After eight straight days of group stage games at the 2018 League of Legends World Championship in South Korea, the field has been cut down in half.
Goodbye, Vietnam and Taiwan, who saw all their teams eliminated from the knockout rounds.
North America, who was primed to join them with zero teams in the quarterfinals, found solace in an org who has made the top-eight its home over the years -- Cloud9 -- making their fifth quarterfinal appearance in six years.
Europe feels confident sending its two dynastic organizations, G2 Esports and Fnatic, to the knockout stage, the latter having the best chance for a western team to make the finals since 2011, where it won the inaugural title.
South Korea expected to send its trio of teams straight to the quarterfinals but, following a flubbed run by defending champion Gen.G and a near-disaster by the Afreeca Freecs, will only send a pair of teams to the next round. Still, KT Rolster, the country's champion, stands nearly spotless following the group stages, only losing a single game to its Chinese rivals.
And finally, the only region to keep its numbers intact through play-ins and groups, we have China. The most dominant region over the course of 2018, the only thing left for China to do is win the Summoner's Cup for the first time in the region's history. At the forefront, Royal Never Give Up, the winners of the Mid-Season Invitational and both Chinese domestic seasons this year, will have its sights only on the final at the beginning of November in Incheon.
Before the action resumes in Busan, let's take a look at the matches that will determine the quartet who will be advancing to the semifinal stage in Gwangju.
KT Rolster (South Korea) vs. Invictus Gaming (China)
Storyline to watch: Rookie returns home
The opening quarterfinal might have both the best team at the world championship and the best player, but just on opposing sides. KT Rolster, with maybe the exception of Europe's Fnatic, looked the strongest through the group stage marathon, and the team of five superstars at each position were a sight to behold when they were firing on all cylinders. For Invictus Gaming, the Chinese side trying to stop the speeding juggernaut of KT, they will put their faith in a man who was brought up in the KT organization: Song "Rookie" Eui-jin.
When Rookie was, well, a rookie, he was the supposed future of the KT Rolster franchise. Everything pointed to him becoming KT's answer to SK Telecom T1's Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok. Mechanically, he was superb. His game sense, while green, showed the potential of a future all-time great. Rookie's career on KT culminated in 2014 when he won a South Korean domestic title on the KT Arrows squad against Samsung Blue in the summer final. That final just so happened to occur in Busan, where he will have the opportunity to put his past behind him for good with a do-or-die match against his former team.
While KT found Rookie, Invictus are the ones who made the Rookie who we see today -- a world-class player, one of the very best in the world. Though many South Korean players have transferred to China over the years, none has had the same impact as Rookie, who has adopted China as his second home, learning the language and becoming one of the faces for the domestic league. Now, everything comes full circle in Busan, where the old Rookie and present Rookie will collide in a best-of-five to see if he can topple the tournament favorite with his iG teammates.
Prediction: KT Rolster 3-1 Invictus Gaming
Rookie is the best mid laner at worlds, but the mid laner who has been playing the best so far in the competition is the 17-year-old rookie who KT hopes to surpass even Rookie's ceiling, Son "Ucal" Woo-hyeon. Ucal has already won a domestic title in his second season as a pro, and the stage through the first two weeks hasn't fazed him, the KT mid laner putting up big game after big game.
If Ucal can just go even or hold onto Rookie enough to let the rest of the team do work, this should be a win for KT. iG, although talented, have holes in their game when it comes to the macro side of things, and if KT can play things smart and not get baited into playing at the Chinese team's neck-break pace, the South Korean champion should move onto Gwangju.
Don't expect Rookie to go quietly into the night, though.
Royal Never Give Up (China) vs. G2 Esports (Europe)
Storyline to watch: 1-3-1 vs. Teamfight Gods
Styles make matchups. You can take the two best golfers, tennis players, and boxers in the world, but if their styles don't mesh well, the match itself can be a chore to get through. On paper, this game seems simple. RNG entered this tournament as a big favorite to win it all. It beat KING-ZONE DragonX in the MSI final this year without even needing to go to a fifth map. It won everything it's entered this year. G2, on the other hand, is supposed to be the weakest iteration it's ever produced since going on a string of European domestic wins in 2016 and 2017, not winning anything in 2018 except for beating up on poor North American teams at Rift Rivals in Los Angeles.
Yet, as I said: Styles make matchups. RNG might be a level (or two) above G2 when it comes to overall power, but how G2 has played the game throughout worlds makes this match an interesting fight. RNG, even when it's playing below its level, can fall back on teamfighting whenever it needs to pull out a late-game victory. It was on the ropes versus Cloud9 in the tiebreaker for No. 1 seed in the group stage, but all it took was one immaculate engage by support Shi "Ming" Sen-Ming to begin a fight around Baron that flipped the game on its head. This is the fear that all-time great teams strike into opposing teams; one mistake, no matter the gold lead, and it's all over. C9 learned that in its tiebreaker with RNG.
G2 doesn't want to be put in any sort of position like that. Europe's Samurai doesn't want a direct five-on-five confrontation with RNG, and that's how the team played in the first three weeks of the tournament. The team loves to splitpush with Martin "Wunder" Hansen and Luka "Perkz" Perković and give the bottom lane the necessary tools to keep afloat while they do work in the side lanes.
RNG vs. G2 is a classic game of cat and mouse. RNG have the claws and teeth to dispose of the mouse in quick work, but if the mouse doesn't get caught, who knows what will happen?
Prediction: Royal Never Give Up 3-1 G2 Esports
I don't think G2 Esports will just roll over. At least in one game we're going to see Wunder splitpush his way to victory on Aatrox or Perkz get his signature Akali and win a game by going 14/2/8 with 100 percent kill participation. But when it comes to picking a winner, I don't know if G2 has the variance to keep away from RNG's claws.
From this series, all I ask is one game where we see Heimerdinger unbanned.
The people demand Jian "Uzi" Zi-Hao vs. Petter "Hjarnan" Freyschuss on Heimerdinger.
Afreeca Freecs (South Korea) vs. Cloud9 (North America)
Storyline to watch: Practice vs. Fortnite
At this point, it's hard to discuss the North American region without bringing up its practice regimen, or lack thereof. Last week, former NA pro jungler Christian "IWillDominate" Rivera tweeted:
"NA Pros don't deserve any sympathy from others. The amount of WoW/Fortnite that people play is disgusting over here. Then they go in front of the cameras and say they gave it their all. People actually don't try their best and the results match perfectly to the effort put in."
"Not going to put any specific person on blast but in NA there was a player in playoffs who had 186 matches of fortnite played the WEEK of his playoff match. Makes me sick."
This was at a time where the three North American teams were on the edge of getting eliminated from worlds and it was expected the region would be sending zero teams to the knockout rounds. Enter: C9, who pulled off the biggest reversal in NA's existence at worlds, winning three straight against Gen. G, RNG and Vitality to lock its spot in the quarterfinals and give its region a reason to believe. While none of the tweets point to C9 being the team "slacking" in practice, the consensus as a whole from outsiders is that North America just doesn't practice enough. While South Korea is practicing throughout the night, North American players are streaming games that aren't League of Legends.
This quarterfinal will be the true test of these ideologies.
C9 is the fun-loving team of the western region. Their coach Bok "Reapered" Han-gyu continually throws out random musings on twitter nightly whilst trolling in interviews on the broadcast. The team's longest-tenured player, Zachary "Sneaky" Scuderi, has become famous over the last year through his cosplaying of various champions like Lux and Sivir.
Afreeca doesn't cosplay. Afreeca doesn't troll. Afreeca practices more than any team, and that includes other South Korean clubs. The team is rumored to play up to four scrimmages a day and grind when it comes to solo queue. Their coach, Choi "iloveoov" Yun Sung, is a legend from the days of StarCraft: Brood War, and he's brought the old-school mentality of putting your nose to the grindstone over to his League of Legends team, where the quantity of practice is valued over anything else.
Let's see which approach prevails.
Prediction: Cloud9 3-2 Afreeca Freecs
I think this is the closest quarterfinal of them all. Really, flip a coin and either answer could be right. If C9 plays like it did on its final day of the group stages and Afreeca doesn't have an answer for C9's array of pocket picks like Hecarim and Zilean, then North America will be sending its first team to a worlds semifinal since 2011. If Afreeca continues to build on its second-half performance in groups and gets back to being the South Korean team famous for innovative strategies and pristine execution, then the Freecs go from almost being out of the tournament to probably being the favorites to make the final from its side of the bracket.
Pocket picks, cosplaying and fun versus tireless hours of hard work with only winning on the mind. In this anime story come to life, I flipped a coin and am going with the team that cosplays.
Fnatic (Europe) vs. Edward Gaming (China)
Storyline to watch: Is Fnatic the strongest western team of all-time?
Listen, I'm a North American writer. I'm from Los Angeles. I cover the North American League Championship Series every weekend. And with all that said, I have to admit that we might be watching the emergence of the best western team to ever be produced. This Fnatic team has all the makings of becoming a worlds finalist, and although they'd be underdogs against the likes of KT or RNG in the finals in Incheon, there's a chance they could take home the world championship.
Invictus Gaming might not be the smartest team at worlds, but when Fnatic threw down the gauntlet and challenged iG to an all-out mechanical brawl, it wasn't the Chinese team that won out in the end. It was Fnatic. Fnatic has some of the most gifted players at worlds, and they have the right mixture of confidence and brashness to not be afraid against the best teams of the tournament. Fnatic isn't too young or too old. They have veterans but also standout up-and-coming players who push those veterans to play at their best. Unlike Team SoloMid who routinely enters worlds with the air of invincibility around them after rolling over world-class teams in scrimmages, Fnatic actually translated those strong online results offline on-stage.
For Edward Gaming, though, the third-place Chinese team who enters the quarterfinals with a loss to Team Liquid, the lowered expectations might be the best thing to ever happen to them. Fnatic will be the main story for this quarterfinal and the golden draw it got to a possible final, avoiding RNG and KT. EDG has become famous for being the hope of China before choking at worlds, which has led a large part of the other Chinese fan bases to give up on EDG entirely when it comes to doing anything at international events.
This year, iG and RNG are the Chinese teams expected to go far at worlds, while EDG is just along for the ride, making it through the Regional gauntlet, worlds play-ins and group stages without bringing too much attention to itself outside of its single upset win over KT Rolster. Maybe, after all this time, all EDG needed was to lurk in the shadows to become the team China always wanted them to be.
Prediction: Fnatic 3-0 Edward Gaming
Fnatic's 2015 team -- what many people believe was the greatest western team of all-time -- began their knockout stage with a sweeping victory over EDG in the quarterfinals. That Fnatic team would then go on to lay a goose egg in a semifinal against South Korea's ROX Tigers, where the consensus through scrimmages and hearsay was that they should have at least made it to the final against SK Telecom T1. This year, if Fnatic of today wants to one-up its previous iteration, it'll need to make the final, and that all starts in Busan. EDG is good and they got that knockout win over KT, but this Fnatic team is a different beast, and we might be witnessing the start of something special with this all-European squad.