What you need to know about LoL’s dramatic MSI group stage

(Image credit: Riot Games)
(Image credit: Riot Games)

Last week, we talked about the upcoming finals of the Mid-Season Invitational in Shanghai. Who could have expected that the group stages would have been host to exhilarating games, fascinating storylines, and some of the hypest international play in recent memory? Sure, there was the unpredictable rollercoaster of the group stages at the last Worlds, and Fnatic taking SKT to five games at IEM Katowice. However, Shanghai has been the tournament of the underdog, and we’re seeing some truly special stories come out of MSI. From Supermassive to Counter Logic Gaming, this tournament has stories that would be right at home in a Disney film about friendship.

Who came out ahead?

Out of the six teams that entered, Supermassive eSports and Counter Logic Gaming were both considered to be complete underdogs. Many analysts predicted that these teams would come fifth and sixth, leaving the finals to be fought over by the Flash Wolves, SKTelecom T1, and Royal Never Give Up.

Supermassive both filled these predictions perfectly and subverted them at the same time. While they did end up going home after the Group Stages, they played very well—when up against SKT, they outlasted G2 (more on that later). They stole Barons, took down titans, and went toe to toe with champions from around the world. While some fans hoped they might sneak into fourth place and get that valuable seed, they ultimately made their supporters proud. Not only did they exceed expectations, but they remained charmingly humble throughout it all. “I don’t know if we’re doing better than expected, or if everyone else is doing worse than expected” is the tongue in cheek quote that defined their run—and this humility and good humour has earned them fans. Every year the Wildcard regions march forward, and they’ve made great strides in 2016 already.

Counter Logic Gaming actually lost to Supermassive, which might have caused them to become the laughing stock of the west... if not for the fact that they came out second overall, taking down both RNG and SKT (Counter Logic, indeed.) While the team has plenty of plays that belong on highlight reels, the true key to their victory so far seems to be the values they espoused throughout the split: work hard, keep your head down, don’t tilt, and focus on being a team above all else. Their attitude, along with their results, have won them a lot of fans—and they stand a good shot at entering the finals as long as they can keep the hard work up.

(Image credit: Riot Games)

Who’s lagging behind?

SKT—yes, that SKT, the favourites going into the tournament—lost four games during group stages. Does this mean that we should begin the funeral dirge for the Korean champions? While a few Chicken Littles may be singing a different tune, most fans and analysts still predict that SKT will prevail. The truth is, it’s not the Group Stages—or the regular Split, or even game one of a series that matters. It’s whoever wins at the end of the day. Just ask the Immortals, or Team SoloMid, or Origen, or the ROX Tigers, or any of the other teams who made it to the finish line before getting blue shelled. The question has never been ‘is SKT unbeatable?’—it’s ‘can a western team ever take them down in a best of five?’ The answer to that is uncertain, but SKT is going to be heading into the second stage of MSI fresh as a daisy and determined to take it all. 

Who flamed out?

Now we come to the sad tale of G2. Their meteoric rise from Challenger to LCS to Champions in a single split was doomed to end eventually, but flunking out of groups with a 2-8 record was not the expected outcome.

It’s easy to hop on the flame train, and oh boy, is it burning fast. The team went on vacation before Shanghai, spending two weeks of potential training time doing their own thing. This has pissed the fanbase off immensely—”they’re disrespecting the tournament if not the sport itself, they’re arrogant and cocky, they shouldn’t be representing Europe, they shouldn’t be in the LCS at all…”

The situation seems a bit more complicated than that—there are rumours of dissent within the team, unexpected roster swaps, and schisms among the players. Perkz, the player who’s earning the most hate for crimes like spamming laugh in lane and being vocal on Twitter about the situation with a mixture of excuses and memes, is only 17 years old. It’s not easy being a teenager at the best of times. Being a teenager while thousands bay for your blood must be nigh unbearable.

Does all of this excuse G2? Of course not, and the team had a history that made people want to hate them. Owner Ocelote is a man with a long history in the League community, and many of the footnotes on his record lead to unfortunate incidents. In a way, some people were excited to see G2 fail because it meant that there was a heel to relentlessly boo. Other people are disappointed because they thought this was a redemption story and they got suckered into cheering for the newly-minted bad guys.

While most of the writing around League is centered around celebrating teams, there is a certain appeal in loving to hate them. Part of Moscow 5’s appeal when they reigned as Kings of Europe was their rude attitudes and heel stances. Add in the League’s community love for a good meme and it’s easy to see how things have escalated to this point. We’ll be drowning in ‘vacation’ jokes for months. The question is whether G2 will be able to recover from this—a team needs fans to buy merch, turn into streams, scream at wins and wail at losses. 

Everyone likes a winner, and Shanghai has had some surprising success stories. These results aren’t lucky flukes, and they’ll likely be an integral part of the teams’ narratives for a long time. Will the winners keep winning, and will the losers be able to overcome the cloud haunting them? Not everyone walks away with first place, but the legacy that you can earn from international tournaments can be a prize in and of itself. Unfortunately, it can also be a curse.