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I’ve always been drawn to the idea of there being a lot of big fish in a lot of small ponds because it means there are so many different ecosystems. But among those big fish, without fail, there will always be one that must be the biggest. What we have ahead of us in Taipei is a collection of what may be the biggest fish to have ever come from the ponds that are the LCS, LEC, LPL, and LCK.

The Group Stage saw these teams establish a hierarchy, but all of these teams have dropped games here or there during the regular season. None of them, however, have dropped a Best-of-5 yet. In an extended series, we are privileged to see teams when they are a little more lax (at the beginning of the set) and then when they are on the brink of either finishing their opponent and being eliminated. We get a full spectrum of emotion and adjustments and adaptations.

All four of these teams are fighting not just to prove their own strength but also for their entire region. The beauty of MSI is that we will never see two teams from the same region clash. The beauty of MSI is that one of them must win.

“IN THE MIDDLE of the [win against G2]… I hate to admit it but I was actually thinking about all of my failures,” says Doublelift. “So many games… all these games — I can remember which champ I was playing. The tiebreaker against Fnatic. The tiebreaker against Misfits. The game against Samsung where I threw as Lucian. All these moments where I’m just like… that sucked. That was the worst. That was terrible. I’ll never, ever forget it — it’s so burned into my mind.

“And then I was like… wait a second, I still have this game to play… I don’t want to be the guy that got carried and didn’t really do anything, so I saw an opening and went for it. That’s what I would do. That’s how I play. It felt good. It felt really, really amazing to kind of be the guy who kicks the door in and finishes the game.”

Doublelift’s story is one that has been told and retold so many times that we are starting to approach myth. His is maybe the single most famous tale in League of Legends. Everyone who is a big fan of the sport knows the basics: he was kicked out of his house, he built up CLG and was kicked, then he won and won with TSM and was kicked, and now on TL he has continued to carve his legacy into the game.

After eight years of play, this is the first time he’s ever made it out of the Group Stage of a major international tournament. That’s good for five failures at Worlds and twice at MSI. He is painfully aware of his own shortcomings at these events, and last year after being eliminated in Busan, he started to break down into tears in a post-game interview with Sjokz on air.

It is not the first time he’s broken a major spell, though. Despite being known to many as the godfather of all ADCs (he’s still affectionately called Big Brother in China), Doublelift didn’t even win his first NA title until the 2015 Summer Split. Comparing his emotions from both of these moments, he says, “After MSG… I was in a daze. I was just like what… where am I, who am I, what am I doing? And here, I was more cathartic — thinking about all the steps that led me here. All the decisions to join TL, to not retire when I was on CLG. Pretty much everything. My whole career. There’s been a lot of moments — pivotal moments that led me here. And every time I failed, I thought it’s just not my time yet. It will come. It has to come because I work on this thing every single day. It has to finally pay off. And so [this] was more satisfaction.”

I ask him if any old teammates in particular stand out as people he wished he could share the moment with, and he says, “Immediately the first ones are Chauster, Bjergsen, and Aphromoo. Those guys are big. I hate to admit it, I don’t want to give them a ton of credit, but they… changed me. Not just my play, but they changed me as a person. There’s probably fans out there who won’t even remember that I played with Chauster or Aphro. They’re not from that generation, but that was huge. Those teammates and those interactions I had with them — I wouldn’t be standing here without them.”

I think one of the really great and undersold things about Doublelift is that he is extremely reflective about his past. Whether he admits it freely or not, it seems pretty clear to me that he has many regrets about how he’s handled some situations with them in the past. I don’t think he’d change much or any of it, though, because it’s all led to him becoming who he is today, but surely it’s eaten at him a little. But each win vindicates him a little bit. Each win says there’s still a way forward on the path he’s chosen.

To other regions, it might seem a little excessive for there to be so much celebration for simply making it to the Knockout Stage — especially when you consider that Liquid’s next opponent is an Invictus Gaming that is an overwhelming favorite not just in this matchup but in the entire tournament. But if Doublelift’s story has taught us anything, it’s that people are allowed to grow and mature at different rates.

Not all of us can win a World Championship at 18, and not all of us can stare our friends in the eye and say sorry. But here’s to one of Doublelift’s demons being lifted from his back. Here’s to him putting to rest all of his Group Stage failures. The next step is going to be even harder, but after eight years of falling on his knees, it seems he’s still got it in him to stand up and push onwards.

IN THE NOW FAMOUS third game of the Quarterfinals draw between Invictus Gaming and KT Rolster at Worlds 2018, a photo finish base race which confused even the observer, watched us pan from TheShy’s Fiora slashing at the KT Nexus all the way back to his own, where it crumbled in KT’s favor. In the moments leading up to that, the audience was stunned — I remember very clearly one fan bolted upright out of his seat and pressed both of his hands down atop his head. This is not the moment that KT died, and even the set is not the moment Korea’s hopes for a sixth consecutive title were crushed, but it is the image I think of when I think about what happened. There is disbelief and shock and awe. But it was never supposed to be like this for Korea. They were not supposed to be in a position that required mercy.

Now at MSI, Korea’s greatest team is finally back on the international stage to try to restore their glory. Faker has said over and over again that he feels like it’s his duty not just to bring SKT back to prominence, but to bring the entire LCK back up with him. And in the offseason, SKT assembled a superteam that includes former Worlds MVP Mata, Khan who rose to great acclaim with King-Zone, Teddy who was considered Jin Air’s 1v9 hope, and a much less-known jungler who’d been playing in the LPL named Clid.

Clid is so far humbled and thankful that people have been heaping praise upon his performance at MSI, and after a year of fans flaming SKT’s jungle woes, this is a much more active SKT than we are maybe accustomed to seeing. Clid has had a couple of games where he’s just taken… all the kills and led the Group Stage in jungle kill%. He is second in kills only to Ning among junglers, who plays on a team with a much more action-based style.

I ask him if he feels any pressure from now playing with Faker and from knowing the vitriol SKT junglers received last year, and he says, “I feel like I am not here as Faker’s fan, but more as a teammate and partner, and we’re all in it to win it, so I feel like it’s working out pretty well.”

There is probably more pressure on SKT than any other team at this tournament. It’s not just Korea that expects them to win, but everyone else, too. In Vietnam, for example, SKT was easily the second most popular team, but I’ve been told that the support for them when it’s not SKT vs. a Vietnamese team is roughly equal. They’re also tasked with beating a G2 that swept them in the Group Stage — an early loss may start to create an idea in their head that they are simply countered in style.

But for Clid, he says there’s no reason to panic and change. He says, “I don’t feel like we should give up the LCK style to follow other regions, but I do feel like the winning region of the tournament will become the dominant meta. [Even still], I don’t think we should give up our style. We should play to our strengths.”

And to me, despite SKT now being a super team full of extremely talented players, their greatest strength, and Korea’s greatest strength, is and has been Faker. It’s not possible to be perfect in League of Legends, but it is possible to be Faker.

WHEN I FIRST HEARD RUMORS of Perkz role-swapping to ADC to make way for Caps, I wanted to spit my drink at someone just to accentuate how absolutely ridiculous that was. Perkz was, in many peoples’ opinions, the best performing EU player at Worlds last year, and even though Caps ran away with the Summer Split MVP, it was Perkz who truly shined on the Worlds Stage. As a mid laner, he’d been the sole bridge linking the great EU mids of old to the new ones like Caps. And then just like that… he swapped to bot lane?

It’s maybe the single strangest roster move we’ve ever had, but G2 immediately stuck it to all doubters by blasting out of the gate in EU. Their creative picks and flexibility in the draft immediately established themselves as the best team in EU, and after a completely dominant Playoff run, they’ve even garnered hype as the best team EU has ever sent.  

Wunder says, “Right now we are all really open-minded and really creative, so we have a lot of different ways to think about the game, so we can all learn from each other.” He has been praised by many analysts as not just the best top laner in the West but the best overall player, which is high praise given he’s on a team with Caps and Perkz.

“We have a lot of individual standouts,” he says. “So I think some people might say I’m the best Western player, but I’m also on a team with a lot of other people that are also considered for that title. I think that’s a statement onto itself that we have so many good players.”

Their Group Stage performance was all over the place. They had two very convincing victories over SKT and two very confusing losses at PVB. They started out 5-2 only to lose their final three games, and in that span managed to turn themselves from Finals favorites to big underdogs against an SKT team that they went 2-0 on, which says a lot about how they looked down the stretch.

Once you get past all the tired EU vs. NA banter, you will see that Europe’s international history, while very successful, is littered with crushing disappointments on stages like this. You can point to M5 in 2012 or FNC in 2013 or OG and FNC again in 2015 or G2 in 2016 and 2017 or FNC in 2018 (you get the point, yeah?) and find crushing losses on the biggest stages. Not a single one of these rosters managed to even push their sets to a 5th game in their eventual defeats.

Maybe even more-so than NA fans, EU fans allow themselves to believe they can win international events because they do get to see the flashes of talent. FNC last year, for example, went 1-2 against IG in Group Play and all of the games were exciting. The 3-0 stomp in the Finals was shocking. But then this G2 roster came together, and with it they’ve let themselves believe again. Europe has been so desperately close to the finish line so many times now — it’s usually been a Korean team that has cut them down in the waning moments. And now the greatest Korean team of all awaits them.

Earlier in the tournament, Wunder told me, “Right now we are playing against all the #1 teams so it’s naturally going to be harder competition. I think it makes sense when we are in EU that a lot of people look at us as [just] a mechanical team, because a lot of games are over basically from lane. It would make sense to look at us like that, but we are also all really smart and experienced players. We can play every part of the game. Maybe we are not as practiced as like TL who goes 40 minutes every game to play around Drakes, Nash — but I think we are smart enough individually to know what we need to do as a team.”

For EU fans, they might be asking if a roster this talented can’t win it all, then what is it going to take? But this is a sentiment they’ve felt many times before. Europe’s strength is in finding even better talent just when you think they’ve got nothing else, which is also, in a nutshell, G2’s playstyle.

WHEN ROOKIE WAS BEING INTERVIEWED on stage after winning Worlds last year, he answered the questions in Korean and then translated both the question and his answer for the many Chinese fans that were still screaming for him and IG in Incheon. He’d already become a beloved figured in the LPL community, but I think this was the moment that completely cemented his legacy as a product of the LPL.

That was the first World Championship for the region, who like Europe, has been on the outside looking in so many years in a row now. IG is now trying to build upon that moment. Once you’ve captured the Summoner’s Cup, I think it’d be very easy to become complacent — what else could you possibly hope to achieve? We’ve seen many players take their foot off the pedal after winning, and we’ve seen many more fail to even return to that stage.

But for Rookie, with some more time to reflect, even that moment wasn’t just about the victory. He says, “I’ve already had a long professional career and I’ve always thought that whether you lose or win, if you can’t learn anything from it then you won’t really improve. So I think… the championship is important, but let’s say… over the course of that, you didn’t learn anything beneficial for yourself. When the time comes for a really important competition, inevitably, problems will arise. After losing to SKT this time, I realized a lot of my own issues and I think I can change all these points.”

Securing a second consecutive major title is something only SKT has ever been able to achieve. No one else in history has had to chase their own ghost, and now that IG is in the process of doing that, I think even SKT must feel some sort of obligation to preserve that sole accomplishment. An MSI win for IG would give the LPL their 3rd consecutive major title, and I think that should firmly put to rest the debate over which region is the best in the world.

But I wonder if this is really the only narrative for IG now. Last year they were trying to redeem two splits worth of domestic failures, and now that they’ve accomplished that (and more), it kind of feels like they’re only chasing themselves. On the Rift, they’ve been extremely loose all year long, and we saw many flashes of that in the Group Stage. When they are on point, they look like they’re unstoppable, but then there are times where the team seemingly loses their collective minds.

I wonder if this is a sign that they’re still trying to push their limits — to see just how high they can go when it comes to League of Legends. Or maybe it’s a sign that they’ve lost focus and don’t really know what to play for anymore. Even if Rookie has been able to steady his gaze, that doesn’t mean it’s true for all of his teammates. What exactly do you play for once you’ve secured the World Championship?

I don’t know the answer to that, but maybe it’s something IG will discover as we enter the do-or-die phase of this tournament. Up first is a Liquid team that is desperate to even sniff the trophy, and if IG isn’t careful — as we saw in both of the matches against them — then TL will be happy to snap at them. Maybe if IG is pushed to the edge of elimination, they’ll be reminded of what it was like to watch someone else triumph.

All that said, they are still fortunate to have Rookie. He’s had his eyes on this portion of the event from the get-go. He says, “For me personally, I’ve always thought the Group Stage — I can’t say that it isn’t important, but it’s not as important as Knockout Stage. Even if we played much better during Group Stage, if we got to Knockout Stage and then performed poorly then there’s no hope [for us]. So what I demand of myself is that I need to play even better. So my hope for myself in the Knockout Stage is to become more stable, work even harder, perform perfectly, and beat the other teams.”

Maybe it’s fine for the narrative to become a little repetitive once you’ve won. Maybe it’s fine to imagine yourself against the all-time greats if there’s no one alive that can beat you.

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