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Worlds 2019 roundtable: What we learned from the play-in stage

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Emily Rand's key takeaways on why the play-in stage is important (2:13)

ESPN's Emily Rand discusses the performance of minor regions and the value of the play-in stage for teams working their kinks out at the 2019 League of Legends World Championship. (2:13)

Now that the play-in stage of the League of Legends World Championship is complete, the number of teams with a chance to hold the Summoner's Cup has been whittled down to 16.

We saw the rise of Damwon Gaming, a strong effort by North America's Clutch Gaming and an emotional showdown in an LEC reunion between Splyce and the Unicorns of Love. It's been an eventful week.

So what did we learn and how might the past week at the LEC Arena in Berlin affect the group stage?

Emily Rand, Tyler Erzberger, Adel Chouadria and Ashley Kang lend their expertise.

Which was the best team of the play-in stage?

Emily Rand: The best-performing team in play-ins was Damwon Gaming, with Clutch Gaming a close second. These teams are similar in that the unifying reason they were the best was that they were each able to identify specific in-game and draft mistakes and visibly adjust during the group stage and their respective best-of series.

This isn't to say that either team is infallible. Damwon specifically still needs to significantly improve their early game, but adjustments made after a narrow loss to Lowkey Esports not only pointed out some of these early-game deficiencies but forced Damwon to adjust. As we previously saw at Rift Rivals, Damwon is a team that will learn if exposed to other regions' and teams' playstyles, and this play-in stage continued to prove that.

Tyler Erzberger: It's Clutch Gaming. Yeah, I know, I'm a North American-based reporter picking the NA team as the strongest. While I believe Damwon has a much higher ceiling than the North Americans, CG were the only team to waltz through the play-in knockout round, not dropping a single map to a scrappy Royal Youth side.

Their two losses to Unicorns in the group portion of the play-ins were embarrassing, but once they banned Heimerdinger, they crushed them in the first-place tiebreak. They got stronger as the week went on and ended play-ins on a five-game win streak going into the main event.

Adel Chouadria: Damwon Gaming showcased the difference between a League Champions Korea team and a regular play-in squad, against which they held an edge through consistency alone. Indeed, their macro decision-making was devastating against Flamengo Esports and Royal Youth. That strength compensated for a porous early-game, a weakness that group stage and bracket stage teams would punish.

Ashley Kang: Despite some hiccups, Damwon Gaming are unquestionably the strongest in the play-in stage. In various interviews, Damwon players and coaches have cited nerves and adjustment to the meta as the reasons the team had not been playing up to expectations. However, we should focus on the mechanical prowess of the individual laners such as [Jang] "Nuguri" [Ha-gwon] and [Heo] "ShowMaker" [Su], and the team's skirmish and teamfighting ability, which has allowed them to come back even from large gold deficiencies. Damwon's performance seemed to stabilize as the play-ins went on, and this trend will likely continue into the group stage.

Who was the best player of play-ins?

Rand: I can't believe I'm about to say this, since I've been fairly harsh in my criticism of this player during the season, but Damwon Gaming's ShowMaker. Prior to this tournament, I knew ShowMaker had raw skill, but I didn't see him apply it beyond laning. However, as Damwon's priorities have adjusted and shifted through the play-in stage, ShowMaker has done everything his team has asked of him and more. It remains to be seen if he'll look as good in the main stage as he did in play-ins, but for now, I want to give credit to ShowMaker for being one of the strongest individuals we saw all play-in stage.

Erzberger: Although it's tempting to go with Cody Sun of Clutch Gaming, I have to give the nod to Damwon Gaming's ShowMaker. He was incredible from the team's debut at the world championship to the game that sent them into the knockout rounds. He doesn't garner the same kind of attention as his top lane teammate Nuguri, but he's the more reliable carry of the prodigal duo, ShowMaker constantly being the consistent rock his team needs when everyone is failing around him.

If he continues this form into the main event, ShowMaker could go from best play-in performer to best worlds performer, period.

Chouadria: Damwon Gaming's play-in stage run was smooth, and ShowMaker was a huge driving force. His ability to outperform enemy mid laners was Damwon's most consistent asset, alongside his capacity to transfer his lead to other lanes. Bar a single loss (where his 7/3/10 heroics on Akali against Lowkey Esports nearly turned the tide), he aptly propelled Damwon forward, with an overall 9.22 KDA ratio overall across eight games (4.875/1.125/5.5 average KDA).

Kang: While Nuguri has been hyped as the superstar of Damwon Gaming, ShowMaker has been the pillar. ShowMaker performed consistently on a very high level throughout the play-ins, with a reliable laning phase contributing to teamfights with clutch mechanical plays. It is notable that ShowMaker's signature LeBlanc and Akali are still strong in this meta.

Is there a meta so far in this world championship?

Rand: I think there will be come main stage. A few of the picks we've seen falter in play-ins (Ekko jungle comes to mind) will likely be seen in the main group stage and could be more successful depending on who decides to play them. In terms of meta pieces that will remain, Pantheon will likely stay on the ban list (to FunPlus Phoenix's dismay, I'm sure). Xayah and Rakan will also continue to be hotly contested.

Erzberger: I wouldn't say there is some overarching meta -- and honestly, we wouldn't know until the main event -- though there are some priority picks that are becoming clear. Reworked Pantheon is busted and must be banned at all costs. Kai'Sa and Xayah still rule the bottom lane. Tank junglers are going the way of the dinosaur in favor of early-game skirmish champions. Akali is still a problem in the wrong hands.

Chouadria: The meta hasn't consolidated at this time, and teams have experienced varying levels of success with different approaches. Riot Games' balanced changes altered pick priorities across the board, with Sylas' apparent demise driving the emergence of the picks he oppressed (e.g. Neeko). Perhaps the few bursts of originality that have emerged from Lowkey Esports' lane swap and the recent pick comps, and the emergence of pick compositions, might shift draft priorities wildly.

Kang: The overarching meta has not shifted significantly from the previous major patch from the regional finals, which featured fast-paced games and a focus on early-game aggression and skirmishes around the top-jungle-mid area of the map. However, recent game changes have allowed different champions to make it to the stage, and teams still seem to be working on their draft priorities. The group stage meta is expected to be similar to 9.15, with perhaps more non-marksman champions such as Yasuo, Syndra and Heimerdinger making more frequent appearances.

Looking ahead to the next stage, is there a group of death?

Rand: I'm writing this before seeing the draw into play-ins because regardless of who is drawn where, the group of death is already Group C. Seeding and perception of regional strength (based on prior regional performances, often by different teams and players) always plays a factor, and this year, three of the perceived top five teams in the tournament ended up in the same group. This year we have Royal Never Give Up, SK Telecom T1 and Fnatic all in the same group. One of these teams will not make it out into a best-of-five bracket stage.

Erzberger: It's still Group C. It was already the scariest group in worlds history with SK Telecom T1, Fnatic and Royal Never Give Up, but the inclusion of Clutch Gaming, a firecracker that has shades of Team Vitality from last worlds, makes this group a slobberknocker. Every game is a must-watch. CG is most likely not making it out of this shark-infested fourway dance, though that doesn't mean they can't be the team that knocks out the likes of a Fnatic or RNG with a vintage Clutch game that snowballs around the Rift Herald.

Chouadria: For the sake of simplicity, I followed the definition of "group of death" as a hypercompetitive group whose members would have been expected to go further in the tournament had they not met earlier. That group is Group C, featuring SK Telecom T1, Fnatic, Royal Never Give Up and a team to be bludgeoned mercilessly. In such a group, the weakest link (in this case) often plays the biggest role when it eventually catches up to the level of play in its surroundings.

Kang: Group C is undeniably the group of death going into the group stage. The group features SK Telecom T1, Royal Never Give Up and Fnatic -- who all have reached a worlds final before. All three teams reached the summer split finals of their respective regions and won convincingly. While Group A also looks competitive, Cloud 9 does not strike the same fear as the teams of Group D do, and Griffin remain untested on an international stage.