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The Haves and Have-Nots of NA League of Legends

This has been the strongest Split yet for North America, with the playoffs being chock full of strong contenders. North America has been struggling to close the gap for years, and with Worlds approaching, a strong Summer Split means that this might be the year North America makes it out of groups and goes toe to toe with the other regions. Even the relegations tournament has teams who have offered moments of brilliance and strong players.

If you haven’t been closely following the Split, you’ve likely heard a few of the big storylines — TSM’s new support and their strong streak, or Cloud9’s new roster and coach. The nuance of these narratives can be lost when you watch from afar, however. We take a look at the main storylines of Summer and explain why they matter, especially with Worlds approaching.

Tale of two titans

Despite the fact that NA has two incredibly strong teams standing atop it, it's striking just how much Team SoloMid seems to have left Immortals behind in terms of public perception. Both teams have had strong seasons, yet TSM has emerged as a clear-cut favorite in a way that was rare in the days of the C9-TSM rivalry. That perception was further cemented by TSM's lopsided victory in their final Match of the Week meeting over the weekend.

Immortals have a fearsome record across their two Splits, with a record of 51-13. When you break that down further, the record is a little more startling. They’re standing at 48-6 against the other eight teams in the Split, but at 3-7 against TSM. In many ways, the Immortals story is inextricably linked to TSM. People didn’t bother asking or analyzing who would come out on top in the Spring Split, as the answer was considered obvious: The Immortals are going to win. At the time, this seemed a fair assessment: They had only lost one very close game to CLG, and the rest of the season had been a stomp. TSM were in sixth place, struggling to find their footing.

Everything changed when TSM buckled down and went with a team-oriented approach instead of operating as a squad of five strong players; they swept the Immortals 3-0 and went on to take second place. Replacing YellOwStaR with Biofrost only seems to have strengthened them more. They may have lost a game — more on that later — but losing during the regular Split is a good thing. It strengthens a team's resolve, and forces them to confront their weaknesses. Immediately after the loss to Phoenix1, Doublelift was able to admit that he had failed to carry and TSM hadn’t adapted to the new mid-lane meta.

Now that those weak spots have been highlighted, they have time to patch them up. TSM aren’t undefeated, but they rallied hard from their loss and put the Immortals back into second place the next week. While TSM look to be a sure favourite to take the Split, you can’t count the Immortals out — there were moments during their matchup with TSM where they came out ahead, but they often overplayed their advantages. It’s shocking to suggest that the Immortals could take lessons from Phoenix1, but it’s not wrong — if they can throw TSM off early on and then play the long game, this might be the Split where they finally claim their crown.

The importance of coaching

Fans were understandably nervous when Hai announced, once again, that he would be stepping down from Cloud9. Hai had been the linchpin of the team for a long time, as a mid laner ... then a jungler ... and then a support. Everyone remembered the unfortunate period of time where the team tried to make do without him. This attempt, however, had some promising signs: Meteos and Impact joined the main roster, and of course, the team picked up Reapered. Cloud9 hasn’t returned to their golden era, but they’ve made huge strides, and everyone on the team has spoken positively of their coach. Choosing Smoothie over Bunny seems to have further solidified some of their strengths, and made their game plan for future improvements clearer. And as they prepare to make Top 3, another example of the importance of coaching is emerging.

Team EnVyUs has a lot of potential, and we talked before about how they could handle the end of their split from here on out. One of the major things they need to consider is their coaching. The players had a strong start, but many of them seem stuck in a rut. Their pick and ban phase often draws massive critique, such as early drafting a Kog while counters are still open, or picking up a heavy AP comp for no apparent strategic reason. The players themselves aren't developing as well as other teams' lineups. While EnVyUs are safe from relegations, these team leadership and development questions will need to be addressed if they want to recapture the early glory they enjoyed during summer.

The teamwork dream

There are two teams that have continued to focus on teamwork and sticking together: Liquid and Counter Logic Gaming. Counter Logic Gaming began the Split as the champions of MSI (they didn't win, sure, but making second place and taking games off of SKT was enough to make all of NA proud). They’ve since struggled. It hasn’t been a catastrophic problem: They aren’t risking relegations, and nobody is publicly fighting on Twitter.

CLG's problems are more subtle than that: An aggressive Darshan in the top lane, Huhi being sloppy down in the bottom lane, Stixxay no longer a furious ADC who’s able to pull off mechanically shocking outplays. It’s a decline where it’s difficult to put your finger on any one factor — especially because CLG has banded together, taking the fault as a team and refusing to throw anyone under the bus.

On the other hand, we have Liquid. Liquid pulled an ADC switcharoo, bringing Fabby into the LCS. It seems an odd choice to let a World Champion step back in favor of the Gatekeeper, but Liquid seem to be optimistic about it. Dardoch has stated that Liquid is looking to protect the core of the roster, their "rookies" (albeit ones with a split of experience under their belt): Matt, Dardoch and Lourlo. The new roster is listening to their coach, Loco, and acting as a solid unit. So far, it seems to be working; after a split of drama, benching and near-explosions, Liquid is primed to make a statement in the playoffs.

The underdogs

NV scraped into their playoffs space, leaving Apex behind in seventh place — safe from relegations, although falling just short of the playoffs. But among the teams facing relegation matches, there are some fascinating stories.

There is, of course, Phoenix1, the team that has somehow managed to turn a nine-loss streak into a respectable second half of the split. They took a game off the Immortals with Jungle Mordekaiser, and ended TSM’s 14 win streak with jungle Rengar. These wildcards are going to be a strong contender heading into the promotion tournament. If they can kill the kings of North America, even the best of Challenger will struggle to overthrow them. Phoenix1 are like the original Unicorns of Love from 2015 — they’ll pull out weird and wonderful picks and commit to them totally, overwhelming the competition with a pick so off-meta and unexpected that it’s hard to adapt.

Echo Fox, on the other hand, are a team that shouldn’t be where they are. Discussion around the team is often centered around their two carries: mid laner Froggen and AD Carry Keith. It’s easy to see why: Froggen is a legend, and Keith managed to top the solo queue charts in Korea during Echo Fox’s boot camp. So why are they struggling? Part of it is the fact that their two carries, both of whom are mechanically gifted, have no ability to translate that into advantages for their team. Keith can come out ahead in a fight, but he never seems to be a team player who mops up — and this might be because he’s not working well enough with his support and jungler to earn those moments. Meanwhile, Froggen is staying with his tried-and-true style of farming the mid lane, but where’s his pressure? Despite the fact that this is Echo Fox’s sophomore season, there doesn’t seem to be much synergy or communication.

Finally, there’s NRG. NRG went with the likeable personalities over top talent, which was a risky gambit, but one that has paid off to a degree. The team has remained positive and upbeat throughout the Split, and they managed to have a few surges in synergy toward the end of the Split. Right now, their best hope is to survive Relegations and maintain the momentum they built up toward the end of Summer.

It’s been a thrilling summer for North America, and the most exciting bits lay ahead: Summer Playoffs and Worlds. Buckle in and get ready for a wild ride, because the North American LCS shows no signs of slowing down.

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