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China and Europe: The Real Rift Rivals

China and Europe have spent years as the most competitive contenders for second best, but this year, as Quarterfinals will show, only first will satisfy.

Rift Rivals began in 2017 to bring more international competition between historic combatants. The Chinese and South Korean teams warred with each other in online events since the dawn of League of Legends, while Europe and North America cemented their rivalry over bouts of English language banter and competition that predated even the first season championship.

Yet in the background, when it comes to the World Championship, a much more neck-and-neck competition roiled. Since the LPL’s inclusion in the World Championship in Season 2, Group Stage has served primarily as a battleground between the major regions with the two largest population bases: China and Europe.

Though the LPL no doubt sees itself as a true rival to the LCK, and NA and EU LCS fans have warred for years on Reddit, when it comes to the World Championship, EU and LPL lead the charge in the constant struggle for second best. Both consistently qualify at least two competitors for the bracket stage. Europe has thrice denied an LPL favorite a first seed in Quarterfinals in a South Korea-less group, the Chinese have four times felt like the final obstacle in a European team’s qualification after a grueling back-and-forth.

It has always been close. The single head-to-head record for European and Chinese teams at a World Championship since Season 2 is 24-19: only slightly China favored. 15 Chinese teams have appeared in World Championship bracket stages, and 12 European teams have done the same.

This year alone, the EU LCS is ahead 3-2, and with two LPL vs EU LCS quarterfinals to christen the 2018 World Championship bracket, the record could close completely.

Meiko and Rookie on the Quarterfinal draw stage

Even more fitting, this year feels different. Both EU LCS and LPL fans, enlivened by the Group Stage brawls, know that, this year, it isn’t just about second place. Both regions have a team analysts wouldn’t hesitate to call potential champions.

This year, League of Legends’ most competitive regional rivals won’t accept anything less than first.

The battle between Royal Club and Fnatic, the two regions’ first seeds, is a storied one in and of itself. It began with Royal’s first World Championship appearance in 2013 and has since then three times (including this year’s Mid Season Invitational) ended in Fnatic licking their wounds in the bracket stage. After Fnatic’s 2-1 climb over Invictus Gaming in Group D, the match feels like it could be closer now -- but, fittingly, if fans want to see it, they have to wait for the Grand Final first.

Aside from Royal and Fnatic’s head-to-heads, bracket stage has actually historically favored the European squads. Since 2012, European teams have a 3-0 series record against Chinese teams at World Championships. Granted, two of these events were Moscow 5 against Invictus Gaming and CLG EU against Team WE in Season 2.

But more recent tape has both Fnatic and G2 Esports, the EU LCS’ two remaining representatives, besting LPL teams in best of fives. Last year, G2 overcame Team WE 3-1 in a best of five after WE defeated them twice handily in Group Stage. In 2015, Fnatic crushed EDward Gaming 3-0, and a reprisal of that match will come again this year on the 21st of October.

Perkz on the final day of Group A play

History says go mid, G2

But before that, G2 take the stage against LPL’s giants on the 20th. This won’t be G2’s first encounter with Royal either, as their battles began in the 2016 Mid Season Invitational, the year most of their fans shudder to remember. While eyes will flick to the bottom lane with lolesports Rank 1 player Jian “Uzi” Zi-hao in enviable form, only one player from each team is guaranteed to remain from RNG and G2’s first 2016 encounter: mid laners Luka "Perkz" Perković and Li "Xiaohu" Yuan-Hao.

As a precursor to Perkz and Xiaohu’s first encounter, Perkz committed what many will remember as his first public image fumble when he told theScore Esports “I don’t think Asian mid laners are better than European ones.”

Certainly not a controversial statement, but it gave Chinese fans fodder when Xiaohu ended G2’s first encounter with a score line of 5/0/5 on Azir, and Perkz came away tied for the most deaths on his team and with only one kill contribution to his name. Perkz performed better in the second match, but G2 bowed out of the tournament without a win against RNG.

Perkz had to wait a full year to get his revenge in the Group Stage of the 2017 World Championship. Though most of the focus trained on bottom lane’s Jesper "Zven" Svenningsen and Uzi, Perkz opened the game for his team with Corki so that G2 could transfer pressure. Though RNG, until that point, maintained a pristine 3-0 record against G2, Perkz and his team triumphed to have the final say and give RNG their only loss of the 2017 Group Stage.

3-1 to RNG doesn’t seem an unlikely prediction for the two teams’ first best of five encounter this year. After all, Petter "Hjarnan" Freyschuss and Kim "Wadid" Bae-in aren’t the duo to effectively punish Royal Never Give Up’s bottom lane the way Team Vitality did in the Group Stage. But the manner in which G2 Esports want to play out their game strategically actually makes the team a better theoretical matchup into RNG than Fnatic.

Xiaohu is an underrated cog in RNG's macro game

Most know RNG best for their clutch 5v5 team fighting around star AD Carry Uzi, but they shine best when Xiaohu and top laner Yan “Letme” Jun-ze can play side lanes well. RNG often will push side lanes past river to get pressure first before Uzi walks forward to clear mid lane. That keeps their star carry from getting collapsed upon and dying in an inopportune moment, yielding a Baron.

That’s why the key matchup will fittingly still come down to Perkz and Xiaohu if G2 are to have a chance. Even in RNG’s 2017 World Championship match win against G2, the Chinese team focused on securing a heavy pushing mid in Jayce for Xiaohu to snowball and ensure side lane pressure in the mid-to-late game. G2’s best hope for having a favorable map setup means pushing the game through mid and top to shut down RNG’s ability to get side lane pressure: something they love to do naturally anyway.

And in proper tradition, this year Perkz again ramped up the stakes for a Chinese and European encounter on Twitter by jokingly suggesting another Chinese team may have leaked Gen G’s level one to RNG. He’s since apologized and proclaimed his respect for the entire region of LPL, but many Chinese fans actively wanted to see this matchup in Quarterfinals as a result. The backdrop will no doubt add a drop of intrigue to the results and train eyes even harder on the mid lane matchup between Perkz and Xiaohu.

Of course, even if G2 have a stylistic advantage, RNG’s bottom lane attacks in the early game remain brutal. In all likelihood, G2’s favoritism for blue side will mean more counter matchups that allow Xiaohu to clear safely while either Liu “Mlxg” Shi-Yu or Hung "Karsa" Hau-Hsuan influence bottom lane. G2 had a reprieve in Group Stage when many teams failed to ban Tahm Kench and Heimerdinger.

While much focus came down to Hjarnan’s Heimerdinger, he performs a similar function on Jhin or Sivir, but denying Tahm Kench makes G2 struggle more with maintaining tempo and keeping their bottom lane safe from dives. Phong Vũ Buffalo, despite having the worst record in Group A, had the best draft strategy into G2 and gave the team the most consistently difficult matches in both their encounters. RNG have three tries to follow the Buffalo’s lead, and G2’s chances drop.

But securing Tahm Kench and one of Hjarnan’s favorite three best picks could result in an upset and a European team’s first ever bracket phase victory over Royal Club.

Rekkles on the final day of Group Stage

2015 all over again

Fnatic, the EU LCS’ powerful first seed, entered the World Championship in a group without a representative from the internationally dominant LCK. But in part because the LPL came away with a victory at the Mid-Season Invitational, analysts still hesitated to bet on a dominant Group Stage performance. Invictus Gaming, an aggressive, laning focused squad lead by Korean mid lane sensation Song “Rookie” Eui-jin, stood in the way of Fnatic earning a first seed birth into the quarterfinal.

Yet Fnatic bested the LPL’s representative to advance in first only to be met with yet another Chinese squad, EDward Gaming, in the Quarterfinal matchup. Fnatic defeated EDG 3-0, and --

Oh, you thought I was talking about this year? No, this has all already happened before.

In 2015, Fnatic bested China’s EDward Gaming 3-0 and went on to face Korea’s second seed team, KOO Tigers. Europe’s hope fell in the semifinal, and a triumphant second seed Korean team with a carry top laner and Lee “Kuro” Seo-haeng went on to play the Grand Final instead.

Time’s circles assault the nerves with chills. Eerie similarities exist between Fnatic’s journey in the 2015 World Championship, but this time, the LPL has lived up to the MSI excitement at least in part. All three LPL teams advanced to the Quarterfinals instead of just one in 2015. Though Fnatic bested Invictus Gaming, it wasn’t two one-sided stomps through top lane and lane swapping, but rather a 1-1 resulting in a tie-breaker between Group D’s two formidable giants and a grueling display of skirmishes and individual skill. Yes, EDward Gaming again comes out second from a group with a 0-6 team and the LCK champion, but this time, EDG bruised KT Rolster before advancing, showing stronger form.

iBoy is the AD carry for EDward Gaming this year

But as with everything else, the EDward Gaming and Fnatic rivalry doesn’t completely begin with this 2015 encounter. While it isn’t certain Ming “Clearlove” Kai will appear in the quarterfinal competition against Fnatic, he, Paul “sOAZ” Boyer, and Martin “Rekkles” Larsson share the distinction of appearing in one of the most iconic Europe vs China best of fives of all time: the Grand Final of the IGN Pro League 5 that started Team WE’s famous uninterrupted streak of victories.

Fnatic entered the tournament at the cusp of Rekkles’ career with renewed vigor after failing to qualify for the World Championship. They bested the reigning Season 2 winners, Taipei Assassins, twice over the course of a double elimination bracket, but lost five total individual games against Team WE throughout the event. Gao "WeiXiao" Xue-cheng made it known to the rest of the world that he was the first in the line of a strong tradition of Chinese AD carries. Even before Rekkles was old enough to play in the EU LCS, he was stumbling against China’s premier bottom lane talent.

Rekkles has made his respect for RNG’s Uzi known on a number of occasions, placing Uzi significantly above the rest of the competition in his estimation. Fnatic and RNG’s encounters in the past year have been felt most strongly through the bottom lane where Rekkles doesn’t appear to shine like his usual self.

The last time Fnatic defeated EDward Gaming in a best of five at the World Championship in 2015, Kim “Deft” Hyuk-kyu played, but this time around, EDward Gaming’s AD carry Hu "iBoy" Xian-Zhao accompanies Tian “Meiko” Ye in the bottom lane. iBoy isn’t the same monster as WeiXiao or Uzi, but iBoy has hardly shown nerves in his international or domestic performances, and his fearlessness puts him ever so slightly above Invictus Gaming’s Yu "JackeyLove" Wen-Bo in the race for China’s next great bottom lane star.

Against Invictus Gaming’s bottom lane, Fnatic buckled on Day 3 of the Group Stage. All three games, Fnatic drafted for bottom lane control to influence a losing mid lane matchup with roams from Zdravets "Hylissang" Iliev Galabov, but in the first game, interference from Gao "Ning" Zhen-Ning and the skill matchup between Leona and Rakan had Rekkles behind nearly 15 CS as Xayah against Kai’Sa by 10 minutes.

Hylissang is key to getting Fnatic's mid lane ahead

The game plan went better on the final day of Group Stage. Rekkles and Hylissang turned the tides and got pressure from bot into mid lane, controlling dragon and disrupting iG’s usual mid lane into bottom side control formula. JackeyLove, Ning, and Wang "Baolan" Liu-Yi had a much worse showing, and Fnatic surged ahead.

If Fnatic keeps the same formula in mind, Rekkles will knock down two rising Chinese AD carry stars on Fnatic’s path toward the World Championship final. As with the other China vs Europe match, the path for success for the favored team lies in targeting the opponent’s bottom lane in draft. In 2016, H2K-Gaming succeeded in removing play-makers from Meiko to advance over EDward Gaming in their Worlds group, and this year, that will prove even more crucial with Meiko showing missteps on champions that aren’t Alistar.

EDG love to take the opposite approach of Fnatic and draft for strong mid matchups to transfer pressure from mid to the bottom side the map, snowballing a scaling carry. Meiko having a play-making tank gives EDG the ability to control bottom river after he backs by out-playing the enemy support with his jungler. It also allows him to face check the Baron pit if EDG cannot get side lane pressure when Nashor comes into play.

This hasn’t been Meiko’s best year, and even when play-making supports are plentiful, his best pick is still Alistar. His synergy with Lee “Scout” Ye-chan and his junglers often buffers iBoy’s unpredictability more of a stable net to fall back upon, as the young AD carry has a tendency to look for fights he shouldn’t.

But this boldness also gives iBoy an advantage that JackeyLove, 2015 iG’s Ge “Kid” Yan, and 2015 EDG’s Deft didn’t have: a lack of fear. This willingness to look for an outplay in a dire fight and occasionally come out unscathed has garnered iBoy comparisons with, not Deft, for whom he named himself as a rookie in EDG’s Academy system, but Uzi.

Uzi has been named the best player at the World Championship in 2018

2012’s IPL 5 and 2013’s World Championship had Fnatic as the last teams WeiXiao and Uzi defeated before the tournament ended. Though Rekkles wasn’t present on the 2013 Fnatic squad, he has been for many encounters with Uzi since, and Fnatic often finds itself on the wrong end of rising Chinese AD carry giants right before they establish themselves as international greats.

Most of Fnatic’s games have a tendency to culminate in group pushes or 1-4s set up for team fights. Fnatic’s matches against Invictus Gaming weren’t flawless displays of macro, but they took both teams to adrenaline fraught tests of battle. That has often been where EDward Gaming have looked their best.

Even if Fnatic ban correctly, there’s a chance iBoy becomes yet another AD carry to make his name against Rekkles in the now-seasoned Swedish veteran’s career. But by the same token, Rekkles is facing his demons; his transformation in the past two years is nearly unheard of for a player in LoL’s history.

Striking down both iG and EDward Gaming could well give Rekkles the confidence he needs for another encounter against China’s famed “Mad Dog.” Both fans of the LPL and the EU LCS would love to see RNG and Fnatic meet once again in the Grand Final, and if that final were to occur, RNG is the most historically satisfying opponent for Fnatic to slay to claim the Championship.

It’s high time for the real Rift Rivals to take the stage and leave Korea fighting for second.