Worlds 2016 Week One: Is The Gap Between Regions Closing… Who The Hell Cares?

Week one of the 2016 League of Legends World Championship has been madness. Following the best-of-1 format, each team has now played the every member of their group once – the results certainly haven’t followed the expected script. The format provides a small enough sample size to allow for fluke wins, cheesy picks and strategies, and for careless underestimation between teams completely unfamiliar with one other. In the coming week and once we move into best of 3’s, adaptation and consistency should put an end to all this ‘gap closing’ nonsense though… right? 

Taking a glance at the history books certainly suggests that things should level out heading into the tournament’s second week. Let’s take a look at our expectations coming into each Worlds, starting in season 3. Not that seasons 1 and 2 aren’t important, or that their wins aren’t significant (or in the case of the Taipei Assassins, very surprising) – but it was before the introduction of the LCS to the West, and before the development of a worldwide weekly system by which teams could systematically improve.

In season 3, SK Telecom T1 were the clear favourites to win the tournament after Samsung’s group stage collapse. Spoiler: they did win, with what is often considered the greatest team of all time – Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok was unchallenged by anyone in the world in nearly every aspect of mid lane, whilst Chae “Piglet” Gwang-jin was also a strong carry. They did have trouble against Najin Black Sword in a gripping five game series, but the tournament is generally considered a domination by them, with a 13-4 record.

Source: lolesports
Source: lolesports

The following season, Samsung Blue and White were predicted to sweep the tourney from early on in the summer, unsurprisingly they did – though the gap closing argument was raised once again. Team SoloMid took a game off of SSW in the quarterfinals, as did Cloud9 with SSB. When the sister teams met one another in the semifinals, SSW were able to 3-0 SSB, as they had long been considered a kryptonite to the otherwise dominant team. They ended up finishing the tournament 15-2, an even more dominant victory than the previous year.

World’s 2015 was supposed to be the year in which the gap had closed significantly enough for a Western region to at least be in with a shot of glory. Coming off the back of an undefeated regular season, Fnatic alongside new boys, Origen were both anticipated to do well. This was China’s first year since the mass migration of Korean players to Chinese teams, with China and Korea supposedly neck and neck. Edward Gaming had won MSI against Faker, and LGD Gaming had dropped the sandbags and won the LPL championship.

Then the floor fell out from beneath China, and no one bar EDG, who were then swept by Fnatic, managed to clamber out of their groups’. Though Fnatic did make it to the semifinals (the strongest showing expected for them), SKT swept the tournament, dropping only a single game to the KOO Tigers in the finals. Despite the overall increase in parity, the most dominant team was at least as dominant as they had been every other year.

The London quarter finals saw Fnatic emerge as genuine contenders for the crown - sweeping past Edward Gaming as both European sides reached the semi finals.
Source: Riot Games Flickr

So what of the expectations for 2016? The ROX Tigers were looking dominant, expected to win the tourney. EDG were undefeated in the regular season, with a revamped roster. SKT were looking strong, never to be written off as a contender. NA looked stronger than ever, with TSM considered a dark horse in the competition.

And then week 1 happened… 

To describe week one as a week of upsets would be an understatement. Remember when Kabum beat Alliance in Season 4, pushing Cloud 9 into the quarterfinals? Of course you do – getting “Kabum’d” has been a meme used to denote a significantly weaker team beating a stronger team ever since. A Brazilian team beating a European team was, at that point, the largest upset the Worlds’ audience had ever witnessed – but just let’s just evaluate the results that we’ve seen in the past week.

  1. Counter Logic Gaming, a team which many said should not have gone to the World Championship at all (as they qualified with points rather than playoff wins), beat G2, Europe’s #1 seed.
  2. INTZ eSports, a Brazilian team, beat Edward Gaming, the undefeated star-studded Chinese team.
  3. Albus NoX Luna, the Wildcard representation for this year, then beats CLG.
Source: Riot Games Flickr
Source: Riot Games Flickr

Then, in 3 back-to-back games:

  1. Albus NoX Luna defeats G2 eSports.
  2. CLG defeat the ROX Tigers (meaning they lost to who is considered the worst team in the tourney, then beat who is considered the best).
  3. Flash Wolves beat SKT (though they are a “Korean killer”, they are considered a significantly weaker team.)

This is not even to mention the three-way tie between TSM, Royal Never Give up, and Samsung Galaxy.

This level of parity in an international tournament is unparalleled. In a single day, there were more upsets than in all of the previous World Championships in history. What is most fascinating is the astonishing level of play on display from most of these underdog teams. Even when lower-tier teams win games, they are displaying macro decision making skills that have long been absent from any region besides Korea or China.

Does this mean the gap is closing? Who the hell knows.

Source: Riot Games Flickr
Source: Riot Games Flickr

Week 2 will be fascinating – any prior predictions have gone out the window. Perhaps we have achieved parity or maybe Korea will go 9-0, it could easily go either way. The long history of preparation and top-tier analysis would indicate that Korea are the best equipped to sure up their weaknesses for week 2, but you never know – Albus NoX might just beat the ROX Tigers and shock the world.

It can be fun to see a team be dominant and achieve a level of play above anyone else – but it doesn’t make for a captivating tournament. There has yet to be a World Championship that has kept everyone at the edge of their seat, with a clutch play that secures victory in a best-of-5; every tournament so far has been a 3-1 at the closest. That isn’t what fans hope for.

Fans want to stand up and scream at their computer in the last few moments of a game. Fans want to feel their heart racing in game five, 40 minutes deep, where a Baron steal rips the championship away from the team that’s been winning all tournament. We want to see a player be the only man left standing, and to backdoor a victory with three of their own inhibitors down.

We want drama – it’s hard to say what will happen this year, but we can only hope it will continue this way. Whether the gap is closing or not, it’s been the best first week of a World Championship yet.