The NA LCS had a very tumultuous 2016 with highs and lows alike. At times, North America successfully contended with Europe and China for the title of best region. At other times, the region's historic weaknesses, such as an over-reliance on imported players and a tendency to choke at international events, reared their heads. Let's take a look at the top 5 most important NA LCS moments in 2016.
5. The influx of outside investor money
At a quick glance, the influx of outside investor money didn't bear much fruit for this year's NA LCS. The most prominent investor-backed team, Ember, failed to qualify for the professional leagues after a lot of hype from the organization and disbanded shortly after. Other organizations that bought directly into the NA LCS, such as NRG and Echo Fox, were also fairly unsuccessful. NRG was outright relegated and Echo Fox only barely made it back into the LCS.
However, investors weren't scared off of investing in the LCS in spite of the poor performance of some of the original big money teams. Perhaps this was due to the success of Immortals, which built a likeable and successful squad that nearly qualified for the World Championships. This year, the three remaining investor backed teams (Echo Fox, Phoenix1, and Immortals) have all re-tooled their roster in the hopes of competing more successfully in this year's LCS. In addition, teams such as Team Liquid and Cloud9 have signed deals with outside investors and are looking to spend big bucks to become contenders. Although spending more doesn't always lead to more success, a wealthier North American region could very well become a bigger contender on the world stage in the years to come.
4. CLG's second place finish at MSI
At the start of the year, fans and analysts rightfully rated the NA LCS as a weak region. Not only did the North American teams perform poorly at the 2015 World Championships (not a single NA side qualified for the knock-out bracket) but the region had seemingly failed to improve their rosters for Season 6. Cloud9 upgraded by adding Rush into the jungle position, but the poor play from Balls and Hai in the top and support roles hamstrung the team from developing further. CLG also took a seeming step back by losing Pobelter and Doublelift, two of the better North American native players. Finally, TSM's superteam struggled throughout the spring regular season. When IMT fell apart against TSM in the playoffs, many wondered if North America could perform well on the international stage.
CLG's performance at MSI gave fans a reason to hope. Stixxay and Huhi both showed that in spite of their lower individual skills, the team's crisp teamplay and understanding of map movements could give them an edge on the international stage. CLG surprised many in the group stage by beating both RNG and SKT, securing the second seed and an eventual finals berth against SKT. However, CLG's improvement also showed how far the region had to go - they were lucky to avoid the first seeded RNG in the knock-off bracket (RNG ended up losing 1-3 to SKT) and they were eventually swept 3-0 by the Koreans in the finals.
3. The rise of native NA talents
North America has long been rightfully criticized for their lack of native players. A big reason for this has to do with the much smaller playerbase. China has the largest player base in the world, with EU and Korea in a near tie for second place. In fact, even the secondary EUNE server has a much larger ranked player base than North America. However, this was the year that many NA talents rose into prominence, playing big roles on contending teams and showcasing their skills.
Adrian and Hauntzer both had strong campaigns in the Season 5 NA LCS, but this year they established themselves as top players who could customize their games to fit their teammates. The rise of many true rookies also improved the NA LCS coffers this year. Players such as Dardoch, Biofrost, and Inori were all able to overwhelm more established players in their position. If North America is able to continue growing, they may finally be able to adequately support or even exceed the key imported players that have long held the top carry spots in the NA LCS.
2. Revamped line-ups
Another longstanding criticism of the NA LCS is that the region tends to rely too heavily on old guard players rather than putting together the best teams possible. At times, this criticism has been extremely accurate. In the Season 5 LCS, many of the top teams such as TSM or Cloud9 had obvious underperformers that weren't replaced even after full splits of poor play. This year, the NA LCS finally shed the reputation of relying too heavily on washed-up old players. Many of the best teams in the league started fresh with new rookie talents. Even when these players underperformed, they were given opportunities to improve which gave the league a fresh perspective on who the best players were.
Nowhere was this more apparent than on TSM and Cloud9, the two eventual best teams in the league. Both organizations recruited top players to fill-out their rosters and they were rewarded with World Championship berths. Although neither team found the success they wanted at worlds, this new approach of recruiting top players rather than relying on underperforming stalwarts could revitalize the league. Although TSM's decision to pick up WildTurtle was disappointing, Cloud9's gamble on Contractz could very well pay-off and propel them to the top spot in the league after two years of playing second fiddle to TSM and CLG.
1. Poor Performance at Worlds
In spite of the region's growth over the year, it's important to note that the North American teams still have a very long ways to go. TSM had one of the tougher World Championship groups, but they gave up several great opportunities to advance. In particular, the team's bot lane made several key mistakes against RNG and Samsung that pushed the team out of the tournament in the group stage. The other North American teams hardly fared better. CLG managed to defeat the ROX Tigers, but their two losses to ANX stopped them from advancing further. Cloud9 did manage to make it out of groups, but it was arguably due to the poor play of Flash Wolves against I May rather than any particularly good performances by the North American side. Samsung quickly dispensed of Cloud9 3-0 in the first round of the playoffs.
At the end of the year, Worlds is the biggest test of a region's improvement. Although a holistic look at North America versus the non-Korean regions suggests a fair amount of parity, the truth is that North America is extremely far away from contending for the Worlds title anytime soon. There have been hopeful signs of improvement this year but the focus for the NA LCS heading into 2017 will once again be growth and development.