It’s no secret that Group C at this year’s League of Legends World Championship is the Group of Death.
There always seems to be one group that stands out from the crowd at each Worlds. Group D at Worlds 2014 was only decided when play-in team KaBuM! snatched a victory off of Alliance to let Cloud9 advance. And in 2015, LPL champions LGD Gaming and TSM were knocked out by Origen and a firing KT Rolster.
Even last year’s event featured an exciting Group of Death. North America’s perennial Worlds performer C9 snuck out of pool play alongside RNG en route to NA’s maiden semifinal showing. But this year might have the biggest Group of Death in Worlds history since each of the qualified teams so far are among the most accomplished in League’s history.
Who are the teams?
SK Telecom T1
After losing in the finals of Worlds 2017 to Samsung Galaxy and failing to qualify for the tournament last year, SKT are returning with a vengeance and two LCK championships to boot. At the beginning of the year, the organization rebuilt around legendary mid laner Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok, with star talent coming in at all roles. Immediately branded a super team, Faker was joined by Kim “Khan” Dong-ha in the top lane, former LPL jungler Kim “Clid” Tae-min, Jin Air Green Wings ADC Park “Teddy” Jin-seong, and legendary support Cho “Mata” Se-hyeong.
Despite a second-place finish in the 2019 LCK Spring Split regular season behind the seemingly-unstoppable Griffin, SKT rose to the challenge and obliterated the fledgling organization 3-0 in the playoffs. This allowed SKT to make a return to their first international event since their Worlds defeat. Although they lost 3-2 in the semifinals against eventual winners G2 Esports, SKT proved that they were back and could contend with the world’s best.
But a horrible start to the Summer Split dropped them to ninth place with a 1-5 record—their only win came against the now-relegated Jin Air Green Wings. Many fans feared that the ghosts of 2014 were returning to haunt SKT. But a thrashing by Griffin in week three sparked a turnaround, and all of a sudden, SKT ripped through the LCK. It took until week nine for them to lose another series and be knocked off their first-place perch.
SKT split their final two games against the two new teams in the league, Damwon Gaming and Sandbox Gaming, to end up going into the playoffs in fourth place and facing a wildcard match against Afreeca. SKT took down Afreeca and then destroyed Sandbox and Damwon in 3-0 sweeps to return to the LCK finals where Griffin were waiting. A single game was the only sacrifice they had to make to lift the LCK trophy once more and lock in Korea’s first seed at Worlds.
SKT have back-to-back LCK titles and the potential to go all the way at Worlds 2019 in commanding fashion.
Royal Never Give Up
RNG have always stayed true to their name by being battlers when it comes to the Worlds stage. A final against Samsung White when RNG was Star Horn Royal Club was the organization’s first foray into international League and a hiatus from international competition only served to fuel anticipation for this team coming into Worlds 2016. In both 2016 and 2017, RNG made it out of the group stage in good form, but drew SKT in the 2016 quarterfinals and 2017 semifinals to bow out of contention for the championship. The shocking loss to G2 in last year’s quarterfinals should’ve been a sign of G2’s incoming 2019 fury, but all the world could focus on was the fact that Jian “Uzi” Zi-hao again wouldn’t be lifting the Summoner’s Cup.
Growing pains gripped RNG in the LPL Spring Split. Letme retiring from his post in the top lane led to a host of players cycling through to see what clicked. It took a top-six placing in that split and a long hard look at the team over the break to find Xie “Langx” Zhen-Ying. Langx was the former top laner for Suning and his potential had always been shackled by the rest of his team. But Langx joining RNG alongside Karsa becoming the first-choice jungler for the team immediately had an effect. RNG stomped the regular season and advanced to LPL finals as the third seed with a 12-3 record.
RNG knocked out LNG Esports and TOP Esports to propel themselves to a final against FunPlus Phoenix, a team that no one expected to annihilate all of their competition coming into this year and had only been prevented from their international debut at MSI due to an upset by JD Gaming. A 3-1 loss prevented RNG from winning another LPL title, but the skill they’ve shown this season makes them a massive contender that can’t be overestimated.
Never underestimate Fnatic, however. You’ll always end up surprised at what they can do. In 2017, after having to crawl through the play-in stage just to make it to the main event, they shocked the world by recovering from a 0-4 start in Group B to salvage two wins and two epic tiebreakers to make it out of the group. They were then knocked out by RNG, but it didn’t matter. Fnatic had done the impossible and triumphed in the face of adversity.
Fnatic returned to Worlds in 2018 with two EU LCS championships in a row to their name and they were hungry to be the second team to claim multiple World Championships behind SKT. Alongside eventual winners Invictus Gaming, Fnatic laid waste to Group D and moved on to the quarterfinals as the first seed from that group following a tiebreaker against IG. A 3-1 rout of EDG followed by a clinical 3-0 elimination of Cloud9 set up a rematch against Invictus Gaming—and Fnatic were seen by many as the favorites to lift the trophy.
But it wasn’t meant to be. IG destroyed Fnatic to give China their first Worlds victory and the European champions had to return home without a trophy. The offseason was a time of change for the European powerhouses. Star mid laner Rasmus “Caps” Winther defected to rivals G2 and Fnatic were forced to fill the breach with Tim “Nemesis” Lipovšek. Fnatic were stuck behind G2 for almost the entire year, however, and they could only watch as their rivals lifted the MSI trophy and enter this year’s World Championship as the heavy favorites.
Just because Fnatic are EU’s second seed this year doesn’t mean that they’re any less of a threat, though. Led by star ADC Martin “Rekkles” Larsson, they have the potential to take down any top team and come in as one of the top five teams at the tournament. It’s unlucky for them that this was the group they were drawn into because spots in Group B or D would have almost guaranteed they’d advance to the playoff stage. Fnatic can still make it out, but it’ll just require one hell of a statement.
Who will advance?
It’s almost impossible to say that SKT will fail to make it out of the group stage for the first time in their organization’s history. They look extremely strong and while it’s feasible for them to lose one or two games in the group stage, there’s almost no way that they don’t advance in their hunt for a fourth world championship. Faker will be hungry after failing to extend his legacy, and with ostensibly his strongest side ever, SKT are the true favorites to win this World Championship.
RNG, on the other hand, are a bit more of a dice roll. If they show up ready to play at this Worlds without any major problems, they’re a contender to go all the way and should make it out of this group. If Uzi can fire on all cylinders, he simply becomes the world’s best ADC. That alone in a stacked pool of ADC talent could be the deciding factor. Langx will be making his international debut and he’ll be looking to mark his territory against Khan and Gabriel “Bwipo” Rau. RNG often look like the complete package and their matches against SKT are sure to be phenomenal considering their lengthy rivalry with the Korean powerhouse.
The problem is Fnatic. They’ve triumphed against impossible odds before, and in their most recent international tournament, they almost took it all. This year, they had to rebuild, but they’re arguably better for it. A single game was all that stood between Fnatic taking down the reigning MSI champions and arriving at Worlds as the first seed from Europe.
One of these teams has to go home, however, and if RNG arrive in form, Fnatic may have to say goodbye to a second consecutive appearance in a Worlds final. Fnatic do excel at best-of-one series, so if this group goes to a tiebreaker, the Europeans might pull it off.
No play-in teams want to be drawn into this group. This is the most stacked Group of Death of all time and there simply isn’t any space for minnows from the minor regions. This will be a titanic clash of League legends and one of these legends will have to fall, making a fairy tale story unlikely. If a play-in team makes it out of Group C into the quarterfinals, it’ll be the greatest Cinderella story in esports history. It’d be earth-shattering for a play-in team to defy all expectations and send home two of the greatest teams in League of Legends history.
But in the end, we think SKT and RNG will advance to the quarterfinals. Worlds 2019 begins Oct. 2 with the play-in stage.