It's time to talk about a worlds semifinalist region. It's time for North America.
I just started my fourth year at ESPN and I honestly didn't think I'd ever get to write those twice sentences together outside of a parody article. North America -- well, just Cloud9 ... the other two teams failed to make it out of the groups stage -- is back on the map, and with sole ownership on the LCS branding, the 10 franchises are dreaming of matching, or even surpassing, C9's accomplishment come the 2019 world championship in Europe.
Can we dream, though?
Winter break has come and gone, and it's time for offseason report cards on how each team did going into the new year. Some teams passed with flying colors, and others, in true North American fashion, were made into memes on social media. That's just how the LCS rolls.
Team Liquid: A
Team Liquid was supposed to be Cloud9 at worlds. They were supposed to be the North American hope that made it through groups in impressive fashion and then stomped their way to a semifinal berth before getting slammed by a better team. That semifinal glory was supposed to be theirs, but it wasn't meant to be. Team Liquid, the back-to-back domestic winner, couldn't muster enough to get out of the group stages, and it went home with a disappointing 3-3 record without even a chance to qualify through a tiebreak.
While TL's 2018 roster would have come into the spring split as one of the heavy favorites, if not the favorite to win it all, the team isn't looking at just domestic success anymore. They wasted no time by going out and doing their best C9 cosplay, signing Nicolaj "Jensen" Jensen in a blockbuster transfer, before making another dramatic move by replacing former starting support Kim "Olleh" Joo-sung with former world champion and two-time finalist Jo "CoreJJ" Yong-in.
There are still questions on how Jensen and TL's centerpiece Yiliang "Doublelift" Peng will share the field, both known for being the aces of their squad, but I respect TL's bold move. They could have taken a cautious approach and didn't, aiming for higher than just a domestic four-peat or deep run at worlds. With this roster's potential, there is no reason why they can't have a similar Fnatic-esque run to a Summoner's Cup Final if the stars align.
I gave C9 a "C" last year, one of my lower grades, and then watched as they became the best-performing North American team in history with a goliath performance at worlds. I'm done betting against Jack Etienne and his boys in blue. It'd be easier to see the departure of Jensen as a deathblow. Jensen's replacement, Yasin "Nisqy" Dinçer, isn't the flashiest move. The Belgian mid laner has hovered around above average his entire career without really breaking into star status. Under the tutelage of C9's excellent infrastructure and a world semifinalist roster around him, this will be his chance to make that move to the next level of his career.
Beyond the mid lane position, C9 locked down the rest of their starters on long-term deals. Eric "Licorice" Ritchie had an all-time performance for a North American resident player at worlds, and in his sophomore year, he will be asked to do more with Jensen's departure. I'm also expecting Tristan "Zeyzal" Stidam to grow from his rookie year into being one of the premiere supports in the west.
This team isn't grabbing headlines like the other two North American teams who went to worlds last year, but that has never been C9's game. They don't care if they lose the offseason on paper. What they care about is the end result come worlds time, and after traveling year after year to worlds, I can say without hesitation there is no other roster I trust more to be there in Europe come late October than Cloud9.
100 Thieves: A+
It was a good offseason for 100 Thieves. Not only did their franchise grow even more with rapper Drake coming on board as one of the brands co-owners, but they hit the headline jackpot by turning heads with their acquisition of two-time world champion Bae "Bang" Jun-sik at the starting AD carry position.
100 Thieves made worlds in their first year, and in 2019, just making it there won't be enough. Like TL, the Thieves spent big in the offseason, and anything other than a quarterfinal placement or higher in Europe later this year will be considered a failure. Kim "Ssumday" Chan-ho is back as the team's ace from last season, and the combination of the South Korean carry duo in the top and bottom lanes is unmatched in North America. Ssumday was asked to wear many masks in 2018, and with the addition of Bang, the burden should lessen, opening things up for the superstar top laner.
Bang is no stranger to being asked to carry games in the late-game, and it won't be any different on the Thieves. Last year teams could plan solely around stuffing Ssumday, but that's all changed with Bang added to the mix. To complete the team's one-two carry duo, the team acquired Choi "Huhi" Jae-hyun from Counter Logic Gaming, the perennial roaming playmaker mid laner in North America.
I love how this team was constructed. I love that one Drake one. They have cool hoodies. I'm all-in on the Thieves hype train. See you at an undisclosed location for the spring finals.
Clutch Gaming: B
I like bold moves, and no team made bolder decisions in the offseason than Houston's Clutch Gaming. Clutch, coming off an up-and-down first year, were left at a crossroads in the offseason. Either they could play it safe and slip into a comfortable role of being a safe playoff contender, or they could become a complete wildcard and go for broke.
If this was Las Vegas, Clutch Gaming just pulled out their house's mortgage and put it all on red. They are doing the opposite of safe. Instead of investing in a new jungler, they're keeping with Nam "LirA" Tae-yoo, who magically went from the best jungler in the region to the worst last year. Clutch is banking on him being reborn with the team's big signing of the offseason, Heo "Huni" Seung-hoon, coming into the top lane to help out LirA. If LirA and Huni can find their peak forms, they would be the strongest top-jungle pairing in the league. If the two play like they did in the previous summer split, then Clutch Gaming will be fighting to make it out of the bottom of the standings.
Someone who is willing to gamble on himself, regardless of the situation, is the team's new starting AD carry Chae "Piglet" Gwang-jin. Piglet, now a North American resident after playing in the region for four years and declaring his eligibility to the LCS, bided his time for a majority of last season on Clutch's minor league team. Now, he's back, and this could be his final chance to prove that he can still be a world-class AD carry. With Bang also coming in from South Korea, the pressure will be on to see who really is the best marksman in SK Telecom T1's history.
Golden Guardians: B+
I don't know if this Golden Guardians team is good enough to make the playoffs.
They definitely have the potential to be, yet there is a slew of questions surrounding them. How well will Olleh play following a rocky 2018? Kevin "Hauntzer" Yarnell was replaced at TSM and has a chip on his shoulder to show his old team they made the wrong move. Henrik "Froggen" Hansen barely played professionally last year, only making a brief appearance with Origen in Europe's minor leagues. Can Matthew "Deftly" Chen really contend with the monsters that currently inhabit the AD carry position in North America like Bang and Doublelift? As for Juan "Contractz" Garcia, will he return to his 2017 rookie form, or was that a fluke and will his so-so performances in 2018 be what we expect from now on?
The reason I gave them an "B+" is because I actually have these questions. People are talking about Golden Guardians. Last year they felt like they were just there, the kid invited to the birthday party because everyone in the class had to be invited. They stood in the back, took their lickings, and outside of a spunky few weeks in the summer split, were practically irrelevant.
That's not the story of the 2019 team. There is hope in the organization, and the talent is there to be a legitimate playoff threat. Whether that is false hope is a question that will be answered as the season goes along. For now, though, Golden Guardians have undergone a major facelift, and I'm actually excited to see them take the stage come opening week.
Counter Logic Gaming: C+
Pros: They acquired a top-three mid laner in Tristan "PowerOfEvil" Schrage.
Cons: They moved away from my personal choice as the best coach in NA, Tony "Zikz" Gray", failed to upgrade at other positions, and seem outgunned when compared to many of the teams in the league.
It feels like spring will be a season of learning for CLG. While we have teams like Clutch Gaming who are going for broke, CLG seems to be playing the long game. They decided against any flashy junglers in the free agency pool and have put their entire trust in rookie Raymond "Wiggily" Griffin. In the top lane, CLG also decided to stick with veteran Darshan "Darshan" Upadhyaya. PowerOfEvil will be an upgrade at the mid lane position, though I don't know if that will be enough to take this team into the top-six and playoffs.
Sometimes the safer road traveled is the correct choice, and CLG will be hoping that is true in the spring season.
Echo Fox: C
Echo Fox went for the fences. Rick Fox and crew were looking for a home run ... and they hit a long single. According to sources, Echo Fox was in the market for both Huni and Gen.G jungler Han "Peanut" Wang-ho. They struck out on both, acquired pieces from Clutch Gaming and tried to savor an offseason that was seemingly so close to being perfect. In the place of Peanut, the team went for another explosive, mechanically proficient jungler, bringing back former North American MVP Lee "Rush" Yoon-jae from KT Rolster in South Korea. At mid lane, the team brought back former starting mid laner Kim "Fenix" Jae-hun.
All in all, it's an intriguing roster but not one I expect to be challenging for a title. Compared to last year, when Echo Fox was making noise atop the table for most of the year, this could be a return back to Earth for a franchise that has struggled to gain consistent traction since entering the league. At best, I see the current Echo Fox roster grabbing a No. 5 or No. 6 seed in the playoffs before getting bounced in the first round. At worst, they'll be battling at the bottom of the table with decisions to make on the starting roster for the summer split.
Optic Gaming: C
Another former world champion has joined the North American party, this time it being Lee "Crown" Min-ho. The move is one of the flashier transactions this offseason, and yet, I don't think it's an upgrade or even a sidegrade with the loss of PowerOfEvil to CLG. Crown is coming off by far the worst year of his career, and his world championship run ended when he fell apart on the final day of the group stages, leading to the worst performance by any South Korean team ever at worlds.
This team's success will all be around Crown. Their bottom lane and topside should be OK, but Optic's chances of making anything happen will depend on what version of Crown they're getting. If they get Crown at his peak when he was arguably the best mid laner in the entire world when he won MVP honors in South Korea, then Optic could be a dark horse in the LCS. William "Meteos" Hartman, the team's new starting jungler, is savvy enough to make the pairing with Crown work if the South Korean mid laner is in form.
If they get infamous Crown of 2018, Optic will be the worst team in North America.
FlyQuest is a difficult team to grade. On one hand, this team has a plethora of options if it ever wants to upgrade. Every single player in the starting roster is a league resident. If an opportunity arises to snag someone on the market, FlyQuest doesn't have to try and make room. They can go get them. It also won the Pobelter sweepstakes by picking up the best domestic mid laner in the league, allowing them this ultimate freedom of getting import slot players at other positions if needed. Immortals (2017) and Team Liquid (2018) both showed that you can win domestically with Pobelter, and FlyQuest now has an above average mid laner plus the flexibility he brings.
On the flip side, they didn't take advantage of the "Pobelter flex" which made Immortals and TL such domestic giants. The team lost its best player from last year in Lee "Flame" Ho-jong and are banking on the youth movement with Omran "V1per" Shoura in the top lane. Aside from that, the team is the same from last year, where Flyquest was a fringe playoff team that was possibly overperforming.
FlyQuest is in a very similar situation to CLG. Spring is all about learning about what they have. If the team surprises and makes the playoffs, awesome. If the team tanks and needs changes, then it's also fine, as the lack of import slot players opens up the treasure box for big moves if needed in-between seasons.
Team SoloMid: B+
Don't worry, TSM fans, I didn't forget about you. It's going to be a year that defines the winningest franchise in LCS history, as TSM looks to move forward from the worst stretch in its existence. After making every single domestic final for five straight years, TSM put up a goose egg in 2018, failing to make it to the world championships for the first time.
On a positive note, the team did hold onto its two cornerstones, the Danish pairing of Soren "Bjergsen" Bjerg and Jesper "Zven" Svenningsen, the latter of whom will need to rediscover his peak from his days on G2 if he wants to be considered one of the best AD carries in the LCS with players like Doublelift and Bang in the mix. He'll also have a new bottom lane partner as his Andy "Smoothie" Ta is also needing a rebound year after bouncing around teams unexpectedly in 2018.
While you know what you're getting for the most part with Bjergsen, Zven and Smoothie, TSM's success in 2019 will come down to how their topside of the map handles business. Sergen "Broken Blade" Çelik is the Turkish sensation who usurped longtime starter Hauntzer at top lane position, and will be looked upon to deliver early and often. And at probably the most scrutinized position on TSM, Jonathan "Grig" Armao will be returning as starting jungler. Though his "low-tempo" style of jungling won't win him any awards or fame like some of his teammates, the team will look to Grig to be more consistent in 2019 and possibly show a bit more than he did in his debut season on TSM. If that doesn't work out, former Echo Fox and Optic jungler Matthew "Akaadian" Higginbotham is waiting in the wings on TSM's academy roster, ready to play more of a faster-paced game.
2019 is going to be important for TSM's legacy. Either 2018 will be seen as an anomaly and simply an "off year" for SoloMid, or just the new norm for the once great king that has been lapped by younger and hungrier foes.