Run the Gauntlet. The final qualification tournaments across the globe are either finished (LMS and LCK), underway (LPL), or kicking off shortly (NA and EU LCS) to determine the last holders of League of Legends World Championship spots. Most of the events take place in a “gauntlet” format where extra points earned throughout the year place each team in a staggered bracket. The team with the most points will only have to play one match, but the one with the least will have to prepare for a long list of teams to get the ultimate prize.
Merriam-Webster has various definitions for the word “gauntlet,” but the one that seems most appropriate here is “severe trial: ordeal.” Teams in the past have started at the bottom and worked their way to the top to be crowned heroes and clinch a final spot at worlds. Some of the greatest stories in League of Legends have come out of domestic worlds qualification tournaments. The more grueling the format, the more delicious the success. Only a tournament so brutal can truly make heroes and provide the sheer emotional trauma for which we yearn in both observing and participating in competition.
To prepare to kick off the gauntlet in the coming weeks in LCS, let’s look back at some of the most impressive worlds qualification heroics. Legends no one expected rose to the occasion, and history was made when final tickets to worlds were sent out.
10. Unicorns of Love’s deep 2016 Gauntlet Run
The reason this story only makes No. 10 is because, at its core, it isn’t a real upset. The Unicorns of Love didn’t make worlds, and they didn’t get the hero crown. History will hardly remember them years from now.
But even considering Unicorns’ 2015 spring final appearance, they were never so close to making an international event than they were in last year’s regional qualifier. Still, they had so many mechanisms working for and against them behind the scenes to make this story one of the most interesting to occur during a qualification event.
A brief controversy broke out in which it was revealed Giants Gaming, the No. 3 ranked team from the LCS regular season, had internal problems and refused to scrim anyone. The news came from Unicorns informing the public they couldn’t get scrims because Fnatic and Splyce would only scrim each other. H2K Gaming and G2 Esports, the teams that had already qualified for worlds, had left to bootcamp in Seoul, Splyce and Fnatic chose to pair, and UoL were excluded.
“The Unicorns have my sympathy, but not my regret.”
The controversy gave rise to heavy discussion regarding the health of EU LCS scrim culture: if they didn’t have time to book multiple partners in a day, why teams wouldn’t stick around to help the region, and a few other timeless and ludicrous gems. Despite backdrop and expectations, however, Unicorns smashed through not only Giants, but Fnatic in the first two series of the event to collide with Splyce for the final. The last match was a five game ordeal that Splyce escaped only by doubling down on late game scaling picks like Malzahar and grinding it out.
(The final must have traumatized them because that is exactly how UoL played this year.)
In the end, it came out largely because of Unicorns’ tendency to go for unpredictable compositions and push their limits in scrims even further than they do in on stage matches, that they were potentially part of their own problem. But when UoL fans had the opportunity to deliver the answering line during this year’s spring season, “Splyce have my sympathy, but not my regret,” it proved UoL’s heroics in the final leg of last year had sticking power.
9. SK Gaming upset CLG EU in the 2012 Gamescom European Regional
“There are not only two top teams anymore, SK are there as well.” — Patrick “Nyph” Funke at the close of the SK Gaming vs CLG EU semifinal in the 2012 EU Regional
Much of 2012 in Europe and abroad was about the dominance of Moscow 5 and CLG EU chipping diligently away at the sanity of its opponents in long, scaling matches. The Season 2 European Regional was set up as a backdrop for sending the best team and world championship favorites, M5, to Los Angeles.
Just weeks before the Regional, SK Gaming formed one of its most memorable League of Legends lineups in Kevin “Kev1n” Rubiszewski, Alvar “Araneae” Martin Aleñar, Carlos “ocelote” Rodríguez Santiago, Bora “YellOwStaR” Kim, and Patrick “Nyph” Funke. The first tournament for this lineup was European Challenger Circuit: Poland at the tail end of July, and SK’s first encounter with CLG EU ended in a 2-1 defeat. SK went on to place third in the event.
At the regional qualifier in August, however, SK beat CLG EU 2-0 in the semifinal with a more mid-game focused method of play. SK played a strong lane swap game for the time and sent its duo mid early to stall for Kev1n to get ahead. SK could then make earlier Baron rushes that took CLG EU out of its comfort zone.
Allegedly, much of SK’s success at this event came from a bootcamp with Moscow 5 leading up to the tournament. YellOwStaR received heavy praise for putting together an underestimated lineup and, with smarter shot-calling, getting to a position where SK could brush shoulders with the top of the region.
Like many of the Regional Qualifier upsets in this article, though, when SK made it to worlds, the idea of that team actually brushing shoulders with the region’s best became a laughable notion. SK didn’t win a single game in the Los Angeles Group Stage, and both CLG EU and M5 advanced to the world semifinals. Yet, for a brief day in August, the entire SK lineup became heroes, and their small upset at the regional qualifier remains a fond memory.
8. Cloud9 denies Immortals in the 2016 North American Regional
2016 wasn’t the easiest year for Cloud9. Although it remained top three in the spring split, that only happened in part by bringing back long-time crutch Hai “Hai” Du Lam and role swapping him once again to support. Then, in the quarterfinals, C9 was upset by a resurgent Team SoloMid 3-1.
For Cloud9, lane swaps were never an easy thing to grasp. They often left top laner An “Balls” Le isolated isolated and didn’t bounce waves properly for him to stay competitive in CS. The same remained true for Jeong “Impact” Eon-yeong when he joined the team, stifling one of the most talented elements of the roster.
Cloud9 and adaptation are never two words that go well together in a sentence, but luckily the 2016 patch changes did that for them. The elimination of lane swaps meant that C9 no longer had to worry about frivolous things and could just let Impact smash away at his opponents on the likes of Gnar.
At the same time, Immortals had an obvious disregard for whatever strong top lane matchups at the time might be. Immortals placed top two in both spring and summer for its debut season but struggled perhaps even more with adaptation than Cloud9. It just so happened that, when the meta changed, it swung into C9’s favor and out of Immortals’.
Immortals had a fairly strong grasp of lane swap. In playing around Heo “Huni” Seung-hoon, the team primed waves and made sure he always had ample farm while Impact starved. Not only did the spring playoffs champion pick meta swing out of Immortals’ favor, but the standard lane meta in the summer also removed one of the team’s strengths. On top of that, with Immortals constantly prioritizing awkward top lane matchups, it paved an easy path for Cloud9 to upset them.
As then-coach of Immortals Dylan Falco put it, “It’s really difficult, I think, when players don’t believe in the fact that there’s a global meta.”
Cloud9 ended up defeating Immortals in both the summer semifinals and the last stage of the regional gauntlet. It gave birth to the infamous “top die” meme and, months later, when SK Telecom T1 overwhelmed and demolished Cloud9 in group stage, the underrated “I will clap Faker” edition.
7. NaJin Sword and Azubu Frost attend the Season 2 World Championship with Azubu Blaze nowhere to be seen
When Maximum Impact Gaming founded its Blaze sister team in 2012, it was to give the main team, MiG Frost, a reliable and stable practice partner. What it really created was a monster.
In its debut Champions split, MiG Blaze, with a roster that featured now-beloved players Kang “Ambition” Chan-yong and Kang “Cpt Jack” Hyung-woo, destroyed the group stage opponents and had an almost effortless rise to the grand final against sister team MiG Frost. Blaze mercilessly 3-0’d Frost with minimal fanfare.
Blaze, surely, was the better team. When Azubu picked up the rosters halfway through the year, Blaze continued to look like the favorites going into Champions Summer, though frequent “Frost or Blaze” debates flooded message boards around the world. In early August, Blaze attended the North American tournament, MLG Summer Arena, and demolished the competition, dropping only a single game to TSM.
In Champions Summer, Blaze continued its reign of terror until colliding again with Azubu Frost in the semifinal. In a memorable and grueling five game series, Frost triumphed to send Blaze to the third place match against NaJin Sword. Blaze lost with barely a fight, but both teams made it then to the Korean regional qualifier that year.
The faceoff between Blaze and Sword has a great deal of historical significance. Two of Korea’s greatest now-retired top lane legends in Bok “Reapered” Han-gyu and Yoon “MakNooN” Ha-woon featured prominently in their respective lineups. Both players started their legacies around them in 2012, and both would go on to have a major impact on the way the top lane role developed. The way Reapered later led his iteration of SKT has colored interpretations of what a shot-caller in LoL actually is because his level of micromanagement is both not possible now and was hardly possible then.
Beyond the top lane, Kim “PraY” Jong-in played for Sword’s bottom lane. The rivalry between Ambition and PraY in terms of experience and leadership remains intact whenever the current iterations of Samsung and Longzhu collide in LCK. Even now, PraY still wins.
But most significantly, following the 2012 season of Champions, the question was never Frost, Blaze, or Sword. It was Frost or Blaze. Blaze was seeded directly into the final of Korea’s 2012 regional gauntlet, and Sword had to play three best-of-fives. Sword swept Incredible Miracle, 3-1’d Xenics Storm, and dragged Blaze to five games.
But Blaze didn’t make worlds that year, and its most diehard supporters will insist, to this day, that Blaze should have won the whole damn thing.
6. Royal Club Huang Zu snatch first seed from Oh My God in the 2013 Chinese Regional
In light of recent events — that is, Jian “Uzi” Zi-hao losing yet another LPL final — it’s important to remember that China’s most well-loved AD Carry has indeed won domestic events. The closest one can give him to an LPL title is the Season 3 World Championship qualifier for Mainland China.
Because of scheduling difficulties, the LPL didn’t have a proper summer playoffs. Rather than rush the whole ordeal, the playoffs were delayed until after the Season 3 World Championship. All the top ranked teams were instead invited to the regional qualifier, and the top two would head to Los Angeles’ Staples Center.
After placing fifth in the spring regular season, Royal Club Huang Zu surged to the position of three-way tie for second in a deeply competitive LPL summer. Despite their improvement, a one-dimensional play style centered around Uzi and allegedly difficult team environment made them a tough team to bet on when Royal, OMG, Invictus Gaming, and Positive Energy headed to the Summer Regional.
OMG placed first in the spring split and finished first in the summer regular season. Its play style focused a lot on getting picks and setting up dives early. OMG started the event with a forceful 2-0 over iG, and with Positive Energy’s internal problems — specifically, its jungler getting his girlfriend pregnant and leaving the team — Royal made short work on the other side of the bracket.
These events set up Royal’s impressive Day 2 run. Royal started by losing 2-1 to OMG in the winners bracket and dropping to play against Invictus Gaming in the lower bracket. Unlike OMG, Royal had a much more difficult time dispatching iG and dropped a game. But it all set up for Royal to return to face OMG in the finals. Coming from the upper bracket, OMG had a one game lead.
Royal swept. An underrated factor in Royal’s 2013 success came from its ability to study opponents and learn from them. Fnatic was one of their best scrim partners at worlds and allegedly lost most of its matches behind closed doors until the semifinal. For OMG, it was the same. Royal had studied OMG’s Level 1s and disrupted them at the regional for a 3-0 sweep. Following the win and Royal snatching the China’s first seed from the clutches of OMG’s hands, the shock was so deep that OMG actually refused to scrim Royal when both teams touched down in LA that year.
Not only did Royal play nine games in a single day and sweep China’s favorite sons, but its run at worlds made the story even sweeter. When Royal met OMG one more time in the world quarterfinals, Royal won 2-1, ran over Fnatic, and then made it all the way to the final.
… Where it was unceremoniously smashed by SK Telecom T1 K. But it’s the thought that counts.
Continued next week in Part Two
Cover photo courtesy of Riot Games