Article by James Chen
Riot Games' 2014 League of Legends World Championship is about to begin, drawing in 16 teams from across the world for a final end-of-year bout. This year, the tournament's split into three parts: eight-team group stages each in Taiwan and Singapore, a quarterfinal showdown in Busan, South Korea, and a climatic semifinal and grand final in the capital city of Seoul.
Of course, it's hard to understand what the big deal is if the teams are unfamiliar to the observer. So here's a cheat sheet for who's who, what's what, and why they're so amped up to tear each other down. The following are the eight teams scheduled to play in the Taipei, Taiwan group stages beginning today.
Edward Gaming (China)
Roster – Tong "Koro1" Yang, Ming "Clearlove" Kai, Zheng "U" Long, Zhu "NaMei" Jia-wen, Feng "Fzzf" Zhou-jin
The so-called "super team" of China went through a controversial birth. They acquired the participation rights to the Chinese pro circuit from team LMQ, who had left to test their mettle against the American scene instead. While the departure of what was then a low-ranked team would normally generate little interest, the rise of Edward Gaming in their stead rippled out through the rest of the Chinese community. In a move that left not a few bridges burned, the newly formed squad was largely comprised of Team WE and Positive Energy starters (with Positive Energy itself formerly playing as WE.i-rocks, the sister team to China's most famous League of Legends team), particularly Clearlove and Fzzf from the once-legendary World Elite of 2012. Their departure forced those teams in turn to recruit from elsewhere, disrupting other rosters along the way.
Their circumstances are complicated, to say the least. But while the dramas and talent sniping behind Edward Gaming's founding might leave even hardcore fans a little dizzy, at least their impact is undeniable. They've taken over the Chinese competition like a force of nature, securing gold in the playoffs of both spring and summer, as well as the all-China International Esports Tournament back in April. Edward Gaming is the one team not from South Korea believed to have a chance at the world title this year, due in no small part to NaMei's fiercely dominant play.
Samsung White (Korea)
Roster – Jang "Looper" Hyeong-seok, Choi "DanDy" In-kyu, Heo "PawN" Won-seok, Gu "imp" Seung-bin, Cho "Mata" Se-hyoung
This is White's second time on the world stage, and their disgraceful performance from last year's put a large chip on their shoulders. Back when they were known as MVP Ozone, they'd flown to Los Angeles with the full expectation of an easy ride through the group stages—even then, the skill difference between South Korean and western teams was considered insurmountable. To their dismay, however, they were the worst-performing of the three South Korean representatives that year, failing to get out of the group stages after a tiebreaker loss against Russian powerhouse Gambit Gaming.
This year, they're out for blood. They've shuffled their rosters a bit, mainly swapping mid laners with sibling team Blue, and the shakeup in team composition and leadership seems to have done wonders for both. DanDy is commonly accepted as one of the very best junglers in the world, and his direction's played an integral role in unlocking the team's overall strength—and where he can't make an impact, there's always PawN to step in, who has made his reputation over the last season as one of the few mortals in the world capable of consistently taking down SKT T1 K's Faker, last year's world champion mid laner, on a one-on-one basis.
ahq e-Sports Club (Taiwan)
Roster – Chen "Prydz" Kuang-Feng, Chen "Naz" Tien-Chih, Liu "Westdoor" Shu-Wei, Lai "GarnetDevil" Yi-Meng, Sa "GreenTea" Shang-Ching
Though commonly overshadowed by rivals Taipei Assassins, ahq e-Sports Club's reputation for dominance is on par with the Season 2 World Champions team. While TPA was in their Season 3 decline, ahq smoothly stepped in for their hometown peers to take over Southeast Asia's Garena Premier League circuit, knocking down all comers from Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines and continuing what is now a three-year-long tradition of Taiwanese supremacy among the region's e-sports organizations. In particular, legendary Taiwanese mid laner Westdoor—conqueror of both North American and South Korean ranked ladders—has left a permanent mark as the most dynamic of assassins, often almost single-handedly snatching games out of the maw of defeat.
Transitioning that flourish into the international scene, however, might be too herculean a task even for him. Ahq's strengths lie in pushing superior individual mechanics into an unstoppable snowball, eagerly seeking fights to trample their opponents farther into the dust. Which serves well enough against Southeast Asian teams, most of which consist entirely of part-timers and students. But the bar of excellence is much, much higher elsewhere. Ahq faces the daunting task of proving that they're more than what they appear to be: a big fish in a small and overlooked pond. Victories in Southeast Asia mean nothing if they can't swim in the shark-infested waters of China and South Korea.
Dark Passage (Turkey)
Roster – Asim "Fabulous" Cihat Karakaya, Atakan "Crystal M" Aydin, Koray "Naru" Bicak, Anil "HolyPhoenix" Isik, Ercan "TrieLBaenRe" Bozkurt
Little is known about the International Wildcard teams compared to their more storied peers on established circuits, but Turkey's top team is not without a flair for the dramatic. Though they failed to qualify for the Season 3 World Championship last year, they didn't go down without a big fight—in particular, top laner FabFabulous's five-man kill against Brazil's paiN Gaming took them within a hair's breadth of the finals.
They've demonstrated even better consistency this year, coming out ahead dominantly against Australia's Legacy eSports. Legacy spent the matches prior taunting the European scene for an unsightly passiveness, only to eat their own words as Dark Passage climbed over them for the ticket to Taipei with a decisive 3-0 victory. They're used to being underestimated, and being the underdogs of Worlds suits them just fine.
Team Solomid (North America)
Roster – Marcus "Dyrus" Hill, Maurice "Amazing" Stuckenschneider, Soren "Bjergsen" Bjerg, Jason "Wildturtle" Tran, Ham "Lustboy" Jang-sik
America's Team, back in their rightful place as the region's top-seeded representative. TSM is by far the most popular team in the western hemisphere, and historically the most successful—though the American throne had, lately, been occupied instead by the upstart Cloud9, their recent victory in the North American LCS circuit has revitalized a brand known for its massive fanbases, the incessant three-letter cheer in even foreign events that they weren't participating in, and a black-and-white logo that draws upon the same emotional well as the Oakland Raiders.
Of course, to get there, they had to shed some of their native identity. Dyrus and Wildturtle are the last originally North American players – Amazing and Bjergsen are both expatriates of the European LCS, and Lustboy was previously known for his role on South Korean team CJ Entus Blaze. Coach Choi "Locodoco" Yoon-sub was also a recent trans-Pacific recruit—though, interestingly, his case is a unique one. He was actually part of the original 2011 roster, and serves as the experienced emulsifier to TSM's melting pot of influences from east and west, past and present. His guidance's returned the team to the top of North America—and it may yet prove enough to also carry them over the international threshold, where they've been frustrated time and again for three years running.
Taipei Assassins (Taiwan)
Roster – Chen "Achie" Chen-Chi, Chen "Winds" Peng-Nien, Chen "Morning" Kuan-Ting, Cheng "Bebe" Bo-Wei, Li "Jay" Chieh
Little is left of the Season 2 World Championship team. Only Bebe remains of the original lineup—the last man standing to witness what was once the world's top team slowly dissolve over the course of the following year, even losing a once-comfortable Southeast Asian leadership to local rivals ahq. It was a bitter decline for a team that was given a hero's welcome upon returning home in October of 2012—and it was the fire that stoked a rebirth.
This might not be the Season 2 roster, but the Taipei Assassins are none the worse for wear because of it. The 2014 roster is at least as coherent as their predecessors, if not more so—their monopoly of the Garena Premier League's championship position stretched over a solid nine months of regular play, and against a field of competitors far more challenging than Bebe's old teammates had to face. They'd cut no corners, recruiting Winds to beef up a strategically critical jungle position, and even hiring coach Sim Sung-soo of South Korea—the man ultimately responsible for sending the one team that managed to fight SKT T1 K on equal grounds last year.
Taiwanese hopes for renewed international relevancy are largely pinned onto this flagship team. Prior performances at Paris and Katowice left a bitter taste as everybody from China to Europe took bites out of this once-formidable name—but that was before their talent acquisitions, and before their new coach. This time, they've run out of excuses.
Star Horn Royal Club (China)
Roster – Jiang "Cola" Na, Choi "InSec" In-seok, Lei "corn" Wen, Jian "UZI" Zi-Hao, Yoon "Zero" Kyung-sup
Star Horn Royal Club's a team of survivor, if nothing else. Despite a successful run at last year's World Championship, their anticlimatic 0-3 finish against world champions SKT T1 K was treated as a crushing blow to their region. Two players, Whitezz and Tabe, retired soon after the tournament, and their top laner went off to join LMQ's pursuit of an American title, seemingly ending the story of a once-promising team.
Instead, they cast a broad net to find suitable candidates. Jungler InSec was once the undisputed king of the Korean jungle, and even has a technique named after him in the scene's competitive jargon: to InSec somebody is to suddenly appear before a fleeing opponent, then using an ability to knock them straight into the maws of your teammates for a devastating, potentially game-turning kill. Recruiting both him and fellow South Korean player Zero caused a storm of controversy in China, due at least in part to their centuries-old cultural rivalries, but a repeat return to the world championship stage quells all doubts. UZI, pronounced by the individual letters, is ready to open fire on the international competition for the second year running.
SK Gaming (EU)
Roster – Simon "fredy122" Payne, Dennis "Svenskeren" Johnsen, Jesse "Jesiz" Le, Adrian "CandyPanda" Wubbelmann, Christoph "nRated" Seitz
Always a challenger, never the champions: SK Gaming has a long and illustrious career in European League of Legends for just barely missing out on a tournament title against top teams. They were once best-known for flamboyance more than anything else—former mid laner Carlos "Ocelote" Rodriguez of Spain was one of the few mainstays of SK Gaming's rapidly evolving roster, but even he was finally exchanged for more promising talents.
The current roster is the most promising yet, as is the background staff supporting them from the sidelines. SK Gaming is the first western team known to enlist the aid of a sports psychologist—while their influence upon their day-to-day conduct is uncertain, what is certain is that SK Gaming's among the most consistent teams of their region now, even if they aren't strictly the most skilled. It is important that they stay unfazed—the world championship is guaranteed to throw something they haven't seen before or studied in advance, and it will take a stable center and focus to overcome the challenges ahead.