The Moment: Vietnam's overdue entrance

Gigabyte Marines are the first team to represent Vietnam at a Riot event since the split of LMS from the GPL (lolesports)

After a Play-in stage featuring teams from eight minor regions and two major regions, North America’s Team SoloMid, LoL Master Series’ Flash Wolves, and Southeast Asia’s Gigabyte Marines advanced to the main stage of the 2017 Mid-Season invitational.

Gigabyte Marines’ lane-focused, counter-pick, and jungle-centric approach nearly gave them the first main stage berth of the three advancing teams. They went up 2-0 against TSM, only to end the first day of the second phase of MSI’s Play-in in a reverse sweep loss. Marines then crushed Turkey’s Super Massive 3-1 to join TSM, Flash Wolves, Europe’s G2 Esports, China’s Team WE, and South Korea’s SK Telecom T1 in Rio.

At least two names on GAM’s roster should bring back memories for those who followed Southeast Asia’s Garena Premier League in 2014. Trần “Optimus” Văn Cường and Trần “Archie” Minh Nhựt have represented not just Southeast Asia, but Vietnam for several years in League of Legends. While the west often sings the praises of Brazil, Turkey, and Russia as home to understated talent, Vietnam’s history as near-contenders has a more quiet wistfulness.

The tail end of 2014 brought a massive change to Korean League of Legends by altering the way the most elite circuit ran their tournaments. Critics scrutinized the loss of sister teams, the creation of a league in place of the Champions tournament. Streamlining LoL circuits internationally raised no small amount of outcry.

But another massive change in Asia, the separation of the Taiwanese, Macau, and Hong Kong LoL Master Series from the Southeast Asian Garena Premier League, went relatively under the radar.

Most applauded the move. Taiwanese powerhouses ahq e-Sports and Taipei Assassins consistently led the GPL, decimating any non-Taiwanese contenders in sub-25 minute games. Most of the GPL, many argued, merely wasted time for the top teams. Taiwan should be allowed its own league.

In 2014 Spring GPL, top three Taiwanese teams Taipei Assassins, Taipei Snipers, and ahq lost three of 38 games played against non-Taiwanese teams in the entire split. They brought a level of competition to the league that embarrassed their fellow Southeast Asians. But when Taipei Assassins attended All-Stars that year, they zeroed out of Group Stage, unable to take a single game from European, North American, Chinese, or Korean representatives.

Since then, Flash Wolves and ahq have flourished. The formation of the LMS seems to have benefitted Taiwan’s international performances. Flash Wolves have dazzled by taking games from top Korean teams. In 2015’s World Championship, ahq and Flash Wolves out-performed LPL and North America when both LMS representatives advanced to the quarterfinals. Only one team from China’s LPL could achieve the same feat, and none of North America’s teams advanced.

But only looking at the successes of the LMS’ top two teams ignores a more unfortunate side to the GPL fracture.

Though Taiwan’s top 3 thoroughly humiliated other GPL teams in 2014 Spring, the fourth Taiwanese team, yoe Flash Wolves, barely broke even in the Group Stage. GPL Summer told a more interesting tale.

Optimus is one of the most senior members of GAM (lolesports)

ahq lost both their Group Stage matches to the Vietnamese Saigon Fantastic Five. Another Vietnamese team, Full Louis, bested ahq Fighter, a team that hadn’t lost a single game to a non-Taiwanese team in Group Stage, 3-1 in the first round of Playoffs. The disqualification of Full Louis because they used two underage players forced their triumph into the shadows when ahq Fighter advanced to the semifinal anyway.

2014’s GPL invited four participants from the LMS bloc, three from Vietnam, two from each Philippines and Singapore, and one from Thailand. Ignoring Full Louis’ disqualification, two teams from Taiwan and Vietnam managed to advance to the semifinal that summer.

Yes, the top three teams from Taiwan in GPL consistently outclassed representatives from the rest of Southeast Asia, and many of the Taiwanese losses to teams like Saigon Jokers happened at the shriveled end Group Stages when they had a spot in playoffs more than secure. But with a large fanbase from Vietnam voting in the likes of Archie and Nguyễn “QTV” Trần Tường Vũ to 2014’s All-Stars and higher production values for the GPL broadcast in Vietnam, it felt like GPL’s second bloc was gaining ground.

In 2012, when Taipei Assassins won the Season 2 World Championship, the second team to attend the tournament from Southeast Asia wasn’t a Taiwanese team. Saigon Jokers hailed from Vietnam. Vietnam also gave rise to some of the more talented prospects in Southeast Asia like Snake eSports’ Lê “SofM” Quang Duy, renowned for his ability to play every carry role well on Foul Louis. Vietnam had a surprisingly strong top lane pool in 2014 relative to the LMS bloc teams with players like QTV offering more stand-out performances than Taiwan’s Chen “Achie” Chenchi and Chen “Prydz” Kuangfeng.

One wouldn’t argue that the best in Taiwan were a cut above Vietnam’s top teams, but since the split of LMS, the best Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau have to offer still struggle to form more than two major international contenders. A large skill gap exists between the top and the rest of the region. The split of the LMS from GPL very likely raised the overall level by increasing the opportunity for mid tier LMS teams to play against the best, but the base hasn’t broadened enough to discount all what-if scenarios.

What if Vietnam had more opportunities to play LMS teams in official matches?

With small improvements from Vietnam’s representatives within a span of a year and a passionate fanbase to back them, it seemed like something of a pity that they would no longer have the opportunity to compete with the Taiwanese teams that topped GPL. No doubt, considerations other than pure competitive level — geography, for example; GPL matches were primarily played online because of the spread of islands across Southeast Asia — instigated GPL’s split.

I didn’t watch GPL frequently after LMS formed its own league. External interest dropped, hiding GPL away from most foreign eyes. At the start of 2015, GPL still existed as a season-long league with representatives from multiple countries (six from Vietnam). But this year, GPL has become more of a final qualification to send a team to MSI or Worlds.

Each of the Southeast Asian countries have stuck to their own smaller leagues and sent the winners to GPL. A two-day group stage decides which team from Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore will contest the Vietnam and Thailand representatives in the bracket.

Prior to last year’s All-Stars — the last time a GPL team made it to the main stage of a Riot event — Thailand’s Bangkok Titans took the spot. In a difficult group, BKT exited Worlds without winning a single game from SK Telecom T1, EDward Gaming, or H2K-Gaming. Vietnam remained obscured, still unable to take a shot at a larger Riot event.

GAM on stage at the MidSeason Invitational Play-in (lolesports)

This time, perhaps the greatest team GPL has produced since LMS split off, came to the MSI Play-in. The Vietnamese Gigabyte Marines not only bested Super Massive and every other Play-in team in their group at MSI so far, but they nearly knocked TSM, North America’s champion, into the third place match of the second stage. They understand how to play around jungler Đỗ “Levi” Duy Khánh. Even teams in major regions continue to struggle to execute pressure-based plays with their junglers. Marines may lose CS or resources forcing pushes, but they almost never let go of an opportunity to all-in on an advantage.

For players like Optimus and Archie, the ability to share the same stage as LMS’ top team, Flash Wolves, may feel somewhat cathartic. Vietnam’s best teams wavered somewhere in limbo when GPL fragmented. Whatever progress the best Vietnamese teams made in 2014 seemed to stagnate the following year. They didn’t have the chance to showcase their talent under a large spotlight again until 2016’s All-Stars.

On the main stage in Rio, GAM’s surprising fast-pushing strategy may press other MSI representatives more than expected. They drafted well in many Play-in matches, and they don’t hesitate to grab an opening.

Even with this advantage, GAM likely won’t unsettle opponents enough to make the bracket. Gragas and Ziggs bans might unsettle the limited play style the Marines have brought to the forefront.

But a Vietnamese team’s return to a major Riot event feels overdue. After the momentum they gained in 2014, it’s surprising that they haven’t taken front and center of the Wildcard conversation before now.

In the very first match the Marines play in Rio, they battle TSM, a team they’ve already toppled twice with high pressure lanes. TSM can likely give them the runaround with the right bans and more patience when it gets to Baron setups, but the main show hasn’t even started, and GAM have already drawn blood.

No matter the outcome, Vietnam has found a place in the minor region hierarchy.

You can follow Kelsey Moser on Twitter @karonmoser.

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