A Region on the Rise – North America’s History on the League of Legends World Stage
Fri 15th Nov 2019 - 8:06pm
As a North American fan, it can sometimes be hard to get excited about international events. NA has been referred to as a ‘4fun Region’ and a ‘wildcard region’, and many fans from other top regions have often not taken the teams that NA sends to international events very seriously. Although North America has yet to win a major international title yet, if one looks at the history of North American teams’ performance on the League of Legends World Stage, there is no doubt that NA teams are slowly but surely clawing their ways towards the top. By looking at Worlds, one season at a time, it becomes clear that North America has definitely improved as a region when it comes to international play.
The Rocky Start
The Season One World Championship took place In June 2011, in Jönköping, Sweden. At the time only 8 teams participated in this tournament with 3 teams from North America (TSM, CLG, Epik Gamer), 3 teams from Europe (Fnatic, against ALL authority, Team GAMED.DE), and 2 teams from South East Asia (Pacific eSports, Xan). The teams were split up into two groups, and with the three North American teams all coming out at the top of their groups, things looked promising for NA.
However, as the playoff phase began, and the games went from a best of one format to a best of three format things took a turn for the worse. CLG fell in the first round to the EU powerhouse Fnatic, and even though both TSM and Epik Gamer had received first-round byes, both teams fell to European teams. TSM went down 1-2 to against ALL authority and Epik Gamer fell 0-2 to Fnatic. In the Loser’s bracket, TSM was able to take down their fellow NA team, Epik Gamer, but in their rematch with against ALL authority, they fell again, this time failing to take a single game from the European squad. At the end of the day, Fnatic took down against ALL authority, claiming the title as the first World Champions. The tournament overall demonstrated that although North America was able to succeed in a best of one format, as they were able to top the group stage, when it came to a series they struggled to adapt to their opponents.
The next year, the World Championship took place in Los Angeles, California. This time, instead of eight teams participating, twelve teams gathered to duke it out. Amongst the teams there were 3 from North America (TSM, CLG Prime, Team Dignitas), 3 from Europe (Moscow Five, CLG Europe, SK Gaming), 2 from Korea (Azubu Frost, NaJin Sword), 2 from China (WE Gaming, Invictus Gaming), 1 from Taiwan/Hong Kong/Macau (Taipei Assassins), and one from South East Asia (Saigon Jokers). Out of the five first seeds from each region, a random drawing was done to see which four teams would get to skip the group stage and be moved straight to the first round of playoffs.
Luckily for North America, TSM was one of the teams who was auto seeded into playoffs, giving them one less obstacle to go through on the way to the championship title. However, once the group stage concluded, TSM was the only hope for North America that would remain. To make matters worse, TSM was matched against Azubu Frost, the first seed out of Korea and the team that was heavily favored to win the entire tournament. TSM would go onto fall 0-2 to Azubu Frost, and the Korean squad ended up making it all the way to the finals where the tournament favorites surprisingly fell to the Taiwanese underdogs, the Taipei Assassins.
In season 3, after two unsuccessful runs on the World Championship stage, North America sent in two promising new rosters to compete: Cloud9 and Team Vulcan. Along with TSM, these were some of the most dominant rosters that North America had ever seen. However, even though the NA squads were strong, so was the competition. With three teams from Europe (Fnatic, Lemondogs, Gambit Gaming), three from Korea (NaJin Black Sword, Samsung Ozone, SK Telekom T1), two from China (Star Horn Royal Club, OMG), as well as one team from South East Asia (Mineski), the LMS (Gama Bears), and the CIS region (GamingGear.eu), the group stage proved to be quite the challenge for North America once again.
TSM and Team Vulcan were unable to power through against the Korean, Chinese, and European teams in their groups and failed to make it to playoffs. This left Cloud9, who auto qualified for playoffs due to their seeding coming into Worlds, to be the last NA hope. Cloud9 was matched against Europe’s Fnatic in the first round of the playoffs but unfortunately fell in the third game of the best of three format. Ultimately, SK Telekom T1 would win the championship beginning an era of Korean dominance led by the up and coming mid-laner who’s name would be known by all throughout the League of Legends world: Faker. After three years, it seemed as though North America simply could not compete against the rest of the world.
The Gap Begins to Close
In Season 4, the World Championship stage moved to Korea, and the tournament’s format changed. No longer would teams be able to auto qualify for playoffs, but instead all teams would have to participate in a double round-robin group stage. Furthermore, instead of two large groups, the tournament’s first phase had the teams broken up into four groups of four, with each team comprising of 1 first seed team, 2 second seed teams, and 1 third seed team, with no more than a single team from each region in each group. From North America, the first seed team, TSM, was placed in a group with China’s Star Horn Royal Club, a finalist from the previous world tournament, Europe’s SK Gaming, and the Taipei Assassins of the LMS. NA’s second seed team, Cloud9, was matched against Korea’s NaJin White Shield, Europe’s Alliance, and Brazil’s KaBuM! E-Sports. Lastly, North America’s third seed, LMQ, was grouped with Korea’s Samsung Blue, China’s OMG, and Europe’s Fnatic.
Although LMQ failed to make it out of groups, this year was a historic moment for North America, as it was the first time the region was able to send two teams past the group stage. Both TSM and Cloud9 were able to progress to the playoff stage as the second seed teams from each group. However, when it came to the playoff stage, TSM and Cloud9 were matched up against Korea’s Samsung White and Samsung Blue respectively, two teams who were favored to win the entire tournament. Up to this point, Samsung Blue had only dropped a single game and Samsung White had been undefeated. In the new playoff format, each playoff series was changed from a best of three format to a best of five format. Although both North American teams did ultimately fall in the first round of the playoffs, they both managed to take a game off of their opponents, with TSM’s victory over Samsung White being one of only two losses they would face before being crowned the world champions.
Although North America was unable to progress in the tournament, this year they were able to prove that they were able to compete with the best of the best, as they put up a valiant effort against two incredibly strong Korean rosters.
A Bump Along the Way
The World Championship stage went to Europe to declare a new champion in 2015. The group format remained the same from the previous year and this year North America’s three representatives were CLG, TSM, and Cloud9. This time around, CLG was grouped with the KOO Tigers from Korea, the Flash Wolves from the LMS, and paiN Gaming from Brazil. TSM shared a group with Korea’s KT Rolster, Europe’s Origen, and China’s LGD. Lastly, Cloud9 was placed with ahq eSports Club from the LMS, Fnatic from Europe, and Invictus Gaming from China. At the end of the first week, North America’s hope to send multiple teams to the next round looked like an achievable dream with Cloud9 going 3-0 and CLG going 2-1. Additionally, even though TSM went 1-2 during their first week they weren’t out of contention just yet. However, as the second week of groups passed, North American fans would be forced to slowly lose faith as they watched game after game and loss after loss, as this would signal the infamous 0-10 week. Not only did every North American team lose all of their regularly scheduled games, but Cloud9 would also go onto lose a tiebreaker that would have secured them a spot in the next round. Ultimately, SKT Telekom T1 would go on to be the first team to win a second world championship.
The second week of the group stage at the 2015 World Championship is arguably the darkest moment in North America’s League of Legends international history, because of how stark the contrast was between it and the week prior. If CLG could have repeated their performance from week 1, or if Cloud9 had managed to win a single game out of the four they played, North America’s tournament life could have continued but unfortunately, this was not the case.
Back on Track
After a demoralizing performance on the world stage the previous year, North America returned to try their hand on the World Championship stage once again in 2016, which took place one again in the United States. NA was once again represented by CLG, TSM, and Cloud9. CLG faced off against the ROX Tigers from Korea, Albus NoX Luna from the CIS region, and G2 from Europe while TSM shared a group with Korea’s Samsung Galaxy, China’s Royal Never Give Up, and Europe’s Splyce. Lastly, Cloud9 was pitted against the reigning champions, SKT Telekom T1 from Korea, as well as China’s I May and the Flash Wolves of the LMS. Although all three North American teams ended the group stage 3-3, the 50% win rate was only good enough in Cloud9’s group to make it out of the group stage and into the playoff stage.
Cloud9 faced off against Samsung Galaxy in the quarterfinals and were unfortunately unable to take a single game off of them. Samsung Galaxy would eventually go on to the finals where they would fall to SK Telekom T1 in game five of their series. However, even though Cloud9 lost, it was encouraging for North American fans to see that the previous year’s devastating performance would not be the start of a worrying trend. North America was able to recover from its heartbreaking performance in 2015 and look forward to improving in the years to come.
Season 7 saw the World Championship stage move to China. This year the format of the tournament changed once again to allow for more teams to participate. North America’s third seed team would have to compete in a play-in stage in order to qualify for the group stage of the tournament. Because of this, NA’s third seed representative, Cloud9, played a double round-robin in a play-in group with Brazil’s Team oNe eSports and the Dire Wolves from the Oceania region.
Fortunately, Cloud9 was able to sweep their group which allowed for them to play against Lyon Gaming, the second seed from another play-in group, in a best of five. Cloud9 won the series in dominating fashion, not dropping a single game, and securing themselves a spot in the group stage of the tournament while also getting some stage experience. Cloud9 was then placed in a group with SK Telekom T1 from Korea, ahq eSports Club from the LMS, and EDward Gaming from China. North America’s first seed, TSM, was grouped with China’s Team WE, Europe’s Misfits Gaming, and the Flash Wolves from the LMS while the second seed team, Immortals, was matched with Korea’s Longzhu Gaming, Europe’s Fnatic, and Vietnam’s GIGABYTE Marines.
Once again, only Cloud9 was able to progress past the group stage, with Immortals and TSM both losing tiebreakers for the second seeds in their respective groups. Cloud9 was matched against Team WE for their quarterfinals bout and although they were able to force the series into a fifth and final game, they too would eventually fall. Eventually, the tournament would be won in a swift 3-0 with Samsung Galaxy getting revenge in their rematch with SK Telekom T1 in the finals.
Although it was heartbreaking for North American fans to see the one team that progressed past the group stage make it so close to the semifinals to just fall short, it was the closest North America had ever gotten to winning a quarterfinals series on the world stage. Because of this, hope increased for the following year as it demonstrated that North America was clawing its way forward one small step at a time.
In Season 8, the World Championship returned to Korea, with a tournament format that mirrored the year before. Cloud9 was North America’s third seed once again which meant they needed to go through the play-in stage in order to advance to the group stage for the second year in a row. Cloud9 would go through the initial group undefeated, just as they had done the year before, but their best of five series against Gambit Esports definitely gave NA fans a scare. Cloud9 clinched their spot in the group stage after being taken to a game five by Gambit, shaking fan confidence in a team who had garnished the reputation of being North America’s last hope in previous years.
Cloud9 would then be placed into a group with China’s Royal Never Give Up, Europe’s Team Vitality, and Korea’s Gen.G (a rebranded version of Samsung Galaxy, the reigning world champions, with all of the same players from the year before). The group would be referred to throughout the group stage as the “group of death”. North America’s first seed, Team Liquid, was placed with Korea’s KT Rolster, China’s Edward Gaming, and MAD Gaming of the LMS, and the NA second seed, 100 Thieves, would go up against Europe’s Fnatic, China’s Invictus Gaming, and G-Rex from the LMS. The first and second-seeded teams from North America would both end up placing third in their groups, failing to advance to the quarterfinals. However, against all odds, Cloud9 was able to beat out Team Vitality and Gen.G to secure themselves as the second-place team in their group, earning themselves a place in the playoff stage in the tournament.
Cloud9 would go on to face Korea’s Afreeca Freecs in the quarterfinals where they would make history by not only being the first North American team to beat a Korean team in a best of five, which they did in swift 3-0 fashion, but also being the first North American team ever to progress to the semifinals on the world stage. Unfortunately for North American fans, Cloud9 would fall to Fnatic in the next round, and ultimately Invictus Gaming would go on to win China’s first World Championship title.
Although Cloud9 fell before they could make it to the finals, it was an incredible World Tournament run for North America as they proved to the world that NA still deserved to be considered a major region as they could still compete with the best of the best.
A Learning Opportunity
The world stage made its way back to Europe for Season 9, and the tournament format remained the same as it was the last two years. This year’s North American third seed who would need to prove themselves in the play-in stage was Clutch Gaming, who's ownership had changed to Dignitas mid split.
After a rough start to the LCS summer split, the team was able to fight there way up the standings in the regular season and perform remarkably well in the playoffs, which granted them a spot in the North American Regional Qualifier. They would ultimately come out on top as they played through the gauntlet of North American teams to secure their place at the World Championship.
Although Clutch Gaming had a rocky time in their play-in group, they were able to secure the group’s first seed and were then able to beat Turkey’s Royal Youth in a quick 3-0 to earn their place in the group stage of the tournament, a huge step for Dignitas as they reinstated themselves in the League of Legends professional scene.
Clutch Gaming would then be placed in a group with Korea’s SK Telekom T1, China’s Royal Never Give Up, and Europe’s Fnatic. As for the other North American representatives, the first seed, Team Liquid, was pitted against the defending world champions, China’s Invictus Gaming, ahq eSports Club from the LMS, and DAMWON Gaming from Korea. Cloud9, as North America’s second seed, would match up against Korea’s Griffin, Europe’s G2 Esports, and Hong Kong Attitude of the LMS.
North American fans were quite hopeful, especially for Team Liquid, who had just earlier that year made it to the finals of the Mid-Season Invitational, and Cloud9, who had performed so well the year before and seemed to make it past the group stage each year despite all odds. Clutch Gaming would struggle to deal with the top teams of other regions, and although they had some very close games and demonstrated themselves as a World Championship caliber team, they would be unable to progress to the playoff stage. Similarly, despite their best efforts, Team Liquid and Cloud9 also just fell short of qualifying for the next round of the tournament. Eventually, the World Championship title would be taken by China for a second year in a row, this time by FunPlus Phoenix.
Although the year’s results were not what North America would have hoped for, there were many lessons to take away. NA’s teams struggled to add variance in the way they played the game, often sticking to a similar game plan throughout all of their games, allowing their tactics to be exploited by the other regions who proved to be more adaptable. By taking this into consideration, NA has the potential to learn from their shortcoming and improve stylistically moving forward.
As North America moves towards the future, I think it is safe to say that fans should remain hopeful. The region has had its ups and downs, but overall the teams have been improving. Each year North America seems to learn from their past mistakes and grow stronger as a region as a whole, and hopefully, international success is in sight for both North American teams and their fans in the seasons to come.
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