Before 2019 Mid-Season Invitational, the West has played a total of three international grand finals: MSI 2016, MSI 2017, and Worlds 2018. That’s three out of 11.
Three different teams contested these trophies and between them, they won exactly one game. Every time a “foreign” (if we use the StarCraft terminology) team dared dream of a title, the East came down like a hailstorm, laying waste to their dreams.
From there, the proverbial “gap” was born: the reality of western teams playing perennial catch-up, while China and Korea ping-pong the reins of power. Instead of hoping for a major international final, western fans learned to enjoy the small things: upsetting a tournament favorite, making semis, surviving groups of death, and so on. And on the background, the wheel kept turning and turning until 2019 didn’t just stop it.
It broke it.
TAIPEI, Chinese Taipei – May 18: — during the 2019 League of Legends Mid-Season Invitational Semifinals Stage at the Taipei Heping Basketball Gymnasium on May 18, 2019 in Taipei, Chinese Taipei. (Photo by David Lee/Riot Games)
* * *
The MSI grand final between G2 Esports and Team Liquid guarantees that an international trophy will go to a western team. The match-up is an episode of the classis rivalry between Europe and North America and is slated to break all viewership records in LoL esports. Tomorrow, five players will become the first to bring such major title home. And the set-up cannot be more perfect.
King of the western hill
For two players, tomorrow’s match will be a cornerstone event in their careers. After seven LCS grand finals and five championships in a row, Yiliang “Doublelift” Peng is in a race for North America’s GOAT with former teammate Soren “Bjergsen” Bjerg. TSM’s midlaner came close to MSI qualification in the 2019 LCS Spring finals as he led 2-0 to Doublelift, only to be reverse-swept and left to watch the tournament from home.
An argument can be made that by simply breaking his own curse, making it out of the groups at an international event — something Bjergsen also did only once with a top 8 at Worlds 2014 — and securing the biggest upset in MSI history, Doublelift has already won that race. That is perhaps true, but whatever doubt there still is will be wiped clean should Team Liquid prevail tomorrow.
At the same time, G2’s Rasmus “Caps” Winther is already in conversation for the best mid laner in West’s history, not two years after he debuted in the LCS. The former Fnatic player has now won three domestic titles in a row on top of back-to-back Worlds and MSI finals. Comparisons with Bjergsen are valid here too but once again his trophy shelf pales to that of his fellow Dane. Caps also has a top 4 finish from the previous MSI and also matched Bjergsen’s Worlds record on his rookie year.
Whether a win tomorrow will make Doublelift or Caps the greatest western player of all time is debatable (especially for Caps), but it will certainly make one of them the current best, with the title to prove it.
Who has the advantage?
A week ago, this would’ve been the easiest analysis. In the first four days of MSI, Team Liquid limped through the group stage, playing a style that many saw as their weakness: one, because it was dying to the scrappy teamfights fashion; and two, because it made them predictable. Teams knew what to expect from TL and beating it was easy. By day 3, TL were in serious danger of missing the group stage once again.
At the same time, G2 were a force of nature. The top lane Vayne flops notwithstanding, G2 showed they can draft literally anything and crush you with it. With very few exceptions, their jungler and solo laners were playing a pitch perfect tournament, and even Mihael “Mikyx” Mehle wrist problems didn’t seem to be an issue.
After the last day of group stage and the semifinal round, the implications from the group stage mean nothing. Team Liquid played iG’s own game and bested them at it, fixing what’s been their biggest weakness in the tournament: the poor early game. At the same time, Caps’ performance oscillated between genius and disappointing, from Akali pentakills to 2/7/4 Corkis.
If one is hard-pressed to measure the teams on a scale, TL would probably come slightly ahead in terms of their solo laners.
Jung “Impact” Eon-yeong has had a great tournament so far and comes into the match-up with the better GD@15, KDA, and XPD@15 stats, even if the differences are marginal. Many teams have also targeted Martin “Wunder” Hansen heavily, now allowing him his comfort zone, split-pushing games. And while Caps has the mechanical advantage mid, Nicolaj “Jensen” Jensen has been playing an overall safer LoL.
In the jungle, both Marcin “Jankos” Jankowski and Jake “Xmithie” Puchero have had fantastic tournaments. Jankos was the key to G2’s two victories over SKT. Similarly, Xmithie’s 4/0/15 Jarvan IV against G2 was largely what qualified TL for the semis, where his Skarner and Rek’Sai became iG’s nightmare. Like Kim “Clid” Tae-min in SKT, Xmithie is the early-game factor that breaks TL’s preferred playstyle.
The CoreJJ factor
This leaves the bottom lane, where things get really difficult for G2. For my money, Jo “CoreJJ” Yong-in has been the player of the tournament so far, now that Clid’s eliminated. From his Braum that blocked basically every projectile in the deciding game versus TSM in the LCS finals, to his MVP Alistar against iG in the MSI semis, CoreJJ has been the bastion that has kept TL’s lands safe.
For years, Doublelift has been searching for four players to protect him. Now, he’s found someone who does it by himself. A different support would’ve likely meant missing MSI, let alone making finals. CoreJJ holds the second-highest assist score (8.4 average), second-lowest deaths score (2.6), and the highest kill participation of all supports: an outstanding 70.7%.
The control CoreJJ exerts on the bot lane is also why TL has been able to control the dragons so well in the early stages (the best of all MSI teams) and in the game as a whole (second best of all MSI teams).
This is the CoreJJ factor and this is what G2 have to fear tomorrow: not Xmithie’s ganks and not Doublelift’s late game. If they aren’t smart in their laning and teamfighting, CoreJJ will deny them everything.
Still, in the grand scheme of things, tomorrow’s final is less about whether EU or NA will take it, but that it marks a full and complete victory for the West. MSI took so much from China and Korea that their loss is comparable — and is even bigger perhaps — to LCK’s Worlds 2018 flop.
Invictus Gaming looked to establish a legacy of their own, by achieving the first undefeated MSI run and taking the Worlds-LPL-MSI hat-trick. SKT denied the 10-0 and Team Liquid of all teams broke their backs and punished iG’s overconfidence.
SKT, on the other hand, needed now more than ever to take an international champion home and patch up the disastrous 2018 the region had had. G2 made sure that doesn’t happen.
It’s not like East has suddenly become a lesser favorite to win Worlds in a few months. LPL still has perhaps the deepest pool of talent in the game, while LCK boasts the most vigorous, polished practice routine in esports. But their reign as esports gods has been interrupted and their legacies have been punctured. The wheel has been broken and the East will have to build a new to bridge a gap that for the first time in history is in front and not behind them. – Radoslav “Nydra” Kolev