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LCS Gauntlet: Dark Horse

The LCS Regional Qualifier to become the 3rd and final Worlds representative from NA begins tomorrow featuring FlyQuest, Clutch Gaming, Counter Logic Gaming, and TSM. 

In 2015, Fnatic signed a rookie from Korean Solo Queue named Huni, which was a move that raised a lot of eyebrows. It was a year that saw dozens of high profile players leave Korea in what was known as the “Korean exodus” and yet Fnatic signed someone most people had never heard of. Rekkles had just left the team and Europe as a region had just bombed out of Worlds 2014. Huni then was so completely unknown that you couldn’t call him a dark horse or a horse or anything at all. We knew nothing.

Then Fnatic made a surprising surge through the Spring Split all the way to the Finals, where they won a close 3-2 set over the Unicorns of Love. Huni secured Rookie of the Split, and combined with a boisterous persona that paralleled his in-game aggression, he quickly became a fan favorite. Fnatic would punch in an undefeated 2015 Summer Split and make a deep run at Worlds. Here, too, Huni was not a dark horse. 

Dark horse is a term I have been thinking about a lot more the last month or so. As soon as you are identified as a dark horse, are you not suddenly a contender? Like, metaphorically speaking, does David become Goliath after slaying him? I feel like as soon as everyone acknowledges you have an “outside shot” at winning, that kind of makes you an “inside shot” team. And I’m not suggesting Clutch is suddenly Goliath — they’re not — but there’s suddenly a lot more buzz surrounding them.

In the span of a couple weeks, Clutch went from a middling (if not outright bad) team to a media darling. Rewind to even Week 8 and you’re more likely to find people flaming them for being unable to beat anyone good than to find any sort of praise. What’s changed since then for the likes of Reapered and Doublelift to both suggest in the post-game conference after Finals that Clutch was the favorite to win this week’s gauntlet?

They were knocked for being unable to beat teams with winning records, and, well… that didn’t change at all. They triumphed over a 9-9 TSM team in the Finals before losing to both TL and CLG in the Semifinals and third place match respectively. Both sets, though, went the distance, and the thing that really pushed them into the light was pushing TL to five games simply because no one expected them to even stand a chance. Sure, beating TSM in the Quarterfinals was a bit of an upset, but that was mostly in name recognition and not really in an eye-test for how good the two teams were.

But pushing TL to five? That’s not an easy thing to do, and it’s a much better way for them to measure themselves, but at the end of the day it’s still a loss. They then followed it up with another loss to CLG, who is another participant in this gauntlet, so it’s extremely hard for me to peg them as the favorite. I also don’t think anyone is saying they’re the runaway favorite to take this, but it’s been interesting to see how quickly they’ve pushed their name into the conversation. 

When you look at it this way, that makes FlyQuest the only true dark horse in this entire gauntlet. Their name was tossed around as a joke whenever they were brought up over the Finals weekend, and it seemed like a foregone conclusion that they’d be eliminated pretty quickly. I’m not going to offer you a compelling counterpoint to that as I also think they’re the weakest team remaining, but they did post a significantly better record in the second half of the split (though still not particularly good). 

I am drawn to the “dark horse” idea because it’s so full of mystery. You might, for example, go to a card game tournament and by the third round you start to hear some buzz about an unknown person who is crushing everyone. There’s a sort of underdog appeal to them that captures the essence of going from zero-to-hero. And I think it’s only possible when there are some clear favorites — otherwise everyone is a dark horse.

I don’t think any of the teams remaining fit either moniker particular well — there are no favorites, but there aren’t really any dark horses either. It’s four teams that are a mixture of dark horses and favorites. You look at the likes of Huni, Bjergsen, and Pobelter as players with a long history of success — all of them expect to win this gauntlet because anything short of a Worlds appearance would be a failure. Then there’s guys like V1per and Wiggily who are still trying to make a name for themselves. They’re at the stage of their careers where it’s extremely easy to trend upwards or to come crashing back down into the border of being too good for Academy but not good enough for LCS. 

And making that next leap is a thing that often happens at Worlds. It’s there where legacies like PowerOfEvil’s were built or Bjergsen’s were torn down. It’s there that Huni was last a true championship contender — as part of the SK telecom T1 dynasty that was felled in the Bird’s Nest in the Worlds 2017 Finals. It’s there where he rose to his highest high and then fell. It’s there where a year’s worth of work culminates into a single, final moment. But it’s here — in the Regional Qualifier — where three more LCS teams will sign off until 2020. Only one team will advance to Worlds, and it’s there where one of these teams, as the third seed from North America, can become a true dark horse.   

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2019 End of Summer Split Fantasy Update