The North American League of Legends Championship Series has been under heavy community criticism since no NA team made it out of the 2019 worlds group stage. Every offseason trade, roster announcement and amateur tournament has been accompanied by significant scrutiny and social media discourse. The current impression of the LCS is that it's filled almost top to bottom with mediocrity.
At the center of this discussion is Golden Guardians' new roster, which many preseason power rankings and online community discourse have pegged as the LCS' worst team.
The most recent team to earn this distinction was the 2019 spring FlyQuest lineup. That roster made spring playoffs and finished fourth overall.
"I think the region will be a bit of a mess again this year," Golden Guardians head coach Nicholas "Inero" Smith said. "Honestly, I love the position we're in where everyone thinks we're 10th. That's the universal perception. If someone doesn't put GGS 10th, people immediately in the replies will be like, 'Have you seen GGS' roster? GGS are 10th. How can you say this?' I love that s---."
"Everyone has a lot of potential, but since we haven't started scrimming, it's hard to tell where we'll end up or how good we'll be," jungler Can "Closer" Çelik said. "But I feel like we will not be a last-place team, for sure."
Closer, who made a splash at the most recent world championship play-in stage while on Royal Youth, was one of Golden Guardians' more surprising offseason announcements. Most thought he would promote onto a League of Legends European Championship team, but he went with Golden Guardians instead.
"I heard some pros saying in EU that if you're not going to play for a top-tier team, then it doesn't really make sense to play in that region," Closer said. "And I think there's a really big gap in EU between top-tier teams and lower-tier teams, so I didn't see much potential to go top-three in my offers, so I preferred to come here."
"I don't think it's going to be hard [for Closer] at all," Inero said. "One of the reasons I jumped on him almost as soon as I spoke to him was that I could tell this guy was not going to be an issue fitting in with the rest of the team. Usually when you're bringing someone from Korea or from Europe, there is that level of culture shock where the way you interact as a teammate is different, and as Americans, we have some stuff that we don't handle well when we talk to people. That's something I try to be aware of. Closer is a super open, super friendly guy. He's always trying to grind the game and get better."
Golden Guardians kicked off their offseason by announcing that Greyson "Goldenglue" Gilmer would be their starting mid laner. Going into the 2020 season, he will be the only native North American player starting in the mid lane.
"The funny thing is that now there are some rumors that Broxah's visa is not going through, so Pobelter might be playing jungle," Goldenglue said, laughing. "Would I still be the only NA mid if Pobelter is playing jungle? That's what I've been asking myself. Jokes aside, I think it's super cool that I've been given this opportunity."
The first offseason meeting that Goldenglue took was with Golden Guardians, who have made it clear that he's one of the players they want to build their new lineup around, along with top laner Kevin "Hauntzer" Yarnell, who remained on the lineup from the previous year.
"There is some pressure along with it because the success of the team is a bit on my shoulders," Goldenglue said. "It's not solely on my shoulders, but I do feel a responsibility for it. There's some pressure and nerves and anxiety with that, but it's also really exciting to be back and playing."
"I was happy to move up with someone like Greyson because we spent most of the year scrimming against these teams. I got to see how Palafox played against Goldenglue or how Hard played against Blaber and people like that," said Inero, who was previously Golden Guardians' Academy head coach. "After we got to see these kinds of comparisons and got to see how well our team played against LCS teams in scrims, I realized that the gap between a lot of the LCS and Academy is not nearly as big as people think."
The other, most contentious roster pickup that Golden Guardians made was moving Yuri "Keith" Jew up from their academy lineup as a support rather than an AD carry. According to Inero, this was more conducive to Choi "Huhi" Jae-hyun's growth as a role-swapped mid to support and the growth of young AD carry Victor "FBI" Huang. Inero said Keith, as a former AD carry, has an innately stronger understanding of bot lane due to his former role, and both he and Huhi will develop into stronger players for the swap.
"I know public perception. Everyone thinks it's awful, they think that it's not actually growing young talent or anything, but it's a young roster," Inero said. "I don't want to throw someone in there that's young and doesn't have the ability yet to play in the LCS. If you look at supports from solo queue, that is what you see. I think it's one of our weakest roles overall. It's a position that we need more people role-swapping into."
"I'd rather try something new," Inero said. "If it doesn't work, that's cool. I'd rather accept responsibility for that."
Golden Guardians start scrimming this week in preparation for the upcoming LCS season. Their underdog status hasn't dampened their spirits. If anything, it will allow them to play more loosely, with less pressure.
"So far, from my impressions of all of us as players, we're all really good mechanically, but we're all pretty dumb." Goldenglue said. "When I'm playing solo queue with these guys, I'm like, 'Wow, we're really skilled, but we don't make great decisions, so we should really work on that.' So working on creating a good foundation, a good base of how to play the game, macro-decision-wise, will really be the perfect case scenario for us."
"Being in the position of the underdog team is so exciting," Inero said. "I know none of our guys remotely feel like we're a 10th-place team. I'm happy to go in with that, and I feel like we're honestly in a pretty good spot. I think a lot of that is because most people have not seen how these Academy teams do against LCS teams in general. Most of the people making comments don't watch the Academy league."