Following Albus NoX Luna’s miraculous performance in the group stages that secured them the second seed out of Group A, many fans began to claim them as a “Western” team while both Europe and North America struggled. Should the wild-card team from the relatively impoverished LCL actually be placed in the same category as a Western teams like G2 or CLG? If you answered yes, then you’re doing an injustice to the bewildering run ANX made through the group stages, and undercutting the handicaps they overcame to do so. The only trait they really have in common with Western regions is that they’re a non-Asian team, but other than that, the Russian dark-horses share almost nothing with their EU and NA counterparts.

Aside from this, the circumstances that top European and North American teams face leading up to, qualifying for, and playing in the World Championship are polar opposites. Two factors contribute to this, the money and infrastructure in the respective scenes, and the difference in expectations that come with being a team from a wild-card region.

Two Steps Behind

Throughout League of Legends history, there has been discussion of the gap between western and eastern teams, and for the first few years, the gap was blamed on a difference in infrastructure and capital in the scenes. This gap in internal-staff and lucrative money flowing throughout the teams has been closed by now, but if you look to wild-card regions, this gap is still very prevalent. Albus Nox — and other wild-card teams alike — are battling the same uphill battle fan bases complained that Europe and North America did in the period between season 2 and 3, but they aren’t given the credit they deserve for it. Imagine if an EU or NA team made it out in groups over two eastern teams in those years, because that’s essentially the feat ANX accomplished at this year’s Worlds. Every team that the West sent this year have elite infrastructure, including sports psychologist, personal trainers (for wrist troubles, for example), team chefs, and a handful of multiples coaches/analysts.

Albus NoX Luna versus Counter Logic Gaming at the 2016 World Championship - Group Stage at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco, California, USA on 6 October 2016. The region that Albus NoX Luna hails from, the Continental League, was only established this year, meaning that Riot stipend salaries for players are essentially the only flowing money in the scene. Team salaries are virtually limited to the $12,500 player stipends from Riot, a salary allowance for a team coach, and the initial team-house grant. Organizations in the CIS don’t have the capital to invest in extra analysts, in coaches that specialize in sports psychology, or in luxuries to improve the team environment. With the LCL being such a young league, they also have trouble getting sponsors, which makes the journey once a team from the region qualifies for Worlds even more difficult. Without sponsors, gathering the funds to boot camp with the rest of the international teams in Korea for two weeks is essentially impossible for them, which tanks their reputation amongst the teams attending.

Against All Odds 

To draw on the season 2-4 gap analogy again, at that time when Western teams would go to Korea, they’d often be relegated to playing second or third tier teams. Eastern teams didn’t respect them enough to waste their top teams’ time practicing teams from a region that were so behind in skill, and rightly so as Western teams often lost to their lower tier teams. This same mentality is applied toward ANX leading up to the tournament, except Western teams also subjected the wild-card region to this, not even granting them a single scrim. The low expectations that come with the youth of the LCL scene, the lack of money and the perceived lack of talent on the team caused Albus Nox to not even have a single practice opponent before the tournament began.

Players on the team were reportedly relegated to playing World of Warcraft, just trying to bond as friends and ride out what they inevitably thought would be an 0-6 effort in the groups. Despite even their own undercutting of their potential, they came out with a 4-3 record ahead of two Western organizations that had every advantage over them.

Making history as the first wild-card team to make it out of groups ANX defied all odds and shocked a scene that wouldn’t have imagined a wild-card team in the knock-out stage. Being the wild-card means you’re an underdog no matter what, it means you have perceived lower expectations than any other teams attending the tournament. But finally prevailing in a tournament, is actually a step in the right direction when it comes to truly embodying the term “wild-card” in sports. In American sports, the wild-card going into a season’s play-offs is never seen as a team that’s bound to be knocked out, but rather a team that has the lowest expectations, but still has undeniable potential to make a deep-run. Five wild-card teams have won the World Series in Major League Baseball and six have won the Super Bowl in the NFL, so in a traditional sense, wild-cards shouldn’t be seen as pushovers.

One Small Step

Becoming the first wild-card team to set the precedent of actually being a formidable opponent at an international tournament is a small step towards the slot(s) being taken seriously. In traditional sports, a wild-card is treated with respect in spite of the lower expectations because the gap is so narrow between the best teams in the league, but in League of Legends, it’s much different. There is a clear hierarchy when it comes to the best international teams, usually separated into regions with Korea at the top and wild-cards like CIS’ Albus NoX at the bottom of the totem poll. With the hype coming from advancing to the bracket stage, there is speculation that wild-card regions will begin to climb the totem poll and lessen the gap between them and regions above them. But in reality, this isn’t what will happen, because the triumph in the group stage was a victory achieved by Albus NoX alone, not wild-cards as a whole.

It’s evident that ANX is a bit of an outlier when it comes to wild-card teams, and the stature of wild-card teams as a ‘region’ shouldn’t be boosted as a result of their victory. Yes, the Russians displayed how a wild-card region can prevail in the face of adversity, but replicating those circumstances is almost impossible. There is little to no evidence to support that a wild-card region will ever be able to recreate the success that Albus NoX did in the group stage until their regional scenes grow and they can earn the respect of those above them in the pecking order. ANX took one small step for wild-card regions by reaching the quarterfinals of the 2016 World Championship, but it’s up to the teams that follow them to continue the journey.

likkritstejossmurfPhoto credits: lolesports flickr