The Race for Third: NA LCS Edition

Before the season began, the North American League Championship Series appeared to have three teams with a legitimate chance of winning the title. After all, Cloud 9’s second place finish during the 2014 summer split was the worst since their induction to the LCS. Team Liquid pulled out every trick in the book to sign Chae “Piglet” Gwang-jin from Korea, and Team SoloMid were the reigning champs who brought in Lucas “Santorin” Larsen as a potential upgrade from what they got from Maurice “Amazing” Stuckenschneider the year before. These three teams towered over all the rest on paper, but as the great Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw once said, “Paper is a flimsy thing that turns clear when you rub grease on it.” Having watched the LCS for the past four weeks, there’s no doubt the whole thing has become pretty messy.

To the surprise of many, it’s been TSM and Counter Logic Gaming who have stood out above the rest of the teams in North America so far this split, and the two provide an interesting contrast to this point. TSM is an organization looking towards the future, with Coach Choi “Locodoco” Yoon-sub doing his best to prepare TSM not only for their LCS opponents, but for the teams they will likely face in international tournaments like the upcoming IEM Katowice. CLG, on the other hand, have opted to get players like Austin “Link” Shin and Darshan “ZionSpartan” Upadhyaha going early in the split in hopes that they’ll be able to snowball that success into big gains once the playoffs roll around. Both teams have taken advantage of the turmoil present in their region, and CLG’s two game lead over the pack makes it difficult to imagine anyone else taking a top two spot without something going horribly wrong within the organization.

That said, the quest for third has quickly become a captivating spectacle to watch. Five teams are tied at 4-4, with two more only a game back at 3-5. A good run by any of these teams will be enough to give them a significant number of circuit points heading into the summer split, while a bad run could easily place them into the fiery pits of relegation. While making precise predictions is a near impossibility when teams are this close, the degenerate gambler side of me is a big fan of handicapping close races like this. So, let’s take a closer look at this eight horse race and determine which teams are likely to put it together, and which teams are likely to crumble down the stretch.

 

Team Coast (1-7)

COASTIn the first draft of this article, there wasn’t a good reason to mention Team Coast. After all, when you get to the point that casinos are putting your underdog odds in the +600 range (for those of you that aren’t degenerate gamblers like myself, that essentially means the casinos are giving Coast a 14% chance to win a game against decent teams, which is especially harsh when you remember casinos always try to make you gamble on odds that are worse that the true win expectancy rate in their minds in order to make their money), the rest of the season is a formality. That said, the recent move to bench Jesse “Jesiz” Le in favour of fan favourite Zachary “mancloud” Hoschar has piqued public interest in the team once more. Surely, getting rid of what many fans consider to be the weakest link on the roster can only help the team, right?

Unfortunately, this is exactly the kind of move an organization makes when they fail to understand the fundamental problem with their team. While Jesiz was by no means a strong point for the roster, he was far from the central issue. His 2.62 KDA placed him sixth amongst mid laners in North America; the only other player on the roster as high for his position is Brandon “DontMashMe” Phan. The area in which Jesiz has struggled is the same area in which all of his teammates have struggled: closing games. The team’s abysmal GPM is indicative of the “Up until they lose the game, they’re winning” mantra that has characterized Team Coast ever since the organization bought Good Game University way back in the 2013 season.

Instead of providing an analyst that could help point these things out (Coast are the only team in the NA LCS to not have one at the moment), the organization is trying to put a band-aid over a much bigger problem and hope that their fans don’t notice. Given the sheer number of high profile throws only four weeks into the season, it’s hard not to pin these struggles on the continued organizational failures that have sunk the team in previous iterations. Until Team Coast invests in the infrastructure necessary to teach these players what they’re doing wrong when they establish these leads over their competition, natural talent will not be enough to bring this roster out of auto-relegation, regardless of whether Mancloud can turn his moderate success on the challenger Team Storm into something more. In short, it’s an unnecessary move that can only alienate Matthew “Impaler” Taylor – the player who asked the team to sign Jesiz as part of his signing – while failing to fix the shotcalling issues or addressing the lack of infrastructure present in the organization. At this rate, Team Coast will not be missed when the summer split rolls around.

 

Team Dignitas (3-5)

Dignitas LogoIf you’re a Coast fan and want to believe that everything from the last three paragraphs won’t come true, you’ll want to look at Dignitas, who was fielding similar +400 underdog odds (or, in non-degenerate gambler terms, the casinos thought Dignitas was likely to beat a decent team less than 20% of the time) when Alberto “Crumbzz” Rengifo first stepped down from the roster saying things like “It’s not that I’m done with League. I just want to do it on a team where everyone likes each other and we all agree on how to play the game.” Even the staunchest optimist was probably ready to cross Dignitas off the list of contenders at that point, but a 2-2 record since Stephen “CloudNguyen” Nguyen started subbing for the team has left people wondering if perhaps things are finally coming together for this roster.

The case for Dignitas’s resurgence starts with Noh “Gamsu” Yeong-jin, whose 5.1 KDA places him second at his position behind only ZionSpartan. Equally impressive is Danny “Shiphtur” Le, whose 4.0 KDA makes him the third most lethal mid laner in North America. The strength of these two solo laners helps hide the deficiencies of the jungle, which was inconsistent before the inexperienced CloudNguyen took over, and the bot lane, which has looked better than expected, if only because Alan “KiWiKiD” Nguyen has been an average support player rather than a terrible one.

If you’re more of a skeptic, it’s pretty easy to poke holes in the Dignitas resurgence theory. Their two most recent victories are both perfect examples of teams beating themselves: Team Liquid made the mistake of drafting a double ADC composition without any disengage in case things went wrong, and Team8‘s Steven “CaliTrlolz” Kim and Andrew “Slooshi” Pham both made terrible plays that let Shiphtur hard carry Dignitas to victory. Most of the time, Dignitas isn’t going to get so lucky, and their 1474.83 GPM puts them far below the rest of their competition (they’re not much better in terms of KDA, finishing ninth at 2.70). Even Gamsu finishes last at his position for GPM thanks to the team’s inability to grab gold earning objectives, an incredible feat given his KDA. If KiWiKiD favourite Annie ever shifts out of the meta, the bot lane may only get worse from here, with Jo “Core JJ” Yong-in failing to make much of an impact to this point. If enemy teams find a way to shut down the strong laning phases of Dignitas’s solo laners, this could get ugly again very quickly.

 

Team 8 (3-5)

Team_8_new_logoUp until last week, Team 8 had established themselves as the kind of success story general fans of the game love to get behind. They are a young team of which little was expected who kept finding a way to at least remain competitive in big games. Their win over TSM on the opening week of the split was Slooshi’s coming out party, and CaliTrlolz continued to be a fascinating figure to watch in the top lane.

Of course, the problem with exceeding expectations is that it causes people to adjust accordingly, and as soon as the “Are Team 8 legit?” conversations began, they were doused by a terrible pair of Week Four performances, most notably from Ainslie “frommaplestreet” Wyllie‘s insistence on playing Draven against Team Liquid despite the hard engage of the enemy team composition and the previously mentioned collapse against Dignitas from Slooshi and CaliTrlolz. These performances were much more in line with what fans predicted for this roster before the season began, and any chance the Team 8 bandwagon had of gaining momentum was stopped in its tracks, fairly or not.

The reality of Team 8 is that they have done about as well as one could expect from a team with very little positive experience at this level of play. The difference between the team’s GPM–a respectable 1563.29 with no player outside of the top eight for his position (CaliTrlolz is the highest comparative earner for his team, earning the third most GPM amongst fellow top laners)–and their KDA–which is firmly in last place and fails to place a single Team 8 player above eighth in their respective positions–is staggering. It paints the picture of a team that knows what the right play is and where they’re supposed to be, but haven’t quite acquired the skills necessary to convert that into kills and other, larger objectives. They’ll undoubtedly continue to improve as the split goes on, but they still have a long way to go before they are ready to make a serious run at the playoffs.

 

Gravity Gaming (4-4)

300px-Gravity_LogoGravity Gaming has all the makings of a borderline playoff team. Their KDA places them sixth in the region, as does their GPM. Each of their players is currently in the top six for their position in either GPM or KDA, but none of them are in the top six for both. They’ve beaten solid teams like Cloud9 and Team Liquid, but they’ve also managed to lose three of their last four games. This is a team that screams average in a way no other North American unit does, performing adequately in all areas while excelling at none.

It’s worth mentioning, however, that the most recent downward swing immediately followed the release of former head coach Hughbo “SoulDra” Shim. In his statement to the media, he pointed out that his biggest mistake was not having enough “backbone to tell people like Saint to shut-up during team discussions.” This isn’t the first time Brandon “Saintvicious” DiMarco has been linked to causing issues within his team’s structure. Former support Elementz left the team after speaking publicly on how Saintvicious’s attitude was negatively affecting the team environment. There’s no doubt that Saintvicious is a capable veteran of the scene, and his knowledge and leadership certainly helped Gravity get this far. Now that they’re in the LCS, he’ll have to find a way to work with Nick “LS” De Cesare if the team is going to make the most of their new coach.

The first issue LS will have to solve for Gravity is their appropriation of gold amongst the team. Right now, Saintvicious is fifth for his position in GPM despite having only the ninth place KDA. Unless they can find a way to turn Saint’s gold stream into more kill pressure across the map, it’ll likely be in the team’s best interest to use that gold to get their younger solo laners going. While David “Cop” Roberson and Michael “Bunny FuFuu” Kurylo have done a good job at providing consistent gold incomes for themselves, mid laner Lae-Young “Keane” Jang has struggled to find his footing, placing seventh in KDA and sixth in GPM for his position. Despite having the fourth highest KDA among active top laners, Kevin “Hauntzer” Yarnell has been unable to turn these kills into larger advantages on his own, placing him seventh amongst active top laners in GPM. If Saintvicious can use his veteran wiles to get these young players rolling, they’ll be in the playoffs. If he finds himself at odds with yet another coach, however, it will be difficult to see this team being much of a threat when the postseason rolls around.

 

Team Impulse (4-4)

300px-TIP_LogoTeam Impulse is, in many respects, the anti-Gravity. Despite being another amalgamation of veteran talent and players who either have no experience or haven’t been in the LCS for such a long time that the experience hardly matters, Impulse hasn’t really had to struggle with gold. In fact, the team’s 1642.37 GPM places them squarely in third in the region, behind only CLG and TSM. Their KDA numbers, on the other hand, are far less impressive, as Yu “XiaoWeiXiao” Xian and Jung “Impact” Eon-yeong are the only players on the roster to finish in the top five in KDA for their respective positions amongst active players, and even that took a huge push from them last week. They have yet to pull off a shocking victory against a top tier team, but they also haven’t been beaten by any of the teams in the lower third of the standings. The end result is a team that’s equally average as far as the standings are concerned, but appears to have a lot more room to grow in the coming weeks.

If you’re a fan of Team Impulse, your optimism begins with Impact, the former SKT star top laner. Despite only posting a 2.95 KDA so far this season, his individual play has improved with each game, and his recent Maokai antics look a lot more like the player fans were expecting when he first was announced on the roster. Equally promising has been Lee “Rush” Yoon-jae. While he appeared a bit lost as a shotcaller during the early weeks of the split, he’s gotten a much better handle on when he should make certain rotations, making him a big reason why the team’s GPM has risen so significantly over the last two weeks (their GPM two weeks into the split? 1565.60, nearly 80 lower than their current total. That’s a big leap for a team that hasn’t had a lot of time to spend together).

Of course, things are far from perfect for Impulse. XiaoWeiXiao’s position as the fifth best mid laner in North America is still a stark downgrade from his performance last split. While more data needs to be collected before one can determine how fair it is to compare last year’s GPM stats with this year’s, XiaoWeiXiao’s KDA has dropped dramatically, from 4.45 last split to a mere 2.91 so far this season. While optimists may point out that such a big difference indicates the gap is more likely to close as the season progresses, it’s hard not to wonder whether being the only Chinese player on the roster is taking its toll while the team tries to figure out how best to communicate with each other. Equally worrying is the team’s bot lane. Apollo “Apollo” Price is definitely an improvement over his WizFujiiN days, but Adrian “Adrian” Ma has yet to live up to the hype created from his Robert Morris scholarship and his ESPN feature. Figuring out how to shore up their potential weaknesses and turn their gold advantages into greater kill pressure will be the key in determining how far this team can go.

 

Winterfox (4-4)

300px-Winterfox_Logo_UpdateIt’s incredible that after four weeks of regular season play, Winterfox has yet to play a game with their full roster. Nicolas “Gleeb” Haddad did an admirable job holding down the support position for Jang “Imagine” Hyeon-su, submitting the fourth best KDA amongst support players, but it is undeniable that fans are looking forward to seeing what the support who impressed the organization so much during their Korean boot camp this offseason can do. Even more exciting is the presence of Coach Choi “Paragon” Hyun-il, whose previous experiences within the Incredible Miracle organization will serve not only to keep players Korean imports Imagine, Shin “Avalon” Dog-hyeon and Shin “Helios” Dong-jin feeling comfortable in their North American environment, but also help bring the Korean discipline that has proven to create a large portion of the greatest League of Legends teams and players over the past few years.

 

It’s hard, therefore, to draw too many conclusions about where exactly this team is compared to the rest of the teams around them, but recent games have looked promising. Last week’s 2-0 performance grabbed them quality wins over Team Impulse and Cloud 9, and those performances were good enough to propel them all the way from the ninth best KDA in the region to third. The core of the artists formerly known as Evil Geniuses has remained strong, with Johnny “Altec” Ru‘s 6.46 KDA coming second only to Yuri “KEITHMCBRIEF” Jew, who only played for one incredible weekend before being called in to sub again this week (getting there). While Eugene “Pobelter” Park‘s KDA has suffered a bit due to some question pick and ban phases early in the split, his 8/1/17 performance on Kassadin against Impulse and his 4/1/8 performance on Ahri against Cloud 9 proved he’s still just as deadly on his assassins as he’s ever been.

While Paragon’s arrival to the team is certainly an improvement over their prior situation, it’s uncertain just how much of an immediate impact he will have on the team. Bringing in a new coach and a new support this late into the season is a lot of change to deal with, and any setback to the team dynamic as these players learn how to play with each other could be devastating. It will fall on the organization to make the transition for these players as smooth as possible. If Altec, Pobelter, and Helios can continue to perform at this level for the rest of the split, Winterfox will almost certainly be a strong contender for that third place spot, but even a small dip could force the team to rely on Avalon and Imagine before they’re ready to take that level of scrutiny from enemy teams. It will be clear in the next couple of weeks if Winterfox is up to the task, but there is no doubt this core has the potential to be devastating for enemy teams.

 

Team Liquid (4-4)

KEITHMCBRIEF is going to start a week’s worth of LCS games while Piglet is on the roster and available to his team.

LiquidlogobigThat’s the kind of sentence that would have given fans and analysts of the past three years nightmares. It’s incredible that the situation has gotten to this point, and while fans are understandably searching for any evidence they can find to assure themselves this is all going to work out in the end, the fact that it’s not working out now matters. How much it will matter in the end is hard to say, and without an intimate understanding of the inner workings of the Team Liquid organization, it’s an unsolvable puzzle. What clip matters more: the one where Piglet snaps at manager Steve Perino in the middle of a solo queue game after a playful joke, or the one where he does an imitation of Xpecial for his fans on Twitch? It’s hard to say. The story heard from multiple sources within the scene is that Piglet disagreed with the coach’s decision for a composition for an upcoming scrimmage and insta-locked Urgot in protest, forcing the organization to cancel the scrimmage. Even if that story isn’t true, is there version of the story that forces Team Liquid to bench a former world champion mid season for having a bad attitude that could be good?

Regardless of the specifics, Team Liquid now finds themselves in a rough spot. They’re a team filled with strong personalities: Christian “IWillDominate” Rivera was banned for the entirety of Season Three for toxic behaviour. Alex “Xpecial” Chu was kicked from his role on TSM for his passive aggression towards his teammates. Adding another fiery attitude in Piglet was always going to be a risk, and Joedat “Voyboy” Esfahani‘s decision to step down from the roster left a void where the team once found leadership and comfort. This stuff matters when an organization tries to build a team, and Team Liquid has failed to demonstrate they understand this concept so far this season. The team is now 2-4 in their last six games, and it’s hard to imagine that the interpersonal relationships that have been made so public recently play a role in that.

Team Liquid’s tangibles paint an equally blurry picture. IWillDominate is second amongst junglers in KDA, but only seventh in GPM. That gold has instead been funneled to Kim “FeniX” Jae-hoon, whose 2.5 KDA (8th best at his position) forces teammates to help him get going so that he can be useful for late game team fights.

This strategy works out well as long as the other lanes are able to take care of themselves, but Diego “Quas” Ruiz has taken a big step back in his development so far this split, with only the seventh best KDA for his position and placing dead last in GPM. Piglet has also underperformed mightily this split with a mere 2.92 KDA, cementing his place as the least lethal AD Carry in North America. IWillDominate can only do so much to keep the gold spread around, and at least one of these lanes will have to make a significant improvement if they want to take the pressure off. There is undoubtedly a ton of talent on this team, but none of it has worked as expected. The team’s reaction to this Piglet benching will undoubtedly be the deciding factor in whether this team can rally back for the rest of the split, or whether they’ll end up being yet another team from the Curse brain trust that failed to live up to their potential.

 

Cloud 9 (4-4)

Cloud9_LogotransWatching Cloud 9 this split has been a rather strange experience for fans that have watched the team dominate the North American scene since their inception to the LCS in the Season Three Summer split. A team that was once known for being brutally efficient in their pick and ban phase thanks to Daerek “LemonNation” Hart‘s infamous notebook somehow managed to let Winterfox grab Lissandra and Ahri last week, ensuring Avalon was on a power pick and Pobelter would have one of his favourite assassins. The shotcalling that once defined the North American meta has become just sloppy enough that enemy teams have been able to take advantage of it. Despite being the only returning team to maintain the entirety of their old roster, Cloud 9 looks like an entirely different team.

Conspiracy theorists like to pin Cloud 9’s current struggles on Hai “Hai” Lam, a once beloved mid laner who was forgiven in the past for any mechanical failings in his playstyle due to his ability to take in the information presented to him on the Rift and make the optimal call for his team. It’s understandable that since their strategic dominance has faded over the past few weeks, Hai would get more criticism for his ninth place KDA amongst mid laners and only marginally better GPM. Add in the rumours that Cloud 9 was looking to replace Hai with Nicolaj “Incarnation” Jensen in the long run, and it’s easy to see where the narrative comes from. This narrative, however, fails to explain why An “Balls” Le, a far more venerated player from a technical standpoint, has posted similar numbers: eight in KDA for his position and sixth in GPM.

It’s understandable that the advent of coaches as significant aspects of even the below average LCS teams has put a dent in what was once Cloud 9’s biggest advantage, but there are few metrics that give a clear indication that this team will improve. Unlike young upstarts like Impulse and Winterfox, Cloud 9 only has one win against a team that is .500 or better, and it was the game in which Piglet forgot to use masteries. The team has some momentum behind them after a solid 3-1 performance over the last two weeks, but they’ll need to keep that streak going against Impulse and a CLG team that is looking to avenge their disappointing loss against TSM. If Cloud 9 cannot find a way to improve their solo lane play, LemonNation’s notebook may not be enough to elevate this team to its former glory.