Worlds 2018 has been and gone, but it certainly has not been forgotten. Upsets abounded in one of the most exciting League of Legends tournaments of all time and it got me thinking: what were some of the biggest surprises in Worlds history? How does this year’s tournament match up against year’s gone by?
Interestingly, even back in season one when nobody knew what to expect in the first place, there was still room for the unexpected. Fnatic won the whole thing, as you probably know. But less well-known is the fact that they almost didn’t make it past the group stage. You could argue that their success at Worlds was an upset in itself.
TPA wins Season 2
In the end, I decided that I couldn’t really count Fnatic’s win as an upset since there was so little previous data to go on at the time. By the time season two Worlds rolled around, however, pretty much everyone expected a European or Korean champion. Europe had won season one, and yet the defending champions didn’t even qualify for season two, due to the strength of the European region at the time.
Meanwhile, Korea was starting to flex its muscles, and anyone who knows anything about esports knows that when Korea takes a game seriously it means trouble for everyone else.
Imagine everyone’s surprise, then, when an unfancied team from an unheralded region took home first place. Taipei Assassins from Taiwan may have started with a berth to the quarter-finals, but they took down three of the tournament favourites on their way to a historic victory.
The highlight of this astounding run was the grand-final itself, in which they beat Korean champions Azubu Frost, featuring legendary names like Shy and Madlife.
Gambit keep European hopes alive
By season three, the international pecking order we know today was starting to take shape. The crowning of a Korean champion seemed like a matter of “when” not “if” and it was up to Western teams to try and put it off as long as possible. “As long as possible” didn’t turn out to be very long at all, but Gambit showed that there was still hope for Europe, despite a second year in a row of all-Asian finals.
The Russian team defeated Samsung Ozone not once but twice in order to qualify for the quarter-finals. The second of the two wins was a tiebreaker in which Alex Ich showed why he is remembered so fondly. He popped off on Kassadin, ending the game on 13/2/9. This result didn’t seem like a huge upset at the time, but given the trajectory of the two squads since then, it sure looks like one now.
Alliance’s hopes go Kabum!
I was hoping I might find enough bigger upsets so I might avoid having to write about this one, but here we are. 2014 Worlds was an awful time to be a European fan, but this particular match was definitely the lowest ebb. After SK basically eliminated themselves thanks to Svenskeren getting himself a three-match ban and Fnatic struggled in an incredibly tough group.
Rising from the ashes of Evil Geniuses, Alliance was supposedly Europe’s first “super team” and its last hope at Worlds that year. Mixed results in the group stage meant they had to beat Kabum in their final game, but given that the Brazilians were 0-5 at the time, it seemed like a foregone conclusion. It wasn’t. To this day, I can still picture Froggen’s Fizz desperately trying to assassinate squishy members of the Kabum team in order to defend a base that was never supposed to be in any danger.
He couldn’t, and, for the only time in history, no European teams made it out of the group stage.
2016 is considered by many to be the finest Worlds to date. Certainly, it had one of the best grand-finals ever and a semi-final that was even better than that. But weeks before any of that happened, the most successful Wildcard team of all time made its way out of groups, taking down the number one seeds from Europe and Korea en route.
Albus Nox Lunar may have only existed for a single season, but what a season it was. It ended with a crushing 3-0 defeat against H2k, but it peaked with a glorious victory over pre-tournament favourites, ROX Tigers. The really crazy thing about the match was how non-crazy it actually was (well, apart from being over an hour long and incredibly close). Upsets are often synonymous with off-meta picks and hyper-aggressive play, but ANX outplayed ROX in a completely normal game.
Even more impressive, they did it from a deficit in the early game, coming back to claim one of the most famous wins in Worlds history.
NA hanging with the big boys
I almost wanted to leave 2018 out of this article. I still haven’t had time to parse what happened. Group B had enough crazy results that it could fill this list by itself. In the end, though, Cloud 9’s run was just too staggering to ignore.
I promise I’ll narrow it down to a single match in a moment, but the context is too important to gloss over here. Cloud 9 finished Spring Split 2018 in 10th place. They nearly didn’t make it to Worlds at all, and they had to fight tooth-and-nail against Gambit to make it out of the play-ins.
And then…. Oh boy. Then they went to the quarter-finals via the hardest group and annihilated the number three seed from Korea. Sure, they were then destroyed even more comprehensively by Fnatic in the semis, but that result (if not the manner of it) was somewhat expected. For Cloud 9 to beat Afreeca Freecs was unthinkable, and yet there it is in black and white.