Between Season 2 Worlds and Season 3, League of Legends underwent a complete transformation. The LCS system restructured the way teams in North America and Europe operated and competed, giving them a chance to become professional sporting organizations in practice as well as in theory.
But of course, they faced an uphill battle against the Korean teams. While Azubu Frost and NaJin Sword were both disappointed in their effort to bring the Summoner's Cup to Korea, the writing was on the wall as some of the most powerful and experienced competitive gaming organizations in the world turned their attention to League of Legends.
BURSTING THE NA BUBBLE
Even as the ground was shifting beneath their feet, Team SoloMid and the rest of the North American scene were slow to adapt. At Season 3 Worlds, they would pay a high-price for that complacence.
"We weren't really getting challenged too hard in NA. We never really lost, and that kind of fueled our confidence so that it never got to the point where we realized we needed to get way better," CLG alumnus Steven "Chauster" Chau explains. "It was hard to compare ourselves to other teams, because we weren't playing against them. So yeah, eventually they caught up and passed us really easily, just because they played a lot more and studied the game a lot more."
TSM hadn't been a top-caliber international team for over a year, but within North America, they still ruled the roost. The LCS, at first, reinforced their confidence and perhaps encouraged some bad habits.
"Honestly, the biggest reason why we fell behind was because we weren't taking it as seriously. We were kinda the 'Bay Life' bros," Alex "Xpecial" Chu admits. "We really didn't play the game as much as we should have, we weren't studying the game much. ...People don't realize how big a deal it is, having coaches. How big it is to have someone behind you, pushing you. Putting pressure on you."
TSM started to get that pressure with the arrival of Cloud9 in the North American scene. But at first, they didn't think they had anything to worry about.
"We had played against C9 when they were Quantic, and we always beat them," Xpecial points out. "They were always a good opponent, but we always beat them when it came down to tournaments. And they never really showed up in tournaments. We never thought they'd become as good as they have become."
Cloud9 was likely North America's strongest Worlds contender since the days of Epik and TSM back in Season 1. They came to the tournament with the hopes of an entire region on their shoulders, and great expectations built on a record-setting season in LCS. But as luck would have it, they would scarcely get a chance to compete. Their Quarterfinals seeding let them skip the group stage, and left them with only one series against a surging Fnatic.
A WORLD TO BEAT
Season 3 was practically destined to be the Korean teams' year. NaJin Black Sword enjoyed a Quarterfinals placement, and SK Telecom T1K and Samsung Ozone were poised to dominate the Group Stages and leave the rest of the world out in the cold.
In SKT T1K's case, they followed the script exactly. What the world saw in their group play was a team that was light-years ahead of its competition. They were also witnessing one of the few stars talented enough to dominate a game by himself in a game that was increasingly about team coordination.
Season 3 was a good time to be a mid laner, and nobody did it better than Faker. He inspired a ridiculous meme, Things Faker Does, and dominated his games during the group stage.
But he was also complemented by one of the strongest teams in the tournament. As an AD - Support duo, few were better than Piglet and PoohManDu, and more than once their high level of play helped Faker overcome his opponents' efforts to contain him. Likewise, his partnership with Bengi was one of the great jungler-mid lane marriages in the history of professional League.
"[In Season 3], it was still possible to hard-carry but it was hard," says Paul "sOAZ" Boyer. Faker was one of the few that could do it, and everyone around him was also good enough to win an individual matchup. "I think they were just better individuals and a better team."
Fnatic themselves seemed like huge underdogs coming into their own group. They'd had a challenging summer season, and they were contending with both Gambit Gaming (which comprised the Moscow 5 roster) and Ozone. But what looked like a difficult LCS season had actually served to make them stronger.
"At first, YellOwStaR had just switched from AD to Support and we had a new AD carry: puszu," explains sOAZ. "So we needed some time to get better, and we had all the LCS season to practice and refine our playstyle. At the end of the season, I felt really confident with my team."
Fnatic had a simple plan that served them well throughout the tournament, and ended up carrying them all the way to the Semifinals.
"The key during Season 3 was ...to get a lead during the early game and try to snowball as much as we could," sOAZ says.
But Samsung Ozone ended up surprising everyone by… relatively not being all that good. From being one of the most hyped teams heading into Worlds, they were knocked out of the group stage in a tiebreaker with Gambit.
Even Gambit were caught off-guard.
"I didn't really think that we will be that good at Worlds, but we didn't care about reputation of Korean teams that much, either. I think we did better than I expected for sure," Alexey "Alex Ich" Ichetovkin admits. "But Ozone got really huge issues coming into tournament, like swapping out their top lane. And Dade underperformed super hard."
While Gambit fell to NaJin Sword in the Quarterfinals, Fnatic edged out Cloud9 and moved on to face Royal Club in one of the toughest series in the tournament. At first, Fnatic seemed to be playing their classic, explosive style. But time and again, Royal Club would ride out the onslaught, then come back in the mid game and smash Fnatic.
"Royal Club always had the late game team comp, with a late AP carry and AD, such as Orianna / Caitlyn. They ended up stalling the game for some time, and then won the mid and late teamfights," sOAZ says.
And as good as Fnatic looked when they were ahead, they weren't doing well enough to win the game early.
"We always had a small lead, but not big enough to be able to snowball," he recalls. "And even though we had this lead, most of the time they had good waveclear." And that wave clear proved crucial in stalling the games out long enough for their carries to take over.
Royal Club had thrown back challenges from regional rival OMG and Fnatic, but there was no denying that it was SK Telecom's tournament. When fans gathered at the Staples Center on October 4, they witnessed the kind of performance and synergy that's commonplace at the venue. That is, when Kobe, Shaq, and the rest of the Lakers were on the court.
In a lopsided 3-0 series, SK Telecom T1 K swept Royal Club and confirmed what many watching the tournament had already known for days: T1 K was the greatest team in the world. By a long, long mile.
Just as League of Legends changes a lot from year-to-year, so does the competitive scene. While Season 3 seemed to herald a new era of SK Telecom domination, in reality they would have just a few months to reign before they started facing serious competition within Korea and instability in their championship-winning roster.
Ironically, it would be 2013's Korean scapegoat, Dade, who would emerge as the great hero of the 2014 circuit in Korea. The superstar who had choked at Season 3 Worlds and was even demoted to Samsung's ostensible "B-team" went on a mission to redeem himself in the wake of last year's disappointments. If he had helped doom Samsung Galaxy Ozone in 2013, there was no denying his role in putting Samsung Blue into contention for the 2014 World Championship.
For the North American scene, Worlds Season 3 showed just how wide a gulf remained between them and the top-tier of the sport. For Cloud9, however, it was just another learning experience on an already miraculous journey.
"Losing last year sucked. But it wasn't that big a deal," explains Hai "Hai" Du Lam. "You'll always lose no matter how much you want to win. You won't always win."
For TSM, however, the Season 3 results triggered a crisis.
"We knew SKT and a couple other teams were really good, but at the same time, we were really optimistic. And we were pretty upset ...that we didn't get out of groups," admits Xpecial. "We'd played pretty well as a team, and as a team we needed to fix little things that I felt shouldn't have been too hard to fix. And we weren't able to do it. ...And it felt like we'd spent a whole year trying to get better as a team, and we didn't really go anywhere."
Season 3 set in motion a wave of retirements and acquisitions across the North American region. It marks an almost generational shift in competitive League of Legends.
"To me, players retiring isn't really a negative thing. It's just how things are going to end up. Every player retires eventually," Xpecial says. "I didn't really want Reginald to retire, just because he was a really good shot-caller, and I thought that was important. ...But yeah, these are just things that happen eventually."
Season 3 Worlds was also the last time Gambit would really stand among the game's elite. It bought the team a reprieve, but Alex Ich admits that the clock was ticking.
"I was satisfied that we got to Worlds and we got out of groups, and after Season 3 Worlds, we got Edward back and won IEM Katowice. It was fun," he says. "But during the spring it felt that the team just didn't want to improve and play anymore, and I guess I was getting pretty upset."
But all the churn amid the old guard, far from being a negative, actually opened the door for a new wave of stars to come and upset the old order. While the old TSM may be gone, the present-day's team of international stars is one of the most exciting in the game. LMQ emerged as one of the best in the North American region, while EU LCS underwent a complete reshuffling as new stars were born and new teams made their mark.
THE MORE THINGS CHANGE
In three years, League of Legends has changed and evolved so much that it is almost unrecognizable from when it started. Season 1 Worlds, with its lo-fi production in a crowded corner of DreamHack, showcased the very top tier of a niche competitive community. A year later, and its Finals would fill a sports arena. A year after that, one of the biggest stages in basketball and hockey would play host to the Season 3 Final.
The game itself is also vastly different from how it began. It's a true team sport now, and arguably less driven by "star power" than it's ever been.
"[Back in] Season 1 mid laners could just solo-carry the game. It wasn't that much up to strategy...In season 1, I remember, I could outsmart a whole team 1v5, because they were not organized," explains Carlos "ocelote" Rodriguez.
Those days are gone, and many of the stars who defined it have moved on or tried to adapt to the new era.
"League is a real team game now, so there is not much that a star player can do alone, unless he is really ahead," says sOAZ. "He just has to play around the team and analyze what is the best to do at a given moment."
Yet perhaps the biggest change in competitive League of Legends is the mindset of the people who play it. As we explored in Part 1 of this series, many of the veterans looked back fondly on Season 1 Worlds as the last time League was "just a game" and not a career. They all came to competitive League hoping to enjoy it while they could, but uncertain about whether they've have a future with it.
By the end of Season 3, there were two full-time pro leagues in North America and Europe, and organizations were investing in further infrastructure like coaching, analysis, and even player-psychology. The days of a single player carrying for an entire team were done. Now the team carries the player.
Xpecial was there at the start and he remains one of the strongest supports in the game. He's watched his old teammates and rivals leave the game, and new talent arrive and take their place. As he contemplates how League has changed across three Worlds, he is also reflecting on how he's lived his adult life, and where it's taking him.
"It's been like three years since I stopped school. And I've learned a lot about myself and other people, and having to live with other guys. And you really understand how differently things could have turned out," he says. "I've grown up a lot. I look at the world a different way. It's part of growing older and living out life."