The regional qualifier tournaments in League of Legends always make for the most heroic storylines. The intensity of the gauntlet format drags teams down to their core reserves. Those who make it past three best-of-fives in a row to get the coveted spot at the League of Legends World Championship — and beyond that, manage to achieve greatness on the international stage — will earn a place in history.
In Part I, we ventured through some of 2012, 2013, and 2016’s biggest stories, but still more remains to unpack. The excitement continues as this year’s LCS contenders compete for a spot on the list. But for now, here are the top five that made the cut:
5. Snake eSports and I MAY defy expectations at the 2016 LPL regional
This one is just cheating. Covering the 2016 LPL regional qualifier is one of my favorite esports experiences to date. I talked in the hall with Snake manager Cao “Zuowu” Yu just as Guangzhou city law dictated that everyone but the competitors should leave the stadium before the final game on the first day of the event because of the city-specific curfew. He didn’t want me to say a word one way or the other for fear it would jinx the team. I barely made it home in time to watch Team WE smash the Nexus and end Snake’s qualifying run for worlds.
That day, Snake eSports played 10 games. Its long five game series against Vici Gaming featured a reverse sweep comeback from a team that had flagged all season. Mediocre performances fell away for Snake to bring not just Vici, but Team WE, pegged as a favorite to take the event, to five games. Exhaustion hit, and since then, the LPL format has become more forgiving. Only three teams were invited to this year’s gauntlet instead of four, preventing a situation where a team would need to play 10 games in one day.
But the story didn’t even end there. I May, once a sister team of EDward Gaming, awaited Team WE in the final. This series also went to five games, and the whole match was decided by an intelligent ward placed by Yun “Road” Han-gil and a teleport form Shek “AmazingJ” Wai Ho.
When I May won, Team WE’s Jin “Mystic” Seong-jun hid his face from the official LPL photographer. AmazingJ cried openly and boisterously on stage as he clutched at his team. After I May made it into the LPL at the end of spring, AmazingJ had boasted that, after his abysmal performance with EDward Gaming at the 2015 World Championship, he would return to Worlds the very next year. Almost no one believed it, given the paltry roster I May had. Until it happened.
The heroics of last year’s regional lose some significance in that I May had a miserable performance at worlds — but also because Snake, a team that didn’t even qualify, outdid them despite their loss. After a long day when no one expected Snake to contend for the last worlds spot, the players dragged themselves into their chairs for a 10th game. Their fortitude left such a strong impression that spectators wondered whether Snake would have made it to worlds if the format were more drawn out and the players had a good night’s sleep and preparation before the match against WE.
But this event turned both I May and Snake into heroes, and even LPL caster Indiana “Froskurrin” Black began openly crying in the final game. For that, they easily make the list.
4. Gamania Bears upset Taipei Snipers for worlds birth in Season 3
Just a year after Taipei Assassins won the Season 2 World Championship, the roster dissolved. Either because of tensions on the team or the org wanting to expand — whoever’s line you choose to follow, really — Taipei Assassins split, and Team Captain Chen “MiSTakE” Hui Chung went to lead Taipei Snipers.
Unlike Taipei Assassins, Snipers didn’t join the Garena Premier League, but they played in the Taiwan eSports League and smashed through most of their competition. With names like ahq e-Sports Club, TeSL and GPL had overlap. Teams from both leagues were invited to the Taiwan/Hong Kong/Macau regional qualifier, and one unassuming team, Gamania Bears, a competitor of Snipers in TeSL, made the cut.
In the first round, Snipers made short work of ahq, the top team from GPL, and became easy favorites to get the tournament win and attend worlds. By contrast, Gamania Bears lost 0-2 to Wayi Spiders, the third place team from TeSL.
But that loss dropped Gamania Bears into the losers bracket. From there, they encountered some of TPS’ greatest rivals and burned through them more definitively. A 2-0 defeat of Taipei Assassins, ahq, and finally a vengeful 2-1 over Wayi pitted Gamania Bears in the grand final Against Taipei Snipers. The TeSL champions entered the match with a map advantage, but only managed to win a single game otherwise, and Gamania Bears took the spot.
In the famous words of the character Dante from Clerks, “I’m not even supposed to be here today!”
Gamania Bears’ promotional content seemed to follow the same theme. Almost every interview or piece of content with the Bears leading up to worlds featured the young team looking over-joyed but slightly bewildered and even confused. No one expected the Bears to upset TPS on home soil, so of course no one would expect them to defeat SK Telecom T1 in their first match at worlds. Maybe they had a chance.
Of course, they didn’t. SKT 2-0’d the Bears easily in Los Angeles, but Gamania Bears’ unexpected visibility had long-standing perks. With sponsorship conflicts on home soil, few would expect an upstart roster thrown together to have so much staying power, for core members of the team to find funding in a tumultuous Taiwanese esports climate that let them stay together for years.
In 2017, Huang “Maple” Yitang and Hu “SwordArt” ShuoJie have qualified for their fourth world championship with Chou “Steak” Luhsi as head coach and Hsiung “NL” Wenan as a substitute streamer. Until June, Chen “Winds” Pengnien worked as an assistant coach for the team. All five of them men started for the 2013 Gamania Bears team.
Some upsets have long-standing implications. This one kept the same team together for nearly five years.
3. KT Rolster finally beats SK Telecom T1 in 2016 — and doesn’t even make worlds
SK Telecom T1 managed to bounce back after a slump just in time to defeat KT Rolster, a team cobbled together specifically to best SKT, in this year’s League Champions Korea semifinal. Then, to seemingly spit in KT’s face one last time, SKT lost in the finals to Longzhu Gaming, denying KT Rolster the ability to qualify for worlds on points. KT then fell to Samsung Galaxy in the gauntlet final.
This move is made all the more significant by what happened last year. Defying all expectations, KT Rolster finally managed to defeat long-time nemesis SKT in last year’s LCK summer semifinals. KT then went on to play the ROX Tigers, and the latter team finally won an LCK final, shedding the same thorn in its side: SKT.
KT had the ability to play with side lanes and transfer pressure from Song “Fly” Yong-jun across the map. He had unexpectedly strong performances on pocket picks like Aurelion Sol. SKT looked weak and brittle, and snapped in the semifinal — but beating SKT should still be an accomplishment. Surely KT would find an easy time to qualify for worlds.
Kang “Ambition” Chan-yong — many will remember him from Part 1 — chose that moment to intervene. Ambition, despite a lofty career as a mid laner and a difficult, but ultimately successful, swap to the jungle role, had yet to attend worlds. After beating the Afreeca Freecs in the regional semifinal, Ambition and Samsung Galaxy took that as their cue to drag the worlds berth away from KT Rolster in the final.
One can blame Ha “Hachani” Seung-chan (now unironically named “Comeback”) for mistimed roams and getting caught in brush. The Skarner compositions came as an obvious surprise, too. But Samsung’s bottom lane had a more impressive showing than any expected, and the team has constantly credited Ambition’s leadership.
The Samsung story was much more about a band of rejects: Lee “CuVee” Seong-jin more Rek’Sai split-pushing meme than lauded top laner; Ambition, who had yet to make worlds; Lee “Crown” Min-ho, who rose to prominence after a stint in Brazil (of all places); and an underestimated bottom lane with a support who had recently role swapped. Those players shouldn’t have defeated KT two years running. They shouldn’t have taken KT’s world championship qualification, adapted with each passing week, and actually challenged SKT in the grand final in Los Angeles.
But they did. After that, the feeling that they can, this year, achieve even more remains well on our minds.
2. NaJin White Shield makes a miracle run to deny KT Arrows after KT wins the 2014 Champions Final
This came in the only year since 2013 when the name “SKT” hasn’t been uttered with grudging eventuality. Some remember this period with rose-tinted glasses as the highest level of competition that has ever been seen on League of Legends. South Korea was brimming with talent, and sister teams Samsung White and Samsung Blue played exciting and memorable best-of-fives. White’s early game was always expected to reign supreme, but it only did — finally — in the world semifinals.
But neither Samsung White nor Samsung Blue won the 2014 HOT6iX Champions Summer Final on the beaches of Busan. KT Rolster Arrows, with their shocking and impressive jungle-mid approach, defeated Samsung Galaxy Blue in one of the most exciting best-of-fives of the game to date. The anticipation of seeing Lee “KaKAO” Byung-kwon mounted, and Arrows took the throne of the gods.
But that only lasted so long. In 2014, Korean qualification to worlds still followed a strict points system, and because of KTA’s less-than-inspiring Champions Spring run, it didn’t have enough qualifying points to make worlds without running the gauntlet. Arrows took second position and watched the first best-of-five between NaJin White Shield and KT Bullets expectantly.
NaJin White Shield’s flaws easily outnumbered its positive qualities. But jungler Cho “Watch” Jae-geol at least had a history of attending worlds. He made it in 2012 and 2013 with NaJin Sword. Though NJWS had a one-dimensional approach, it gained a lot from surprises and having specific picks prepared.
Kang “GorillA” Beon-hyeon, the only member of Shield still active in South Korea, had a great deal of success with Mejai’s Janna, and he opened up the option for the team to play 1-3-1 and pick comps with clever disengage. Though Yu “Ggoong” Byeong-jun had obvious champion pool weaknesses, he could usually get at least one of his preferred split-pushers to close the game.
Shield’s victory in the gauntlet from third position also rests on KTA, whose risky style of play made the team incredibly unreliable. The awe and majesty attributed to KaKAO and Song “RooKie” Eui-jin duo have been over-stated when one considers they effectively just liked to dive people.
But the teams Shield had to upset to attend worlds that year in the third seed are impressive. Both KT rosters — Bullets and Arrow — stood in Shield’s way and were dispatched without NaJin dropping a single game. SK Telecom T1 K, the mighty roster that claimed the Summoner’s Cup just one year before, played its final games against NaJin and lost 1-3. Since then, SKT has altered its roster in some way every year.
Shield’s failing at worlds also has its own significance. It was the last time a Korean team lost a best-of-five to a team from any other region at worlds, and Shield lost the same way KT Arrows did back home: in one swift 3-0 sweep to Chinese team Oh My God after a last-minute support substitution.
In general, however, it’s impressive how many times and in how many ways KT Rolster has been denied by circumstances. While that has remained true over the years, this one stands out as perhaps the most humiliating and extreme of them all. And yet — it still isn’t No. 1.
1. Cloud9’s miracle gauntlet run in 2015
How can something that happened in North America ever top the unending shame and disappointment felt by KT Rolster fans globally? Cloud9’s miracle 2015 qualification for worlds was so extreme and so absurd that I likely don’t even have to remind you of the details, and it feels like it can almost never be properly replicated.
The transition between spring and summer that year featured one of the most controversial roster changes in League of Legends up to that point. Not only did Cloud9 bench key shot-caller Hai “Hai” Du Lam from its famous and iconic 2013 roster, but the team imported Nicolaj “Jensen” Jensen — a Danish mid laner with a past so controversial it felt like Riot Games specifically started acknowledging coaches to deny him back stage access when he worked for SK Gaming — to end the last all-American roster at the time.
Even now, it’s difficult to call this definitively a positive move or a mistake. Despite Jensen’s success in the NA LCS for Cloud9, a long period of bringing Hai out of retirement to role swap awkwardly into the roster followed. The first incident occurred, famously, in the 2015 NA LCS summer.
After near bottom-of-the-table standings for five weeks, Cloud9 made the decision to swap out once star jungler Will “Meteos” Harman for Hai to improve the team’s cohesion and communication. Although the initial decision bred skepticism, Cloud9 pulled together and functioned more as a unit. No one would call Hai a top tier jungler — he played similarly to Meteos in his early days, simply farming, and with arguably worse mechanics — but the team itself picked up modestly.
Every member of Cloud9 told the public that they didn’t care as much about playoffs. Their main goal was to get good enough to secure seventh place. As long as they made seventh in the summer split, Cloud9 could keep their points from its spring final appearance and qualify for the gauntlet.
Cloud9 managed to just make it into that seventh place spot in the final week, but few had expectations that the team could perform well in the regional gauntlet. Hai played heavy farming and off-meta picks like Shyvana, and more impressive rosters of talent stood in Cloud9’s way.
Over the three day period from Aug. 28-30, Cloud9 played three best-of-fives. Not only did the first two go to five games, but Cloud9 reverse swept the initial best-of-five against Gravity Gaming. It could have been over on that first day in three games — if not in any number of other moments before that — but Cloud9 persevered.
Cloud9 didn’t even make it out of group stage at worlds, but it advanced far enough for Hai, a player everyone blamed for the team flagging behind at the end of 2013, to flip off Fnatic star mid laner Fabian “Febiven” Diepstraten on stage. Let’s be honest, he more than earned it.
Cover photo courtesy of Riot Games