“Actually, I’m not sure if they are weaker than expected or if we are stronger than expected.”
It’s a gentle reminder, sheepishly yet firmly delivered by SuperMassive eSports support Mustafa "Dumbledoge" Kemal Gökseloğlu — his response when asked about the 2016 Mid-Season Invitational field. Hailing from the Turkish Champions League, SuperMassive is a Wildcard team, representing not only their home region but a host of other minor regions all over the world.
Dumbledoge’s statement says it all. Last year, the only claim to fame that his team, Beşiktaş e-Sports Club, had at 2015 MSI was a four-man mid lane invade that secured First Blood onto SK Telecom T1’s Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok before subsequently being trounced by the Korean champion. Few of Beşiktaş’ games looked remotely close, and the Turkish team went winless in the group stages.
This year, his SuperMassive squad played it straight. Their approach, competitiveness, and Day 2 win over NA’s Counter Logic Gaming earned them respect, marking another small shift in how wildcard regions are treated and discussed by the League of Legends community.
Significantly weaker in comparison to the major regions — China, Europe, Korea, North America and Taiwan — wildcard regions aren’t given an automatic bid to the few international tournaments in League of Legends esports. This isn’t simply the two tournaments run by Riot Games, MSI and the World Championship, but extends to the only other international circuit in an admittedly miniscule amount of competitive events across regions: Intel Extreme Masters. IEM has not only omitted Wildcard teams this past year — last year teams from Latin America, Brazil, the Commonwealth of Independent States and Turkey were invited — but neglected the major region of Taiwan as well, in spite of Flash Wolves’ and AHQ’s generally strong showings at international events throughout 2015.
The lack of international tournaments in LoL esports is at best a disservice and at worst an utter failure of the highest order. Yet, saddled with grueling competitive schedules for the majority of a year — generally split across the Northern Hemisphere’s spring and summer seasons — the LCS era has made international competition infinitely more difficult to coordinate. A strong argument against including wildcard teams at international events maintains that, with so few events for major regions to compete against each other, there’s no reason to throw wildcard teams into the mix.
In years past, wildcard teams have been obvious, free wins for the major regions, offering little in the way of actual competition. It was easy to see where critics of their inclusion were coming from. After all, it seemed silly to gift a spot to lesser regions' team if they couldn’t compete at a level anywhere close to the worst major region team at the time. Giving the same bid to another team from a major region would offer a stronger overall pool of teams more reflective of a tournament that presumably wanted the world’s best.
Arguments for wildcard teams stated that excluding them would shut out one of the only chances that a team from a wildcard region had to play against better competition and possibly improve. Piggybacking on this statement, there was also the question of what defined a world championship — a contest of the very best teams in the world, or a contest of representatives from different regions of the world. Even within the framework of the latter argument, wildcard teams were seen as soaking up experience or having fun while learning gameplay that they could then take back to their region. These two narratives dominated any and all discussion of wildcard teams until recently.
Ever so slightly, the general attitude towards wildcard teams has become infinitely more positive than it was prior to the 2014 World Championship. In the group stages of that Worlds tournament, Brazil’s KaBuM! e-Sports upset Europe’s number one seed and the community exploded. KaBuM! weren’t even considered the best team in their own region prior to appearing at the event, upsetting the top team Keyd Stars in the CBLoL Regional Final. The game itself was a perfect storm of KaBuM! overperforming, using what they had learned over the course of the event and applying it immediately in game — specifically in Champion Select and vision control — and Alliance significantly underperforming.
The first time an upset like this happens, it’s first and foremost deemed a fluke. But a similar second fluke can give the situation a bit more legitimacy. With each supposedly chance victory, it becomes more clear that the wildcard regions are improving over time. At the 2015 World Championship, Brazil’s paiN Gaming took two games off of opponents in the group stages, and were one overly-passive loss to the Flash Wolves away from potentially becoming the first wildcard team to make it to the bracket stages of a major international event.
SuperMassive were, at one point, a legitimate threat to exit the group stages of 2016 MSI in similar fashion to paiN Gaming at last year’s World Championship. You can cite G2’s massive collapse in the first few days of the tournament as reason for why SuperMassive appeared so dangerous in the standings, but this hardly takes away from the Turkish team’s actual abilities on the Rift.
SuperMassive showcased tight communication and a superior understanding of themselves and their own win conditions than those wildcard teams that came before. MSI is also a trickier tournament for a wildcard team to take games. With all major regions sending their current domestic champion, the competition is more concentrated than a World Championship which has a wider pool of teams. In a greater context, their unexpected victory carries even more weight.
Commentary on SuperMassive’s performances, both on the MSI analyst desk and within the general community, reflected a crucial shift in how wildcard teams are now viewed. Rather than solely placing the blame on the superior major region team for possibly trolling or throwing, SuperMassive was discussed in a serious and respectful manner. Their map play and teamfighting was subject to the same criticism as China’s Royal Never Give Up, the then-undefeated first-place team that was looking stronger by the game.
This may seem insignificant to those who follow the major regions only, but for the minor regions participating in the next international wildcard tournament, and subsequently the World Championship, it’s an enormous step in the right direction. The argument against wildcard teams remains, with the bar firmly set at clearing the group stages as the next step in their development. Yet, no longer will wildcard teams be confined to the canned narrative of “just learning” but discussed and digested as League of Legends teams with their own strengths, weaknesses, and style.
Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.