MSI 2021 Preview and Power Rankings
In just a week and a half, the Mid-Season Invitational returns to showcase the glory of international League of Legends competition once again. After being on hiatus last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, MSI 2021 will welcome the Spring Split champions of each region in Iceland. And with the absence of the VCS yet again due to travel restrictions, only 11 teams head to Reykjavik.
Time to rank the rascals, rising stars, and no-hopers as they gear up to tear each other apart (on Summoner’s Rift). While only half as many teams compared to the last World Championship, making it a more one-dimensional field, it’s always good to set the expectations. Instead of slapping numbers on them to set their expected placement in stone, we’re splitting them up in tiers to show the range of each of the teams.
We immediately break from the “no exact numbers” rule (what’s the point of not being set in stone if you can’t break the rules?) with DWG KIA, our number one pick to win—we promise it’s the only time the rule is broken. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the reigning world champion is expected to do well and indeed win the Mid-Season Invitational. Despite losing top laner Jang “Nuguri” Ha-gwon to FunPlus Phoenix in the LPL, DWG KIA dominated the LCK Spring Split. During the regular season, the team marched through the league without breaking a sweat. They only dropped two of the eighteen series theyn played. In the Playoffs, they asserted their dominance by clean-sweeping both Hanwha Life Esports and Gen.G.
Is DWG KIA as strong as they were when they won Worlds—when they were still called DAMWON Gaming? At this point in time, probably not. Nuguri still counts as the best top laner in the world, and losing him removed his pop-off carry potential. Fortunately, Khan is no slouch either and has done exactly what his team needed him to do. Though most of the time it meant that he had to play tanks… Khan has still been a pillar to lean on.
With four out of the five players who won the World Championship last year and a fine replacement in the top lane, DWG KIA should be the one hoisting the MSI 2021 trophy on May 23rd.
As champions of the LPL, Royal Never Give Up will be feared by many. Rightfully so. Conquering the strongest region competitive League of Legends has to offer warrants a lot of respect. Top laner Li “Xiaohu” Yuan-Hao is a sensation to watch, especially considering this was his first Split in the role—he was a mid laner before. GALA and Ming form a solid bot lane, and the mid/jungle duo of Wei and Cryin has developed a lot. Still, RNG did not win the LPL Spring Split convincingly. Up until the semi-finals, the roster had trouble finding its feet and stumbled to the finish line rather than running. And to continue on the critical note: in the grand finals against FunPlus Phoenix, it was FPX choking rather than RNG playing phenomenally that got RNG the title. It’s likely that RNG will make it to the grand finals, but they’ll have to up their play considerably to take DWG KIA out.
Another major contender is MAD Lions. Yes, it’s the organization that became the first European team ever to be eliminated in the World Championship’s Play-In Stage. But this team has developed considerably. The rookies who fumbled in China have harnessed the lessons they learned. With Armut and Elyoya as the brand new top side of the lineup, MAD Lions has become a more versatile team that plays cleverly around the map while still packing the same team fight punch, led by veteran Humanoid. Winning MSI 2021 will be difficult for the team, no doubt. But those who question how far this team can go, will be in for a rude awakening.
The third and final contender who could kick DWG KIA from the international throne if the stars align is Cloud9. ‘NA KEKW’ memes aside, the region has shown it can have high-quality outliers: Cloud9 made the Worlds 2018 semis, Team Liquid made the MSI 2019 finals. The overarching issue is that LCS teams first need to spend a lot of time to catch up with what’s actually good in the meta, and when that is solved they lack performance consistency. Cloud9’s Mid-Season Showdown performance against Team Liquid wasn’t pretty, there is no point denying that. But with Perkz on the team, a player who has lifted up rosters time and time again on the international stage as a true leader, Cloud9 is likely to at least make it to the top four.
Some Spanners in the Works
Now we get to the teams whose odds of winning the Mid-Season Invitational are so slim that it’s not worth it to flesh out in which scenario they could hoist the trophy. However, as we have seen time and time again, sometimes these smaller teams can catch one of the big teams off guard and make them trip unexpectedly, making other teams’ runs more difficult.
PSG Talon is no stranger to this. Just last Worlds, they took a game off JD Gaming in the Group Stage, denying JD Gaming a tiebreaker match for first place in the group. Unfortunately for PSG Talon, bot laner Unified won’t be attending MSI due to health issues. It hurts the team greatly, but they should still be able to make it out of the Group Stage and into the Rumble stage. It’s here where PSG Talon can do some damage and potentially make the lives of teams like MAD Lions or Cloud9 tough.
Unicorns of Love barely, just barely falls into this category too, as they were able to make it to the Group Stage of Worlds 2020. They flew in the Play-In stage and crashed pretty hard when playing against Top Esports, DRX, and FlyQuest, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be able to do anything this time around. The mid/jungle duo of Nomanz and AHaHaCiK remains the team’s strongest force, and when enabled can take control over the game. With the other forces on the field, however, it’s unlikely that they will be allowed to do so many times.
Just Happy to be There
The Mid-Season Invitational and the World Championship are celebrated as every region having a chance at eternal international glory. And while it’s true that every region has a statistical chance to win it all, the reality is that many of the minor regions are far behind in talent development and competitive cultivation. And if world-class talent emerges, the big regions snatch them away.
The TCL, the Turkish league, is a prime example: MAD Lions top laner Armut literally knocked his now-team out of the Worlds Play-Ins. İstanbul Wildcats, the Turkish team heading to MSI, hovers on the edge of making it one tier up because of the region’s overall strength. Individually, the team might even find advantageous positions when playing against PSG Talon. But when it comes to playing around the map, setting up for objectives, and other intricate but oh so impactful components of League of Legends, they’re going to get outmatched. It isn’t even their fault: it’s just the result of how all the regions have developed over the years. For them and CBLoL representatives paiN Gaming, not ending fourth in the group seems to be the highest attainable glory.
For Infinity Esports and DetonatioN FocusMe, playing under the LLA and LJL banners respectively, the hopes are even slimmer. The two have been drawn into Group C together with reigning world champion DAMWON KIA and LCS champion Cloud9. While the chances of Infinity and/or DFM making it to the Rumble Stage are almost negligible, MSI still has great value: talent on either roster can prove itself in front of the entire world, and perhaps receive offers from larger teams and regions where they can improve their craft even more.
And then there is Pentanet.GG. Oh dear Pentanet… With Riot discontinuing the OPL last year and Oceanic players counting as residents for the LCS, an exodus of the region’s most talented players left behind an empty field. However, with the arrival of the ESL-run LCO, new talent got a chance to prove themselves. For them, playing against international talent will be a fantastic opportunity to learn and bring that knowledge back, slowly rebuilding the region. Even if that learning process involves being kicked around by RNG a few times.