Once upon a time, the Koreans barreled their way into the competitive League of Legends scene. Their superiority in both mechanical and strategic play put them ahead of the curve and they have maintained their lead ever since, but not without a few blips along the way.
Fnatic’s performance in the MSI semi-finals was one for the record books – literally. A western team pushed a top Korean team to the deciding match in a best-of-5 series. Only one other Western team in the history of competitive League of Legends shares this accomplishment.
The first and only Western teams to take meaningful wins off of serious Eastern competition were the top European teams of 2012: Moscow Five and Counter Logic Gaming: Europe. An argument could be made that the Fnatic of 2012 could have produced similar international results, but the only contextual data we have are their 1-2 losses to both Azubu Blaze and SK Telecom T1 in late-2012/early-2013.
IN THE RED CORNER, RUSSIAN OVERLORDS MOSCOW FIVE!
The legendary Moscow Five, consisting of Alex Ich, Diamondprox, Genja, Gosu Pepper, and Darien, were arguably the best team in the world during their prime. In 2012, their online performances were inconsistent at best, but a certain distinction must be made between online tournament M5 and post-boot-camp offline tournament M5. After a few days of non-stop practice before major LAN events, known as the infamous M5 boot-camps, they typically dominated any team in their path.
One of the most notable events for the Russian team, after being re-branded as Gambit Gaming before the 2013 season, was IEM Season VII: Global Challenge Katowice. This tournament ended with Gambit sweeping Azubu’s Frost and Blaze consecutively. For many, this earned them the title of world’s best League of Legends team.
Counter Logic Gaming: Europe, aka Froggen and crew
For many League of Legends fans, M5?s reign completely over-shadowed CLG.EU’s run in 2012. However, CLG.EU was the only Western team to take down M5 in a major offline tournament.
In Summer of 2012, CLG.EU traveled to Korea to compete in Azubu’s international invitational. After sweeping their group, CLG.EU swept the top Chinese team World Elite 2-0 in the quarter-finals. Then they took down Korean favorites Najin Sword 3-1 in the semi-finals, making Counter Logic Gaming: Europe the first and only Western team to take down a Korean team in a best-of-5 series.
In the other side of the bracket, Azubu’s Frost and Blaze met in what many assumed would be the true Finals. Frost pulled out a win in the final blind-pick match and earned the right to represent Korea against CLG.EU, a Western team that legitimately challenged them on their own playing field.
CLG.EU opened the series strong with two wins, and for most of the third game it looked like they would sweep the Korean team 3-0. After a catastrophic turn of in-game events, CLG.EU lost game 3 and seemed to go on tilt (particularly Wickd) for the rest of the series, resulting in a 2-3 loss for the European hopefuls. In the end, this meant they were the only non-Korean team in the top 4 of a tournament that included all of the best Korean teams and the best team from the Chinese and North American regions.
I do not believe anyone would argue that CLG.EU was a better team than M5, but CLG.EU managed similar accomplishments almost purely on the back of Froggen’s drastically disproportionate impact in their games. It would be a crime to fail to mention that CLG.EU, when against the best teams in the world, was almost always outmatched in every role except one – mid. Froggen’s carry potential, late-game decision making, and insane team-fighting stood above and beyond any other League of Legends player. In other words, Froggen was the best player in the world during his prime.
Oh, and let’s not forget who held the 3rd/4th spots at the Season 2 World Championship: M5 and CLG.EU, two European teams who were strong enough to have faced each other in the finals.
The fall of Western relevance
Since the Summer of 2013, the argument of East vs West has been heavily one-sided. The tone of these discussions shifted continuously until every major analyst acknowledged the East’s dominance.
Two years of competitive League have come and gone, and there has been only a handful of relevant results to discuss.
-Season 3 World Championship had only 3 western teams finish top 8. Fnatic finished 3rd/4th, but only because they had been matched against another Western team in the quarter-finals.
-Season 4 World Championship had a few contradictory results. For instance, both C9 and TSM were beaten 3-1 by the Samsung teams in the quarter-finals, but TSM had their asses served to them on a silver platter while C9 was challenging their opponent every step of the way. I don’t think any sensible fan would argue that TSM was better than C9 on the international stage – then, now, or ever. (Sorry TSM fans, but I don’t think their streak of smashing NA only to be smashed outside of NA will ever be broken.) Not to mention that the EU teams, who all showed a higher skill-ceiling as a team relative to their NA counterparts, were so inconsistent (or offensive – damn you Sven) that not a single European team made it past the group-stages.
North America – destined to fail
In the history of League of Legends, there have only been two North American teams to show up against international competition: Counter Logic Gaming: North America, when the Doublelift/Chauster bot lane was regarded as a contender for the title of best bot lane in the world; and Cloud 9, when their mid-game strategic play and shot-calling enabled them to challenge teams with far superior mechanics. Still, neither team ever did better than taking a single game off of a serious Eastern team.
TSM’s more and less recent results have always been the same – smash the local competition using strengths and strategies that would inevitably fail on the world stage and then proceed to fail on the world stage. They have decided to stick with their current roster and coaching staff and I think, given their goal of winning a world championship, this is a failure on their part. It is my belief that their current roster either already has or will soon peak. They have shown off their skill ceiling numerous times and it is clear that, even on the best of days, they can not handle serious international competition. If you ask me, what TSM needs is a Forg1ven-esque AD carry and a coaching/analyst staff that doesn’t encourage them to continue their 4v5/abandon Dyrus strategy, and maybe much, much more.
I consider Cloud 9 truly great for a Western team and I hope they learned enough about the game with Hai in their comms that their greatest strength, shot-calling, won’t fall utterly to the wayside. Liquid, Impulse, and Counter Logic Gaming are also promising teams and, potentially, candidates for the #1 spot in North America. Unfortunately, I still believe only C9?s skill-ceiling is high enough to challenge top international competition – including the current best European teams.
EU LCS: a Western fan’s last hope
The EU LCS hasn’t looked this good in two years. No one could have guessed that their disappointing showing at the last world championship, followed by two brand new teams finishing 2nd and 3rd in the Spring Playoffs and several roster moves along the way would have resulted in a positive outcome for the home of the former powerhouses M5 and CLG.EU, but it did. I contend that seven of the ten teams participating in the EU LCS Summer Split are capable of finishing at least 3rd in the EU Summer Playoffs.
Fnatic. First and foremost, this new Fnatic line-up is something to behold. A powerhouse of a Western team despite one clear and evident weakness that was resolved beautifully in the off-season with the return of Rekkles over Steelback. This team squeaked their way out of the round-robin at MSI with a dominant game over TSM and a surprisingly competitive game against SKT. They then proceeded to show off their impressive skill-ceiling with their powerful performance against SKT in the semi-finals, one of the best teams in the world. Yes, this could be their best performance ever and it is possible we might never see such a performance from a Western team again, but let’s not forget this performance was followed immediately by a roster move that was undeniably an upgrade in every possible way.
H2K. I consider Fnatic to be far and away the best Western team at the moment, but my next assertion is one that would certainly piss off a lot of NA fanboys: H2K, at the end of the 2015 Spring Split, was the second best Western team, second only to Fnatic. Not only that, but they have made numerous strides forward as a team without any steps back. Improvement after improvement after improvement, and they only keep improving.
Origen. Origen will have to prove themselves as a unit, but they are certainly strong enough to do so. Four of the five players have participated in at least one world championship. xPeke’s combination of longevity and success as a professional player is simply unmatched, and the solo lane synergy between him and s0az can’t go unmentioned.
Elements. Froggen’s Alliance is still the only team to take an EU LCS title from Fnatic, and the only Western team to ever win a perfect game against a top Korean team, but the acquisition of Rekkles over Tabzz as they re-branded to Elements proved disastrous. Not only was there little to no synergy with the mechanical star of a player Rekkles, but the players steadily lost confidence in each other and this, combined with several roster moves, marred what would result in Froggen’s worst split ever.
At this point, there is little to no evidence that a “Froggen and crew” team will ever put themselves back at the top of the EU LCS, but what I can say is this new Elements line-up enjoys playing together, something that hasn’t been true in months. My hope is that this positive atmosphere will culminate in the resurgence of Froggen, one of the greatest Western players of all time.
Gambit. Theoretically, the single roster move of dropping P1noy for Forg1ven could bring about a new era for the old legends. Forg1ven’s laning prowess is unmatched for his role in the Western regions. Gosu Pepper, aka Edward, is clearly one of the best Western supports of all-time. Many forget that the “EMPIRE!” was named after his extremely clever Nunu ultimates, or that his kill-stealing Sona made him and Genja one of the best bot-lanes in the world, or that his title of “Thresh Prince” was given to him when the world thought only Madlife himself could do it better. His fall started with Genja’s increasingly underwhelming performances and refusal to buy Last Whisper, then was exacerbated by being paired with the most consistently average Western AD carry Cop, and then his move back to Gambit was blemished by being matched with P1noy, obviously a bottom-5 AD carry in his region. If Gosu Pepper still has what it takes, this bot lane could become the best in the West, by far. *wink* Also, Cabochard’s performances are nothing to scoff at, and we all know what Diamondprox is capable of doing when his lanes are in control.
SK. Many European analysts want to write this team off, but only because they forget this is the same line-up (plus Fox, who is a clear upgrade over Jesiz) that went 2-1 in their group at the 2014 World Championship, including a convincing win over TSM. Yes, they lost a star player with the departure of Forg1ven. Yes, the European scene has improved drastically since then. As a result, SK will have to grow considerably to challenge the top teams in Europe. However, claiming they are incapable of said growth when they are surrounded by strong teams to scrim against is an oversight, at least in my book.
Unicorns of Love. UOL finished the regular split 9-9. To the delight of their many fans, they surprised the world by taking down SK 3-2 in the semi-finals and pushing the European champions Fnatic to game 5 in the fight to represent Europe at MSI. This is a team with unpredictable picks, a team that forces any and every opponent to play on their terms, and a team with an undeniably impressive skill-ceiling. Oh, and the backing of fans that might have already grown into something similar to a cult following, but that isn’t exactly relevant here.
In my opinion, this pool of promising teams has the potential to produce teams capable of bringing us back to the M5/CLG.EU era – an era in which two European teams were one series away from being crowned World Champions. This combined with the great Korean exodus of 2014 and the mad shuffle of rosters that took place recently in China give me a dream I haven’t dared to dream in two years. Give ’em hell, Europe. You’re our only hope.
Image taken from “League of Legends VODS” youtube channel.