Everybody loves an underdog story. League of Legends is no exception, and the play-in stage of the World Championship is one of the few times a year that international fans get to see these underdogs truly shine.
Whether it’s a wild card lineup or the last-place qualifier for a major region, the success story of a play-ins team is often one of the most exciting the tournament can offer. When these underdog stories go sour, however, it can be easy for teams to quickly become despondent, thinking that they never stood a chance or that the world is against them.
This despondency is clearly absent for Zhiqiang “Shad0w” Zhao, jungler for MAD Lions. Coming off two devastating losses for the LEC squad, Shad0w was all smiles as he explained that the team’s early weakness was just a result of some stage nerves.
“I think it’s definitely related to the nerves, and obviously, it’s something we need to fix before the best-of-fives start,” he stated, referring to MAD’s uncharacteristically indecisive gameplay in their first three games of the play-in stage. “But I think we’re still confident to make it out of play-ins. We just need to be ourselves and play well.”
This concept of ‘just be ourselves’ has been a clear weakness of MAD from as far back as the LEC playoffs. Their slow adaptation to the meta means Shad0w, in particular, has looked shaky on uncomfortable and unpracticed jungle picks like Evelynn and Hecarim. Moving away from comfort picks of Lee Sin and Volibear has clearly been a difficult task for the jungler, but he explained that “the meta right now is just way more focused on carry junglers.” With the Worlds meta currently shaping up to look fairly similar to that of the LEC playoffs, in which MAD were also faced with drafting issues, the team is left playing catchup to a meta they should have gotten a read on long ago.
With teams like G2 finding success on early-game enabling junglers like Sett and Sejuani, it is clear that this carry jungle style is not the only way to play the game. For MAD and Shad0w, however, this style of early game jungling is higher-risk than it is necessarily worth—if you can’t get your lanes ahead enough in the early game, the tanky jungle picks are left floundering. This jungling style puts the emphasis on resources and damage “on a different role to carry rather than the usual AD carry or mid laner.” Shad0w said he still believes G2 are a good team, but that he’s “more naturally a carry jungler” on champions like Lee Sin.
G2’s success in this meta and so many more before it, has become a sticking point for all of Europe’s teams at Worlds this year. G2 in 2019, and Fnatic before them in 2018, have created a precedent for the LEC that did not really exist before, one of high-level international performance. But that pressure isn’t getting to MAD just yet.
“I think the pressure is mostly on Fnatic and G2” Shad0w said. “Just because they’re always at Worlds and they always perform pretty well. We’re rookies, and I don’t think a lot of people had any expectations of us, so we don’t really feel much of that pressure. We’re just proud of [Fnatic and G2] for what they’ve managed to do.”
Expectations of MAD entering this tournament were mixed. Despite Europe’s international prestige, the squad had no evidence to suggest they would be able to live up to those expectations. It was, however, an unspoken understanding among European fans that they would make it out of play-ins, and potentially in the first-place spot. With this first-place finish no longer a possibility, Shad0w had some reassurance for MAD’s defenders: “I think those expectations are right, though, and I think if we fix our issues and just start playing like ourselves again, we are for sure the best team in play-ins.”
MAD’s cheeky attitude and positivity has been one of the cornerstones of their team’s identity since they entered the LEC, with their infamous victory poses on the LEC broadcast becoming one of the most iconic parts of each week of games. This positivity shines out in Shad0w, who despite suffering a crushing defeat mere minutes beforehand, had a smile on his face for the entire interview.
“Obviously I’m a little bit worried that we won’t make it out,” he said. “But I still have confidence in my team, and I think after we fix our nerves we’ll be good to go for the group stage.”
If MAD make it into the group stage, they’ll have a grueling task ahead of them facing tournament favorites Top Esports, whose mid-jungle duo have looked like one of the strongest in the world. “I think they’re really good, probably the best team in the world,” Shad0w said on the potential matchup. “But I think if we can take one or two games off them that would be a pretty great feeling.”
As a play-in team, and a fourth representative from their region, the main role of a team like MAD is to play spoiler to the giants in their group. If MAD can turn around a bad start to the tournament, they might be able to do just that to TES and DRX.
Although positivity itself cannot win you games, it can sure as hell make it easier to take those unexpected victories. Talking to Shad0w, it’s clear that MAD have not let their opening nerves get to them; their mentality seems just as strong as it did in the LEC regular season. With the play-in stage more competitive than it has ever been, there is a high chance that if MAD Lions are unable to make some kind of a miraculous 180-degree turn on their gameplay, they will be heading back to Europe sooner than they expected.
As full of upsets as these play-in games have been, however, the team seem to have clear heads on their shoulders with regards to the changes that need to be made to find that all-important groups spot. Whether those changes can be made in time remains to be seen, however, with only two more days of games to decide their international fate.
No longer able to secure first place in their group, the chance of an automatic bye to groups is a distant memory for MAD Lions. If they can win in tomorrow’s match against Legacy Esports, they will enter into the knockout stage alongside the second, third, and fourth representatives from both play-in groups, where they will battle it out in a best-of-five format for the two coveted group stage spots. Tiebreakers aside, MAD’s fate is entirely in their own hands—and with Europe’s pride on the line, every game counts.