Take a walk on the wild(card) side: Analyzing LoL's dark horses

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LCK, LPL, LCS—EU and NA—are all well under way at this point, each with solid narratives running so far. Whether it be Forg1ven's dark and brooding drive to dominate Europe, or NA with… actually, NA's kind of embarrassing to look at right now. It took Piglet weeks to kick off a decent fantasy score, so that might mean I’m slightly biased, but let’s put that aside. In fact, let’s put all the major circuits aside for a moment. It's easy to forget that the e-sports world isn't just NA, Europe, China, and Korea—that there are others elsewhere that seek the thrill of competition. And as promised at the end of Season 4, 2015's shaping up to be a major growth period for non-traditional regions.

Brazil and Oceania have recently started the officially supported CBLoL and OCE Pro League circuits respectively, with the former in particular proving to be an eager and quickly developing region. If you're a European fan, you would probably like nothing more than to forget that Kabum! exists, given their upset over last year's Alliance, but yes: they're still there, they picked up a sister team, and Tinowns still owns mid lane. Should Froggen be scared of meeting him again in Worlds or the Mid-Season Invitational?

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Well, first Froggen needs to worry about the possibility of missing those events entirely, given that the former Alliance midlaner—now under Elements, which is basically the same team plus Rekkles—is looking at stiff competition from the likes of Fnatic, SK, and even the mid-tier threesome of Copenhagen Wolves, ROCCAT, and Unicorns of Love. Brazil's trending upward, if only out of enthusiasm, whereas the players of Elements have largely stagnated.

But before I praise the Wildcards too much, it's not just the premier circuits that are looking a little stale. Southeast Asia's Garena Premier League might no longer be under the oppressive rulership of their northern Taiwanese peers, but they lost more than their chance to finally take the GPL title off of the Taipei Assassins. In fact, losing the Worlds seed to Taiwan's new LoL Master Series might not be the worst thing about their structural change. Sure, the Bangkok Titans might actually look competent this year, in the context of the new Taiwan-less GPL, but then they actually had their first shot at an international competition and—predictably—got blown out of the water. Same with the Saigon Jokers, who used to at least put up a good fight against AHQ, 2013's GPL champions. After three months, it doesn't seem as if SEA's progressed at all.

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Hearing thunder from Taipei

Alternatively, the LMS teams have progressed extremely far in that short amount of time, leaving SEA to eat their dust. I like this interruption, mostly because this is "my" scene—I've covered the Assassins in particular since their organization's birth in 2012, and the LMS is largely my beat this year when it comes to regional coverage. While technically not a Wildcard region—though we're uncertain how many seeds they're allotted at this year’s Worlds—the LMS is by far the most easily overlooked of the Premier circuits. Furthermore, they might be on the chopping block, or at least Riot Magus suggested as much during the e-sports department's AMA session last month, putting pressure on the teams to perform well.

I ain't scared, though. Bring on the scrutiny. There's a reason why the LoLesports power rankings have three LMS teams in the top 20 list, and it isn't entirely because of my persuasive skills coupled with nobody else on the panel watching enough LMS to argue back. Not entirely, I swear. Those that have independently watched the LMS are forced to agree that its top half actually has legitimate talent, even in an international context.

Few remember Season 2's Taipei Assassins, and those that do tend to look back with rose-tinted glasses. Even I, a fan of the local Taiwanese teams, cringe a bit when some noisy stream monster rants about how Toyz was as good as Faker was in their relative primes. To that monster: Toyz had one breakout tournament (the most important tournament) where nobody banned or took away his Orianna, and then fell flat at IPL 5. While certainly impressive, that's not at the same level as Faker in 2013.


They're not wrong about him being good, and ever since he rejoined the pro scene, spearheading Hong Kong Esports, he's more than proven up to the task of handling the current meta and competitive environment—have you seen his Azir? Of course you haven't. But ban it anyhow, if you're a pro player meeting him at the LMS, or maybe even the MSI if HKES steps it up in the next couple months. The thing is, HKES is good and I really love their new Korean support—Olleh's roams are the stuff of nightmares for enemy teams, as his former opponents in Brazil's CBLoL are well aware—and they've won the approval of my fellow power ranking panelists, but even HKES isn't the best team in Taiwan, and Toyz isn't even the best mid laner.

Yoe Flash Wolves' Maple might claim that title, as does his team. It doesn't matter to them if everybody's ignored them since their abortive World Championship run in 2013, under the now-defunct Gamania Bears. True winners don't dig popularity contests. TPA might have had the crowd's backing during the recent IEM Taipei Grand Finals, but it was the Wolves that adapted and swung back incredibly hard from a 0-2 deficit to take the title and tickets to Katowice in March. Their former Season 3 jungler, Winds, is now on the opposing team and undefeated in the LMS. Yet Winds found his match against his old team and a new rival in rookie jungler Karsa, who's stepped in to successfully plug the gaping weaknesses in the Wolves' strategy that bedeviled them through all of 2014.

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Getting hot-blooded

Am I spending too much time gushing about the LMS in particular? Forgive me if I am. I haven't been this excited about my birth island's prospects since their miracle run in 2012, and two years of suffering is a very long time. On one hand, I want them to stay sleepers as we steadily creep our way to October—while China's squabbling with communication issues, Korea's struggling with an identity crisis, and the western scene's angstfully trying to make themselves relevant in the face of Eastern hemisphere tournament monopolies, maybe we can thread our way to victory.

On the other hand, I want you to appreciate these kids as much as I do. I want them to have the respect I think they deserve, and which they're simply not getting. I don't make apologies for advocating for what I think are tremendous players and stellar team play. If Taiwan—technically a premier region—has such difficulty getting a deserved spotlight, imagine how the actual wildcard players feel, or even those outside of them. Give them a chance. TSM will always be there, but if you don't look abroad, you're gonna miss out on some truly great entertainment.

At the very least, you gotta appreciate the sheer Shonen Jump enthusiasm of Japan's LJL.

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