It was a good first week for the North American teams at the 2017 League of Legends World Championships.
Three-peating North American league champion Team SoloMid flexed its late-game prowess in an instant classic over Taiwanese champion Flash Wolves. Immortals did better than expected against one of the tournament favorites in South Korea's Longzhu. Not to be outdone, Cloud9 rebounded from a tough opening night loss to SK Telecom T1 to take its next two games in one-sided fashion, setting itself up nicely heading into Week 2. Overall, all three NA LCS teams exited the first half of the Worlds group stage with a 2-1 record and a combined score of 6-3, putting North America as the second-best-performing region so far, behind only the juggernaut of South Korea.
If this sounds familiar to you, it should.
Last year at this same point in the tournament, the standings were exactly the same. The trio of NA LCS teams (TSM, C9, and Counter Logic Gaming) went an impressive 2-1 in the first-week of play, with even CLG pulling off a massive upset over tournament favorite ROX Tigers, using its ingenious roaming strategy around Choi "Huhi" Jae-hyun's Aurelion Sol to knock off the reigning South Korean champion. TSM had also beaten Samsung Galaxy in the first week, and in a mirror image of this year, C9 lost to SKT but bounced back to end the first half for a 2-1 record.
It was the perfect storm for North America. After years of being the punchline of jokes for opposing regions, an influx of money and a best-of-three format in domestic play set up the region to be a threat on the Worlds stage. The first week, while having the surprise of CLG over ROX, wasn't shocking. CLG had made it to the Mid-Season Invitational final only months earlier, and the possibility of three NA LCS teams in the quarterfinals was more reality than a TSM supporter's fan fiction. This was NA's moment to assert itself as something bigger than just the region with well-done documentary features, larger-than-life personalities and the home base of Riot Games.
NA floundered when it mattered the most. Out of the three, only C9 made it into the quarterfinals, and the lone NA LCS representative limped into the knockout rounds, nonchalantly eliminated by South Korea's Samsung Galaxy in the quarterfinals. CLG lost both of its group stage meetings with wild-card region representative Albus Nox Luna to send it packing, and TSM, the believed hope of the region expecting semifinals or bust, fell to China's Royal Never Give Up in a do-or-die game.
A year prior to NA's collapse at Worlds, the second-week failure was even worse in 2015. TSM, C9 and CLG combined for a historic 0-10 record coming down the stretch of the group stages, with the region eliminated as a whole before the knockout stage began. It was the greatest embarrassment in the region's history.
Deja vu or not, North America was good in Week 1 this year. Although TSM showed some glaring weaknesses in the laning phase and a lack of proactive play, resulting in a tough loss to Europe's Misfits, it played a sound game over China's Team WE to give itself the advantage over its perceived closest competitor for the top spot in Group D. As for C9 and IMT, both teams should be expected to make it out of their respective groups. The two teams most equipped to overtake them in the standings, EDward Gaming and Fnatic, both enter Week 2 with matching records of 0-3, a hole which no team has ever dug itself out of to qualify for the knockout stage of Worlds.
"Good" won't cut it for the upcoming week, though. North America, a region plagued with misfires at the worst possible times, needs to be great in the last half of the group stage in Wuhan. In years past, a club such as the Gigabyte Marines, free-flowing and wild in its play, would be the death of a team from NA, such as CLG last year with Albus Nox. Immortals needs to be prepared for anything the Marines could throw at it, shut down a team it's pound-for-pound better than and move one step closer to the next round. C9 can't rest on its blowouts of AHQ and EDG, and TSM, the face of the region, needs to stop finding itself behind with foolish mistakes in the early game.
Getting caught out, 50/50 contests at Baron and small mistakes didn't hurt North America in Week 1. It all turned out OK with 2-1 records, a bit of praise and a solid position heading down the home stretch. Those same blunders won't be forgiven as the setting shifts to the final three games of the group stage.
In 2015, it went 0-10 to end the group stage.
In 2016, it went from having three teams in position to make the quarterfinals to barely advancing one.
In 2017, once again in a position to perform, NA LCS must make the adjustments necessary to advance in the tournament.
For the first time in the history of Worlds, not just one or two teams but the entirety of North America needs to be great.