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League of Legends: Understanding What Makes a Pro Team Good or Bad

2016 ROX Tigers and SKT are two of the best teams of all time

Fnatic 2015 versus Fnatic 2018. TSM 2016 versus TSM 2017. SKT 2015 versus SKT 2016. Which teams were better? While most fans would ultimately view those teams as the best in their region at those times, how do they determine which iteration is better? Is there something clearly better about the earlier rosters than their more recent counterparts?

Everyone loves power rankings, because they mostly involve speculation. Analysts have to compare hypothetical matchups based on teams’ previous showings. They state their case, usually describing better teams as having “strong decision making”, “consistency”, and “incredible talent”. Meanwhile, a lesser team “tries to do too many things”,  “fumbles the execution”, or “lack[s] proactivity”.

This article means to break down what traits apply to the best teams, what they mean, and what they look like on the Rift.

Skilled v. Outclassed

Skill is the most basic and fundamental characteristic for defining and comparing teams. The most obvious examples at the professional level are major versus minor leagues and major regions versus wildcards. General skill is the largest divide between Academy League and LCS, or major regions and wildcards. Rosters with better talent generally have an advantage. At a certain point, one team can beat another purely due to differences in skill.

Calling a team skilled, though, is not as clear-cut as it may sound. Skill generally refers to an individual’s mechanics, how s/he clicks the mouse, hits the keys, and pilots the champion. Just like one running back may have a faster 40-yard dash, one pitcher may have a quicker fastball, or one shooting guard may have better handling, one League pro may last hit better, cast their spells faster, or have a superior sidestep. Most top-level individuals seem similarly matched, but oftentimes players are mismatched.

1907 Fenerbahce were outclassed at 2017 World Championship
Image from LoL Esports Flickr

When a team loses from skill alone, they are deemed to be outclassed. Anyone who has played solo queue against a player from a different tier has experienced this skill difference. A silver player against a newcomer will quickly dominate lane, because s/he has vastly superior mechanics and insight into every champion. That same silver player would feel the same skill difference when playing against a diamond player.

These separations in skill are obvious advantages, and represent the base for judging competitors against each other. Skilled teams display high champion proficiency, intensive mechanics, and instant reaction speed, while an outclassed opponent will generally get outplayed due to slower mechanics and reactions or have less comfort and/or confidence with a champion.

Coordinated v. Disjointed

Coordination is the next dimension for separating a better team from a worse one. This characteristic is slightly more nuanced than skill when watching a matchup. A coordinated team is one where two or more players demonstrate strong synergy when executing a strategy. The more players that are on the same page, the better the team will perform. They can coordinate several different gameplay aspects, including vision control, abilities in team fights, and lane ganks.

Huni-Reignover and PraY-GorillA are two of the best duos of all time
Image from LoL Esports Flickr

Zven-Mithy, PraY-GorillA, and Doublelift-Aphromoo represent highly coordinated bottom lane duos, while Bengi-Faker, Reignover-Huni, and Clearlove-Meiko represent non-bot pairs with coordination. These players are able to win out over more skilled individuals, because they remain on the same page at all times. Information flows freely between the players, which they use to their advantage over more disjointed teams.

A team that contains obviously skilled players, but loses to a team they should theoretically outclass, usually lacks coordination. Elements in Europe, Team Impulse in North America, and LGD in China are examples of disjointedness on stage. With several star players with previous success, skill is not the problem. On the other hand, 2017 Misfits or 2016 CLG reached their highest peaks through superior coordination, not raw player skill.

League of Legends offers several different win conditions, so if coordinated teams secure more neutral objectives, place and clear better vision, and manipulate minion waves, then they have a distinct advantage.

Decisive v. Indecisive

Once a team acquires highly skilled players and develops coordination to bind them, decisiveness should be the next added layer. As League has advanced over the years, player skill and team coordination have both become base requirements for success at the professional level. Indecisiveness has become a major inhibition for low teams versus top teams.

Hai shotcalled Cloud9 to Worlds in 2015
Image from LoL Esports Flickr

Decisiveness generally flows from a loud voice on the team, someone that the team trusts to guide them – a shot caller. Several notable shot callers have emerged over the years, including Aphromoo and Hai in the NA LCS. These players stand out historically, because their organizations credit much of the game-winning decision-making to these individuals. Shot callers are able to take a skilled, coordinated team and direct them on where and when to pressure the map, who to focus in fights, and how to achieve their win conditions over the course of a game.

Much like past uncoordinated “super teams,” League has seen its fair share of indecision from otherwise powerful teams. TSM is a current example. On the other hand, teams can suffer from making clear decisions without proper coordination, or from making poor decisions. A leader can call to pressure Baron and secure it quickly, but if the rest of the team is not coordinating their positioning and abilities, or if the other team can backdoor the Nexus, then the decisive call does not matter.

Proactive v. Reactive

Proactivity is a trait that goes hand-in-hand with decisiveness, but takes it to a new level. A shot caller can generally dictate what the team should do in any specific moment, particularly in the mid-late game. However, a team needs more foresight to become proactive. After the draft, they need to recognize each team’s win conditions and begin formulating the steps towards winning. Being proactive means remaining one step ahead of the opponent. This aspect of League is akin to chess.

SKT beat Origen at Worlds 2015 because they played more proactive
Screenshot from LoL Esports Youtube broadcast

The best teams in the world generally minimize risk, while maximizing reward. Many of the better rosters understand how to sit back and coast off a gold lead, but less actually understand how to press their lead effectively. Taking advantage of an opponent’s mistake is one thing – milking it for all it’s worth is another. In SKT’s prime, they were able to close almost every game when given a lead, referred to as “constrictor style.” Every ounce of weakness from their enemy would allow SKT to slowly crush them, by removing and placing vision, clearing the entire jungle, and keeping all waves pushing.

Reactivity is necessary at times, but teams that lack proactivity are at a disadvantage. It’s why playing against a team that constantly moves towards Baron or intelligently split pushes is frustrating. The reactive team has to face-check the brush, use their Summoner Spells first, and delay their items. Playing reactively is like fighting from the low ground. While sometimes sitting back and just punishing mistakes can work against lesser teams, the best will force plays and leverage their strengths at all stages of the game. When casters or analysts refer to “pressure”, they mean that one team is pressing the other to react.

Calculated v. Reckless

Tied in with proactivity, good teams play a calculated game. To utilize their advantages to the fullest extent, players have to keep track of as many different game aspects as possible. Cooldowns, spawns, runes, locations, and stats scroll through every player’s brain as they make decisions. Losing sight of the initiator could lose the game. Mistiming a flash cooldown could lose the game. Smiting too early when the enemy jungler is in range could lose the game. Drafting with a closed mind could lose the game.

Of course, recklessness is the opposite of calculated play. Short-sighted teams can easily lose advantages, or fall farther behind, because they make decisions without adequate information. So much of League is about execution, so missing information can drastically impact the outcome. A team can have as much skill, coordination, decisiveness, and proactivity as they want. But without proper absorption and retaining of information, they will lose to a more calculated team. Zirene’s “The Breakdown” does a great job highlighting this layer of the top teams.

Flexible v. One-Dimensional

Flexibility is a huge factor separating good and bad teams. As with many esports, League of Legends changes frequently. Patches, systematic changes, and an ever-shifting meta forces professional players to adapt. Those that will not or cannot keep up tend to lose to more flexible teams. North America’s loss at Rift Rivals is a perfect example. European bottom lanes learned Heimerdinger and Swain, while North America indexed much more towards Kai’Sa and marksmen.

EU LCS won Rift Rivals due to flexibility
Screenshot from LoL Esports Youtube broadcast

Once one-dimensional teams get read, they start to lose. Even if they have skill, coordination, and shot calling, they can lose if their comfort picks are banned, or if a counter-strategy surfaces. Some of the best teams will lose if a certain lane gets repeatedly ganked. Others lose if tank top laners go out of meta. When Riot released the Juggernaut update leading into the 2015 World Championship, champions like Mordekaiser and Darius became pick-or-ban. Teams that could not effectively play those champions suffered, while flexible teams excelled.

Innovative v. Unimaginative 

Innovation is the cherry on top of the good team sundae. Very few professional teams throughout history have actually innovated in ways that rippled. At MSI 2016, CLG introduced ranged support like Soraka and Sona to counter Alistar. ROX Tigers drafted Ashe-Miss Fortune bot lane at Worlds 2016. At Worlds 2017, Misfits brought out Blitzcrank and Leona when no one else would. These moments were exciting, because even the best teams can lose to underdogs if they are set in their ways.

Misfits put up a fight against SKT at 2017 Worlds because of their innovation
Image from LoL Esports Flickr

No team has truly embodied all seven dimensions laid out here, but moving up from Solo Queue to Challenger to major leagues to playoffs to Worlds teams will possess more and more. This explains why some teams may dominate their region, but completely fall out internationally. It also explains why some teams thrive in single matches, but fall apart in series. The strongest dynasties in League history use methodologies for building each of these layers.

 

CREDITS

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Images: LoL Esports Flickr, LoL Esports Youtube broadcast

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