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Emily Rand’s worlds Group D roundup: Taiwan (and North America) aren’t No. 1

TSM and Flash Wolves failed big-time in worlds Group D
All photos courtesy of Riot Games

“T-P-A! T-P-A! T-P-A!”

As soon as the crowd began to chant, all five members of the Taipei Assassins jumped up and down in the booth, waving their arms and cheering. They were surprised, stunned, but happy, leading their own chants that soon filled the Galen Center in Los Angeles. Clad in red t-shirts, without the same backing or competitive regional play as finals opponent Azubu Frost, TPA rose through the Season 2 League of Legends World Championship and was crowned champion after four finals games. This was the last time that a non-Korean team hoisted the Summoner’s Cup.

Since that day, Taiwanese teams have occupied a murky space between major region and minor. Now, when people list the major regions in random order, Korea often comes first by virtue of being the strongest. Then Europe, China, or North America, listed in whatever order reiterates their regional fandom. Taiwan is listed last, if remembered. After divorcing from Southeast Asia’s Garena Pro League to form the LoL Master Series in 2015, the Flash Wolves and ahq e-Sports Club made it into the worlds quarterfinals. The separation had worked, and Taiwan’s top teams, free of the GPL slog, were now free to improve in their own competitive space.

But Taiwan also has a Flash Wolves problem, or perhaps a Flash Wolves and AHQ problem. The Flash Wolves have dominated the LMS for the past two years, qualifying to represent Taiwan at every major international event. Behind them, if a second team is permitted, is AHQ. Even with an unimpressive split from mid laner Huang “Maple” Yi-tang and early season benching of jungler Hung “Karsa” Hau-hsuan along with short suspensions of AD carry Lu “Betty” Yu-hung and top laner Yu “MMD” Li-hung, the Flash Wolves still swept AHQ in the LMS summer finals, earning the LMS’ first seed at an international tournament for the fourth straight split. AHQ qualified as the region’s second seed and, for the first time, a third seed (Hong Kong Attitude) represented the region in the newly-added worlds play-in stage.

AHQ’s fate will be decided in Group A, but is hardly a favorite despite a slumping EDward Gaming. Hong Kong Attitude was swept by Fnatic in a group stage qualifiers, and the Flash Wolves were embarrassed by their Group D competitors, winning only one game, which affected the fate of Team SoloMid and Misfits more than their own. Since their days with AD carry Hsiung “NL” Wenan, the Flash Wolves have had strong early game showings. At first, they were unique and creative to cover for NL and, in 2015, then-top laner Chou “Steak” Luhsi. This evolved into a more standard but still strong focus on taking early turrets using mid and jungle pressure from Karsa and Maple as a major pivot point. But even back in 2015, the Flash Wolves’ late game was highly suspect. They struggled in team fights. Their Baron setups and sieges were ill-timed and often without proper vision. They threw away large leads.

This still hasn’t changed for Flash Wolves, and their showing these past two weeks in Group D was their most embarrassing yet at an international event. In all but one of their games, the Flash Wolves could not close out their gold lead, squandering opportunities to fight, even with a significant advantage and a stronger compositional power spike. Flash Wolves might not have been favored to make it out of this group, but they were supposedly the No. 1 seed. For the second straight year, no LMS team made it to the quarterfinals, and the region’s third seed didn’t even make it to the main event.

Not to be outdone by the unsurprising disappointment of the LMS and Flash Wolves, TSM also floundered in Group D. The same roster failed to make it out of Group D last year, facing stiff competition from Royal Never Give Up and Samsung Galaxy. This year, those two teams were drawn into a group with G2 Esports, and TSM was drawn into a group with an untested Misfits squad, the inconsistent Flash Wolves and no Korean team. This was TSM’s group to lose. Even when Team WE joined the fray following the play-in stage, TSM was still a favorite to get out of the group and a popular pick to win it.

“I think we had a lot of problems last year,” Yiliang “Doublelift” Peng said at TSM’s summer finals press conference. “This year we’re just going to be able to learn from that. Part of that is just being able to come back from bad situations when we make mistakes, which we didn’t have that skill last year.”

Yet similar mistakes once again became TSM’s demise.

All too often this summer, TSM relied on late-game team-fighting to dig out of early game deficits. Since acquiring mid laner Søren “Bjergsen” Bjerg — and even before with Andy “Reginald” Dinh in the mid lane — TSM has lived up to its name with a style that controls the map from the mid lane. This specific roster of Kevin “Hauntzer” Yarnell, Dennis “Svenskeren” Johnsen, Bjergsen, Doublelift, and Vincent “Biofrost” Wang has earned a reputation for being able to carry through any lane, but much of that is owed to Bjergsen, regardless of the meta. Despite Hauntzer’s prowess in the NA LCS, the top side of the map has been a recurring problem for TSM. Svenskeren has been inconsistent about applying any early jungle pressure at all, another returning theme that haunted TSM during this group stage. TSM would often cede pressure elsewhere to secure different objectives like the opposing team’s blue buff.

“Coming back from bad situations” as Doublelift said, requires not only strong individual players and good late-game team-fighting, but a strong mentality and smart decision-making. TSM has often owed its dominance to strong individual players upon whom the team can rely to make big late-game plays. That means TSM’s default play style has developed not around being a proactive team, but being a reactive team. TSM waits for an opponent to make a mistake and then seizes that opportunity. Opportunistic play styles aren’t bad, but they still require some sort of early point of attack or stronghold on the map. Many point to Korea’s SK Telecom T1 as a team that relies on opponents’ mistakes, but even SKT has struggled in games it drafts losing lanes or the junglers struggle with applying early pressure. In fact, SKT’s lack of proactivity helped cost the team the most recent League Champions Korea final against Longzhu Gaming, a team that drafts strong early lanes and plays around them.

Ultimately, relying on opponents to make a mistake and passively waiting through the early game requires them to make more mistakes than your team. This play style has worked for TSM in North America but has let the team down at worlds multiple times. Even Reginald admitted that to Travis Gafford moments after being eliminated.

“In North America, from a player perspective, a lot of our players are better enough individually,” he said. “So we get away with a lot of things that shouldn’t work on the international level.”

Biofrost was never given (or can’t play) Janna. Doublelift couldn’t perform on anything but Tristana (and even then his final showing against Flash Wolves was less than impressive). Coach Parth Naidu and the team drafted poorly. There are myriad smaller points fans will immediately latch onto as the one true reason TSM lost. Yet, the team’s larger problems span a far longer time frame than the past two weeks. It might not matter if TSM’s only goal is to do well domestically, but multiple staff members, players, coaches, and even Reginald himself have said that strong international performance is the goal. If that’s the case, it’s time to return to the drawing board.

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