Why a western team could win League of Legends' 2015 World Championship

Team Origen, Riot Games

There was never any doubt. Before Huni and Reignover ruled the roost, before Febiven knocked Faker down at Tallahassee, Florida—drawing metaphorical blood like a shocked boxing champion with a split lip—there was sOAZ and xPeke pulling miracles out of the black-and-yellow hat. FNATIC gets to claim only half-jokingly that they fielded two teams to Worlds this year, thanks to the successes of both its 2014 and 2015 classes, further cementing them as Europe's single most successful esports organization in the modern era. And not just in League of Legends! Their Counter-Strike team is similarly legendary, and considered the single best team in the world.

Team Origen gets shorthanded to OG, and there is no doubt that the moniker fits. The paradoxically rookie veteran team didn't quite sweep through the EU LCS in their first split, but the original generation of Europe's best and brawliest put up a convincing show over the summer and the regional gauntlet. There is a lot to be said for sheer veteran strength after all, and few in the League of Legends scene has kept at it as long as they have, much less as consistently high-caliber.

Of course, if there's any critique to be leveraged, it is that they were dependent on that veteran experience in the first place. Origen's pick-ban phase was notably sloppy, especially versus ROCCAT. And versus FNATIC proper, it was made clear that their late game coordination was going to need a lot more polish.

Of course, FNATIC wasn't perfectly crisp either. A notable early-game weakness plays perfectly into Origen's solo lane advantages, though even with the roster changes the organization maintained their reputation for maverick mid-game plays and picks that turns even the most disadvantageous situations around in their favor. Not that Origen will have a chance to exploit this, of course, unless they meet up in the Worlds playoffs—something that leaves the both of them breathing a sigh of relief.

Or more than relief. The estranged brothers are reunited, and 4/5ths of the 2014 FNATIC roster can once again work together towards a common goal: European viability on League of Legend's most important stage. And they will definitely want to work it out. The competition from Korea might finally seem mortal this year, but only because China's done a bit of vampirism on them—and the resultant hybrid teams are a force to be reckoned with. FNATIC's early-game weaknesses must be accounted for, and Origen's poor pick-ban phases need to be repaired in the month left for them to do so.

But if they can do it? Then, just maybe, the World title's coming over to the western hemisphere this year.

Star-spangled banner

Cloud 9, Riot Games

As for America: I can go at length to praise Cloud 9. Their performance over the North American Regionals gauntlet was nothing short of a miracle run: back-to-back reverse sweeps to yank victory out of the clenched maws of a 0-2 deficit, beating back both Gravity and Team Impulse for a chance at heavily favored Team Liquid. But maybe Liquid was too heavy in the end, unable to drag Cloud 9 back from reaching escape velocity for the heady heights of the championship stage.

To confirm, yes: this means that Team Liquid is once again in a nominal fourth place, just behind the 3-team cutoff line for the Worlds representation tickets. Fate has a cruel and unusual humor, especially when Steve's team is involved.

There's a lot to be said about Cloud 9's stumbling starts versus Gravity and Impulse alike, but it's worth noting what a tremendous accomplishment it is for any team to achieve what they have this week. It takes particular mental fortitude to come back from the cusp of defeat and shrug off that bitter tang of disappointment from getting whomped twice in a row—and to do it again the next day and the next. Cloud 9 was by no means the favored team for North America's last slot, despite their past accomplishments: they were on the cusp of relegations this year, after all, and the announced retirement of their jungle and mid lane core was a wrecking ball to the team's hopes and dreams—even importing Incarnati0n seemingly did nothing to resolve the internal strife that dragged them to the edge of the Challenger scene abyss.

Yet recover they did. And it was all on the shoulders of one player. Not Incarnati0n, who eventually proved to be the wisest player investment Jack's made for his League of Legends team, putting up consistent results even as his team fell behind (a case study in what I'd call Chawy Syndrome, given the Taipei Assassin's similar situation this year). It wasn't on Sneaky, who played a breathtakingly skillful Vayne to perforate the competition this weekend.

League of Legends Championship Series, Riot Games

No, full credit goes to Hai Lam, who came out of retirement and changed roles for the specific purpose of bringing his team back to Worlds.

To be fair, Hai retired in the first place because he wasn't playing up to the increasingly rigorous mechanical standards of mid lane. But the difference between having Hai on the team and not was like night and day: a weak mid lane might spell disaster for Cloud 9's overall strategy, but it was still a strategy they knew how and when to execute. A strong mid lane, as was with Incarnati0n, did nothing to alleviate their tactical woes—mainly because, though their new European ace was highly talented, he was by no means a natural leader.

Hai's re-introduction to the team didn't immediately change their fortunes around, but it's clear now the nature of his contribution: a steadfast determination and optimism in the face of seeming impossibilities. He's now on his third trip in a row to the world stage, along with the rest of the team. And if he retired right afterward, it would be to go out in a blaze of well-deserved glory, regardless of the outcome.

Experience and wisdom

The storyline for the third-seed western teams this year is simple enough: they've gone through this wringer more times than anybody else. Excepting their new mid laner, Cloud 9 is a three-time World Championship veteran team. Origen's players, excluding AD carry Niels, have all basked in that limelight, and suffered the burdens of disappointment and defeat. They know better than anybody else in the scene the pressures and demands required of them to make it to that level... and know better than anybody else how badly they fell short of it in all prior years.

That's not unique to them. Many of their peers have joined them on that stage, and they've clamored over the bodies of those that were eager for it, but simply not yet good enough. What is unique, however, is the level of persistence they've demonstrated. Esports players peak fast and burn out faster, whether discouraged by a lack of results or forced out by the community's capricious demands.

But this is an error on their part. There is a quality superseding even talent that exists only among the stalwarts and the steadfast. Something that, unlike game mechanics, has to be cultivated rather than trained. Any team can take a 2-0 lead and turn it into a flawless victory. Any player can feel confident when they start with a lead. The true hallmark of greatness isn't demonstrated when everything is already in their favor, but in finding one's balance, dancing on that thin red line between exaltation and misery.

Now we just have to see if they can dance fast enough for China.