News of the group stage draw took away all hunger from Lin Feng. He abandoned the rest of his meal and brought his chair to sit next to Su Xue. Then he tilted his head towards her shoulder to look at her phone’s screen. She had the official Riot Games website open.
“What are you doing? Don’t you have your own phone that you can look at this on?” Su Xue asked, annoyed.
“Nah, nah. That’s too much of a hassle for this,” Lin Feng said, waving her complaints away. Then he leaned over even more, basically leaning on Su Xue, and asked, “Hey, can you move your screen over a little? It’s a little hard to see right now.”
“Really! Are you really that lazy?” Su Xue exclaimed. But she still tilted her phone screen so that Lin Feng could see it better, and ruffled his messy hair.
Lin Feng reached over and tilted Su Xue’s phone a little more. Then he scrolled down a little until he got to the groups for the Season 5 World Championships of League of Legends. His eyes jumped across the groups, searching for the Chinese representatives. There were three of them. KG in Group A, Hand of God in Group B, and Dust in Group D.
KG, which was the only Chinese team composed exclusively of Chinese players, had gotten a little bit lucky with Group A. Their real opponents were Europe’s first seed–Legend and North America’s third seed–Flash. The final team in group A was a wildcard team, and that was the small bit of luck that KG received. Wildcard teams came from smaller regions with less competition, so they were considered weaker teams.
Things were a little bit more difficult for Hand of God in Group B. The other teams in Group B were their old Korean rival Fate, the second seed from North America–COG, and the second seed from Europe–Gold.
That said, both Group A and Group B were difficult groups to be in, and it was an uphill battle for the Chinese teams to make it through to the next round. But Group D, well, Group D was something else. If Groups A and B were considered ‘uphill battles’, winning in Group D could only rightfully be described as scaling a mountain. The Chinese team Dust had to face two of the best teams in the entire world. Both from Korea, Warrior and SSK. Between the two, SSK was the one to watch out for. They were the reigning world champions returning to defend their title.
“Oh my god. Dust! I feel so bad for those guys,” Su Xue sympathetically exclaimed. “Everyone online is talking about how the Korean teams are the strongest. How unlucky! How did Dust get so terribly unlucky that they got pulled into a group with both of them?”
Lin Feng nodded. “Hm… Yeah. Yeah, that’s uh… Yeah, that is a bit unlucky.”
Since the start of Season 4, Korea was recognized as the strongest region by fans, players, and analysts. To put it more bluntly, they had several teams who could challenge the best teams from around the world and win. The rules of the World Championships stipulated that only three teams from the four large regions [NA, EU, CN, KR] could enter. So the three Korean teams that were playing were the best in the region. The selection process in Korea to get one of those three spots was especially bloody. The three teams that made it through were all considered title contenders at Worlds.
What made the Korean teams so much better than the teams in the other regions? That was the natural question. The one that everyone who played, watched, and was involved in the competitive league scene constantly asked and considered. And it always came down to the same answer. The teams from Korea were good as a whole, but that wasn’t what put them over the edge. Of the 11 players in the Seven Kings and Four Emperors, each of the Korean teams had at least one. SSK even had an Emperor and a King. And their Emperor wasn’t just any Emperor. He was The Emperor. The one that sat on the throne as Sovereign. Rake.
Lin Feng read over the team names in Group D. When his eyes landed on the name SSK in the bracket, they paused. He clenched his fist. Rake! Just you wait. I’ll climb all the way back up to where you are now! And this time? This time I’ll win!
Su Xue ruffled Lin Feng’s hair again, making him snap back to reality, and said, “Look at Group B. HoG’s luck isn’t that great either. Fate has an Emperor on their team. I mean, HoG has Hermes, but he’s only a King. There’s a huge difference between a King and an Emperor.” Su Xue was a huge fan of the Four Emperors and Seven Kings. Their biggest fan, in her mind. From their strengths in-game to their favourite foods to their preferred keyboards, Su Xue knew it all. She watched every interview, read every article, followed their socials.
Lin Feng scratched the back of his head. “I dunno about all that. Maybe. Maybe not? I think it’ll be a close game.”
Individual talent was important. That was true of any competitive sport, and esports were no exception. But just because one team had an Emperor and the other team only had a King, that wasn’t particularly decisive. At this level of play, an Emperor could not hard-carry a team to victory. It wasn’t a matchup between an Emperor and a King. It was a match between two teams. If a team wanted to win on the world stage, at the highest level of competitive gaming, team synergy was far more important than individual skill or having one great player.
A similar matchup occurred during the Season 5 Mid-Season Invitational, and was the best example of this. It was Hand of God against Fate in a best of five series. The two teams played against each other in three games where Hand of God won two and lost once. The tense fourth game would decide if Fate would mount a comeback or if Hand of God would be the victor. Hand of God’s midlaner, Daybreak Hermes was one of the Seven Kings. Fate’s midlaner Moon was one of the Four Emperors. It was a head-to-head between an Emperor and a King in midlane! Hermes’ impressive performance with Orianna proved that he was worthy of his Crown. He kept Moon’s Viktor at bay long enough for the rest of his team to get to the mid-game phase relatively unobstructed. This allowed Hand of God an advantage, a small one, which they used and pushed into the late-game phase until they ultimately destroyed the enemy nexus.
The Chinese fans went wild over this victory. They spammed Hermes for days and talked about the series for weeks. The legendary match was known as the “Battle of the Star and Moon Emperor”. Star Emperor was the nickname Chinese fans had given Hermes. Winning the MSI series didn’t actually make him an Emperor. Fate’s Moon, on the other hand, was a real Emperor and ranked 3rd out of the 4. The Mid-Season Invitational where HoG had triumphed over Fate was the first time that a team with a King had beaten a team with an Emperor. It also shattered the myth that the 4 Emperors were undefeatable and gave all of the players in China hope.
Su Xue rubbed her chin. “Hmm, I guess you’re right.”
Lin Feng continued, “Besides, HoG is coming into Worlds after beating Fate in the MSI. That’s bound to put some pressure on Fate.”
Su Xue looked up at Lin Feng with a hint of surprise, “Oh, that actually sounds kinda logical. You know a lot about this stuff, huh?”
Lin Feng squared his shoulders, puffed up his chest and thumped it. “I’m really good at being an analyst too!”
Lin Feng’s nonchalant bragging washed away the surprise and admiration Su Xue had felt a moment ago. She pursed her lips for a second and then shoved her phone into Lin Feng’s face. “Alright then Mr. Smartypants Analyst! Take a look at Group A and analyze that for me!”
“Group A? Hmm… okay. Group A, huh?” Lin Feng looked at the teams in Group A. Then he took a quick look at the other groups and considered it for a second. “Alright. Hm… I’m going to say Group A and Group B are about the same.”
Su Xue looked at Lin Feng, perplexed. “No way, right? Look at Group A! Those are all second rate teams, and none of them have a single Korean! That North American team is basically the same as a wildcard team. And the wildcard team is a wildcard team! They’re both easy wins! The European team, that one isn’t bad. Actually, maybe they’re even a little good. But that doesn’t really matter. They don’t even have any Koreans either!”
Lin Feng shook his head. “Nah, nah. Don’t look at it like that. You can’t underestimate North America and Europe. They aren’t weak. And they’re really not all that far behind compared to Korea…” Lin Feng shook his head again. “Besides… you really shouldn’t look down on the wildcard teams either. They can be really strong! No one pays attention to them, right? So you never know when a dark horse will show up.”
Few players remembered this, especially in the current Korean-dominated scene, but way back in Season 1 neither China nor Korea were big names in the competitive circuit for League of Legends. The early days of competitive League of Legends were dominated by North America and Europe. In the Season 1 World Championships, both China and Korea received a single wildcard slot while North America and Europe got three tickets for a final roster of eight teams.
Reading the team names and recognizing some of them made Lin Feng reminisce on the past. On the Season 1 World Championship. Memories flooded his mind, flipping open like the pages of an old book. The good times. And the bad times. Memories of both joy and pain.
The Chinese League of Legends player base was still small back then. Lin Feng played for the best Chinese team in those days. They even qualified to represent China at the World Championships! The Chinese fans and players all supported them, cheered them on. There were even some who bought plane tickets and flew across the world to watch them play at Worlds!
The Season 1 World Championship was nothing like the grand events Riot held nowadays. Back then, the event took place in a small convention center in London. The stands weren’t packed full of cheering fans. The stage didn’t have fancy lights. There were no insane displays for the people watching or showmanship. There were only two rows of five computers set side by side. It looked exactly like the small local tournaments held in most internet cafes. The scale of the event was small. The rules weren’t all that strict either, nor were they heavily enforced. Lin Feng didn’t meet the minimum age requirement of 16, but the event organizers and officials compromised and allowed him to compete.
At the Season 1 World Championship, Lin Feng stood on the stage that nearly every person who played League of Legends dreamed of standing on. He got to play against the strongest teams in the entire world. Even now, years later, his memories of those European and North American teams remained crystal clear. One European team was particularly difficult to forget about. He played a best of 5 series against them that was etched into his mind. It was one of the hardest series he’d ever played. One he’d almost lost. But also the one that saw his team go through to the semifinals. The European team’s midlaner had left a deep impression on him!
Many people felt that League of Legends had changed significantly since those ancient times back in Season 1. They believed that the World Championships back then were an inconsequential event, and that the players who competed back in Season 1 were nothing compared to the professional competitive gamers of today.
But Lin Feng knew they were completely wrong. They had no idea how wrong they were. Not like him. Phoenix, the European midlaner, the one who’d given him some of the most trouble in all his time playing League, still played competitively to this day. And at the very highest level! Phoenix was one of the Four Emperors, and the only European in their ranks!