The first round robin of the 2018 League of Legends World Championship in the books and the second round robin is about to heat up. Tyler Erzberger, Ashley Kang and Emily Rand look back on the performances thus far and share their outlook on what the rest of groups may look like.
Emily Rand: This year's so-called collapse of the League Champions Korea reminds me a lot of the 2015 Legends Pro League collapse. Back then, Invictus Gaming, Edward Gaming, and LGD Gaming all faltered for different reasons. I think what people are labeling as the demise of the LCK this year is similar. Teams are struggling for different reasons.
Similarly, the LPL teams are all "succeeding" for different reasons as well, depending on your definition of success. IG have performed about as well as I had expected, EDG haven't looked infallible and lost to KT fairly handily, and RNG is the one team where I really look at them and think "potential world champion."
With that in mind, the question I'd like to discuss is whether we can definitively say that the LPL is now the region to beat at this world championship, or if the jury is still out on that, at least until quarterfinals. I'd argue the latter, myself.
Tyler Erzberger: I hate this. As someone who grew up in esports through the South Korean scene, I have always been firmly on the side of "South Korea > China" with little wiggle room. It's always been the same story: China has the mechanical skill, but South Korea has the work ethic to surpass any sort of individual talent its rival region possesses.
This year, though, it's hard. I do think the best team in the world is Royal Never Give Up right now. RNG reminds me a lot of South Korean teams in the past where they all fight together so well, especially with Yan "Letme" Jun-Ze, who reminds me of those old school LCK top laners who were brick walls in the top lane like Choi "Acorn" Cheon-ju. On the opposite side, we have KT Rolster, who comes off a lot more like an old school Chinese team, where we laud over the individual talents of the potential superstar popoff performances.
If I had to rank the teams, I'd say RNG is first with KT narrowly behind, Invictus Gaming is a strong third, and then Gen. G, Afreeca, and Edward Gaming trailing behind. I think KT Rolster can still win worlds and is still a favorite to at least make the final.
Ashley Kang: Royal Never Give Up look stronger than ever. In the first week of a group stage full of upsets, that has been the one constant -- the overperformance of RNG and Jian "Uzi" Zi-Hao, the team's superstar. That being said, I would agree with Emily that we'll still need to wait and see until quarterfinals and more matchups between LPL and LCK teams to determine whether LPL is definitively better than LCK, especially given that KT Rolster has halted LPL's region-wide eight-game winning streak with their victory over EDG. I'd be interested see the matchup between iG -- the second seed for LPL -- and either of Gen.G and Afreeca Freecs who now seem to be rebounding after their crucial first victories on Day 3.
The question that I'd like to discuss is whether the "LCK playstyle" with slow but calculated pace and a focus on macro is no longer the winning formula. Different regions are bringing their own approach to League to the table, and it seems to be successful so far.
Rand: It's interesting that you mention confidence. Speaking with a few LPL pros, a lot of them reiterated that this is a meta that suits a lot of LPL teams' various styles, and the confidence to execute them was brought up by both RNG's Hung "Karsa" Hau-Hsuan and iG's Wang "Baolan" Liu-Yi as a defining reason behind their successes thus far. Yet, no amount of confidence or team synergy is going to cover up a bad play if your opponent has vision and can react accordingly.
I don't think the LCK's struggles have to do with a regional style, especially since we just saw KT choke out EDG, rarely giving them any openings due to stronger vision and map control. I want to reiterate that any issues the LCK teams are having are different and team-specific. The Freecs have said themselves that it was internal mentality issues. Gen.G's playstyle is exploitable, especially if they make more mistakes than their opponents, because it's more of a slow-scaling grind (and we saw LCK teams punish it this year). That being said, if I had to highlight one meta change that may have helped a few LPL teams out, it may be the Trackers' Knife change all the way back in the spring split. This did change jungle vision, and I think that helped more than a few LPL teams who thrive by making aggressive early plays. Again, this isn't a hard and fast rule, and even in the LPL itself, we've seen over-aggression without vision punished frequently (I'm looking at you, iG Gao "Ning" Zhen-Ning).
Erzberger: Although the LCK is lacking wins like previous years, I don't really relate it to the region's style. No, North America, you can't keep getting away with the LCK way of playing when you don't have the vision control, mechanical skill or patience to get away with it. A team like 100 Thieves have to play up tempo to stand a chance.
For teams like the Afreeca Freecs and Gen. G, I think it's a lot more to do with how they've played as teams more than what kind of style they display. For the first two games, Afreeca's drafting and just overall way of play was horrendous; a team that practices so much should never be so porous, regardless if they're playing slow or fast.
While KT has been playing at a rapid rate and improving each game, I don't think we'll ever see a real change in the LCK style. Teams from South Korea will always fall back into a chess-like approach to the game if need be, but that doesn't mean they also can't play in-your-face just as well.
Kang: In this worlds, we have seen more diversification of playstle than ever. Phong Vu Buffalo, acclaimed for their more-LPL-than-LPL aggression has had better results in the group stage than people had hoped for. Team Vitality, also with their aggression and focus on skirmishes, managed to topple down Afreeca Freecs with their Ekko and Nocturne pick.
That being said, I also believe that LCK's failing has been not only on their respective playstyle but in their confidence. Afreeca Freecs and Gen.G both mentioned in their interviews that they felt uncertain about their team identity. Gen.G seemed unsure of their own winning formula of a traditional EU composition that can blossom in late-game teamfights, resulting in the inability to close out the game. Afreeca seemed unsure, too, illustrated by their drafts with divided direction and lack of win condition. Confidence in your own playstyle is a big factor for performance and that seems to be what LPL has behind them at the moment, especially RNG and iG.
Erzberger: To round things off on this South Korea vs. China debate, I want to know if you guys think there is any chance of a non-Chinese or non-South Korean team making the semifinals. The trio of RNG, KT, and iG have really separated themselves from the pack, although Flash Wolves and Fnatic look like tasty underdog picks. Still, are we really going to act like the Freecs and Gen.G can't just turn it on in the second half of the group stage before beating either of those teams in a best-of-five quarterfinal?
North America, though I want them to succeed, is all but impossible to make semifinals unless Cloud9 or Team Liquid do something miraculous in the coming days. Europe has G2 Esports and Fnatic, and while I do think G2's top laner Martin "Wunder" Hansen has been one of the MVPs of the event so far, I'm not even confident they can make it out of such a tough group with Flash Wolves, a rebounding Freecs and a dangerous Buffalos team out of Vietnam that has already beaten them.
I honestly believe the best chance any team has from breaking up an all-China/South Korea semifinal (like what happened last year) is the Flash Wolves. Yes, they got upset by G2 in a game where Wunder's split-pushing was as world-class as it comes, but when I look at preparation, talent, and overall team chemistry, I think the region with probably the two weakest teams in the group stage, LMS, also has a semifinal-caliber team in the Wolves.
Rand: Gen.G play Sunday, so we'll know about them soon enough -- as well as if C9 or Vitality will pull off some sort of miraculous exit from what was initially labelled as the group of death. I see both Gen.G and Afreeca making it out. It would still be a bit surprising, especially after the adjustments that the Freecs did make, to see both of them eliminated in groups. That being said, I'll be less shocked if Afreeca fails to make it out than Gen.G. I'm also still not wholly sold on iG as a potential world champion (especially if they have to face RNG in the bracket stage), but they've looked more solid than I thought they would, and even had a come-from-behind victory against Fnatic. There's still a chance for Fnatic to take this group, so I'm definitely looking forward to the iG/Fnatic rematch. Thus far, KT have looked strong but it's looking like their group may have been a bit weaker than we initially anticipated. Despite being stomped by KT, EDG has surprised me in groups. I thought that they would look much worse based on their play-in performances.
Talking to the Flash Wolves Saturday, they didn't seem too concerned that they wouldn't make it out, and I'm inclined to agree. The single-damage Xayah composition did them no favors, and I think they'll adjust on their single-group day to make it out, likely as the top seed. I agree that it's Flash Wolves and Fnatic as the most likely two semifinalists that won't be from South Korea or China. But again, so much of this depends on the bracket.
Kang: I would also agree with Emily and Tyler. I would not only expect, but would like to see Flash Wolves in the semifinals. It's amazing to see a single team in a region that is not LPL, LCK or NA LCS deliver on an international stage year after year. Hu "SwordArt" Shuo-Chieh and Huang "Maple" Yi-Tang have always been top-tier players, and Kim "Moojin" Moo-jin filled the shoes of Hung "Karsa" Hau-Hsuan when no one believed it was possible. Flash Wolves have also been an established scrimming partner for LPL and LCK teams for several years, due to timezone and regional proximity and Flash Wolves not having a close competition within LMS.
I am not certain Team Liquid has what it takes to make it out of a group of KT and EDG -- Yes, I am crossing out MAD team at this point. Out of that group, I would say that Fnatic has the likelihood of advancing to the next stage where they could upset an LPL or LCK team. Rasmus "Caps" Borregaard Winther has been such a reliable addition to the roster of veterans who already have worlds experience before.