For League of Legends, 2018 was a year of great change.
On The Rift itself we saw RIOT opening up new, unusual, and not very popular strategies while making a concerted effort to buff flash, high-kill-threat champions like Akali and Irelia.
More broadly, this played into a playstyle shift that had been occurring naturally for some time.
These factors culminated in the first Worlds grand final to be free of Korean teams since they were allowed to compete back in season two. In fact, Korean teams didn’t even reach the semis.
In North America, Team Liquid asserted themselves as TSM’s superior – the latter failed to qualify for Worlds for the first time ever. Cloud9 rebuilt from a shocking start to the year to make a semi-finals appearance at Worlds. Meanwhile, several of the newly franchised teams performed well in the LCS, including 100Thieves, who made it to Worlds at the first try.
China was the biggest benefactor of all this, as well as being the driving force behind it. Invictus Gaming won the World Championship, of course, and they did it in dominant fashion, going 6-0 across semi and grand-final. Their playstyle was a huge part of the way the game was played during the tournament and it helped make the tournament the most entertaining on ever.
In Korea itself, the rise of Griffin from challenger to near-champions was an almost perfect analogy for what was happening in professional league. Their aggressive playstyle took the LCK by storm and caught teams with a more traditional system off-guard. They paved the way for the likes of Sandbox and Damwon this year, continuing the seemingly inexorable tide of newcomers in the region.
In Europe, 2018’s legacy is, well, a little more complicated. We saw Fnatic regain its position as the premier organisation in the region after a couple of years of G2 dominance, only to lose it in spectacular fashion this year.
Conversely, G2 struggled last year, at least by their own high standards, only to make a huge splash at Worlds. Now, despite a couple of unexpected changes to the roster, they sit top of the LEC, undefeated.
There is a lot of ground between the current best team in Europe and the previous one and at this early stage of the split nobody seems able to claim the space between as their own. Last year’s third-place team is, appropriately, tied for third place with Schalke, having already lost two games. To be fair, those losses were against table-topping G2 and Schalke themselves, but Vitality would surely have been looking to press forward after such a strong end to last year.
Yamatocannon’s team are playing like 2018 never ended. Vitality earned many plaudits for their insistence on playing their own style at the biggest tournament in the world. Better yet, they so nearly made it work. If not for a couple of dodgy decisions in the Cloud9 tie-breaker, we might have had three European teams in the semis. Who knows?
The aggressive, act-first-question-later style has made them one of the most entertaining teams in the league. Fancy footwork from Jizuke and a stellar performance from Cabochard led them to a win over Excel this past weekend that they maybe didn’t deserve, but it sure was fun to watch.
They win more than they lose playing this style, even if it does make uncomfortable viewing for fans at times. So why do you sense a ‘but’ coming soon?
Yes, Vitality are beating the teams beneath them, but they did that last year. Progress would mean they beat the likes of Schalke and G2. Admittedly, they came pretty close against the former, but against the latter they looked outclassed.
The games themselves were illuminating, though, and tell us a lot about where the team’s form.
Against Schalke, Vitality were in the game right up to the end. It was a close game by every metric, until some poor decision-making around the baron pit cost them. They started baron, were forced off it and then ceded all control of the area to their opposition. Schalke, being the superior strategical team, didn’t require a second invitation. They took the big purple worm down and crushed the ensuing team fight.
Against G2, though, Vitality were simply outclassed. The trouble with trying to play a scrappy, fight-centric style is that when you come up against a team with better players playing similarly, you lose. Vitality’s Plan A is the most fun to watch in the entire league, but their Plan B doesn’t seem to exist.
Ironically, the biggest proponent of ‘play your way’ – perhaps in the entire world – is the team that, in the current fight-all-the-time meta game, needs to look for an alternative.