Remember attending your school’s annual “field day” as a kid? Right before summer break, classes were pitted against each other in a pseudo-Olympian exhibition of adolescent athleticism. The only goal was to rack up as many satin blue ribbons as possible, something so oddly satisfying that it nearly compensated for the record-breaking hot weather.
Everyone participated, regardless of their feelings towards sports, and everyone celebrated if their class won.
In League of Legends esports, summer is the season of competition. The Mid-Season Invitational has come to pass, with Europe taking the crown for the first time in history. Now, top teams from around the world are pouring their focus into preparing for the next big international tournament of the year: Rift Rivals.
Rift Rivals is like the field day of League. Every year since 2017, tensions between North America and Europe rise as the two regions square off in a bout of friendly competition. The winner earns a thumbs up and full year’s worth of bragging rights. That’s it.
This year, things are different. Rift Rivals 2019 will be the most stacked yet, and the first time that the end result could have real implications on the strength of NA or EU. We may never get another other shot at seeing both of the regions' best go head to head on equal footing. Keep the trash talk and the memes, but leave the excuses at the door. It's time to put up or shut up.
The very first NA vs. EU Rift Rivals was held in Berlin, Germany, the home of the European League of Legends Championship Series (now League of Legends European Championship). There, representatives from the North American League of Legends Championship Series, TSM, Cloud9, and Pheonix1, challenged the EULCS’s G2 Esports, Fnatic, and Unicorns of Love on their home soil.
2017 was only two years back, but looking at the context makes it feel like forever ago. Søren “Bjergsen” Bjerg and Yiliang “Doublelift” Peng were still teammates, Pheonix1’s Mike “Mikeyeung” Yeung was considered a prodigy within NA, and Cloud9 had two top laners.
Even though it was a win for NA, and TSM fans were quick to add it to the team’s trophy case of meaningless international titles, people were just happy to have another international tournament in the mix. The bragging rights didn’t last long, though, as EU proceeded to outplace NA at the 2017 World Championship.
Fast forward one year. NA's successfully franchised LCS brought some new faces into the mix. Team Liquid’s super team had initiated the first phase of their plan for total world domination by winning NA (the “world” part wouldn’t come until a year later). 100 Thieves had finished an impressive run to the LCS Finals in their first year as an organization. And Echo Fox was there, too.
Our friends overseas did what they’ve been known to do best: They gathered their best soldiers (Fnatic, G2, and Splyce) and asserted dominance over their North American counterparts.
For many, the only thing more confusing than NA’s complete lack of understanding of the tournament meta (pick Aatrox, win game) was their insistence on subbing out players during this Rift Rivals. 100T consistently used their academy top/jungle duo of Brandon "Brandini" Chen and Đỗ “Levi” Duy Khánh, and Echo Fox tried a hodgepodge of lane swaps. The most tragic of which involved swapping starting ADC Johnny “Altec” Ru out for academy mid Tanner Damonte, and leaving starting mid Kim "Fenix" Jae-hun stranded in the top lane against G2’s Martin “Wunder” Hansen.
NA lost and it wasn’t even close. To make matters worse, EU not only outperformed NA at the 2018 World Championship despite the region achieving their best placement ever, they also made it to the finals.
At the time, you couldn't really blame NA for their performance. Rift Rivals teams are typically well-positioned to make a deep playoff run in Summer and slot themselves into Worlds, so this tournament was somewhat of a break from the grind. Once again, the stage will be set in LA for Rift Rivals 2019, but this time, it’s personal.
Team Liquid’s miracle run at MSI wasn’t enough to satiate years of hunger for international success for NA, and their record-breaking loss to G2 in the finals only added fuel to the fire. This could be Team Liquid's only chance to get revenge against G2 for the beat down they received at MSI.
In the short time since then, both teams been refining the styles that found them success at the tournament. After carrying Team Liquid through the MSI group stage on carries, Jeong "Impact" Eon-yeong hasn't played a single tank in the summer split. G2 continues to draft ridiculous comps on occasion, but they've also been investing more resources into Luka "Perkz" Perković as well.
Not many people would've expected two teams with polar opposite approaches to the game to become bitter rivals, yet here we are. Team Liquid and G2 will undoubtedly have their eyes set on defeating each other this weekend, and who knows what strategies they'll employ to do so. Will Liquid mix up their roster with some of their academy players? Or will G2's sub Hampus "promisq" Abrahamsson finally get some more stage time?
Hampered by the shadow cast by their respective regions' first place teams, TSM and Origen will be looking to prove they're relevancy after a long absence from international competition. Both teams made it to the Spring Finals and lost in the worst way possible: a 2-3 reverse sweep and a 3-0 stomp that was more of a time trial than a best-of-five. How they show up against some of the best players on their side of the hemisphere will determine whether or not fans can regain faith in their play.
Origen and TSM are known for playing through their solo laners, particularly in the mid lane. TSM's Søren "Bjergsen" Bjerg and Origen's Erlend "Nukeduck" Våtevik Holm are essential win conditions for their teams, but neither of them have made a splash internationally since 2014. A match up between the two will mean a battle for mid lane resources, jungle pressure, and individual pride.
Speaking of having something to prove, this will also be the first time that Jesper "Zven" Svenningsen and Alfonso "Mithy" Aguirre Rodríguez will play in the same tournament on opposite sides of the Rift. The veteran support with a history of developing young ADCs has taken Patrik "Patrik" Jírů under his wing, and Zven will put his skills to the test against his former duo partner to see whether or not their split-up was the right decision.
There are plenty of stories of vengeance and redemption going into Rift Rivals, but Cloud9 versus Fnatic isn't quite the same as the rest. The two teams have such a long history of playing against each other that every exchange between the two has an air of friendliness to it, at least judging by their social media interactions.
Times have changed since the days of Hai Lam and Enrique "xPeke" Cedeño Martínez duking it out in the mid lane, but one thing has remained the same. No matter what their record in the regular season, these two teams have shown over and over that they can play at or above the level of any opponent when it counts.
Cloud9 and Fnatic are known for consistently producing good results internationally, and neither team is looking to tarnish that record, even at Rift Rivals. Since they last fought at 2018 Worlds Semifinals, both rosters have restructured around new mid laners in Yasin "Nisqy" Dinçer and Tim "Nemesis" Lipovšek. Their predecessors Nicolai Jensen and Rasmus "Caps" Winther have moved on to achieve great things on top-tier teams, but can they carry their teams just as hard against the best of the best?
Whether or not the tournament holds any real weight in terms of seeding or accolades awarded, those competing will be playing for so much more than bragging rights this year. For the first time in history, both NA and EU could be considered legitimate favorites to win the 2019 World Championship. This is a real opportunity for both regions to practice against teams from top regions and learn from it for the rest of the Summer Split.
If the past few months have been any indication, we may be entering an era of League of Legends where Western teams can compete at the top level internationally. As the trophy-holders of MSI, EU has every right to feel as though they can rest on their laurels and not take it seriously, but is that something they can be proud of with NA nipping so closely at their heels?
The answer is no. They know what's on the line, they know what's at stake; it's time to try-hard. Let's see it happen.