Halfway through the League of Legends Championship Series (LCS) and we have already learned a lot about the game and this thing we call "eSports". Two exciting new comers lead both the NA and EU leagues. The, seemingly always hipster dressed, Cloud 9 team has dominated the NA scene while team Alternate, led by top solo queue players, has torn up Europe.
New teams can be competitive right away
Cloud 9 (C9) and Alternate (ATN) were two brand new teams formed for the Summer LCS. And boy did they form. Alternate may have been anticipated. In fact, right here I said they might end up being amazing. After all, they were a team comprised of players who, at one point, were 1-2-3 in EU solo queue. The question was whether they could transfer that "solo queue mentality" into the more competitive team game. I guess they answered that one!
C9 on the other hand, came out of nowhere. The pros had been scrimming heavily with them during the spring season and they weren't particularly surprised, but for the casual fan they came as a BIG shock. C9 has looked even more dominant than Alternate and now has a winning record against every LCS team on the NA side. At this point in the season, it would be a huge shock if they failed to make the world finals in L.A.
There's a real muddle in the middle
Leaving aside Cloud 9 (who've been absolutely dominant) and Velocity (who are clearly the worst team in the LCS right now), the other 14 teams, even Alternate, can beat anyone else on any given day. Only four games separate top and bottom in Europe. In NA, 5 teams have losing records with the four top teams from last year occupying 3rd, 4th, 6th and 7th. In EU, it's even worse; CLG/SK (3rd and 4th last season) find themselves at the bottom in 7th/8th.
This is a great thing for the game. Last season's games got started off with some real slaughters and the professional teams with a pedigree dominated early. But towards the end of the season, we started to see that change and now with the lineup changes and promotion/relegations, we have two LCS leagues that are showing a razor thin difference between the "best" and the "worst" teams.
So how did these teams do it? We hear things like "copying the Korean meta" thrown around but what this is really code for is "coming in with a game plan and actually sticking to it." One of the problems that LCS teams seem to have is a lack of direction and leadership. Most teams don't have "coaches" in the traditional sense and, instead, have analysts who do some grunt work (watch VoDs, crunch stats, etc). There's not an overarching figure teaching them how to play and directing their in-game tactics. As a result, many LCS teams are shockingly haphazard around their picks and bans strategy and then "just wing it" during the game.
Imagine if an NFL coach said the following after a win: "We came in this week without a solid plan. I wanted the team to stay flexible and allow the players to make the calls they felt were right during the game. My guys are incredibly talented and we knew if we let them go out there and use that skill to just make plays, we'd be successful."
Now sure, some people would laud this as a "big step forward" in coaching. But many more would lambast them and (probably rightly) predict that the instant they came up against someone who had a narrower skill gap and actually had a plan, they'd lose.
Well that was the situation last season. Time and time again, we saw player interviews with CLG, TSM and Curse in which they openly admitted that they made champ selects on the fly and/or didn't do anything that they'd planned during their planning. That's inexecusable in a "pro-athlete". If they had a coach, they'd get their chain yanked so hard that they'd never do it again. But they don't. There's no one holding these guys accountable to the strategies that they discuss.
That's one of the big secrets to C9's success (and, I feel, to Fnatic's success last season and their failure to perform this season). If you come in with a coherent game plan (or plans) and then execute on them, you can be very, very successful even against teams with marginally better talent.
Know your items
We continue to see pro players make both brilliant and terrible item purchases. Anyone remember HotshotGG's Armor stacked Galio last season? Stuff like that is still happening. Witness Kerps's Shen buys vs. Fnatic. Playing against Kennen/Zed, Kerp bought Twin Shadows and Hexdrinker. Against that line-up, stacking MR is not a particularly good decision and Twin Shadows is a marginal item (at best) on Shen. In the same game, no Aegis/Runic Bulwark was purchased which, frankly, would've been cheaper and provided far more useful stats to his team.
Conversely, look at Cloud 9's epic 3rd game against Vulcun. Recognizing that Zuna was going to be both difficult to get to (Shen Taunt, TF gold card and Thresh all to peel) and that he'd gone with an extreme hyper carry in Tristana, they made a really good decision. They purchased two Thornmails and a Randuin's. You don't see Thornmail all that often and you certainly never see it on a Ryze. Zed with Randuin's is pretty unusual too. But the plan worked because they were then able to burst down TF and Eve in team fights and could ignore Zuna for a critical couple of seconds. Vulcun didn't respond well to this. They didn't start peeling for the AP casters and instead continued to try to feed Zuna. In the end, Zuna was just not able to do the damage that he needed to do. This is a great example of knowing your champions and exactly what they're capable of.