Team Dignitas announcing tryouts for its AD Carry and Top Lane positions, occupied for the previous year by Young-In “CoreJJ” Jo and Yeong-jin “Gamsu” Noh, signified the latest trend for North America. Where Preseason 5 was marked by a focus on bringing in the best talent available—at least one player from each major region played in the North American League Championship Series last split, the only league in the world where this was true—this year’s free agency period will be focused on improving team chemistry.
Doing both, however, is not impossible. Bora “Yellowstar” Kim was elevated to mythic status during Spring 2015 after his handpicked Fnatic roster, featuring players hailing from three different nations, crushed the competition while achieving simultaneous celebrity for their entertaining appearances on PrimeTime League’s feature “Mic Check.” Team Solomid stumbled into similar success more than a year ago, when they solved a team chemistry problem by importing now-retired support Jang-sik “Lustboy” Ham from his native South Korea. He adapted quickly to his new environment and curried favor with the hometown crowd by virtue of a hyperactive Twitter account and an affinity for American icon John Cena. Sometimes, it’s the little things in life that bring people together.
What has been harder for teams, especially North American teams, to do is have their players bond over the larger things in life: living together, working together, and playing League of Legends as a team. Beginning with the Season 4 Summer flameout of Woo-yeong “Seraph” Shin, who by now has become the go-to cautionary tale when it comes to importing players, the level of scrutiny players in North America are subjected to has intensified greatly. After details arose that Marcel “dexter” Feldkamp, who surprised many this week by announcing he hopes to play next season in North America, and Seraph had been feuding throughout the season, scrutiny that had once been applied to non-anglophones was being applied to anyone without ties to the USA. Team SoloMid’s former jungler, Maurice “Amazing” Stuckenschneider was retroactively saddled with a bad reputation; one that still remains even after a Top 4 finish at this year’s World Championship with Origen.
These two teams, however, have everything to lose by associating themselves with someone who meddles with team chemistry. Austin “Link” Shin set the world on fire when his tell-all about team chemistry issues was controversially posted to Reddit; CLG sparked the debate again when they released long-time AD Carry Peter “Doublelift” Peng for the same reasons that Seraph was let go a year ago. For teams that wish to compete on the world stage, communication and a stable environment are key when it comes to competing with equally skilled teams. Astute observers will point to video clips of Team Liquid’s intrepid midlaner Jae-hoon “FeniX” Kim diving forward against the call of the team not only as proof that everyone needs to be on the same page, but that failure to be is extremely costly and contradicts any statement of ambition to compete with the best in the world.
The thing is, Dignitas is not in the same position as these other teams. They have compiled only two winning records over six LCS splits, facing relegation twice, and have consistently struck out in free agency. Midlaner Danny “Shiphtur” Le looked to be a strong acquisition during Season 4, but has failed to perform to the same level he did on Team Coast. Cruz “cruzerthebruzer” Ogden hasn’t played professionally since he left the team, Allen “kiwikid” Nguyen is, perhaps unfairly, the league’s most maligned support. Discussing their carousel of junglers would double the length of this article. Simply put: Team Dignitas is not an organization which knows how to develop talent.
Perhaps all this will change under the leadership of scene veteran Ram “brokenshard” Djemaal, though releasing a team’s best player is rarely a step in the right direction. The second step they are taking with this search for new talent is a decided step backward for the North American scene. Instead of adapting at higher levels, as Team Liquid is doing with its search for position coaches and bilingual assistants, Dignitas is again cleaning house at the player level and hoping to strike gold. A larger, more risk-averse team like Team SoloMid can afford to include such provisions in their talent search; smaller teams like Dignitas, Renegades or Immortals, who are all looking to fill positions, should be widening their nets, not shrinking them.
What gets lost in the narrative of importing players is that, in the short term, bringing in outsiders created a lot of success stories in the scene, even ignoring the example of Fnatic. FeniX’s terrifying Azir play nearly carried Team Liquid to Worlds on its own and Min-su “Move” Kang’s control-style jungling pushed Gravity into first in the standings and made them look like a favorite to win the Summer Split Championship. The thought of watching Team Dragon Knight’s midlaner Geon-Woo “Ninja” Noh return to the LCS is enough to make some fans salivate, and he barely saw action during the most recent split. Communication may be more important in the long run, but with an upper echelon of teams so firmly established, it will take far more than communication for a team to break into the higher level of competition.
What’s more: looking internally, there are few options that could hold a candle to the talents of someone like Gamsu at any position. Look no further than the HTC Challenger Tournament, which is fielding 16 teams, as proof. The players of note are either relics of the scene (Josh “nintendudeX” Atkins), players once poised to break through whose stars are fading (Trevor “Stixxay” Hayes) or players with LCS experience, but no logical destination for their talents (Austin “Gate” Yu, apparently hanging in limbo until Team Impulse is purchased). Barring some breakthrough performances, perhaps from an AD Carry like Josh “Impactful” Mabrey, this junior circuit tournament will be nothing more than a chance for Challenger teams to get their eyes on some replacement-level talent. Forget about competing against CLG, most of these players will struggle against CLG Black.
The solution, then, is Europe. This will be a hard sell for Dignitas, or any other low-table North American team. ROCCAT is looking to fill the same positions as Dignitas, and they have a very real chance of making Worlds next year if H2K doesn’t upgrade its jungle position. Unicorns of Love are looking to fill similar voids, Gambit needs an AD Carry. All these teams have higher ceilings than Dignitas, and a free agent could be wooed by the stability of playing in his own region over the cumbersome move across the pond—one which has, fairly frequently, ended with a return trip three months later. Unless they can magically pull two players like Yoon-jae “Rush” Lee out of a hat (and as far as I can tell, there’s only one of him), their options are extremely limited.
Moving towards full English speaking lineups might fix one of North America’s problems. But, given the amount of strife seen on essentially every competitive North American team ever—remember Brandon “SaintVicious” DiMarco and Cody “Elementz” Sigfusson feuding? How about the permanent drama of Gamecrib?—teams still aren’t guaranteed harmony even without a language barrier. At this point, the only conclusion is that Dignitas is out of ideas. They’ve tried going all in on talent twice, they’ve tried different coaches, now they’re returning to the Season 2-era strategy of Family First. It might work for them, Season 2 was their most successful, but the potential ripple effect of their decision-making is worrisome for the scene. Sacrificing skill for communication might sound good in the long run, but teams like Dignitas should be worrying about the short-term first. .