This year marks the debut of a new preliminary round of play, which begins tomorrow with four groups of three teams.
In recent years, Worlds has begun with an initial group phase of four teams in four groups. Traditionally, teams earned a spot in this event through regional qualifiers.
Initially, these qualifiers tended to come from just five parts of the world. South Korea is rated by many as the most dominant qualification system, as evidenced by Korean teams winning the last four World Championships. Then, there’s China, Hong Kong/Macau/Taiwan, North America, and Europe.
The new play-in stage aims to give emergent qualifying zones — Latin America, CIS, Southeast Asia, Turkey, and Brazil — a chance to put forth their best into the tourney.
Albus NoX Luna shook things up in 2016
In last year’s Worlds, an unheralded Russian team, Albus NoX Luna, garnered headlines by defeated Counter Logic Gaming and G2 Esports in the group stage. And Albus’ performance only became more shocking from there.
In their penultimate group game, they faced ROX Tigers, reckoned by many at that point to be the best LoL team in the world. Albus’ subsequent win is considered one of the biggest upsets in League of Legends history.
The team went on to lose in the quarterfinals, but their performance invigorated the tournament and showed organizers there was a real thirst to see more emerging nations involved. This all leads us to the new play-in stage.
Adding a new stage isn’t exactly a quick fix. The tournament organizers had a delicate issue to resolve with the play-in. Teams from the more established qualification groups were not keen to have their representation in the lucrative group stages diminished.
But could lack-of-competitiveness be an issue? In Group A, for example, Team WE are one of the strongest teams in China. They recently defeated the current three-time Worlds champs SK Telecom T1 at Rift Rivals. This weekend, they face Gambits.CIS, a decent team at best, and Latin American newcomers Lyon Gaming.
All the play-in groups may suffer from a big discrepancy in perceived talent.
With two qualification spots up for grabs in each group, followed by a single match in Round Two to decide the four teams to progress into the group stage, the differences in ability between the teams is best outlined by the odds.
- Group A – Team WE – 1/1000, Gambit Gaming – 4/6, Lyon Gaming – 11/10
- Group B – Cloud9 – 1/1000, Team oNE – 8/15, Dire Wolves – 11/8
- Group C – Fnatic – 1/1000, Kaos Latin Gamers – 4/9, Young Generation – 13/8
- Group D – Hong Kong Attitude – 1/50, Fenerbahce – 1/2, Rampage – 6/4
Essentially, the bookmakers expect the four teams from the more established qualifying groups to walk through this section.
The problem for esports fans and punters is that these games are unlikely (at least on paper) to add anything to the tournament as a whole.
Can any team repeat Albus NoX Luna’s success?
The best possible scenario for the play-in would be for some of the lesser teams to shock their more illustrious rivals and claim a couple of the spots in the next stage.
Whether anybody from the lesser qualification zones can repeat Albus NoX Luna’s miraculous 2016 performance is doubtful, but fans do love underdogs.
Even if this stage ends up lop-sided, it will give emerging teams exposure and a chance to test their mettle. We’ll just have to hope for some entertaining mettle-testing.