The stage is set. The stakes are at their highest – at least until the World Championships. Team Solo Mid, Immortals, Counter Logic Gaming, Cloud9, Team Dignitas, and Team Envy all know what’s at stake. The winner of the split gets an automatic trip to Worlds and represents North America as the #1 seed. It’s crunch time for all six teams and it’s the time where the hype starts to build. This summer playoff has the potential to be the most competitive and thrilling tournament in region history. There’s as much reason to believe in a new champion making a Cinderella run like CLG in 2015 as there is to believe the status quo of C9/TSM dominance. The key here is that there’s no clear winner in this six-pack of contenders and that’s what makes this playoff bracket compelling.
There’s still reason to be skeptical of every team’s chances at winning it all in summer. Envy looks lost when Tae-yoo “LirA” Nam’s early-game proficiency isn’t enough to help his team close games out. C9 and Dignitas have both been hit-or-miss this split; they’re taking the fight to the best teams in the League while dropping games to teams staring down the barrel of relegation. CLG is trusting a rookie jungler to deliver under heightened expectations after a trip to Worlds was all but guaranteed with Joshua “Dardoch” Hartnett. The past for Immortals reads like the story of Peyton Manning’s NFL career: regular season dominance that doesn’t translate to postseason excellence. TSM isn’t exactly regarded for their pick/ban strategy and can’t expect to win on the strength of their mechanical prowess every game.
Many of these read off like nitpicks any way you spin it, but that should be expected when the lights get brighter and the prizes get bigger. Every small detail matters in the big picture. Still, there’s no reason to outright write off any of these teams from making the finals. None of these teams are a guaranteed win or loss. That’s due to a combination of premium talent and quality coaching. That’s also due to the investments and time put into improving the quality of life and competition in the NA LCS. The best-of-threes have helped to start changing the culture for players and further changes like franchising will continue pushing the envelope further.
Still, even with the quality of competition between these six contenders, there’s still a clear pecking order or discrepancies that will put some teams higher than others. Here is a brief summary of how I view the power structure of the teams heading in. I have ranked these teams based on a combination of factors, such as regular season performance, roster strength, and Worlds potential:
There should be no surprise that TSM is the top-ranked team here. This is a super team with starting players who are top-five in their respective positions. When Soren “Bjergsen” Bjerg and Peng “Doublelift” Yillang are on their A-game, as they were with a remarkable performance against Europe at Rift Rivals, TSM is nearly unbeatable. Whether it’s through the playoffs or as the final boss in the regional gauntlet, TSM should undoubtedly be on the way to another World Championship appearance. The road to the grandest stage of ’em all goes through TSM.
This Immortals roster has almost made it look like Seung-hoon “Huni” Heo and Yeu-jin “Reignover” Kim never existed. That’s because this is a starting roster peaking at the right time. With the always reliable, sometimes overlooked, Jake “Xmithie” Puchero complimenting his team’s strengths and fueling the revivals of Eugene “Pobelter” Park and Ho-jong “Flame” Lee, IMT may finally turn in a memorable postseason outing to be proud of. It’s hard to see IMT missing another chance at Worlds with the vast improvements this roster has made from spring. If there’s one sure thing, the Dardoch-for-Xmithie swap should now be looked at as Immortals winning the lottery.
Get ready for the return of Top Die. Once again, Eon-young “Impact” Jeong looks to be rounding into form as we get closer to the Worlds stage. Nicolaj Jensen remains as dominant as ever while Juan “Contractz” Garcia continues to prove he’s the real deal out of the jungle. An inconsistent regular season has overshadowed an otherwise positive outlook for one of the best rosters in NA. That puts C9 in prime position to remind fans that there’s a reason this roster will continue to be a perennial contender.
This may be the view of a Dignitas fan in the eyes of a KT Rolster fan: “Do not get excited about Dignitas. Do not get excited about Dignitas. Do not get excited about Dignitas.” After another sluggish start out of the gate, Dignitas has once again made necessary changes that have shown immediate improvement, this time to the starting roster. Byeong-hoon “Shrimp” Lee, Johnny “Altec” Ru, and Adrian Ma have given DIG a much needed lift. The question for Dignitas, as always, is if these new changes will produce the playoff results fans have been waiting on for years. This roster has the potential to go all the way; after all, they are the only team in the NA LCS who have a winning record against TSM this split. But if they fail to capitalize on it, it’ll be hard to see Team Dignitas as anything other than the New York Jets of the NA LCS.
You may be surprised to see CLG rated this low on the heels of an 11-5 season. The truth is that if Joshua “Dardoch” Hartnett were still on this roster, CLG would easily be a top three team. But with rookie Omar “OmarGod” Amin being asked to be a full-time starter, I can’t help but feel as if CLG’s chances of winning in summer have taken a huge blow. Stranger things have happened, such as C9 going to Worlds with Hai Lam playing in the jungle, but this is a lot of pressure to put on a young player on short notice. But is it time to lose faith in this team? Not with CLG’s resilient core being retained. If there’s anyone who can make this work, it’s Darshan Upadhyaha, Jae-hyun “HuHi” Choi, Trevor “Stixxay” Hayes, and Zaqueri “Aphromoo” Black. They’ve won two NA LCS titles on the strengths of their teamwork before. There’s nothing stopping them from doing it again.
It’s time for a little brutal honesty. Even with the vast improvement NV has made from avoiding relegation in spring to a playoff appearance in summer, their chances of winning in summer aren’t great. This team lives and dies with LirA. NV hasn’t shown much ability to be able to win during the mid-to-late game in a close match. But this roster isn’t the pushover they were in spring. LirA continues to shine and should once again be a no-doubt All-Pro. Apollo Price and Nickolas “Hakuho” Surgent are a top-tier bottom lane while Yasin “Nisqy” Dincer has shown more promise for NV’s mid lane in half a split than Geon-woo “Ninja” Noh had shown in years. Though it’s a long shot to see NV win it all in summer, this is a roster that’s too talented to dismiss outright. They’ve earned the right to compete in 2018 and should have the chance to continue to develop their synergy. But right now, I view them as a scrappy underdog unlikely to make it past the quarter finals.
The bottom line: Even with my doubts considered for every team and the strengths all six have between each other, it’s not easy to predict a clear winner. Team Envy can very well defy the odds and represent NA as the #1 seed at Worlds while TSM can have a historical meltdown worse than Team Liquid’s heartbreaking collapse and miss Worlds entirely. Nothing is impossible in the world of sport and that will always weigh heavily on teams, analysts, and fans alike. We’re all in this wild ride together and we don’t know what’s going to happen until we’re in the moment.
But I sincerely hope and believe that the 2017 NA LCS summer playoffs will be the best set of playoff games that NA has ever seen. The competition is fierce. An automatic berth at Worlds is on the line. The games are about to get more serious and the pressure is about to turn up. This is the best time to be an e-sports fan and there’s no better stage than the one we’ll see in China. Get ready, ladies and gentlemen. The fun’s just getting started.