Despite the "North American" part in the North American League of Legends Championship Series, there aren't many mid laners actually from the NA. Eugene "Pobelter" Park, the starting mid laner of Immortals, is one of the few left, and last season was the lone homegrown talent starting at his position. That number bumped up to three (at least for now) for the 2017 spring split.
Last year, Pobelter, outnumbered by South Koreans and Danes, was one of the top performers at his position. He found success, particularly in the summer split, and his Immortals finished third in both of the summer and spring season playoffs. During that time, you wouldn't find the words "finesse" and "Immortals" in the same breath. The team's synergy, however, paired with overall raw talent, was able to overwhelm opponents throughout the year. Once playoffs came, the team struggled in the best-of-five format against the cream of the crop, but still finished respectably.
This year's regular season hasn't been as smooth. Everyone Pobelter played with on the 2016 Immortals squad is gone, forcing a change in style that worked so well for the team just one split prior. Along with the changes, his play, once considered rock solid, has been rubble in the first half of the season; through 24 games he's sitting on a 2.0 kill/death/assist ratio with 75 kills, 91 deaths and 110 assists.
Immortals as a whole has been decidedly disappointing considering the 2016 campaign, but recently Pobelter and the squad have started to find some momentum on Summoner's Rift -- seven of the last nine matches have went in IMT's favor to push its record back to .500 -- meaning the team is still in contention for a postseason spot. The reason? Flexibility and variety. The team isn't afraid to put its players in a position to carry a match. Lee "Flame" Ho-jong (46/70/133, 2.6 KDA) has found the most success on meta-tanks this season, but the team has also let him play his comfortable role of split-pushing with the likes of Jayce and Fiora. Rookie Cody "CodySun" Sun (74/55/132, 3.7 KDA) has only begun to flourish now that he's wandered off champions like Ashe and played Miss Fortune in the marksmen role she was created to play in.
Bluntly, Pobelter remarked on the team's recent success.
"We've just had a really easy schedule the last few weeks. The first few weeks we were facing all the top teams like Team SoloMid, Cloud9, and FlyQuest, all within two weeks, so it put us out to a bad start."
He's not wrong. After the first round-robin stage, Immortals have been the quintessential average team, holding onto a 5-5 match record, 12-12 map record, and having lost to all of the four top teams in the league -- they've beaten the teams below them. Against the superior C9 or FlyQuest, IMT found themselves walking back to the dressing room before the overall match time reaches over one hour. Conversely, Immortals have shined against more dysfunctional teams like Dignitas or Team Liquid with relatively simple sweeps.
The parts don't always work in unison, but Immortals, if it can find the same sort of chemistry the team last year had, could provide similar or even better results with how varied the team can draft for its players.
"I'd say we're three out of 10 where we should be or need to be to be really, really good," Immortals' mid laner said.
"Last year we just won a lot of games off the bat because we all had really similar ideas about the game, like what's the best thing to do, what's the best strategy," Pobelter said. "Our communication was really good, and we all had personalities that fit together really well. This year I'd say it's been more difficult in those regards. We have a language barrier now. Last year we had Huni and Reignover but they spoke English fluently, and this year Flame needs a lot of help with translation and things like that. Also, we sometimes [as a team] have differing viewpoints about the game, and our personalities don't mesh as well as they did last year. Which is totally fine, but last year was just a lucky thing that we got along so well."
Pobelter feels Immortals has gotten closer to C9 in strength since getting thrown around by the number one squad in the first few weeks of the season, but they are still the best team in North America for the time being.
"I think right now NA is probably pretty weak," said Pobelter. "Definitely weaker than last year, I think. But come playoff time, teams shift into overdrive and get things together, so [we'll see]. Last year you could look at games from LCK and then look at games from top teams in NA and say, 'Hey, they're kinda playing out in a similar fashion.' But this year it's like -- hey, they're really fun to watch. They're fun to watch, but there is a lot of messiness, for sure. A lot of it is NA every year kinda rehashing and going through a lot of roster changes [and] get new imports."
Stability has been the name of the game so far in NA. The top two teams, Cloud9 and TSM, only had one change to their starting lineups in the offseason, and both players were formerly on the team before: Jason "WildTurtle" Tran with TSM, or in the system as an amatuer team member, like Juan "Contractz" Garcia's promotion to C9's main roster after playing with C9 Academy last split. The teams with the most South Korean imports and changes to their lineups have all had slow starts to the season, except for Phoenix1, who have the two Koreans with the best English of all the new imports.
"I tried practicing harder and harder [to get out of my slump]," he said. "By using the power of Google, I did some research on it, and apparently the best way to get out of a slump is to keep doing what you were doing before, and just be confident and trust in your practice and you'll overcome it. And so that's the approach I took after going really hard for a couple of weeks. I kind of laid back a bit more, focused on keeping a good [mental attitude], and yeah, I wasn't spending every waking hour practicing."
Pobelter's approach, at least for the last time he played, paid off. He'll look to continue his ascension back up the ranks of NA mid laners when Immortals returns to Summoner's Rift in another must-win game against Team Liquid (2-8). A win sends Immortals above .500 for the first time since its opening game of the split versus Echo Fox.