The Five Storylines to Follow Going into the NA LCS Spring Split
To say TSM and Strong Roster in the same sentence doesn’t sound all that surprising. They’re one of the best, if not the best, NA team, having multiple NA LCS titles under their belts over a vast different amount of rosters. But TSM 2.0 (or is it 3.0? maybe 4.0?) looks scarier than ever. It’s been awhile since TSM fans could look at their team and say, “yup, each role has probably the strongest possible player in it.” Bjergsen’s resume speaks for itself, but otherwise his teammates have, at times, looked like some of the best in the West, and at other times like a Challenger Series team. Lack of communication, cohesion, and even just basic mechanics have plagued the TSM rosters to date. But, in the words of Phreak himself, TSM is looking to be the Exodia of NA: having gathered probably the strongest five cards – err, players, — and successfully thrown them together into one roster. I mean, who is not ready for the DoubleStar or YellowLift botlane? Or the Danish Dynamite of Svenskeren and Bjergsen? Heck, even Haunterzer looks to be an exciting addition, although slightly dwarfed by the shadows of the other acquisitions. TSM has always, even at their lowest, been a contender for the top in any split they’ve ever played, and in a lot of ways the retirement of Dyrus opened up TSM to really shakeup their otherwise mediocre performing roster for greener pastures. Now that TSM’s created a team with no real question marks or threats of being benched over their players heads, how will they actually fare as a team?
But… this storyline isn’t all that strange to TSM fans. Bjergsen was brought in to replace now owner Reginald in the midlane. Did he have a huge impact on their performance? That should go without saying, that is, holy heck yes. Did Lustboy bring a big change? Well… at times, for sure. At other times, yes, but for the worse. Don’t even get me started on the imported Junglers of TSM and the rocky journey each of them has endured. So, what I’m saying is this simply: this is the storyline that the NA LCS fans will be probably the most gripped by, if it pulls off well. If it doesn’t… well, I mean, half the team is European, they’re used to super mega teams failing more times than not. But some of the top half NA LCS teams look scarier, hungrier than ever, particularly with the new Investment teams (thinking Immortals and NRG here,) looking to prove themselves as relevant players in the strongest weak region in the world. While Origen seems to be Europe’s strongest hope in the international competitions, TSM is looking very much to be the same for NA, but with strong teams nipping at their heels, they need to prove that, not just to their fans but also to the world. TSM’s always had talent though, and that doesn’t necessarily equate to a good team. Cohesion, synergy, teamwork, communication and, possibly the biggest hurdle, personality and ego clashes could still spell sour for this new TSM roster. As odd as this may be, I think TSM’s overall storyline is how the organization is going to foster and grow this team.
Liquid’s 10 man roster
10 players is big. Like, even by Korean and Chinese standards that’s pretty big. I mean, sure, in reality it’s just the case that they have merged their Challenger Series team with the LCS team, giving a much more cohesive environment alongside a much more competitive one (inside the organization, that is.) But 10 players is still a lot. And it’s completely unheard of in the NA scene. CLG were the first to ‘seriously’ consider a multi-man roster, with Huhi and Pobleter in the midlane, but, seeing that they never really tapped Huhi on the shoulder to play (during the Summer split this is,) Liquid will probably be the first NA team to really try out the ‘swapping out’ idea.
Will it make a huge difference in their play? Liquid’s coming into the split with heavy hearts. They were the clear favourites to finally move onto that World’s stage, until the biggest Cinderella story in LCS history happened called Cloud 9 waltzing through the entire gauntlet to take it home. Losing Quas, arguably one of the stronger top laners in NA, also was a hit. In a lot of ways Liquid’s story is close to CLG: they lost some key players, namely Quas and Xpecial, while retaining still some of their major talents, namely Piglet and Fenix, (while for CLG it was losing Doublelift and dropping Poblter, while they retained Darshan and Aphromoo.) Will Liquid’s 10 man roster really be the answer to the turbulent story that is Liquid’s track record? I think it might, in the Summer split. The Spring Split is really going to be the testing grounds, the growing grounds for Liquid. And we’ll have to hold our breathes on whether a 10 man roster will actualize itself into, y’know, the other five players seeing some game time. I think the real question with Liquid here, and the one to watch for, is their approach to this split. If they swap out their players regularly, giving their old CS team plenty of LCS stage time, it could be a great excuse and amazing split, even if they come out on the bottom half of the pack. Why? It’s all about growth with this roster. Sure, Fenix and Piglet are still scary as anything, but Liquid is still recovering. They may be taking this split to, instead of trying to get short term goals, attend to a longer term goal of growing a strong, large and diverse team. Or, it could be possible, to grow their talent and be able to sell them off to other LCS teams. eSports isn’t just about competition. Either way Liquid is doing something quite risky with this roster, and it’ll be an interesting experiment to see how it turns out.
Big money… big teams?
Holy man. The amount of big money being thrown at LCS teams this year is absolutely startling. First, Splyce picks up Dignitas EU’s team for a whopping 1 Million. Then, NRG, backed by two co-owners of the NBA’s Sacramento Kings purchases a spot from Coast. Then, Immortals bought Team 8’s spot. Then, Vitality bought their spot from Gambit over in Europe. Then, Echo Fox was made, purchasing a spot in the LCS from Gravity, by Rick Fox, a 3 time NBA champion. Needless to say, that’s a lot of buying and a lot of money. It also means one of the most fluid ‘middle/bottom of the pack shuffle’ to shake up the LCS ever. Players were swapped, bought, brought over, and all that in multiple forms and it’s something we’ve never really seen yet. While all of this is very interesting, and promising in a lot of ways, it’s not so much what we’re really looking at here. The question we have is this: Can big money really make a successful team in the LCS? Sure, the influx of money into the LCS is great in a lot of ways (or bad, depending on the results.) What is most interesting is the contrast between these teams and, say, those like TSM, Cloud 9, and CLG who were, for the majority of their life, player-owned and those players eventually left to take on the management of those teams. Instead of this more organic, kind of grass roots approach, these teams are doing the opposite: big, non-competitive player owned organizations buying right into the LCS, instead of working their way up, and hoping to be able to fill a team around that, being able to build the infrastructure (we hope) around the team after the fact. It’s not just a storyline of big money going into the LCS, no, it’s the storyline of whether big money can buy into the LCS and actually be effective and relevant, or more dire whether these teams can even retain their LCS status with a growingly competitive Challenger Series. Of course, even if these teams fail it doesn’t spell the end of that. But it’s a big, big experiment and something to definitely watch for.
We’ll go in order of (personal as well as perceived) hype around the investment teams, starting with Immortals. Immortals looks to be the most sure fire of the bunch to succeed. Huni and Reignover contributed hugely to Fnatic’s dominant Summer Split last year, and the much of the same can be said for Pobelter for CLG. Wildturtle’s record last year was… less than inspiring, to be sure. But there’s no doubting he is still a top class NA ADC, and with Adrian, from TiP, in the botlane the communication and synergy might be there that wasn’t there on TSM. That’s figuring that those were the problems in TSM’s botlane, which at times it definitely looked like the two were on completely different pages. But, it’s been said before and I’ll say it again here, super teams don’t mean playoff dreams. Look no further than Elements. This team has all the talent to make a solid 3-4 placed team in the NA LCS, and if they gel and have the right infrastructure in place easily a contender for 1st or 2nd in NA. But they have to prove that, and on paper they look strong but that won’t matter at all if they can’t take that into action
NRG easily claims the second place for hype coming into the NA LCS. I mean, c’mon, it’s about as close to an LCK quality team that NA will see this split (for better or worse, depending on your opinions.) GMB in the midlane? Easily one of the strongest unsung mid laners to come out of Korea. And then top it off with Impact in the top lane, the second shiniest player from TiP that looked otherwise quite off kilter last split( Rush, the now Cloud 9 Jungler and MVP for the Summer Split takes the shiniest player honour.) But we can’t forget the Canadian prodigy in Altec, one of the younger players in the LCS but also one of the top homegrown ADC talent around. The reason though that I’m still very skeptical of this team, and am not quite as on the hype wagon surrounding it as I am Immortals, is that KonKwon and Moon are… well, untested. Sure, they’ve in the Challenger Series. But that’s it. And we all know by now that CS is very different set of challenges than the LCS. If this team can make sure that the communication and synergy is there, sure, they’ll be on the top half of the NA LCS for probably the whole split. But that’s the real question mark and story here: will this be another case of a team that is quite talented not seeming to be able to mesh into, y’know, an actual team instead of just a bunch of Soloqueue players.
Lastly we find ourselves with the cleverly (or egotistically?) named Echo Fox. I really want to build up the hype around this team, I mean the management alone is quite a great story in itself, but I feel like it’ll be kind of an old, repetitive tale: Froggen can’t carry his team. Seriously, has anyone outside of Korean Soloqueue even heard of kfo? Again, too, we find ourselves with relatively decent Challenger Series veterans, but those are, at best, talents that will take time to blossom, and at worst players that are just not up to LCS standards, especially in an NA scene that is increasingly unafraid to comprise half of their team of none NA players. But I think that Keith will be a big player on this team too. Froggen speaks for himself, but Keith had a (short lived) stint on Liquid, and arguably did incredibly better than a seemingly spoiled Piglet who didn’t want to play nice (at that time, of course.) That didn’t last, however, and Keith found himself bumped around a bit, subbing for TSM and also applying to fill the shoes of ailing WildTurtle too. I think the real thing viewers are going to want to watch here is whether this truthfully only two-threat team can do the work it needs to, whether the other players can support them well enough to allow them the carry room to press forward passed the lower to mid of the pack.
The perennial ‘CLG Question’: from #GoldenAge to #SilverAge?
Well, yes, here is a surprising storyline: CLG’s got a new(ish) roster, how will it do? Note the sarcasm. It seems every split CLG is touted as having the #potential to do well, with great talent, but never quite living up to that dream. However, what makes this year different than the others is that, for once, CLG looks to have made… a downgrade? The #potential jokes aside, CLG’s in very new territory. First off, they actually won the NA LCS, beating out long-time rivals TSM. Then they actually managed to get to worlds. They won two great games there, ultimately not moving on, but it really seemed that the Faith Age had moved into the Golden Age for CLG fans. But then the fall started: Doublelift left/was dropped/kicked/etc. from the team, making the long and awkward walk over to TSM, his long-time nemesis. Pobelter, too, was dropped, who found a new home in the Potential filled Immortals lineup. CLG fans had reached new highs of joys only to be thrown into an abyss of self-doubt and jumping ship to TSM. TSM of all teams! Was this the end of CLG?
I don’t think so, but it’s one of the storylines that is going to played out through this Spring Split. Yes CLG lost their star players in Pobelter and Doublelift, but it is short sighted to say that they were the only reason CLG was doing well. Darshan, formerly Zionspartan, and Aphromoo are there. And anyone who tuned into IEM San Jose saw a newly thrown together CLG take down UoL (who were, arguably, at their weakest they have ever been,) but more importantly took down Jin Air Green Wings in a best of 3, the first time ever that an NA team has done so to a Korean team. Sure, JAGW are struggling in the Korean Scene, but it’s nothing to snuff at. Stixxay seemed to be a mechanical god, while Huhi was no slouch in the midlane. Will CLG be able to somehow repeat their miraculous toppling of their TSM nemsis’? I do not think it likely in this split, but crazier things have happened.
The story that CLG fans and underdog fans alike will want to keep an eye on is whether the team will really be able to come near the glory of last Summer Split. Seeing HotShotGG that happy was definitely worth it for fans of the always-second-or-worse CLG team. What is the CLG going into this split really about, if not for the Rush Hour botlane and Darshan the man in the top? Well, their head coach believes it’ll be more about, as Tony “Zikz” Gray says, “As a team, we have chosen every player on this roster as the best for their role to fulfill their duty to help the team grow. With this roster, everyone knows that no one is bigger than the team and we can instead work on the things that really matter. CLG will be the team that will show you that teamwork trumps all.” To some this won’t sound all too off: thinking back to the Summer Split of 2014, CLG was the Macro/rotational team of NA, winning games not because their players were better mechanically, but because they rotated at an almost Korean level to take towers inhumanely effectively. It even became a much beloved Twitch-ism. Is this what CLG is trying to do here, moving away from the rather ‘ego’ super stars to more modest, yet still almost as strong, new talent to mould into the next superstars? Or is this a thinly veiled attempt to justify a team that managed to lose/drop two of its star players after its most successful run ever? This is the question that will be answered going into this Spring Split for CLG fans.
Team Branding: Or what the heck is a franchise in eSports?
This isn’t so much a storyline for just the Spring Split, more so a storyline to keep an eye on as the LCS unfolds to further heights. eSports is becoming increasingly competitive, both in the player base but also increasingly in the monetary sense. This means that eSports teams need to seriously start considering the idea of branding and franchise-ship. What does being a CLG fan mean over, say, a TSM or Cloud 9 fan? Is Fnatic more global against the more European centered Origen? As teams rise and fall and we see the increasing fluidity of the eSports talent scene, as team loyalties become frayed by tension within organizations attempting to cope with the growth and the prospect of greener pastures in other teams, the biggest things that organizations will have to face with is making themselves. CLG used to mean Doublelift, TSM meant Dyrus and Bjergsen, Fnatic meant Xpeke and Soaz, and SK Gaming meant actually being in the LCS. These were all seemingly firm concepts, but all of them have changed (expect Bjergsen, who still finds himself in TSM’s mid lane.) What is CLG, then, without Doublelift? Fnatic without Yellowstar and Huni?
We’re entering, in my opinion, the growing pain filled era of franchise building in eSports. We’ve seen teams rise and fall quite often, upstarts like Lemondogs or Vulcun, that just seem to drop off the face of the Earth. Smaller organizations who, for all intents and purposes, got lucky with their roster and couldn’t seem to carry that over into the next split, or even figure out the paperwork to do so (in the case of Lemondogs.) But we also see organizations grow from just a League of Legends team to a multi-esports team: starting off from humble roots of a player-run team, like Cloud 9, TSM and CLG. Not only do they now need to rebrand themselves in the face of a lot of their original core being gone, but also do the new big money organizations like Immortals, NRG, Echo Fox and Splyce. Sure, winning games is a really quick way to get fans, but losing games makes those fans leave just as quickly. For teams to survive the turbulent seasons, and almost more devastating off seasons, that are becoming more and more the norm in the LCS, they need to have something that they, the team, are regardless of the players. While some of these big money teams can gain fans from the star players they managed to get, there’s a long road ahead to actually creating a solid fan base, and increasingly it seems that eSports is vulnerable to fair weathering, which can kill organizations that are increasingly looking more and more like investments, like in other sports. It’s hard to coax sponsors to sponsor a team whose player base consists of a few fans who decided to stick it out through hard times, or worse whose team could be relegated within a single split due to having to learn to gel together over a small span of time.