The League of Legends World Championship is the biggest esports event of the year. For 12 of the 24 teams, this journey begins in the play-in stage, where emerging regions battle against the lowest seed from major regions to try and make it to the group stage. This is where teams come to prove their worth and every year, four of them do.
Clutch Gaming, North America’s No. 3 seed, had anything but an easy time in Group A. They battled against a Unicorns of Love (UOL) team from Russia who seemed to have their number, beating them in both best-of-ones that they played in the double round-robin format. But in what would be the only 3-0 of the best-of-fives, Clutch Gaming showed what makes a major region. Maligned ADC Cody Sun’s incredible performance helped carry Clutch Gaming to a win over Turkey’s Royal Youth. After a 2018 Worlds where his last team, 100 Thieves, benched him for a rookie who had never played a game before the split semifinals in North America, the Korean import played confidently and helped his team throw off their poor start to confidently make it to groups.
Korean third-seed Damwon Gaming had a very different path. A dominant roster in the LCK all split, they crushed group opponents Flamengo and Royal Youth to storm to a 4-0 record in their group. So when they were matched with underdog Vietnamese team Lowkey Esports, anything other than a 3-0 looked like it would be a disappointment. But Lowkey came into Game 1 ready to win and they did. While a humbled Damwon would take the next three games and the series, Lowkey had left their mark.
Out of the major regions, the LMS has always been considered the weakest. Containing Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macao, the league’s No. 3 seeds historically underperform on the world stage. And yet, this year’s third seed, Hong Kong Attitude, hoped things might be different. They went into a fairly easy group and made it out 3-1 with only a loss to Lowkey Gaming. In their best-of-five they faced Latin America’s Isurus Gaming, in what was considered skill-wise to be the closest series. But HKA battled Isurus’s 11-time domestic winner Seiya back and found their openings through clean engages and strong team play, and now find themselves in the group stage.
Unicorns of Love and Splyce Gaming have an incredible history. UOL used to be a European team, until they missed out on a spot in Franchising last year and were forced to move. Now, with a revamped Russian roster, they lined up with Splyce Gaming, who was fielding two of their ex-players. After Splyce took an early lead in Game 1, they faltered mid-game and ended up losing to a huge comeback from the Unicorns. The European roster would then seem to shake off that loss, bringing in a dominant performance in Games 2 and 3. But in Game 4, UOL would finally get crazy with their draft and on the back of mid-laner Nomanz, they would bring the series to a Game 5. In Game 5, UOL fell behind early and despite a desperate effort to hold on for over 35 minutes, Splyce’s stars shone too brightly and the European team moved on to the Group Stage, barely.
History won’t remember UOL, nor will it remember Lowkey or Isurus. It won’t remember Nomanz leaping over walls on Qiyana or the grins on Lowkey’s faces as Damwon was utterly stumped by their strategy in Game 1. It won’t remember Seiya’s heartbreak at another failed international event for the winningest domestic player of all time or the cheers of a European crowd that once again got to put all of their support behind the Unicorns. Their victories didn’t come on the biggest stage, in the brightest moments. They were smaller victories, games and fights and moments for regions that might never get their chance in a Worlds playoff game, much less a final. For them, play-ins are their finish line. That is where they make their mark. And they did just that.
The group stage of the World Championship begins Saturday at 8 a.m. EST.
Ashton Stansel is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.