The arena at the Mid-Season Invitational, by Riot Games. Source

With more twists and turns than you typically find in an entire season of pro League of Legends, the group stage of the Mid-Season Invitational ended with a leaderboard that seemed like something from an alternate universe.

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China’s LoL Pro League was all but written-off as the place where good Korean pros went to get rich while their skills died, following months of bad headlines and dodgy performances that made the entire region look like a Potemkin esports scene. Yet the aptly-named Royal Never Give Up (RNG) absolutely ran the table at this tournament, going undefeated in the opening days of competition.

Counter Logic Gaming seemed like they were going to follow the depressingly familiar script for all North American League champions: they would show some signs of life, get people’s hopes up that maybe the region has produced a credible international contender, and then go sliding down the standings into the barely-better-than-a-wildcard region.

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Their loss to Turkey’s SuperMassive eSports team on the second day of the tournament seemed almost to guarantee ignominy for the Americans… and then they won three straight games and managed to finish second by the end, as well as stage this masterpiece of a comeback against RNG.

But nothing is more surprising than the precipitous collapse of SK Telecom, a team that has seemed likely to become a repeat world champion this year and further establish mid laner Faker as some kind of Michael Schumacher-like, era-defining superstar. This is a team that seemed poised to crush all comers at MSI… and instead they dropped four straight games and plummeted into fourth place in the standings. Like a switch has been thrown somewhere, their play has seemed bizarrely haphazard and ill-considered.

Then again, this is an SK Telecom team that’s trying to find its new identity after losing their in-game leader from last year’s team, as well as find a more capable player in the jungle role. Given that they don’t have absolute confidence in each other, it’s not surprising that, in the face of adversity, the team has started to crumble.

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Before we start hand-wringing over the future of the world’s greatest League of Legends team, it’s worth remembering that last year the team seemed to be having trouble establishing a confident lineup. At times it looked like the squad was considering life after Faker, treating mid laner Easyhoon as his equal throughout much of the year. But by Worlds, that experiment was over. SK was definitively Faker’s team again, and Easyhoon got to watch his squad win another championship from the sidelines. While the problems SK has with the jungler position this year seem to run a bit deeper, MSI is the best possible time to identify them.

Hard times for SK Telecom at MSI, by Riot Games. Source

During all the plot twists at this tournament, I remembered how confident EDG looked in the wake of their MSI victory over SK Telecom last year. I wondered if China’s top teams hadn’t managed to close the gap separating them from a team like SK Telecom. Then Worlds came around, and the comparison was laughable. If anything, SK Telecom looked even further ahead of their international competition. When the stakes were higher, SK Telecom chewed up the competition with the speed and violence of a wood-chipper.

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MSI is the big chance to see how the top teams of each different region stack up against one another, so there’s a strong temptation to read portent into the results. It’s a chance to challenge the assumptions and narratives that come baked into every new season of League: can someone break Korean teams’ dominance? Can North America field a world-class League of Legends team? Is this the year that Taiwanese teams can repeat the feat of Taipei Assassins?

But really, it’s a chance for fans to play around with these notions. MSI is not quite an exhibition tournament, but it’s close. As much as G2 Esports is getting castigated for clearly blowing off MSI and getting eliminated early, I find myself sympathetic to their logic. Playing for better regional seeding is certainly an incentive, but it’s not quite as important as the Championship Circuit points at stake in the Spring and Summer seasons. For teams that have just come out of important seasonal playoffs and are staring down the barrel of a long summer leading up to Worlds in the fall, the stakes just aren’t the same at MSI.

With the group stage concluded, SK Telecom still have a chance to redeem themselves, but they’ll have to beat Royal Never Give Up first. Meanwhile, regardless of the outcome of these playoffs, CLG may already have won. CLG’s staggering comeback against RNG did confirm that the American champions are perhaps one of the coolest and most resilient teams around. We may not know for sure what weight-class they belong in, but they’re certainly capable of punching above it.