The rankings so far:
10. Golden Guardians
7. 100 Thieves
We continue the 2020 LCS preseason power rankings with spot 5, a selection that I’m sure will generate no controversy whatsoever…
Roster: Broken Blade, Dardoch, Bjergsen, Kobbe, Biofrost
TSM’s struggles in 2019 weren’t entirely due to their inability to get passable performances from the jungle–whether they were playing with Grig, Akaadian, or Spica–but that jungle weakness was so significant that it cast a shadow over everything else. When your weakest link is so obvious, the smart thing to do is to shore up that weak link.
Instead of doing everything they could to find the highest quality jungler for Bjergsen to work with via the import market, though, TSM spent their import slot on Kobbe and went domestic at jungle, acquiring Dardoch out of OpTic Academy. It seems TSM and their newly promoted coach, Peter Zhang, are trading on Dardoch’s history, specifically the early form he had when he broke into the LCS in 2016. Given Dardoch’s more recent history of leaving a trail of drama and intra-team conflict in his wake, this signing is a big gamble. TSM will hope Dardoch’s aggressive, dominant style gives Bjergsen more options than he’s had in the past couple of years.
Reason to believe this move can work for TSM: I don't think they would do it unless Bjergsen has confidence that he can work well with Dardoch (in game and personally).
— Tim Sevenhuysen (@TimSevenhuysen) November 21, 2019
I don’t necessarily have a problem with TSM signing Dardoch, so long as they are going in with both eyes open and realize that they’re embracing a high level of volatility. If the Dardoch move works, it could be really good, but if it doesn’t work, TSM’s management will only have themselves to blame. I would not have signed Dardoch, personally, not because of the drama and the reputation but because I didn’t see a high enough level of play from him in the 2019 Academy games I watched. He played antsy and arrogant, forcing plays left and right. Granted, his teammates on OpTic Academy didn’t often give him much to work with. Maybe he’ll be able to settle down and take the chip off his shoulder once he’s back in the LCS and paired with the maturity of Bjergsen and Biofrost.
Since TSM chose to import Kobbe, he’ll have to deliver a high level of play to justify those resources. No problem; I think Kobbe’s pretty good. He’s not going to put on a Deft or Uzi cosplay, but he’s a reliable contributor who worked hard in 2019 to earn himself this contract, which presumably comes with a pretty big payday. I don’t feel Kobbe is necessarily a “better” import than Zven was, for what it’s worth, but just because TSM didn’t find success with Zven doesn’t mean they won’t with Kobbe.
In an ideal world, I would’ve liked to see TSM sign a merely above-average domestic bot laner and then import the best available jungler. Lira plus Cody Sun would have felt better to me than Dardoch + Kobbe. The problem is that beyond Cody Sun, the available domestic bot laners weren’t quite TSM-quality.
Okay, okay: in an even idealer world, TSM would’ve been in on the Svenskeren sweepstakes and still added someone like Kobbe on top of that, but I accept that the price tag might have been too high, and that Svenskeren might not have wanted to return.
The range of possible outcomes for TSM is pretty wide. I can actually see them making Finals if everything really clicks and they get on a roll. I can also see them dropping in Quarterfinals or even missing the playoffs entirely if they fail to establish their identity, if Dardoch crumbles under the TSM pressure and starts tilting when he gets outplayed. At this point, I’m betting the under, though I’d be happy to see TSM deliver above my expectations since it would obviously be better for the overall competitive level of the LCS.
4. Counter Logic Gaming
Roster: Ruin, Wiggily, Crown, Stixxay, Smoothie
I expect CLG to be one of the most divisive teams in analysts’ 2020 predictions. From one perspective, they overachieved in 2019 and haven’t really moved their roster forward, arguably making sideways moves by replacing PowerOfEvil with Crown and trading Biofrost to TSM in exchange for Smoothie. It’s fair to say that they’ve altered the style of their team rather than linearly improving in an obvious way. From this perspective, rating them 4th is generous, given the lineup Evil Geniuses have assembled and the moves TSM have made.
But from a different perspective, CLG were already a top-4 team, and they should also benefit from Ruin and Wiggily gaining additional experience and maturity. Stylistic changes might be all they needed to hold the course.
I fall more into the second camp, but at the same time, the league has changed around CLG, and it’s hard to say whether CLG’s gains will be enough to keep them in that 3rd/4th position they enjoyed in Summer 2019.
Wiggily was a great story in the second half of 2019, and he was one of the main reasons CLG did so well in Summer and nearly qualified for Worlds. He’s a great example of the value of time and opportunity in developing players: CLG could have easily given up on Wiggily after his poor Spring split, but they stuck with him for another split and were rewarded for it. Hopefully Wiggily will continue to grow and improve.
One way Wiggily will be able to prove his growth is by helping Crown deliver on his legacy as a former World Champion. Crown carried a pretty heavy burden on OpTic and will need to do so again on CLG, but I believe he’ll get better assistance from Wiggily and Smoothie than he did from Meteos and Big. Ruin also offers far more threat from the top lane than Dhokla, which should provide additional relief for Crown.
To oversimplify things, I think PowerOfEvil is a good mid laner, but Crown is simply better. Crown showed in 2019 that he can come out of lane much in much better shape than PowerOfEvil: Crown had the third-highest GXD10 of LCS Mids in Summer 2019 (behind Nisqy and Froggen). He also carries harder, with the second-highest DPM (behind Froggen), so his ability to contribute individually shouldn’t be in doubt. Crown sometimes has lapses where he gives up unnecessary deaths, which, along with his team’s worse overall performance, hurt him in some other statistical categories, but that should see improvement now that he’s on a better team.
Question marks might pop up in CLG’s bottom lane, where Stixxay took a step backwards in 2019. At one point, Stixxay was a top-3 bot laner in the LCS, but in 2019 he had a lower profile, despite his team playing pretty well. If Stixxay can step up again, CLG should be in good shape.
It’s unclear how the Biofrost/Smoothie change will play out, but I’m a fan of Smoothie and I felt he played well in later parts of 2019 despite TSM’s clear issues as a team, stemming in particular from their jungle position. I would probably rate Smoothie a little higher than Biofrost overall, particularly for his ability to roam and engage.
One factor that might introduce some uncertainty is CLG’s change in coaching staff, with Irean departing for EG, but I think CLG will hold up fine with Weldon and Ssong and maintain their top-4 level.
3. Evil Geniuses
Roster: Kumo, Svenskeren, Jiizuke, Bang, Zeyzal
As I wrote before free agency opened, “Svenskeren is fresh off an MVP season, and he [pushes] Evil Geniuses into the playoff conversation virtually on his own.” The big question is how well the rest of the roster can come together around him
I see plenty of reasons for optimism.
Svenskeren has the best defensive pathing in the LCS: he’s very good at defending a weak lane with counterganks and shutting down an enemy jungler. He had a lot of work to do in that vein with Cloud9, specifically in the bottom lane, and he helped take that group to Worlds. Bang is a much stronger player than Sneaky in general, but he still isn’t the strongest 2v2 laner–he shines much more in the mid and late game fights. So Svenskeren gives Bang exactly what he was missing on 100 Thieves in 2019: a control jungler to nurse him through the lane phase and set him up for success. Zeyzal is all around a much stronger player than Aphromoo, too, so playing through the bottom lane will be a very strong option for EG.
One strong lane isn’t enough to succeed at the LCS level, which is why Jiizuke will be such a wildcard in 2020. After the Kumo, Svenskeren, Bang, Zeyzal group was assembled, it was clear that EG’s mid laner needed to bring some real laning pressure and carry potential. This team didn’t need a utility mid or a roamer; they needed an aggressive jungler-magnet.
Jiizuke is a nice fit for the profile EG needed. He brings the pressure and carry potential EG needed, with above-average laning stats in the LEC through 2019 and having led LEC mids in DMG% in the Summer 2019 regular season. And you don’t have to watch many of his games to see that he definitely pulls jungle attention.
Maybe Jiizuke wasn’t the absolute biggest splash EG could have made with their import slot, but I feel much better about him than some of the other new imports, and getting someone like Chovy was always pretty unlikely. He has a high enough skill level to run with the best incumbent LCS mids, especially since he’ll probably be given a lot of priority in drafts to help him create the lane pressure that will help draw enemy junglers away from Bang. He’ll have Svenskeren to work with him, which is an upgrade over the jungle help he had on Vitality. And as an aside, the “Italian Stallion” is highly marketable, too.
In the top lane, Kumo will be good enough, and that’s all EG will really need for now. He’s shown reasonable map awareness and team fighting in his LCS appearances and Academy play, and though his laning can still improve, he won’t always have to face Ssumday-level opponents like he did in the Academy Summer playoffs.
Evil Geniuses have the pieces to be a very good team, and I feel good about the coaching staff they’ve assembled. Despite CLG’s continuity and improvements, and despite TSM’s skill advantages in the solo lanes, I see EG moving past both of them into the top three.
Roster: Licorice, Blaber, Nisqy, Zven, Vulcan
The Cloud9 story took some big twists and turns this offseason–whether you talk about the competitive rulings or not. When you sell off the reigning LCS MVP, replace your longest-standing member, and pay $1.5M to acquire a player who is a minor upgrade at best, well, you’re going to generate some conversation.
Initial reaction, in general, is that $1.5M is too much for C9 to pay relative to the potential upgrade Vulcan represents relative to Zeyzal.
I like Vulcan, and I think he can get even better, but I don't like him enough to hit my bank account this hard.
— Tim Sevenhuysen (@TimSevenhuysen) November 18, 2019
With so much drama and narrative attached to Cloud9’s roster moves, you might think some constructive criticisms were in order. On the contrary, though, I think C9 has been quite wise, all things considered. I can’t speak to any behind-the-scenes issues that might have precipitated some of the changes, whether that involved players feuding or forcing management’s hand or anything like that. But on the whole, C9 has landed in a good place.
With both Svenskeren and Blaber on the payroll, Cloud9 always had the luxury of choosing which player to keep and which to sell. After Svenskeren’s MVP-winning season, the return for selling him was never going to get any higher, so the team maximized its value. And the player slotting in for him isn’t so much a downgrade as a stylistic shift. (Blaber is the player TSM hopes Dardoch can become.)
Vulcan is a good addition, price tag notwithstanding, and Zven is an upgrade over Sneaky, which isn’t difficult given how poorly Sneaky performed over the course of 2019. Licorice is capable of being the best top laner in the LCS, and he and Blaber will definitely snowball some games just between the two of them.
There isn’t a weak link in the C9 roster, and there’s plenty of proven synergy. They’ll will have to temper the aggression levels that will come out of the Blaber+Vulcan combo, but I’d rather have too much aggression than too little, and I’m confident they’ll be able to find their balance and maintain their position as the stiffest domestic challenge facing Team Liquid in 2020.
1. Team Liquid
Roster: Impact, Broxah, Jensen, Doublelift, CoreJJ
Broxah is exactly the right type of player to help Team Liquid raise their ceiling.
In Broxah, Team Liquid is adding a dynamic, high-mechanics jungler who can proactively move the game state forward. To break through internationally, Liquid needs to be able to win jungle/mid matchups to exert pressure and give themselves more options on the map. Xmithie is the kind of jungler who reliably goes even, with standard pathing and a low mistake count, and he holds up well in high-pressure scenarios and Smite fights. Generally speaking, that’s a good profile and a very useful skill set, but it wasn’t what Team Liquid needed.
Team Liquid don’t lack stabilizing influences; they get plenty of that from the rest of their roster already. In fact, Team Liquid needed a destabilizer, someone who can force plays and do unexpected things.
In a league with much stiffer jungle opposition, Broxah secured far more First Bloods and won his pathing matchups more often than Xmithie. His lower KDA and KP and higher DPM can be somewhat attributed to the frantic pace of play Fnatic embraced, but they also indicate that dynamic, proactive aspect of Broxah’s game (which can, in fairness, be a double-edged sword).
With more action from his jungler, Jensen should receive more opportunities to express himself–he’s much more naturally suited to being an active mid, not a passive mid–and it should relieve some pressure from Doublelift and CoreJJ during the laning phase, too.
Change is naturally unpredictable, and Broxah has more variance than Xmithie, so there’s a chance that this move will look iffy in the early parts of 2020. But I’m confident that Team Liquid is moving in the right direction, and they were already so much better than the rest of the LCS, with the league’s best bottom lane by far, paired with Impact’s unshakeable reliability and his re-emerging ability to carry from the top lane.
Liquid should be heavy favourites to repeat with two more domestic championships and some further opportunities to make an international splash.
10. Golden Guardians
7. 100 Thieves
5. Team SoloMid
4. Counter Logic Gaming
3. Evil Geniuses
1. Team Liquid
Agree? Disagree? Let me know your thoughts on Twitter.