After their win over Europe’s G2 Esports on Day 4 of the 2016 League of Legends World Championship, I congratulate Albus NoX Luna support Kirill “Likkrit” Malofeyev. After wishing him and his team luck, I tell him that I hope Albus NoX Luna makes it out of groups.
“We only need one more game,” he says. “One more game and we’re in for sure.”
Likkrit says this confidently as a staff member claps him on the back. His tone is one of complete confidence. It’s the type of statement that, had I been a worried Albus NoX Luna fan, would have inspired complete faith in the team.
Four days later, Albus NoX Luna became the first International Wildcard team to advance into the bracket stage of a major international event.
At this year's Mid-Season Invitational, Turkey’s SuperMassive represented the minor regions — eight teams lumped under the title of International Wildcards. Amidst the now memetic argument that “the gap is closing” is constant pushback from the international community that Wildcard teams do not deserve a spot at major events. Wildcard representatives relentlessly push against a tide of doubt and denigration prior to setting one foot on the international stage.
“Actually, I’m not sure if they are weaker than expected or if we are stronger than expected,” support Mustafa "Dumbledoge" Kemal Gökseloğlu says halfway through the group stages. SuperMassive won one game against the eventual second-place team, North America’s Counter Logic Gaming.
SuperMassive’s performance at a major event where the supposed top team from each major region — Wildcards included — refuels the Wildcard argument. With their 2015 Mid-Season Invitational highlight (then as Beşiktaş e-Sports Club) a four-man gank onto SK Telecom T1’s Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok netting Dumbledoge the First Blood and the dubious title of “that guy who killed Faker once,” the honor of international teams finally approaching a wildcard team seriously is just that, an actual honor. The Wildcard narrative, characterized by teams like the Philippines' Mineski (who were actually a Southeast Asian participant, not a Wildcard) and GamingGear.EU, is one of teams enjoying their time, or taking back what they’ve learned to their region. Their stories are framed with the patronizing idea that this is a fun vacation, a learning experience rather than an attempt at winning the tournament.
The tide began to turn when KaBuM! e-Sports beat Europe’s first seed, Alliance, in a best-of-one at the 2014 World Championship. What followed was a period of massive growth for their region, Brazil, with the addition of an offline tournament in the same style as North America and Europe’s League Championship Series. paiN Gaming managed to win two games at the 2015 World Championship, against CLG and Taiwan’s Flash Wolves, the latter of which would make it into the bracket stage.
Yet paiN’s second win against CLG is nullified by the fact that the North American team was already out of bracket stage contention. The narrative that Wildcard teams are just here to have fun and learn shifts again. Wildcard teams are now good enough to beat teams from major regions in a best-of-one if the major region team plays poorly or if there’s nothing on the line. This does not refute the ongoing argument that Wildcard teams do not deserve an automatic spot at major international events in the eyes of Wildcard detractors. Teams like paiN Gaming or SuperMassive at Worlds or the 2016 MSI still haven’t accomplished the concrete goal of making it past the group stages of the tournament.
This year at the 2016 World Championship, it was not Albus NoX Luna that struck first, but Brazil’s INTZ e-Sports as they kicked off their Worlds trip by defeating China’s first seed, Edward Gaming, in a best-of-one match.
“People say that this win makes it easier for us to get out of groups,” INTZ mid laner Gabriel “Tockers” Claumann says. “But I think it made it so much harder. If teams didn’t do their research for us, now they sure will.”
INTZ made the first move, but Albus NoX Luna finished the job with two wins on Days 3 and 4 against CLG and G2 respectively. Both Wildcard teams not only won games in the tournament's first week, but they did so early in the tournament. SuperMassive kept games close at the 2016 MSI and forced teams to play them seriously. INTZ and Albus NoX Luna took this one step further at the 2016 World Championship by taking games early in the group stage and forcing the major regions’ immediate respect and attention.
After their win against CLG, Albus NoX Luna jungler Alexander “PvPStejos” Glaskov admitted that his team could not find scrims, since other teams didn’t think that scrimming the CIS team would be worth their time. A tweet from Natus Vincere jungler Ilya “Lasagna” Melkumov expressing mirth that Albus NoX Luna did so well when they played WoW prior to Worlds when others wouldn’t scrim would later go viral. Their Group A success and gentle admonishment of teams that refused to scrim them previously immediately changes the prevailing atmosphere.
“I think that other teams respect us and they now don’t mind scrimming us because it’s always interesting for them,” PvPStejos says after Day 5 and his team’s bracket stage qualification. “We show them some interesting stuff, some different plays. All the people today ran Karma or Nami, some Jayce/Kennen stuff, it can get a little bit boring, but we bring them something new, something they maybe forgot. It’s always good to train yourself and we give them a good warmup.”
Albus NoX Luna drove the final nail in the coffin for the argument against International Wildcard teams’ inclusion — they secured a spot in the Round of 8 with a 4-2 group stage record that includes a win against the pre-tournament favorites.
“I don’t think that it’s actually that we are much better than they are,” PvPStejos says regarding their victory over the ROX Tigers. “Just sometimes, in this one game, we played better than they, that’s all. They were still really good. They lost early really hard but they took two barons, they were taking Elder Drake. It was really strange when you win against the best players in the world and can compete with them just coming from LCL. After this, I think people will respect our region much more.”
Talking to Albus NoX Luna, their most impressive quality is their self-assurance. There’s no hint of arrogance, nor is there uncertainty. The natural biases that creep into the darkest corners in the minds of even the game’s best players are not present in the minds of Albus NoX Luna. They don’t see themselves as a Wildcard team, they see themselves as a competitive League of Legends team. It’s time that the rest of the world did the same.
Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.