“I feel proud not only for myself but also for my team. For my region, because we have never achieved this since GamingGear. And today we showed that if you are a dedicated enough player and motivated enough you can reach whatever you want without any doubt.”
- Kirill “Likkrit” Malofeyev
The words rush in a torrent from the mouth of Albus NoX Luna support Kirill “Likkrit” Malofeyev as he tries to temper his emotions for Riot Games' cameras after an exhausting 3-2 victory over Latin America North’s Lyon Gaming at the 2016 International Wildcard Qualifier. His team, hailing from the Commonwealth of Independent States’ LoL Continental League, were the second and final wildcard team to qualify for the 2016 League of Legends World Championship.
“We don’t have our own server, our own LAN, with which to play online. We don’t have any money in our region — one player on Dark Passage earns more than our whole team combined,” Likkrit said. “We don’t really have a huge fanbase. But the thing is, is that we are able to trust in us. This gives us power to achieve what we have achieved.”
A day earlier, Brazil’s INTZ e-Sports became the first wildcard team to qualify for the event, and they come from a region that has all of the things that the CIS region does not: their own dedicated server in Brazil, a rabid fanbase of millions that will turn out to cheer for a Brazilian team even if they’re not fans of INTZ specifically and a surprising amount of money compared to other wildcard regions. Brazil had their own offline tournament at the start of 2015 and have sent a representative to the World Championships for the past three years.
The CIS sent the first-ever International Wildcard team — Gamescom 2013 winners GamingGear.eu from Lithuania — to the World Championship in Season 3, which was the first Worlds tournament to include an International Wildcard representative. GamingGear were placed in Group A with SK Telecom T1, Oh My God, Lemondogs, and Team SoloMid. Their only win came against TSM following a joke draft from TSM where mid laner Andy “Reginald” Dinh locked in Teemo and took him to the bot lane after the North American representative had already been eliminated from the tournament. It was an embarrassing win that drew backlash against the inclusion of wildcard teams at the World Championship, a debate that rages on to this day, albeit with less fervor as the level of wildcard regions has generally improved.
While other minor regions like Turkey and Brazil steadily grew in size and drew more attention, especially after Brazil’s KaBuM! e-Sports unexpectedly beat Europe’s Alliance in a best-of-one at the 2014 World Championship, CIS lagged a bit behind until this past spring. It wasn’t until this year, when the SLTV StarSeries was taken over by Riot and became the LoL Continental League, that CIS had a dedicated offline tournament.
“With the introduction of Riot salaries, it was obvious that teams are going to try harder, and the level of play will go up,” former Natus Vincere.CIS coach Alexey “Genes1s” Romanov told LiquidLegends earlier this year. “Because of the general league level growth, viewership is growing as well, so people pay more attention, and try to get into competitive gaming.”
At international events like the 2015 International Wildcard Invitational, and the Worlds qualifier held in Turkey later that year, CIS’ Hard Random were a dangerous team to face, but ultimately were just a step behind when compared to their other wildcard adversaries. With standout mid laner Mykhailo “Kira” Harmash as the face of the team, Hard Random faced an all-too familiar roadblock. They were the undisputed champions of the SLTV StarSeries across all of 2015, and had talented individual players, but stagnated once at the top of their region due to a lack of more formidable opponents to face having reached the peak of the CIS. This changed with the LCL, which precipitated the same growth that Turkey and Brazil had seen just a year prior.
“I don’t think LCL is really far behind the top wildcard regions, and it’s shrinking from tournament to tournament, especially considering that allowance Brazil and Turkey had” Genes1s tells LiquidLegends. “This way by the time of IWC the only problem will be TCL.”
With the team composed of top laner Dmitri “Smurf” Ivanov, jungler Aleksander “pvpstejos” Glazkov, Kira, AD carry Vladislav “aMiracle” Scherbyna, and Likkrit, Hard Random faced Turkey’s SuperMassive in the 2016 International Wildcard Invitational Finals after sweeping INTZ in the semis. Once again, Turkey qualified for another Mid-Season Invitational, with Hard Random falling just short.
Born of Hard Random in this year's offseason between spring and summer splits, Albus NoX Luna retained the exact same roster. They won their second LCL title in a hard-fought 3-2 reverse sweep of Vega Squadron, qualifying for yet another International Wildcard tournament. Again, this lineup prepared to take on either Turkey or Brazil at the 2016 IWCQ. Yet facing Albus NoX Luna in their qualifying best-of-five was Lyon Gaming, the Latin America North team that had shocked the IWCQ by nearly going undefeated in the group stages. Their only loss had been to Albus NoX Luna on the final day of groups.
Lyon had razed the group stage with strong lanes and a whopping 1,278 gold lead on their opponents at 15 minutes. Albus NoX Luna overcame this with superior teamfighting and map pressure. Their experience as a team overwhelmed Lyon in the mid and late game as the CIS team was better able to choose their own teamfights and win with coordination and more decisive engages, keeping Lyon at arm’s length when necessary with pvpstejos’ Gragas. This coordination is Albus NoX Luna’s greatest strength, not Likkrit’s pocket support Brand or Kira’s Anivia, but the strong dynamic that they have forged as a team.
“Yes, it’s a little step, we haven’t won Worlds, we only won the qualifier!” Likkrit says. “But for every player in League of Legends who plays professionally there is a dream to win as much as he can win and this win today—” he gestures emphatically, “Is the first step towards our dream. I’m not really sure how I feel because— it’s too big to explain in words.”
Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.