Welcome to my 2018 NA LCS Spring Split Preview Series! I’ll be releasing my thoughts on each team during the 10 days before the season opener on Saturday, January 20th.
Now, Daryl Morey brings his analytics to League of Legends: Clutch Gaming
“How is that a sport?”
Most esports fans have, at some point, encountered this question, be it from a loved one or complete stranger. Sometimes asked with malice, other times out of genuine curiosity, always with incredulity, the question itself speaks to the gulf in understanding between esports supporters and the wider population. For many, groups of pale nerds playing video games behind a computer screen doesn’t fit their definition of sport, a physically active endeavor performed by large, muscled athletes.
Esports as a whole lacks a consistent response for this question, but the community could do worse than simply reuse Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey’s answer. In an interview last year with ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz, Morey admitted that he believed esports was one of the three sports (along with basketball and soccer) that would dominate the future. Surprised, Arnovitz asked Morey the question: Are esports really sports?
“You tell me your definition of ‘sport’ and I’ll tell you if it fits it,” Morey shot back.
For Morey, esports have long been the sports of tomorrow, and said as much at the MIT Sloane Analytics Conference in 2012. One of the premier students of the analytics movement that has cascaded over traditional sports, Morey thinks in data and statistics, and when all available indicators show a meteoric rise in esports fan engagement, he pays attention. He draws equally from personal anecdotes about his son’s fascination with Minecraft “Let’s Plays” to the ever-increasing prize pools and viewership at marquee esport events like The International. It’s multiple-level analysis that, when taken to its logical endpoint, paints a picture of sporting future with esports dead center.
Morey was quick to explore his interest in esports, but slow to fully commit. He hired Sebastian Park—former owner of the Hearthstone team Archon—to head the Houston Rocket’s esports division in 2016, spending significant time gathering and assessing information before making a decision. If they were going to enter the scene, how should they approach it? Which game should be their starting point?
“We looked at a lot of different games,” said Park in an interview with theScore esports. “I love Hearthstone, I love DOTA 2, I think Overwatch is a great game, Counter-Strike is a ton of fun to watch and play…We looked at all the opportunities, but it was clear from Day 1 that League of Legends is just in a class of its own. Even as leagues pop up around other games, they aren’t quite at the level of League of Legends.”
Morey and Park’s application for a franchise slot in the NA LCS was accepted, with Clutch Gaming—named after the “Clutch City” moniker adopted by the 1993-1994 NBA champion Houston Rockets—becoming the third NBA-backed entrant. Riot’s introduction of Clutch Gaming indicated that Morey’s team would bring his data-driven approach from basketball to League of Legends, helping pioneer new statistical ways to break down the game. The claim made sense considering the choices Morey has made in the NBA, using data to identify the most efficient style of play and acquiring players who suited that direction.
But can a game as complex and fluid as League of Legends ever yield a set of predictive statistics that teams can use to gain an advantage?
Statistics in traditional sports have value in their longevity; the game played today is very similar to the game played 20 years ago, yielding a massive sample size to parse. But League stats are heavily influenced by the patches they are played within, and the resource allocation choices each individual team makes during the game. You cannot recreate League of Legends matches by only utilizing the box score, as you can in most traditional sports.
“It’s frustrating, because in the NBA, we feel like we have a good handle on ‘Do X-Y-Z and execute this plan’ and that will win,” Morey told Travis Gafford at Scouting Grounds 2017 (he was the only NBA executive there). “With esports, [Park] and his team have done a ton of work to develop a model of how we want to run, how we want to use data, how we want to have great coaching, but the reality is we don’t know. We’ve just got a great, really well-informed hypothesis on how we want to run things, and we’re gonna have to see how it works. I promise you, in a year we’re going to feel like we didn’t know anything right now.”
Clutch Gaming’s attempt to test their well-informed hypothesis has already borne public fruit, but longer-term projects like their large scouting network will take years to mature. In the absence of tested scouting practices or statistical models, Morey and Park seemingly used an approach to build their 2018 roster that even an ignorant smartass like me could have suggested: Hey, Team EnVyUs looked pretty good at the end of Summer 2017, let’s just buy their best free agents and make Envy 2.0!
It wasn’t the worst idea. Envy made the playoffs in Summer 2017 and nearly beat Counter Logic Gaming in a tense five-game quarterfinal. Three starters from that sixth-place squad now make up the core of Clutch Gaming: Jungler Nam “LirA” Tae-yoo, AD carry Apollo “Apollo” Price, and support Nickolas “Hakuho” Surgent.
One of the best junglers North America has ever seen—and, the way Apollo tells it, a valuable coach —LirA brings incredible individual talent to Clutch Gaming. You could dedicate entire videos to his pathing and still miss a few intricacies, but it’s the end result (farm advantage and early lane pressure) that matters. To achieve these outcomes, LirA favors an aggressive counter-jungling style with high-damage champions like Elise, Rek’Sai, Lee Sin, and Nidalee, perfect for a Season 8 meta that will again allow for carry junglers. LirA’s experience, reputation, and mechanical skill outstrip most of his NA LCS competition; the only reason he’s been kept from postseason success is that the team around him never quite measured up.
One segment of the old Envy roster that did often rise to LirA’s level (at least in Summer 2017) was Apollo and Hakuho’s bot lane. Few other teams came close to equaling their early game success, averaging the highest GD@10 (140.5) of any bot lane duo last split (the next highest was 110 by Dignitas’ Johnny “Altec” Ru and Adrian “Adrian” Ma). But the early game was always an Envy specialty; what changed last fall was their ability to translate those early leads into victories. The transition was aided in large part due to Apollo and Hakuho’s improved teamfighting and macro decision-making, creating clean objective takes (like Baron) that helped secure wins. If they can build on their growth in Summer 2017, Apollo and Hakuho have a chance to be the best NA bot lane in NA LCS.
Claiming Envy’s core alone was enough to paint Clutch Gaming into the playoff picture, but their acquisition of H2K mid laner Fabian “Febiven” Diepstraten all but ensured it. His two years on Fnatic produced arguably the strongest EU squad the region had ever seen, highlighted by an otherworldly Season 5 that ended at the Worlds semifinals. Much like his new bot lane, Febiven excels in lane, posting a league-best +4.6 CSD@10 and 9.1 CSM overall. He trades like-for-like junglers in his move across the pond, as Marcin “Jankos” Jankowski shares a similar style with LirA. That synergy has the scariest early game potential in the league, and when combined with an already lane-dominant bot lane, Clutch Gaming will manufacture plenty of early leads.
With so much proven talent surrounding him, Colin “Solo” Earnest just needs to stand tall and tanky in the top lane. Solo has finally earned the NA LCS starting role he’s been working towards since 2014, spending years in the Challenger Series to do so (his brief substitute appearances for Echo Fox in Spring 2016 notwithstanding). He came close in Season 7 as the top laner for Gold Coin United, but was eliminated in two consecutive promotion tournaments. Solo will have to adopt new comfort picks as Renekton and Rumble aren’t quite meta anymore, but help from Lira, and a support staff who believe he belongs in NA LCS, should smooth out the adjustment period. Expect to see Solo on a lot of tanks come the regular season; his team isn’t exactly bereft of carry potential.
Given the tendencies of the players Morey and Park have assembled, it’s not a stretch to guess their strategy: Win the early game and build from there. Clutch Gaming has a roster to accomplish this, but their larger goal, to discover a better way to play League of Legends and develop talent through statistical modeling, remains an open question. The answer hinges on Morey’s belief that esports is like any other traditional sport, explainable through the same analytical methods he’s championed for years. We just don’t know the right equations yet.
Can esports really be a sport? Well, let me show you the data…
Clutch Gaming Academy Roster:
Top: Maxime “Maxtrobo” Delangis-Gallichand
Jungle: Galen “Moon” Holgate
Mid: Josh “Sun” Cook
AD Carry: Chae “Piglet” Gwang-jin
Support: Philippe “Vulcan” Laflamme
Coach: Brendan “mcscrag” McGee
Next, a closer look at…North America’s greatest team?