fine, but he hasn’t really done much with his few opportunities in the LCS. And the team is going to play aroundPiglet anyway.
Honestly, we don’t know what to expect from LiNK. He has historically played a carry style, but that’s Piglet’s role, and top laner Samson “Lourlo” Jackson is best on carries as well. After several years away from the competitive scene, we have no idea where LiNK’s skills are and whether he can be an effective communicator.
Still, this was a low-risk, high-reward move for Liquid. If he doesn’t work out, he’ll write an open letter and Goldenglue will go back in. If he can be a secondary shot caller to Kim “Reignover” Yeu-jin, it could really help this team’s communication style.
Liquid’s players are all familiar face, and yet their roster may be the biggest mystery of all, particularly concerning the man in the middle.
All photos via Riot Games