For teams from China or Europe, the League of Legends World Championship play-in stage is a mere annoyance, like a fly that just won't go away.
The third seeds from the major regions generally treat the first week of the event as a practice round, getting into form with some favorable matchups against the representatives from fledgling regions still trying to find their own identity. Making it out of the play-in groups and advancing to the best-of-five knockout stage for a spot in the top 16 isn't an achievement for teams like Edward Gaming of China or Cloud9 from North America -- it's expected, the only drama coming if they drop a game in an upset.
However, advancing out of the play-in groups was anything but expected for Japan's brightest star, Shunsuke "Evi" Murase, who wept tears of joy following DetonatioN FocusMe's tiebreaker win over Brazil's KaBuM! e-Sports to secure another day in the tournament. DFM became the first Japanese team in League of Legends to advance farther than the opening stage of worlds. As one of the smallest dedicated servers in League of Legends, Japan teams are not expected to advance. While the summer split finals for teams from North America, Europe, and China were played in front of thousands, Japan's final -- where DFM topped rival Unsold Stuff Gaming to earn its ticket to South Korea -- the attendance couldn't have been more than over 100 people.
In the grand scheme of things, DFM's win over KaBuM! e-Sports probably won't change much when the tournament comes to a close in early November. But for Japan, and especially Evi, who has watched the scene evolve over the years, that one tiebreak win, in front of a sparse late-night crowd similar the league championship, meant everything.
"I got very emotional ..." Evi told ESPN following the tiebreak victory. "At first, I knew I won, but the realization of that feeling didn't come quite right away. It slowly started coming up, and everything just kinda burst out. That's when I started crying."
The road to advancement wasn't easy for Japan. After getting out of the gate with a strong win over KaBuM! in its first game of the tournament, it was followed with a heartbreaking loss to C9 in a game that DFM led throughout only to falter at the final seconds. That was followed by even more losses, with Brazil's champion grabbing revenge in the rematch before another close defeat to C9. It was the tune of a song Japan had heard before; a bit of a spark, and then, with little fanfare, it was gone, with the country leaving unceremoniously from an international event again.
This time, though, the crescendo was different.
"It's not just us winning this international match, but everything in the past included, which most of the time was us losing," he said. "I'm very glad to overcome these struggles by ourselves to get over the [constant] losing to get to this knockout stage."
While DFM's success at Worlds is the surprise of the tournament, Evi's shouldn't be. Where a majority of the LJL, Japan's premier domestic competition, has trouble getting above mid-diamond level in South Korea, Evi excels in the world's most difficult online server, hovering around inside the top 100 of the best players. Throughout the competition, he's garnered the respect of his peers, seen as the ace of the Japanese team.
Instead of being boiled down to off-meta picks or catching teams off guard with an ace up his sleeve like some of the other members of DFM, there's not much explanation behind Evi's success in the play-in group stage -- he's just an elite talent, regardless of what champion he selects in the draft.
No gimmicks needed.
"League of Legends is a game I can put my life into," he said.
It's not going to be easy for DFM to continue the Cinderella run through Worlds. During the knockout round draw, Japan was handed the opponent it would have least liked to see come up, China's Edward Gaming, who although dropped a game to Costa Rica's Infinity Esports in the play-in group stage, is still far and away the favorite to advance to next week's main event in Busan.
For DFM to make it to group stages, it's going to have to take a lot more than even what the team accomplished through the first four days of the tournament, which would easily be the biggest upset in League of Legends history.
To Evi, smiling, and greeted by the Japanese media in attendance, the cheerful yells of "YATTA!" filling the narrow corridor of the backstage interviewing rooms, the chance to play Chinese powerhouse Edward Gaming is a world championship final in its own right. After almost walking away from the game he loves in previous years due to the failure of taking the next step in his professional career, the match with EDG, win or lose, will be one where he can give it his all, and no matter the result, smile at how far his team and the country of Japan has come in less than a year.
"Detonation FocusMe will do [our] best to prepare against the [remaining teams] and see what we can do," said Evi. "It's not like we're just going to lose. We're going to do our best to get to the group stage."