Europe indexed heavily on promoting lower-tier E.U. Masters talent to the League of Legends European Championship (LEC), an admirable shift toward new blood that doubled as a cost-saving measure.
South Korea’s League of Legends Champions Korea (LCK) continued to deal with the fallout from Griffin’s highly-publicized managerial scandal, one that filled the free agency pool with high-impact players just as regional heavyweights like T1, KT Rolster and DragonX rebuilt their rosters from scratch.
China’s League of Legends Pro League (LPL), the league that produced the last two world champions, was relatively quiet, shuffling a handful of stars among already loaded lineups. From their perch on the top, significant changes really weren’t needed for the leading teams, though with former Invictus Gaming AD carry Yu “JackeyLove” Wen-Bo available, there’s still time for fireworks.
North America’s League of Legends Championship Series (LCS) welcomed three familiar franchises back into the 10-team league. Evil Geniuses, Immortals and Dignitas announced their return with big money signings aimed at challenging the region’s standings. While some rosters appear more promising than others on paper, every team will share a reliance on foreign players to achieve success.
Why North American teams cannot rely on homegrown talent to win remains an open question. For now, as hope springs eternal amid rapid roster shuffling, consider these three winners and three losers from a hectic LCS free agency period.
WINNER: 100 Thieves
Key Arrivals: Jungler William “Meteos” Hartman, AD carry Cody “Cody Sun” Sun, Mid laner Tommy “ry0ma” Le, Head coach Tony “Zikz” Gray, General Manager Christopher “PapaSmithy” Smith
Key Departures: Head coach Neil “pr0lly” Hammad, Support Zaqueri “Aphromoo” Black, Jungler Maurice “Amazing” Stückenschneider, Jungler Andy “AnDa” Hoang, AD carry Bae “Bang” Jun-sik
After three consecutive underachieving splits, 100 Thieves spent their offseason mashing the reset button. In signing former players Meteos and Cody Sun, new general manager PapaSmithy brought back two of the primary reasons 100 Thieves reached the domestic final in Spring 2018. Meteos is a veteran commodity who brings leadership and intelligence to the jungle position, while Cody Sun is in the best form of his career after taking three different teams to the World Championship in as many years. By replacing imported talent at the jungle and AD carry positions, 100 Thieves can start South Korean top laner Kim “Ssumday” Chan-ho. Another crucial element of their 2018 finals run, Ssumday spent last split relegated to the 100 Thieves Academy due to the league’s two-import policy.
Mid lane has always been a question mark for 100 Thieves, and signing ry0ma from the Australian League of Legends Oceanic Pro League (OPL) extends that uncertainty. PapaSmithy and his staff are confident that ry0ma can meet the skill demands of a major region, and while the 20-year-old looked useful in his 2019 Mid-Season Invitational campaign with Bombers, he enters the LCS with plenty to prove. If PapaSmithy’s Aussie diamond in the rough can surpass proven-yet-unsigned North American mid laners Eugene “Pobelter” Park and Tanner “Damonte” Damonte, 100 Thieves instantly become title contenders.
Key Arrivals: Jungler Jonathan "Grig" Armao, Mid laner Henrik "Froggen" Hansen, AD carry Johnson "Johnsun" Nguyen, Zaqueri "Aphromoo" Black
Key Departures: Jungler Nam “Lira” Tae-yoo, Mid laner Tanner “Damonte” Damonte, AD carry Cody “Cody Sun” Sun, Support Philippe “Vulcan” Laflamme, Head coach Connor “Artemis” Doyle
Dignitas did not have to blow up its roster. Why would it? Only Lira and top laner Heo “Huni” Seung-hoon had expiring contracts. The core of the team that miraculously rebounded from 9th place to reach the World Championship group stage was young and under contract. All the pieces were in place to challenge Team Liquid’s LCS hegemony in 2020. The five-game semifinal between the two teams in August could have been a thrilling preview of battles to come.
But Dignitas blew it up anyway, signing Huni to a staggering two-year deal worth $2.3 million and letting the rest walk. Lira is still a free agent and unlikely to start for an LCS team this spring. Former starting mid laner Tanner “Damonte” Damonte was eventually busted down to Dignitas Academy after the organization declined to exercise the second-year option on his contract, then re-signed him in free agency. Cody Sun and Vulcan will make 100 Thieves and Cloud9 better, respectively, the latter after Cloud9 owner Jack Etienne spent $1.5 million to buy out Vulcan’s contract. Artemis, a strong up-and-coming coach who was instrumental in turning Clutch Gaming around last split, left to helm newcomer Evil Geniuses.
Dignitas filled the voids left by their departures with question marks. Aphromoo, Froggen and Grig are spare parts in search of redemption after a 2019 that saw them all dramatically underperform. Grig and Akaadian will resume the positional battle that ended in a draw on Team SoloMid last year. Johnsun is a solo queue standout but, as he is the league’s lone rookie going into 2020, lacks any experience at the LCS level. And despite Huni’s remarkable talent, he is perhaps the third best top laner in North America and prone to extended slumps. Unless the team can contain its many egos and jell as a collective, Dignitas downgraded this offseason. It’s certainly no Clutch Gaming.
WINNER: Evil Geniuses
Key Arrivals: Top laner Colin “Kumo” Zhao, Jungler Dennis “Svenskeren” Johnsen, Mid laner Daniele “Jiizuke” di Mauro, AD carry Bae “Bang” Jun-sik, Support Tristan “Zeyzal” Stidam, AD carry Matthew “Deftly” Chen, Head coach Connor “Artemis” Doyle
Key Departures: N/A
Back in the LCS after a five-year absence, Evil Geniuses wasted no time setting the tone of their return. The organization’s first video featured 25-year-old CEO Nicole LaPointe Jameson delivering her team’s #LIVEEVIL Master Plan while seated on a throne, boldly criticizing the “raging dumpster fire that is North American League of Legends” as a dog named after TSM owner Andy “Reginald” Dinh lay at her feet. If that savvy declaration wasn’t signal enough that EG intended to compete from the jump, their bold offseason roster building left no doubt.
Instead of housing the many former Echo Fox players after acquiring that team’s LCS slot, Evil Geniuses constructed a new roster of big-name imports buttressed by local talent. The team spent millions acquiring summer split MVP Svenskeren, Zeyzal, Kumo and Deftly from Cloud9, the second time in three years C9 CEO Jack Etienne sold an entire roster to new LCS ownership. Bang and Jiizuke round out the starting lineup as immense talents hobbled by lackluster play in 2019. EG nearly pulled off a coup by luring ex-Griffin mid laner Jeong “Chovy” Ji-hoon to North America (he ultimately signed with DragonX), but Jiizuke is a solid second choice. All told, EG assembled a group whose floor should be a playoff berth if Kumo can build off the flashes of brilliance he displayed last season.
Like all super teams, the Evil Geniuses lineup of Kumo/Svenskeren/Jiizuke/Bang/Zeyzal looks sexy on paper, but their chemistry and decisiveness on Summoner’s Rift will ultimately decide their fate. It’s a coaching job Artemis is suited for after his marvelous stint on Clutch Gaming. You’ve been warned, North America: Evil Geniuses is back with bite to match its bark.
LOSER: Golden Guardians
Key Arrivals: Jungler Can “Closer” Celik, Mid laner Greyson “Goldenglue” Gilmer, Mid Laner Nicholas “Ablazeolive” Antonio Abbott, Academy Head Coach Barento “Raz” Mohammed
Key Departures: Mid laner Henrik “Froggen” Hansen, Jungler Juan “Contractz” Arturo Garcia, AD carry Matthew “Deftly” Chen
Golden Guardians will begin the 2020 season as the only LCS team starting a North American mid laner. Boasting a brand-aligned pseudonym, Goldenglue replaced Froggen as the Guardians’ fulcrum after years of Academy work and LCS cameos, but its difficult to classify this move as an upgrade. It’s commendable that Golden Guardians wants to promote NA mid talent, but Goldenglue lacks Froggen’s deep champion pool and penchant for carrying games single-handed. If Goldenglue struggles early, expect promising NA prospect Ablazeolive to see time with the senior team.
What Goldenglue’s inclusion does provide is roster flexibility. GGS can now start imported minor region stars Closer (Turkey) and AD carry Victor “FBI” Huang (Australia), evidence of head coach Nick “Inero” Smith and general manager Danan Flander shared focus on player development. Although Golden Guardians is not alone in entrusting their success to minor region imports — Team SoloMid and 100 Thieves have made big bets regarding Turkish top laner Sergen “Broken Blade” Çelik and ry0ma, respectively — the Golden State Warriors-backed outfit is the only organization to invest this deeply. They also chose to keep AD carry Yuri “Keith” Jew in the starting lineup, role-swapping him to support for the first time since late 2014, instead of pursuing another North American support to partner with FBI.
We’ll discover if Golden Guardians can realize its potential soon enough. Right now, it’s nothing more than an affordable, Academy-grade roster with big dreams.
Key Arrivals: Mid laner Tristan “PowerOfEvil” Schrage, Support Lee “IgNar” Dong-geun, Jungler Gabriel “Fanatiik” Saucier, Mid laner Stephen “Triple” Li
Key Departures: Head coach Gabriel “Invert” Zoltan-Johan, Mid laner Eugene “Pobelter” Park, Support Kim “Wadid” Bae-in
FlyQuest made only two marquee signings this offseason, adding prized free agents PowerofEvil and IgNar in a de facto Misfits reunion. Yet the organization’s quiet approach was exceptionally shrewd, both on their LCS and Academy rosters.
PowerofEvil continued to impress on Counter Logic Gaming last summer, driving the legacy organization to its best LCS finish since 2017 and nearly qualifying for Worlds. He’s arguably been a top-3 LCS mid laner since arriving in Los Angeles two years ago, and his inclusion in the FlyQuest lineup makes them immediate playoff contenders. IgNar never equaled the glory he gained with PowerofEvil and Misfits during their iconic run at Worlds 2017, so there’s hope he can recapture some of that lost form given a new start in North America. His aggressive instincts pair neatly with lane partner Jason “WildTurtle” Tran’s willingness to press the attack at any moment.
On the Academy side, FlyQuest made the unusual choice to actually sign their Scouting Grounds draft selection Fanatiik, one of the region’s best prospects who’s already served on TSM Academy and OpTic Academy. He’ll have a chance to learn from an experienced mentor in jungler Lucas "Santorin" Tao Kilmer Larsen; ditto for Australian import Triple and PowerofEvil, the former being a standout mid for years in the OPL. FlyQuest Academy’s intriguing depth is a boon to the LCS team, providing viable depth at several positions should the projected starters struggle.
Key Arrivals: Top laner Paul “sOAZ” Boyer, Jungler Jake Kevin “Xmithie” Puchero, Mid laner Jérémy “Eika” Valdenaire, AD carry Johnny “Altec” Ru, Support Nickolas “Hakuho” Surgent
Key Departures: Jungler William “Meteos” Hartman, Jungler Joshua “Dardoch” Hartnett, Top laner Niship “Dhokla” Doshi, Mid laner Lee “Crown” Min-ho
It’s tough to dock points from Immortals after they signed Xmithie, the league’s most sought-after free agent, but the roster with which they chose to surround him was questionable at best.
Xmithie returned to Immortals after declining to re-sign with Team Liquid, ending a two-year partnership that resulted in four LCS titles, four international appearances and two selections to the LCS all-pro first team. At 28, Xmithie is the oldest player in the LCS, and while age isn’t a proven detractor in League of Legends esports, the chance to maximize his income undoubtedly played a role in his 2020 destination. By adding Xmithie, Immortals gained an adaptable jungler and proven leader who understands what it takes to sustain excellence.
To surround Xmithie, French head coach Thomas “Zaboutine” Si-Hassen and his staff selected two French imports: sOAZ, the legendary Fnatic top laner in search of a fresh start, and Eika, a journeyman mid laner who has drifted between the top two tiers of European League of Legends for five years. Altec and Hakuho form an unlikely bot duo — Altec spent the last year-and-a-half away from competitive play, and Hakuho is the only Echo Fox free agent that was signed to a starting LCS spot.
What these four players provide Immortals apart from serviceable play and ostensibly cheap contracts isn’t apparent yet. Xmithie took Immortals to Worlds once before, but to do so again, with this puzzling roster, will tax even his immense skill.