When Riot Games shut down their Australian office and effectively gave away the rights to run professional League in Australia, expectations were low. Australia’s best players fled to North America. Sponsors left the scene. Australia still had players and teams, but when your talent flees and much of the league’s operational structure had been slowly gutted, it’s hard to get your hopes up for an Australian League team overseas.
Australia had never made it past the first stage of an international League event. They’d come close, but bigger teams from better funded regions would always send Australia home.
Why would this year’s Mid-Season Invitational (MSI) be any different?
It wasn’t just that Riot had withdrawn the direct financial support of teams. Riot changed the eligibility rules for Oceanic players playing in North America, making it so players from our region would no longer qualify as “imports”. That opened the door for Australia’s best talent to be pulled directly into North American professional League teams, since having an Aussie on your roster wouldn’t prevent a well-funded team from importing a star player from Europe, China or South Korea.But as fans and players noted at the time, that was effectively a poison pill for the region.
How was Pentanet, a group of amateurs, supposed to compete seriously against full-time League professionals?
Watch Australian esports for long enough, you’ll spot a common trend. Australian teams are notoriously unlucky. It’s common for Aussies to get horrifically bad seeds, unlucky draws, lose coin tosses, suffer from technical failures. Whatever can go against Australians usually does. And that’s before factoring in all the systemic problems Australian teams face: a lack of decent practice due to our geography, the sheer cost of travelling overseas in the first place, and losing half of Australia’s best players to the American academy system.
But before the tournament began, a glimmer of hope began to emerge.
On April 20, Riot’s director of esports operations, Tom Martell, made an announcement. “While it was our hope that the top team from each of our 12 regions would be able to join us, due to national travel restrictions related to COVID-19, the team from Vietnam (VCS) will unfortunately not be able to participate,” Martell wrote.
It was the second world championship in a row that Vietnam had missed. Last year, Vietnam’s travel restrictions kept GAM Esports and Team Flash from attending the 2020 World Championship Series. Only GAM Esports had qualified to this year’s MSI under the tournament’s long-standing format.
But with no viable replacement, Riot had no other choice but to leave one of the three-play in groups shorthanded. And since the Vietnamese team were in Group A with the Australians, that meant Pentanet really only needed to beat one other team: Unicorns of Love.
The Russian League representatives had crushed Australia’s hopes before. The Russian representatives sent Mammoth packing from the first stage of Worlds in 2019, after all three teams found themselves in a three-way tiebreaker.
But it’s not as if Australia’s League record has been the best. Legacy Esports put up a strong fight at Worlds last year, but China’s LGD Gaming shut the door on them before they could reach the second stage. And every other year has been largely the same story: Maybe the Australian teams win a match or two, but they generally fall short at the first hurdle.
And when Pentanet’s group began with a flogging at the hands of Royal Never Give Up (RNG) — one of the most successful League franchises in history — it looked like that sad story might continue.
Not only did Pentanet get summarily dismissed by the Chinese, but the Russian representatives had no troubles dismissing the Australians in their first match. The second day’s play wasn’t much better: RNG quickly amassed a 1,000 gold lead before 5 minutes, and by 10 minutes the match was a formality. The Australians were getting charged and dived on from all angles; fans were starting to complain about the tournament’s structure.
What’s the point of just having major regions smash minor teams over and over again, some complained.
“The group stage is overall a waste of time.”
“These kinds of games are so useless.”
“I think it’s time to dissolve OCE’s league a second time, because that shit was embarrassing,” another posted.
But the mark of any good competitor is your performance under adversity. If anything, the mark of any good Australian representative — in any competitive endeavour, whether it’s video games, sports, or anything else — is a natural aggression, a willingness to dictate terms regardless of the opposition or consequences. And what critics ignored about the design of MSI’s tournament structure is the benefit it gives underrated teams like Pentanet: the opportunity to grow and learn throughout the tournament, something that the format of Worlds doesn’t allow.
When the Australians ran into Unicorns of Love for their second matchup, things had stabilised. The match stated stayed relatively even for 15 minutes, and the Australians even won a major team fight midway through. That giving them a substantial lead in kills, although the Russians managed to obtain a gold lead. It wasn’t helped by some misplays from the Aussies trying to force the issue. But crucially, the Australians kept themselves alive by working together well, and their drafting prowess — helped by their coach, who was drafting with the team live from Australia over Discord — was smarter than it first appeared.
The Australians ground out a 30 minute slog against the Russians, and they showed growth against the Chinese too. Their second match was an all-out brawl with simultaneous skirmishes all across the map. It wasn’t close, but it was lively. And that confidence would come in handy when Pentanet won their second game against Unicorns of Love, forcing the Russians into a tiebreaker for the group.
At the start of the tournament, nobody would have bet on the Australians to make it through to the second stage. After the beginning of the tiebreaker match, it was anyone’s game. The Russians got first blood, and the valuable gold bonus that comes with it, but the Australians smartly countered with joint attacks at the top and bottom lanes to square up the gold, and kill counts.
It was a slow, steady match, mirroring most of what had happened whenever RNG wasn’t playing. The Chinese champions had finished most games off within 10 minutes; Pentanet, by comparison, took 11 minutes before taking the first elemental drake, which provides teams with permanent buffs once killed. The Australians would continue to bait the Russians into favourable engagements, which allowed them to capture more objectives, more buffs, and a bigger gold lead. It all snowballed into an inevitable, insurmountable advantage, and eventually the Australians rolled into the enemy nexus and the second group stage.
It’s a mammoth victory, especially given the extenuating circumstances. “We didn’t have much idea of how to draft; we hadn’t scrimmed for weeks after our playoffs because nobody else was scrimming,” Jackson “Pabu” Pavone said in the post-tiebreaker interview. Indeed, the fact that they were even able to travel to Iceland in the first place is an outright miracle, given how locked down Australia has been over the last year.
That would have been a good enough achievement: previous Australian teams had the benefit of salaries, full-time support, and international practice. Pentanet had none of those, and they still made it further than any Australian team previously. Luck was a massive factor — it’s unlikely the Australians would have gotten through both the Vietnamese representatives and Russia at the same time — but you can only play the hand you’re dealt.
So entering the second group stage, a final round-robin with some of the best teams in the world, was victory enough. But Australia had one last trick up its sleeve.
Watch League of Legends long enough and you’ll see a common thread with North American teams: they love to disappoint. Cloud 9, the American representatives this time around, has been only too happy to oblige this past week. Cloud9 is one of the biggest financial powerhouses in the scene; the buyout fee for their midlaner, Luka “PerkZ” Perković, was just shy of $US5 million. Australian League players are lucky if they earn enough money to qualify for tax. If anything, the most money Australian teams have is the money they make when foreign teams raid our shores for talent.
And Cloud9 has a lot of Australian talent. 3 members of its academy squad are Australian, as is the team’s top laner, Ibrahim “Fudge” Allami. So there’s something cathartic in seeing Cloud9 revive their tournament hopes with a systematic dismantling of Royal Never Give Up — only to get systematically outdrafted and outplayed by the Australian amateurs a match later.
The Mid-Season Invitational is still ongoing. Pentanet has two matches to play, but the team is mathematically unable to qualify for the playoffs. Still, the Australians have provided a much needed spice to proceedings. Not only has it been inspiring to see Australians battle against the geographical and financial odds, but it’s also been endlessly entertaining. Australia didn’t even have their best team, because North America absorbed most of the country’s talent.
“I am honestly lost for words how a region can lose its competition, half its pro players, have a shortened season, then have its best international performance,” the Australian coach of Team Liquid’s League squad wrote.
The Mid-Season Invitational resumes tonight, with the top 4 teams from the group stage going into the final playoffs stage. For their efforts, the Australians will walk away with just over $22,000 — and likely a few more offers from North American teams once it’s all said and done.