Riot Games’ League of Legends World Championships are entering the home stretch. Weeks of competition and anticipation have finally delivered the final eight contenders for the Summoner’s Cup, but few teams have gotten there without a scratch. While phase one was the Samsung Galaxy White show, phase two was a backyard brawl. So who claimed victory and whose tail is between their legs after the second set of groups?
Cloud9: If any team has ridden the roller coaster this season, it’s North America’s Cloud9. The perennial NA LCS champions uncharacteristically faltered in their home league table before ascending the ranks once more. Looking on point at the end of the season, the team then finished second for the first time ever to NA rivals Team SoloMid.
This string of luck continued in the World Championship group stages. After coming out blazing against Europe’s Alliance and Brazil’s Kabum!, the team fell to Korea’s Najin White Shield and then Alliance in the rematch. With their fate out of Cloud9’s hands, Alliance logged a mind-blowing loss to the Brazilians, opening the way for a Cloud9 victory over White Shield, landing them the first win for a North American team against Koreans in two years, forcing a first place tie breaker, and qualifying them for the knockout rounds.
Long story short: Cloud9 has been up and down throughout this season, but they’re on an upswing headed into the deciding matches. Guerilla warfare tactics and some truly crafty rotations nearly won them a lost game against Najin White Shield in the tiebreaker, and consistent performances in the group speak well to their form going forward. They will need strong contributions from mid-laner Hai “Hai” Lam and Will “Meteos” Hartman if they’re to upset the Korean favorites. But if any NA team can do it, it’ll be the boys in teal.
China: In the power-rankings of esports regions, China has long been considered the runner-up to Korea. However, as fans took in the Chinese League of Legends Pro League qualifiers, the doubters were out in full force. Among the criticisms were the the “sloppy” play and “overly-aggressive” dives supposedly common to the region, which would undo its teams against the world’s best.
What unfolded in Group C, however, was a case study in “I told you so.” Worlds semifinalists OMG started slow in their group, logging an unexpected loss to LMQ and falling predictably to the favorites, Samsung Galaxy Blue, but the Chinese team would pick themselves up quickly. Growing stronger over each day of competition, they secured two wins against Europe’s Fnatic and sealed their ticket to the knockout stages by taking revenge over LMQ.
It’s difficult to say whether their performances will be enough to assail Najin White Shield in their first-round matchup. What’s clear is that China’s legacy is safe for now. With all three members of the region making it to the round of eight, and OMG demonstrating remarkable poise in the “group of death,” the teams will be eying the championship, while those who doubted their strength fill up on crow.
Parity: If you’re a fan of a specific team during at this year’s Worlds, your perspective will vary wildly. European devotees are likely eyeing the message boards for the latest in hirings and firings, while Korean fans lambast their heavyweights for not being 100 percent perfect in every facet of the game at all times.
From an objective standpoint, however, phase two was one to remember. Fnatic took down the Korean juggernauts, LMQ beat their former Chinese league-mates OMG, and Brazil, of all the regions in the world, denied Alliance a trip to the round of eight.
The fact is, parity is alive and well in the League of Legends world. Even if Korea finishes on top, China finishes second, and North America finishes third, the skill gap between the top teams is closer than ever. Lanes between world-class competitors would swing on a single missed skillshot and games were literally decided by a single hit. If that magic continues in the knockout rounds, the Season Four World Championships could easily be remembered as the most competitive and entertaining to date.
Europe: While North America, China, and Korea prepare themselves for epic round one showdowns, Europe is quiet. Despite sending three strong contenders to Worlds, the plane tickets are booked, the contract talks are under way, and the fans are left wondering “what if?”
It’s unfair to say that the Worlds results are an indication of Europe’s global strength. SK Gaming’s jungler, Dennis “Svenskeren” Johnsen effectively removed them from contention when his lack of maturity won out over his better judgement. Alliance’s loss to Kabum! is the stuff of legend, equal parts miscue from the Europeans and brilliance from the Brazilians. Fnatic were always going to have a tough trek out of the “group of death,” and a surprise loss at the hands of LMQ did them no favors.
Qualifiers aside, the hard reality is that not a single European team advanced to the knockout rounds. Plagued by inconsistency and sometimes overly-emotional play, the region that could arguably be considered third in the world is now watching their usurpers from home. What’s next for the region is hard to say. A few months of wound-licking was certainly not on the docket when the hopefuls departed for southeast Asia, however.
Backdoor strategies: For those unfamiliar with the term, “backdooring” in League of Legends is the strategy of waiting until your opponents leave their base, and then sneaking in to destroy their nexus, the primary objective for victory, before they can return to defend it. It’s a desperate, often heroic play— when it works.
The problem is that it’s risky. By sacrificing yourself in an attempt to gain a permanent victory against strong teams, you’re effectively surrendering the game if you don’t succeed. Just ask Fnatic. They were one attack away from ending a game on a backdoor play, and instead were effectively removed from the knockout rounds when their opponents wiped them out and secured the win.
With world-class teams putting in world-class quantities of practice, beating an opponent on a fluke is a tall order at best. Cloud9 tried the same thing in their tie breaker match after they gave up enough kills and gold to their opponents that any conventional means of victory were taken off the table. Facing off against the best in the world takes poise and flawless play, and exciting as it may be, the miracle plays that delight fans and make the improbable possible are best left at home when prowess wins out 99.9 percent of the time.
Sleep schedules: There are few times in my life when I’ve set an alarm for a 1am and considered it a rational decision, but that’s what Worlds does to you. The southeast Asian location is prime for Chinese and Korean teams that comprise the bulk of the round of eight competitors, but when breakfast becomes the new dinner, it’s safe to say that Worlds fever has taken hold. Congratulations to Riot Games for single-handedly ruining the productivity of the entire Western world, and giving us some fantastic memories in the process.
As teams gear up for the final push to the Summoner’s Cup, safe money rests with a Korea vs China final. On the other hand, the unpredictability of esports is why these young competitors play the game. The phrase “anything can happen” is a cliché run so ragged by the sports world that it’s due for retirement any day now. Instead, I’ll go with the more conventional, “something will happen,” and when it does, make sure to have your eyes on the monitor, whether you’re burning the midnight oil or making your morning coffee.