League of Legends: Is the Gap Getting Smaller?

Season three of League of Legends ushered in a new era of Korean Dominance. The western hemisphere had never experienced the intricate systems of eastern draft selection and coordinated macro play. The original consensus was: Win Lane, Win Game. SK Telecom, now T1, changed the entire League of Legends landscape.

You hear it from team owners, casters, and analysts alike, "The gap is getting smaller." But is the gap really getting smaller, or have the LCS and LEC just concocted this idea in an effort to keep their leagues relevant? Western teams have not won a major international tournament since Fnatic took the top spot at the first World Championship back on June 20th of 2011. The League of Legends World Championship is the only viable title for the majority of the LCK and LPL organizations; very few elite teams commit to the smaller scale events such as Intel Extreme Masters and the Mid-Season Invitational.

The first League of Legends World Championship tournament is an area of hot debate. Many speculate that Fnatic would not have won the tournament if there had been any Chinese or Korean teams participating. The first tournament was composed of all western teams (North American and European) and therefore, we were guaranteed a western team victory. Would Fnatic have beaten a Korean team such as Azubu Frost at the time? It's difficult to say; especially since we haven't had an LCS or European team win since then.

From 2013 to 2017 the League of Legends World Championship was dominated by the Korean circuit — the LCS and LEC were nowhere to be found. For five years the LCK towered above all the other regions; no one could contest their ability to maneuver around the map and team fight. SK Telecom would go on to win multiple World Championships and become the first-ever League of Legends dynasty.

Everything changed in 2018. The League of Legends Pro League (LPL) surged into contention. The Chinese region had always been in the shadow of Korea — always nipping on their heels — never victorious. But 2018 would be the end of Korean dominance and the rise of Chinese power. Gone were the days of Korean tempered gameplay. Chinese teams came to Worlds with unmatched ruthless aggression and it was that same aggression that propelled them to success. 2018 also marked the first year that a Korean team failed to appear in a World's final since 2013.

China closed the gap. You could even go as far as to say that China created a new gap. Teams across the world have tried adapting to their fast-paced style of play. Western teams such as G2 Esports and Cloud 9 have adapted to this LPL-style and they've both had varying amounts of success. 2018 was the year of China, it was the fall of Korea, and it was the highlight of the west.

2018 was the most success that the LEC and LCS had ever had. It was the first time that a western team would be guaranteed into the finals since season one. It was also the first time that North America had a representative reach the semifinals. Cloud9 put the hopes of North America on their back and carried them as far as they could, but they were sent home early by LEC's Fnatic. Fnatic went on to compete against Invictus Gaming in the 2018 World Finals; they lost 3-0. It was the first time the west could see the glimmers of success.

2019 was a similar story. It was the year of the LEC — it was the year of G2 Esports. G2 had undeniably become the Kings of Europe. The European squad had cemented themselves as one of the best teams in the west and both the LPL and LCK were paying attention to the noise that was being made. Both Fnatic and Splyce fought their way to the quarterfinals, but it was G2 Esports that took the LEC and the west to the finals. No one would have imagined that the LEC could compete at such a high level, and make it to back to back finals. G2 seemed destined for greatness, but they would eventually fall short to FunPlus Phoenix (LPL).

With much more recent success from the LEC, is the gap really closing? It's difficult to say. North America has only ever had one team consistently make their way out of the group stages. Cloud9 has always held the torch for the LCS despite their lack of domestic success; they always fall short to teams such as TeamSoloMid and Team Liquid. Similarly, LEC has always had Fnatic as its consistent beacon; G2 Esports has also become another consistent point for the LEC.

Is the gap closing? Objectively? Yes. You can see that there has been much more success from western teams. The LEC has become a powerhouse, but the North American LCS still has much left to prove.