Worlds 2021 has been a fun event filled with many different surprises, yet eastern teams have continued to dominate for yet another year, eliminating all western teams by the quarterfinals. One area the East definitely is a level above in is their top laners.
It didn’t look hopeless from the start. There were young and hungry talents like Ibrahim "Fudge" Allami, Adam "Adam" Maanane, and İrfan "Armut" Tükek ready to continue improving in some of their first international competitions. Veterans like Andrei "Odoamne" Pascu and Barney "Alphari" Morris still looked strong. Perhaps this was the year western top could start to close the gap.
It hasn’t happened. While the western tops are still on a good level, they don’t compare to their eastern counterparts. While western top laners can be serviceable if given a favorable matchup, giving an eastern top laner the same matchup will almost always allow them to dominate their lane. Eastern top laners are winning all relevant statistics as well as the westerners there are scarce, never more than a couple in the top 10 of a stat.
Top lane is brutal
Part of this may just be a matter of talent — the eastern top laners are more cultivated and technically sound. But at the same time, they’ve been able to do this in a role that is considered by most westerners to be brutal and unforgiving. For a role like the mid lane, the eastern dominance makes sense. The map plays a lot around the mid lane so mega talents like Heo "ShowMaker" Su or Jeong "Chovy" Ji-hoon are put in an excellent position to succeed, overcome deficits, and carry.
For the top lane, even the best player in the world still eats all the garbage that comes with playing the position. They have to deal with being near the end of pick orders in drafts. Their mistakes are punished a lot harder than any other role. And if set behind, they don’t have the same alternate opportunities other positions have (support roaming with jungler, mid lane roaming to bot lane, etc.). Despite all of that, the great eastern top laners still make do.
Why can’t the western players? It’s not how western players approach the top lane, and more how western teams do.
Problem #1: Vision
Inven Global approached Odoamne on what the East’s top laners do differently. One point of interest was the fact that eastern top laners are given way more options. “[...] It feels like when you play against eastern tops, they have an opportunity on every single wave. But when you play against western tops, it feels like they have opportunities [...] once every couple of minutes. I feel like that mentality is kind of the main thing that holds western top laners back.”
How do Eastern top laners get so many opportunities to make plays and snowball the game? Odoamne saw three main reasons, the first being vision.
“I feel like there is also the problem when you try to gauge the lane prowess of western versus eastern top laners. I feel like the eastern ones use their team really well to provide vision. For example, today and yesterday [Oct. 12-13], when I played versus FPX and DWG, especially today, they just have two Pink Wards that they use really aggressively. And eastern players never give up the pressure, they just keep pressuring you forever.”
This is not an example unique to Odoamne. Looking at statistics for Worlds 2021, eastern teams invest in warding at a much higher rate. While western top laners on average have a higher average WPM (wards placed per minute), eastern mid laners and junglers dominate their western peers in this statistic. Not only are western tops forced to spend more gold on wards, they don’t receive the same coverage to play aggressively that their eastern friends do.
It’s not only the amount of wards that eastern teams purchase — their placement is courageous.
Notice here that when ShowMaker and Canyon roam to the top lane, DK immediately places a Pink Ward in Odoamne’s Tribrush. All the defensive measures he took are now for naught, as Khan has almost full reign to push as much as possible, while Odoamne must be hesitant to even defend his lane. Spoiler: Khan destroys him.
This not only affects the top laner, but the rest of the team. In this game with Gen.G and Cloud9, Rascal can be seen clearing a wave and also warding up to his opponent’s Tribrush, while Fudge places a humble pit ward.
From there that ward has great vision on Fudge’s whereabouts, that Gen.G is able to set up an easy Rift Herald. While Fudge placing a ward in the pit only helped him react to potential plays, Rascal’s gave Gen.G a strong overall advantage.
Problem #2: Top-jungle synergy
It’s not just the western junglers’ lack of wards holding their top laner back either. In the West, the entire top-jungle relationship follows the jungler. In eastern teams, the top laner is given a lot more support, Odoamne states:
“Whenever the lane becomes volatile, they call the jungler and the jungler skips camps. Whereas for western top laners, the mentality is usually like... you play it from your jungler's standpoint. You make plays when the timing is correct for him, not the other way around. So I feel like that's one of the reasons why western tops struggle against the really really good eastern tops.”
This game between T1 and 100 Thieves is a prime example. As Oner is clearing the Razorbeak camp, he’s in a good position to finish his route with Krugs. Instead, he rushes over to Canna to try to make a play. It doesn’t work. He wasted time when he could’ve gotten himself a guaranteed camp clear. That’s what the eastern teams do right — the fact that he helps his top laner over himself, even if it turns out to not be 100% successful.
This also is accurate statistically, with western junglers actually having many of the top positions in average CSPM (CS per minute) and EGPM (earned gold per minute) over the course of the tournament. At the same time, western top laners made up the majority of bottom-ranked positions in KDA, CSPM, and EGPM. As the western jungler freely farms up, their top laner is forced to twiddle their thumbs, never knowing when help will be on the way.
Problem #3: Experience and confidence
The final point worth considering is experience in playing a more confident playstyle. While western top laners sometimes put on a good amount of pressure, it’s not nearly to the extent that eastern top laners do. Odoamne explained:
"I feel like the prowess is there, but I feel like we're not used to walking that fine line between keeping pressure up forever and expecting those small timers to not die to an enemy jungler gank. And I think that's what eastern top laners do and that's why, whenever they play winning matchups, they win them really hard; but also when they play losing matchups, they tend to kind of still play aggressively and try to win the matchup, even though they cannot.
"So that's why you would see them sometimes in some specific matchups because they try to play for the win even though they can't. So I feel like they're really really good at abusing winning matchups, but not so good at playing losing matchups."
Even still, considering how important champion pool depth is to the current meta (because of the value of having safe blind picks and counters), this is yet another area where eastern teams are ahead. Of all the players in the LCS and LEC, the highest number of champions played by a top laner was 13 for three players. In the LPL, seven players played 13 champions. Four played 14. Two played 15. One played 16. Obviously part of this has to do with the greater amount of teams and games that those leagues have access to. Still, the support these top laners get from their teams is a factor.
When Inven Global approached analyst Alberto "Crumbz" Rengifo about his opinions of the top gap, he stated:
“With more support for this role, players are picking more volatile matchups, trusting in their team to back them up through the lane. In turn, this expands champion pools, teaches how to dominate the laning phase, and to push more advantages from given resources. These skills are fundamental to League. And thus you end with top laners that are better generalists with wider champion pools, simply better.”
Though there hasn’t been much public discussion about top lane philosophy from eastern players, the few times it has been mentioned confirm the idea that their top laners take a more aggressive approach. Most notably, former-World Champion Song "Rookie" Eui-jin recently stated on a stream, “There should be at least one player who is brave on your team, and that player needs to be the top laner. Other lanes can play safe, top lane can't.”
While Western top laners may not be of the individual skill as the best Eastern ones, there’s plenty that can be done to lift them up closer to their level. If teams put them in a better position to succeed, perhaps the dominance Eastern teams have shown in this position for so long will not be as strong. Perhaps they will gain the confidence to be the brave player their team’s need. Like Odoamne has said, the prowess is there. Will their teammates let them shine?
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