The Weakness of NA
Historically, NA has been considered the weakest of the four big regions in the world. Each passing year NA’s top teams, such as Cloud 9, have improved and been able to get farther into international tournaments, defeating European teams and even winning games against Asian sides. However, this year NA seems to have taken a step back as the region’s strong teams have suddenly developed major issues. This year, the level of play in NA simply does not compare to the other big four.
The Free Fall of Cloud 9
Cloud 9 has become the poster child of NA’s international capabilities. After dominating LCS Summer Split 2013, they were America’s hope of winning Season 3 Worlds. They went the farthest of any North American team, but lost in the quarter finals to Europe’s Fnatic 1-2. Cloud 9’s next international appearance would be at IEM Cologne, where they were immediately eliminated by Gambit Gaming 0-2.
At the Battle of the Atlantic, Cloud 9 showed their improvements and were able to best Fnatic 2-0, thus securing a North American win at the event. Cloud 9’s international success continued to improve as they were able to reach quarterfinals at Season 4 Worlds despite being grouped with Europe’s Alliance (now Elements) and Korea’s Najin White Shield. They lost 3-1 to Samsung Blue, but almost took the series to game 5 with a decisive push down mid lane. Cloud 9’s next international performance was at IEM San Jose, which they won convincingly after besting Alliance 2-1 and Unicorn’s of Love 3-0. Cloud 9 could now effectively compete with European teams, and were capable of taking games off of elite Korean teams. Cloud 9 was rising.
Unexpectedly, Cloud 9 has started off the LCS Spring 2015 Split in poor form. Going 4-4 in the first four weeks, Cloud 9 has lost games despite having huge CS leads in the top lane after executing lane swaps respectably. Their team fighting, one of their hallmarks, has degraded this split and some of their players have yet to adapt to the meta (Ball’s inability to play Gnar for example).
Cloud 9 struggling early in a split isn’t something we haven’t seen before: through the LCS 2014 Summer Split, Cloud 9 didn’t secure a hold on first place until the 11th week of the season, hovering between 5th and 2nd place till then. What we haven’t seen is Cloud 9 fail to snowball monstrous leads into decisive victories with disastrous consistency. Consider their game against WinterFox in Week 4 where Balls literally had double Avalon’s CS at 16 minutes, but still failed to be more relevant and Cloud 9 lost.
While it is possible Cloud 9 will adapt and break through more invigorated than ever, signs of which we are seeing, the fact they are struggling in ways they haven’t is disturbing and does not bode well for international play where the competition is higher than NA.
TSM’s Achilles Heel
Let’s look at TSM and their play style this split. TSM suffers from a dimensional approach to the game. TSM is a tower focused team who does not even attempt to control Dragon for themselves. While against teams who cannot deal with TSM’s early snowball get their base demolished before any dragon advantage they have plays out, when teams prevent TSM from attacking their base the team is put on their back heel. We’ve seen this in their game against CLG in Week 4, where they barely prevented CLG from taking a fifth Dragon buff, and again in their game in week 5 against Team Liquid, where they failed to secure a single neutral objective in the game (granted Dominate came up with a clutch Baron steal, TSM’s lack of preparation of Dragon sealed their doom).
Not only is TSM’s objective focus inflexible, their most successful strategy is also rigid. Santorin camps mid to try and snowball Bjergson, who can carry games within NA. This is TSM’s main focus, which has not only been discussed by Duncan “Thorin” Shields in one of his youtube videos, but also in a heated discussion within the team which was shown in episode two of their reality show “TSM Legends.”
TSM also has a crux in the form of Wildturtle’s early game. He has been lane swapped out of lanes he would struggle in either due to champion picks or his inferior skill level to the enemy lane. By week 4, TSM had lane swapped turtle five times out of their eight games and were only called on it once in their game against TiP. In their game against Team Liquid in week 2, Turtle recalled in bot lane to go top after Team Liquid’s Piglet showed himself bot lane. That is a suboptimal way of initiating a lane swap because it sets your ADC behind early in terms of farm and exp, but given the match up of Tristana vs. Caitlyn it is understandable why they did so. But Turtle’s dependence on the lane swap can be a crutch TSM is too reliant on in international competition where teams will do better than NA in scouting and predicting the swaps.
That said, Turtle has performed well in team fights as he finds himself in an almost Bang-esque situation. SKT T1’s ADC is rarely focused in teamfights when Faker is played, as the enemy team almost always pursues Faker, freeing up Bang to clean up team fights. Bjergson gets similar treatment in NA and Turtle is able to capitalize on it. To use their game against TL in week 5 again, Turtle’s Pentakill on Jinx was enabled by TL focusing several ultimates onto Bjergson, leaving him untouched. Whether or not international teams will give Turtle that much room by focusing TSM’s star player as much as NA teams will is yet to be seen, but if that is not the case Turtle may not have so much room to carry.
NA’s Play Has Deteriorated
While Cloud 9 has improved their international performances alongside their rival TSM in past years, the middle to lower tier NA teams have yet to mature to compete at such levels, evidenced not only in their inability to place higher than the aforementioned teams, but also in their own play. This split in particular though just looks bad: several games have ended with massive throws such as Dignitas vs. Coast in Week 1, and the level of play overall is worse to put it simply. From objective control to lane swaps and team fighting, almost every team in NA is weak in at least one of these aspects consistently. Even TSM, currently seeded at 1st, has deep rooted issues in their strategy.
The weakness of NA becomes more apparent when we compare the level of play in NA’s hyped game for first place between CLG and TSM with the epic series between Jin Air Green Wings and CJ Entus, Korea’s third and second place teams after six weeks of play.
By all means, the CLG vs TSM game is not a bad game—it lived up to the hype and was a fun game to watch. Unfortunately for CLG, Doublelift’s miss-positioning, a missed ultimate by Link, and indecisiveness in the last team fight gave TSM the game after CLG accumulated a huge lead in Dragons and a 6k gold lead—the game was decided by the mistakes of the winning team.
Now look at Jin Air’s and CJ’s first game of their set in Week 5: a 79 minute epic, this game is perhaps the best game played this season. Trading shots across the rift, the two teams danced about each other, inching each other out and taking objectives off of every little win they could. The game reached mind blowing levels of insanity when Jin Air with Baron buff faced off against CJ with 5 Dragon stacks twice, used side minion waves to destroy CJ’s base as they threatened Baron, and the game ended with one last battle over Dragon for a 5th stack for either side. If there was a game to advertise League of Legends Season 5 changes, this is it.
This game lasted so long in part due to the two teams compositions being poke based, meaning that both sides were equipped to disengage really well. However, it also lasted so long because both sides played their compositions so well—playing to their win conditions, both sides never made any mistakes which blew the game wide open, and although CJ Entus were pushed into a corner, they still could have won at any point. This level of tension and play was not present in TSM and CLG’s game, and that was the fight for first place in the middle of the split. While both games in their respective contexts don’t mean much to the overall standings, the difference of scale in play is appalling given the contextual strengths of the teams in their regions. The Jin Air vs CJ game is also an outlier of performance, even in Korea, but the achievement of teams playing their compositions to their win conditions is consistent in Korea’s top level of play, whereas in NA teams either don’t play to their win conditions or draft poor compositions.
Europe’s Own Issues
Saying “comparing NA to Korea is unfavorable” is an understatement, so let’s broaden the analysis to discuss the region directly ahead of NA, Europe. Europe, like NA, also has its issues with constructing team compositions and playing to their win conditions from time to time. Consider SK vs H2K’s game in week 5 where SK, the number 1 team in Europe, drafted a poor composition which lacked synergy with Kennen having no additional lockdown to aid with his ultimate and Leblanc having no additional support in diving for picks.
So why is it that if the top European team can make the same mistake as NA’s teams they are not just as bad as NA? The difference is that whereas NA team make those mistakes consistently, Europe makes those mistakes irregularly and even demonstrate great strategic minds among their top teams. SK tends to draft really good team compositions and incorporate pocket picks well. In their game against Unicorns of Love, SK first debuted Fredy123’s Kennen top as a unique counter to the popular Gnar-Jarvan combo, and played the pick incredibly well (granted UoL also played badly against it). A team innovating a pick displays an awareness of strategy, which SK, both in game and in picks, have consistently displayed. Meanwhile, TSM has yet to display strategic innovation or diversity in their repetitive play style which can be punished by more strategically advanced teams.
The issue of throws is also a sign of weakness in NA which Europe does not suffer from. SK’s loss to H2K gaming, while they did make several mistakes, they never had a substantial lead to begin with in that game. Forgiven was killed in lane and Fredy123 was killed in overextensions. While they are mistakes, it does not rival the failure of Cloud 9 to secure a win with their massive lead in top lane in that game against WinterFox. Losing a game you started off poorly is not as bad as losing a game you had an immense lead in, and NA is ripe with cases of the later: several of Cloud 9’s games, Coast’s game against Dignitas in week 1, CLG vs TSM; just to list a few. Europe does have some throws as well, such as Elements game against SK where Elements, who were accumulating a lead on SK, overstayed in SK’s jungle after missing critical ults, but European teams do not throw games with the same consistency as North America does, which suggest that a European team with a lead is more likely than an NA team with a lead to close out the game with a victory.
IEM Katowice will be the next international competition where we will see the four regions meet, with NA’s best playing against strong European and Korean teams. Assuming none of the competition chokes, we can expect to see NA’s TSM and C9—if they keep their current level of play—be eliminated at one point in the tournament in dominant fashion. Against the likes of SK Gaming and GE Tigers, I don’t see either NA team beating them in a series. Hopefully the upcoming IEM championship will serve as a wakeup call to NA to improve so they can compete. Worlds is still far away, so there is time for NA to strengthen as a region, but it will be an arduous affair.