Barely an hour into the League of Legends World Championship semifinals, a hush had fallen over the Gwangju Women’s University Gymnasium. Kt Rolster, a Korean superteam and one of the favorites to win the tournament, had just lost a game on home soil. It was a shocking outcome, especially since kt had been blown out in the game, with no real chance at victory.
But the surprises wouldn’t end there. Before the end of the night, kt and Royal Never Give Up, the consensus favorites to win the tournament, had both been eliminated in grueling and exciting five-set matches. It was quite likely the craziest night in the history of Worlds.
History is made every year at Worlds, where we crown a new global champion. But last night’s events made Worlds 2018 feel different. There’s something in the air this year that may mean even more excitement is on its way.
A wide open field
The first big takeway from the two upsets was that no favorite is safe. Over the past few years, we’ve grown accustomed to relying on the best Korean teams to take over the tournament.
But with past champions like SK Telecom T1 and Gen.G missing from the knockout stage, the door to the title was cracked open. We thought that a few strong teams like kt and RNG might have the ability to win it all. But after last night, we can confidently say that we have absolutely no idea who is favored to win anymore. If Fnatic fans are smart, they should start desperately downplaying their chances at the title because it seems that favorites are cursed at this tournament.
But the effects go deeper than that. If G2 can beat RNG and Invictus Gaming can beat kt, truly any team can win the tournament. Who cares that Cloud9 barely squeaked past the play-in stage a couple weeks ago? They’re playing like gangbusters now, and that’s all that matters. Who cares that Afreeca Freecs and EDward Gaming don’t have winning traditions at Worlds? Neither do any of the other remaining teams.
So remember where you were when you found out that kt and RNG fell. Chances are it’ll prove to be a major turning point in the history of League of Legends esports.
A turning point in Worlds history
The other aspect of these matches that we can’t fail to mention is that, for the first time since 2015, a Western team upset one of the East’s favorites at Worlds. For years, we’ve seen posts on Reddit and social media that “the gap is closing,” only to be proven wrong when the final was yet another Korea vs. Korea affair.
But this year, it seems like it could finally happen. And it’s not just that Western teams have gotten better. It’s that they’ve stopped just copying what supposedly “better” teams from the East are doing.
We got the first glimpse of this last year when Misfits almost outlasted defending champs and eventual finalists SK Telecom T1 in a five-set slugfest. Misfits picked to their own style with a surprise Leona that had SKT in fits. But they didn’t quite have the courage to finish SKT off, taking their foot off the gas at Baron in the worst possible moment.
G2 learned from Misfits’ success and failure by playing their own style and finishing strong. G2 beat RNG not by playing flawless League, but by sticking to their own guns and somehow defeating the LPL squad in a 1-3-1 battle. When given the opportunity to pick broken champions like Akali, Irelia, and Aatrox, G2 jumped, unconcerned about the ramifications of using them in teamfights. RNG, on the other hand, looked a bit spooked by the kt vs. IG series, which happened first. In that series, Aatrox finally lost his 100-percent draft priority as the teams reverted back to the five-vs-five teamfight comps that traditionally succeed at Worlds.
Western teams have undoubtedly improved and deserve their spot in the limelight. But what’s really happened is that teams at this level have all ascended to a higher level of play. There are so many different ways to win now that the standard meta of LCK or LPL teams is no longer dominant. IG won by teamfighting, G2 succeeded through splitpushing and the cheeky use of wards.
Talent still matters: You still have to be able to pressure mid lane and teamfight correctly to win. But once you have that talent, you can develop it however you want. Remember when Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok’s guide to winning Worlds was blown apart in the Worlds hype video? Maybe that was foreshadowing the incredibly-diverse meta that we’ve seen so far.
In this context, Western teams will get a boost, but so should teams like Afreeca, who have always marched to their own tune. They were the ones playing Sion before he was in style. And the real winners in that scenario? It’s us, the fans. We have no idea going forward what any of these teams will do or who will win. That recipe could make 2018 the best Worlds ever.