BERLIN -- The most impressive prematch cheering from the crowd in group stages did not occur during games played by European teams Fnatic, G2 Esports or Splyce. It also did not happen during games involving Royal Never Give Up or T1, two teams with wide-reaching international fan bases. Instead, it took place during the final match of the group stage: Invictus Gaming versus Team Liquid.
A large portion of the crowd started up a "Let's go Liquid!" chant on TL's side of the stage. In response, a smaller but equally vocal group of iG fans started up an echoing, four-syllable "iG! 加油! [jia you!]." The Verti Music Hall was filled with competing cheers for 20 minutes, and they continued sporadically throughout the game.
This excitement was all over a single game this past Saturday that would decide which team would advance to the League of Legends World Championship quarterfinals: iG or Team Liquid.
It was a Mid-Season Invitational rematch in more ways than their first meeting at this world championship since jungler Gao "Ning" Zhen-Ning was back in the starting lineup over the recently promoted 17-year-old rookie Lu "Leyan" Jue. At this year's MSI, defending world champion iG unexpectedly lost to Team Liquid in the tournament semifinals. While this upset can be explained mostly by iG's emotional volatility, there's no questioning that Team Liquid were the better, more cohesive team on that day.
Their second matchup at worlds held that history in addition to other dominant tournament narratives. What would the return of Ning mean for iG after highly publicized internal strife? Team Liquid bot laner Yiliang "Doublelift" Peng still had not made it out of a worlds group stage, and this seemed like another strong chance to surpass that goal, especially with Team Liquid roster upgrades in mid laner Nicolaj "Jensen" Jensen and support Jo "CoreJJ" Yong-in in the 2018-19 offseason. If iG lost to TL in this game, they would have been unable to defend their 2018 worlds title.
When the nexus fell, iG won, and Team Liquid did not advance.
The resulting fallout has been angry, resigned and at times vitriolic. It has dominated Western League of Legends social media for the past few days.
"I feel like I should stand up for my teammates when they get unfairly blamed," Doublelift said in a personal vlog on the night Team Liquid was eliminated. "And just say that we all f---ed up a lot in many games. Some of the games, like me ulting into Veigar cage, we still won, and some of the games we lost. There's so many different mistakes that are happening."
Shortly after this statement, Doublelift's voice breaks. "We were a strong team that just got f---ing unlucky man, why am I so unlucky every year?"
North America had not failed to advance a team to worlds quarterfinals since 2015, when Cloud9, Counter Logic Gaming and Team SoloMid all exited the tournament after the group stage. This year, the stakes were different. Although Clutch Gaming was not given much of a chance to advance out of the "group of death," Cloud9 had not failed to advance out of groups since 2015. And more was expected of this year's Team Liquid than any North American team in 2015, for many reasons.
When we talk about North American League of Legends, we talk about money first. Team Liquid is at the forefront of this discussion due to the large amount of money spent on what is effectively an all-star lineup, spawning the memetic phrase "Paid by Steve" as a nod to Team Liquid co-owner and CEO Steve Arhancet.
During the League of Legends Championship Series season, strategies often became jokes: NARAM, "What is a side lane?" Twitter memes and remarkable focus on drakes are all lighthearted commentary on the way LoL is played in North America but are all true. Only after North American teams falter on the worlds stage do we return to a serious discussion of what should be done to improve competitive LoL in the region and the many obstacles facing teams.
"Of course to do better at worlds, every [NA] team needs to do better," Team Liquid support Jo "CoreJJ" Yong-in said after his team was eliminated. He added that he didn't think that Team Liquid was even all that dominant this year in their own region. "I will just think about, 'What can I do?'" he added. "Maybe I cannot think about what I cannot do anything. So, I'll just try to do what I can."
What CoreJJ can do at this point might seem insurmountable. The issues plaguing North America are many, including but not restricted to poor solo queue conditions, a small player base, unwillingness to give the genuine talent that does bubble up to the surface from that player base a chance in the LCS, poor amateur scouting, poor amateur infrastructure, the inability to scrimmage with strong teams from other regions regularly and many more. These issues can't be solved in a day, or even a year, given the amount of problems and nuances behind them.
"I'll be here next year," Cloud9 top laner Eric "Licorice" Ritchie said after C9 was eliminated. Since his 2018 LCS debut, Licorice has attended worlds twice, and last year he made it to semifinals with C9.
At the 2017 Mid-Season Invitational, the coaches of the LoL Pro League had an early-morning epiphany, as they met under a streetlamp to discuss working together better rather than being a loose, independent collection of teams that they previously had been. This and Royal Never Give Up's ascension throughout 2018 only improved the LPL (although the LPL has dipped in performance this year).
The challenges that face North America are greater than those that the LPL faced at that time since most of the latter were self-inflicted, and China has a massive player base from which to draw talent. Yet, there has to be some sort of true epiphany for North America that doesn't end with resignation that the task of improving competitively is too insurmountable to tackle.