Challenger Series winners Gold Coin United narrowly missed out on qualifying for the 2017 NA LCS Summer Split, falling 3-2 to both Team Liquid and Team EnVyUs in the Promotion Tournament. While they failed to qualify for the NA LCS, GCU proved that the gap between the bottom LCS teams and the top Challenger teams is closing. With the success of multiple teams and players coming from the challenger scene, we can only expect increased growth and importance for the NACS in the future.
Gold Coin United came very close to continuing the trend of Challenger teams earning promotion to the LCS each split, and their tournament started off with a very strong 3-1 victory over LCS incumbent Team EnVyUs. With a roster composed of five players who had all started at one time in the LCS or LCK, Gold Coin United brought a veteran roster to the table that very much mirrored the approach of FlyQuest (formerly Cloud9 Challenger) the season before. The experience and talent that had secured them a 3-1 victory in the NACS Finals would have an opportunity to reclaim a place in the LCS in their next series against Team Liquid.
With a spot in the LCS on the line, GCU was able to shake off a rough start and storm back to force a deciding game five against Team Liquid. In the final match, the most consistent and highest performing member, Kim “FeniX” Jae-hun, was outclassed by his former teammate and newly minted mid laner Chae “Piglet” Gwang-jin. More concerning, was the complete dominance of Team Liquid jungler Kim “Reignover” Yeu-jin over GCU’s Lucas “Santorin” Larsen throughout the entire series. In a league loaded with jungle talent, it was clear Santorin would not be able to keep compete.
This conclusion was further solidified in the decider series, where GCU found themselves facing Team EnVyUs once again. Team EnVyUs jungler Nam “Lira” Tae-yoo would carry his team back to their spot in the LCS, while Santorin once again looked helpless to stop him. Despite the struggles of Santorin, GCU would find themselves within one win of a spot in the LCS, only to fall for a second time.
Although they failed to qualify, the slim margin by which Team Liquid and EnVyUs had been able to retain their spot (GCU actually had a 5-4 record against EnVyUs for the tournament) proved that there are still talented teams in the NACS who could compete with those in the LCS.
The fact that both of the teams from the LCS retained their spot was a historical anomaly. For the first time since 2013, at least one of the Challenger teams had not ascended in to the LCS. This is a testament to the strength of the Challenger scene over the past few years, and how we should expect that trend to continue in the future.
This is the first time in NA since the 2013 Summer split that the LCS teams sent to the Promotion Tournament won their matches & places back
— Aidan 'Zirene' Moon (@LoLZirene) April 3, 2017
Outside of their close finish in the promotion tournament, GCU exhibited other traits which showed the growth and value of the NACS. With significant financial backing behind them, GCU was the most developed independent organization in the NACS we may have ever seen. They had a full support staff for their team, including former Team SoloMid and Team Liquid coach Choi “Locodoco” Yoon-sub, as well as their own house and substitute players. As investment continues to flood eSports and professional League of Legends, we can only expect the professionalization and growth of the Challenger scene to continue with more teams such as GCU.
If you remove the five players from the former Cloud9 Challenger roster who were promoted into the LCS, there are still six other players that finished the season on a NACS roster that played in the LCS this split. The NACS has always been a breeding ground for talent in NA, and has allowed many players who were too young or needed more time to develop, a place to play competitively until they received an opportunity at the next level. GCU themselves could see some of their roster make the jump to the LCS, with a return of FeniX to Team Liquid as just one possibility.
Over time, we should continue to see the continued evolution of the NACS from a league with just a few top teams to one filled with professional organizations and investment. If the LCS does eventually move towards a franchising model, we could see a league filled with organizations similar to Delta Fox and Team Liquid Academy, sister teams that are there to develop signed talent and pressure starting rosters. Either way, the quality of the games and the organizations should only improve over time, a much-needed development for the long term success of the LCS and the professional League of Legends scene.