New Kids on the Top

If we look back on the history of the North American LCS, we will see that the phenomenon of rookie teams swiftly rising to the top of the rankings is not at all new.

With Gravity looking strong in first place nearing the home stretch of this season’s LCS, lots of people might be asking “Who are these guys??”.  This isn’t a biopic of the members of Gravity.  Instead, I believe the Cinderella story of Gravity’s summer split is based on a broader theoretical and stylistic foundation.  They embody the invisible hand of the meta, raising up teams whose power is in large part derived from their ability with power picks, team coordination, and good fortune in timing.  In other words, their success is built on the strengths of their players coinciding with those strengths ascending in the meta.

Innovation, teamwork, and strong power pick mastery are all the calling cards of the teams whose rise is swift and whose fall is equally precipitous.  For Gravity, these strengths are a reliable top laner who excels at tank play (especially Maokai), a mid-laner who excels at neutralizing the strengths of other mids, and a bot laner whose positioning and teamfight play excels during a time when bot lane simply cannot dominate the game out of the laning phase.  Additionally, they thrive with a vision-focused jungler and a playmaking support, able to execute on lane swaps while choking out their enemies in a display of macro mastery.  These strengths are so overwhelming because not only are they well-practiced and in tune with the players’ tendencies, but the meta supports them with cinderhulk and the frontline dominating teamfights while the carry positions have the least agency of nearly any time in League history.  When individual strength is deprioritized, these rookies can rise up.

If we look back on the history of the North American LCS, we will see that the phenomenon of rookie teams swiftly rising to the top of the rankings is not at all new.  For example, the rise of Vulcun in Summer season 3  had pros and devoted viewers alike convinced that Mancloud was the second coming of mid lane, achieving a number of kills so great that he refused to fall off the leaderboards for most kills for several splits after leaving the LCS. The team’s jungle/mid synergy allowed a level of snowballing that was executed on beyond just brute force, with every opposing mid hard pressed to play aggressively into Mancloud with Xmithie in his back pocket at all time.  Their cunning use of minion wave pressure led them to thrive by forcing rotations from their opponents that were exploitable through strong global pressure.  The use of Twisted Fate and Shen made objective control, or more often picks, a sure thing, turning every fight into an advantageous one.

Innovation, teamwork, and strong power pick mastery are all the calling cards of the teams whose rise is swift and whose fall is equally precipitous.  These rookie teams also share a strong focus on shot-calling, and when that breaks down the teams begin their fall  When Vulcun became XDG and commenced the first of many rounds of roles wap musical chairs, their strategic acumen fell apart with Zuna becoming increasingly uncomfortable in the game and Bloodwater leaving the team.  C9 is a great example of this phenomenon, as their fall from grace followed Hai’s stepping down almost immediately.  Falling prey to the tides of the meta, their carry jungler Meteos found himself less suited to the vision control required of junglers and  the power picks of their top laner Balls fell by the wayside, with the end of Ryze and Rumble in the top lane as scaling teamfight threats.  With the shift into the tank meta, the smooth teamfighting of an era where burst was king became a drawn out slugfest where the mechanical deficits of Cloud 9 were dragged into the light.

In this sense, these teams strengths and weaknesses are best illustrated by contrasting them with more veteran teams: the strong, but never truly titanic, terrors of TSM, CLG, CRS, and DIG.  These teams place strong in the standings early nearly every split, but often choke before or during playoffs, dropping what should be secure wins and losing out to the innovation of younger teams.  The strongest talent of these teams is often their carry positions and playmakers, with pick and ban and strategy coming from simple precedent or from support staff more than the players themselves.  These players often prefer comfort picks over mastering champions that are strong in a given meta.  Scarra’s Gragas and Diana, Doublelift’s Vayne, and, for a while, Bjergsen’s Syndra are good examples of this pattern.  These comfort picks dominate less individually skilled teams, but produce messy games that are more characteristic of a brute force victory than any strategic depth or in-game adaptation.  This is evident in the historic baron throws of Dignitas, CLG’s lategame teamfight misplays, or TSM’s inexplicable choke at MSI.

The teams that make playoff runs seem to “upset” these big players every season, resulting in the memes that litter the competitive scene every post-season, with “Forever 4th” for Curse and “Potential” for CLG.  The elusive consistency that these top teams have so often claimed to desire is present, but it leaves them without a trophy quite often.  The veterans are often known for a more risk-averse style of play that allows them to acquire early leads or execute well on strategies developed out of game, but their inability to end anything cleanly is endemic in every split.  The rising stars demonstrate a skill with champions that are favored and strong teamwork or map play, running circles around the titanic top organizations.  Every season is David and Goliath played out again.

“But what about C9” one might reasonably ask,  “a team that rose to the top, stayed there, continually demonstrated excellence under pressure, and went to Worlds?”  I would call them a team of promising rookies whose time in the spotlight lasted longer than most, allowing them to transition into a titan.  Their strong shotcalling allowed them to keep calm and carry on right through the glory days of their champions into using them as comfort picks.  What has Balls played besides Maokai and Rumble.  Cloud 9 was vocal in their early splits about their foolproof strategy of identifying strong meta champs and mastering them found itself transmuted from a vibrant path to victory into the fossilized comfort picks of Hai’s Zed and Sneaky’s Lucian.  Their ability to work with the deficits and overcome their foes through map play a gleaming gem stolen from the crown they wore as meta-riding rookies.  But even this gem of hope abandoned them with the replacement of Hai by Incarnation.

What conclusions can we draw from this meandering observation?  Probably quite little from the perspective of game to game, but something more useful as a critical lens by which the teams and their rankings can be viewed.  Certain new forms of heroism are brought by the David’s of the LCS, the idea of an anti-midlaner, the carry jungler of C9, or the excellent wave manipulation of XDG.  These heroes rise to the top, overcoming the titans above them in the hierarchy, killing kings every time they claim the throne.  It is necessary that the titans died so that gods might take their place, a new story and the heirs to Olympus.  Maybe this year, the heirs to Olympus will be the ones pulling everyone down: Gravity.