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THE ONLY THING THAT MATTERS – Worlds 2019

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For Doublelift, it happened eight years ago in Stockholm as thousands of people passed behind him. Some were there specifically to watch and some were just making their way through. For Uzi it was in the Staples Center in 2013. For Perkz it was in an auditorium in San Francisco in 2016. For Faker, it was 2017 in Beijing’s Bird’s Nest where the camera panned in on him with his hands buried in his face. All of his teammates were shell-shocked like they were posing for a renaissance painting. He cried there, and then he would cry some more backstage. That specific moment you are finally eliminated from Worlds is the culmination of a year of effort, and the first time it happens to you, there is nothing you want more than another chance.

Worlds is a weird contradiction in that it is the single most important thing in the League of Legends scene and at the same time it doesn’t matter at all. About 80% of teams across the regions won’t even participate in it this year, and how good you were in March or in July can have no bearing on how good you will be throughout October. It is a snapshot of play on a single patch that is stretched out over the course of a month. Many players have completely floundered here and continued to enjoy tremendous success at home, and many players who thrived here shrank towards obscurity.

You can lose your regional final and win it all, which has happened the last two years. Or you can win your regional final and flame out immediately, which is the case for most of the Play-in teams. Everything builds up to this moment because it’s an ending to a year long battle royale where only one team can remain standing at the end of it all. Which is exactly why I revel in the elimination moments. We get to watch 23 teams parse out exactly how far away they are from their dream.

We also watch one team realize it. I don’t know if I’d say I’m excited for Worlds — the anticipation is something I accustomed myself to over the years now. It really hasn’t even hit me yet that Worlds starts tomorrow. There is always a lull in the summer where I find my heart wandering away from esports, where a familiar haze beats a cadence into me that makes everything feel too routine. You can also see this sometimes from teams in their play — not every team but the ones who seem destined to qualify for Worlds. Their focus is somewhere else.

And then, without fail, something happens at Worlds that slaps me awake. Maybe it is watching the LJL casters cry as Japan advances past the Play-in Group Stage for the first time ever, or maybe it’s watching INTZ knock off tournament favorite EDG in 2016 to kick off the festivities. Maybe it doesn’t happen until the second round robin in the Group Stage, where major contenders start to fall. Maybe it doesn’t happen until Doublelift is on the verge of tears and says, “It’s been eight years and I can’t [make it out of Groups], but I’m never going to give up.”

Maybe it’s not until that moment that you are sucked entirely in because it’s the very moment your team has been sucked entirely out. Pining for a second chance as a viewer is a strange phenomenon because it’s not like you can do anything differently even given another chance to watch again. I remember trying a lot of different superstitions when watching Detroit Red Wings games as a kid. I’d hide the remote. I’d set the TV to a specific volume. I’d force myself to watch the commercials. But eventually I had to tell myself that no matter what I did, there was no way I could affect the match. To the players, I was just a nameless face in their imaginations. They are staring into a theater from a stage and being blinded by the lights. There are only silhouettes — the vague promise of fans — sitting there.

Which is what I imagine pros see when they think about “failing their fans,” but I’m not sure they think that much about the fans at all. At least not in that moment they are eliminated. Instead they will replay the game over and over in their heads to try to isolate all the things they could have done better. I think people have the tendency to over amplify their own significance in these cases. You think about all the things you did wrong and think everyone must be focused on all those moments, too. But in reality each player centers their own mistakes first (not applicable to Solo Queue). The fans could point out mistakes, but the players already know. So of course the players would like a second chance — there are tangible things they could do differently.

That’s what makes Worlds so great, though. Even though it’s a new year, it’s a chance at redemption. It’s full of teams and players who are fighting for second chances. Samsung won their second chance in 2017. Uzi lost his in 2014. PraY and GorillA never made it there again. This year it is Huni’s third chance at Worlds, and it is IG’s second chance, but the two come into it on completely opposite sides of the coin. It’s this iteration of SKT’s second chance at an international tournament this year, and it’s all the regional runner-ups and third place finishers’ second chances to be a champion this fall. Many of them carry not just the weight of work they’ve put in this year but all of the lingering regret from previous years, too. Some carry the burden of being a former champion, and some carry nothing at all.

But then you isolate Worlds from all of those contexts and you find yourself in a tournament that will, eventually, put you on the brink of elimination. I don’t want to say there aren’t second chances because the very nature of Group Stages and Best-of-5s means you do get chances. You get a lot of chances, even, to fix your mistakes and to be the idealized version of yourself that is strong enough to hoist the Summoner’s Cup. Once you’re out, though, that’s it. There’s no save point that lets you try again, and there’s no more tournaments after this. Unlike MSI, there’s no Summer Split for you to regroup. There’s no guarantee your team stays together, and there’s no guarantee you’ll even have a roster slot next year.

Worlds takes on all of those anxieties and lets them manifest on the biggest stage of the year. It’s been over a month since the first teams qualified for Worlds. There is a calm before the storm kind of feel to it all, and even once it starts tomorrow, it might be a bit before we start to feel like this is Worlds. It is going to be a month that will, ultimately, be filled more with regret than anything else. It is a month in which everything else that has happened this year does not matter. And it is a month in which every piece of preparation that’s been done up until this point is the only thing that matters.

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