Part of what makes fans so excited for international tournaments is the opportunity to support their own region in a battle against the world. Whatever may happen in Los Angeles, Berlin, or Seoul, league-mates are like brothers — back at home, TSM fans may see CLG as the bad guys, but when G2 Esports, Samsung Galaxy, or EDward Gaming are looming, we’re usually cheering for our bad guys to come out ahead.
The narratives of inter-regional conflict are rich. NA versus EU. Flash Wolves versus SKT. China versus itself. The gap between Korea and the world. The International Wildcard scene’s fight for recognition.
Not everyone can win these standoffs, so it's no surprise that in the first week of the 2016 World Championships, some of the attending regions have represented themselves more respectably than others.
Expectations: Cautious optimism
|Counter Logic Gaming||2-1|
For North America, Week 1 was a matter of highs and lows. Day 4 left fans of the region with the taste of sweet victory in their mouths — CLG wiped the floor with the ROX Tigers and Cloud9 solidly dispatched I May — but it didn’t erase CLG’s earlier loss to Albus NoX Luna or Cloud9’s dramatic but uninspiring win over the Flash Wolves. Meanwhile TSM met expectations without really impressing, dropping a close game to Royal Never Give Up, looking better against Samsung Galaxy, and wobbling their way to a win over Splyce.
All in all, NA should feel good about what's happened so far. There are certainly issues to clean up for all three teams — CLG's consistency is always an issue, while Cloud9 struggles with jungle control and TSM has made more mechanical mistakes than fans should really feel comfortable with. Room for improvement notwithstanding, all three teams are in position to make a run at the quarterfinals, and that alone is worthy of a passing grade.
What remains to be seen is whether North America can avoid the kind of Week 2 collapse that we saw in 2015, where a promising start was completely wiped out by 10 losses. That specter still looms over the shoulders of the three teams, but they have a good reason to be more optimistic this year. NA's coaching staff have come a long way since 2015, and TSM, CLG and Cloud9 have the three best coaches in the region. All of them will be hard at work to prove themselves and keep their teams on track.
Expectations: Find redemption
There’s no way to sugarcoat this one. Europe didn’t just drop the ball in Week 1, they threw it over the fence and ran off the field.
The main culprits are G2 Esports, Europe’s number one seed. After bombing at the Mid-Season Invitational, G2 were in desperate need of redemption. A host of indirect excuses and deflections for the MSI debacle flew around Europe all summer: G2 had gone on vacation instead of bootcamping, they had a looming roster change that limited their duo lane’s motivation, and they only really hurt themselves by losing Europe’s spot in Pool A.
G2 leaned into the memes, blew off the disappointment and encouraged analysts enough that it was widely predicted they would make it out of Group A. To be clear, that’s still possible, thanks to Albus NoX Luna also defeating CLG, but it now looks very likely that G2 will be packing their bags after Week 2. One wonders how willing they’ll be to meme about it on social media this time around.
Expectations weren’t quite so high for H2K and Splyce, but they have still managed to disappoint. H2K’s loss to ahq e-Sports Club puts them in a difficult position for Week 2, though they did pick up Europe’s only win by dispatching Brazil’s INTZ e-Sports. Splyce were never likely to take a game, given the strength of their group, but they haven’t generated the kinds of close calls they may have hoped for.
Anything can happen in Week 2, but Europe will need to pull out all the stops if they want to place a team in the quarterfinals and salvage some dignity.
Expectations: Widen the gap
|SK Telecom T1||2-1|
Korea is tied with North America for the best overall win-loss record after Week 1, but with much higher expectations for them coming in, they deserve a much weaker grade.
In most analysts’ eyes, this was, and possibly still is, the ROX Tigers’ tournament to lose. SKT and Samsung are also high quality teams. It may have been expected that Samsung would look mortal in a group that features Team SoloMid and Royal Never Give Up, but SKT looked vulnerable in yet another loss to their nemeses, the Flash Wolves, and the ROX Tigers have been downright sloppy, losing every early game (to the tune of an average -1,420 gold difference at 15 minutes) and performing worse than their 2-1 record suggests.
ROX Tigers' stumbles so far, relative to perhaps unfairly high expectations, can be attributed to a lack of respect for the opposition, particularly with their arrogant drafting. It may also be partly a result of Song “Smeb” Kyung-ho’s apparent illness. But let it sink in for a moment that we are discussing potential excuses for Korea’s best team looking vulnerable at the World Championships, and that provides all the context necessary.
Week 2 could, and should, go very differently for Korea. ROX were finally punished for their lack of serious preparation, which should wake them up a bit, and they will have some rest to get their leader healthy. SKT had a slow start at MSI as well, but adapted beautifully to still win the tournament. Samsung is performing fairly close to expectations. The LCK may yet see all three teams advance to the quarterfinals, and they will likely look better in the bracket stage.
As far as Week 1 goes, though, we definitely didn’t see the Korean magic flowing.
Expectations: Don’t pull an LGD
|Royal Never Give Up||2-1|
Chinese LoL teams are infamously hard to evaluate, because of their uniquely aggressive playstyle, which can lead to massive snowballs or heartbreaking throws. That was never more true than in 2015, when LGD Gaming came into the tournament with a surge of fanfare and proceeded to crash and burn in the group stage.
EDward Gaming was the only LPL team to get into the bracket stage in 2015, and this year they led another high-potential Chinese charge into Worlds after going undefeated in the summer split and convincingly taking out Royal Never Give Up 3-0 in the finals. With that kind of momentum, and a draw into a relatively weak Group C, EDG were supposed to look comfortable and potentially take a smooth 6-0 trip into the quarterfinals.
Instead, INTZ e-Sports ruined EDG’s very first match, making for the biggest group stage upset in the history of the World Championships.
Between that defeat and I May’s pedestrian 1-2 week, LPL fans have some cause for concern. Luckily, they also have Royal Never Give Up, who stayed on script a bit better by beating TSM but taking a backwards step by losing to Samsung Galaxy.
Overall, Chinese teams haven’t exceeded the conservative predictions of LPL analysts, but they haven’t disappointed either. Both EDG and RNG are in pretty good shape to earn themselves a path out of their groups, but fans should still keep their fingers crossed for the time being.
Taiwan / Hong Kong / Macao
Expectations: Low again, like always
|AHQ e-Sports Club||2-1|
Three things are inevitable: death, taxes and underrating the LMS before international events. The consensus opinion before Worlds was that the LMS was looking relatively weak. The Flash Wolves played too slowly and struggled to close games efficiently, and ahq were barely tested in the regional qualifier.
You would think they had earned the benefit of the doubt by now, after showing up so well at Worlds 2015 and MSI 2016, but we still haven’t learned our lesson.
ahq took out H2K in a mild upset, and they’re in good shape to get out of the group now. The Wolves devastated all of their opponents in the early game (they lead the tournament with a 77.0 early-game rating and are averaging +2,310 gold at 15 minutes). Though they did throw away two of those leads with indecisiveness, they got their act together for the most important match, completing yet another shocking upset over SKT.
Relative to outside expectations, the LMS teams are looking good, assuming that the Wolves keep playing like they did on Sunday.
|Albus NoX Luna||2-1|
What a week it was for Wildcards.
International qualifiers have won games in the group stage before, but not like this. When KaBuM beat Alliance, they torpedoed the European team's chance to play a tiebreaker, but KaBuM themselves had nothing to gain and nothing to lose. When paiN Gaming beat CLG, the standings were already set, and the game was meaningless.
Unlike those upsets, when INTZ destroyed EDward Gaming's Nexus on Thursday, it happened in a full-value, full-effort game, and came against a team that has been nearly universally predicted for a Top 4 finish. Then Albus NoX Luna one-upped INTZ by winning not one, but two of their first three games, sending shockwaves through Group A. NoX threaten to not just disrupt the outcome of the group, but displace one of its occupants in the bracket stage.
This kind of success is more than unprecedented; it’s downright unbelievable.
The cynic might say that it’s easy to raise the bar when it’s lying on the floor, but INTZ and ANX have done more than that. They haven’t just set the standard for Wildcard teams: they’ve created expectations where before there was nothing but dead air.
It hardly matters what happens next for these teams. They’ve already done so much more than we had hoped. But don’t tell that to ANX or INTZ; they’re busy coming up with ways to ascend to even greater heights.
Tim "Magic" Sevenhuysen runs OraclesElixir.com, the premier source for League of Legends esports statistics. You can find him on Twitter, unless he’s busy giving one of his three sons a shoulder ride.