Five takeaways from the Mid-Season Invitational Group Stage

by Xander Torres

The Mid-Season Invitational (MSI) takes a pause after a lengthy Group Stage filled with laughs, stomps and even a few upsets along the way. Minor region and major region representatives slugged it out in Reykjavík, Iceland, with the latter largely having the edge, but stories still emerged for competitors across all regions. Before the start of the Rumble Stage on Friday, these were the major moments and takeaways from the first week of MSI, aka IceLAN.

Royal Never Give Up remain undefeated, but untested

Despite DWG KIA taking a world championship back to Korea last year, China’s League of Legends Pro League (LPL) is still regarded as the world’s top region due to the sheer size of its talent pool and strong mechanical talent across even its worst teams. Royal Never Give Up were one of the last teams expected to represent the LPL at the Mid-Season Invitational, but their methodical map play was strong throughout the group stage and led to a clean sweep 8-0 sweep of Pentanet and Unicorns of Love. As it stands, RNG just look like the team to beat.

Read more: Here’s what Week 1 of IceLAN looked like

Royal Never Give up aren’t hyped as a team with talented mechanical players, but players like top laner Li “Xiaohu” Yuan-Hao and support Shi “Ming'' Sen-Ming are still among the best at their positions. Xiaohu’s performances, in particular, played a huge role in Royal Never Give Up’s domination during the group stage, but it might be a bit too early to call his role swap an international success. As a mid laner, Xiaohu developed a reputation for struggling on the global stage, and that hasn’t reared its head thus far, but it’s still early on and opposing team levels weren’t exactly the highest. Even so, RNG look like the real deal -- they’ll just have to keep proving it against a higher level of competition during the Rumble Stage.

Photo credit: Riot Games

Pentanet earn their place at the table

Late last year, Riot Games announced the disbandment of the Oceanic Premier League, the highest level of competition in Australia and New Zealand. As a result, all of its players were free to be picked up by League of Legends Championship Series (LCS) teams as North American residents without taking up an “import” slot.

For the players who didn’t find an overseas contract, ESL Australia established the League of Legends Circuit Australia (LCO), a replacement tournament intended to crown a champion and international representative for the Oceanic region. With highly talented Oceanic players such as Cloud9’s Ibrahim “Fudge” Allami (now with Cloud9) leaving the region and Oceania consistently performing poorly at international events, expectations weren’t high for the eventual representative, Pentanet.GG.

Read more: North America’s salty sweet history at the Mid-Season Invitational

All that in mind, Pentanet defied the odds of Oceania’s most challenging year yet and qualified for the Rumble Stage after overcoming perennial international contenders from the CIS region, Unicorns of Love. The result is slightly propped up by being in a three-team group due to Vietnam’s absence at the event as a result of the government’s COVID-19 regulations, but the Unicorns of Love have consistently been one of the best minor region representatives for years.

Led by jungler Jackson “Pabu” Pavone, the Oceanic players smiled and giggled onstage as they gave it their best against Royal Never Give Up and overcame adversity against Unicorns of Love. No one knows what to expect from their Rumble Stage performance, but that’s probably just how they like it.

Photo credit: Riot Games

DWG KIA look strong, but far from unstoppable

Sometimes it feels like DWG KIA are in another world. After winning the 2019 League of Legends World Championship as Damwon Gaming, DWG KIA continued to run over the competition back home en route to another domestic championship. The logical conclusion for most fans and analysts is simple -- DWG KIA are going to roll this tournament as the best team in the world. After dropping a game to Cloud9 and having a heart-stoppingly close game against the League of Legends Japan League’s (LJL) DetonatioN FocusMe, though, that perception has changed.

DWG KIA were still the strongest team in their group after amassing a 5-1 record, but compared to Royal Never Give Up’s intelligent map play, DWG KIA’s teamplay seemed almost brutish at times. Their playbook is relatively simple: scale, skirmish and teamfight around Dragons. This isn’t discrediting DWG KIA -- they are still the best at this style -- but if better teams can challenge jungler Kim “Canyon” Geon-bu’s early game dominance and take more advantage of side lane priority, we’ll probably see the team take more losses than usual.

Photo credit: Riot Games

MAD Lions are a different beast from last year

Whenever international tournaments roll around, the narrative often focuses on two different things: regional strength and past performances. Europe’s G2 Esports and Fnatic consistently finished near the top of international tournaments, but MAD Lions were never tasked with being the only European representative. Just last year, they were Europe’s No. 4 seed at Worlds and became the first major region representative to miss the Group Stage at Worlds. None of that mattered to the MAD Lions, though, as they bared their fangs and dominated their MSI group with a 5-1 record.

In terms of win-loss performance, MAD Lions are no different from their European predecessors, making the most of every opportunity as the League of Legends European Championship (LEC) representative. Onstage, though, they’ve shown a commitment to addressing their weaknesses as much as honing their strengths. The bottom lane of Matyáš “Carzzy” Orság and Norman “Kaiser” Kaiser, in particular, came in as MAD Lions’ “weak link," but with time and resources, and they were a staple of MAD Lions’ group stage dominance. MAD Lions proved their strength and are only getting stronger.

Photo credit: Riot Games

Detonation FocusMe plant seeds of anticipation for 2021 Worlds

DetonatioN FocusMe didn’t make it out of the Group Stage, but they proved they had the right to be there. Fans and pundits alike criticized the Mid-Season Invitational’s new format pitting minor region teams against major region teams without a play-in stage, citing lopsided games as the main issue. At times, it was difficult to watch Pentanet lose to Royal Never Give Up for the third time, but there was no moment more exciting than DetonatioN FocusMe’s near-upset against DWG KIA. Japan’s sole representative nearly took a game off one of the best teams in the world, and that was only possible thanks to the current Group Stage format.

More importantly, DetonatioN FocusMe proved they had the talent to tussle with the top guns, with top laner Shunsuke “Evi” Murase and mid laner Lee “Aria” Ga-eul making up the solo lane backbone of the team. The team’s macro play was often sloppy and their stars even made mechanical misplays, but they felt like growing pains as opposed to incompetence.

DetonatioN FocusMe were, of course, still overmatched despite pushing DWG KIA and defeating Cloud9, but it feels like we’re witnessing the blossoming of the world’s next underdog contender. Japan might not be the most competitive region in League of Legends, but we’re talking about DetonatioN FocusMe and their accomplishments, not their region.

Lead image credit: Riot Games

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