LCS roundtable: How close is the playoff field to Cloud9?

Philippe "Vulcan" LaFlamme, left, Eric "Licorice" Ritchie, right, and the rest of Cloud9 had one of the most successful spring splits in LCS history after going 17-1. Provided by Riot Games

Although some of the momentum and hype is dimmed due to online play, the 2020 League of Legends Championship Series spring playoffs kick off this weekend.

Here are a few questions we have ahead of postseason play.

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How excited are you for the playoffs and what do you think Riot Games can do to bring weight and momentum to these series remotely?

Rand: Based on the stay-at-home order for California and current social distancing recommendations, here are the things that Riot has done in the past that they cannot do:

  • film live hype videos on location (Southern California beaches, the Los Angeles River, etc.)

  • film sit-down in-person interviews

But what about that over the shoulder pose that everyone does? Procuring a strong backing track? Nearly everything else that goes into these pieces of content can be done remotely, albeit over video chat or with individual organizations' content teams and players doing a bit more of the heavy lifting.

The situation itself is awkward, but amid incredibly trying times, these young men are still here, the majority of them far away from their homes, providing entertainment. It sounds trite, but it's true. That doesn't make for a hype video and doesn't solve the playoffs content problem, but I actually think these playoffs have more weight than people are giving them credit for, even if it's not the same kind of weight as a standard season.

Erzberger: Funnily enough, I think Riot Games might overshadow itself for domestic playoffs with its newest game. VALORANT's closed beta is coming, and I foresee that game taking over Twitch for the next month or two, leaving the LCS and LEC as background noise.

To provide as much as hype as possible, I'd love to see some more long-form interviews between some of the analyst desk personalities and the players in the playoffs. If they don't have the tools to build some stylish promo videos, then the best we can get is some raw content of players talking about how much they want to win a championship. Regardless, if they win it in a sold-out sports arena or in their pajamas at home, the championship is going to look the same in the history books when all things are said and done.

Ocal: Necessity is the mother of invention. I think that this will guide what we see on the broadcast during the playoffs.

Maybe we get packages and hype videos that look different from what we are used to seeing in the LCS. Maybe we get a different structure to the broadcast. When I spoke with Dave Stewart, who is the executive producer of the LCS, he said that there will still be surprises for the LCS finals. I'm looking forward to that.

As for the playoffs themselves, although I wish they had more implications for worlds, there are enough intriguing storylines for me to get hype about them: Can Cloud9 cap off one of the most impressive LCS seasons ever? Will Evil Geniuses ride this incredible momentum and will Daniele "Jiizuke" di Mauro keep rolling off a monster March and claim playoff MVP for his efforts? What about Golden Guardians and everything that had to go right for them to make playoffs -- does the miracle run continue? TSM has a lot of veteran presence. Is this when they step up and make a deep playoff run? What about 100 Thieves? Has Christopher "PapaSmithy" Smith put together a team that can win a championship? How will certain teams perform online when it matters the most this split? There's enough to care about, for sure. So yes, I'm excited.

Another thing I'll be watching is how the commentators call this one at home. Just like how some players might play the game slightly differently (for better or worse) when they are at home, it can be challenging, maybe even a little forced, to find that excitement when you're a caster sitting at home by yourself and you don't feed off the crowd. When I've been in situations like that, I've had to really feed off of authenticity and mentally put myself in that moment. I'm certain the LCS casters will be capable of doing the same.

Wolf: I'm excited because I'm glad there's something to sate my desire for meaningful matches across all of sports, but like my colleagues, I'm definitely a bit bummed the spectacle of the LCS playoffs won't be the same given shoulder content restrictions that Emily laid out. What's interesting here though is how many teams hit their stride late into the season and whether or not Cloud9 can really edge those teams out -- such as 100 Thieves, who they're guaranteed to meet, and Evil Geniuses, who they're likely to face too -- in best-of-five series.

This is a new challenge for Riot, but it comes after a split that did feel like its creative wits were being tested. The 2019 LCS felt a bit stale on the production side of things, and a lot of people around the league pointed to the LEC being innovative on the content and production side of things. For the 2020 LCS, it's clear Riot took those critiques to heart and tried new things, like Monday Night League, and new types of content. Whether or not it can continue that creativity from home, we'll see. I hope so.

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Will Aphelios get banned? (And if not, will it matter?)

Rand: While Aphelios received nerfs on Patch 10.6, I don't think that these should be enough to bring him off of the ban list (especially on red side) in pro play. Another strong indicator of Aphelios' strength is that his pick/ban rate remains high in both the LCK and LPL. Aphelios can take over games, particularly if they run late, and I see a lot of lengthy, messy games in NA's playoff future.

Ocal: Across the LCS, LEC, LPL and LCK this split, Aphelios has the highest ban rate (53.4%) and the second-highest pick rate (44.8%). That's a 98.2% pick/ban rate. Aphelios has been played in 176 games, with a 58% win percentage and a 4.9 KDA. Safe to assume this will continue throughout the LCS playoffs even with the nerfs in the latest patch.

Wolf: Aphelios will certainly take a ban priority. The nerfs didn't hurt him so much that he's going to fall out of the meta. I anticipate we'll see his pick and ban rate remain high throughout the LCS playoffs, as we have since his debut.

The LPL has had a few Wukong sightings. Will it appear in the LCS playoffs?

Rand: Wukong has been sighted a few times in the LPL, starting with Vici Gaming top laner Dai "Cube" Yi and Royal Never Give Up top laner Xie "Langx" Zhen-Ying. It has also been banned a few times (most notably against LNG's Li "Flandre" Yuan-jun, who is known for bringing in new picks as soon as they're available). Wukong certainly hasn't been a pick or ban, even in the LPL where players trot out picks that they want to play almost immediately (sometimes a full patch ahead of actual buffs). I wouldn't put it past LCS teams to try it, but I don't think it will make much of a difference. Of all teams available, I'd pick Cloud9 or 100 Thieves as the most likely two to potentially trot out Wukong in the top lane.

Erzberger: I can see it happening. Along with C9 or 100T, who have capable top lane carries, I wouldn't be surprised to see TSM bust out Wukong along with a Zilean mid. How terrifying would it be to see Wukong running at you with a Zilean boosting him from behind? I wouldn't put it past TSM to bust it out in the lower bracket with a bit more practice time than the other playoff teams.

Wolf: Please, yes. I love some Wukong. I don't think it takes top lane priority at any time, but it's definitely an enjoyable champion to watch, and to Emily's point, I think the more "loose" teams in the playoffs would be the ones to pick it. That said, don't expect common Wukong games.

100 Thieves manage to unexpectedly send Cloud9 to the losers' bracket. How does it happen?

Rand: I think the most common answer is to feed all resources to Kim "Ssumday" Chan-ho, and that's not a bad option. Yet, the only way I can see 100 Thieves somehow pulling off this upset is through mid/jungle. Mid/jungle remains the most important 2v2 on the Rift, and Cloud9's is directly at the core of their wins. By contrast, most would identify mid/jungle as one of 100T's opportunity areas, even with Tommy "Ryoma" Le's visible improvement throughout the split. William "Meteos" Hartman is the most experienced jungler in the playoff field alongside Evil Geniuses' Dennis "Svenskeren" Johnsen, and if he can somehow shut down C9's jungle/mid through stronger matchups and pathing, that's the most reliable route to a 100T victory. It's also the most difficult route.

Ocal: It happens by C9 not taking the game seriously enough and them not playing as well online. C9 are a juggernaut team, especially compared to the rest of the LCS this split. It will take a master game plan, winning the draft, 100T playing out of their minds and C9 lacking motivation or playing uncharacteristically poorly for them to lose to any team this split. What I'm saying is, an optimal C9 should not lose any games this playoffs, let alone a series. (I look forward to being torched on Twitter if I'm wrong). C9 beat 100T when 100T needed wins to keep their playoff hopes alive, and C9 were on cruise control because they already had their placement set, and it was online, and C9 were having fun.

Wolf: I agree with Emily that it must come on the back of Meteos banishing his old team. Cloud9 is a cut above all the other LCS teams right now, but I do think that 100 Thieves and Evil Geniuses have a shot, even if a small one. Yes, Ssumday deservedly is getting the hype right now on 100 Thieves, but I don't see him able to dominate Eric "Licorice" Ritchie to a point that the lane advantage transforms into a total game advantage. Ssumday is better than Licorice, but not by such a margin that Licorice can't play safe and hold his own.

Erzberger: It's Ssumday. We can talk about everyone else on 100 Thieves, but as it has been all season with them, it'll come down to their most iconic and tenured player. As far as Ssumday goes, so does his band of Thieves.

How close is the field to Cloud9?

Rand: Whenever a team does as well as Cloud9 has this past regular season, comparisons to strong North American teams of the past are inevitable, as is the discussion of current regional strength. Right now, NA's regional strength just doesn't seem that good. They lack the young talent that continues to bubble up in Europe's LEC or China's LPL. They lack the practice environment and strength of South Korea's solo queue. I think the NA field is closer to C9 than they (or C9) think.

That being said, if the question is of whether C9 could be a world-class competitor, I think the answer is indubitably yes. Of all teams in NA, C9 is the one that could compete with others on the world stage. C9 has continued to show strong discipline and a fierce desire to win even after they had locked up the first seed weeks before the regular season ended, which speaks well of the team. Yet, they are unfortunately stuck in NA for the foreseeable future, which means that the opportunity to get better by playing stronger teams internationally is lamentably unavailable.

Erzberger: The only two teams I see with a ceiling matching C9 this split are Team Liquid and TSM. One of those teams didn't even make the playoffs after a season full of blunders and plot twists, and the other team is in the lower bracket and is only consistent at being inconsistent. The double-elimination format and online play does bring the field much closer together than it would otherwise, but I'm still seeing C9 taking this season home with less than two maps lost in the playoffs.

I would be surprised if C9 lose three or more maps throughout the entirety of their run to the franchise's first league championship since 2014.

Ocal: Not that close. You can make the argument that games seemed a little tighter in March because Cloud9 just checked out since they already secured the top spot going into playoffs. When they were at the height of their gameplay, they were unstoppable. They were stomping every team. They had an outer mid lane turret life streak going. Jesper "Zven" Svenningsen almost broke Jeong "Chovy" Ji-hoon's KDA record. At one point in the season, all five members of C9 were the top five in KDA in the entire league. 18-0 seemed like a very real possibility. 17-1 ain't bad either. It's a realistic possibility and not crazy to think that C9 can go 3-0 in every matchup in the playoffs, and nobody would bat an eye if it happened.

Wolf: Well, I said that above, but I do think Cloud9 is a very tall step above the rest of the competition. I don't think that Cloud9 would be internationally strong right now, but I think they're on that trajectory. I just think North America as a region is pretty weak. Now is the time for Cloud9 to improve even further though and learn to beat momentum-driven teams like 100 Thieves and Evil Geniuses, and maybe even Team SoloMid -- if my finals prediction is correct -- which will be a much-needed feather in their cap come Mid-Season Invitational and world championship time.