The franchise era is here.
After five years of relegations and promotions, the North American League Championship Series has become a 10-team franchised league, with the current crop of clubs expected to be in the competition for the foreseeable future. While familiar faces like Team SoloMid, Cloud9, and Counter Logic Gaming secured their spot in the league, teams like Dignitas and Immortals were rejected, ushering in four new franchises, including a trio backed by NBA powerhouses.
After the quickest offseason in NA LCS history with most rosters completed in less than a week from when free agency opened, the new era of League of Legends in Los Angeles is set to begin.
Before the curtain rises on January 20th, here are the offseason report cards for all the teams looking to be the inaugural champion in the new chapter of the NA LCS.
The back-to-back-to-back defending champion looks prepared to take home the European LCS title this spring after a bountiful offseason full of signings.
Wait, this team isn't in the EU LCS? But over half of the team is European!
Following a second straight failed World Championship run where the NA champion failed to make it out of the group stage, the threepeating champion did almost a complete overhaul this offseason, bringing in three new players and snatching up reigning NA LCS Coach of the Split Kim "SSONG" Sang-soo from the now-defunct Immortals.
On paper, this lineup couldn't be much better; TSM has built a super team around its four-time MVP Soren "Bjergsen" Bjerg, with the headliners being the former G2 Esports bottom lane of Jesper "Zven" Svenningsen and Alfonso "mithy" Aguirre Rodriguez. In terms of young talent, the team brought in Rookie of the Split Mike "MikeYeung" Yeung, giving the team the perfect balance of proven winners, a hard-nosed head coach, and a native rookie jungler with a high ceiling to mold throughout the year.
It's hard to get better than winning the league three straight seasons in a row, but TSM has positioned itself to not only continue its domestic dynasty but possibly -- and this might sound crazy -- actually make it out of the Mid-Season Invitational or Worlds group stage.
Money has been no issue for Team Liquid over the last year after getting big money investors, and yet, in 2017, the team had no idea how to use its money. The perennial fourth-place finisher found itself in the uncomfortable spot of almost getting relegated twice in back-to-back splits, and it entered the offseason with a mission to make sure to use its money wisely to create a team capable of toppling TSM.
As KT Rolster did last year in League Champions Korea to challenge SKT, Liquid did a similar configuration of creating an NA LCS "super team," taking the core of the Immortals, adding former TSM AD carry Yiliang "Doublelift" Peng and rounding the starting five off with former world champion and stalwart top laner Jung "Impact" Eon-yeong. The acquisition of Immortals mid laner Eugene "Pobelter" Park allows TL to have one of the few native mid laners to build around in the league, and after a year of indecision and laughable blunders in the mid lane, the center of the map should hold up. If everything works out, though, there is no team better equipped to defeat TSM than the new look Liquid roster.
Compared to TSM and TL fans who spent the offseason opening presents on Christmas day, C9 fans felt like they were standing out in the snow for most of the offseason. The team lost Impact to Team Liquid, saw its native rookie jungler standout Juan "Contractz" Garcia join the Golden State Warriors' backed Golden Guardians, and then replaced them with average signings.
Names like Han "Peanut" Wang-ho and Marcin "Jankos" Jankowski were thrown around as possible candidates to step in as C9's new starting jungler, but the team picked up former TSM jungler Dennis "Svenskeren" Johnsen, hoping to reignite the former star carry in the wake of a disappointing end to his run on TSM. In the top lane, the team looked at the minor league system and signed Eric "Licorice" Ritchie, betting on the Canadian top laner to have similar success to Contractz.
C9 should still be expected to contend for a top-four finish and a spot at Worlds, though it's hard to give the team a high grade after seemingly downgrading from a squad that was one teamfight away from making the semifinals of last year's World Championship.
Counter Logic Gaming
It was an eventful offseason for CLG. The club failed to make the World Championship for the first time in three years, and although only two starting positions changed in the offseason, the team will have an entirely new identity with the departure of longtime captain and shotcaller Zaqueri "Aphromoo" Black. In his place, CLG wisely signed TSM's Vincent "Biofrost" Wang in the aftermath of Zven and mithy joining TSM. Possibly filling in Aphromoo's shoes as the experienced leader of the team could be new starting jungler Kim "Reignover" Yeu-jin, who enjoyed two straight years of being called one of the best players in the entire western region before signing with TL in 2017 and watching his stock fall like a pile of bricks.
On CLG, Reignover should have a rebound year with a much better team around him, and although the loss of Aphromoo isn't going to be easy to brush aside, the bottom lane of Trevor "Stixxay" Hayes and Biofrost is an exciting duo to build towards the future. CLG might not have stolen the headlines like TSM or TL this offseason, but the team is walking into the spring split with a starting lineup pegged to challenge teams for a championship.
Now, this is what I call an explosive roster. Off the bat, we need to reinforce how awful Echo Fox as an organization has been since entering the NA LCS two years ago. From the top of the company in Rick Fox down to the management, the team is run well, but the positives end there for the team. Echo Fox has failed to make the playoffs every season it's competed, and if the NA LCS was accepting applicants based on wins, Echo Fox would have had its application burned in the first phase.
Good news: this roster, if it can jive, could be the first Echo Fox team in history to make the playoffs. Heo "Huni" Seung-hoon is returning to North America after a polarizing stint on SK Telecom T1 in South Korea, and he'll be looked upon as the team's ace as the season begins. Talent-wise, this team has playmakers at every role, and personality is something that this team doesn't lack in the slightest. The roster has a lot of upsides if the five starters can play well together. Every member of the team has something to prove, and for some players, this could be their final chance to establish themselves.
In a similar situation to Echo Fox, FlyQuest came into the offseason needing a lot of work. The franchise overhauled everyone not named Jason "Wildturtle" Tran at the AD carry position, and its final product is an interesting mix of veteran South Korean talent and North American youth. Like the Foxes, FlyQuest will look to its South Korean top laner, Lee "Flame" Ho-jong, as the pillar of the team, the former Immortals top laner having an excellent end to the 2017 season. When looking at the rest of the roster, there are a lot of questions remaining. Andy "AnDa" Hoang will be vying for the Rookie of the Split award, and his fellow former Immortals substitute William "Stunt" Chen will finally get the chance to be a starter on an NA LCS team after playing bridesmaid on a slew of clubs in 2017.
FlyQuest's success might come down to the man that shares the namesake of his new organization, South Korean mid laner Song "Fly" Yong-jun. A former starter for KT Rolster and Longzhu, the eccentric Fly isn't the typical powerhouse import mid laner expected to win the lane. Fly's true power comes from his map awareness, roaming, and capability of playing oddball champions to unlock his teammates' full potential. If Fly can mesh with FlyQuest, this is a squad that could be a surprise contender for a top four position with strong coaching from Jung "RapidStar" Min-sung. If not, it could be a long spring for Flame and friends.
From the first four new clubs entering the league, 100 Thieves has received the most hype regarding its roster. The team went out and didn't waste any time making a statement, securing H2K head coach Neil "Pr0lly" Hammad and allowing him the opportunity to create a roster to his liking. Along with the return of William "Meteos" Hartman in the jungle and support Aphromoo from CLG, the team picked up the ace of Dignitas, Kim "ssumday" Chan-ho, who should show up in even better form in 2018 with a year of English lessons and a better supporting cast around him.
Of all the new kids entering the NA LCS in the franchising era, 100 Thieves has the best chance to make a statement early in the standings. I wouldn't be surprised at a top half finish in the regular season and a possible semifinals run (or further) if things go well for the team.
Out in Houston, Clutch Gaming has taken the best parts of the former Team Envy lineup and brought in European star mid laner Fabian "Febiven" Diepstraten to hopefully be the key in what takes the club to the next level. Last split, Team Envy was on the verge of making the semifinals of the NA LCS before throwing away a winnable series against a weakened CLG, and the team's carry duo of Febiven and South Korean jungler Nam "LirA" Tae-yoo will be what opposing teams worry about.
The big question mark will come in the top lane. North America's top lane position has become one of its hallmarks in the last year with the signings of players like Flame, Ssumday and Impact. Even when it comes to domestic talent, Kevin "Hauntzer" Yarnell and Darshan "Darshan" Upadhyaya, a team can't get by with a substandard top lane in the NA LCS. Clutch Gaming will be expecting a lot from Colin "Solo" Earnest, and the difference between the playoffs and bottom of the barrel could very well be decided on how he performs against the likes of Huni and Ssumday.
The Green Wall has come to the NA LCS, and I don't know if I'm ready for the sea of green to take over the LCS Arena. The fan support will surely be there, but what about the team? Out of all the starting rosters in the league, Optic's might be the most peculiar. Where other teams have a rhyme or reason to their starting five, Optic has a strange mix of talent, bringing in former league MVP Noh "Arrow" Dong-hyeon and pairing him with longtime veteran Daerek "LemonNation" Hart.
I like all five players in Optic's starting lineup, but I don't know how well the team will actually do when everything comes together. It's like trying to create a fruit smoothie and adding everything you like, blending it up, and then hoping it doesn't kill you when you drink it. Watch out for Matthew "Akaadian" Higginbotham in the jungle this season. He came out of the gates fast last year in his rookie season on Echo Fox, and with Tristan "PowerOfEvil" Schrage in the mid lane, I'd expect a similarly hot start from the jungler.
To finish things off, we have the only team in the league without a single import. In the day and age of every NA LCS team doing its best to make the best roster possible with native NA players and spending ludicrous amounts of money on imports, the Golden Guardians are doing something different. Instead of grabbing a big name from the LCK or EU LCS, the team wants to invest in the domestic scene, building a team around Hai "Hai" Lam, possibly the most heralded shotcaller in NA LCS history. It'll be up to Hai to take a team without any imports, similar to when he began his career with Cloud9 and last year with FlyQuest, and surprise the world for the thousandth time.
When Hai first debuted with C9 in 2013, the team won the title in its first season. Last year when FlyQuest first debuted with Hai as its starter, the team exceeded all expectations by finishing in fourth place. Golden Guardians will be overlooked for not having the same amount of star power as the other teams in the league, though that doesn't mean the team should be relegated to the 10th place spot before the season even begins. Contractz will have a bigger role and keep your eye on Matthew "Deftly" Chen, who will be competing for Rookie of the Split.