Before Cloud9, North America was a bit of an international laughingstock. No North American team has ever made it even to the finals of a World Championship (compare that with 2 EU teams, 1 GPL* team, 2 OGN teams, and 1 LPL team). In fact, only two NA teams even made it to the quarterfinals of the last two World Championships (compare that with 4 EU teams, 2 GPL teams, 4 OGN teams, and 4 LPL teams). Cloud9 lost at the Season 3 World Championships, but since then, it’s looked like EU might be the region where success goes to die (well, let’s not talk about the GPL). Recently, Alliance has pulled into the top of the European standards, and looks like the Western team to beat going into the 2014 World Championships. What holds a region back like that? Dominant legacy teams.
Imagine for a moment that it’s October of 2012, and you’re a North American amateur team. The Season 2 World Championships are over, and you’re looking to be the best in the world. What’s your first step? Obviously, you have to beat out the top teams and make it into the LCS, but once you’re there, your LCS goal should be taking down TSM. They are the undisputed champions of the NA LCS.
How does TSM play? They have dominant laners, perhaps the best in the region. Once they have a lead, they make aggressive picks onto anybody who gets the slightest bit out of position, killing them immediately. How do you fight them? You have to get better at laning, and never be caught out. We’ve already clarified that they have basically the best laners in the region, so that’s off of the table. So you tailor your strategy to beating the other NA LCS teams and biding your time. On top of that, you play safe laners that won’t lose, or won’t suffer that much for losing, and you play passively in the mid-late game and wait for them to play overaggressively on a pick attempt.
How much does this help you when you get to the international scene? Not at all. When you face off against Chinese teams, your old strategy of “safe laning” does nothing as they dive you under tower with the help of their jungler. When you play against GPL teams, they 2v1 push your towers down. When you play against Korean teams, they take advantage of your passive laning to take dragon after dragon, or to rotate from lane to lane creating numbers advantages and taking towers.
The picture isn’t much prettier in Europe. The dominant team is Fnatic, and their playstyle revolves entirely around experience. They have played more mid-late game games than any team living, having been around since Season 1. When they’re losing, they’ll group and do something entirely unexpected, like camp a side lane brush as 5. You can know that they’re going to do something crazy, but you don’t know what it is. So either you play passively and they slowly catch back up, or you don’t, and they catch you in a Fnatic bush.
I’m not just picking on TSM and Fnatic, but in Seasons 2 and 3, they were definitely the biggest offenders. They were objectively the best teams in their respective regions, but their playstyle was largely “win lane”, and if they did fall behind, they defaulted to “group as 5 somewhere unexpected and catch somebody out of position.” Nobody stood a chance of outlaning them (because they were still the strongest laners in their regions), but nobody was going to out-wile them in the mid-late game because they’d been doing it for years. Samsung Galaxy Ozone learned that the hard way in the Season 3 World championships: you still didn’t want to have to face off against Fnatic, because no team had more late-game composure.
Basically, these teams were so good at one specific aspect of the mid-late game that only the best teams in the world stood a chance against them. This prevented teams in their region from learning how to improve at most aspects of the game, because they would simply fall prey to these mid-late game gimmicks.
The first team to break this mold was Cloud9, although anything to be said about them with respect to the NA region could also be said about Alliance with respect to the EU region. Cloud9 looked to Korea for inspiration:
- they pulled in an analyst to help with champion select
- they heavily prioritized dragons
- they focused on strong mid-game teamfight champions
- they made sure to always play – and excel at – the strongest champions.
Of course, they did other things right, including having one of the best junglers in the world on their team, as well as one of the strongest top laners. That helped a bit. For a season, they were simply objectively the best team in North America. But they weren’t the best because of a gimmick. They were the best at rotations. They were the best at dragon control. They were the best at picking strong champions.
Their presence forced the scene to adapt, to aim for something other than simply having the most talented players. To learn what the words “rotation” and “dragon control” and “international meta” learned. To play seriously. Change was in the works.
TSM and CLG both overhauled their rosters with new players, including the EU superstar Bjergsen. The first split after their dominance wasn’t much different, with TSM and CLG looking better, but the rest of North America looking decidedly lackluster.
But in the 2014 NA LCS Summer Split, NA contenders came out of the woodwork, with 6 teams competing for dominance in North America thanks to aggressive roster changes and team overhauls. TSM and CLG continued to make roster changes. Dignitas cannibalized Team Coast’s solo laners, while Curse picked up TSM’s support. Even Evil Geniuses – having migrated from Europe and drafted two promising NA solo laners – looked better towards the end of the season thanks to the addition of a high-caliber jungler. In fact, I’d match any Summer 2014 NA team but Complexity up against a mid-tier Summer 2014 EU team. Is there any doubt that Evil Geniuses is a better team than Copenhagen Wolves or Gambit Gaming or even Millenium (now eliminated)? With Team8 joining the LCS in 2015, the NA LCS looks more competitive than ever.
It took Europe slightly longer to realize that this step needed to be made, simply because Gambit Gaming and Fnatic were international legends. Gambit Gaming was arguably the best team in the world for most of Season 2, while Fnatic has been a top 8 team since the beginning of League of Legends. Even when Cloud9 was at their peak, Fnatic was a match for them. But the strength of their top teams masked the weaknesses of the scene. Since then, Alliance – and to a lesser extent SK Gaming and ROCCAT – have done the same thing for Europe as Cloud9 did for North America. Before this split, few European teams had analysts. But taking after the dominance of Alliance, now they all do. Before Alliance, the idea of building a “super team” in Europe was a joke (on the other hand, TSM, CLG, and DIG all are arguably “super teams”). And yet Gambit Gaming – a roster historically resistant to change – has made 3 roster changes this season. Next season should be to Europe what this season was to NA.
Should we cry for the end of an era? Perhaps. But we should cheer for the potential competitiveness of the NA and EU regions. Yes, TSM has reclaimed their spot at the top of the NA region. But for once, they haven’t done it by simply remaining the best team. They have overhauled both their roster and their playstyle. TSM was not in contention for the #1 spot until they made one last roster spot: Gleeb out for Lustboy. His heavy warding allowed TSM to finally switch over to playing the heavier objective playstyle, and compete with Cloud9.
If you’re a spectator interested in your favorite NA or EU teams doing well in international tournaments, that can only be a good thing. When the top teams have no competition, they stagnate and fail to have any impact on the international scene. It is only with the arrival of Cloud9 that NA had any hope on the international scene, and Alliance has the potential to take a top 4 finish this year despite fierce Chinese and Korean competition. TSM’s chances of making at least the quarterfinals look better and better as well.
And that, dear reader, is why dominant legacies are the worst thing that happened to League of Legends, and why I couldn’t be happier to see players like HotshotGG, Reginald, TheOddone, and more forced out of the scene due to their own obsolescence. It’s only when you have to fight to be #1 that it’s meaningful at all.
*Technically the GPL/LPL/OGN didn’t exist for all of LoL, but that’s where those teams would have played.