Competitive League of Legends analysis in the western scene relies heavily on empirical analysis, where teams in the competitive scene adapt using a combination of observation and experience. This concept has been widely successful because the Korean competitive scene, that has the resources to innovate efficiently, serves as an adequate model to draw inspiration from. Meanwhile, context analysis is a more optimal approach because it helps to translate the utility of particular elements from one setting to another.
Case Study: TSM and Dignitas are teams facing each other in the quarter-final match of the NA playoffs. A retrospective analysis of their games this season will allow us to glean their unique style and weaknesses, while context analysis will then make basic assumptions about their proclivities to recommend a strategic direction in their preparation and approach to the game within the bounds of the current meta. A future article will examine these in more detail by considering opportunity costs of decision-making and the importance of proper resource allocation.
Establishing Western League of Legends Analysis
The role of an analyst in any industry is to understand the system from a holistic perspective and identify how the disparate elements contribute to its mission. Some of the skills required to accomplish this are intuitive, while others take a lot of data and experience, depending on the industry.
League of Legends is a very complex game of mechanical skill, team coordination, and resource allocation, allowing for a diverse range of strategies, the efficiency of which depends on the meta-game and opponent. Since the game is constantly evolving, there is a limited time frame in which players have to practice new champions, identify optimal team combinations and tactics, and prepare for the next set of opponents. For example, a new patch changes the hierarchy of strong champions for the top lane. Teams with adaptable top laners who can quickly learn these champions gain an advantage, while other teams are better off practicing strategies to counter the picks, etc. Every team is different, and the goal of an analyst is to maximize the utility of preparation by complementing the team’s strengths with the evolving meta game and scene.
During the early seasons, teams used the opponent's match history to prepare against them and focus their bans towards the best players' most impactful champions, forcing them to increase their champion pool. As teamwork and strategy became more prevalent in the scene, teams started communicating amongst themselves and scouting other regions for insight into how to improve their own play. In the last year, international tournaments have slowly consolidated the idea that teams from Korea consistently demonstrate stronger mechanical play and strategic depth in their play, regardless of meta-game. As a result, most western teams expend a great deal of resources following the Korean scene and using their strategies in an attempt to gain or maintain a competitive advantage in their own region. This is an example of empirical or retrospective analysis, where teams in the competitive scene adapt using a combination of observation and experience.
Dominance of Empirical Analysis
This concept has been widely successful because the Korean competitive scene, that has the resources to innovate efficiently, serves as an adequate model to draw inspiration from. Many teams don't have the ability to invest in a proper coach or analyst, and the support staff or people in leadership positions are generally ex-professional players or prominent members of the community, subject to the same biases who find it difficult to see utility from different perspectives. Additionally, the interaction between the Riot e-sports team, community, and the professional teams is more intimate compared to other sports, which sometimes applies a lot of pressure on teams to conform to the prevailing ideology by stigmatizing sub-optimal compositions or different play styles, especially if they don't work as intended.
While empirical analysis helps to identify the key elements of the current meta-game, many teams still struggle to adequately apply them to complement their strengths and mitigate their weaknesses, because they lack the understanding of the proper context for their application. Consider this parallel: A common criticism of players in solo queue clamoring to play champions used in LCS is that those champions may not have the same success in an environment lacking the proper team coordination and strategic direction. Similarly, the top Korean teams are constantly adapting the opportunity costs of their in-game decisions in a way to maximize the efficiency of their champion picks and strategies, something that can't easily be determined by observation. Thus, if the underlying assumptions are mistranslated, the utility that teams gain from using that innovative advantage decreases considerably.
Introduction of Context Analysis
Context analysis is the method of analyzing the environment in which a system operates and it's critical in evaluating how a specific constituent of that system will affect a different system. Western teams are currently using components from the Korean meta game, but instead of evaluating the utility of those components for their team, they are instead attempting to replicate the conditions in which they were successful. Teams should instead focus on forming an identity around unique proclivities of their members and establishing their own hierarchy of pre-game and in-game opportunity costs before using the empirical data to bolster their strategy. In the same way that players have to understand the fundamentals and nuances of a role before learning specific champions to fit that role, teams must recognize the connections between the strengths and weaknesses of their players and game, before assessing and adapting to the meta or opponent.
Currently, many teams are forcing champions onto players that don't have the tools to gain the maximum utility from that champion, or using strategies that don't translate to LCS despite their success in other regions. The fluctuation of a team's performance due to changes in the meta game is usually a result of the team's lack of adequate introspection in how to optimally adapt. The most successful teams in the LCS, that currently includes Cloud 9, LMQ, Alliance, and Fnatic have done so using the information from observing other regions to complement their individual identities.
Some examples: While most of NA uses aggression to secure objectives, LMQ use objectives to force team fights. During the lane swap meta earlier in the split, Cloud 9 adjusted their playstyle and learned to allocate resources from Meteos and Balls onto Sneaky, which was uncommon of them in the earlier splits. Alliance's jungler Shook is mechanically strong and thrives in team fights or making picks, and Riven is a champion that complements both him and his team, despite being sub-optimal for others. In contrast, Fnatic choose to focus on sOaz's large champion pool and Rekkles's calculated aggression, leaving Cyanide to play supportively, a style that suits him better. In all of these cases, the teams both incorporate and play around certain champions and strategies that best allow them to flourish.
Case Study: TSM vs. Dignitas
While it's easy to discuss why teams are doing well, it's harder and more interesting to look at teams that are struggling and offer valid suggestions for them to improve. In the remaining discussion, I will attempt to analyze the rivalry between TSM and Dignitas this split from a retrospective perspective, and then use some assumptions to help with contextual analysis of their upcoming quarter-final match. Refer to my notes at the end as sources for my analysis.
I do this with hesitation because there is a misunderstanding about analysis in the League of Legends scene where an analyst has to make accurate predictions with conviction to maintain credibility. But, I believe analysis is always biased and two people with the same data can reach separate and even divergent conclusions due to the differing axiomatic assumptions in interpreting the data. A proper analysis should be a discussion surrounding the relevance of these assumptions and then apply the resulting conclusions to offer constructive recommendations.
Teams play and respond differently to their opponents. The following analysis is mostly based on the games played between TSM and Dignitas during the summer split of 2014, my notes for which can be found at the end of the article.
The roster of TSM is composed of highly skilled players from NA and Europe, and has recently acquired Lustboy, the former support for CJ Blaze in Korea. The reputation and strength of the organization has allowed them to recruit the best players, but for the second year, they have been lagging behind teams like Cloud 9 due to roster instability. However, they have been slowly improving over the course of the summer and are possible contenders to make worlds. They still struggle during the pick/ban phase due to Amazing's limited champion pool and sometimes lack of strategic foresight. Their early game decision-making is one-dimensional, and they seem to sacrifice early dragon control in order to set up picks in the mid and top lane. While their vision control has steadily improved after the introduction of Locodoco as coach, it is relatively inefficient because they place deep wards, but are conservative with the use of the red trinket, presumably saving it to contest areas of conflict near objectives. This allows teams like Dignitas and LMQ that rely on that vision to flank safely and gain superior positioning. Teamfight communication remains one of TSM's critical flaws, especially with Amazing's initiations or Dyrus's use of teleport. Finally, TSM seems to lack direction in the mid game against defensive team compositions, and is not confident in applying pressure and forcing objectives without teamfights or picks.
The roster of Dignitas has undeniable potential, especially with the acquisition of solo laners ZionSpartan and Shiphtur at the beginning of the Summer Split. However, Dignitas seems cursed with the same trend every split to start out in dominant fashion, but falter towards the end. Under the coaching of Scarra, they have a strong pick/ban phase, but are sometimes unable to translate that success throughout the game due to the discrepancy between individual strength and champion playstyle. In the early game, they place great emphasis on dragon control and helping Zionspartan gain an advantage on his lane opponent. Shiphtur prefers a reserved laning phase and roaming with a level advantage to pressure other lanes, allowing his lane opponent to sustain through bad matchups or gain leads in others. Dignitas rely heavily on deep vision and often give up kills to obtain it, because they prioritize flanking in teamfights or contesting objectives. Dignitas suffers similarly in teamfights with Crumbzz's overzealous initiations without the support of his team, but it's difficult to discern if that's a problem with their decision making or if they lack an established hierarchy of shotcalling. Finally, Dignitas prefers to default to Dragon and Baron, despite having lower risk, higher reward options available to them, making them easy to predict in the mid and late game.
The previous section forms the basis for many assumptions about the teams in this analysis. In addition, the regional playoffs from regions like Europe and Korea provides a lot of data regarding the popular champion choices and the accompanying gameplay strategies that are viable in the current meta game. The following analysis will use these assumptions about each team and recommend a strategic direction in their preparation and approach to the game within the bounds of the current meta.
TSM is a team with enough mechanically proficient players that they should be able to use champions within their mastery, despite being outside of the meta and use the maximum utility of their picks to overcome strategic deficiencies. With the limited time left, it would be most efficiently spent by resolving communication hierarchy in fights and skirmishes as well as planning early game to mitigate objective deficits. They can then transition into the mid game and use aggressive ploys to pick fights and secure objectives. Let's now consider the relevant champions for each member that can help TSM to supplement this direction.
Dyrus: Maokai, Lulu, Shen, Irelia, Dr. Mundo
Amazing: Lee Sin, Elise, Kha'Zix, Rengar, Jarvan IV
Bjergsen: Yasuo, Fizz, Ahri, Syndra, Orianna
Wildturtle: Tristana, Kog'Maw, Corki, Lucian, Draven
Lustboy: Thresh, Braum, Morgana, Leona, Nami
Dyrus is lauded as being one of the most consistent members on TSM, but he doesn't get enough credit for his adaptability. He has demonstrated the ability to split push, tank, and engage for the team on a variety of champions. Champions like Maokai and Shen allow him to aggressively support his team, Irelia and Lulu for team composition diversity, and Dr. Mundo as a defensive tank. Shen is an off-meta choice but it complements Bjergsen's assassin champions and could be viable depending on the enemy team composition.
Amazing thrives on mechanical champions with high mobility that allow him to repeatedly engage, retreat, and apply early pressure like Lee Sin, Elise, and Kha'Zix. Rengar and Jarvan IV could also be effective if TSM opt to play aggressively and use those picks for their potential. Since TSM seems to struggle with communication, picks like Evelynn and Nocturne that require positioning and coordination may be less viable unless TSM establishes better shotcalling for fights.
Bjergsen is or should be the strategic focus for the team. He has a diverse champion pool and he excels at setting up picks and outplaying his opponents, so champions like Lulu, Xerath and Ziggs that fit the meta don't allow Bjergsen or TSM to play to their potential. It is my contention that he is especially impactful on champions with high reflexive mobility and champions like Yasuo, Fizz, and Ahri allow him to create picks and control team fights. Orianna and Syndra are examples of champions with high utility that have the potential to make plays and do a lot of damage. Finally, he could also consider champions like Zed, an off-meta pick with high mobility and damage depending on how he's played, that could allow TSM to surprise the opponents. He is definitely not optimal in the current state, but Bjergsen's proficiency on him along with the proper team composition to support it could work against Dignitas.
Wildturtle is another aggressive threat on TSM, but the current meta is much less forgiving of diversity in the ADC role due to the strength and utility of the top tier champions like Tristana and Kog'Maw. But, if the team compositions allow it or the higher tiered champions are unavailable, it would allow him to choose champions like Lucian and Draven, darting around fights and deal a lot of damage.
There is not enough information about Lustboy's role on the team regarding shotcalling and decision making during lane, but he seems mechanically capable to take the place of Xpecial and Gleeb. TSM will perform the best utilizing Bjergsen, Wildturtle and either Dyrus or Amazing as offensive threats, so a defensive line support champion like Thresh, Braum, and Leona provide a lot of synergy to engage, peel and tank damage. Situationally, Morgana and Nami also provide similar pressure, but they just don't offer the same tanky statistics.
Dignitas has limited strategic options because their solo laners have restrictive playstyles in which they excel. But over the course of the split, the remaining Dignitas members have adapted to maximize their team’s utility through strong vision control. With the remaining time left, Dignitas should resolve some communication issues surrounding engages and teleport usage. Next, they need to prepare their pick/ban phase to support their particular strategies as well as work on contingency plans for adapting between games against a team like TSM who has a lot of experience in playoffs. Let's now consider the relevant champions for each member that can help Dignitas to supplement this direction.
ZionSpartan: Nidalee, Yasuo, Irelia, Jax, Lulu
Crumbzz: Elise, Nocturne, Evelynn, Vi, Lee Sin
Shiphtur: Xerath, Twisted Fate, Orianna, Ahri, Lux
Imaqtpie: Tristana, Kog'Maw, Jinx, Lucian, Twitch
Kiwikid: Braum, Thresh, Nami, Morgana, Leona
Zionspartan excels in games where he can pressure a side lane and draw members of the enemy team to him, allowing his team to pick easier fights and contest objectives. Nidalee, Yasuo, Irelia, Jax, and Lulu are all champions that have damage and mobility, allowing him to benefit from the pressure Crumbzz applies early game. Even though champions like Alistar and Maokai are currently in the meta, Zion's style doesn’t complement their strengths, and investing in learning them is questionable considering Alistar requires a good composition around him and Maokai is generally banned. He also sometimes struggles with using his teleport and positioning in teamfights, both things that can be improved by establishing a communication hierarchy.
Crumbzz is not the most mechanically adept jungler in NA, but like Cyanide in Fnatic, he plays to support his team by pressuring lanes, securing early objectives and establishing strong vision control. Champions like Nocturne and Evelynn synergize with the Dignitas's strategy of using vision, while Elise and Vi are mobile and allow him to pick targets. Finally, the incredible utility Lee Sin provides Amazing is enough reason to steal him away, despite Crumbzz not being known for making flashy mechanical plays on him.
Shiphtur has consistently maintained his high KDA ratio, despite the performance of his team, due to his penchant for conservative positioning in teamfights. Despite this weakness, he has shown the ability to play a diverse range of champions from assassins like Leblanc, ranged champions like Xerath, and utility champions like Orianna. The current meta doesn't favor Leblanc, but champions like Ahri and Lux would allow him to leverage positioning or mobility to deal damage and set up his team from range. In addition, his knowledge of positioning also makes him deadly on Twisted Fate and complements Zionspartan's split push by applying more map pressure.
Again, the utility of high tier ADC champions reduces the viability of other champions, but Imaqtpie has shown great proficiency on Jinx and Lucian if Tristana and Kog'Maw are unavailable. Imaqtpie has also shown skill on Draven and Ezreal, but with Shiphtur's defensive tendencies, Draven becomes an easy target for enemy teams, and Ezreal doesn't have the same scaling as other ADC options. Twitch is another choice that relies on positioning, but can work with the proper vision denial.
Kiwikid's strength is engaging and vision control with champions like Braum and Thresh, as well as creating early pressure around the map. Leona, while relatively unused, is a similar option, especially against immobile champions like Kog'Maw later in the game. Nami and Morgana provide different utility, depending on the team composition, but Kiwikid has the tendency to roam unsafely and initiate awkward fights, and these champions don't possess the adequate vitality for him to make mistakes. Similarly to Crumbzz, fixing some communication issues around initiation and safely placing vision will allow Dignitas to compete against TSM.
Game 1: Week 2 Day 2
Pick/Bans: The first game in the Summer series between TSM and Dignitas took place on the second day of Week 2. Dignitas had started the season in dominating fashion while TSM was seemingly still adjusting to Amazing and Gleeb. Dignitas opted to borrow Cloud 9's strategy from the previous week and ban Evelynn, Kha'Zix, and Elise from Amazing and chose Lee Sin during the first rotation. TSM chose Shyvana for Dyrus and Lulu for Bjergsen, while Dignitas responded with Jax for Zion and Ziggs for Shiphtur. At this point in champion select, Dignitas had not only secured a top jungle champion, but also a complementary pairing of a late game split pusher and ranged wave clear, onto players that excel at both. This left TSM the option of choosing Kog'Maw and Nami for lane dominance and disengage, but in the most bizarre move of the split, Volibear was locked in for Amazing. Revealing the pick this early also allowed Dignitas to choose Nami and Ezreal, solidifying their disengage composition, while TSM finished up with Thresh. If TSM had chosen Nami during their second rotation and saved the Volibear pick until later, they could've gleaned a lot more about Dignitas's composition before committing to the pick.
Gameplay: Despite TSM's lackluster pick/ban phase, they played well to shut down Jax in the early game by forcing multiple lane swaps. Dignitas used this opportunity to secure early Dragons and constantly place deep wards in TSM's jungle, negating any pressure Volibear could have. At 12 minutes, Zion was two levels and 35 creeps below Dyrus and it wasn't for another five minutes that he managed to freeze the lanes at his inner turret to begin his crawl back. In the next 15 minutes, Dignitas repeatedly disengaged and wave clear to prevent TSM from pushing in, and even sacrificed multiple dragons, to allow Zion to farm back into relevance. Between Ziggs's Satchel Charge, Hexplosive Minefield, Lee Sin's Dragon's Rage, Nami's Aqua Prison, Tidal Wave, Volibear's attempts to engage were repeatedly rebuffed. At 35 minutes, Zion is finally stronger than Shyvana, allowing Digitas to fight, secure Baron, and subsequently end the game. If TSM had secured a better engage like Vi or Nocturne, they could have better capitalized on Zion's early deficit and closed out the game.
Game 2: Week 5 Day 1
Pick/Bans: The second game in the series was famous for the bet between Scarra and Locodoco, where the losing coach would have to get the bowl cut. While the previous game was mostly dependent on the champion select, this game is quite open to execution at the onset. TSM react to Dignitas's picks from last game by banning Ziggs and Jax, and Dignitas being on the other side have to ban Kassadin and LeBlanc from Bjergsen. Elise and Lee Sin are subsequently banned away forcing both teams onto a less optimal jungle champion. TSM manage to get Shyvana and Syndra for Dyrus and Bjergsen respectively, complemented by Jarvan IV, Thresh, and Lucian for a strong split push and pick composition. Meanwhile, Dignitas opt for a strong team fight composition with Nocturne, Braum, and Jinx, supported by the solo laners, Lulu and Orianna.
Gameplay: This game served to demonstrate several things, TSM's had improved in pre-game strategy and vision control, but that both teams still struggled with communication and decisive action. Before the minion spawn, TSM walked past vision to ward the Dignitas's Red camp, and decided to remain despite not having vision on the Dignitas members. Bjergsen left the group to head mid, and Dignitas capitalized by surrounding TSM and securing two kills to start the game. This trend of mistakes continued throughout the game, with Dyrus not being able to join a team fight that Zion managed to reach, Crumbzz overreaching with his ultimate without the support of his team, TSM chasing with low health only to run headlong into Shiphtur's shockwave, KiwiKid getting picked while trying to place deep wards by himself, Amazing forcing unfavorable fights with Cataclysm and more. Even the final skirmish was a combination of an ill-conceived Baron attempt by Dignitas, TSM focusing the tank line, Bjergsen trying to farm a wave and getting caught by Zion as Shiphtur and Imaqtpie rush towards nexus turrets. While relatively exciting, it wasn't necessarily a game to gauge either team from an analysis standpoint because its progression was mostly reactionary to unique situations.
Game 3: Week 7 Day 2
Pick/Bans: Approaching this game, both TSM and Dignitas were coming off a victory the previous day using a split push Jax. So, it seemed curious that TSM didn't ban him and even more interesting that Dignitas opted for Braum in their first rotation. TSM chose Jax and Ziggs, mostly to deprive them from Zion and Shiphtur, while Dignitas responded with Kog'Maw and Lulu. So far this champion select seemed identical to the one during the first week, except on the opposite teams. But, unlike TSM's mistake of choosing Volibear and Shyvana, Dignitas rounded their composition with Vi and Twisted Fate, for a strong engage and map pressure.
Gameplay: This was the first encounter between TSM and Dignitas this split that started with a standard laning phase. Dyrus managed to keep up in creep score with Zion, despite the match-up by repeatedly expending all hit points to farm the wave and returning to base. But, his lack of early warding allowed Crumbzz to go around the Baron and gank Bjergsen from behind, netting first blood for Shiphtur and item advantage over Amazing's Jarvan. He used this to place deep vision into TSM's jungle and secure early dragons. Once Twisted Fate hit level 6, Shiphtur used his ultimate to repeatedly gank Jax and secure objectives. Dignitas made a few rotational errors by attempting to kill Baron several times before 25 minutes, but eventually forced TSM into a mistake and capitalized on it. TSM tried to force Dignitas onto uncomfortable champions and relying on their mechanical ability and carry through the game, but while the Ziggs was able to repel the enemy team and allow Jax to scale in the first game, Dignitas used Vi and Twisted Fate's crowd control to repeatedly create picks in the mid and top lane and end the game.
Game 4: Week 11 Day 2
Pick/Bans: Since their last meeting, Dignitas has lost a large majority of their games, while TSM have consistently maintained their position in the standings. Gleeb has been replaced by Lustboy as the support for TSM, and the patch has stabilized a lot of champions. The banning phase now includes champions like Tristana and Gragas, leaving all jungle champions open, and TSM takes the opportunity to pick up Lee Sin for Amazing. Dignitas choose the newly christened Maokai and Thresh for their first rotation, while TSM opts for Kog'Maw and Irelia. Dignitas counter with Elise and oddly, Ezreal for Imaqtpie. The combination of Maokai and Orianna is quite potent, especially against Kog'Maw with low mobility, so unless Dignitas wanted to counter Bjergsen's pick, Orianna would have been a significantly better choice due to Shiphtur's proven success with her against TSM and her synergy with Zion and Crumbzz. TSM decide to take away Orianna and Nami to support their engage and protect Kog'Maw. Dignitas respond with Ahri, creating a strange poke and pick composition.
Gameplay: This was the most strategically interesting game to watch because both teams played to the potential of their composition. Another game with standard lane phase, Kiwikid's Death Sentence along with Crumbzz's early presence force both Wildturtle and Lustboy to flash and play defensively, but Crumbzz fails to replicate that same success in his gank mid by missing his cocoon and is countered by Amazing who picks up the kill. Amazing then proceeds to posture top, expecting Crumbzz to help Zion, but Dignitas take that opportunity to pick up dragon and send Kiwikid and Crumbzz to counter and secure a kill on Amazing. A few minutes later, Amazing catches Crumbzz preparing for the next Dragon and secures it for TSM. During the mid game, Dyrus and Zion separately use an opportunity to find kills on the opponent's AD carry while the other is unable to help. Both teams consistently place deep vision, but still don't adequately clear the opponent's vision, choosing instead to save it to contest over objectives. TSM try capitalize on positioning mistakes by Dignitas, while Dignitas chooses to gain vision and flank TSM to create favorable fights. In the late game, Kog'Maw begins to out-scale Ezreal allowing TSM to force an aggressive fight as Zion retreats to the base, giving them the Baron and the victory. TSM demonstrated improved communication and overall strategy in their approach to the game. On the other hand, Dignitas used their vision efficiently to secure objectives and create advantageous team fights, but did not have the adequate damage with Maokai and Ezreal to compete with TSM's composition in the late game.