There is a lot of drama to be expected in the Knockout Stage of the 2016 League of Legends World Championship. Teams play in a best of five series where the loser packs their bags and heads back to where they came from, while the winner inches ever closer to the Cup. All that said, this particular Quarterfinal round is relatively tame and predictable, as some of these match-ups feature teams that are just flat out better than their competition.
1. SKT Will Not Be Moved
Eyebrows rose during the first game of the SK Telecom/Royal Never Give Up game when RNG worked out a hard fought victory over the tournament favorites. Early lane leads came from great match-ups and competent, aggressive play that would become insurmountable. Top laner, Looper, played a great Jayce game, pushing the tempo against Duke's Poppy pick. Even as SKT pulled closer and closed RNG's lead, they would fail to prevent a late game Baron, and they would finally crumble just before 50 minutes.
It was the best RNG would look in the series.
In Game 2, RNG almost completely draws SKT's previous comp, while SKT would mix up their line up, copying RNG's Game 1 Jhin/Zyra duo lane bottom. SKT took First Blood and a bonus kill at around minute 3, and it was a lead the rest of the team would follow. The Chinese squad put up a steady challenge for the defending champions, but SKT would smother the map and win all of the small exchanges, even despite some teleport goofs and positioning issues. Statistically, Game 2 looks like a blow out by SKT, but it wasn't easy.
Game 3 was a decidedly bad game for RNG. From the start there were mistakes, including Mata taking the wrong keystone mastery. A big First Blood early in the bottom lane puts RNG's duo lane on the back foot, and a huge game for Duke and his Gnar sets up an extremely one sided domination. Game 4, though way bloodier, was a bit sloppy on both sides. That said, SKT never looked out of sorts. Their patient and deliberate play style means that they only engage fights or objectives when they are reasonably sure that they will win, no matter how long it takes. If they are routed or harassed during execution, they reset and try again on their terms. That Korean-style discipline has been their advantage for as long as they've been playing on the international scene, and this series was a textbook example of why they are so hard to beat because of it.
2. ROX To Disband After 2016?
The ROX Tigers had a statement-making series against Edward Gaming this past weekend. This was arguably the match was expected to be the closet of the quarterfinal offerings, but that wouldn't be the case at all. Mid Laner, Kuro, absolutely ruled his lane with Aurelion Sol. They used the powerful roaming of the Star Dragon to harass their way to two solid early victories and a dominate Game 4 to seal their advancement in the tourney.
Game 3 was a bit more contentious, when Kuro would pick Ryze instead of Sol, allowing Scout the opportunity to pick him instead. Wandering often, Scout would help pick up advantages in all of the early team fights. Their lead was out of reach after a prolonged fight around Baron saw Deft's Caitlyn pick up the Quadra Kill and the objective.
The comeback in Game 4 isn't the most dramatic story coming out of Saturday, though. According to ESPN, this may be the last year ROX operates as a team. Upon the conclusion of Worlds, ROX is set to disband, according to rumors. Splitting was on the table last year when they're old sponsor, KOO, dropped the team. But the legendary squad changed their name and gave it another go, coming back to Worlds and garnering at least fourth place.
What will happen to the players after they disband will most likely depend on how far they're willing to travel. The past couple of years has been good in regards to South Korean players finding new homes in other teams, be it in LCK, or the EU/NA LCS. Once teams can officially make offers to players, they assuredly won't spend too much time in the free agency.
Of course, ROX vehemently denies this, according to The Rift Herald. This is a very interesting story, and will be worth following as the weeks go on.
3. The North American Drought
On the opposite end of the expectation spectrum, I'm not sure anyone would have picked Cloud 9 over Samsung Galaxy in their series - not even the Chicago crowd in attendance, despite greeting SSG with a chorus of boos when they sat down to play. By the third game of the eventually sweep, the crowds switch from boos to cheers served as its own sort of symbol of the acceptance of the inevitable. C9 made it to Quarters miraculously, and the North American region is proud of them regardless.
That said, it's been a good long time since the NA region has had a championship prospect of any note outside of strictly LCS competition. The closest they've come was in the very first World Championship, when Team SoloMid took third place. That tournament also marks the only time a team outside of Asia brought home the Cup - xPeke's 2011 Fnatic squad. The only other time the champions weren't from Korea were the Taipei Assassins in 2012. So, on the surface, NA has the same problem everyone else in the world has: they're not as good as South Korea.
Why is this? Well, it's a complicated answer that is different in every region, but in North America, it comes down to youth. Not just of the players, but of the game, and its relevance in the States. Year over year, we care about professional League of Legends more and more. We tune into watch streams more reliably and in bigger numbers. We spend more money on team sponsored gear and on LCS events. Big networks have started covering the game with far more vigor. Athletes and celebrities are investing in these teams heavily. The infrastructure to create the climate that makes a great division is finally here, and finally NA players can start to focus on being great. South Korea is well-known for how prevalent pro-gaming is in many aspects of their culture, and now that we've started to gain the respect for it, hopefully the skill will follow.
4. Albus Fails to Adapt
The first wildcard team to ever make it out of the Group Stage did so in raucous fashion, with a 4-2 including an upset win over ROX in what has to be the most epic game in Worlds history. There is absolutely no way to take that from them, and the lasting effect on the general opinion towards wildcard entries from now on is no doubt affected by their history-making run.
But if I told you the team H2k swept on Sunday was also the team that beat ROX in Groups, you'd never believe me. H2k has an incredible roster of players, and they played with poise and precision against ANX. H2k attacked the Russians early and often, smothering them and never giving them the space they needed to activate the more snowball-like aspects of their team comp.
The EU semi-finalists out played them in every position, but the most remarkable work was done in mid and top lanes. Odoamne's Jayce and Ryu's Vladimir picks were the stars of Game 1. Even against Smurf's competent Gnar pick, Odo would pressure the lane hard, starving him of farm when he wasn't just flat out killing him. Strong roams from Odo would embolden the rest of his team, including Ryu, who would become a critical aspect of the later team fighting. He did fine in lane on his own, as well, as he wouldn't let Kira make any headway, even with popular tournament pick, Syndra.
Game 2 was more of the same, which featured Odo snagging First Blood and H2k capitalizing on early aggression in bottom lane to secure a lead that would never be challenged. Game 3 saw a few changes, but none that helped, as ANX was smashed handily for the third time straight.
It isn't the actual play that is disheartening, even though their game plans absolutely fell short during execution. It's the lack of adjustment between rounds. After the runaway first game that saw H2k boasting an almost 18k gold lead by the time the Nexus fell, you'd think ANX would be incentivized to ban some of the key champions in that comp like Jayce or Vander's Zyra. Nope, Odo would pick Jayce all three games, and he'd trounce the top lane in all three games. You'd also think ANX would maybe look internally and change some elements of their own comp to better combat H2k's assault. Smurf would snag Gnar three times, Stejos would lean on Olaf twice, etc.
That isn't to say that there is no method in the madness. Kira picked Zilean in Game 3 for the same reason most people pick Zilean - there's no great counter pick to him. His ult is vital, since it brings a target back after death like a Guardian Angel (great against bursty mages like Syndra). He can boost leveling by storing and gifting bonus experience. And his speed boost synergizes well with Olaf, who could charge into a back line and demolish a squishy Marksmen faster than they can say "Freljord." But they were too far gone at that point. Hopefully, this isn't the last time we see them on the world stage.
5. Top Will Be the Lane to Watch Next Week
The Final Four teams are all great ensembles, and in a few of them, their "star" players are in various different positions. But the series that will take place in New York this upcoming weekend will be decided by big plays and key moments in the top lane. Arguably, three of the four best top laners in the entire world will clash, and though some of them have had spotty play during Groups, this high level challenge will bring out the best in everyone.
Maybe the best top laners left in Worlds will face off during the SKT/ROX MSI rematch. Filling in after MaRin's departure to LGD Gaming, Duke has become a stable and stoic lane hog with his Gnar and Kennen picks this tourney. Smeb has the higher KDA (3.89 vs 2.67), but a lot has been said about Duke's endless potential, which has manifested itself in some killer rounds like his 7/1 Irelia in Game 3 this weekend.
It would be safe to bet on Duke, if he wasn't laning against the two-time S. Korean MVP award winner, Smeb. Possibly the best player in the world right now (yes, better than even Faker), Smeb has played some of his best rounds as a tankier secondary support with picks like Maokai. He rarely makes bad decisions, and he is one of the most reactive and responsive shot callers in the game. Your team fights are never safe with Smeb around.
The second featured game will have its own fireworks as well. Odoamne put the screws to Albus in some of his best games of the tournament just last weekend. If he can muster a Jayce pick through picks and bans, he's going to be a problem - not just in the lane, but with early game roams as well. His remarkable 5.1 KDA out of the Quarterfinals may partially reflect the incredible skill gap between him and Smurf, but should also read as a warning: Odoamne is dangerous.
Is he more dangerous that CuVee, who had a great second half of the LMK season and a top-level performance at their Regional Qualifiers? His work in the Quarterfinals was arguably some of the most one-sided laning in that round, and his cumulative KDA from the first Knockout Stage series actually ties Odo at 5.1. Both teams played softer opponents, and both top laners were efficient and lethal. Top is definitely where the party will be this weekend.
Jarrett shares his love of video games and geek culture through feature articles on Gamepedia. He prides himself on his deep attraction to Japanese beat-em ups and his god-like Bushido Blade talents.