After watching North America’s three teams valiantly but ultimately futilely struggle through worlds, I noticed five things that those teams (and the rest of the region) can take away from their experience and apply in their next competitive season. The hoped-for-but-not-expected North American e-sports redemption seems as far away as ever, and if North America wants to be a more internationally competitive region, they’ll need to improve. Here are some things they can learn.
1. Playing to your level of competition isn’t enough.
The North American summer LCS saw Cloud 9 completely dismantle their opposition with an astonishing 25-3 record. Unfortunately for them, their world finals hopes were just as easily dismantled by a resurgent Fnatic in the decisive game three of their series, a lop-sided 26-2 loss.
In terms of head-to-head matchups, North American teams at worlds were 3-6 versus European teams, 0-4 versus Korean teams, and 0-2 versus Chinese teams. The promising showing at All-Stars, where the North American team defeated Europe, was completely undone as North America only had even or winning records against the even-bigger-underdog wildcard team GamingGear.eu and Southeast Asian team Mineski. Beating two teams that were basically happy to be there doesn’t count for much. It’s been a long time since North America took a win off of Korean or Chinese competition, and now Europe seems to be dominating again.
Cloud 9 (1-2) and Vulcun (3-5) proved that dominating your North American competition isn’t enough. Watching top-level teams like SK Telecom T1 and Royal Club battle on the Rift shows how much higher the skill threshold is on the world stage. However, there’s generally better everything from the top-tier world teams than North American teams.
How can they improve? Well, I know that this would be a serious strain on team finances, but a recommendation I’ll offer would be for some of the teams to scrim as many of these international teams as possible while they are in North America, and then during the off-season/pre-season, take a European trip. As much as it pains my sense of nationalistic pride to say this, there has been a lot of innovation to come out of Europe in the past few years—including the ADC/support pairing and prominent champions at worlds like Fizz, Lissandra, Vi, and Kassadin that all saw prominence in Europe’s summer season. North America’s only real accomplishment was Rumble, a niche pick at worlds compared to the four previously mentioned champions. Also, the language barrier might not be as restrictive in Europe as it would be in Asia.
2. Prepare every player to be picked on.
With the relative strategic ineptitude of North America, a number of potential weaknesses were covered up on the top three teams that were glaringly exposed by international competition. I want to talk about two specific examples.
The first is TSM’s toplaner Dyrus. In North American competition, teams have focused on Reginald, who’s known for going on tilt when behind or aggressively camped. Sometimes, teams would try and zero in on WildTurtle and Xpecial, the botlane. Rarely did anybody pick on Dyrus, who was regarded as a consistent player. China’s OMG brutally exposed Dyrus’s tendency to tunnel on short-term gains, and the “consistent” player on TSM was completely taken out of the game. With all respect to Dyrus and TSM, they weren’t used to playing opponents that would pick on Dyrus, which meant they probably weren’t fully aware of the potential weakness. In subsequent games, TSM could have sent TheOddOne up to Dyrus’s lane provide a counter-gank or even just lay down wards before toplane became too snowballed. Alternately, they could have anticipated the strategy and applied pressure elsewhere while Dyrus played safer.
The second is Cloud 9’s Hai, whose limited champion pool was exploited against Fnatic. Fnatic knew that Hai’s champion pool was small—Hai has only really played Zed, Kennen, Jayce, Kassadin, and Twisted Fate in competitive play. He has very limited use on Fizz, Lissandra, and Kha’Zix. He doesn’t play two of the biggest competitive mids, Ahri and Orianna, forcing his team to ban them out against Fnatic. Twisted Fate is not a particularly good pick into Kassadin, so all Fnatic had to do was ban Zed, Kennen, and Fizz, and then first-pick Kassadin. Hai now has basically no comfort picks left, given that Jayce is not currently a highly competitive mid and requires certain compositions to do well in. He ended up playing a very underwhelming Gragas. Hai flat-out said he wasn’t ready to be banned out that much. At the highest levels of play, you cannot have that small of a champion pool. If Hai had two more highly-competitive picks (say, a better Lissandra or Ahri), then banning him out is no longer a viable option. Fortunately for Fnatic, they had an excellent read on his weakness
3. Imitating someone else’s game only gets you so far
After watching NA LCS Summer and then most of worlds, it’s painfully obvious that the top teams don’t imitate, they innovate. The “Fnatic pick-bush” and teleport /split push strategies are unique to them—and their mastery of the strategy allows them to use it against teams who aren’t used to dealing with it. SK Telecom brings near-flawless midgame rotations and the Baron trap to the table. They don’t try and imitate Fnatic. They do what they do well. OMG and Royal Club brought incredible early-game aggression and early five-man groups/dives to try and snowball an advantage.
I didn’t see any particularly unique style from North America other than Meteos’s higher jungle farm. I saw a lot of fairly vanilla split-push or 5v5 teamfight strategies without any particular wrinkles. Fnatic is known for its use of teleport. OMG likes to dive at level 3 with revive passives to secure early turrets. SK Telecom has a double-AD composition that they used to push turrets quickly. The point is that all these teams have their strategic identity, which is something that North American teams need.
4. Use worlds as a learning experience
I’m pretty sure members of Cloud9 and Vulcun honestly thought they had a good chance at doing well in worlds. TSM probably knew their chances were slim after getting destroyed in worlds last year by Azubu Frost and having two of their members participate in All-Stars. Well, reality has struck, and it’s wearing European, Chinese, and Korean colors. For C9 and Vulcun, this was their first international cap, so the learning curve was steep. LemonNation’s lackluster committal to the full-out vision ward game that international supports were playing is just one example of North American teams showing their lack of international experience. These first caps for these teams are valuable experience—they should take the losses to heart, but strive to learn the skills they will need to have a better showing next time.
These three teams need to realize that they weren’t as good as they thought, and will need to earn their respect on the world stage in future tournaments. Second, they need to parley the weeks they’ve spent practicing and scrimming for worlds into the next season. Cloud 9, Vulcun, and TSM need to use this experience to step up their own games, both individually and as a team. It’ll be up to CLG, Dignitas, and the rest of the NA scene to keep up to match a higher level of play if the three NA Worlds contenders can leverage their worlds experience into results.
5. Worlds is not a Game of Throws.
We saw numerous (and painful) instances in the North American LCS where one team would take a commanding lead, only to throw it away, allowing the other team to get back into the game. CLG, Curse, and Dignitas were some of the biggest offenders here, but the fact is, many of the top NA teams were able to recover thanks to throws from the other team to get their winning records. Top teams like Fnatic, OMG, and SKT rarely, if ever, lose leads once they have them. They place a stranglehold on the map, covering it with pink wards and Oracles, and they’ll use their superior map vision to rotate from objective to objective.
In order to beat a team who has a lead and won’t make an unforced error, North American teams are going to have to learn to properly execute aggressive counter-strategies that take advantage of very small timing windows to succeed. A good example of this would be SKT’s second group-stage game against OMG, where the Koreans were able to make a move on a mid turret despite an early disadvantage and turn-around the game. They didn’t turtle up and let OMG continue to snowball—they saw a temporary advantage and took it, and ultimately the game.
NA teams can learn a lot from that strategic aptitude, individual play-making ability, and decisiveness. The strategic aptitude on SKT’s part was to recognize the opportunity to siege mid while OMG was farming both side-lanes. The individual play-making ability came from Faker’s ability to land devastating max-range Ahri Charms, and the decisiveness from SKT to immediately and mercilessly take advantage of the opening their MVP midlaner had created for them. In contrast, there was a TSM vs CLG game in the summer where Reginald flashed under an inhibitor turret on Karthus during a Nocturne ult and the rest of his team bailed.
On the flip side of that same coin, North American teams need to tighten up their decision-making to avoid throws. Whether it’s a bad dragon fight by TSM or an ill-advised Baron call by Vulcun, poor decision-making cost North American teams heavily at worlds even though they could often do reasonably well during laning. There’s no easy solution for this, but it’s certainly something that a dedicated analyst can help with.
It’s hard to say if North American teams underperformed on the world stage–because most analysts weren’t exactly bullish on their prospects. On the other hand, if North American League of Legends teams want to be seen as legitimate contenders, they need to improve in a number of areas. They should try and avoid playing down to the weakest teams, deepen their champion pools and prepare for any player to be picked on, improve decision making to avoid throws, and most importantly, develop their own strategic identity as a team. For the newcomers Cloud9 and Vulcun as well as veteran squad TSM, Season 3’s World Championships should be a learning experience that hopefully they’ll be able to use to improve upon next season for their own sakes and for all their fans.