By the end of the 2017 League of Legends World Championship, Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok was in tears.

The South Korean superstar of three-time world champion SK Telecom T1 had just suffered a crushing grand final defeat at the hands of rival Samsung Galaxy. In front of 40,000 fans that had sold out the Bird’s Nest in Beijing — not to mention hundreds of thousands more online — the normally taciturn Faker broke down into large, wracking sobs. Losing was uncharted territory for the so-called “Unkillable Demon King,” whose singular greatness in League of Legends draws comparisons to Michael Jordan’s NBA legacy. In four trips to worlds, it was the first time Faker had ever lost in the tournament’s knockout round.

As Samsung Galaxy lifted the Summoner’s Cup, Faker left the stage with his team, but not before stealing a glance back at the celebration in progress. Though Faker later claimed he was simply looking for an exit, the symbolism wasn’t lost on anyone: Someday soon, the King would return for his crown.

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Two years after his dynasty was broken in Beijing, that day has come. Faker is back at the World Championship, which begins Oct. 2 in Berlin. Over the next six weeks, 24 of the world’s best League of Legends teams will vie for the game’s most prestigious trophy and part of a prize pool that will likely surpass 2018’s $6.45 million.

Faker’s SKT qualified as South Korea’s top seed, but not as the clear-cut favorites implied by their storied history. Instead, SKT joins a wide-open field filled with confident western challengers aiming to contend at an event long dominated by eastern teams. Western super teams and a shifting global metagame have shrunk the competitive skill gap between both hemispheres, resulting in an unpredictable World Championship where anyone has a shot.

“There’s a better understanding of how to play the game,” said Cloud9 support Tristan “Zeyzal” Stidam. “The regions are closer than they ever have been before.”

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With what’s likely to be a thrilling tournament ahead, here are the key story lines to monitor.

Can North American teams break through?

Cloud9 is one of three teams representing the North American region at worlds this year (called the League of Legends Championship Series, or LCS), along with top seed Team Liquid and third seed Clutch Gaming. Despite qualifying as North America’s second seed, Cloud9 boasts the region’s strongest international pedigree. They were semifinalists at Worlds 2018 — the best finish ever by a North American team — and lead the region with six World Championship appearances.

Unlike 2018, Cloud9 will avoid the tournament’s play-in stage and proceed directly to the group stage. Zeyzal, who was a key element in last year’s semifinal effort, isn’t sure if that’s a good thing.

“We thought we were okay going into play-ins last time and found out that wow, we’re pretty bad,” he said. “It made us take a step back. We knew we had to do better, everyone started grinding harder. I’m hoping that as a stronger seed this time, we’re also going to be the stronger team.”

For Cloud9 to continue their streak of three-consecutive trips to the knockout round, they’ll need LCS Summer Split MVP Dennis “Svenskeren" Johnsen to continue his exceptional play. His aggressive style as the team’s jungler sets their tempo and helps turn small leads into game-defining advantages. Cloud9 will need Svenskeren’s skill to escape a group that features perhaps the world’s two best junglers: G2 Esports’ Marcin “Jankos" Jankowski and Griffin’s Lee “Tarzan" Seung-Yong. Zeyzal believes his experienced teammate is up to the task.

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“Svenskeren understands that you have to fight to win the game,” Zeyzal said. “He’s a player that grinds harder than anyone else, and uses all that practice to not only understand what fights to take, but also to play them really well. He says it’s a ‘warrior mind-set,’ and that’s what he encourages us to have.”

Team Liquid lack Cloud9’s lauded international results, but after winning an unprecedented four straight LCS titles — including the latest one, a 3-2 victory in Detroit over Cloud9 — they are the best team North America has ever sent to the World Championship. Led by their two-time LCS all-pro bot lane of Yiliang “Doublelift" Peng and Jo “CoreJJ" Yong-in, Liquid have continued their steady progress up the international pecking order as finalists at May’s Mid-Season Invitational — a smaller, more exclusive version of Worlds. Now at the main event, anything less than a quarterfinal appearance for a team this talented will be a massive underachievement. Still, Liquid mid-laner Nicolaj “Jensen" Jensen has set his sights even higher.

“I want to win the whole thing,” Jensen said. “That’s why this roster was made … but I’d say I want to make it to the finals at the very least. That’s my expectation.”

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Can Europe’s dream team gain a “home field” advantage?

Europe hosts to the World Championship this year, with the tournament progressing through four venues in three countries. Berlin will accommodate the Play-Ins and Group Stage before sending the top eight teams to Madrid for the quarterfinals and semifinals. The Summoner’s Cup will be awarded after the grand final concludes at the AccorHotels Arena, a 20,300-seat venue situated on the right bank of the Seine River in Paris.

And it’s the League of Legends European Championship, or LEC, that presents the West’s best chance to win the World Championship. G2 Esports, Europe’s top seed that won both domestic splits and swept Team Liquid 3-0 to win the Mid-Season Invitational, enter Worlds as the greatest team the region has ever produced.

Adel Chouadria has covered European League of Legends for over six years, and he’s never seen a team quite like G2. Imagine, he says, if the United States’ 1992 Dream Team were a regular NBA club.

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“That’s G2 in Europe right now,” Chouadria said. “They pretty much have the five best players in Europe, full stop. And on top of that, they play really well with one another. Usually, when you have teams with super skilled players, sometimes there will be chemistry issues. G2, they’re willing to enable anyone at a moment’s notice as long as it makes them win.”

G2 Esports were semifinalists at Worlds 2018, but offseason roster changes have raised expectations. In keeping with their creative, egoless ethos, G2’s former mid-laner Luka “Perkz" Perković changed his position to make room in the lineup for mid-laner Rasmus “Caps" Winther, a challenging move in a game this highly specialized. Their easygoing partnership — sometimes expressed by playing rock-paper-scissors over a particular champion — and excellent overall play have infused G2 with the confidence to succeed on any stage. Their ideas are bound together by the proactive choices of Jankos, G2’s engine and reigning LEC Summer Split MVP.

“[Jankos] knows how to set up everyone on the team,” Chouadria said. “The way he moves around the map is super unpredictable, but he knows what he’s doing. If he sees weakness anywhere on the map, you can be sure he’s going to be there.”

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Can ‘Nemesis,’ Fnatic play spoiler?

As Europe’s second seed, Worlds 2018 finalists Fnatic are only a step or two behind G2, thanks to the improved play of 20-year-old mid laner Tim “Nemesis" Lipovšek. When Caps abandoned Fnatic for G2 in the offseason, Nemesis had to fill his sizable shoes, and that’s taken time. But after a strong LEC postseason and fortuitous buffs to his signature champion, Twisted Fate, Nemesis is poised to lead this team of veterans back to the final.

“At this point, the gap between [Fnatic] and G2 is paper thin,” Chouadria said. “Nemesis has really rounded into shape, and that will allow Fnatic to contain a lot of mid-laners out there.”

Unfortunately for Fnatic, the team was drawn into the Group of Death with South Korea’s SK Telecom T1 and China’s Royal Never Give Up. The latter team has been a frequent stumbling block for Fnatic in recent international tournaments. RNG eliminated Fnatic in the quarterfinals of Worlds 2017 and from the semifinals of last year’s Mid-Season Invitational.

Will RNG conquer the Group of Death?

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The second seed from China’s Tencent League of Legends Pro League, or LPL, RNG does everything Fnatic wants to do on Summoner’s Rift, only better. RNG’s trademark strategy is to dump gold and experience into their world class bot lane of Jian “Uzi" Zi-Hao and Shi “Ming" Sen-Ming and hope the duo can carry them to victory.

Despite Uzi and Ming’s generational talent, RNG sometimes overburdens their two stars at the expense of other capable players. As a color commentator for the LPL’s English broadcast, Barento “Raz” Mohammed points to Li “Xiaohu" Yuan-Hao in the mid lane as the key to RNG’s success. The team wants Uzi to carry, but if that strategy is executed at the expense of Xiaohu, RNG won’t make it far.

“[RNG] needed another way to win, they needed another damage source,” Raz said. “This was the strongest split I’ve seen from Xiaohu. …They needed to allow him to fly. Champions that allow him to flourish as a player, that’s how they were succeeding. [RNG] basically formed as a super team, but if they want people to treat them as such, they have to allow Xiaohu to play carries.”

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FunPlus Phoenix does not share RNG’s uncertainty when it comes to prioritizing the mid lane. China’s top seed relies heavily on their charismatic mid-laner Kim “Doinb" Tae-sang to facilitate their teamfights and secure advantageous lane matchups with his deep champion pool. Known for exuberant celebrations, willingness to experiment with off-meta picks and unusual item builds, Doinb is one of China’s most popular streamers, his demeanor emblematic of the uncanny electricity the region brings to League of Legends.

Will FunPlus Phoenix or Invictus continue China’s LoL ascension?

“[Doinb] wears his heart on his sleeve. When you see him win, he’d be dancing off his seat when he really cared about that match,” Raz said. “He recognizes his role on the team and has faith in his players to be able to play out the late game really well, so he doesn’t need to do everything like he did in the past.”

Gifted an easy group draw, Doinb and FunPlus Phoenix are well positioned to maintain the LPL’s recent international ascendancy. One year ago, RNG was heavily favored to cement China as the world’s top region — wresting the title from South Korea — by completing their golden road: a feat that requires winning both domestic splits, plus MSI and Worlds. RNG failed to finish their journey after a quarterfinal defeat to G2, who now have their own golden road to complete. But China won anyway, thanks to Invictus Gaming’s improbable championship run.

Invictus Gaming rode a meta of their own making to China’s first world championship, capitalizing on immaculate solo lane play from top-laner Kang “TheShy" Seung-Lok and mid-laner Song “Rookie" Eui-jin. Competitive League of Legends used to be paced like a steady chess match, with few kills and predicable late game-focused team compositions. Rookie and TheShy upended those ideas with potent early-game pressure, outracing teams who wanted to sit back and slowly scale in power.

South Korean teams were the guiltiest practitioners of that plodding style, and they suffered in turn. Which, brings us to the next key story line?

Can South Korea come back?

For the first time since the region began competing at the World Championship, no South Korean team made the world semifinals, let alone lift the Summoner’s Cup as they’d done for five straight years. And in a country whose citizens often compare their politicians to League of Legends champions, avidly watch professional matches while riding the subway, and play League far more than any other game in ubiquitous PC bangs, the disappointment of 2018 was a seismic event.

Ashley Kang, who regularly interviews League of Legends Champions Korea (or LCK) players as head of content for Korizon.net, followed the league’s attempt to adapt throughout a tumultuous 2019.

“LCK was always criticized for playing the slow, macro-based game which got heavily exposed at the 2018 world championship,” Kang said. “And ever since then, LCK teams have been trying to reform themselves, give laners more freedom to get priority, more skirmishes instead of the careful macro style.”

Kang considers Damwon Gaming to be the best imitators of the Chinese style, using top-laner Jang “Nuguri" Ha-Gwon and mid-laner Heo “ShowMaker" Su much the same way IG did with TheShy and Rookie. It makes sense; Damwon’s head coach Kim “Kim” Jeong-Soo was IG’s head coach last year, and if Damwon advance from play-ins, they’ll likely be placed in IG’s Group D.

“Damwon represent the youngbloods, the lane-focused, aggressive playstyle that the LCK has introduced to itself this year,” Kang said. Damwon’s starters have an average age of 20, and the organization itself is only two years old.

“Their individual laners are really good, and they’ve gone to worlds in the same year they were promoted,” Kang said. “They haven’t been tested on the world stage, but Nuguri and ShowMaker will be able to go halves-and-halves with top-tier lanes in their respective role.”

And then there’s the Unkillable Demon King and his crew …

Yet with something new comes something old. Faker’s SK Telecom T1 qualified after the organization finally committed to a full rebuild around the game’s greatest player. Though SKT must navigate the Group of Death, Faker has a super team behind him that rivals any he’s played with before. The roster was good enough to win both LCK splits in 2019 and make the Mid-Season Invitational semifinals. Jungler Kim “Clid" Tae-min, who spent three years competing in China, has been the linchpin of SKT’s recent success, synergizing well with Faker and providing the energy needed to keep up in a fast meta.

With the staggering collection of talent at this year’s World Championship, Faker will need all the help he can get to leave the Paris stage clear-eyed and smiling.

“At the center, there is Faker,” Kang said. “Eyes are on Faker, who claims that anything other than winning a world championship will be a bit of a disappointment. There is a redemption arc going on for SK Telecom T1, and I think that should be interesting for anyone whose watched Michael Jordan come back.”

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