Contextualizing LPL Playoffs: Who Will Take Out OMG?
After an in-depth assessment of the opposition, we conclude that OMG's chances at taking the playoffs are much slimmer than you might think.
This article was originally published on GameSpot's sister site onGamers.com, which was dedicated to esports coverage.
The question most Western followers of LPL have in mind as playoffs approach isn't who will triumph in the Edward Gaming vs World Elite grudge match or whether Invictus Gaming flops or flies. Most fans want to know whether any of the other three teams have a chance to take first place from OMG's grasp.
At AllStars, OMG was sold as the dominating force of LPL, having crushed through the regular season with a score of 25 wins and three losses. Though they didn't defeat SK Telecom T1 K, they had a more impressive showing than either World Elite or Invictus Gaming at IEM Katowice. With limited information, it seems impossible that another team could knock them from their pedastals, but other storylines exist as well. Some say that OMG's tournament records are not as strong as their LPL records. Others say that, after taking a 2-0 against OMG at International Esports Tournament, Edward Gaming looks like the strongest team in China.
The reality is that it's entirely possible that any of the three teams going into the playoffs will win a series against OMG, but not because EDG is definitively the stronger team or because OMG has some kind of tournament record curse. OMG simply revealed their weakness at both IET and All-Stars, and all three other seeds in the LPL playoffs are versatile enough to replicate the simple strategy to defeat them.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves. The question of OMG's victory is compelling, but to answer it we have to understand what the other teams bring to the table, how they got there, and any variables that could cause a performance swing.
Invictus Gaming, the first team to face OMG in the playoffs, had a difficult split. After an impressive off season in which they took titles at Demacia Cup and IEM Singapore, they looked like one of the favorites to steamroll LPL. Unfortunately, they immediately struggled. They split even against bottom barrel teams like Positive Energy and Energy Pacemaker, grabbing sixth place in LPL before the IEM Season VIII World Championships.
At Katowice, however, Zzitai had an impressive Yasuo game, and kid's performance humbled even KT Bullets' Score. Then the infamous iG tilt kicked in after the loss to KTB, and they crumbled against Fnatic, the team they had handily defeated just one day before.
The fact is, iG didn't look spectacular at IEM or at any games leading up to the tournament. They had a smart lane swap against Fnatic, but laneswaps were the bread and butter of LPL this split, so it's hard to say just how much iG deserves for the strategy. They lost if they gave up any early game advantages and fumbled the mid games, swinging leads after single fights.
Then, a miraculous turn of events occurred. Invictus Gaming became the first team to take a game from OMG in LPL. They used strong early Pantheon pressure, falling back on invade strategies that worked so well from them in the off season, and used an experimental long ranged poke composition with Varus and Xerath to set OMG on the back foot in areas where they usually excel: zone control and team fighting.
After the morale boost, iG continued to win, and LGD gaming suffered when Riven nerfs hit the Chinese tournament servers, causing them to plummet. Then, in the final week of LPL, Positive Energy, the last place team, brought out a surprising jungle Twitch that split their series against LGD, effectively carrying Invictus Gaming into the playoffs.
Will they or Won't they?
Invictus Gaming's turnaround seems like a fairy tale, but just how well do they actually stack up? Certainly, in order to push through to fourth from 2-0ing no one during more than the first half of the regular season required an overhaul, but let's look at the teams besides OMG that iG did manage to defeat on their rise.
All told, Invictus Gaming only managed to win two games in a row against Positive Energy, LGD Gaming, and Royal Club. Despite an early, patch-dependent upswing from LGD, they didn't pose much of a threat in the latter half of split. Royal Club barely avoided auto-relegation in their last series against Energy Pacemaker, and Positive Energy only won five of 28 games the entire split (and one of those was against iG). The teams they had successful series against largely failed to impress.
That said, they did manage to split even against both World Elite and OMG twice, but the circumstances surrounding these victories don't give us much to go on. They defeated World Elite in the last week only when the opposition ran jungle Karthus and Gangplank in the top lane. More embarrassingly, iG lost to a wombo combo composition featuring Amumu jungle where WE spent most of the game meandering indecisively around Baron. Against OMG, they had one truly exceptional victory where they had a well-prepared strategy they executed from mid game until the very end, but their second victory relied heavily on Zzitai outplaying a Cool who had not seen the professional stage for several months.
The conclusion is that, while iG certainly did look tighter in the second half LPL, their victories were absurdly circumstantial. One thing they bring to the table is a massive champion pool. IG played more unique champions this LPL split than any other team, and Edward Gaming and SK Telecom T1 K have both revealed that the best strategy against OMG is to ban out xiyang and rely on your mid laner's versatility to carry the day. Because of Zzitai's deep champion pool, iG might just have the greatest advantage over OMG of any other team in LPL in this regard.
What will hold them back, however, is mid game decision-making. They need illuSion's tactical sense to carry them through the early game, and he can do this by focusing pressure mid and countering OMG's invades. IG's weak understanding of objective focus in the mid game, however, gives OMG an easy opportunity to come back. So can iG beat OMG? Yes, but they have to do it early.
If they do win against OMG, however, it's unlikely they can take out either Edward Gaming or World Elite in a best-of-five, and will only advance to second place.
While World Elite's LPL split isn't nearly as unlikely as iG's, it's surprisingly similar in storyline. They entered the tournament decisively destroying Royal Club and Positive Energy, but in the next week in which they faced both LGD and OMG, they were defeated with equally dominating vigor. While they did go on to win their final set of the week against Energy Pacemaker, they seemed to passively allow OMG and LGD to roll over them without offering any resistance.
After that, it was hard to call their showing at IEM Katowice anything but humiliating. They may have had a strong early game against Gambit, but they lost two games almost single-handedly to Morgana support. That, and it was clear that suk1M's experience with Yasuo was limited. Part of this was the new patch, and that certainly played a factor. In fact, it played a factor throughout most of the split for World Elite, as China had a much shorter time than any other region to adapt to the new season before the Spring Season went live.
WE, like iG, were considered favorites at Demacia Cup. At the beginning of the 2014 season, however, it appeared almost as if WE didn't do anything to make plays in game because they didn't know what to do. They seemingly over-estimated the nerfs to early game gold income and tried to stall games without the necessary late game shot-calling to succeed.
Like iG, however, WE found their feet after IEM. They began to experiment, taking the only other game of the split from OMG. CaoMei debuted Annie top as a counter to Ryze, and it had a certain amount of success despite the eventual loss of the game. Like many Chinese junglers, Ruo picked up Pantheon to make sharper early to mid game counterplays. Conan abandoned initiating tanks and fell back on the squishier style of supports he had felt more comfortable with when he subbed for iG, but adapted to the meta by adding Vel'Koz and Morgana to his repertoire.
WeiXiao probably would have ended the split with the least deaths of any LPL player had WE not thrown caution to the wind in their last series against iG. Their all-or-nothing wombo combo composition in the first game and the early loss of jungle control because Ruo decided to whip out the Karthus in the second made WeiXiao rack up the deaths and concede his title to san from OMG.
Most importantly, suk1M learned to play Yasuo.
Will they or won't they?
World Elite falls short where they have fallen short since the dawn of the split; they cannot make late game calls. They don't simply make bad late game calls, they just don't make them. In one of their more troll-like matches against iG, they took a substantial early lead, but because they simply refused to engage after the thirty minute mark, they couldn't close out until much, much later. Part of this is an over-reliance on picking up Baron to make any plays. WE simply won't do anything without the buff, even with a 10k gold lead at their disposal.
Now, WE has made the front page of Reddit recently for acquiring a new Korean coach. Regardless of what kind of miracle-worker Hiro might profess to be, it's unlikely that WE's late game decision-making will fix itself in time for the playoffs. While WE has taken games from OMG in both IET and LPL, it's unlikely that they could defeat OMG in a best-of-three. Of course, the most likely situation where WE would face OMG would be if WE lost to EDG and OMG lost to iG, which isn't that far off-base. It's unlikely, however, that we'll see a final best-of-five series between OMG and WE.
EDG is good at abusing Baron dependency through vision denial, and they excel at the stall game more than any other team, so they can easily take games to the later stages where WE struggles. If WE and OMG do face each other, OMG will likely triumph for similar reasons, though they can handle WE's mid game better than EDG. If WE has iG to contend with in a third place game or the finals, WE is well-equipped to meet iG in the early game and control the mid game, forcing a lead that iG will struggle to close against until WE turns crucial initiations and wins games.
One thing that cannot be discounted on WE's side, however, is that their jobs may be on the line. According to reports, Hiro is inviting Korean players to try out for the team. WE's players might be more determined than ever to prove themselves, but their chances at this split's title are still relatively slim.
EDG is the most interesting team in the LPL playoffs, but not because they're strategically advanced or pulled upsets in LPL. In fact, they remained consistently second best throughout the split, and their strategy was one-dimensional. They lost early, but used excellent team fight coordination and Ziggs' stall potential to win the most important fight of the game, take a Baron and an inhibitor, and maybe even mow down the Nexus.
EDG is interesting because of their formation. Edward Gaming's management hand-picked players for not just individual skill but the potential for team synergy, and it's said that U and NaMei are currently the strongest carries in their roles in LPL.
Beyond that, members of EDG have had quite a bit of drama to contend with outside LPL. EDG's ClearLove and Fzzf, previous members of WE, have suffered abuse from fans because of the unsettled differences between themselves and their previous teammates. It's also rumored that these disagreements sabotaged potential plans for WE and EDG to merge their organizations and exist as sister teams.
Negative fan responses have also affected U, Koro, and NaMei by association, and when EDG started to stream silently earlier in the split, rumors arose that the team's management suggested they not speak to minimize negative responses from viewers. Then, when EDG played champions like Sejuani, Annie top, and AD carry Jayce against World Elite in the final set of LPL, some accused them of mocking their former teammates.
Since EDG 2-0'd OMG at the International Esports Tournament, and OMG lost at All Stars, some fans have changed their tune. It's suggested that Edward Gaming might now be the strongest Chinese team, despite their failure to win a single game against OMG during LPL's regular season.
Will they or won't they?
I think OMG is still stronger the Edward Gaming in terms of team cohesion and strategy. They understand the flow of the minions better, how to freeze, and how to set up the map to catch out over-zealous initiators. What's noteable about EDG, however, is that they managed to defeat OMG by exposing their most glaring weakness even before AllStars: xiyang's champion pool.
Before IET, few had actually considered the strategy of banning out xiyang. Part of this was because of the decline of mid lane talent this split. After Whitezz's and Misaya's retirement and Cool's temporary break, there were quite a few mid lane holes to fill, and some of the new talent was either too inexperienced or just not equipped. It might be possible that mid laners doubted their ability to defeat xiyang even on one of his weaker champions.
U, however, came in second place in MVP points this split, single-handedly winning games for EDG with well-timed Mega Inferno Bombs and stalling out base sieges. U had enough skill to best xiyang in a 1v1 if he didn't have his strongest champions, so EDG focused their bans on the mid lane and crippled OMG.
This strategy isn't complex, but no one in China had successfully pulled it off until IET. Edward Gaming can certainly replicate it, and if they meet OMG in the finals, they have a very high chance of taking the LPL playoffs. Overall, EDG isn't the stronger team in terms of strategy, but they've found a wound to jam a stick into, and they'd be remiss if they didn't do so again.
What would a preview be without mentioning the star of the show? OMG succeeds in LPL because they are by far the most creative team. In the vision game, only Edward Gaming is better at vision denial, and OMG has learned quite a few tricks from AllStars, which was noticeable in their semifinals game against Cloud 9.
Most of their players also know how to predict the opposing team's strategy and work around it. Gogoing can pressure an advantage if the jungler camps bottom, as LPL junglers often do, and OMG executes wave freezing strategies better than any other Chinese team.
As we saw at AllStars, OMG isn't a team of strategic gods on the international stage, but in LPL, they have brought out the widest variety of unique strategies, and san, Gogoing, and xiyang have all proven themselves capable of carrying games.
The rumor is that OMG is weaker in tournaments than in LPL, but the reality is that they place consistently higher in tournaments than their fellows, even if they don't always get first place. Other top LPL teams will get more fourth places or below, whereas OMG rarely places below third. In addition, though OMG has been on top in the past two LPL splits with very few games dropped, the second place team is usually only three or four losses behind them, so an instance where they could lose a playoff tournament to a second place LPL team doesn't automatically make them a bad tournament team.
What this means is that, With the exception of Xiyang's inexperience and shallow champion pool, OMG should easily win. Unfortunately, the best mids of LPL are also present in this tournament with Zzitain and U boasting broad champion pools and suk1M learning the ropes a bit faster than xiyang.
Will they or won't they?
So what options does OMG have? With Cool hinting that he's been courted by LSPL teams, OMG is pressured to make a decision about whether to pick up him or xiyang for the Summer Split. There's a possibility that we could see him in the playoffs, but the possibility is slight. Then, even if we did, there's no telling if he'd be in top form in time (read: Lee Sin play on Team Ice isn't a true indicator of performance).
Xiyang is probably the better bet for the playoffs, and he may have had a bit of time to try to adapt to jungle pressure and pick up at least one more champion before playoffs. OMG has the best chance if they adopt a strategy from earlier in the split by forcing xiyang to ward his own lane and play safe while they focus on ramping up san. This will make games longer and more subject to other variables, but it's their ticket to a win, even against heavy weight AD carries like NaMei. Then, if the game goes to blind pick, OMG has a very strong advantage if xiyang locks in Syndra.
As the best team, OMG should win LPL playoffs, but will they? I give them only 55% odds.