For the first time since 2015, not a single North American representative will be competing in the Knockout Stage of the League of Legends World Championship. Team Liquid, Cloud9, and Clutch Gaming ended their respective Worlds 2019 runs in the Group Stage.
While it might make the average LCS fan feel better just to chalk it up to Worlds being on European soil, as it was in 2015 when the NALCS' infamous 'Week 2 0-10' occured, there's many factors to consider when analyzing what led to such a disappointing performance from North America at the World Championship. Let's take a look at how the LCS teams' Worlds 2019 performances compared to their respective expectations.
Clutch Gaming qualified for the main event of Worlds 2019 through the Play-In. The 3rd seed from the LCS was placed into Group C with LCK 1st seed SK Telecom T1, LEC 2nd seed Fnatic, and LPL 2nd seed Royal Never Give Up. Clutch Gaming ended the Group Stage in last place, going 0-6 in Group C on its way out of the tournament.
Despite failing to secure a single win in the Group Stage, Clutch Gaming's performance at the 2019 World Championship was the least disappointing of the LCS representatives. Clutch Gaming was a ninth place team three months ago when Team Dignitas, an esports organization owned by NBA team Philadelphia 76ers, purchased the primary stake in CG from fellow NBA franchise Houston Rockets. The unlikelihood of CG's Worlds qualification came with forgiving expectations.
Clutch Gaming was aware of the odds stacked against them in Group C, but the odds the team overcame to even qualify in the first place were far greater. Immediately after Clutch Gaming qualified for Worlds 2019 by reverse sweeping TSM out of the final gauntlet match of the 2019 LCS Regional Final, Top Laner Heo "Huni" Seung-hoon sat down with Inven Global's Nick Geracie for a post-game interview and acknowledged the freedom brought by low expectations.
"No one expects us to do well at Worlds, but no one expected us to qualify, either," Huni explained. "That's the greatest part of not getting support — we have no pressure on us. If we lose, who cares? It was only expected. But if we win, it's almost like we're winning double."
Unfortunately for Clutch Gaming, 0 when multipled by 2 is still 0, but the incredible run from 9th place mid-way through the summer to Dignitas' first representation at the League of Legends World Championship since 2012 eclipses the utter shellacking Clutch Gaming experienced in Group C. In addition, the organization could not have handled the scenario better, continuing to play pro-actively and change up compositions and strategies.
The gap between the top 2 LCS teams, Team Liquid and Cloud9, and the rest of the league was significant. It was extremely unlikely that any of the teams in the 2019 LCS Regional Final would have succeeded in the Group Stage. Clutch Gaming was considered the favorite because of its well-defined strengths, understanding of its indentity, and willingness to play pro-actively. If the 3rd NA team was going to go down, fans wanted it to go down swinging, and CG swung till the end.
Cloud9 qualified for Worlds 2019 as the 2nd seed from the LCS through circuit points after punching its ticket to the 2019 LCS Summer Finals. Cloud9 was placed into Group A with LEC 1st seed G2 Esports, LCK 2nd seed Griffin, and LMS 3rd seed Hong Kong Attitude, the latter of whom qualified for the Group Stage through the Play-In.
Cloud9 never quite looked like itself in the Group Stage, finishing 2-4 in 3rd place. While escaping Group A was certainly a tall task for the LCS darling, the young players on Griffin have a tendency to let nerves get the best of them on a new stage, and Cloud9 has historically been the best North American team on the international stage. If a tie-breaker were to happen between C9 and Griffin for the 2nd seed, C9 punching its ticket out of Group A would not be impossible.
Griffin did start off shaky in Group A, but Cloud9 started off even shakier. Zachary "Sneaky" Scuderi looked out of sorts on three different mage picks in the Bot Lane, and despite valiant efforts from both Dennis "Svenskeren" Johnsen and Robert "Blaber" Huang in the Jungle, even what worked for C9 domestically fell flat internationally. Top Laner Eric "Licorice" Ritchie was the lone standout on the team, securing world class status as he tried his damndest to drag C9 to the finish line.
Cloud9 adjusted for its second round robin, and Sneaky looked much more comfortable on marksmen, but the team as a whole still looked out of sorts. C9's performance without a doubt disappointed relative to expectations, but has been far more easily forgiven than that of other teams simply due to it being the one consistent international presence for North America.
Despite not winning an LCS title since the spring of 2014, Cloud9 has qualified for Worlds every single year since its first LCS split in 2013. In seven Worlds appearances, Cloud9 has qualified for Semifinals once and Quarterfinals four times. Only in 2015 and 2019 has C9 failed to secure a top 8 finish at the World Championship.
Cloud9 has plenty to work on as a team, and while not seeing them in the Knockout Stage is a pity, the blow would certainly have been lessened if not for the unfortunate fate of...
Team Liquid qualified for the 2019 World Championship after defeating Clutch Gaming in the 2019 LCS Summer Semifinals. In triumphing over Cloud9 in the 2019 LCS Summer Finals the weekend after, TL secured the North America's 1st seed for the World Championship and sat atop Group D as a Pool 1 team.
Seeded into D with TL was LPL 3rd seed and defending World Champion Invictus Gaming and LMS 2nd seed ahq e-Sports Club. LCK 3rd seed DAMWON Gaming would round out the group after qualifying for the Group Stage through the Worlds 2019 Play-In.
Team Liquid performed the best out of all three LCS teams at Worlds, finishing 3-3 and in 3rd place after dropping a final do-or-die match to Invictus Gaming. This marks the fourth year in a row that Yiliang "Doublelift" Peng has been unable to escape the Group Stage with 3 wins, and the fifth year overall.
Team Liquid's failure to escape groups bears the brunt of the disappointment directed towards the LCS. The team's shocking 3-1 upset of Invictus Gaming in the 2019 Mid-Season Invitiational Semifinals only added to the sting of Team Liquid's game-throwing first loss against IG in Group D, and the bleak disappointment of its demolition in the eliminating second loss to the reigning World Champions.
Team Liquid is the greatest team North America has ever assembled when it comes to on-paper talent. The five starting players share nearly four decades of experience as professional League of Legends players, and the two former World Champions the roster boasts is flanked by over 20 domestic titles across the entirety of each player's career. After an MSI Finals appearance and the first four straight LCS titles in history, Team Liquid's early exit is nothing short of a gut punch.
Throughout the year, Team Liquid went through the steps to adapt and continue to grow properly. In the Spring Split, TL could beat every team in the LCS by sticking Top Laner Jeong "Impact" Eon-young on a tank every game and playing through Bot Lane, but more than one gameplan is required for international success. TL realized this and adapted accordingly, sticking Impact exclusively on carry champions for the rest of spring.
It quickly became clear that while Impact was adept on carry Top Laners individually, Team Liquid was not necessarily the best at playing through a strong top side as a team. However, TL continued to draft towards the Top Lane and gradually improved on playing around its Top Lane. Doublelift's understanding of Sona in the Bot Lane and his and Jo "CoreJJ" Yong-in's versatility in champion pool and playstyle was a boon to Team Liquid's ability to play towards the solo lanes.
"Core and I are the best Sona/Taric | Sona/Tahm Bot Lane in the world; I'm confident in that," Doublelift said in an interview with Inven Global's Nick Geracie after the 2019 LCS Summer Semifinals.
"We've played it so much; we know every single match up. We literally play every trade perfectly. There's no way we could possibly squeeze out any more damage or damage mitigation in our trades. Generally speaking, we also know how to play it within our team super well."
Cloud9 defeated Team Liquid in both meetings between the teams in the 2019 LCS Summer Split, exposing the latter's Mid/Jungle synergy as a potential weak point. Team Liquid adjusted accordingly once again, playing much better around Svenskeren's tendency to put the majority of his attention towards Yasin "Nisqy" Dincer, and won the Summer Finals 3-2.
TL was expected to draft the Sona/Taric or Sona/Tahm Kench duo at Worlds 2019, but only Cloud9 selected the Maven of the Strings in one of its losses to Griffin. However, TL did not show anything outside of conventional marksmen in the Bot Lane, despite the team's clear understanding of how a mage-centric Bot Lane has helped the team develop its second, solo-lane focused style of play.
"It's a huge stylistic change," said Doublelift after the Semifinals. "Usually, we draft a winning Bot Lane and play through bot a lot early game, so for teams to have to deal with this different second style in which the enemy's solo laners are going to feel super pressured while CoreJJ and I gracefully lose."
If Sona wasn't a favorable selection for TL on Patch 9.19, that could be understood, but TL's drafts throughout Group D were pretty uniform save for a few strange picks like Anivia in the Mid Lane. Doublelift is a traditional DPS AD Carry, and marksmen have overall been more impactful than the wizards of the Bot Lane at Worlds 2019 thus far, but a second look for Team Liquid might have helped in its second round robin. Instead, TL went 1-2 and finished with 3 wins, just short of top 8.
Team Liquid's loss is unfortunate in its own right, but to add insult to injury, also raises plenty of questions regarding the LCS' relative strength going forward. It's hard to imagine how North America puts a more talented team together than TL's 2019 roster, and only one day after the LCS' collective exit from Worlds, rumblings of the region's cultural obstacles and lack of player development have begun to rear their ugly heads.
Given TL's meeting of G2 in the 2019 MSI Finals, it looked as if the West as a whole had improved and that the 2018 World Champion wasn't a fluke. Europe has started off the LEC era on the highest note imaginable, and continued the EUphoria brought about by G2's MSI win through all three teams qualifying for the Worlds 2019 Knockout Stage.
However, since the franchising of North America's LCS, the future of the region's standing in the international landscape of LoL Esports has never been more unclear.