In the fall of 2013, Chae "Piglet" Gwang-jin and Jung "Impact" Eon-yeong were teammates and world champions on the South Korean powerhouse SK Telecom T1. Brothers in-game, the two enjoyed the greatest of highs on T1 in winning two domestic championships -- All Stars in Paris, and, most importantly, the Summoner's Cup.
In 2016, the two former champions are now veterans and rivals in North America. Piglet is the ace of Team Liquid, a squad built on youth and determination. The star AD carry's obsession with victory and getting stronger has trickled down to his rookie teammates -- molding a team that the always-confident Piglet can be proud of. Impact is on NRG Esports after a year stint with Team Impulse, joining forces with fellow Korean Lee "GBM" Chang-seok to create an American-Korean hybrid squad looking to take over the NA LCS in its debut season.
Two world champions.
Two close friends.
Two former brothers.
But only one will exit the weekend with his NA LCS Spring Championship dreams still intact.
Top Lane: Samson "Lourlo" Jackson (TL) vs. Jung "Impact" Eon-yeong (NRG)
Impact is a player Lourlo looked up to when he first started playing the game and transitioning into the world of the pros. Now he'll have to beat him if he wants to make it to Las Vegas with a chance of winning the NA LCS title in his first split.
It's been an uncharacteristically weak split for the former Summoner's Cup winner, who has put up lackluster numbers on his new team. A lot of the issues can be linked to the team's lack of proper communication between the top lane and jungle, as NRG's rookie jungler Galen "Moon" Holgate doesn't know Korean and is still himself getting used to playing on the pro level. Impact still helps NRG's cause when it wins, but the obvious carry strength of the fused nationality squad is in the mid lane with GBM.
Lourlo quietly put together a stellar first season. He might be the third-best newcomer on his team, with Joshua "Dardoch" Hartnett and Matt "Matt" Elento both putting together fantastic rookie campaigns, though that's not a knock against Lourlo. He's steady, knows his place on the team as an utility top laner, and puts in consistent performances.
Although Liquid's top has had a better season statistically than his counterpart, I'm giving the slight edge to Impact solely due to experience. Impact has the ability to come up big when the lights are the brightest -- can Lourlo do the same?
Advantage: NRG Esports
Jungle: Joshua "Dardoch" Hartnett (TL) vs. Galen "Moon" Holgate (NRG)
In the battle of rookie junglers, this is no contest. Dardoch was the runaway winner of the Rookie of the Split award, and he's already established himself as one of the best junglers in the region. He came onto the squad following a weak start from Team Liquid, and he's been the lightning rod that has led it to the postseason alongside Piglet in the bottom lane. He has a 5.7 KDA, 54 kills in 17 games, and participated in just under 80 percent of his team's kills this season.
It's honestly hard to imagine a better rookie season for Dardoch -- unless, that is, Team Liquid goes all the way and wins the championship.
Moon, on the other hand, has looked exactly like you'd expect a rookie jungler to -- especially one working with Korean-speaking solo laners. He was the North American jungler that people thought was going to make headlines as a breakout star coming into the season, but it's been his former minor league rival Dardoch who has been ahead of the pack.
Advantage: Team Liquid
Mid Lane: Kim "FeniX" Jae-hun (TL) vs. Lee "GBM" Chang-seok (GBM)
If you were to look at stats alone, FeniX would be the Korean mid laner people would be praising as the ace of his team. This matchup shows why stats aren't always the answer. While FeniX has been excellent in the mid lane this season, putting up one of the best CSPM (monsters + minions killed per minute) numbers in all the major regions, NRG has lived and died by GBM this split.
When GBM performs or comes up big with a play in the late-game, NRG wins.
When he is neutralized and isn't allowed to be a factor, NRG struggles to find W's.
This is another case where the matchup is much closer than it looks from the outside. A lot of people would heavily favor GBM, with his much flashier highlight plays through the split, but FeniX has been as he's always been with Liquid: solid, dependable and flexible. He has the uncanny ability to hold onto the trigger until exactly the right moment before making his decisive move into a teamfight.
Given the choice between the two players, I'd pick FeniX if I was putting the finishing touches on constructing a world-class team -- and I'd choose GBM if I was just starting out and wanted a centerpiece. GBM is a firestarter, and FeniX has been more of a closer.
In the end, I give the edge (the extremely slight edge) to the player I think has the most potential of taking over the series and winning it for his organization.
Edge: NRG Esports
Bottom Lane: Chae "Piglet" Gwang-jin & Matt "Matt" Elento (TL) vs. Johnny "Altec" Ru and Kevin "KonKwon" Kwon (NRG)
This is another lane matchup where I give the distinct advantage to the horses from Liquid. Piglet has been a man possessed this season, and he's been pushed even further with the addition of the rookie trio who have quickly adopted his hypercompetitive ideology. He's finally on a team where he believes he has the players around him that fit his play style and his line of thinking on how the game is played.
Matt has been a great addition to Liquid, and the veteran AD's presence beside him has quickly elevated his play from an inexperienced rookie to a support that can throw his name in with the best in North America. Usually in bottom lane relationships, it's the support who leads the carry, but it's the opposite on TL -- Piglet is the judge, jury and executioner.
NRG's bot-lane duo, like the rest of the team, is a constant work in progress. KonKwon is a relative rookie as well in the support role, and he also has the difficult task of being the only player on the team who knows English and Korean. This forces him into a translator role, as he helps NRG's captain, Impact, communicate with the rest of the team. Altec, an arguable MVP candidate in the summer of 2015 with Gravity, is attempting to find his niche with the GBM-led NRG.
With them, NRG could become one of, if not the best, bottom lane in North America.
Unluckily, the Liquid duo is already one of, if not the best bottom lane combos in the region.
Advantage: Team Liquid
In terms of pound-for-pound talent, I see this series as almost completely even. Piglet and GBM could be the two best players in North America. All 10 starters in this series are either already one of the best at their role or have the potential to be. These two squads are what you would call 'summer squads,' as their best days as starting fives are still to come -- at a time when they gain enough experience and learn how to play better together.
The main difference in this series is the feeling that Liquid is simply a step or two further along in the process than NRG. That difference comes in the form of Dardoch over Moon in the jungle. When it comes to talent, I don't think Moon -- a once-hyped up rookie -- is that far behind his peer. The issue remains though, that Dardoch has already found his groove on his team, and he's shot ahead of Moon when it comes to development at this level.
Jungler has been the most important role this season throughout the NA LCS, with the MVP and Rookie of the Split awards both going to junglers. This is a series where the little things will tip the scales in one direction or the other, and although I think Moon has all the tools to be an elite talent, Dardoch is already waiting for him atop the ladder, wondering what is taking him so long to get there.