In a global esport where five major regions -- North America, Europe, China, South Korea and Taiwan -- seemingly take up all the spotlight, it can be hard to find any praise for the regions on the sidelines. Ever since their first appearance in 2013 for Season 3, the teams from international Wildcard regions have been popular topics of debate when it comes to the World Championship in League of Legends, where there is always at least one slot reserved for qualifying Wildcard rosters. Hailing from minor, up-and-coming scenes with weaker competition and fewer resources, these Wildcard teams often exit Worlds with abysmal records, losing every game except for maybe one or two.
Because of this pattern, many hardcore fans have argued from the start that Wildcard teams shouldn't be allowed to compete at Worlds as they drag the level of competition down and can harm stronger favorites' chances of making it out of the group stages. But the Wildcard teams haven't been satisfied with last place; they are slowly on the rise from bottom-tier tourists to true dark horses.
Here is their story.
Season 3 (2013)
GamingGear.eu (Lithuania) -- group stage
GamingGear.eu lost every game in the group stages except for one, finishing at a W-L record of 1-7. Their only win was off of Team SoloMid who by that point were already knocked out and captained by a player who decided he was retiring. Having absolutely no intention of winning, TSM picked a joke team composition during draft so that Reginald could have fun for his last competitive game and gave a free win to the Wildcard squad. There's no real special story behind GamingGear.eu's disappointing performance; they were out of their depth, especially being in the same group as powerhouses like SK Telecom T1.
The competitive landscape of the Wildcard regions back in 2013 is difficult to describe, since so many regions were saplings with new servers compared to the broad oaks in the rest of the world. This lack of development meant it was impossible to make an argument that a Wildcard team in 2013 had any potential against the major regions. Ultimately, all five players of GamingGear.eu would soon retire after renaming themselves to Team Ultra Vires in the wake of Worlds that year.
Season 4 (2014)
KaBum! e-Sports (Brazil) -- group stage
Dark Passage (Turkey) -- group stage
During Season 4, Anıl "HolyPhoenix" Işık was the AD carry for Dark Passage and is well known for his aggressive play and skill, and was even considered to be a possible import for LCS teams from time to time. Despite HolyPhoenix's skill, DP was too behind as a team to pull out wins at Worlds. This Turkish team would consistently become one of the stronger teams in the Wildcard scene, often placing around third or fourth place in future Wildcard tournaments as it continually fine-tuned its roster.
KaBum!'s name is an accurate depiction of its impact on both the tournament itself as well as how Wildcards would be perceived. They won one game only, but that game was against the number one European seed, Alliance. It was a pivotal win that helped seal the coffin and send Alliance home while simultaneously sending Cloud9 out of the group stages to advance at Worlds that year. While it's widely thought that the upset happened during the game itself, KaBum! showed strategic foresight by dismantling Alliance during the draft phase, crippling Mike "Wickd" Petersen's champion pool and forcing the rest of Alliance onto questionable picks more suited for solo queue rather a cohesive team composition.
Players like KaBum!'s Thiago "TinOwns" Sartori from Brazil were certainly talented, but talent alone wasn't what had been holding Wildcard teams back; rather, it was a wider understanding of macro game. KaBum!'s macro-oriented victory over Alliance certainly put Brazil on the map, which would help the region grow in coming years.
Season 5 (2015)
paiN Gaming (Brazil) -- group stage
Bangkok Titans (Thailand) -- group stage
Hailing from Thailand, the Bangkok Titans were Titans not only by name but by reputation as well. During Season 5, BKT were incredibly dominant within the Thailand Pro League, allowing them to qualify for Southeast Asia's much larger Garena Pro League. Led by captain Pawat "WarL0cK" Ampaporn and mid-lane carry Nuttapong "G4" Menkasikan, they were able to overthrow several of the Vietnamese teams that held a tight grip over the region, go nearly undefeated, and qualify for Worlds. Unfortunately, they crashed and burned there, losing every game in a tough group with teams like SK Telecom T1, EDward Gaming, and H2k-Gaming. BKT grew a lot that year, from playing recklessly to learning macro strategy and breaking free of the GPL, but the competition wasn't hard enough to push them anywhere near "world-class."
Fueled by KaBum!'s meaningful win against Alliance, Brazil continued to be the hotspot of IWC speculation about how close they might be to being at the same level as North American or European LCS teams. One team, INTZ, was deemed to be comparable to a number of NA League Championship Series teams at the time by the likes of Team SoloMid's Søren "Bjergsen" Bjerg and Team Liquid's Christian "IWillDominate" Rivera. However, it was fellow Brazilian team paiN Gaming who defeated INTZ domestically and then qualified for Worlds through the Wildcard Qualifier that year.
PaiN would be called the "best Wildcard team to attend Worlds" after it was over. Brazil has certainly grown leaps and bounds, as paiN was the first Wildcard team to win more than one game at the annual event. They looked great in some of their losses and their second game against the Flash Wolves, who were the winners of their group, lasted almost an hour and went back and forth several times. This paiN roster had several star players including jungler Thúlio "SirT" Carlos, mid-laner Gabriel "Kami" Santos, and famous AD carry Felipe "brTT" Gonçalves. From here, Brazil can only hope to go even higher as INTZ will represent the country at Worlds this year.