Putting the League of Legends World Championship in perspective

FunPlus Phoenix and G2 Esports stand and acknowledge the crowd at the League of Legends World Championship final on Nov. 10 at AccorHotels Arena in Paris. FunPlus won the championship, but that victory needs to be put in the context of a whole year. Provided by Riot Games

The French crowd at the AccorHotels Arena warmed up with "La Marseillaise."

Feet stomped in unison. The arena literally shook with cheers for G2 Esports. In the stands to the right of the casting desks, a fan dressed in an Alistar cosplay banged on a cowbell, rousing nearby fans into another cheer as G2 founder Carlos "ocelote" Rodríguez Santiago took the stage with broadcast interviewer Eefje "Sjokz" Depoortere.

G2 not only were the most popular team with the home crowd in Paris, they were the legitimate favorite in Sunday's League of Legends World Championship final against FunPlus Phoenix. Both teams were the first seeds from their regions, the League of Legends European Championship and China's LoL Pro League, but G2 had won every title shot in their path leading up to this point. They were one series with FunPlus away from achieving what no other League of Legends team had achieved in the game's competitive history: a grand slam, an entire year without a tournament playoff loss.

But the Europeans lost 3-0 to FunPlus in the final, falling just short of this goal. The sweep redefined G2's entire year.

Royal Never Give Up's 2018 was a banner year much like G2's. It's difficult to remember now -- winning successive domestic tournaments does that to the memory of a big moment -- but spring 2018 was RNG star bot laner Jian "Uzi" Zi-Hao's first-ever LPL title. He had played League of Legends for more than five years and been to two worlds finals before ever winning a domestic championship. By the end of last year, Uzi and RNG had two LPL titles, an Asian Games gold medal, another Rift Rivals title and the Mid-Season Invitational trophy.

All of this was forgotten as soon as RNG lost to G2 Esports last year in the world championship quarterfinals. This was RNG's golden road, and Uzi's golden year, and it ended far too early in Busan, South Korea. Fellow LPL team Invictus Gaming won the championship, and the resulting aftermath crowned China as the strongest region.

After another year of the strongest team throughout the year falling to another team at the world championship, it's time to once again revisit how worlds, and to some extent MSI, shape our perceptions of teams and regional strength. South Korea was dethroned as the default strongest region in 2018, and since then, analysts and fans have rushed to fill the ensuing vacuum. China's LPL was touted as the strongest league until G2 won MSI this year, and then it was Europe. Now it's the LPL again simply because FunPlus are world champions.

But the League of Legends World Championship is not a 1-to-1 representation of who has the strongest region or who was the strongest team of that year, despite being the biggest event of the year. It is a tournament in which the strongest team at that time, on that patch, is crowned the winner. Sometimes, like 2015 SK Telecom T1, the best teams and the best region are one in the same. Other times, like last year and this year, they aren't.

The LPL is, in fact, the strongest region in League of Legends, not because FunPlus Phoenix won the world championship. China leads the pack because of the individual talent and general depth of teams in the region. And despite FunPlus winning the title, just like RNG were the team of 2018, G2 were the team of 2019. They dictated the way that teams looked at League of Legends for the majority of this competitive year, especially after their MSI victory.

Analyzing regions and teams based on just two (arguably one, since people don't pay as much attention to MSI compared to worlds) tournaments where teams from different regions can play each other is a woefully small sample size. Those events don't always accurately reflect the reality of the competitive landscape. And that's true even before we discuss the structure of the tournaments themselves, which feature single-game, single-elimination group stages that allow very little room for error and are, by design, rife with upsets that lead to snap judgments in analysis.

Part of the problem is that Riot Games has so few international tournaments. We have no points of comparison outside of domestic league play, separated by region, which naturally creates an easy (and lazy) through line between being the winner of one of the two international tournaments all year in MSI and worlds and having the strongest region or team. This isn't to complain about not having more international competition, although that is a worthwhile complaint; it's to help recontextualize what worlds means in the context of the year.

When looking back at the world championship and what it means, factors like tournament structure, playstyle, and yes, regional strength, should be considered. When looking at this past world championship specifically, and FunPlus as champions, as well as G2's successes throughout the year, there's one particularly interesting conclusion that can be drawn. (And no, it's not that G2 are suddenly bad and were tilted by FunPlus.)

Both G2 and FunPlus were teams that paid attention to how they should play with the players that they had assembled and leaned into those styles well.

The complaint that all teams with mid laner Kim "Doinb" Tae-sang play the same way was erased once he had a team around him that could complement and enhance that style, particularly the strong jungle-support duo of Gao "Tian" Tian-Liang and Liu "Crisp" Qing-Song.

Similarly, the role swap made by Luka "Perkz" Perković to bot lane, allowing former Fnatic mid laner Rasmus "Caps" Winther to take over the G2 mid lane spot, was incredibly risky but allowed G2 to have unparalleled flexibility in draft and lane matchups. Other teams throughout the year tried to copy G2's playstyle and failed.

Similarly, teams will attempt to copy FunPlus' style now that they have won worlds. They likely also will fail.

No two teams represented what League of Legends is right now better than these two worlds finalists. The reason isn't their specific playstyles, though. It's the fact that they each found their respective strengths and played them to the best of their abilities, something teams all too often fail to recognize and adapt to.