North America's Exciting Top Lane Talent
During this year's offseason, North America acquired a few big names in the top lane. This could make the upcoming season the most competitive split the role has ever seen, compared to previous years where the top three players were rarely challenged by any of the others. I'll give a quick preview of what we may expect from each of the 10 starting players.
The first name we have to talk about is Kim "Ssumday" Chan-ho. Possibly the highest profile Korean to come to North America, up there with the likes of Chae "Piglet" Gwang-jin and Jung "Impact" Eon-yeong, Ssumday has been a proven world class player for the last two years. Despite season six ending on a low note, with KT just missing out on another world championship, Ssumday was second only to Song "Smeb" Kyung-ho in KDA for the LCK summer split, and was looking to continue that level of performance he had shown throughout the 2015 world championship. If Ssumday is able to continue playing at this level, he will quite likely be the top laner to beat this split.
As a world champion, Jang "Looper" Hyeong-seok certainly has a lot of prestige surrounding his name. The important thing when talking about Looper is that he was not remotely a star player during his time with Samsung. Once he went to China, it seemed like Looper's true level was shown. While he certainly wasn't looking bad, not many people would claim him as a world class player anymore. Moving into this split with Echo Fox, Looper may find himself on one of the bottom teams in the region, and we'll have to see if he's able to step it up to keep his new team competitive.
A move that has many people excited is Lee "Flame" Ho-jong joining Immortals. While it has been a while since Flame was competing for the title of best top laner in the world, every year he has been active, he has managed to still display some of his dominance, even on champions such as Maokai. With standard lanes going strong, we can hope that we will see Flame put together some of the dominant laning performances many expect out of him. Immortals put together a roster that delivered a pretty decent performance at IEM, and they are definitely looking like a contender heading into 2017.
Kevin "Hauntzer" Yarnell was the beneficiary of many of the same things as Looper. Team SoloMid had dominant forces across the board, which allowed him to play in a pretty free environment where the enemy team would often have to focus on Yiliang "Doublelift" Peng and Søren "Bjergsen" Bjerg. With Jason "WildTurtle" Tran joining the team, it's hard to imagine TSM having the same sort of pressure in the bottom lane. This is Hauntzer's time to prove that he can handle playing against better players, without having his carries being able to pick up any slack.
It would be hard to argue that Impact wasn't the best top laner in North America coming out of 2016. His dominance was what really brought Cloud9 to the world championship. While Impact didn't quite stack up to the best in the world when it came to international play, he seems to be hungry to get back to that level, and the increased talent in the region might be what he needs to do just that.
The story of An "BalIs" Van Le in North America is one that could be best compared to Darshan "Darshan" Upadhyaya. While Balls previously was a star carry for Cloud9, his latter years showed some flashes of his former dominance, but was never quite back to the same level. Unlike Darshan, Balls had some pretty extended periods where he looked like a bottom level player for NA. While it's quite unlikely we'll see this team fighting for a top spot, Balls will definitely be coming into this split with something to prove, and we'll see what he can deliver.
Shin "Seraph" Woo-yeong has always been one of the most difficult players to assess, in terms of where he stands. His biggest problem is the inconsistency he brings in the laning phase. In the summer playoffs, we saw him falling just short of some very close 1v1s against Impact, before Impact was able to run away with the lane, as he did with any advantage he was given. Seraph has had his fair share of team issues surrounding him, making many wonder how he would do on a different team. This split, Team EnVyUs is sticking with their core players, and I believe it's now or never for Seraph to show us what he's got.
Over the last year, Darshan has declined to a pretty average level among North American top laners. While he was once a beast in 1v1s, his best performances as of late have been on tanks, such as Poppy, where he is still able to fulfill a meaningful role in Counter Logic Gaming's system. It's quite unlikely that his recent performances are going to cut it this split with all of the new talent. If Darshan isn't able to gain back some of that 1v1 prowess, he may very well be an exploitable target for teams such as Cloud9 and Dignitas.
While some of the older players in NA have been declining or retiring, Samson "Lourlo" Jackson is one that I'd say is still on the rise. With Liquid's current roster, it's likely that the team will be focused around Piglet. In the past, this strategy didn't work out for the team too well, despite Piglet pulling out some pretty crazy MVP level performances. Lourlo is going to need to fulfill a Dyrus sort of role, where he simply can't let these dominant 1v1 players run all over him. Dardoch and Piglet have shown they have what it takes to get massive advantages in the early game, so Lourlo will be key in ensuring that some of the star top laners on other teams don't get out of hand before he's able to join the rest of his team.
Phoenix1 had a pretty rough season, but things did start to look up a bit towards the end. While Derek "Zig" Shao never looked like the best player on the team, he certainly wasn't the sole reason why the team performed so poorly. With the acquisitions of Yoo "Ryu" Sang-ook and Noh "Arrow" Dong-hyeon, Phoenix1 is going to be another team, like Liquid, that will have a pretty strong bottom half of the map. This puts Zig in the same position as Lourlo, where, as a developing player, he'll be looking to play more of a team role, while just trying to survive the laning phase for the most part.
Photo credit: LoL Esports