Take a chance on them: Wildcard teams' new place at international tournaments

by theScore Staff Feb 8 2017
Thumbnail image courtesy of Riot Games Brasil/lolesportsbr / IWCQ 2016 / Riot Games Brasil

Yes we did good, but we could do better for sure and wildcard teams are generally weaker than big teams. As for us we don’t play our region on LAN, we play online. Zero ping is actually a very important issue because we had not experienced that before Wildcard. We have no experience. Our opponents have things much better. They have better organizations, they have more time, they are more experienced, there are 10,000 reasons for them to win. But, we didn’t win, and it’s our fault we didn’t manage to.

- Albus NoX Luna support Krill “Likkrit” Malofeyev after his team’s 3-0 Quarterfinals loss at the 2016 League of Legends World Championship

After a 3-0 drubbing at the hands of Europe’s H2k-Gaming in the 2016 Worlds Quarterfinals, Likkrit stands, leaning against an ornate pillar in the Chicago Theatre chomping on potato chips and chatting about his team’s loss. He is adamant. If they had only had one more game, they would have turned the series around. Hailing from the Commonweath of Independent States’ LoL Continental League, Albus NoX Luna set an admirable blueprint for all wildcard teams to follow — not only in their results but in their attitude. There are 10,000 reasons for every other team to win, but winning, despite the multitude of factors stacked against Albus NoX Luna, is solely up to them according to their players. They make no excuses, and spurn those to trivialize their efforts based on their quarterfinals performance.

For years, “wildcard” has been a dirty word in League of Legends. Wildcard teams were the teams that others picked Teemo against once they had already lost a chance at advancing to the bracket stage of an international event. They were the teams that were there for the experience, the good time, stunned by the bright lights of the international stage. They were the teams taking up precious space while the KT Rolster Bullets sat at home in Korea, watching the Season 3 World Championship on the small screen.

When Brazil’s KaBuM! eSports, unlikely winner of their own region, beat Europe’s first seed, Alliance, in a best-of-one at the 2014 World Championship, they were not praised as much as Alliance were denigrated for their perceived arrogance. It was a best-of-one. It didn’t actually mean anything for Brazilian or wildcard teams. It was a fluke.

This fluke likely begat the 2015 International Wildcard Invitational held prior to the Mid-Season Invitational and a restructuring of wildcard teams’ qualification to larger international events. Teams would now participate in a feeder tournament prior to the main event where the big boys — the major regions of China, Europe, Korea, North America and Taiwan — play. The first IWCI winner, Turkey’s Beşiktaş e-Sports Club, failed to win a game during the group stages. At the 2015 World Championship, paiN Gaming won two games in their group and nearly a third against LMS representative Flash Wolves. Again, it was a fluke — best-of-one group stages ensured that one-off unlikely victories can occur. At the 2016 Mid-Season Invitational, SuperMassive eSports — the members of Beşiktaş e-Sports Club under a new banner — take one game in the group stages against North American representative Counter Logic Gaming, the team that later goes on to face SK Telecom T1 in the MSI finals.

On Day 1 of the 2016 World Championship, Brazil’s INTZ eSports Club beat China’s Edward Gaming in their first best-of-one. A week later, CIS’ Albus NoX Luna become the first wildcard team to ever qualify for the bracket stage of an international event. Their qualification softly bookends the group stages with a resounding argument for wildcard teams’ existence at international tournaments, a necessary statement amidst rumors of the IWC tournaments’ impending demise.

Although I am a proponent of wildcard teams at international events, and have followed Brazil for years, I see both sides of the wildcard argument as equally valid. Their inclusion isn’t a black and white issue, but one in shades of grey that depends heavily on how you feel international tournaments should be run. Are they a gathering of teams from all regions around the world, a celebration of League of Legends as a whole? Are they a competition to prove who is the best in the World at that time?

The latter argument precipitates another discussion of the major regions that community members are all too willing to have when speaking of minor regions against major regions. But it's a somewhat less enthusiastic argument when it involves all four major regions save Korea against Korea. The forced segmentation and separation of regions since LMQ’s inclusion in the 2014 NA LCS tournament — and later as an NA representative at the 2014 World Championship — also plays its part in dividing fans along specific battle lines.

Worlds and the more recent MSI tournament have straddled this line between celebration and strong competition without fully committing to one side or another, all while teams from Turkey, Brazil and the CIS regions continued to improve, chipping away at the disparity between major and minor regions.

The new tournament format makes it more difficult for minor region teams to make it deeper into later stages of an international event, but includes them in the overall event itself, rather than quarantining them in their own separate tournament. At this year’s MSI tournament, eight minor regions will compete in the first round. The two winners will go into a second stage involving a best-of-five against the NA or LMS spring champion. The winners will advance and the losers will face each other in one more best-of-five to determine which region will join Korea, China, Europe and the two other winners in the group stage of the MSI tournament. A similar setup will occur at this year’s World Championship, with one seed given to the highest minor region automatically, and others included in a similar play-in round that also features the third seeds from China, Europe, North America and Taiwan.

Although they’re still somewhat separated, the inclusion of minor region teams at the major event proper is a large step the legitimizes them further as competitors, especially when considering the inclusion of a few major regions’ teams as well. In speaking to a myriad of wildcard representatives and players across multiple minor regions, the demand for respect and continued assurance that they are not there simply to learn, but win, is palpable. Preparing for an IWCQ group stage event is a grueling task — seven teams must be considered instead of three in a Worlds group or five in the previous MSI round robins. Teams from major regions that participate in the play-in stages should take this into consideration. Failing to prepare due to their region’s overall superior strength is an easy trap to fall into and one that could lead to their early elimination despite hailing from a major region.

Make no mistake, this setup is more difficult than making it through an International Wildcard Qualifier. Yet, for teams formerly known as “wildcards” it gives them consideration as separate, unique regions that are seeded based on their known strength. It also grants them the chance to face tougher opponents, even at the play-in level. On the surface, it may seem like the IWCQ has been hastily tacked on to the larger MSI and Worlds tournaments, but the inclusion of major region teams and appearance at the actual event make all the difference. These considerations legitimize their efforts and give teams from minor regions a bit more of what they’ve been fighting for during the past few years: respect.

It’s still on them to win and advance, despite the 10,000 reasons against them, including the strength of their region.

Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.