Quiet Stars: 5 Key role players in the NA LCS
With the season winding up, Riot will soon broadcast the MVPs and All-League teams for the end of this season's split. Rightfully, a lot of attention goes to the star carries, but I wanted to put out an article commending the players that do the grunt work needed for teams to succeed. Some of these players are greasing the wheels on LCS champion contenders, and others are gamely filling roles on teams that need an upgrade in star power. Many of these players could become stars in their own right but accept lesser roles and play brilliantly in a team context.
Playing under a role player position is dramatically different from playing as a star. Role players will receive less resources, such as empty lane farm or jungle ganks, so it's important for them to play well within a limited context. It's important to note that being a role player doesn't mean that a player is necessarily worse than a "star." Role players can be stars, they just star in a supportive context. Each of these five role players have had massive effects on their teams - some of them have even had greater effects on their teams than the team's nominal star players!
With all respect to Dyrus, who I consider the father of all role players, I wanted to focus on players I felt were either overlooked or had storylines that many hadn't touched upon yet.
It's been three years since KiWiKiD first joined the NA LCS in their inaugural season, and the player who once seemed like the son of Qtpie and scarra has grown into a veteran player in his own right. Before this LCS season began, most LCS fans would have associated KiWiKiD with either his propensity for untimely deaths or his weak support play on picks other than Annie. With a very poor 5-9 record, Dignitas seems destined for the relegation tournament, so fans may suspect that this has been another poor season for the much-maligned Dignitas support. But while his goofy personality may throw fans off the scent, KiWiKiD has evolved into very cerebral player in spite of his admittedly mediocre mechanical play. It's unlikely that Kiwi will further evolve into a star player, but his intelligent game has allowed a player many believed had no business in the LCS to have a dramatic impact on his team's fortunes.
KiWiKiD's signature champion has always been Annie, and a look at his playstyle makes it extremely clear why that is. Kiwi has a strong desire to play aggressively and (mostly beginning this split) the understanding of timings to make great roams, but his ability to land skillshots is mediocre at best. Annie also combos very well with CoreJJ's preferred champion in Graves. A quick look at KiWi's statistics shows that Annie is once again his best champion this season. She boasts the highest win rates out of all his picks and his 50% win record on her shines in comparison to Dignitas's overall 36% win rate.
That being said, he wouldn't qualify as a strong role player if his game was once again limited to Annie only play. While his Annie game has improved, his intelligent approach to roaming has transitioned to success on champions like Morgana and Thresh in spite of lower win rates on these champions. KiWi's support career has always been defined by roaming - his bizarre tendency to roam across the map to gank top lane eventually became a recurring joke among the NA LCS casters during Season 4. For most of Season 4, KiWiKid's roams led to disaster. Qtpie's aggressive playstyle did not synergize well with a constantly roaming support, and KiWi's long time out of lane meant that even his successful roams would led to severe experience deficits. This season, KiWi continues to roam frequently, but he has kept the best part of his roaming play (his unpredictability) while shedding weaknesses (by visiting mid instead of top lane or by coordinating with his jungler to three man a lane.) It's clear that very few opponents suspect that a KiWiKiD gank is on its way and his ability to approach the lane from unique angles largely nullifies his mediocre skillshot ability. Opponents either don't see the bindings/hooks that he fires from the fog of war or he simply walks as close as possible to his cornered prey before firing out the CC to guarantee the kill for his team (a tactic that has been used very successfully in seasons past by Cloud9's LemonNation.)
On a Dignitas team largely lambasted for their roster swaps, communication issues, and weak star players, the growth of KiWiKiD has been an overlooked and extremely pleasant storyline.
Heading into the LCS season, I strongly believed that Team8 would be one of the weakest teams in the NA LCS. I didn't think a team that was so reliant on split pushing and perfect TP timings could pull off the same tricks when facing the tougher competition in the LCS. On the contrary, T8 has managed to succeed while sticking to the core principles of their playstyle. I went over how CaliTrlolz's transition to more meta/bruiser champions transformed the team here but the most important player to Team8's success has been the man most of their fans talk about the least. PorpoisePops's surprising improvement has been the biggest factor in the squad's play-off contention. His ability to score successful engages and bodyguard the team's stars (their solo laners) means that Team8 is able to manipulate teamfight start/end times in a way that few Western teams can rival.
Soon after PorpoisePops joined Team8, their playstyle shifted to take the form that it has today. When the team first came together, they relied heavily on CaliTrlolz to carry the game with maplestreet acting as a secondary carry on champions like Caitlyn or Lucian. With their former jungler Guess8 generally preferring to play carry-oriented champions, in particular Kha'Zix, Team8 would often default to placing Slooshi in a supportive role while using Dodo8 as their primary engager. With Porpoise being extremely comfortable on engage champions, he has taken the role of the team's primary engager. At the same time, Slooshi began taking on a larger carry role for Team8. Because Porpoise mainly has to focus on the team's two star solo laners, an easier gank path means that he can also focus on farming up and became a tertiary carry threat. It didn't take long for Team8 to adopt the playstyle they have today, but the real surprise has been how well Porpoise is adopting the higher caliber opponents in the LCS. He has a strange knack for being at the right place at the right time and oftentimes manages to match wits with top tier opponents like Meteos or IWillDominate.
A quick look at PorpoisePops's champ pool reveals that he has played only four champions during this split - Vi, Nocturne, J4, and Rek'Sai. All of these champions are quite similar. They all serve hard engage/pick roles, and both Rek'Sai/Nocturne (which was his signature champion in Challenger, but he has only picked it once in the LCS) provide additional pressure with their global ultimates. These four champions also all scale very well with gold, fitting in his position as an "off-carry" for Team8. PorpoisePops knows who is he is as a player and picks accordingly. His acceptance of his role in Team8.
This seems like cheating. Santorin surely isn't an overlooked role player, especially after his powerful performance at the IEM World Championship. If Dyrus can be left off this list for not having any interesting storylines, then why is Santorin on this list? Simply put, I don't think he'll be on the role player list for long. A few weeks ago, I broke down Santorin's gameplay here, explaining how his willingness to play whatever role TSM needed was a critical part of the squad's dominant start to the LCS season. At IEM, a great part of TSM's success spawned from moving Santorin into more of a carry role. As the Danish rookie gains more confidence, TSM should begin shifting Santorin into a bigger playmaking/carry role.
In my original Santorin article, I outlined how his acceptance of his role led to TSM's success. By camping the mid lane, hard engaging, and giving up farm to Bjergsen and WildTurtle, Santorin became TSM's dream jungler. The only hole in his game was his lack of vision, occasionally spawning from a strange preference for immediate tanky stats over the utility of Sightstone. I later found out that this was a team-wide decision that they were reconsidering. Unfortunately, TSM still can struggle with vision, relying heavily on Lustboy as a crutch. However, we saw Santorin add several deadly wrinkles to his game. Most notably, his play on Nidalee showed a more carry-oriented and farm-centric style that could throw teams expecting Santorin to play typical engage champs off kilter. In addition, Santorin demonstrated a much greater confidence in making early game plays and scoring picks on astray opponents while playing his usual picks. Even though TSM is the best team in the West, there's still room for improvement, and Santorin's willingness to make plays is adding a deadly dimension to a team that is oftentimes too stagnant in waiting for their two stars (Lustboy and Bjergsen) to generate action. When Santorin was on-point, TSM simply steamrolled the opposition. We've seen so much improvement out of Santorin during his time on Coast and TSM. We'll have to see what's next.
Another rising star currently "interning" as a role player is Gravity's Hauntzer. Perhaps because of his Challenger background, fans are rarely talking about a player who has had massive impact on his teams wins in spite of ranking 3rd or even 4th on their resource hierarchy. As the top laner for Team LoLPro in Season 4, Hauntzer's strong understanding of top lane fundamentals, strong laning phase, and wide champion pool quickly grabbed the attention of Challenger scene experts. LMQ's ackerman was a Worlds finalist and CaliTrlolz was quickly grabbing attention for his dynamic top lane style, but Hauntzer quietly did his job and was arguably just as effective as those two much brighter stars. What makes Hauntzer's game so special is his willingness to push out small advantages, a characteristic frequently seen in legends Flame and Zorozero. Although Hauntzer is clearly not nearly at the level of those superstars, the shadow of their gameplay is extremely evident. Hauntzer's great understanding of trading, minion control, and champion matchups means that at his best, Hauntzer looks like the best top laner in North America. Indeed, former Gravity coach Souldra once told me that he expected Hauntzer to become the best top in NA by the end of the year.
At the same time, Hauntzer suffers from several critical weaknesses. He is prone to camping (oftentimes, it seems like he simply isn't looking at the mini-map because he will over-extend in spite of clear vision of the jungler attacking his lane.) His other major weakness is a tendency to tilt. At times, Hauntzer plays extremely well from behind. His strong Teleport usage, good roaming sense, and willingness to build for playing from behind means that he can be extremely useful for Gravity even after losing lane. Unfortunately, at other times, Hauntzer will repeatedly all-in or engage poor teamfights with a low chance of success. This problem seems to plague the entire Gravity roster, they are great at teamfighting even when down 3-4k gold but doom themselves by taking fights that are impossible to win.
Speaking of engaging, Hauntzer's gameplay is critical to Gravity's very teamfight and dragon/Baron centric style. Hauntzer isn't just a powerful laner - he has a great understanding of how to flank into teamfights and hold off the other team's backline. So many of Gravity's games are won by Hauntzer off the screen as Cop and Keane kite away from the team's backline on the LCS camera. His propensity for engages from unique angles means that teams are forced to pay extra attention to Gravity - Saint and Keane's posturing may prove to be a simple diversion for Hauntzer to speed into the backline.
His game has transitioned very well into the NA LCS, even though Gravity places very little emphasis on him, usually trying to get either Keane or Cop rolling to carry the game. This isolation strategy generally turns out well, but can also have disastrous consequences, such as Zion's Hecarim freeze in CLG's latest game against Gravity. Outside of this trouncing, his ability to win lane or go even without much assistance has already served as a massive boon to a Gravity team that has at times hung with the big threats of North America. Right now, Hauntzer is putting on a great Dyrus impression. His play has been critical to many of Gravity's wins, but this is yet another role player who I would like to see receive star billing. With his ability to push out even small advantages, it will be extremely interesting to see what would happen if Gravity considered playing more of a top centric style, bumping up this role player into star status.
This can't be. This isn't the face of a role player. This is the face of a superstar! Zion is an overlooked role player simply because nobody realizes how little resources he is getting for how hard he carries. The carry top laner of Team Coast has dropped away his beloved Jayce, Jax, and Riven picks in favor of Maokai, Rumble, and the infamous "SionSpartan." Zion plays on the second best team in the NA LCS, but has by far the lowest gold proportion relative to his role in the entire league. (Seen here.) This player is a star, he just stars while taking up fewer resources than literally every single starter in the league.
Zion was always a fantastic 1v1 laner. His typical carry picks usually had much weaker laning phases than their opponents. The price of defensive itemization means that tanks will almost always have an advantage over carries in lane, but Zion was still able to snowball several leads in matchups like Riven vs. Dr. Mundo. On CLG, Zion is adapting to the meta champions that he once eschewed, and the results are simply devastating. CLG is the best early game team in the league, and Zion's ability to bully his opponents in lane in spite of few jungle ganks means that opponents are forced to deal with a powerful independent threat that is guaranteed to scale into the late game. At times, CLG's proficiency in lane swaps means that Zion is usually spotted a lead heading into lane. If opponents are foolhardy enough to allow Zion to face an opponent one on one after he receives the advantage off of the lane swap, he will completely break them down, like he did to Hauntzer with Hecarim in the latest CLG vs. GV game.
While CLG's poor teamfighting has been rightfully noted, it's wrong to call Zion a simple lane bully. Zion's other calling card while playing on Coast and Dignitas was his great split pushing. Even in games when it seemed like there was no hope for his team to win, Zion's understanding of split pushing meant that his team would always have a chance to get back into the game. Even while playing these tankier champions, Zion's ability to trade well and push his opponents back into base have scored CLG tower kills all across the map and enabled their rotations-heavy style to shine.
Although he is a role player now, Zion also hasn't forgotten his hard carry top laner roots. Every once in a while (his recent Hecarim game, his Jax play at IEM) Zion will put on the Superman cape and single-handedly carry CLG to victory.
What Zion needs to work on is his engage ability. He has oftentimes creativity found picks for CLG while they are rotating, but he struggles to conceptualize engagements in a full-on 5v5 fight - oftentimes he will either come out too far ahead of his team and die alone or engage onto targets that are simply too tanky for his team to kill quickly. If Zion is able to improve in this area and even serve as a secondary engager after aphromoo, this already deadly CLG squad may take the jump into a world-caliber level.