By Brian Sui
Photos Provided by LoL eSports
Over five months ago, North America’s number one League of Legends team, Team Liquid, stood proudly in front of fans after they defeated the reigning world champions, China’s Invictus Gaming, to advance to the finals of the 2019 League of Legends Mid-Season Invitational, also known as MSI.
MSI is one of two international tournaments held per year, in between the spring and summer seasons. With this victory, Team Liquid became the first North American team to advance to the finals in MSI history.
Despite being decimated in the finals 3-0, North American fans held out hope that their region would be able to improve upon this respectable performance. Little did fans know, this would be the height of their success in 2019.
Team Liquid lost to Invictus Gaming on their final game of the 2019 World Championship on Oct. 20. For the second year in a row, Team Liquid — the North American first seed for two years running — failed to make it out of the group stage of the World Championship. Yiliang “Doublelift” Peng — widely regarded as the best North American player — failed to make it out of the group stage five years in a row.
“But that’s okay,” said North American fan Justin Fortino. “At least we still have Cloud9, North America’s last hope.”
Famously, Cloud9 made it out of the group stage every year from 2016 to 2018 — the only North American team to do so. This year, Cloud9 did not advance the group stage. In 2018, Cloud9 made it to the semifinals for the first time and became the first North American team to get that far since 2011, when Team SoloMid placed third in the first ever World Championship.
North American fans at least hoped that Clutch Gaming, the North American third seed that surprised many with a late-season surge, would upset top teams with their aggressive playstyle and high mechanical ceiling to bring some pride to the region. Despite this, Clutch Gaming was the first North American team since 2012 to go without a win in the group stage. As a result, North America as a region went 5-13 in the group stage. They were the second worst out of all major regions.
North America’s poor performance was shocking to many who believed that this year’s teams had the highest potential to perform well. Well-known figures such as caster Aaron “Medic” Chamberlain, former player Hong “MadLife” Min-gi and caster Trevor “Quickshot” Henry, all predicted that at least one North American team would advance past the group stage.
Since no North American teams made it past the group stage, players, fans and analysts started coming up with ways in whichNorth America could improve as a region.
“Our region is really weak. It actually says a lot, in my opinion, that I struggle really hard internationally, but then domestically there’s no competition,” Doublelift stated in an interview with journalist Travis Gafford.
To many, including Doublelift, the lack of international competition in the professional League of Legends scene is a serious issue. While North America has super-teams like Team Liquid — which features superstars from like European mid laner Nicolaj “Jensen” Jensen and Korean Jo “CoreJJ” Yong-in, it also has teams that do not count on such heavy talent. Playing the same North American teams for a majority of the year stagnates a team’s ability to improve.
“Increase amount of meaningful international competition,” former League of Legends caster Christopher “MonteCristo” Mykles tweeted. By adding more international competitions, North American teams could gain more experience playing the top teams from each region. There are currently only three international competitions per year: MSI, Rift Rivals — in which the top three spring North American teams play the top three spring European teams — and the World Championships.
Others focus on how much North America relies on imports to improve their teams. To import means to bring talent from other regions, mainly Koreans and Europeans, to North America.
“Instead of importing another player, why don’t you try out one of these mid laners who are playing Academy and playing well every split?” said Clutch Gaming mid laner Tanner Damonte in a Korizon Esports interview.
Out of the ten North American teams in the League Championship Series (LCS), which is the premier North American league, only two teams fielded a native North American mid laner in their starting lineup. There is a rule that limits a team’s imports to two playing at once. This year, Team Liquid had one import, while Cloud9 and Clutch Gaming each had two.
“If you are importing players, scout better,” MonteCristo tweeted in response to the amount of imports in North American teams. “Stop frothing at the mouth for former stars who are looking for a retirement check.”
Another possible cause for North America’s international woes could be the regular season format of the LCS. In one year, there is a summer and spring split, which are regular seasons. Splits are played in best-of-ones (BO1), where one match decides who wins and loses, and double-round-robin, where one team plays every other team twice. In other regions like China and Korea, teams play each other in best-of-threes (BO3), where the first team to win two matches receives the win for the series.
“I need BO3 FAST,” Cloud9 head coach Bok “Reapered” Han-gyu tweeted not long after North America’s exit from the World Championships. “I just hope Riot and owners can make an idea about how we can keep viewership while we also keep BO3.”
Best-of-threes imitate international competitions, as most series at international tournaments are best-of-fives, where the first team to win three matches advance. Best-of-ones also discourage the use of substitute players, since every game counts and losing one game because of a substitute could mean the difference between playoffs and an extended offseason. For teams like Cloud9 — one of the few North American teams to successfully use substitutes in situational matters — it is an incredible risk to utilize them during the regular split.
A counter-argument to Reaperd’s tweet is that Europe has played with best-of-ones for the past two years and has consistently outperformed North America internationally. From 2013 to 2019, there have been seven European teams in the World Championship semifinals compared to one North American team. Last year, Europe’s Fnatic made the World Championship final, something that no North American team has ever done.
For now, North American teams have a long time to ponder over their off season choices as fans sit and watch teams from other regions chase the World Championships trophy.