With the Group stage finished, we move into the elimination tournament portion of Worlds as we blitz into the Quarter Finals. Gone are the Bo1s and jockeying for those two slots out of Groups. Now, every game means (tournament) life or death. For our second day of events we have the North American darlings Cloud 9, led by Jensen and Sneaky with their plucky band of rookies, looking to do their region proud and keep their Cinderella story going. Across the rift are the Afreeca Freecs, led by the ex-Rox Tiger Kuro, who have come into the Quarters as quite the under the radar team. They’ll look to show the world that was a mistake. The transition into Bo5s will bring a whole new level of excitement and competition to the series’ between these two teams, with the hopes of appearing in those Finals on the line.
Cloud 9: North America’s Phoenix rising from the ashes
Ahhhhhhhh, Cloud 9. They’ve had an absolutely insane and unprecedented of story to lead them to this point. From last place in the NA LCS, with a roster kerfuffle that almost saw the team tear apart at the seams, into what can only be described in the cliche of the phoenix rising from the ashes. From last in the NA LCS to the Quarters of Worlds, from a Play-In stage that almost saw them knocked out by Gambit to a miracle of surviving in the Group of Death, Cloud 9 have rewritten every story slated against themselves. They’ve shown up when they shouldn’t have, and defeated teams they had no right in toppling, and not by a small margin either (Cloud 9 vs. RNG second round anyone?) It seems like the only constant at Worlds this year is Cloud 9 somehow making it out of groups again.
But that doesn’t mean Cloud 9 are going to be satisfied with the story as it is. They’re hungry to prove themselves and NA for that matter as a region to be feared. They’re hungry to go to heights NA has never gone to before. To do so after being last place in their region, through the gauntlet and then Play-Ins would be a momentous task. It’s still hard to fully trust an NA team to perform when their region needs it, given history’s lessons, but this years Worlds has been tumultuous to say the least. It really is anyone's game. With Cloud 9’s combination of fresh faced rookies and staunch veterans, they seem well equipped to be up to the task. The Cinderella narrative that has been Cloud 9’s 2018 run doesn’t have to end here either, and they’re up to the challenge set before them.
While rookies rightfully call a lot of concern towards themselves at Worlds, it’s been the story of the rookies of Cloud 9 stepping up when the team needed them. Eric "Licorice" Ritchie has shown his mettle against some of the Worlds best top laners, and doing so in his first year at Worlds is… well damn good. He’s seemed quite at home in the meta at Worlds that relies on a Top laners, “I can kill this guy” sense. Much like fellow Quarters team RNG, Cloud 9’s Jungler situation features two very different styles: Dennis "Svenskeren" Johnsen’s more mature, stable jungling and the young gun, fiery Robert "Blaber" Huang. The flexibility the duo bring to the team can be a strong leverage point, if they utilize it well. Veteran carry in the Mid lane Nicolaj "Jensen" Jensen’s showings at Worlds has played a huge part in Cloud 9’s victory’s here. From his pocket pick Zilean to more classic Syndra, Jensen has showed up game after game for his team. The Bot lane of most Worlds appearances ever, Zachary "Sneaky" Scuderi and brand spanking new Support Tristan "Zeyzal" Stidam may not bring the hard carrying prowess their fellow teammates tend to display, but their performance has steadily increased as the tournament went on. Zeyzal in particular has showed up for the team time and time again, and his Thresh play is right at home among other, more experienced Supports.
Cloud 9’s burden falls heavily on a team that’s used to it. They carry the hopes and dreams of their region with them, as the only representative to make it out of groups. They’ll be the only real test for how far NA has come and whether the region can really call themselves competitive. While they’ve already made many fans from the region beyond proud, it wouldn’t be Cloud 9 if they were satisfied with their results. Given how far they’ve already come, against all the odds, it wouldn’t be unprecedented to think that they could go further than any North American team has ever gone: the Semi Finals of Worlds. While Europe’s been there semi-frequently, North America’s never had that claim. It would be the perfect feather in the cap of an organization that’s already made history time and time again.
Afreeca Freecs: Slow and Steady Wins the Race
Normally the second seed of the LCK making it out of groups wouldn’t make anyone bat an eyelash, but Afreeca Freecs impressive righting of their sinking ship, earning themselves the first seed out of Group A, was truly a startling result. It’s not often that teams can pull off a 3-0, let alone when they were already 1-2, having only defeated the Vietnamese representatives in Phong Vu Buffalo. What was looking like an unprecedented event where only one Korean team made it into the playoffs stage of the event, the Freecs roared into the second round of the round robin and stole away first place, and that narrative. But it was a lot harder than it should’ve been, and whether they show up like week 1 or week 2 will be an important variable to consider.
For the Afreeca Freecs, stealing away the win when everyone counted them out isn’t anything new. They did it by going to the Finals in Spring, by taking it to Griffin in their Summer playoff run, and then again by defeating Griffin and spoiling the rookie organization’s dreams for Worlds in the Regional gauntlet. The Freecs have played a kind of ‘second fiddle’ role in much of the LCK’s narratives this year, what with the huge stories like SKT’s decline, KT’s rise, Gen.G’s meaderning, Griffin’s explosive entry into the league, and even KZ’s ups and downs. It’s easy to have lost sight of Kim "Kiin" Gi-in and co. But that doesn’t mean that teams should be forgetting them at Worlds. Their bounceback in Week 2 has been underplayed, as many point to their collapse early as reasons to doubt the roster. But the Freecs are used to being underestimated.
While they may have remained under the radar, that doesn’t mean they’ve been silent. After dropping star and veteran Jang "MaRin" Gyeong-hwan in the Top lane, there was a big void to be filled. Somehow, they filled those shoes and then some in their acquisition of Kiin. The Top laner has redefined what it is to be a carry player, and has been a huge part in all of the Freecs exploits in the build up to Worlds. Lee "Spirit" Da-yoon’s surge in performance has been a crucial part in Afreeca’s actually being at Worlds, with his heroics during their Summer playoffs run that lead them to Worlds off of Championship points. The ex-Rox Tigers Mid laner Lee "Kuro" Seo-haeng has also seen an uptick in his performance for 2018. He’s gone from a limited champion pool, being so awful at picks like Azir as to draw comments even from casters, to overcoming that setback and proving to have a mastery of quite a few vital Mid lane picks. His performance has become a stable element for the Freecs to play around. Ha "Kramer" Jong-hun and Park "TusiN" Jong-ik make up the Bot lane for the Freecs, and their decision making and team fighting abilities are second to none. Tusin in particular is often a bright spot for the team, always looking for the fight that will get his team ahead and ultimately the win.
While many have pointed towards Afreeca Freecs weak start to the tournament, it’d be a foolish move to equate Bo1 results with a Korean team in a Bo5. There is a difference in the endurance, drafting, and mental fortitude that it takes to claim a win in a Bo5 series. The Freecs are well acquainted with not being the favourites in matchups, they’ve been that way basically all year. But there’s a reason that they’re at Worlds. Their roster may not have the shiniest of members outside of stellar Top laner Kiin, but they work as a well oiled machine when it comes to their play. They’re not a team to be underestimated, which their second week performance stand as testament.