WUHAN, CHINA -- Although Team WE LED-lit banners decked the stadium (similar to the day before for Royal Never Give Up), more visible support existed for Team SoloMid than for any other western team. Fans held smaller signs in support of North America's flagship team, especially Søren "Bjergsen" Bjerg. When I asked a handful of girls why TSM was their team of choice, "Bjergsen is amazing" was a common response.
In China, western pros who participated in international tournaments before the League of Legends Championship Series regions were established are more likely to have a following. This includes Yiliang "Doublelift" Peng, but more than that, TSM as a premier organization. In support of perhaps the single most senior organization in League of Legends, TSM chants are -- while sometimes ironic -- ubiquitous.
Before the match between Team SoloMid and Team WE, I walked around the crowd and ran into an acquaintance from the Chinese press. He pushed back his sleeve and revealed a TSM temporary tattoo on the back of his hand. The two of us joked briefly about how he, as a Chinese journalist, was supporting TSM, and I, originally from the United States, would be likely to be associated with Team WE.
"They didn't make it last year," he explained when I asked him why he supported TSM. "It's time this year."
"It's time" or "It's their turn," seems like a throwaway term. Top Chinese and European teams have made World Championship semifinals. The predominant narrative is often that non-Korean teams only make it far in international events by avoiding LCK participants. Royal Club Huang Zu in 2013, Star Horn Royal Club in 2014, Origen and Fnatic in 2015, and H2K-Gaming in 2016 all made it further than any non-Korean team in the tournament without actually beating a Korean team in more than a single game.
This year, Team SoloMid landed in a group without any LCK representatives. This year was its turn.
But the absurdity of the statement derives from the fact that this isn't even the first time it has happened. In 2014, TSM found itself in a group with Star Horn Royal Club, Taipei Assassins and SK Gaming (an SK Gaming that couldn't play half its games without its start jungler, Dennis "Svenskeren" Johnsen). The group makeup is nearly identical to the one of this year. It was the only group from which TSM advanced in its Worlds career since Season 2, and it didn't even advance in first position. It collided with Samsung White and lost 1-3 to the Korean powerhouse.
At this point, it's almost ridiculous that the same article has to come out every year. Why did Team SoloMid fail at the greatest event of the season? It has the fan base, the sponsorships, the dedication, the staff and the resources. It should have no excuse to not be at the top of a group without a South Korean LoL team.
The same grasping at straws follows. Last year, I made it about a failure to advance beyond a blue buff dependency. Something that still persists in 2017. Both TSM and G2 Esports have publicly acknowledged weaknesses in Game 1 of a best-of series or in single-game formats.
It seems like the necessary article would follow Team SoloMid actually succeeding and performing to domestic expectations at Worlds. An actual "This Time is Different" hasn't ever occurred despite a North American Rift Rivals victory. Despite a promising showing giving TSM a comfortable 2-1 finish to Week 1.
But the same conversation happened. When I walked back to the press room after interviewing Misfits head coach Hussain Moosvi, the question, "Why?" came up amongst the journalists present. I already had my answer -- automatic -- based on the games of the day.
The opening Game 1 loss at the hands of WE was expected. It was TSM's only red side match on schedule, and considering that draft gives priority in the bottom lane matchup to blue side in exchange for a strong top lane 1v1, it seemed an unlikely victory. To make matters worse, TSM drafted all losing matchups, and Svenskeren's words from the previous week re-emerged in my mind.
"I think it's definitely risky not having any pressure lane because, if you're against a good team, they're going to really make it count that they have deep wards in your jungle," Svenskeren said after the first game against WE last week, "and they're going to make the first play almost always. It's pretty surprising that we managed to get dragon."
Though Jayce and Rumble is a comfortable configuration for WE, it prohibits an invade from TSM to try to deny blue buff on top side, and the strong Caitlyn matchup from bottom allowed the team to snowball with limited repercussions. Beyond just having strong lanes, Rumble and Janna served as good answers to the Jarvan IV engage, limiting an opportunity for TSM to find a flank in a team fight later on.
What should have been a brush-off for TSM, who had two blue side games to close the day, turned into a wrenching stumbling block. TSM drafted low-pressure lanes again in Game 2 against Misfits and climbed back in only due to mis-execution from the EU squad, a team that continues to struggle to play with its top laner in side lane: something that can spell disaster for a Yasuo composition.
The devastation came from the Flash Wolves loss that tipped later into the tie-breaker against Misfits Gaming. In both games, Flash Wolves and Misfits could find a snowball, something TSM had grown accustomed to playing against domestically, but it didn't have an opportunity to come back into the game.
TSM's early game fails when it cannot properly trade sides. If the enemy jungler plays to either top or bottom, TSM as a team don't seem to get a proper trade on the other side of the map, either because of a predictable need to force or a poor identification of where to apply pressure.
But domestically, because of how North American teams often manage waves, TSM have always managed to come back. In many NA games, teams will set up for Baron by creating a slow push. A slow push strategy will stack waves so that TSM (A) have extra time to catch the minions marching toward them, and (B) don't have to overextend to avoid missing experience.
Flash Wolves, WE and Misfits didn't make the same mistakes with an early lead. With their top laners hard-pushing the wave bottom, TSM members had to venture onto the map to avoid losing experience. Without proper vision setup, that resulted in more pick-offs for Doublelift and Kevin "Hauntzer" Yarnell.
"I know everyone goes off about Rift Rivals," Misfits coach Moosvi said after Misfits won the tiebreaker, "but I honestly think EU players understand the game better than NA right now, at least from what I've seen from watching games. ... I wasn't really afraid of TSM. They might be the first seed in NA, but I don't think it necessarily meant that much, because I didn't think that EU was ever behind -- I thought that EU was ahead."
Following Rift Rivals, North American teams such asTSM were praised for how they played with mid and jungle, but teams such as Misfits Gaming evolved from the experience. Nubar "Maxlore" Sarafian's synergy with Misfits became key to the team's growth and success.
Other elements of the NA macro environment stagnated, and in some cases, because TSM were able to identify them, they merely abused them instead of growing. EU developing between Week 1 and 2 to improve its results while North America struggles is a microcosm of what happened between Rift Rivals and Worlds.
But why or how TSM failed doesn't matter. What does is what it means for them in the future. Can a team like TSM ever succeed, or is the North American environment a barrier to advancement?
After years of imports, of monetary investment in infrastructure, TSM and North America must address the environment it is building. One of the greatest teams in NA history when it comes to international events was Cloud9, the last NA team still standing at the 2017 World Championship, and its greatest roster was all North American. It isn't necessarily the players or the money. Cloud9 looked abroad to study and improve. In other regions, the dissipation of major streaming deals and departure of some of the biggest name imports has coincided with the most successful Group Stage for LPL teams since 2014.
But until a solution is found, it's time to stop being shocked that TSM doesn't succeed. Hesitant chants followed TSM as it left the stage, the only somber farewell afforded to a non-Chinese team in Wuhan so far.
League of Legends' most recognized brand still has miles to go.