One opening day of the Mid-Season Invitational group stage, Hu "SwordArt" Shuo Jie from Taiwan's champion team, Flash Wolves, was asked about his next opponent, North American representative Counter Logic Gaming.
Following a decisive late-game victory over Europe's league champion, G2 Esports, SwordArt brushed aside the thought of the other LCS champion.
"We didn't have much preparation," he said. "Aside from the Wildcard, CLG is the worst team here."
The Taiwanese support's words would come back to haunt him, as Counter Logic bested the Flash Wolves in both of its games in the first round of the tournament. And as luck would have it, the team Taiwan didn't give much thought to on the opening day would be the one standing in its way to the finals.
So after an inconsistent group stage in which the Wolves went from world-class to subpar, they'll have one last chance to make up for SwordArt's callous words.
If we were to look at the two semifinals in a narrative sense, Royal Never Give Up versus SK Telecom T1 is the heavyweight main event everyone will tune in for. It's a best-of-five series between the teams that produced two of the most exciting games of the group stage, with each team taking a victory.
The teams are led by the game's two greatest players, Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok and Cho "Mata" Se-hyeong. Korea and China have constantly clashed over the past three years in major finals as the scene's two best regions.
To many, Royal versus T1 is the real final to MSI. RNG was the best team in the group stages, and SKT T1 is the reigning IEM and Riot world champion. The Korean champions had a dry spell in the middle of the first round, dropping a surprising four games in a row, but turned the ship around on the final two days to defeat both CLG and RNG. Whichever team makes it out of Saturday's semifinal between Flash Wolves and CLG will walk into the Sunday final as a massive underdog.
SwordArt's interview on the first day summarizes exactly what this final four matchup is all about: honor and respect.
Of the five major regions in the League of Legends professional scene -- Korea, China, Europe, North America, Taiwan -- the latter two have been the overlooked members. Europe won the first Summoner's Cup, Fnatic made the semifinals of last year's MSI, and two teams from the region made it to the final four in the most recent Riot World Championships. Korea and China have been on top of the scene for the last three years, repeatedly meeting in major finals.
Taiwan's biggest accomplishment, was its international win with the Taipei Assassins in 2012. Taipei Assassins was one of the strongest teams entering Worlds that year, and they proved it, knocking out Europe's greatest hope, Moscow 5, in the semifinals and Korea's champions, Azubu Frost, in the finals. From there, instead of growing as a region in worldwide popularity and gaining steam in the west, Taiwan sunk back into the shadows. No team from Taiwan has come close to reaching the heights of the legendary TPA team of 2012.
Flash Wolves could become the second Taiwanese team to make a major Riot final if it can get past CLG in the semifinals.
North America doesn't even have a team like the Taipei Assassins to look up to. Forget making the North American scene great again -- when was it ever great? It never had a team make a major Riot final in the six years it has competed in the international circuit. The closest it came was during the 2011 Riot World Championships; the top two North American teams, Team SoloMid and Epik Gamer, both lost to Europe's representatives, aAa and Fnatic, before reaching the grand finale.
SwordArt's words on Day 1 might seem harsh and foolish now, but at the time it seemed like the blunt truth. North America has had more headlines surrounding drama than it has winning on an international level. Even when TSM won back a bit of NA's pride last year when it captured the IEM World Championship, all of the goodwill was lost when the hardware turned out to be made of fool's gold -- and the NA champions were embarrassed at the 2015 Mid-Season Invitational.
Taiwan, you're irrelevant. Out of the five major regions, you're the only one who only gets two -- not three -- seeds to the World Championships. None of your teams were at the IEM World Championship this year. You had to earn a No. 1 pool seed at Worlds by taking it away from Europe by performing better in the group stages. Everything Taiwan has achieved in the game has been earned, not given.
North America, you're even worse. What is there to the NA LCS except for jokes, drama and reality shows? Import as many Korean and European players as you like -- it doesn't really matter in the end. The other four major regions have won a Riot major title, and North America hasn't even made it to a final. All the publicity and views don't mean anything when the end result is failure among the better, more prepared regions.
Making the final, and then performing well in said final, is everything for these two regions. To the rest of the world, North America was the lagging region of the five coming in. Taiwan, outside of a few diehards, was the least relevant. Making it into the final for either team will win respect back to the winning region.
The Flash Wolves have had a roller coaster of emotions in the group stage. When the Taiwanese champ played the heavy favorites, SKT T1, it looked like an entirely different team from when it faced everyone else. SwordArt was allowed his signature Alistar in both games versus T1, and he made the pick turn into a game-changer. His engagements were flawless, and the rest of the squad knew how to collapse in on the enemy when he popped them up with a perfectly timed head-butt pulverize.
If CLG has been doing its homework the past few days -- and really, with everything on the line, it should be -- then the Alistar pick won't find its way to SwordArt's hands in the best-of-five. He is too dangerous on the champion, and the Flash Wolves are ravenous when its linchpin gets the champion to make plays.
For the Wolves to make it to the finals, I wouldn't look at the bottom lane or even the mid for the X factor. Huang "Maple" Yi-Tang has the been the star for his squad this tournament, and he'll need to keep up his carrying ways if the Wolves want a chance. But as good as he has been, he can't do it all by himself. The key player for the Taiwanese team is its jungler, Hung "Karsa" Hau-Hsuan, who came into this event as the one-two punch alongside Maple. He played well in the group stages, but he needs to be a bigger part of the team's success against CLG.
Karsa has the talent to be the best jungler at the tournament, and so far he has only really been Maple's sidekick in the jungle. The matchup against Jake "Xmithie" Puchero will be possibly his last chance to come out from the supporting role and take over the jungle. If he can, the Wolves have a good shot at making Taiwan's first Riot major final in four years. If he can't, SwordArt might be reading his comment from Day 1 on repeat for the rest of his career.
CLG's mindset for the Flash Wolves should be to not change a thing. The team swept the Wolves in the group stages, and its second win over the Taiwanese champs was probably the cleanest win of the tournament from any team. FW is the team coming into the semifinal that'll need to be better than it was in the opening round. On a macro level, CLG was a tier above the Wolves -- and the sloppiness of Taiwan's hope was nothing compared to its stylish play versus Korea.
That doesn't mean CLG should be without a worry. Trevor "Stixxay" Hayes is the center of all things good and bad for CLG. He has blossomed from a spare part on a veteran team to the squad's main carry in this tournament, and his team has consistently put him in the best position. A lot of credit should be given to Stixxay as an individual, as he had plays in the first week of MSI where it was him against the world.
But ultimately, everything for CLG leads back to being a team affair.
NA's champions engage, stun and set up for Stixxay to mow down his adversaries in front of him. They protect, shield, and speed him up -- and then it's up to him to be the carry. Don't get caught, kite back, and put out damage as fast as you can. When everything has gone according to plan for CLG with everyone working in perfect synchronization -- like when it came back from a 17,000 gold disadvantage versus RNG -- no team has been able to beat it. At its best, at least in the first week, CLG proved it can beat any team in the world if all five members are playing to perfection.
"SwordArt's interview on the first day summarizes exactly what this final four matchup is all about: honor and respect."
The problems come when the rookie slips up. CLG could have possibly gone 10-0 during the first week, but the overeager mistakes by Stixxay crippled the team in some of its games. He was caught too forward multiple times in the first game against RNG, and his Sivir pick when facing Turkey's SuperMassive gave the International Wildcard its only victory in the tournament.
As the main component to a majority of CLG's compositions, Stixxay is the ingredient that decides the result of the dish. A confident, well-positioned Stixxay, playing alongside the rest of his squad in perfect synergy, means this series should be over in three to four games with the North Americans making their first steps onto the Riot final stage. Anything else than that, and we're looking at a best-of-five, which can go either way and will come down to which team can execute better in the late-game.
Korea and China are fighting up above, all eyes on the best players in the world in a matchup considered the actual final of the event. Gods clashing against each other for the golden crown.
Down below, Taiwan and NA clash on the ground, fighting for respect. Saturday, one will move forward. On Sunday, the rest of the world will watch on, as one of the two disregarded regions will have a chance to change the opinion of their league and peers.
Taiwan striving to become relevant on the global stage. North America wanting to bring attention with its world-class play and nothing more.
At the finals, one of them will attempt to make the world remember its name.