"It's definitely weird," Zachary "Sneaky" Scuderi said, right after Cloud9 qualified as North America's third seed for the 2017 League of Legends World Championship.
"I don't know if NA deserves to go through [Play-Ins], but I guess we'll figure that out."
A few weeks later in Wuhan, China, Cloud9 lost all three of its inhibitors at least once in its Game 2 match against a non-major region in Latin America North's representative, Lyon Gaming.
With all three inhibitor turrets of Lyon still intact and nearly 60 minutes of running game time, both teams met repeatedly in the mid lane. Lyon's bottom lane slow push created a threat on Cloud9's respawned bottom inhibitor -- and Lyon started to pressure Baron. But after Cloud9 felled Lyon's Maokai in the pit, the team committed to Baron too. Instead of pulling away and trying find an opportunity to ride Cloud9's wave in the top or bottom lane, Lyon's Sebastián "Oddie" Niño went for a steal instead.
Oddie waited patiently behind the pit, but as he had so many times throughout the series, he pulled the trigger too soon.
Cloud9's Juan "Contractz" Arturo Garcia cleaned up the Baron, and Cloud9 won the ensuing fight to blow through Lyon's standing mid lane inhibitor turret and take the longest game at the 2017 World Championship Play-In stage.
Without that one 62 minute game in mind, it might be easy to agree with Sneaky's sentiment. After all, the concept of "Play-Ins" was created to give Emerging Region (no longer Wild Card) teams more opportunities to compete and find a spot in the main event Group Stage. But now the dust has settled, and attendees find themselves with the same configuration as last year: three teams from the four primary regions, two LMS teams, and two teams from emerging regions.
In the context of Cloud9's overall Play-In run, of course, its second game against Lyon seems more like an anomaly. With an average game time of 31.5 minutes throughout, Cloud9 dominated most of its foes by applying pressure to mid or bottom lane. Other members of the Cloud9 team made it seem as if they had not even bothered to learn the names of their direct lane opponents.
Why am I playing against a guy called white lettuce???
- Nicolaj Jensen (@C9Jensen) September 26, 2017
Without that Game 2 -- and a few others like it against WE and Fnatic -- no one would doubt Sneaky's desire to question whether or not NA, EU or LPL's third seed would have to prove themselves. But that 62 minute game made all the difference, and I walk away from Play-In calling it a success. Riot Games have set up Play-Ins with the future in mind. The status quo of Group Stage may not have changed this year, but the day an emerging region team win is no longer just an upset is a future that has actually begun to take shape.
Why legacy diminishes regional identity
For emerging regions, the story always begins with KaBuM! and its historic upset that denied Europe's Alliance a place in the 2014 World Championship bracket.
But hearkening back to the history of the "Wild Card spoiler" muddles independent identities of -- not just distinct regions -- but teams that come to international competition from all over the world. Albus Nox Luna's surge last year in Group A of the World Championship gave the CIS region its first quarterfinal placement, but this year's Gambit Gaming didn't win a single game in Play-Ins against Lyon Gaming or Team WE.
The Play-In stage of Worlds, with four separate groups, gives emerging region teams the same opportunity as major region teams to differentiate themselves. Despite failing to qualify, Matías "WhiteLotus" Musso put his name on the map; spectators can now recognize his strengths and weaknesses as an AD carry, rather than just maybe being able to point to the Latin America North server on a map.
The format of Play-Ins is a departure from the International Wild Card qualifier that Riot hosted in previous years.
Back then, the qualifier had teams complaining about practice facility conditions (particularly sustainability). They had to study an extensive list of regions outside their own. And after making it through the qualifier, Wild Card representatives were often denied the opportunity to scrim (ANX famously played World of WarCraft in the days leading up to the 2016 World Championship).
The Play-In stage was meant to represent a departure that forced spectators of major regions and teams to pay attention. After qualifying through domestic leagues, emerging teams got the same opportunity to play on stage in the same location as major region teams. On top of that, third seed teams from major regions have to prove that they are, indeed, the best teams to participate in the main event.
From a metric standpoint, the Play-In was a failure, but fans will remember WhiteLotus, Võ "Naul" Thành Luân, and Álvaro "Vvert" Martins for providing unexpectedly high level competition when they'd never even heard of them. Young Generation's single win over Fnatic, close Game 2s for Cloud9 and Team WE in the bracket stage, and 1907 Fenerbahçe Esports' rise to join the titans of Group C reflect the increasing level of competition emerging region teams bring to the table.
But beyond that, squads like Fnatic and Cloud9 may have come out of the experience for the better.
Major regions benefited from the Play-In stage
When Fnatic qualified for the World Championship through the EU LCS Regional Qualifier, it looked as if it had patched leaking holes in strategic play. It redoubled its efforts to provide support for mid lane and use bottom lane control to find pathways into the enemy jungle.
In its first game against Young Generation however, Fnatic regressed. It gave up mid lane turrets in less than 10 minutes in part by failing to transfer bot pressure to mid. In Game 2, Young Generation took advantage and swapped mid rather than compete with Tristana's power in a side lane. Tier 1 and 2 mid lane turrets again fell quickly.
In its playoff series against Hong Kong Attitude, however, Fnatic strengthened its strategy with strong laning mid picks like Cassiopeia and Taliyah. It also prioritized securing Rift Herald to take out the enemy mid lane turret first, which gave it the freedom to pressure Baron.
By dipping tentative toes into the Play-In font, Fnatic's rookies rediscovered a sense of confidence. Mads "Broxah" Brock-Pedersen and Rasmus "Caps" Winther punished their mid-jungle 2v2 with Taliyah and Gragas, something they struggled to do domestically in Europe.
Because it entered the Play-In stage and ran through the fires of Kaos Latin Gamers, Young Generation and Hong Kong Attitude, spectators may be treated to a stronger Fnatic in the main event. One might even say the same for Cloud9's renewed understanding in the strength of a bottom lane 2v2 or when its top laner should group or pressure a side lane.
In response to Sneaky, I wouldn't say the issue is that North American teams deserve to "go through" the Play-In, but more that they need to demonstrate they don't. With emerging regions producing more potential stars and third seed teams meeting their own early game demons, spectators can see the day when the third seeds from LPL, NA LCS and EU LCS advancing to Group Stage isn't a given.
It has begun to take shape, steadily, and on the horizon; with some emerging region team power rankings turning out completely wrong, it isn't easy to determine from when the next powerhouse will rise.