Chase Wassenar, May 18, 2017

How TSM's Fall Spells Disaster for North America

Last year at the Mid-Season Invitational, Counter Logic Gaming made a strong statement to the rest of the World, earning a second-place finish and securing bragging rights for North American fans over their non-Korean counterparts. Last week, however, Team SoloMid fell flat, bowing out of the main event with an underwhelming 4-7 and fifth-place finish.

It's easy to make excuses for TSM's failings. However, those excuses don't eliminate the consequences at for North America. What caused TSM's underwhelming performance and how can they — and the rest of the region — can improve before the World Championships later this year.

Painting a Target on Bjergsen’s Back

Any conversation about Team SoloMid must start with mid laner Søren "Bjergsen" Bjerg. His lane dominance (6.4 CSD10 during the NA LCS playoffs) serves as the focal point for their in-game strategy.

“By constantly keeping mid pushed out, [jungler] Dennis ‘Svenskeren’ Johnsen could pick a side lane to gank,” Kelsey Moser pointed out. This was one of the biggest reasons top laner Kevin "Hauntzer" Yarnell had his break-out season, and it enabled the team to cut off their opponent's access to blue buff, especially when they played on red side.

Against world-class competition, however, Bjergsen struggled to have the same impact. He was still the team's best player by far — securing a 5.1 KDA and a 1.2 CSD10 — but he wasn't able to force their opponents to dedicate as many resources to stopping his snowball potential. Instead, enemy junglers were free to punish Svenskeren's questionable pathing choices and ADC Jason "WildTurtle" Tran's positioning mistakes.

As a result, TSM were often left playing from behind, and their 45.5 EGR was second-to-last in the event.

Their overreliance on Bjergsen’s lane dominance is concerning: it's incredibly difficult for any mid laner to secure early leads in every single game, especially when the enemy team knows what's coming. Even Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok struggled in lane at times at this tournament, averaging a -1.8 CSD10.

The lack of versatility in Team SoloMid's strategies is a huge concern, and it's hard to imagine these one note strategies working consistently on the International stage.

Doublelift: TSM’s Beacon of Hope

Luckily for TSM, Worlds is a long way off, and they likely are not in as bad of shape as their performance implies.

Some fans have said that they performed to their expectations considering the roster, and there's a good deal of truth to that. Both Unikrn’s odds and LCS Predict's gold edge model ranked TSM the worst among all power regions (at a 26 payout and .06, respectively). Fans may feel let down, but this wasn’t a mental collapse that will plague them moving forward; they just weren’t strong enough with this roster.

There are many reasons to believe that TSM will be much stronger in the summer split with the return of star ADC Yiliang "Doublelift" Peng. Doublelift's strong laning draws a lot of attention away from Bjergsen, forcing their opponents to play around the bottom half of the map. This also frees up support Vincent "Biofrost" Wang, who was often forced to babysit his lane rather than roaming around the map to secure early kills and map pressure.

Doublelift's teamfighting abilities far surpass the increasingly questionable aggressive positioning from WildTurtle.

Mitch "Krepo" Voorspoels has urged fans to send positive messages their way rather than flaming the team on social media. With Doublelift, TSM's 2016 Summer split was far stronger than their efforts so far this year. The increased flexibility when he returns could go a long way when the World Championship rolls around.

Systemic Failings

Doublelift’s return will give fans plenty of reasons to get excited for the summer split. However, there are still endemic problems that appeared throughout their MSI performance that aren’t going away anytime soon.

Svenskeren sounded unsure in his pre-event vlog, saying, "If we happen to make it through the play-in, I'm going to be excited to play against SKT and the Flash Wolves. [...] You never have any chance against Koreans, that's what everybody always says."

That lack of confidence is apparent in his performances: Svenskeren hasn't shown the same play-making potential that defined most of his career, and that trajectory is far too similar to previous TSM junglers to feel comfortable.

It wasn't just Korea giving Svenskeren problems, although SKT's Han "Peanut" Wang-ho was the only player to call out his struggles, saying, “It was really easy playing against Svenskeren." 

That was clear — Svenskeren's early pathing and poor jungle control was evident throughout the season. Without marked improvements, Doublelift’s return isn’t going to fix those issues.

Head Coach Parth “Parth” Naidu is also a concern, as his pick/ban strategies have let TSM down in big moments. This was especially true in their tiebreaker game against the Flash Wolves, where his bans focused on preventing hyper-scaling ADCs that FW didn't play rather than the huge play-makers in Taliyah and Ashe on which the Taiwanese powerhouse had excelled. Huang "Maple" Yi-Tang's immaculate Taliyah wall placement kept TSM from contesting the big plays that ultimately decided the game, and it could have been easily prevented with more targeted bans.

There are also big question marks surrounding the team’s shot-calling capabilities. As LoL Esports writer Kien Lam noted, “the biggest problem is TSM’s unwillingness to make an aggressive play with their leads.” TSM failed to capitalize on many of opportunities that could have swung the momentum in their favor. Without stronger in-game leadership, it’s hard to see TSM living up to their potential when it matters most.

Team SoloMid has too many resources at their disposal to justify these issues, many of which plagued them in their underwhelming performance at the World Championship last year. Even with Doublelift, TSM suffers many deep-seated issues that put their impact beyond North America at risk, which speaks poorly not only of them but every regional rival they beat.

A Tougher Road at Worlds

Because TSM did not secure a top-four finish, the 2017 NA LCS Summer Champion will be forced into Pool 2 in the World Championship seeding. TSM has fated the entire North American region to potentially face Korea or China's best team for entry. Last year, this proved to be a death sentence for G2 Esports, and NA's champion could suffer the same fate.

TSM's performance also leaves serious questions about the quality of competition in the North American scene. Despite their clear flaws and weaker line-up, TSM had few significant obstacles on the path to the NA Championship. They had the best record in the regular season and crushed their Semifinals opponent, FlyQuest.

Cloud9 proved they could keep up with their weakened rivals, but the drop-off in quality after that point is increasingly concerning. When Doublelift returns to the main roster, it's hard to imagine many teams seriously threatening TSM's regional dominance.

It's hard to improve when you usually aren't challenged.

It's difficult to grow as a roster when you don't have any serious competition pushing you forward. Without opponents who can expose these flaws and force them to adapt, it’s likely these issues will continue unabated until it is already too late. Fans who expect TSM’s regional play will result in a strong international performance will likely find themselves disappointed.

Fixing NA’s Issues from the Ground Up

One of the biggest issues plaguing North America is a lack of homegrown talent that can carry a successful team. Because 3/5 of a starting roster has to include native players, the NA LCS has become a constant struggle between those with top NA talent (TSM, C9, and CLG) and those without it. There's a reason those three powers have been the only teams to ever appear in an NA LCS Championship series (outside Good Game University's improbable playoff run in the 2013 Spring Split).

This issue stems from a systemic neglect of NA's challenger talent. As popular twitter analyst Stilwell's damning Twitlonger said, “It's frankly pathetic how bad NA orgs have been at bringing up and nurturing native talent across pretty much every position.”

There have been only six starting NA mid laners since the start of Spring 2014, which is genuinely mind-boggling.

It's easy for team to make excuses for this behavior. They can point to the NA Challenger scene and cite underwhelming numbers at the position, but NA LCS teams have too many resources at their disposal to justify passing up on young players. Had they properly invested in upcoming talent, it's likely that several of those players would have evolved to hold up the important talent rather than holding their team back.s

It may be too late now.

Jungroan Lin of Esports Edition noted back in June, 2016, “For a top level player, it's nearly impossible to break into the LCS ranks,” and Challenger talent is often forced to work “below even a subsistence wage for playing in the league.” As a result, struggling top-tier players turned to ELO boosting, which proved to be far more lucrative.

The inevitable result of this poor incentivization structure was a heap of Riot bans on Challenger players. That creates a lack of viable alternatives for top-tier native talent, and rebuilding the talent pool takes a long-term effort that NA organizations as a whole have failed to provide. The cycle continues.

That result is the same regardless of whether you think the bans were too strict.

Instead of forcing their way into relevance, high-level players with strong personalities would be better off trying to make it big in the lucrative streaming market. Michael “Imaqtpie” Santana has become the model for success, turning the former Dignitas ADC into a full-time streamer allegedly making $2 million per year.

This doesn’t have to be the end of NA’s relevance. CLG’s performance just one year ago proves that with the right chemistry and a strong work ethic, North American teams can still compete with the best the non-Korean regions have to offer. However, this won’t happen if organizations are unwilling to fix the systemic problems that plague the current Challenger scene. Without proper support for top-tier talent, NA risks the worst fate in esports: international irrelevance.

Chase Wassenar

Chase "RedShirtKing" Wassenar Unikrn's senior League of Legends analyst and a podcaster who loves crunching the numbers to find every edge possible. You can enjoy his weekly breakdowns after ROCCAT throws at @RedShirtKing, or follow Rough Drafts, his weekly podcast, on YouTube or Soundcloud.