Since he began playing League of Legends professionally in the spring of 2011, Yiliang “Doublelift” Peng has filled his once-empty trophy case with more titles and accolades than any other North American player. The Team Liquid player’s hardware collection is unprecedented: seven domestic League of Legends Championship Series titles (including the last four), five selections to the LCS All-Pro First-Team, five All-Star appearances, the 2018 Summer Split’s MVP and the 2019 Spring Finals MVP award.

But despite his North American glory, the 26-year-old from Mission Viejo, California, has never made it to the World Championship’s knockout stage.

There is no higher honor in competitive League of Legends than winning Riot Games’ annual World Championship, but for Doublelift, Team Liquid and the other nine LCS teams entering Season 10, lifting the Summoner’s Cup in November will probably remain an unfulfilled dream. In the tournament’s nine-year history, no North American team has ever reached the final, let alone won it all. Because of a widely acknowledged regional skill gap (among many other hotly-debated factors), triumph at Worlds seems reserved for South Korea’s super teams or more recently China’s back-to-back holders.

“I would sacrifice five of my domestic championships for one good international run,” Doublelift said. "But you can’t do that, you can’t cash that in.”

Given that stark reality, LCS organizations begin spring split play on Saturday conceiving success in measured terms. Many consider winning the LCS spring trophy an attractive and attainable goal. For Team Liquid’s opponents, doing so would not only end the franchise’s two-year reign, but also secure passage to the Mid-Season Invitational and its valuable scrimmages against top foreign teams. There’s hope that a new suite of LCS format changes — double-elimination playoffs for the top four seeds, a new three-day schedule, the removal of championship points needed for Worlds qualification — plus significant league-wide roster movement will level the playing field. If parity does come to pass, three dark horse teams are poised to step out of Liquid’s shadow, each in their own way.

100 Thieves

Chris “PapaSmithy” Smith is aware of NA’s dismal international prospects, having witnessed true greatness firsthand during his years commentating League of Legends Champions Korea. But as 100 Thieves’ new general manager, Smith refuses to set his ultimate goal lower than a world championship.

Yet Smith resists grading 2020 exclusively around Worlds. In his mind, 100 Thieves can have a successful year without winning it all on their first try. His handpicked head coach Tony “Zikz” Gray concurs, noting that there are numerous benchmarks the team needs to clear before becoming a Worlds-caliber contender. A bootcamp at the Astralis facility in Copenhagen, Dennmark — courtesy of Smith’s longstanding friendship with fellow caster-turned-GM Martin “Deficio” Lynge — helped Zikz identify where on the mountain his team will start its climb.

“Right now we’re at a very, very foundational level,” Zikz said. “We’re still talking about, you know, how are we going to play each phase of the game? A lot of our emphasis is just making sure that all five people are thinking the same way about the game and that there’s as little confusion as possible. … You can’t have a building without a foundation. By the end of the year, we want to build the building.”

On paper, 100 Thieves has a roster with enough raw talent to improve upon their abysmal 2019. It’s a low bar to clear; its Season 9 iteration finished 12-24 across both splits and failed to make playoffs. The return of Jungler William “Meteos” Hartman and bot laner Cody “Cody Sun” Sun in the offseason marks the recreation of the core of an earlier 100 Thieves squad that finished first in Spring 2018 and made the playoff final. Still, Smith cautions against making that “romantic” comparison.

“League of Legends is always a game where you’re looking forward,” Smith said. “You’re always anticipating where a meta is going and making sure you have tools that are going to thrive in the future. So just because something worked in January through April of 2018 doesn’t mean it’s going to work in 2020. ... I think that’s a happy coincidence, but it definitely wasn’t a conscious ‘Let’s just go for something that worked before.’”

100 Thieves is already preparing for the future outside of LCS roster construction. On Wednesday, the organization opened its new headquarters in Culver City, California — the 100 Thieves Cash App Compound, a 15,000 square foot state-of-the-art facility that includes training areas for all of its esports teams, livestreaming resources and a retail storefront to sell its coveted apparel. The compound is the largest US-based building of its kind, indicative of the sizable ambition exuded by the personalities it houses. The 2020 season might not be Worlds or bust for 100 Thieves, but that expectation is inevitable.

“Personally, I’m someone that doesn’t suffer failure very well,” Smith said. "And I definitely didn’t make the transition from being at the top of my field in casting to mediocrity as a general manager. So wherever we start, it’s about the top.”

FlyQuest

Less than two miles south of the 100 Thieves Cash App Compound, another LCS team headquarters hides amid a nondescript business park. The FlyQuest Greenhouse is literally a green house, or rather 7,000 square feet of newly inhabited office space framed by green-tinted metal and glass. There’s green on the inside too, found in the dry erase marker outlining the team’s prospective champion pools and in the stems of the many flower arrangements dotting the space’s numerous white countertops.

The flowers are Ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging, courtesy of CEO Tricia “megumixbear” Sugita. An Ikebana of pink carnations sits near her desk on the second floor, its three branches symbolizing sun, moon and earth, or alternatively father, mother and child, depending on your perspective. Each piece of the Ikebana has defined place, filling the vase without crowding it. “All together, you have your foundational things, your support and then your complimentary design,” Sugita said. “When I do Ikebana, usually there’s beauty in empty space.”

In 2020, FlyQuest will incorporate nature into their brand through Go Green, a multi-pronged initiative that involves raising climate change awareness, planting trees and a mission codenamed “Save the Wild Turtles.” An Ikebana will appear in stylish watercolor across FlyQuest’s new LCS jerseys, the arrangement highlighted by wood violets — the Wisconsin state flower — to underscore ownership ties with the Milwaukee Bucks through President Ryan Edens.

“The reason why Go Green is so important to me because it truly is the way that I’m choosing to showcase greatness this year,” Sugita said. (Sugita championed the brand ethos “Showcase Greatness” when she was hired as COO two years ago.) “Nature, no matter what you put in as a roadblock, it’ll always find a way to grow. And that’s what we want to be.”

FlyQuest’s in-game growth will be paced by the play of two key offseason acquisitions: German mid laner Tristan “PowerofEvil” Schrage and South Korean support Lee “IgNar” Dong-geun. The former Misfits Gaming teammates are reunited for the first time since reaching the quarterfinals of Worlds 2017 in China. Apart, neither player was able to replicate the international success they once found together, and PowerofEvil is eager to be on stage with IgNar again, hoping to rekindle the magic that almost toppled SK Telecom T1.

While FlyQuest’s organizational goals extend beyond competitive results, Sugita understands that for a team to showcase the inherent greatness of others, they must also be able to do so for themselves.

“In order to win and go to Worlds — and that is our goal this year — that means you need to be great and live that each and every day,” Sugita said. “That means taking our scrims seriously. That means being professional in your solo queue games, and really being great in that practice … then if they lose, they’re not going get mad at each other, just shatter and not be a team. They realize what they need to do to go back. And hopefully, with that, we’ll see the results we all believe in.”

Evil Geniuses

When her promotion to CEO was made official on Wednesday, Sugita became the second woman currently helming an LCS organization. Nicole LaPointe Jameson, who heads Evil Geniuses, is the other. As the league’s newest franchise partner, success in Season 10 begins with establishing an identity — a nuanced task when “evil” is in your name.

“An evil genius is a saucy, assertive and determined individual,” Jameson said. “We respect our competitors, but we're not afraid to use our wit and challenge the status quo. We're comfortable being questioned for what we do and why we do it, because our performance will set the standard.”

Coach Connor “Artemis” Doyle echoed his boss’s formulation. “We're a necessary evil,” Artemis said. “Quite frankly, the LCS is sick, and we're here to fix that. Sometimes you have to bring a necessary evil to create change. And I think that other teams are going to feel us and are going to hear us and that's something that was very important to us.”

EG’s institutionalized boldness extended to their roster construction. In contrast to the cost effective, future-focused approaches adopted by other teams, Evil Geniuses went for broke from the outset. The organization paid Cloud9 millions for a quartet of quality players: jungler Dennis “Svenskeren” Johnsen, support Tristan “Zeyzal” Stidam, top laner Colin “Kumo” Zhao and AD carry Matthew “Deftly” Chen. Then, after failing to pry South Korean mid laner Jeong “Chovy” Ji-Hoon from the LCK despite their overtures, EG signed mid laner Daniele “Jiizuke” di Mauro and two-time world champion AD carry Bae “Bang” Jun-Sik. Their development is overseen by head coach Heo “Irean” Yeong-Cheol and Artemis, both of whom were instrumental in turning around Counter Logic Gaming and Clutch Gaming, respectively, last season.

It’s an impressive collection of talent whose feasible upside is winning the LCS, but Jiizuke and Bang’s lousy 2019 could temper expectations. Yet Artemis isn’t worried about his star imports.

“I think that for Bang and Jiizuke, we saw symptoms of problems, we weren’t actually seeing problems,” Artemis said. “I don’t think either one of them was a problem in their roster at all. And for us taking them after they have down years, it’s kind of a no brainer."

With LCS Worlds qualification this year entirely based on Summer Split performance, fans have worried their teams won’t be motivated to play well in the spring. According to Svenskeren, that couldn’t be farther from the truth, especially for EG, a legacy esports brand associated with excellence.

“You’re not a competitor if you don’t hate losing,” Svenskeren said. “All the pros here f------ despise losing. When you show up at Spring Split and you have the mentality that spring doesn’t matter, and you end up losing games, you get p---ed at your team, you get p---ed at everyone. Nobody likes losing.”

But the champs are still here ...

Doublelift hates losing too, though he’s aware that most of the league’s definition of success involves him failing.

“No one wants to see my team win again because it’s really boring,” he said. “It feels hard to find motivation for something no one really wants you to do. You’re basically doing it to spite other people’s expectations.”

With Team Liquid more vulnerable than they’ve ever been during the LCS franchise era — the team has been weakened by the offseason departure of a key player and visa complications for his replacement — expect a serious challenge from the field. Old powers like TSM, Cloud9 and CLG are ready capitalize, but the conditions are also set for dark horses like 100 Thieves, FlyQuest and Evil Geniuses to succeed. To win another trophy, even one as relatively meaningless as LCS Spring Split, Doublelift will have to carry harder than ever before.

“Spring split might be crazy,” Doublelift said. “There’s rarely a hugely dominating team. It might be really fun to watch; it’s going to be fun to play.”

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