The GPL has been nothing short of a storm of drama and controversy over the last three splits. Once-favored teams are struck from behind by hometown challengers, aspirant teams and players find themselves disqualified halfway through the split (or, in the case of Neolution Full Louis, at the cusp of glory), and the region in general scrambles for relevance in the face of ever-improving international competition. As they enter the League of Legends 2014 World Championship Regional Qualifiers, the region that once produced a world championship team struggles to define its voice.
As with prior seasons, Southeast Asia is allotted two Worlds representatives, and the winner of the Summer split is guaranteed a spot. That slot goes to the Taipei Assassins, who defeated AHQ on August 16.
Given the seasonal circuit point standings of either team, the loser of the Summer Grand Finals will be guaranteed a first-place seed in the Southeast Asia Regionals gauntlet-style playoffs. It’s high-quality real-estate, as this slot will only need to win one set of games to join their rivals on the Worlds stage. The gauntlet bracket forces teams with lower circuit points to play more games in order to qualify for Worlds, meaning that the fourth and third place teams will have to play three sets each, and the second-place seed only needs to play two.
Other than TPA and AHQ, three teams have the circuit points to qualify for playoffs. Saigon Jokers and Saigon Fantastic Five will be in the second- and third-place seeds, respectively, due to a strong and improving level of performance over the year. The Qualifiers will also see the return of long-absent Taipei Snipers in the fourth-seed position, despite not competing in the Summer split. How’s this possible? Though they were knocked out by Machi Esports before the Summer split, their consistent semifinal placements in the Winter and Spring has preserved their hopes for the World Championship.
Southeast Asia's League of Legends esports history has been the most dramatic - a towering wave of success that took the world by surprise and low tides that left the scene looking irrelevant, even insignificant, especially in the shadows of their most immediate neighbors, Korea and China. But while the world's attention might be turned elsewhere, the region is a notable trailblazer, even now.
The Garena Premier League, founded and launched in February 2012, was the first continuous League of Legends circuit of its time, predating even OnGameNet Champions by a month. The first iteration featured a pool of six teams competing over a year-long 20-week season and was a best-of-one Round Robin format.
It was almost immediately obvious that two teams stood far and above their peers in the circuit. The Taipei Assassins and Singapore Sentinels were seemingly indomitable throughout Season 2, at least on native soil, and it was no surprise that the Grand Finals of the first season was between the two teams.
It was also no surprise that the Taipei Assassins cleaned up the first championship title with a 3-1 bout over the Sentinels. Even as there was a vast gulf between the two and the rest of the GPL, a great distance further separated the Sentinels from the Assassins. In 2012, the Taipei Assassins only ever dropped two games – one, early on, to the Manila Eagles, and their one loss to the Sentinels in the Grand Finals.
Controversially, the circuit then and now has some radical differences between itself and other pro leagues. Matches were all done online, and placement in the GPL was done by regional quota, where a representative was guaranteed from each of Garena's operating regions: Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia (later absorbed into the Singapore bloc), Vietnam, Philippines, and Thailand. Though the EU LCS, founded the next year, is also a fully multinational circuit, the GPL remains the only one of its kind where placement is allotted on a national basis instead of by region-wide qualifiers. This was further enforced in their World Championship seeds in both 2012 and 2013 - Taiwan had a separate Regionals, and locked up the heavily coveted first place seed both times, whereas the rest of SEA had to compete against each other for the last spot. To nobody's surprise, the Taipei Assassins easily qualified through the Taiwanese tournament.
To everybody's surprise, they were not joined by the Singapore Sentinels.
As an omen of what was to come, silver medalists Singapore Sentinels were knocked out at the last minute by a team they'd already sent into the loser's brackets of the Southeast Asia Regional's double-elimination tournament. The Saigon Jokers, despite barely pulling ahead of a 50% win rate in the GPL, clawed their way back up into the Grand Finals and traded blows with the Singapore Sentinels to take a surprise victory and ticket to Los Angeles. Though they failed to make it out of the groups stage at Worlds, the Jokers successfully made their name as a maverick force within their home circuit.
The Taipei Assassins, on the other hand, were picking up steam.
Counter Logic Gaming's unsuccessful foray into the Korean circuit did at least help spotlight teams and powerhouses otherwise unknown in the West – and, in the case of the 2012 Taipei Assassins, they even had a friend in the area. Lilballz was a former partner-in-crime to CLG's Bigfatjiji, back in their high school days, and played on the North American team in 2010 before moving back to the island. The connection between the two teams might have caused some skepticism when CLG declared TPA to be the best team in the world at the time, though victories over China's reigning champions World Elite (now Team WE) lent their claim some weight.
TPA's first appearance in a Western-run circuit didn't go quite as smoothly. They were invited to the ggClassic, but whether due to ping or awkward time zone differences, only managed to put up middling results against North American teams. A litany of defeats against Korean teams leading up to October further diminished the team’s public perception. In a year defined by Moscow 5's IEM title streak, CLG.EU's near-victory at OGN, and the increasingly obvious dominance of the Korean style of play, the Assassins were simply overlooked.
Then, in October, they got up to bat at the Season 2 World Championship. First, Maknoon's NaJin em-Fire Sword fell 2-0 – surprising, but Sword was considered the weaker of the two Korean representatives. TPA was expected, then, to fall to Moscow 5, and accordingly lost the first game – only to shock the world with two wins from behind, thanks largely to Toyz's handling of Orianna.
But if knocking out one of the top favorites of the tournament wasn't enough, their performance against Azubu Frost surely was. The Assassins' 3-1 victory against a region already considered the strongest in the world cemented their place in esports history as World Champions.
It also cemented the last time that a SEA team would be relevant in the international standings.
A middling performance at IPL 5 could be chalked up to end-of-season fatigue, but not in hindsight. Rumors of disagreements between the Assassins' team members blew up into full-blown drama as the GPL's Season 3 circuit kicked into gear. Though the team, still the most skilled by far in the region, easily won the Spring split, team captain and support player MiSTakE's departure for sister team Taipei Snipers visibly affected their performance. He was soon followed by star mid laner Toyz, retiring due to medical issues, then by top laner Stanley as the latter's performance degraded. Lilballz was then suspended due to account-sharing violations, and only Bebe was left of the original squad.
The Assassins failed to perform in Season 3. The GPL's expansion, adding an additional slot for a Taiwanese and Vietnamese team, led to the inclusion of hometown rivals AHQ e-Sports Club, who eventually took that year's GPL championship. Locally, the all-Taiwanese LoL Noval League was also burning bright – MiSTakE's Taipei Snipers performed well throughout the summer, even as the Assassins slowly crumbled apart.
In fact, in a way, the Nova League was designed around the Snipers, whose founding and central mission was to develop Taiwanese esports in the wake of the region's 2012 victory. Teams were drafted wholesale from the region's solo queue stars – the first and only time, so far, that a professional draft system has been emulated by League of Legends esports – to compete against the Snipers, inflating the island's professional esports team numbers almost literally overnight.
In a way, it worked almost too well. Neither GPL champions AHQ, LNL champions Taipei Snipers, or even the patchwork remnants of the Taipei Assassins qualified for the Taiwanese seed of the Season 3 World Championship. Instead, Gamania Bears took out all the local favorites to go to Los Angeles.
Meanwhile, the rest of SEA were also operating local circuits at this time, though their improvements were spotty in comparison. The Singapore Sentinels were once again the most dominant non-Taiwanese team in the region. And in a fit of deja vu, lost their chance at the World Championship again to Mineski, the same team they sent to the loser's bracket in round four of the Southeast Asia Regionals. But neither underdogs Mineski or Gama Bears made a dent in the circuit that year – the former failed to win a single game throughout the group stage, and the latter were eliminated immediately in the playoffs.
In the face of the region's abject failures in Season 3, major bets have since been made. The GPL has been expanded once again, and in a mirror of the LCS, now directly seeds into the World Championship – potentially opening up double-Taiwanese representation for the first time. Infrastructural changes have also been made. Korea's Lee In-cheol, formerly of Xenics esports, now coaches the Saigon Jokers and Saigon Fantastic Five, and his efforts are obvious given both team's massive improvement over the current season.
But the biggest improvement has come from a team once thought dead. Though only Bebe is left of the original team, the Taipei Assassins are once again the most dominant crew within the circuit, winning back-to-back split titles and even coming out of the Spring group stages unscathed by any losses.
The GPL's enforced multinationality doesn't lend well to a region-wide identity, as there are marked differences in playstyles between teams, much less nations. But in the wake of Taiwan's sustained dominance, and the increasing Korean influence among its coaches and analysts, a pattern emerges among its most successful representatives.
There are two known extremes to top-level GPL play, best represented by the circuit's former and current championship teams. The Taipei Assassins, especially their current roster, favor suffocation – accruing marginal advantages through a highly deliberative objectives focus that shuts the doors on the enemy team's options one by one. Long-range sieges and split-pushing is a hallmark of their style. Though kills can often be few and far between, the enemy team will often lose absolutely every tower and inhibitor as the game concludes. The GPL English casters are fond of referring to it as a "buffet" style, where the team eats their fill from every lane.
In contrast, Season 3 GPL champions AHQ often ignore objectives outright if they can get a kill instead. In a style more reminiscent of Europe's Fnatic, they favor explosive pick compositions instead. Mid lane Kassadin and Fizz are trademark performers, especially after AHQ’s acquisition of star mid laner Westdoor, with turrets taken only after Westdoor blows up one or two enemy champions.
AHQ's more dramatic playstyle did, however, have a notable weakness in prior seasons and splits. Despite their action-packed, high-kill games, AHQ's victories often took 40 minutes or more. Their lack of objectives focus, and known style, led to highly defensive waveclear compositions used against them. Even as they accrued double-digit kill advantages, actually shutting out a game often took multiple Barons, as they were otherwise ill-equipped to shove down an inhibitor.
Though AHQ's since incorporated better objectives control to offset this tendency, their heavy fight focus remains a trademark of the team, and an overall preference of the SEA circuit in general.
There's no lack of oddball compositions and picks in the GPL. The Vietnamese teams, in particular, are well-known for unexpected picks, as they were the first to run top-lane Gragas in 2014, though with a far greater focus on building him as an initiating tank - Sunfire Cape was a core item, encouraging split-pushing and all-in Body Slams in fights. They are also the foremost proponents of Jayce in either mid or top lane, even after the changes to his Acceleration Gate and interactions with Tear of the Goddess. As it turns out, being able to outrange Xerath or Ziggs with a Shock Blast is still useful – even good enough to take a game off of the Taipei Assassins at the tail-end of the Summer split.
However, while their champion picks might raise eyebrows, the region lags behind on overall strategy. While the rest of the world has long since adapted to 2v1 top and roaming top or support strategies, GPL teams have largely stuck to the same solo top/duo bot composition that defined all of Season 2. While their top-level teams do practice other compositions, their utility is infrequent.
The boys in red and white are back – even if they're not the same boys. With Bebe now as team captain, the team's happily embraced their predecessors' legacy of dominance, sweeping the 2014 competitive splits with aplomb. In fact, over the last six months, the team has only ever dropped one game to a non-Taiwanese team – a single loss to the Saigon Jokers in the very last regular season game of the summer, long after their first place playoff seed's already been guaranteed. While their record against fellow Taiwanese peers isn't as solid, they've nonetheless thrived under the pressures of the crown.
It helps that the team's willing to do whatever it takes to come out on top – even, unfortunately, at the detriment of individual players, and even their sister team. Winds' transfer from the Snipers to Assassins may have been a contributing factor to the former team's decline, and did lead directly to former jungler DinTer's departure from pro play. Similarly, despite Morning's famously explosive performance against Gambit in IEM Katowice, he's recently given up the starting position in favor of former Singapore Sentinels player Chawy, who was recruited specifically to give TPA a stronger mid lane edge.
Yet the team's biggest change isn't from their players, but their support staff. Former coach Fluidwinds was dropped in favor of Coach Sim's OGN experience – a grudging admission that Taiwanese expertise wasn't going to be enough in light of the current competition.
AHQ has not had the easiest time escaping the Assassins' enormous shadow, despite local dominance and sponsorship by one of the most notable local esports organizations. Prior to Season 3, they were consistently blocked out by TPA in qualifiers for international competitions, and controversial contracting issues with Westdoor's former sponsors in Thermaltake further inhibited their success. But while TPA floundered, AHQ finally got their share of the spotlight with a dominant 2013 performance and championship in the GPL.
Much to the team's chagrin, TPA's revival once again casts a shadow over AHQ. Though they remain dominant in the group stages, the Assassins and Snipers seem almost in conspiracy to keep them in the shadows, denying them triumph in 2014. On paper, there are few SEA bot lanes as consistent as GreenTea and GarnetDevil, and fewer mid laners with as much aggression and dominance as Westdoor. But their fellow Taiwanese teams have an uncanny ability to out-predict them.
It's been a long and difficult summer for the Snipers. Their captain's retirement in the wake of their 2-3 defeat to sister team Taipei Assassins, and Winds' departure prior to the beginning of the split, has left them adrift and far from the international spotlight. But hope is still alive, and their consistently dominant performance over the winter and spring has kept them as a top five team in the GPL's circuit points race. And it would be a terrible mistake for their former GPL compatriots to forget just how powerful they were in prior splits.
Lest it be forgotten, none of the Snipers' players are considered weak or comparatively weak – even new jungler Mountain first made his mark as a highly aggressive mainspring for the Yoe Flash Wolves' otherwise fragile aggression. What originally crippled the team was simply a lack of guidance, as two shot-callers in a row were removed from their roster. But in the months since, they've had plenty of time to hammer out a solution, and are the true dark horses of the race to Worlds.
It's actually somewhat shocking that the Fantastic Five made it this far. Though they qualified for the GPL in 2013, their performance throughout the prior season was less than inspiring – at one point, even the Bangkok Titans, the circuit's perpetual underdogs, was placed higher than SF5. In fact, for the longest time, the only notable aspect of the team was how much of the roster is comprised of former Saigon Jokers players that have otherwise fallen off. That ignoble reputation extended into the next season, as they ended the Winter split 1-9 and far short of playoff contention.
More than any other team, the Fantastic Five is a demonstration of the fantastic turnaround proper coaching can allow a team. It wasn't that they were bad players and a retirement home for Jokers rejects – it was simply that they didn't have enough guidance to work out their kinks. During the transition from Winter to Spring, they flowered brilliantly, and took a convincing second place in Group B over the next split.
They now stand as equals, at least, to the Jokers in terms of raw capability, advancing to the semifinals in the summer by a threadbare 3-2 victory over their elders and even taking a game off the Assassins before being subjected to a 4th place finish against Logitech G Fighters. But for a team that was once last-place in Southeast Asia, their growth has been monumental – and has not yet slowed.
On the first day of the GPL Qualifiers, the Saigon Fantastic Five made short work of the Saigon Jokers. Matches continue on August 23, when the Fantastic Five face off against the Taipei Snipers. The winner of that match will then take on AHQ to determine the final seat for the 2014 World Championship race. Only one will come out on top.