It seems that more than ever, teams that appear to have some of the best rosters in the preseason are not only struggling, but outright failing. In the past two seasons, this has happened throughout many leagues, and left fans and teams alike scratching their heads.
SKT T1 has been the best team in the world for many years, and as the current split progresses, it looks like they are ready to fight for the title once again. However, many will remember their 2018 season. Rebounding from a loss to SSG in Worlds 2017, they updated their roster with some new players. Admittedly, picking up young players always adds some uncertainty, but with the core of Bae “Bang” Jun-sik, Kang “Blank” Sun-gu, Lee “Wolf” Jae-wan and of course Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok, few doubted they would still be a powerhouse.
However, this season was different. SKT was mortal, and people couldn’t quite figure out why. They tried subbing out Blank and Wolf at different times, to no avail. When the summer split came, things were even worse. SKT subbed out Bang for three games, and the team even benched the “Unkillable Demon King” Faker himself. Though they tried nearly everything, SKT fell even further and ended the Summer Split in seventh place, missing worlds for the first time.
Though there are countless factors that led to their struggling season, there was only one that was on everyone’s mind: was Faker no longer the best? Or maybe, was being objectively the best player in the world no longer enough to secure the top spot for your team?
As mentioned previously, SKT T1 seem to have figured their issues out in time for the 2019 season. However, struggling so hard in 2018, coupled with a team of relative newcomers on Griffin rising to nearly win the league, made people question what it really took to be “the best.”
Leading up to the 2019 LEC Spring Split, the buzz was building around the Misfits. Keeping their core of Nubar “Maxlore” Sarafian and Steven “Hans Sama” Liv, they also added veteran mid laner Fabian “Febiven” Diepstraten, respected Korean support Kang “Gorilla” Beom-hyun, and recent Worlds finalist Paul “sOAZ” Boyer.
On paper, this team was a powerhouse, and was projected to easily be in the top three for the Spring Split.
In the opening weeks, it looked as though they would live up to expectations, but then things began to change. The team faltered repeatedly, falling to not only the top teams, but also those in the middle of the table, as well as some they should have easily beaten. They rallied this past weekend to beat top-seeded G2, but the reality is they are still sitting in eighth place in the LEC, a far cry from the expectations of just a few months ago.
Possibly the biggest disparity between roster and results lies in the LCS with 100 Thieves. Already boasting long time North American star Zaqueri “Aphromoo” Black and veteran top laner Kim “Ssumday” Chan-ho, they shored up a big weakness in their roster by adding former SKT T1 ADC Bang.
As the split went on, they continued to lose more than win. The organization seemed to think mid laner Choi “huhi” Jae-hyun was at least partially to blame, eventually replacing him with Max “Soligo” Soong from their academy team. When this failed to turn things around, many turned on jungler Andy “AnDa” Hoang. While it is true that his play has been underwhelming, it’s likely that the true answer is more complex than just replacing another player in the lineup.
Watching their games, it seems that they are lacking communication and shot calling. Though they might play well enough to keep up with their opponents in the early game, they continually falter when it comes to team fights and taking objectives. They stay in a safe position, neither initiating a fight or disengaging. Rather, they wait until it is too late, and they are overwhelmed by the other team. Aphromoo, once known for his positive energy and shot calling, is now starting to be known for getting caught out and dying unnecessarily. Bang does not have the impact he had been in the past. AnDa seems to be on a different page altogether. The skill and talent are there, but 100 Thieves are not working together, and it’s losing games for them.
What’s going on?
Many theories can be formed from just these few examples. Trouble with communication and shot calling is one of the easier things to see for the casual observer, but there are many more potential factors under the surface.
One factor that every team has to deal with is the changing meta. Some teams, like Fnatic last season, are well equipped to deal with the changes. They subbed out their star ADC Martin “Rekkles” Larsson at his own request, and replaced him with rookie top laner Gabriël “Bwipo” Rau. Though quite unorthodox, it was the right move for that meta, and drove Fnatic to the 2018 World Finals. Perhaps these teams need to better adjust to a meta that is unforgiving to their current lineup, and it may take some out-of-the-box thinking to do this successfully.
Another possibility is that these top players are in fact, no longer at the top. Due to the game still being relatively young, there is not a clear average lifespan of professional careers. Though there are still players from the early seasons of League that are performing well, a time may be approaching that will see the decline of some of the first true legends of the game.
Lastly, the truth is that a successful team is more than just the names on the roster. Teams like Griffin and Origen have excelled, and though many of their players are well known now, the majority of them were not top-tier players before their current success. Cloud9 realized this last season, and were bold enough to replace some of the most famous players in North America with unknown academy players. With this change, came success, and set the precedent that wins are found through team synergy and adaptability rather than the skill of a few star players.
Whatever the core issues for each of these teams, they will need to take big steps to address them – and fast – or risk long term residence at the bottom of the table.