When all three LCS teams failed to make it out of the group stage at the 2019 World Championship, North American fans were outraged. It was the first time a North American team had failed to qualify for the knockout stage since Worlds 2015, and since it was also the first time Cloud9 failed to escape groups, it was considered the international low for NA.
C9 failed to qualify for Worlds 2020 and none of Team Liquid, TSM, and FlyQuest survived the groups, but this time around, the fan disappointment is a different shade. North America came into Worlds 2020 with extremely low expectations, and while its current level is now considered lower internationally than after Worlds 2019, the three teams at Worlds 2020 finished with a record of 6-12, which is a win better than the 5-13 Worlds 2019 record.
Win-loss records don't tell the whole story, but it begs the question: Did North America really perform worse at Worlds 2020 than it did at Worlds 2019? Let's compare the results of each LCS seed at each event side-by-side for a closer look.
1st seed: 2020 TSM vs. 2019 Team Liquid
TSM made history at Worlds 2020 by becoming the first major region #1 seed to ever go 0-6 in groups. Expectations were not high for TSM to escape a group that also included Gen.G and Fnatic, but a winless ousting is far below what becomes an LCS champion, especially with the shaky performance of LGD Gaming in the play-in.
Team Liquid was North America’s #1 seed at Worlds 2019, and after a finals run at the 2019 Mid-Season Invitational, hopes were high. In Group D, Team Liquid proved superior to the 0-6 ahq eSports Club, but DAMWON Gaming took #1 seed in the group with a 5-1 record at its first World Championship. In Team Liquid’s final game of the group, it faced off against a noticeably weaker Invictus Gaming than TL defeated 3-1 in the semifinals of MSI 2019, and a win would have forced a tiebreaker rematch. Unfortunately, TL was unable to defeat IG and was eliminated with a 3-3 record.
The #1 seed comparison is pretty cut and dry. Team Liquid’s groups elimination at Worlds 2019 after an MSI final and its #3 and 4th consecutive LCS championships were certainly disappointing, but it’s hard to top the first-ever 0-6 from a major region #1 seed, lowered expectations or not.
2nd seed: 2020 FlyQuest vs. 2019 Cloud9
FlyQuest had little to no chance of escaping Group D at Worlds 2020 with Top Esports and DRX there, but FLY was dominant against Unicorns of Love in both of its wins and after being mathematically eliminated, proved that gods could bleed. FLY ended its first Worlds run at 3-3 after handing Top Esports its only loss in Group D.
Cloud9 was the LCS #2 seed at Worlds 2019 after a narrow 3-2 loss to Team Liquid in the final of the Summer Playoffs, and because of TL’s perceived form and C9’s success at worlds past relative to other NA teams, but a group of death with Griffin and G2 Esports saw C9 eliminated with a 2-4 record. Cloud9 had qualified for every Worlds since the team’s establishment in 2013, and 2019 was only the second time it failed to get past the group stage.
FlyQuest and Cloud9 both had difficult groups, but It’s easy to point towards C9’s Worlds 2019 as the larger disappointment because of its establishment as NA’s great international hope. However, simply breaking it down to a matter of record or history would be a disservice to FlyQuest, who showed far more flexibility than expected and continued to improve throughout the group stage. FLY’s two wins against UOL were convincing, its losses against DRX were well-fought, and it got revenge on Top Esports for the opening day stomp by ending its run as the only team to prove the Chinese powerhouse mortal. Not bad for a team’s first international event.
3rd seed: 2020 Team Liquid vs. 2019 Clutch Gaming
Team Liquid entered Worlds 2020 perceived as the strongest LCS team despite a #3 place finish in the Summer Playoffs, and it wasn’t just Cloud9 residue on what is historically NA’s best-placing seed. Team Liquid indisputably has the most talented roster of the three LCS teams who attended Worlds 2020 on paper, and rookie AD carry Edward “Tactical” Ra had proven to be more than just a viable replacement for Yiliang “Doublelift” Peng. TL wasn’t expected to beat G2 in Group A, but was clearly superior to Machi Esports and could potentially split against Suning.
The play-in had gone as expected for TL, but Group A sure didn’t. TL dropped its first game to Machi and fell to Suning, but finished its first round-robin with an upset against G2. In the second round-robin, TL looked much more aggressive than in its previous set of matches. A convincing loss to G2 was buoyed by clean wins against Suning and Machi, both of which started with a level 1 first blood for the NA side. If G2 could defeat Suning in the final match of Group A, a tiebreaker would be forced between TL and Suning at a 3-3 record for the #2 seed in the group. The dream was alive.
Unfortunately, G2 fell to Suning, the latter of whom proved to be the strongest team in what became a far more contested Group A than expected. Team Liquid was eliminated at 3-3, and Suning took the #1 seed over G2, who settled for #2.
In 2019, Clutch Gaming secured the #3 seed after running the entire gauntlet of the 2019 North American Regional Final. Clutch Gaming finished in 9th place in the 2019 LCS Spring Split, but came alive in summer and secured 4th in the Summer Playoffs. Clutch then won back-to-back-to-back series against FLY, CLG, and TSM to qualify for Worlds 2019 as NA’s #3 seed. Clutch wasn’t expected to win a game after being placed in a group of death with Fnatic, SK Telecom T1, and Royal Never Give Up, and that is exactly what happened.
CG’s Worlds 2019 was considered a victory lap for an incredible domestic run, and while the team went winless, it was nice to see its players continue to be positive and proactive and not succumb to fear of superior opponents.
Recency bias, higher expectations, and a heartbreaking indirect elimination may cause TL’s 3-3 elimination to loom larger than CG’s fond memories of yesteryear, but in hindsight, TL had a pretty solid Worlds 2020. They dominated the play-in as expected, took a win against all three teams in its group, showed a willingness to change is playstyle to suit a more aggressive early game meta, increased its compositional champion pool, and was a single win from making it out of what became a very competitive Group A.
Support Jo “CoreJJ” Yong-in was arguably the best individual performer of any player on any team despite TL’s #3 place finish, and Tactical’s international debut was not only nerveless but spectacular. If fans need a reason to be excited about NA’s international chances in 2021, re-evaluating Team Liquid’s performance at Worlds 2020 with a fresh perspective is an excellent place to start.
Is this a step forward for the LCS?
The LCS collectively won one more game than in the Worlds group stage this year than it did last year, and Team Liquid’s play-in run, while expected, wasn’t a guarantee due to the increasing power levels of minor region representatives. Both Worlds saw all three NA teams eliminated in groups, but with one more win this year, why is the general perception that NA has gotten worse? Is it simply recency? Is it Cloud9 missing its first Worlds in history? Or is North America actually in a better spot now than it was in 2019 when looking towards the future?
That’s not to say that a collective one-win improvement from 5-13 to 6-12 is something to celebrate or a direct indicator of regional improvement. The recency of the Worlds 2020 eliminations obviously plays a part, and each year of North America underperforming internationally more often than not adds mounting frustration with each disappointment.
Perhaps a better way to perceive Worlds 2020 is as an eye-opener for North America. CoreJJ, the reigning LCS MVP, is proof that an imported, role-swapped player can become a World Champion and continue to play in his prime regardless of his home region. Tactical and TSM’s sole bright spot in jungler Mingyi “Spica” Lu proved that investing in developing young domestic talent is difficult, but possible. FlyQuest has beaten expectations all season long, and top laner Colin “Solo” Earnest proved by qualifying for his first international event that North American veterans perceived as “washed up” by the community can continue to improve even after a near-decade-long career.
NA’s Worlds 2020 was certainly a disappointment, but when reading between the lines, there are many takeaways that, if valued by the LCS and its organizations, could improve the region in 2021.
Should these organizations put their money where their mouth is and learn lessons from the most recent World Championship, the LCS will slowly, but surely improve and eventually establish itself as a region contending for more than just a top 8 finish.
All photos by: David Lee for Riot Games
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