The University of Michigan’s fight song is, strangely, an homage to how this year’s Worlds meta has evolved as we approach finals -- it’s called “Hail to the Viktors.” Spooky! This is the 30th and final 10 thoughts of the year -- that’s about 300 thoughts (some weeks were weird) and unlike the 300 spartans who stood with King Leonidas at the Battle of Thermopylae, some were definitely better than others. But thanks to all of you who trudged through it with me!
2011 -- Season 1 World Champion.
2012 -- Failed to qualify for Worlds.
2013 -- Eliminated in Semifinals by Royal Club.
2014 -- Eliminated in Groups.
2015 -- Eliminated in Semifinals by KOO Tigers.
2016 -- Failed to qualify for Worlds.
2017 -- Eliminated in Quarterfinals by Royal Never Give Up.
2011 -- Eliminated in World Cyber Game Grand Finals.
2012 -- Eliminated in Quarterfinals by Moscow Five.
2013 -- Failed to qualify for Worlds.
2014 -- Failed to qualify for Worlds.
2015 -- Eliminated in Groups.
2016 -- Failed to qualify for Worlds.
2017 -- Failed to qualify for Worlds.
Fnatic is one of four organizations to ever win a World Championship -- a pantheon of elites which includes the Taipei Assassins, Samsung (twice), and SK Telecom T1 (three times). Since they won, though, Worlds has expanded into a goliath of an event. It must be a little bitter to watch every subsequent winner adorned on stages each more grand than the last, but finally they have a chance to take it all back. Compared to the futile history of IG, FNC is the more decorated and successful franchise. But a single Worlds title can wipe out all of that failure -- and soon, 2018, too, may become another line in an article to all but a handful of people who played in it, or coached it, or watched it and felt so moved as to never forget it. All that’s left to settle is whether that memory is good or bad.
Like two bulls preparing to charge at each other, FNC and IG will be kicking dust into the air with their hooves all week. They’ll puff steam from their noses, and their tails will flicker like a reed in the wind. It’s hard to tell what will happen when they finally run at each other -- from this distance it’s hard to say which one is bigger or which horns are sharper. You expect it to be close, though. This is the most 50/50 Finals in history -- you could look back at every single Finals before this and identify which team was the clear favorite, but not this year. Ultimately, analysts have and will pick one team to win, but I don’t think many of them could say with conviction one way or the other. You might even see them change their minds by the time the pre-game countdown begins. That’s what happens when both teams have been on a warpath to the Finals since their tiebreaker to end Group D -- especially in the Semifinals where both FNC and IG wiped the floor with their opponents. It almost looked like they were annoyed they even had to play the Semifinal -- the thrashings were that thorough. But what that sets up is an immense grudge match between these two squads who appear to be in peak form. And if this is anything like the games they played in the Group Stage, then we could be in store for the best Finals ever. Never before have teams from the same Group had a chance to meet again, so this will be the best look yet at what it means to evolve at Worlds.
Incheon, South Korea
Before Worlds began, I remember joking with friends about how ironic it would be if Korea failed to make Finals this year. After three straight years of Korean vs. Korean finals in Europe, North America, and China, it really would have been a pity for the region if they couldn’t perform on the grandest stage in front of their own fans. It was -- of course -- laughed off as nothing but a strange fantasy. And yet here we are -- a Finals in the heart of the most dominant League of Legends region in the world without even a single Korean team. This, I think, will let the Korean faithful taste the same bitter conclusion to the season that everyone else has had to stomach until now. It always kind of felt like being the little brother watching on as the older brother would complete a hard video game for you. Like you were destined to just watch it unfold without knowing how it actually felt to press the buttons. But this year -- for Europe and China especially -- I think all of us are able to take a better look at this Finals and say, “Maybe that could be us.” And there’s just so much more on the line when it’s two regions -- they carry the mantles of their organization, yes, but also of millions of fans from their region who’ve now pledged allegiance to them as a fallback team or as their secondary option. You might be neutral now, but once the game begins, you’ll start to notice the needle lean in one direction. You’ll start to feel it even more when one team finds success.
What you need to know about each player
Haven’t been paying much attention to Worlds or esports at all this year? Don’t know anything about these players? Well, here’s a quick cheat sheet to help you figure out which player to root for:
sOAZ: one of longest tenured pros and would probably pick a baguette weapon skin
Bwipo: a new player with the best reaction cam faces -- energetic like a cartoon character
Broxah: thank mr broxah is most popular meme this worlds, insane Lee Sin player
Caps: EU LCS Summer MVP, huge champion pool, his dad comes to his games in a Caps’ Dad jersey
Rekkles: face of Fnatic, lots of tattoos, most popular player in EU, once had aspirations to be a pro soccer player
Hylissang: roams a lot to make plays (like, a lot), formerly on Unicorns of Love
Duke: former World Champion with SKT in 2016, would be first to win with two teams
TheShy: famous for playing tons of ARAM, was injured earlier this year, actually a little shy
Ning: conquered Solo Queue ladder at 14 years old, parents initially said he was crazy for trying to go pro
Rookie: current front-runner for tournament MVP, sometimes translates from Korean to Mandarin or vice versa for his teammates in interviews
JackeyLove: won’t turn 18 until after Worlds, loves anime, considered a prodigal talent
Baolan: second year of play, was named Megan last year, lane dominant with Jackey
Three keys to the game
1. Thank mr broxah
2. Hylissang and Broxah continue to secure advantages in the middle of the map for Caps or at least show their presence to stifle Rookie’s lane dominance
3. Take bot lane turret first so Rekkles can be rotated early
1. Aggressive wards to spot out Broxah and be vocal when Hylissang is MIA
2. Continue to pick flexible solo laners to be able to opt out of bad matchups
3. Put the rook in Rookie by giving him clear lines to fight 1v1
So... who wins?
In a simulated game of the Oregon Trail, Fnatic gets dysentery and dies first.
Five coin flips came up heads and five came up tails.
A magic eight ball on the internet says, “Outlook not so good.”
The best guild on my WoW server was named Veritas Invictus.
Everyone beats everyone and in the end Fnatic wins.
The D20 dice rolls a 12 and my perception check failed.
A random bartender in Hongdae says Fnatic will win.
My research is thorough but inconclusive. The general consensus is FNC has the advantage in bot lane and jungler whereas IG is favored in the solo lanes. Given everything that’s happened this tournament, I think it’s FNC’s series to lose -- they seem to be the more flexible team when it comes to win conditions, and if the early game pans out evenly, I think they’ll be more coordinated in the mid game. We’ve also already seen Rookie’s nerves on display when he forgot to buy an item to start Game 5 against KT, so I can’t help but wonder if that will creep up again on a stage this big. Anyway, I trust the bartender the most, so I’m going to go with Fnatic 3-2 to give Europe the Summoner’s Cup so we can get a 10 hour episode of Euphoria where they’re just screaming gibberish in multiple European languages.
In Super Smash Brothers, when you beat someone and they don’t manage to deal any damage to you on that life, it’s referred to as being technically x-stocked. For example, the match starts with four stocks (lives) for both players, and if you win with three stocks remaining but never take damage on that life, then it’s a technical four-stock win. That’s what it felt like watching G2 and Cloud9 in the Semifinals -- they got absolutely blasted. So I get it when people say they are disappointed with the showing. But some people might look at that and say they didn’t belong in the Semifinals, but that’s not really the metric. Where they clearly do not belong is the Finals, but they definitely earned the Semifinals appearance by winning the Quarterfinals match up. Both organizations have storied pasts, so it was nice to see them advance so far into the tournament for once, but I’m sure a defeat like that is kind of shocking. You might not be surprised to lose, but to lose like that, I think, really highlights just how far away you are from winning the whole thing. And what really is the point in playing Worlds if you are not trying to win it all? In the grand scheme of things, this was a fantastic tournament run for both of these teams. What I am left to wonder, though, is what is the image that will burn through these players’ heads in the offseason. Is it the insane high they must have felt from winning the Quarterfinals, or is it the helplessness with which they were denied the a trip to Finals?
The case for Fnatic
When we say the “East” has dominated League of Legends, what we really mean is Korea has dominated League of Legends -- China, the largest region, has never won either. But that doesn’t stop NA and EU fans from lumping themselves together every year come Worlds. It’s simple: when NA is eliminated, NA fans root for Fnatic. That’s a tried-and-true yearly tradition. C9 being so outclassed probably makes it easier -- it’s hard to be bitter when one team makes it so clear they are better. And so, again, we think of ourselves as a collective “West.” And this West hasn’t won a Championship since Fnatic did it in 2011, but few people value that one as much. That’s what’s on the line here -- for years, NA and EU have built up an inferiority complex against the likes of Korea and even China, and this Worlds represents the best chance ever to completely shatter that notion. A Fnatic win would reset the paradigm entirely going into next year -- imagine what MSI will look like now. Can you really predict who will win it? And sure, maybe Korea comes back stronger than ever -- maybe we have awaked the proverbial beast. But a Fnatic win here would at least throw that monster into the abyss for half a year. And it might never come back. That’s the beauty of what’s happening right now -- there is an exciting world of parity in our imagined futures where your favorite team from Oceania or Japan or Mexico might win. That’s the door a Fnatic win would open -- they symbolize an undying faith in one’s own region. For all regions.
The case for Invictus
The only reason IG feels like the a favorite to some is because they are also Asian and they have Korean players absolutely dominating in their solo lanes. That makes it much easier for Western fans to paint them as the towering monster that has long kept our teams at bay. But look at the history -- IG has only been to Worlds once in the past five years, and they’ve yet to win a domestic title either. Compare that to Fnatic -- only a handful have had a more successful five year run -- you could easily argue they’re the third most successful team behind SKT and Samsung. Not to mention Fnatic carries the better record (12-2 to IG’s 11-4) into this Finals, and they’re up 2-1 against IG counting the Group Stage. No matter how you actually slice it, Fnatic is the favorite here. The only thing in IG’s favor is how they look -- not just that they’re the “East” but also because they appear to be stronger now than when they last played FNC in the Group Stage. But that’s a lot of subjectivity. An IG win would be momentous for League of Legends. China is by far the largest region in both player base and fan base, and a win by one of its oldest teams would electrify the region like no other. Rookie is still a favorite among Korean fans, and seeing him hoist the trophy would be the next best thing behind a Korean win itself. An IG win is a testament to perseverance -- Rookie in particular has endured so much heartbreak in his career to arrive at this point. And now he’s suddenly cast as a kind of Goliath -- it’s not a pair of shoes he realistically should wear given his entire history, but that’s what all of us -- East and West -- expect of him because of what he’s done so far this Worlds. We expect him to be a giant, which is exactly what he will become if IG wins.
This has been, in many ways, the best Worlds ever. I don’t know if it’s my personal favorite right now, but it could be -- that depends on how the Finals pans out. I’ll be honest -- I actually like watching dominant teams. I wanted SKT to three-peat last year. I wanted them back this year. I wanted to see Uzi be the final boss in the Incheon. I’m a sucker for watching David sling his rocks at Goliath on the grandest possible stage. This Worlds, it’s happened over and over on the side roads and the dirt paths leading to the peak of the mountain. Over and over the rocks have prevailed. I feel a little robbed in the sense that watching RNG lose in the Finals would have been that much more heartbreaking for them and subsequently more emotionally moving for fans. Maybe I am a weird kind of sadist. What would redeem that lost narrative for this Finals, though, would be a back-and-forth five game set between FNC and IG. I want them to slug it out and actually prove the 50/50-anyone-can-win narrative. Because ultimately, the thing I am looking for is the moment when everything is truly on the line. I want to see the Jenga game go for as long as possible, because the single block that causes the whole thing to collapse is the thing I will always remember. Last year, that was Ruler flashing forward to catch Faker to put a nail into the SKT dynasty. This year so far, it’s been JackeyLove flashing forward on Xayah to finish off KT Rolster and crushing the best Korean hope. I want that moment replicated in this Finals -- that would be a fitting end to this Worlds. A fifth and decisive game that all hinges on a single moment -- an alluring siren call to all ten players to make the winning play. I want to see who answers too soon and who answers too late. That’s what this Worlds seems to be building towards, and that’s what I hope we receive.