Article by James Chen
Another year, another preseason, and another storm of utter chaos as player-poaching, rules changes and hostile takeovers sweep the international scene. A couple years ago, just three teams doing player swaps would've caused consternation, but nowadays the frequency of trade almost makes one wish for a formal draft system so at least everything happens all at once instead of via piecemeal and rumor mills.
Well, that's not happening anytime soon. So here's what to expect in the coming year, where-ever you might want to expect it.
North America (NA LoL Championship Series)
Oh, MakNooN. There was so much hype for Team Fusion, and they're still one of my favorites of the NA Challenger circuit, but they just couldn't hold it together under pressure. Sure, their players are individually great—you have no idea how happy I am that "Nientakill" Nientonsoh's back as AD Carry, where he should've stayed, or that we get to see "Do Dive" Maknoob chase nerds down with Poppy. That in North America? Yes please. I'll not just watch but actually cheer during the games.
If only they made it in.
Sadly, we live in a world where sheer charisma and top-lane style points don't win you nothin’. You gotta actually beat teams to get in, and Fusion's got a choking problem when things get serious. Instead... well, CLG might have clinched 2nd at the last IEM, but it was a hollow achievement in light of both western circuits' massive roster disruptions, Dignitas is a full-blown mess, Coast can't stop embarrassing themselves with petty dramas, and nobody has the slightest faith in Team 8.
Are we stuck with another year of C9 vs TSM for top honors? Curse and Curse Academy (pending a name change and new sponsor) are potential spoilers, which any long-term North American fan knows is code for "will take 4th place again," though at least Quas, Piglet and Xpecial on Curse represents a core of talent strong enough to take seriously. And absolutely nobody has any idea what's going on with Team Impulse, other than that they were formerly LMQ. Though I did promise AD Carry Apollo not to make fun of TiP for until the end of the first week of the NA LCS now that he's sporting his awesome actual name instead of the nigh-unpronounceable WizFujiiN.
Maybe it's time to give the Challenger Series our fullest attention. Not only does the new circuit look like a promising way to foster talent, but Team Roar also recently returned from bootcamping in China, with the express intent of not pulling a CLG after all their efforts in learning the gung-ho ways of Chinese League of Legends. Roar vs Fusion? Hell yeah, that's watchable. Pass the popcorn.
Europe (EU LoL Championship Series)
Ryu in Millenium? Seriously? The guy that fought Faker to the most exciting best-of-five ever played on Summoner's Rift (OGN Champions Summer 2013, Grand Finals), and nobody in the usual top tier teams wanted him? In fact, the most remarkable thing about the EU LCS spring split is how hard it is to care about it. Rekkles on Alliance is a nominal upgrade sure (though I think Tabzz is unjustifiably mistreated by the public at-large in the exchange), but Alliance's gain triggered a cascading loss for Fnatic as their roster was outright gutted. Gone, too, is Gambit Gaming, with their recent IEM Cologne win less a demonstration of strength than it is a spotlight on just how badly shaken the western scene is after all these changes.
The European scene is now one where xPeke and Amazing are Challenger circuit players, and Darien doesn't get to make ridiculous hype videos anymore. How the hell is that fair?
But worry not. There is one reason to keep paying attention to the European circuit, and they are the Unicorns of Love! Are they the best team to ever grace the European circuit? Probably not (Moscow 5 might always hold those honors). Are they by far the most entertaining? Certainly for the spring split! Their unpredictable and dynamic gameplay, at sharp contrast to the low-risk approach of their regional peers, was rumored to have attracted even Team Liquid's attention, even despite the organization's apathetic history with League of Legends. Thankfully, to everyone’s delight, they decided that the UoL moniker was too good not to go indie with.
Thank you, Unicorns. Fight on, Unicorns! Please keep Europe weird.
China (LoL Pro League)
2014 saw the single most ruthless act of international rivalry ever witnessed in e-sports history, and the impact of it will be felt this year. China's wholesale purchase of Korean talent was impossible to miss—the scions of CCP billionaires saw two years of Star Horn Royal Club taking second against the Koreans and decided enough was enough. If they couldn't outright beat South Korea at a DOTA-esque game, where China's traditionally been the powerhouse region, they'll just neuter the lot of them. So out went the eyewateringly high, six-figure USD contracts, and in came almost literally the entire South Korean scene! Kakao, Rookie, Flame, and even their coaches—a wholesale purchase of the people that defined a world-class esports infrastructure.
Of course, whether it was also the single most expensive act of a cargo cult's left to be seen, because few if any of these high-profile talents speak a word of Mandarin. Now would be an excellent and profitable time to be a Chinese-Korean interpreter, but such a position surely wouldn't actually be allowed to take up space in a gaming booth at any tournament. The Chinese teams were beaten for top honors twice in a row due to fundamental differences in team play and strategy, not because of individual talents—the mass exodus of Samsung coaches might help, but the spring split's going to be full of bloopers in the meantime.
There's also the specter of seediness that has an unfortunate habit of trailing money of such magnitude. Rumors persist of cheated players, bait-and-switch contracts, and conflicts of interests over ownership. I got into e-sports in the first place because it was a delightful engine of narrative drama, and the LPL's got all the hallmarks of a crazy political thriller.