The North American League Championship Series is the premier esports league currently in operation in the United States. Created in the spring of 2013, seven seasons have come and gone since, with three clubs achieving the honor of being called the champion. After floundering on the international stage since the early days of professional League of Legends, the most recent global event, the Mid-Season Invitational, brought new hope of relevance to the North American region. Back-to-back domestic champions Counter Logic Gaming made it to the final of an international event pitting the world's best against each other, before ultimately falling to the three year dynasty of South Korea's SK Telecom (and the game's all-time greatest Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok).
Whether you're a diehard or just getting into competitive gaming, there has never been a better time to get into the North American LCS. It's a 10-team league played out over a three-month period, with a regular season followed by a playoff bracket -- drawing parallels to traditional sport leagues such as the NBA or the EPL. Each team plays the other nine teams in a best-of-three match twice in the regular season, and the top six teams go to the playoffs for the chance to lift the NA LCS championship.
The seventh place team fails to make the postseason but earns a guaranteed place in the next split, while the bottom three have to defend their standing in the top-level league by facing off against the top teams from the minors in a promotional tournament.
With the summer season set to kick off on Friday night with a matchup of last season's finalists (and eternal rivals) CLG and Team SoloMid,-- NA LCS' regular season matchups are played every weekend on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday -- it's time to see how the teams stack up heading into the deepest NA LCS split ever. If you're a newcomer to it all, you might even find the team that makes you a fan of it all.
Counter Logic Gaming
If you're new to CLG
The closest comparison to CLG in traditional sports world would be the Boston Red Sox. A team seemingly cursed for its entire existence, Counter Logic ultimately broke through in last season's summer split by beating rivals Team SoloMid in the NA LCS Finals at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Similarly to the Red Sox, the team has continued to find success by possessing a strong management system working behind them, as they beat TSM once more in Las Vegas -- this time around to win a second consecutive domestic title. If you're looking to avoid being called a bandwagoner, you might want to stay away from what could possibly be North America's strongest team in history.
Player to Watch: Zaqueri "Aphromoo" Black
When it comes to on-field play, Aphromoo is the lynchpin for Counter Logic. The leader of the two-time champions, the 23-year-old veteran has ascended from being one of NA's best support players to become one of the best players at his position in the entire world. Wherever Aphromoo goes, CLG follows, and that's been to three major finals in a year's time.
A continual underdog, even in its title defense last split, CLG won't be able to rally around being counted out this season. The team has won two NA titles in a row, and it made the finals of a major international Riot-sponsored tournament -- something a team from the region had never done before. NA LCS' transition from best-of-one to the best-of-three format shouldn't faze them in the slightest, and the starting five's superb teamwork should get even tighter with the amount of games they'll play in the regular season. Anything but a top-two finish heading into the playoffs would be a disappointment, and you'd be foolish not to call CLG the favorite to win it all to complete its three-peat.
If you're new to IMT
As the NBA enters The Finals between the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers, it seems fitting to compare the green and black juggernaut known as Immortals with the high-scoring and flashy Warriors of the Bay Area. Like the Warriors, the Immortals' time in the spotlight is fairly new, as the regular season champion of last season was playing in its inaugural campaign. The 73-9 record of this year's Warriors squad also compares nicely to IMT's NA LCS record-setting 17-1 record from the spring split.
Offense is the name of the game for Immortals. While it can sometimes seem reckless and uncoordinated, the team's trust in one another and their own individual abilities has led them to accomplish some of the biggest blowouts in professional League history.
Player to Watch: Heo "Huni" Seung-hoon
Huni has a personality that transcends nationalism. The South Korean-born top laner has only played as a professional for a little over a year -- coincidentally enough, never in his home country -- and he's won the hearts of fans with his happy-go-lucky attitude and electrifying gameplay. One of the western region's most skilled players, Huni can be a double-edged sword at times. When he starts off a game hot and picks up kills early, there are few in the world with the carrying power he does; Huni is, however, prone to trying too much too soon if he is neutralized or beaten in early-game, and that's when things go south for a 17-1 team that failed to make the finals last season.
Regardless of if he's killing everything in sight or pushing too hard to rectify a mistake he made early, there's never a dull moment when watching Immortals' aggressive ace.
Immortals, as long as it can adapt to the consensus meta, should be back as one of the top teams in NA this split. The five-man starting roster is the same as spring, and a month of offseason practice can do nothing but good for a new organization that had little time to prep before the 2016 campaign kicked off. For people looking at a possible 17-1 repeat, I'd say lower your expectations. While Immortals are good enough as a team to flex into whatever meta is present at the time, the team works best when it can funnel gold and the hard carrying responsibilities to Huni in the top lane. We saw the team could play Huni in a utility role as a tank in its 3-0 sweep of Team Liquid in the spring 3rd Place consolation match, but is it something it could rely on for a nine-week regular season?
17-1 or an 18-0 perfect season might not be in the cards, but Immortals will be fine with that as long as they find results in the playoffs instead.
If you're new to TSM
They're the New York Yankees, Los Angeles Lakers, and New England Patriots of the North American LCS, all rolled into one. In terms of longevity, no team comes close to TSM in the region; the three-time NA LCS champions are the only team in League of Legends history to make the final in each of its region's domestic major finals. There have been seven NA LCS Finals, and TSM had played in all of them, having lost back-to-back title matches to Cloud9 a few years ago, and more recently, repeated finals to CLG. Still, even when the team loses, it rebuilds, and the ravenous (and biggest) fan base in the league comes back even bigger to proclaim another title is not too far off. From brand power to commitment, from management to player starpower, TSM sits atop the western scene. The only thing left is a return to domestic glory, its fourth NA crown, and a strong performance at the upcoming 2016 Riot World Championships against the globe's best teams.
Player to Watch: Vincent "Biofrost" Wang
TSM's strength this season will hinge on the mental fortitude and growth of rookie support Biofrost. After trying out various candidates during its Korean bootcamp, TSM ultimately chose North American native Biofrost to take the starting spot alongside all-star AD carry Yiliang "Doublelift" Peng in the bottom lane. From highlight reels and peeks into dynamic queue, it's easy to tell Biofrost has natural talent, but how will he deal with being under a microscope in his first season on a team that's expected to win a title?
CLG's rookie Trevor "Stixxay" Hayes was able to deflect criticism last split and gradually improved throughout, culminating with a title and a Finals MVP in Las Vegas. Biofrost doesn't need to be pristine in his first season, or even above average until the final weeks of the split, but he does need to keep his wits about him. TSM will most likely not win every match this split, and there is a good chance he'll be making some big mistakes at times as a rookie. How he responds to those mistakes, and how he rebounds, will be the difference between TSM getting back to its eighth NA LCS final or missing it for the first time in club history.
For TSM, not making the final would be a failure -- as would losing in said final. TSM plays to win it all, and it invests heavily into winning every NA LCS it enters. The team decided to stay close to home with its signing of Biofrost, and his combination with Doublelift will be the main narrative with the former champions this split. They'll be compared to Aphromoo and Stixxay and how they performed as a tandem last season -- Aphromoo and Doublelift famously paired as part of the 'Rush Hour' bottom lane on CLG previously -- and the veteran was able to lead his support to a title in their inaugural split together. Unfairly or not, Doublelift and Biofrost will have the pressure to live up to CLG's new bottom lane and have similar or even greater success.
It would be sacrilege not to mention the league's former two-time MVP and TSM's ace, Søren "Bjergsen" Bjerg. The best mid laner in the NA LCS, Bjergsen's spring season was one of development for him and his teammates; he had to learn how to play on a team where he wasn't always the late-game carry, and it was equally a difficult and pressure-relieving process. The more he came to trust teammates like Dennis "Svenskeren" Johnsen and Doublelift to carry the damage load, the more Team SoloMid grew into a legitimate title contender. As long as Biofrost can keep upright and not get overwhelmed from all the fanfare, Bjergsen and Team SoloMid should be a favorite to win it all by the close of summer.
Up next: The Contenders (teams #4 to #7)
The return of Cloud9's William "Meteos" Hartman, Echo Fox Yuri "Keith" Jew's emergence in the team's Korean offseason, Joshua "Dardoch" Hartnett's suspension from Team Liquid, and more.