SEOUL, South Korea -- If a major region like the League of Legends Master Series is a mysterious black hole to the west due to lack of interest or time, then Turkey's Turkish Champions League is a minor constellation more willfully ignored. Turkey's proximity to the European servers allows professional Turkish League of Legends players to play on the European solo queue ladder, and Turkish teams are able to scrimmage against EU LCS or EU Challenger/Masters teams. Turkey has significant investment from top soccer organizations and large non-endemic sponsors, yet Turkey is rarely talked about, even come September when the League of Legends World Championship rolls around.
"Maybe not being in a bigger stage like EU or NA, or being able to scrim teams from South Korea, that hurts us," SuperMassive AD carry Berkay "Zeitnot" Aşıkuzun said. "But actually we play EU solo queue and scrim EU teams."
Turkish teams have an interesting history at international competitions, as well. KaBuM! e-Sports' 2014 single-game victory over Alliance might be a beloved event in LoL competitive history -- it was recently voted the top play -- but the TCL teams have made more noise ever since. SuperMassive specifically forced major region teams to at least take TCL teams seriously after beating G2 Esports at the 2016 Mid-Season Invitational.
Before that, a win such as KaBuM!'s was seen as sheer arrogance by the major region opponent, especially when 2015 International Wildcard Invitational representative Beşiktaş e-Sports Club (also a TCL team) and 2015 International Wildcard Qualifier winners Bangkok Titans went 0-6. That year, paiN Gaming did win two games at worlds, but the victory over Counter Logic Gaming was written off because CLG had nothing to play for, and Flash Wolves were then seen as a team that was not all that good. SuperMassive's win was at least seen as a step forward, a legitimate victory. Since then, TCL teams have been at the forefront of what are now dubbed "emerging regions" of the prior wild-card qualifier participants.
"I think that they're macro is actually really good compared to any other wild-card team," G2 jungler Marcin "Jankos" Jankowski said of SuperMassive after beating them in a tiebreaker for the first seed in play-in Group B. "When it came to say, Ascension, they had really bad macro and they would fight a lot, but SuperMassive actually knew what to do on the map."
SuperMassive were not even expected to make the 2018 world championship; that honor went to Royal Bandits, whom SuperMassive beat in the 2018 TCL Summer finals 3-1. Because of this -- despite a strong spring performance -- SuperMassive were seen as a lesser version of their spring self going into the worlds play-in.
"We had never been to worlds before. We always lost in the Turkish grand finals. So it was a lot of pressure on our shoulders," Zeitnot said of the unexpected finals win. "I don't really know, but, after we won the first game, because we were always losing 3-0 last year, something broke. The curse just -- we were free from the curse."
TCL teams and Turkish players tend to improve more than players in more isolated regions such as Oceania or Brazil. Yet the best TCL teams now find themselves in a slightly awkward position once they reach the top due to a stigma that they're not as competitive as even lower-tier EU LCS teams.
"Most TCL teams have a hard time finding EU scrims because they underestimate us a lot in EU LCS," Zeitnot said. "So they're like, 'Oh, it's a TCL team, better not scrim.' So we can't play against better and better teams."
There's little doubt that Zeitnot is EU LCS caliber. A few of the more snide pundits have posited that G2 with the SuperMassive bottom lane of Zeitnot and No "SnowFlower" Hoi-jong would be unstoppable and would have gone undefeated in their group. Zeitnot has consistently been one of the best, if not the best, AD carries in Turkey since 2014. Yet when it comes to earning more respect from European or international opponents, Zeitnot and Turkey seem stuck: definitively the best of the minor regions, but not able to move up to that next level in play or in Western perception.
"I wish I knew," Zeitnot said of how Turkey could improve. He laughed, at a loss. "I would tell people what to do. I don't know. We practice really hard. We scrim. We have a lot of young talented players in Turkey. We fight hard. I don't really know."