While Counter Logic Gaming, Team SoloMid, and Immortals took home gold, silver, and bronze respectively in the spring split, there are a quartet of possible postseason challengers peering from behind, ready to take their spots. From the three title favorites of North America, we move onto the contenders who should make this the most competitive split in the history of the North American League Championship Series.
If you're new to TL
Yesterday, I compared the high-octane offense of Immortals to the record-breaking shooting of this year's Golden State Warriors. And today, we have the equivalent of the Cleveland Cavaliers in Team Liquid. In a city that hasn't won a major professional sports championship in decade, 2016's LeBron James-led Cavaliers is the best chance at alleviating the continuous misery and talk of curses. Team Liquid is no stranger to being on the cusp of greatness and falling just short, as the club has participated in all seven of the NA LCS seasons and never even made a postseason final.
When it appeared like TL would finally make a final in last summer's campaign by winning the regular season title, everything unraveled in the semifinals for the squad, synonymous with placing in the fourth place position. The team's star player, Chae "Piglet" Gwang-jin, is a former world champion, and bringing home a domestic title to Team Liquid this year and getting it to the Riot World Championships would cement him as one of the all time greats for his position.
Player to Watch: Joshua "Dardoch" Hartnett
We could also title this section "Player to Possibly Watch." Dardoch is Team Liquid's teenage jungler, and he asserted himself as one of the league's best junglers in his first season by winning the Rookie of the Split award. What was supposed to be a sophomore season of growth into an even bigger part of Team Liquid's success might have been derailed with his two-week suspension for "insubordination" within the team's offseason preparation. In his place will be a fellow sophomore player in former NRG starting jungler Galen "Moon" Holgate. Moon was expected to be the starter for TL's minor league team, Team Liquid Academy, but has been promoted due to Dardoch's suspension.
With Dardoch, Liquid was one of the best teams of last season and was a mere team fight or two away from beating CLG in the semifinals and making the final in Las Vegas. That was a team with three rookies, and you would have expected even better results if their development continued to sharpen through summer. With Moon, a player who had a lukewarm rookie season, Team Liquid is a team filled with extensive caveats. If Dardoch can assimilate himself back into the team following week two and be the same player he was last split alongside an improving Samson "Lourlo" Jackson in the top lane, Team Liquid can overtake one of the three title favorites and make its first trip to the World Championships this fall.
The summer will most likely depend on Dardoch and what happens to the polarizing star jungler. Signs seem to point towards him returning to the squad sooner rather than later. Doing so would establish Team Liquid as the fourth best team in the NA LCS for the umpteeth time with wiggle room in front of them to move up. Without Dardoch would force Moon to take on a much bigger role than anticipated when signing onto Team Liquid Academy, and he would have to significantly improve his play from last split to match Dardoch's play alongside the rest of Liquid.
Team Liquid's tandem of Piglet and the third of last season's rookies, Matt "Matt" Elento, are the best bottom lane duo in the league, but they'll need support from their jungler and Lourlo if they don't want to be zeroed in on and pressured en masse all summer long.
If you're new to NRG
NRG Esports possesses one of the biggest co-owners (figuratively and literally) in all of esports with NBA legend Shaquille O'Neal. Shaq is joined by others in funding NRG like baseball's Alex Rodriguez and Jimmy Rollins. The team itself, like Shaq, is filled with some of the bigger personalities in the league. NRG's starting five is made up of players from all different walks of life, and whether it's glory or failure this season, this a club you'll want to keep your eye on.
Player to Watch: Lee "GBM" Chang-seok
GBM, like IMT's Huni, is one of the NA LCS' largest characters (not literally) and was the ace of the team that made the postseason last split. NRG was quickly taken out by Team Liquid in the quarterfinals during a one-sided sweep, but this is an entirely new roster around GBM. He's technically one of the best mid laners and players in the competition, and a new team around him could unlock him to compete for the MVP award this season. An avid fan of Britain's long-running science fiction television show, Doctor Who, GBM regularly wears a bowtie in homage to the 11th doctor.
This is where the rankings get difficult. If Dardoch is transferred away from TL or kept down in the minors for the entire season, then spots from four and downwards becomes a dogfight between a gaggle of different clubs. NRG, on paper at least, has a roster in terms of skill that can potentially match anyone in the league. GBM and newly acquired South Korean import AD carry Oh "Ohq" Gyu-min create one of the most fearsome one-two carrying punches in the NA LCS. Regardless of defensive and rotational play, they're skilled enough to win at least a few matches for NRG this split.
The biggest question mark for the team's success this season is top laner Diego "Quas" Ruiz. Once considered an elite top laner for Team Liquid in the NA LCS, the Venezuelan briefly retired from pro-gaming last year following a suspension from Team Liquid. Almost a year later, we don't know how his play will hold up against the likes of Huni and other improved top laners. A focused, well-performing Quas would give NRG one of the scariest carry trios in the league along with GBM and Ohq, and it could pave a pave to the top four of the league when it's all said and done.
If you're new to C9
We've already talked about two of the former North American winners in CLG and TSM. Here we have Cloud9, a team -- after barely making roster moves for over a two-year span -- that has suddenly become a team full of changes. For the second time in club history, veteran shot-calling captain Hai "Hai" Lam will not be in the starting five, and will be playing for C9's minor league team to start the season. To make a traditional sports comparison with Cloud9, it'd be with the Indianapolis Colts of the NFL. The Colts had to move away from leader title-winning captain Peyton Manning a few years ago, and C9 are now are looking to do the same. Nicolaj "Jensen" Jensen, like Indy's Andrew Luck, is developing into one of the best at his position in the league after taking over for the departing general.
Player to Watch: William "Meteos" Hartman
Two years ago, Meteos was the class of the North American jungle hierarchy. He was a late-game nightmare for opposing teams, and there was little debate who was the best jungler in a shallow pool of competitors. Meteos is coming off an almost year break from professional play and returns to the NA LCS with one of the best jungler lineups of any major campaign in League of Legends. The likes of Kim "Reignover" Yeu-jin from Immortals and CLG's Jake "Xmithie" Puchero are in front of the pack in NA, and it's up to the former king of the jungle to take back his crown.
As with Quas and NRG, the rest of C9 is built to do well as long as the returning star can live up to his former self. A motivated Meteos making plays and keeping up with the rest of the upper-echelon in the jungle will result in Cloud9 having a good chance at making its fourth straight trip to the World Championships, and possibly first without Hai in the starting five.
Things look bright for C9, at least from the outside. All four of these contenders for the title are good enough if things go right to win the league, yet all possess similar problems where things can go awry and the squad falls out of the playoffs. For the boys in blue and white of Cloud9, their biggest issue, along with Meteos shaking off the rust, is going to be adjusting to not having the booming voice of Hai in the lineup. Hai has played mid, jungle, and support, and he's always gotten C9 into the playoffs and to the World Championships.
Acquired top laner Jung "Impact" Eon-yeong is a former world champion and a proven captain type, but his lack of fluency in English hurts and means he can't have the same effect compared to being on a team with all Koreans. It could come down to Michael "Bunny FuFuu" Kurylo to set up, as the newly promoted starting support did decently in the role with Gravity over a year ago in the NA LCS. A year more mature, Bunny's influence on the team could be what finally fills the gigantic shoes of the now former captain.
If you're new to Echo Fox
NRG isn't the only team in this grouping owned by a former NBA player. Echo Fox gets its namesake from owner Rick Fox, a former teammate of Shaq on the Los Angeles Lakers and a multiple-time champion in the NBA. Fox has become one of the most active owners in the world of esports over the past six months, constantly keeping tabs on all of his teams under the Echo Fox banner, and even joining the team in South Korea during its offseason boot camp.
Player to Watch: Yuri "Keith" Jew
Out of all players entering the NA LCS this split, Keith might be the one on the cusp of breaking through into stardom. In South Korea during the club's offseason training, Keith got to the sixth spot on the South Korean Challenger ladder, which is known as easily the toughest of all the regional ladders. Keith was a solid player last split, but we didn't see the explosive, dynamic play that has made him one of North America's best online players and a phenomenon in South Korea's online queue.
For the first time in his career, this should be, if not for some unforeseen circumstances, where Keith doesn't need to worry about his spot on the team or the players around him. He began his pro-gaming career as a sub on Team Liquid and Team SoloMid, playing the role of motivation behind the struggling starters he replaced. Following that, he had to worry about visa issues last split that left Echo Fox continually rotating rosters throughout the split. With visas intact and the team prepared to play together as a cohesive unit, we could see Keith take the step from a player on the rise to one of North America's premier offensive threats.
Don't take Echo Fox's placement at the bottom of the contenders as some sort of statement against them. FOX, maybe out of any of these squads, has the highest ceiling if everything comes together. Keith and Henrik "Froggen" Hansen should be a deadly carry combo, and the rest of the team worked well together when they actually were on Summoner's Rift as a team last split. What Echo Fox needs to prove now is consistency and the ability to get even better as the campaign goes along. Fourth, sixth, seventh -- wherever they're ranked -- it doesn't matter.
If one of these four contenders figures out the issues that stand in front of them, a NA LCS Finals berth and a shiny piece of hardware might be waiting on the other side.