The eternal North American-European League of Legends rivalry has been put to bed for now.
With Team SoloMid's commanding sweep over Unicorns of Love to win the inaugural Rift Rivals title, NA takes firm control over any regional bragging rights.
But as the dust settles, the fallout is seen to be much more than just a single grand final win. Instead we've had a complete domination by the North American teams in attendance, with Cloud9, Phoenix1 and Team SoloMid obliterating their European counterparts in G2, Unicorns of Love and Fnatic.
As is common with international events, we're left with a lot of questions after Rift Rivals. So while we take a pause on our regular power rankings because of the Rift Rivals break, let's figure out what this all means going forward.
The European Crisis
What happened to the EU LCS teams at Rift Rivals?
While many anticipated a hard-fought battle between the two rival regions in the inaugural tournament, EU LCS fans were left with the smoking remains of Europe’s best teams.
Not a single European team ended the tournament with a positive win-loss record. Not one team had positive gold differentials at 15 minutes. Fnatic had the worst at -2,378 gold at 15 minutes; Team SoloMid, who would go on to win Rift Rivals, had 2,402.
It gets worse, though. Both Unicorns of Love had below 15 percent dragon control rate and zero percent at securing the first dragon. Not one team had above a 0.67 kill-to-death ratio belonging to the EU representative in the grand finals, Unicorns of Love.
So what happened?
The EU teams didn’t fundamentally know how to draft engage comps or play for the early game at Rift Rivals. The entire region was exposed for its terrible early game, bad objective control, inability to make very few proactive and aggressive plays and a misunderstanding of the current engage meta—a whole mess of a self-propagating problem.
Fnatic’s “animal style”—whereby they go for aggressive side-lane plays in the early game to utilize globals and teleports—was almost completely neutralized by a Team SoloMid who denied them said plays by either sheer lane dominance or lane management.
In the same vein, Unicorns of Love is a scrappy team that does a good job of finding 5v5 team fights in the mid-game. They nearly got a win off of TSM in the finals because of their prowess in this sort of mid-game madness. But, on the international stage, great team fighting isn’t a strength that will result in a lot of wins considering it’s almost a foundational requirement of any successful team.
In almost every EU loss, Fnatic, Unicorns and G2 were constantly forced either to react to the NA teams or to accept some objective trade in order to secure one of their own almost entirely because they had better understanding of the game.
Winning lanes turn into early-game advantages, which are meaningful in and of themselves. But when a region shows it has little experience in that part of the game (evident from its drafts and playstyles), the problem compounds itself.
EU had zero answers, so where NA would be challenged—where its early-game advantage isn’t taken as a complete win condition but just an advantage—it rolled over the EU LCS teams. And at that point, it all kind of snowballs upon itself.
These were pretty much EU’s best teams to represent the region at Rift Rivals (which can’t be said of NA, given Counter Logic Gaming and Immortals’ absences from the event). If the rest of the league struggles against these teams (especially Fnatic, whose weaknesses were put out in full display), their overall strength will be highly questionable. If the best in the league have a nonexistent early game presence, what does that say about the state of the region?
What's more, can any teams come back from Rift Rivals, learn their mistakes and fix them in the next couple of months before Worlds?
Searching for Cloud9
If there’s any NA team that got the short end of the stick, it was Cloud9.
On the back of a strong week in which they tackled TSM and tested CLG, Cloud9 entered Rift Rivals with as much of a claim to represent NA in the grand finals as TSM. But more than their regional counterparts, Cloud9 struggled for the same reasons that had them climbing back to their former glory domestically.
It’s still the mid- and late-game that seem highly suspect for Cloud9, so much so that it either cost or almost cost Cloud9 games in the round robin. The C9 boys can execute early—especially against their EU counterparts—but once they reach the mid-game, it's uncertain whether or not they keep the pressure up. Cloud9's overall understanding of the macro game seems to be off (and maybe it has been for some time now).
On top of that, it’s still only Jensen who will put in a shift game-to-game for Cloud9. Contractz had a good international showing, and overall the team played well around Jensen in the midlane. But that alone can't always win games when Impact, Ray and Sneaky aren't going to be the consistent presences they were in past seasons.
Rift Rivals showed that C9 is still not totally there.
While their 3-3 record is hardly a disappointment, there's going to be a bit of a reality check for the team who was on the rise. There could have been many reasons why Cloud9 didn't perform as expected, but at the end of the day, they do walk away as the worst-performing NA team against what looked to be relatively free wins for their compatriots.
To go into this event and see the same problems that have persistently caused issues for Cloud9 makes it harder to erase the question marks that still seem to hang there.
Maybe it was a complete lack of respect from the EU teams, but Phoenix1 became the darlings of NA.
The pieces were there. It was clear this might happen. We’ve said that their domestic showings, despite their record, have shown that something was working once MikeYeung and Xpecial were added to the squad.
Now, it’s clear Phoenix1 has been reborn.
MikeYeung is the real deal and he pretty much has Rookie of the Split on lock at this point. To go into his first international event and play as confidently—styling on some of the historically best EU players—as he did is a rare sight. He’s shown that he’s crucial to Phoenix1’s success but also that he’s more than willing to take on that responsibility to lead them to wins.
But it wasn’t just the MikeYeung show; Rift Rivals has seemed to revitalize his teammates as well.
Ryu looks like he’s getting back into form after going to his former region and beating some of the same players he had while on H2K. Arrow still needs to work on his laning, but his team-fighting at Rift Rivals was monstrous. Xpecial continues to provide a veteran presence needed for the team while still being incredibly clutch in this new support meta. Zig has no problems being the solid role player, letting his team carry while he takes a supportive, engaging role.
Yeah, Phoenix1 had the least to lose out of every team in attendance. And teams probably underestimated them. But still, their success is indicative of a larger change in their mentalities and something finally clicking.
Now it’s just a matter of bringing that back home.
Best in the West?
Is Team SoloMid truly the best team in Western League of Legends?
It’s a tough question to answer, but it’s one we’re asking—which speaks for itself.
Sure, CLG and Immortals were not at the event, and they probably would’ve given TSM more competition for the grand finals spot, potentially running over the EU teams in similar fashion.
But the Team SoloMid at this event wasn’t the domestic team that’s been all over place, going the distance against the current top four, experimenting with drafts and bodying lower-tier NA teams with Lee Sin and Syndra.
Instead, they looked like that Summer 2016 roster, only better, with a year of playing together under their belts.
They were clean throughout the entire tournament—not only when EU teams mistakenly let the Lees and Syndras through but also on the Galio comps that had been plaguing them at the beginning of the split, proving that they are indeed learning how to expand their playbook.
Previously rougher edges in the roster like Svenskeren showed up, playing a massive part in their wins by constantly being a force when he was six kills deep on Kha'Zix but also when he was down and showing his growing ability to influence the game when needed by his team.
Doublelift and Bjergsen proved they're arguably the best Western backline. Combine Doublelift's unrivaled team-fighting at Rift Rivals—on top of his near-flawless Ashe play—with the player whose oft-considered the best midlaner in the West and you get one of the most mechanically gifted and clutch carry duos in Western League of Legends. There's no arguing that.
On top of that, add Biofrost, who’s starting to shine in a roster of stars. He’s clutch. He’s consistent. More than any player, the experience of playing with these same members for a year has improved Biofrost the most, as he sheds that rookie skin—a previous liability for the team on the international stage.
Hauntzer's laning wasn’t the most reliable for TSM, but he makes up for his early deficits with an ability to engage and his team’s subsequent trust in him to do so. Hauntzer might be the weakest point at this time and his ability to absorb early-game pressure needs to improve as it could be punished by better teams, but his fearlessness on Kled, Gragas and Gnar remained crucial to TSM’s mid- and late-game success.
All that said, are TSM—who managed to refine and expand their playstyles, composed of individuals who continue to improve—the best in the West?
Maybe. Maybe not.
But either way, it’s an answer that TSM themselves care little about after winning Rift Rivals.
Ask them again at Worlds.