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Lightning in a Bottle: The Beauty of the Play-in Stage

A production manager opens the door to our work room, one of several in a large tent situated on the roof of Vietnam’s Crescent Mall, and says, “The next time you see me, that means you’ll have to pack up and go into the mall.” Overhead, rain begins to tap louder and louder on the tent, interrupted only by thunder drumming the ground nearby. Being struck by lightning was, of course, a potential hazard. And, of course, the man would open the door to our room again.

Ho Chi Minh City in southern Vietnam is a city home to some 8.5 million people, and this week it plays host to the 2019 Mid-Season Invitational, arguably the second largest tournament in esports after Worlds. The storm didn’t affect the players or anyone in attendance at all, but it was still nostalgic for me to see so much of the event staff scattered inside the mall. Memes aside, Riot is a very large company now, and some hundreds of people are working this event, but for just a moment, I felt like I was peering back into the more grassroots side of esports from which this all began.

Eight teams have made their way through the stadium so far, and because of some unfortunate national circumstances in Vietnam, the already brutal gauntlet was condensed even further. What was initially spread out over five days was broken down to 1.5 days for each of the groups. Group A, for example, had every team play four games on Day 1, leaving just a single night to figure out what to do for their second day. It seems almost cruel to fly to the other side of the world only to be eliminated after a day and a half of play.

I mean, like, damn. You spend four months building up to this moment and then suddenly your dreams just crash and burn and you watch as other teams advance, and I imagine you can’t help but envision yourself in their shoes. But I am a strong proponent of heartbreak when it comes to competition — there’s something beautiful about how fleeting these events can be. There is nothing more tense for a fan than knowing there might not be another game.

And for the teams at the MSI Play-in Stage, it truly feels like they are asked to grab a flash of lightning. Out of the eight teams, only two will advance to the next stage, where they will again be asked to beat the odds as powerhouse teams in Team Liquid and Flash Wolves await. In all likelihood, only one of these eight teams will advance to the main stage, even though they’re the teams that would stand to benefit the most from a deep tournament run. For almost all of these Play-in teams, advancing even one step further is considered a success.

Take Isurus Gaming’s mid laner, Seiya. He’s a player who has won 11 domestic titles back home in the greater Latin American regions, but still hasn’t made a splash at international events. I talked to him after they went 1-3 on Day 1, and he was clearly upset. Even though they’d won the final game and were still alive in the group at that point, he personally knew that three losses meant they weren’t going to advance.

“It’s really frustrating to not take the domestic success to the international stage. I mean, it’s not easy of course, but it has eluded me for a while,” he says. “This time, we had the potential to do it — I thought we were not inferior to any of the teams in our group, but it was a really bad day for us. It’s a really frustrating experience, but you just kind of got to take it as a learning experience to go into summer.”

I think about how frustrating that must be all the time. Many of us who grew up playing, say, Super Smash Brothers may have faced the moment where we expanded out of our initial friend circle and then got completely crushed by someone else. In the pre-internet days, it was easy to think you were better than you were. Big fish in a small pond kind of thing — even now that’s a thing that anyone who has ever competed should be able to relate to. Try as you might to be better at something — games, sports, writing — eventually you find someone who is just better. How you act in the face of that wall, though, is what separates the Seiyas of the world from those who’ve already given up or fell behind the competition.

Seiya continues, “Even though we’re from an unknown region to many people, we [believe] we have the capability of beating anyone. Playing at the international stage is such a great experience — you really can’t compare it to anything else. Once you experience it, you just want to come back again. That’s what keeps me going in the domestic league. You just got to enjoy it — you don’t know when the next time you’ll get an opportunity to come to an international stage is. You can’t take it for granted.”

We might call the Summoner’s Rift the great equalizer — theoretically, once you load onto the Rift, the game is equally balanced for both sides. You either win or you lose. But the difference in quality or quantity of prep for teams can be huge. Whether it’s server size or coaching staff or basic infrastructure that allows players to focus more time and energy into improving, the playing ground just isn’t even. And that’s what makes the Play-in stage so unique to me — it’s a gathering of all the regions in the world, and each team is tasked with reflecting the relative strength of their homelands. That’s a lot of pressure, but it’s also a chance for us to see the diversity of a global sport like League of Legends.

This is a stage for dreams to become, at least partially, true. One of the illusions of esports is that it is a meritocracy, which we know is not true given outstanding circumstances, but this is a stage where we at least reach towards that promise. As unlikely as it may seem, all you have to do to continue advancing is win at League of Legends. And I love that we’re allowed to imagine the possibilities here. We return, frequently, to the story of David and Goliath because we’ve all dreamed of being a greater, almost mythical, version of ourselves.

But for the OCE representative, Bombers’ ADC FBI, it’s a grounding experience, too. He says, “Compared to our region, you can tell right away that international mechanics are a lot better compared to domestic teams. In OCE it was pretty easy for us to dominate each of our lanes, but coming here was a real eye-opener. We aren’t as good as we think we are.”

I think the players know better than anybody else that dreams are dreams for a reason. It’s called lightning-in-a-bottle because it’s not an ordinary happening. One of my favorite things about the Play-in stage is that the players are all generally eager to talk to the media. Some of the more established teams treat it more as an obligation because they don’t need the brand-building as much. But for smaller regions, international tournaments are one of the few opportunities in the year for them to become a global name, if only briefly.

They are maybe more grateful for the support. And I think it’s cool to see their regions rally behind them, too — for many of the major regions, we spend a lot of time flaming or disparaging the players if they don’t do well. But expectations are just different for smaller regions — not that the flame isn’t there, but it’s more isolated and more self-disappointment than having others pile on them too. At some level, most regions know they aren’t expected to win MSI, so they celebrate the small success more. 

FBI says, “I think the support from our region is mind-boggling. We get so much support despite the fact that OCE as a region doesn’t perform. I feel like the fans are still always behind OCE every international tournament regardless of result. The camaraderie of our region is pretty nice.”

And I think that’s a lesson every region can really take home with them. I don’t think pride in your team needs to be tied entirely to their success at international events. Just making it here means you beat everybody else in your region. On a stage like this, though, where all the regional champions gather, sometimes even your best just isn’t good enough, and I think that’s something we should be more okay with. Which isn’t to say we shouldn’t want more. That’s what I get from the Play-ins — it’s okay to dream, and it’s okay when those dreams don’t come to fruition.

Eventually, though, lightning does strike exactly where you don’t expect it to. It will seem like a big blur, and you might look around bewildered, wondering if anyone else saw it. And the beauty of the Play-ins is that some millions of people will have seen it, too.

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ProFiles | Palette (MSI 2019)