BERLIN -- For the past few years the League of Legends Master Series, consisting of teams from Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macao, has been in purgatory. As soon as a year after it was established in 2015, rumors of the league's closure were whispered among experts and those involved in the scene.
These rumors grew in volume with each passing year. It became apparent that Taiwan's Flash Wolves were significantly better than their LMS counterparts and was the only team that could compete internationally. Rumors of the LMS' demise persisted as Flash Wolves star jungler Hung "Karsa" Hao-Hsuan left for China's Royal Never Give Up in the 2017-18 offseason, and two of his teammates followed suit the next year, leaving Flash Wolves for Suning.
This year -- after the summer season with only seven total teams, the LMS not bothering to find a replacement for the disqualified SuperEsports to round out the league -- the impending doom of the LMS was felt more strongly than ever before. It cast a lengthy shadow over all three of the LMS teams at the 2019 League of Legends World Championship.
A week before the worlds play-in stage began, the rumored death of the LMS became official. Riot Games announced that the LMS would be merging with the League of Legends SEA Tour, the current home of teams from Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines, to form the Pacific League Championship Series. This world championship would be the LMS' last.
"I just really wanted to prove that we -- the LMS -- are still, you know, OK," J Team support Lin "Koala" Chih-Chiang said during the main group stage. He paused.
"But I'm not sure what the point is exactly."
Lost among continuing chatter and fallout from North America failing to send a single team to worlds quarterfinals is the quiet death of the LoL Master Series, an offshoot of Southeast Asia's Garena Pro League. This region, when it was a part of the GPL, produced Season 2 world champion Taipei Assassins.
In 2014, the GPL was being strained due to teams that would become part of the LMS. Teams like the Taipei Assassins, ahq eSports Club and Gamania Bears swept through the GPL because they had stronger players, better infrastructure and more opportunities to improve due to geographical location. It was doing the other Southeast Asian teams and the future LMS organizations no favors due to the massive gap between them. The LMS was created to provide a separate league for these teams in 2015.
It was a sound argument then, and helped produce Flash Wolves, a team that could genuinely compete internationally. The separation helped LMS organizations as they faced tougher opponents in each other and were also able to scrimmage with teams from China's LoL Pro League and LoL Champions Korea. The recent move to make the Vietnam Championship Series a fully offline tournament has served Vietnamese teams in a similar fashion.
Arguably, the decision to reintroduce the LMS teams back into the rest of competitive League of Legends in Southeast Asia is also a sound one, given how LPL teams have begun skimming the best talent from LMS teams and how poorly LMS' second and third seeds have performed over the past few years. Yet, this will mean a decrease in regular-season quality for former LMS teams. It will also likely involve more than a few organizations exiting the league entirely.
"I just hope that all of the fans that used to support us will continue to do so," said J Team bot laner Chen "Lilv" Chin-Han of the merger. "We're combining the regions, and I'm not sure what's going to happen. Right now, I'm not thinking about it."
"The main difference between the GPL then and the PCS is that there are no Vietnamese teams," Hong Kong Attitude coach Wong "Chawy" Xing Lei said. "The Vietnamese teams were the only ones close to beating teams from the LMS, so if we merge, I feel like the LMS teams will just stomp the other teams from Southeast Asia.
Chawy has seen a lot during his career in League of Legends esports, first as a mid laner for Singapore Sentinels, and then Taipei Assassins and ahq eSports Club.
"I feel that this year, the LMS is better than the past years in that it's more average, the three teams here right now," Chawy said. "It's unlike the past where the Flash Wolves are the stronger team."
In a dimly lit hallway backstage at the LEC studio in Adlershof, Chawy straightened his shoulders. He was dressed in a crisp, gray suit, and wore a broad smile that was echoed by his players, chattering as they were sorted into their assigned interview rooms. HKA had just advanced beyond the worlds play-in stage. Despite lingering doubts over the LMS' third seed, present since the inception of play-ins at 2017 worlds, HKA had outplayed best-of-five opponent Isurus Gaming in what ended up being a more one-sided match than many had expected.
"I told the team that I was going to prepare more for the best-of-five than the group stage because I was pretty confident that we would come out of the group stage," Chawy said. "We just needed to win the best-of-five to proceed to worlds, so all of my time and all of my brain cells were used to prepare for this best-of-five."
"To be honest, if I'm a viewer or a fan, I would feel that LMS would lose," he added, smiling. "Our first four games were not as clean."
After J Team's loss to to GAM Esports in the first round robin, mid laner Chu "Fofo" Chun-Lan looked down at the floor, his jaw set. It was a game that J Team would certainly want back.
"I don't think there's a strongest team in our group," Fofo said. "I think whoever performs worse will lose."
According to LMS fans and followers, Fofo and J Team were the last hope for the LMS, even as they knew the region would cease to exist. While Flash Wolves continued to be the dominant LMS organization in years past as J Team narrowly missed international-tournament qualification, J Team and Fofo specifically were a small light in the darkness. No one knew how they would perform on an international stage, but they had yet to be tested, offering hope that if they did make it past the group stage, they would show that the LMS wasn't dead yet.
"I'll try with everything I've got to not disappoint," Fofo said.
The pride of the LMS, the fact that they did produce a world champion and the region's impending doom, makes J Team's 3-3, group-stage exit all the more crushing. By a results metric, J Team and the LMS still performed better than the rising VCS teams, but the narrow miss of a quarterfinals berth hurts.
"We went 1-1 against [each of] FPX, GAM and Splyce, so for a team on its first trip to worlds I think we did OK," Lilv said after his team was eliminated. "Unfortunately, we didn't make quarterfinals, so we definitely failed in that regard."
"I think Flash Wolves from last year was definitely stronger than our team this year," Lilv added. "That's just my feeling on the matter. Our team had a lot of deficiencies that we tried to fix before we got to Berlin, but unfortunately the results weren't as expected. We did try our best."