When Riot Games first announced that a fourth seed would be given to China's LoL Pro League and Europe's League of Legends European Championship at worlds, the decision was met with general approval from the community. It provided more room for the major region teams to prove that they were still the best around and that the depth of China, Europe, North America, South Korea, and Southeast Asia (which was arguably bumped down to a minor region this year) was still better than the top teams from minor regions.
This is not what happened. Europe's fourth seed, MAD Lions, fell to Turkish team SuperMassive in the first round of the bracket stage. Although China's fourth seed, LGD Gaming swept both of their bracket-stage opponents, they nearly didn't make it out of groups. Both of these teams, especially LGD, were expected to not only perform well but top their groups due to regional strength.
"The biggest takeaway [from groups] is that I realized that wild card regions and major regions gap was actually closing," SuperMassive support No "SnowFlower" Hoi-jong said. "The level of the performance was pretty similar and I was surprised."
Minor region teams have always played an odd role at the League of Legends World Championship - a tournament that tries to be both as inclusive as possible while also touting itself as the definitive best of the best teams in the world. Unless one is a fan, coach, analyst, or player from one of those regions, these teams are typically met with apathy at best and outright derision at their inclusion at worst, with the middle being an odd and patronizing idea that they're just here to improve, despite these teams saying multiple times that they're there to try to win just as much as any other team at the tournament.
That became readily apparent on the first day of play-in groups at the 2020 League of Legends World Championship when China's fourth seed, LGD Gaming, lost to the Pacific Championship Series representative, PSG Talon.
Twitter, Weibo, and other social media platforms predictably exploded, but this wasn't initially a cause for too much concern for LGD and LoL Pro League fans. Although PSG Talon was sporting three substitutes due to visa issues, two of them, ahq eSports Club's mid-jungle duo of Chen "Uniboy" Chang-Chu and Hsiao "Kongyue" Jen-Tso, were seen as a side-grade at worst, if not an upgrade, and bot lane replacement Chen "Dee" Chun-Dee performed well in the compositions PSG Talon picked. Another reason for the lack of concern was that 2019 world champions FunPlus Phoenix (who were the first-seeded LPL team at the time) dropped their first group stage game to then-LMS squad J Team. This was surely a similar situation.
It was not, and soon LGD was in serious danger of not making it out of Group B, never mind automatically qualifying as many had expected due to China's perceived regional strength. The only team that LGD managed to beat in groups was Japan's V3 Esports, and one of those matches was a tiebreaker to see which of the two would be the first team eliminated from further worlds contention.
"I think the other regions can be seen as pretty strong and we might not have prepared that much," LGD support Ling "Mark" Xu admitted after LGD's 3-0 win over the top Latin American team, Rainbow7. "We didn't play very well either."
Over in Group A, MAD Lions were in a similar situation, forced to play a tiebreaker against Brazil's INTZ esports that would decide whether they would continue to the bracket stage at all. North America's Team Liquid was the team that automatically advanced from their group.
"I think the gap is closing but one thing we have to remember is that these major region teams are like third or fourth seeds," INTZ jungler Diogo "Shini" Rogê said. "It's a bit different I think. The guys that are already in groups, in my opinion, are much better than the teams we faced so there's this gap between middle-tier teams and the best wildcard teams, I think that gap is closing, but I think the teams that are already in groups are much better. There's a reason they're in groups and we're in play-ins."
MAD Lions mid laner Marek "Humanoid" Brázda agreed with this general assessment.
"I think that [minor region teams] are definitely way stronger than the previous years," Humanoid said. "They are better than us but I don't think they're better than the other teams from EU."
"The gap is closing" in LoL discourse used to be a meme regarding teams from around the world catching up with those from South Korea. There was a point in time where South Korean teams from OGN's Champions tournament were so utterly dominant that a KT Rolster Bullets team that didn't even make it past quarterfinals could go to IEM and still raze through the tournament without dropping a game. The tide arguably began to turn towards the end of 2017 but in 2018, China's Royal Never Give Up took the Mid-Season Invitational title and at that year's worlds, South Korea failed to get a single team past quarterfinals.
From 2013-2016, saying that a South Korean team would win was an easy analytical shortcut. Their solo queue was better, those nebulous ideas of "infrastructure" and "culture" were better, ergo, it was just a matter of which South Korean team would win, not whether one of their teams would take the title.
Since the collapse of South Korea as definitively the world's best League of Legends region in 2018, analysis from region to region has grown exponentially more difficult. A Chinese team and a European team have made up the past two worlds finals, with the Chinese team taking it both times. Does this automatically mean that China's LPL is the best? Europe is the second-best?
Regionalism is still rampant in discerning how teams will clash at worlds because we have so few international tournaments to look at. This year, we had none save the 30-ping Mid-Season Cup between top LPL and LCK teams (with two LPL teams making the finals in Top Esports and FunPlus Phoenix). The perceived strength of a region should always be considered, but in context, not as a 1:1 transfer of power as it arguably was in the bygone days of South Korean dominance. China has had some of the best teams in the world over the past few years, but that doesn't automatically mean that the last-place LPL team from this summer, Dominus Esports, would automatically beat Team SoloMid, especially not in a single-game format. There's also a difference between the top teams from a region and their fourth-place seeds, even if the region has a wealth of domestic talent.
If there could be one takeaway from this play-in stage it would be to look more closely at how teams play and then consider the strength of their region in one package. Context is key (and I'm calling myself out here because I'm guilty of this sometimes as well). At the very least, we're finally past arguing whether minor region teams should be included at worlds at all.