North American League of Legends fans, your team, your champion, Team SoloMid, is out of the 2017 Mid-Season Invitational.
TSM was on the verge of punching its ticket to next weekend's semifinal and was eliminated in the most gut-wrenching way possible. Up 8,200 gold at 44 minutes in its last group stage best-of-one against Europe's G2 Esports, a clear path was set in front of them. An overall 5-5 record anchored by an impressive 2-0 final day, and at least a fighting chance against China's Team WE would make it back-to-back MSI final appearances for the NA LCS.
As the game reached its endpoint, a horror script writer took hold of the story, and it was all lost. Mistakes were made, and G2 came back from the brink of elimination. That's when everything that could go wrong went wrong. Vietnam's plucky, rough and tumble GIGABYTE Marines failed to defeat Taiwan's Flash Wolves, locking in G2 as the No.3 seed and forcing TSM to face off against the Taiwanese league winner in a best-of-one for the opportunity to play defending MSI champion SK Telecom T1 in the final four.
With more questionable decision-making, TSM lost again, and just like that, MSI was over for North America.
The region's Pool 1 seed at the upcoming World Championships is gone, which means the NA LCS and its three teams have been relegated to the same status as the regions once known as "Wild Cards." It's a demoralizing setback directly one year after Counter Logic Gaming made a triumphant run through the group stage and convincingly defeated the very same Flash Wolves in the semifinals.
For the longest time, when North America as a whole has failed on the international stage, it's been brushed off with quippy one-liner jokes or the ever so popular, "Well, what did you expect?"
TSM, or any NA LCS team for that matter, wasn't going to scratch SKT or another elite South Korea team in a best-of-five, so why bother? Even CLG, who did the unthinkable last year, came up short in the final against the titan that is SKT, losing in a one-sided sweep. It's alright if TSM failed. In a world where TSM did beat the Flash Wolves, the tournament would have ended in a few days when SKT got its hands on them, anyway.
And while that's probably true -- for any team in the world, including SKT's peers in South Korea -- it isn't 2012 anymore. This isn't before North America had the infrastructure it has today. Excuses, jokes, and, "Shucks, it's not like a western team can really compete with elite South Korea teams" are no longer viable in today's landscape.
North American fans, it's OK.
It's OK to be frustrated. It's OK to criticize TSM for not making top four at MSI. The NA LCS is a behemoth when it comes to resources; players are making more than ever on average, teams have experienced coaches, and the skill level, more often than not, comes down to a specific team matchup than a region as a whole.
When you look at TSM's performance in the tournament, like G2, Flash Wolves and even No.2 Team WE to an extent, it came down to small, fixable decisions. In TSM's case, lackadaisical early map movement and poor objective control in the mid-game lost it numerous games. One thing out of 10 went differently in the closing minutes of the final G2 matchup, and TSM went through with North America hoping for a second straight MSI final. While Team WE eventually fixed its issues in the second half of the group stage, the trio of Flash Wolves, TSM and G2 were indistinguishable -- all 4-6 in match score -- with G2 grabbing the No.3 seed only after sweeping the Wolves in the group stage.
North America isn't like the Oceanic league or smaller regions, where the infrastructure is still being built and players there aren't making enough to pursue esports full-time. A region such as Oceania has never seen a team make it to the main stage of a large Riot-sponsored international tournament. Behind its passionate fan base and a slew of individually talented stars, the OPL is still a fledgling league in the grand scheme of things.
That's not the NA LCS. CLG showed what can happen when a team from North America enters a large-scale tournament prepared and ready to play. It happened once and it can happen again. When Team SoloMid went to the World Championships last year, it wasn't aiming to be the best non-South Korean team in attendance. It went there to win the Summoner's Cup and had the resources: coaching, mental training and practice.
At MSI, TSM failed to live up to expectations. But that doesn't mean the bar should be lowered. Just because TSM and G2 Esports failed to impress in the group stages doesn't mean a participation ribbon or a pity pat on the back for a moral victory should suffice. We're at the point in the development of both the NA and EU LCS that a group stage exit, especially for a champion of the league, should never be acceptable. Both regions have produced world-class teams in the past, and they can and should again, especially with how much North America invests into its teams.
While criticizing is warranted, zeroing on one player, coach or staff member is not the answer. TSM, as a whole, could have done better. One mistake, one forward flash, one wrong step in the enemy's jungle did not lose TSM the tournament; it was the amalgamation of small mistakes across the board that did TSM in. A team wins together, and it also loses together. Changes could and maybe should be made, but that's up to the team that knows the inner-workings of the team as a whole throughout the entire season, not simply the two-week event.
With the NA LCS summer split ahead of us and the World Championships in the not so distant future, the goal shouldn't change for TSM or any of the teams in the league. Whichever three teams advance to Worlds, sans Pool 1 seed, they'll be shooting for nothing less than the playoff stage and a chance to make a run at the final, wanting to be the first NA team to ever do so at the League of Legends pinnacle event.
And as a fan, it's OK to want the same.