The Blueprint: Burning Questions for Each NA LCS Team
After an offseason with an unprecedented turnover rate in the West, the rosters for the League Championship Series are finalized, for better or for worse, and the season kicks off in under a week. Because we have barely seen any of these teams in action, and have had altogether too much time in between now and the most recent tournament, it is time for the final speculations, the cementing of rankings, the scramble to make the first “Diamond 2” joke. So why wait until the games are on the air? Below are what I believe to be the most pressing questions for each team in the North American LCS, presented in no particular order. There are some about specific players, some about the interests of the viewing public; some may never be answered, but all sure to be disputed heavily in some way or another.
An admittedly minor concern, but that’s about as big as it’s going to get with a roster as stacked with talent as this one. Kevin “Hauntzer” Yarnell, for the most part, held his own against world class players at IEM San Jose; the addition of legendary support and game leader Bora “Yellowstar” Kim at support not only filled the lone hole left in TSM’s roster, but also took a considerable burden off the shoulders of star midlaner Soren “Bjergsen” Bjerg. Playing alongside him in the bottom lane is none other than the best player North America has ever produced, former Counter Logic Gaming star Peter “Doublelift” Peng. Yellowstar has done more with much less in the past, and TSM is the odds-on favorite to win the Spring Split Championship.
But the doubt that lingered with me after watching IEM San Jose was Dennis “Svenskeren” Johansson’s aggressive play. It paid dividends once, an impressive Baron steal while playing Jarvan IV, but most of the time it looked as though he was out of sync with his team. This led to multiple instances of the talented jungler taking too much damage to start fights, before his team was in position to trade, and having too little health when he was called on to engage. The result was an unsightly 21 deaths over the course of the tournament, many of which looked to me to be preventable. I wouldn’t be surprised if Svenskeren wound up costing his team a game or two if this trend continues, especially with the increased impact of death timers in the mid-late game.
Counter Logic Gaming: How far can Darshan take this team?
Counter Logic Gaming looked better than anyone would have guessed at IEM San Jose, but I don’t put a lot of stock in offseason tournaments when it comes to projecting future performance (though my TSM blurb would have you think otherwise). Trevor “Stixxay” Hayes looked better than I thought he would, but I’m not sure if he’s ready to consistently contribute to the team in the same capacity over the course of a season. I’m also a little low on his botlane parter Zaqueri “Aphromoo” Black after he was exposed at Worlds. Combine this with the question mark in the midlane Choi “Huhi” Jae-hyun, and it’s safe to say that I’m not expecting a lot more from CLG this split than a practically by-default playoff berth.
But “Darshan” Upadhyaha might have something to say about that. He’s already taken a game into his own hands, when his backdoor nexus take lifted CLG to victory over the Jin Air Green Wings in San Jose, and he brings this kind of highlight reel potential to each game. Indeed, he brought it in the next game of the Jin Air series, when he feasted on 11 players as Fizz. These kinds of games take the pressure off of Stixxay and are going to be vital to the team’s success in the coming months. 11 kills is an unfair standard to hold a player to (though he’s done it twice since Worlds ended), but when a team seems as likely to rely on a player as heavily as CLG will on their fearsome toplaner, those kills will almost certainly mean the difference between victory and defeat.
Team Liquid: Can they fix their shot calling?
Liquid’s games last season were slogfests. The team would secure advantages in the first fifteen minutes of the game and slowly expand their lead for the next twenty, unsure of how to translate their advantages into victory. When they did try to fight, the team never looked to be on the same page—be it a missed ultimate from Alex “Xpecial” Chu, an overaggressive dive by Kim “Fenix” Jae-hun or a suboptimal skirmish called by Christian “IWillDominate” Rivera, Liquid just couldn’t seem to nail down their win conditions and press for victory. A second year of experience speaking English for Fenix and Chae “Piglet” Gwang-jin could be the salve, but with two new, inexperienced team members—Andy “Smoothie” Ta and Samson “Lourlo” Jackson, neither of whom is older than 18—this Liquid lineup may be another one that seems to lack synergy.
We saw this lack of synergy punish Liquid last year whenever former top laner Diego “Quas” Ruiz was asked to teleport. The team preferred to group and skirmish, rather than playing to split-push (the one time they did, when Quas was 5/0 on Fizz after laning, they threw away their lead and lost), so they didn’t have many uses for the spell as each game progressed. When they did use teleport offensively, Quas was often on the wrong side of the fight or used his spell too late. In games in which he played Hecarim, he was frequently left standing on the fountain as the team struggled to find a spot for him to take advantage of the potent Homeguard-Teleport play. If Lourlo proves to be the solution to this problem, expect Liquid to close out games much more quickly and efficiently than they did last season, but don’t count on it.
Team Impulse: Can they win a series?
Immortals: Who’s the leader?
On paper, the Immortals roster is incredibly impressive. Even though a majority of the roster has only been playing professionally for a year, the accumulated accolades of these five players has them knocking on the door of Superteam status. The reason nobody is regarding them as such is because there are simply too many question marks regarding their departures from past teams. “Adrian” Ma apparently lost the trust of his Impulse teammates during the 2015 Summer Split; Eugene “Pobelter” Park was benched by CLG; Seong “Huni” Hyeon-heo was prescribed the “on tilt” label after losing lane against the KOO Tigers in the World Championship Semifinals, leading to questions regarding his personal makeup and his future in the top lane, as he was rumored to be transitioning into a marksman player.
This is why the pecking order of the IMT roster makes me wonder whether this team will reach their skill ceiling. The Fnatic transfers have the acumen, but Huni was frequently seen being asked by Yellowstar to focus during team fights and Kim “Reignover” Ui-jin has yet to prove himself a leader. Though Jason “WildTurtle” Tran has developed a reputation for being a rock-solid veteran presence outside of the game, he does not have experience with shotcalling in the moment. The way that Adrian plays the map is admirable, but will his new team trust him to make the right moves? We’ll have to find out.
Renegades: Is Freeze still cursed?
There’s a different article to be written here about whether or not Oleksii “RF” Kuziuta and Maria “Remilia” Creveling can handle the spotlight and stress of the LCS stage, but I’ll leave that to speculators in the comments section (on second thought, don’t even do that, it’s not worth talking about). There’s also a different article that could be written about Alex Ich, his winding trip back to the LCS and how he will fit in to a scene that isn’t particularly known for its midland play. Instead, I’d rather talk about whether Ales “Freeze” Knezinek, one of the most talented marksman players in the western hemisphere, can finally break through and achieve something greater than individual success. But even if he can’t that’s alright because, let’s be honest, watching Freeze vs. The World games when he was with Copenhagen Wolves was super fun, especially when he got to play Draven. I expect Renegades games to be more of the same, so why not kick back and cheer for the most unfortunate man in League of Legends? He deserves our support as much as he deserves premiere teammates.
NRG Esports: Are they anything more than Impulse 2.0?
It’s in vogue right now to call Energy a top contender for the Spring Split playoffs, but I’m a little skeptical. On paper, though probably not in practice, this team’s roster makeup isn’t much different from that of last split’s consistent fourth-place finisher: Team Impulse. The two teams literally share a top laner, consistent performer Jung “Impact” Eun-yeong, but also feature: an exciting rookie jungler, an imported midlaner and a steady botlane. It’s so easy a comparison to make it almost feels condescending explaining it for you. Why am I doing it? Because I’m all about the narrative, baby.
What remains to be seen, though, will be how the team meshes. Johnny “Altec” Ru will probably look to make more plays from the AD Carry than “Apollo” Price ever did for Impulse, but this new dose of aggression bottom will be balanced out by Lee “GBM” Chang-suk in the mid lane, who plays a far safer game than Impulse’s Yu “XiaoWeiXiao” Xian ever did. I wouldn’t be surprised if this team played a style like Team Liquid did last split, relying on their three talented lanes to give them advantages across the board in the early game and snowball that to victory. If this is the case, look for Galen “Moon” Holgate to spend a lot of time in the bottom lane, as it is Energy’s least mechanically proficient. If it’s not the case, don’t expect him to look like Rush in his first split. Also, don’t expect this team to finish higher than fourth in the league, at least in the regular season.
Cloud 9: When will the old guard phase itself out?
This tagline is most explicitly about “Hai” Lam, Cloud 9’s resident Swiss army knife and tactical genius who was forced back into the lineup last summer because the team couldn’t sustain itself without his calming demeanor and authoritative shotcalling. He’s playing his third position in as many splits, this time at support, replacing Pick-Ban whiz Daerek “LemonNation” Hart, where he has no meaningful professional experience. Waiting in the wings is former Gravity star Michael “BunnyFuFuu” Kurylo, who has impressed in the past, both as a player and as a leader. I worry that, after seeing what happened to his team when he left the lineup for the first time, Hai will hold on to his roster spot for longer than he needs to, locking BunnyFuFuu out of the lineup and potentially limiting his ability to improve.
This is especially important because improvement is essentially synonymous with Cloud 9. Zach “Sneaky” Scuderi made a huge leap in play between Seasons 4 and 5, and was the best marksman in North America during the Spring Split before being overtaken by Doublelift in the summer. Nikolai “Jensen”, their precocious midlaner, has only one split of professional experience, but elevated his game considerably during Cloud 9’s run to worlds, and is poised to be one of the strongest midlaners in the region this year. Rush, who went from a raw, instinctive player to one of the best in the LCS in just a year, is a massive upgrade at the jungle position. The only player who seems to have stopped improving is embattled top laner An “Balls” Le, whose time will eventually run out, but I don’t think it will this split. Cloud 9 is better than people think, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them finish in second.
Dignitas: Can they break out of their rut?
I wrote extensively about Dignitas a couple months ago, especially about how they have a subpar history for finding and developing young talent. A few weeks later, the team announced that they were importing two young, exciting players who have no previous LCS experience—top laner Lennart “Smitty” Warkus and jungler Thomas “Kirei” Yuen—and, as you might be able to tell, I was unimpressed by the move. Rounding out the roster is stopgap marksman Apollo, who will be reuniting with his old Coast teammate, midlaner Danny “Shiphtur” Le, a fact that likely excites nobody. They did fine at IEM Katowice, throwing away a game at Baron Nashor as the team has long been known for doing, but did nothing to show they might be able to avoid relegation matches in April. Kirei is a player to keep an eye on, and perhaps the only person who could allow Dignitas to break out of their cycle of mediocrity, but don’t expect him to be wearing the black-and-yellow hoodie very long, as better offers are sure to come in for him.
Echo Fox: Do they have anything to lose?
Of all the teams currently playing League of Legends professionally, Echo Fox might just be the strangest. If they were in the Challenger Series, there would be whispers about their talent: Is Yuri “KEITH” Jew serious about returning to the scene after a semester at college? Who is Park “kfo” Jeong-hun and where did he come from? Will they be able to hold their own against Team Liquid Academy? Of course nobody would actually tune into the Challenger Series matches to watch them play and everyone’s first experience seeing them would be in the relegation playoffs, but that’s an alternate timeline.
That’s if they don’t have Froggen.
Henrik “Froggen” Hansen changes everything. Froggen convinced us to watch Elements even when they had nothing but bottom-tier players and no semblance of an organization. Froggen so mastered a champion that the character was nicknamed after him. Froggen got offers from China. Froggen switched leagues and is an immediate MVP candidate, as he always is. Froggen is the Regina George of western League of Legends. Froggen is 21 years old.
This team is going to be a lot of fun. They have absolutely no reason not to fight constantly—aside from their stalwart leader, long famous for his emphasis on the late game, but times have changed—and prove their individual mettle. Flanking the midlane is two dudes who were scooped up from Challenger, a college freshman on a redemption tour and an import with literally zero recognition trying to make a name for himself. I admire team owner Rick Fox for his support of the scene, but I’m positive each of these players would make the jump to a better-known brand as soon as they were offered the chance. This team will probably have a whole lot of mechanics and very little of anything else, and I couldn’t ask for anything more. They’re not going to make the playoffs, but they’re going to make Mic Check every damn week.