In the wake of explosive and unexpected quarterfinals results, the 2018 League of Legends World Championship has been characterized by the collapse of South Korea and the rise of the West. Yet it also delivered two uneventful semifinals blowouts, one of which was nearly the shortest series in worlds history. Both Invictus Gaming and Fnatic outclassed G2 Esports and Cloud9, respectively, en route to a Group D rematch in the finals.
Both post-series press conferences shined spotlights on the teams' two mid laners: Fnatic's Rasmus "Caps" Winther, and iG's Song "Rookie" Eui-jin. Members of the English-speaking, South Korean and Chinese media all hyped up this particular one-on-one matchup, eagerly listening and pointing both players in the direction of each other, forcing them to evaluate each others' skill.
"I think some revenge is due. I want the world to know that I'm the number one [mid-laner]," Rookie said of facing Caps again.
"I feel like I've seen enough Rookie and I've played against him enough now that I kind of know his weakness," Caps said a day later. "I know what makes him different from other mid laners. I'm pretty confident going up against him. I think what he does will be a lot harder to do in the final and I think we're just a better team, and I think we have a pretty good idea of how to beat him."
In a world where LoL only has two major international events in the competitive year and both of them are single elimination, there's a miniscule sample size with which to truly see how teams and individuals from different regions stack up against each other. There's always the eye test, but even that is naturally skewed by nebulous ideas of regional strength. South Korea still has the strongest solo queue ladder, but if there's one thing that this most recent tournament has proven, it's that individual domestic talent rises to the top of a region over time, even in the smallest of regional player bases. With a large, robust solo queue ladder, more specifically, the EU West server, Europe has never lacked talent or a large player base. The region has provided more than a few teams in Turkey, NA, and other minor regions like Brazil, with top-tier players. If this worlds has done nothing else, it's forced viewers to re-evaluate how they perceive individuals separate from their teams, and what natural biases go into such evaluations.
Yet, this is still the first time since 2011 -- arguably the first time ever, depending on one's feelings about the Season 1 "World Championship" -- that a European team has made it to the worlds finals. This is less about having strong individuals, and more about how those individuals are actually working together in and out of the game alongside members of their coaching staff. More than most teams at the tournament, Fnatic and especially iG have been characterized by the solo strengths of their players more than a team effort. Caps and Rookie may be the marquee matchup of finals, and whether they succeed or fail to lift the Summoners' Cup will be highly dependent on matchups. This tournament has been a highlight reel for phenomenal outplays from skilled players of all regions. These two dynamic mid laners will be no exception in the finals.
Caps and Rookie have more than a few similarities in the way they both came up through solo queue. Both were recognized for their talents on the ladder, or as trainees. It seems like a lifetime ago that Caps was denied a chance to play at the 2016 International Wildcard Qualifier with Turkish team Dark Passage due to his age, still earning the nickname of "Baby Faker" -- a reference to SK Telecom T1 mid laner Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok -- from his solo queue exploits.
Rookie was also known for his skill before his 2014 debut with the KT Rolster Arrows, and was naturally compared to Faker throughout that competitive year, especially when the Arrows rose to take the summer title, even while failing to qualify for worlds shortly after. When it became widely known that Rookie was leaving South Korea for China, fans lamented the loss. They wanted to see Rookie challenge and surpass the greatest to ever play the game in his own domestic region.
Since his first EU LCS split last year, Caps has become a face not only of Fnatic, but of Europe. He stands as an example of what individual talent from the region can become, and has been a crucial part of Fnatic's team growth over the past two years. By contrast, Rookie's first international appearance with iG in 2015 was a unique failure. As he stuck with iG, learning Mandarin at an astonishing rate and becoming a team leader both in and out of the game, the hole that Rookie left in South Korea was still mourned. Many continued to bemoan the fact that Rookie would never be in his home region, continuing to push and maybe even surpass Faker. Instead, Rookie became the face of iG. The team grew and evolved into a breeding ground of young talent from both China and South Korea, including bot laner Yu "JackeyLove" Wen-bo and another former solo queue prodigy, top laner Kang "TheShy" Seung-lok.
With solo lane counterpicks and individual outplays framing the entirety of the 2018 World Championship, all eyes will be on Caps and Rookie for lengthy, dynamic 1-on-1 duels. Yet their individual success will be highly depend on draft, matchup, and how each team wants to play. In groups, Rookie bested Caps individually, but it was still Fnatic that took a 2-1 lead over iG in group stage play, including a tiebreaker for first seed out of the group. What's more impressive is how each player has become a centerpiece for their respective teams, making their own mark on competitive LoL, while other individual talent shines around them.