Brazil, minor regions at worlds driven to compete despite limited success

Brazil's Flamengo Esports lost to Turkey's Royal Youth in a tiebreaker Saturday in a bid to advance out of the League of Legends World Championship play-ins stage. Provided by Riot Games

BERLIN -- League of Legends broadcasts still reference 2014 KaBuM eSports when they talk about Brazil. KaBuM was referenced as soon as Flamengo eSports took the stage for the first time at the LEC Studio for the League of Legends World Championship. KaBuM beat Alliance, the No. 1 seed from Europe, at 2014 worlds.

Despite the fact that their teams have struggled mightily internationally, Brazil's single game win at the 2014 world championship has set the tone for the region since. In 2014, a single-game victory by a Brazilian team over top-seeded Alliance was unheard of. Now, it's hardly a surprise. Single-game upsets by minor region teams happen frequently.

Flamengo eSports bot laner Felipe "brTT" Gonçalves has been playing since 2012. He is the face of Brazilian LoL both domestically and internationally. Before Flamengo was eliminated from worlds contention on Saturday in a tiebreaker, brTT, 28, was the oldest player at worlds.

After remarking that this could be his last year at worlds, rumors of retirement began to surface. He quashed these, saying that he'll keep playing while also hinting at just how difficult it is for a Brazilian player to make the world championship. BrTT qualified once before with paiN Gaming in 2015. PaiN won two games in group stages and nearly took a third, narrowly missing qualification to the bracket stage.

"After [2015], every year, every team that made worlds they were looking for experience, you know? They were just playing like, 'Ah, let's see what happens if we win one game, it's fine. I think these past years it was like that," brTT said. "I thought we could change that this year. We did not have this mentality. We were here to win. We were here to beat the best. In our minds we really could, but something happened."

BrTT's experience in Brazil is not unlike that of players on teams from other minor regions such as Turkey, Oceania and Southeast Asia.

Other team from minor regions

In 2016, Albus NoX Luna from the CIS region became the first-ever minor region team to reach the bracket stage of worlds. Though Brazilian teams have continued to struggle in the years since, CIS and Turkish teams have outperformed them. Brazilian, Turkish, CIS and Southeast Asian teams used to be called "wild cards." Now they're officially called "emerging regions" on broadcast, although Southeast Asia's Garena Premier League was the first League of Legends league to exist. Back when it included Taiwanese and Hong Kong teams, the GPL produced the 2012 world champion Taipei Assassins.

Teams from these regions no longer expect to just gain experience or have fun at worlds. These teams are here to compete.

Just ask MEGA, the Thai team from the LST region that was spurred on this year by a single-game victory over Vietnam's Lowkey Esports. The MEGA core of Atit "Rockky" Phaomuang, Juckkirsts "Lloyd" Kongubon, and Nuttapong "G4" Menkasikan had to pay their own way to worlds on Ascension Gaming last year. They did this to compete.

MEGA ultimately did not advance this year, while Lowkey Esports and the LMS' Hong Kong Attitude -- teams that used to be in their region, which was known as the GPL from 2012 to 2014 -- did advance.

"This year LMS is definitely better because HKA is there," Hong Kong Attitude support Ling "Kaiwing" Kai Wing said, laughing and happy after his team qualified as the first seed out of Group C. "With HKA we can reach the same level as other regions."

Behind him an HKA staffer laughed, face-palming at his support's answer.

The LMS' demise loomed over Group C. Hong Kong Attitude was fighting to prove the depth of the LMS; MEGA was fighting to prove that they too could compete now that they had more resources and infrastructure unlike last year's Ascension; and Lowkey Esports was fighting to prove that Vietnamese teams were, in fact, ascendant.

"From 2016, the scene changed a lot because of the playstyle of the league," Lowkey Esports bot laner Nguyễn Phước "Celebrity" Long Hiệp said. Celebrity has been playing in the Vietnamese scene since 2014. "The VCS changed playstyle. We [also] have too much young talent; we have a lot of young talent go into the same team. Right now, we are far better than [the rest of] Southeast Asia."

It's worth noting that unlike Brazil, both Vietnam and the LMS already have teams qualified for the main group stage. Group C was host to their lower seeds, not their only seeds. For teams from Brazil, Turkey, CIS, Thailand, Latin America (now an amalgamation of South American countries that aren't Brazil and Latin American countries), Japan, and Oceania, the play-in stage is their only chance to shine.

Challenges for Brazil

The reason why Brazil has struggles so much internationally has a lot more to do with the perception of Brazil, and minor region teams generally, than it does internal factors inherent to Brazilian League of Legends infrastructure, although those also apply.

"That's a really hard question because, maybe if I knew the answer, we would be able to be better this year too," brTT Gonçalves said with a small laugh.

For Brazilian teams specifically, there's a variety of difficulties in becoming the best in Brazil and a team that will be able to pivot and adapt internationally.

"In Brazil at least, the team that makes less mistakes is going to win the game," brTT said. "If you just pick scaling champions, play safe, etc., you win. But when you come here, you need to be proactive or you're not going to win the game."

BrTT cited a lack of proactivity as one of the reasons why Flamengo failed to win on Day 2, keeping them out of advancing to the bracket stage. Similarly, HKA and Lowkey Esports showed uncharacteristic hesitation, especially on the part of Lowkey, during their match, knowing that seeding was on the line.

Like many other minor regions, Brazil also has limited resources, where the best players in the region will rise to the top of the region on a team together with an organization that happens to have the means to give them an international bootcamp and a strong coaching staff.

"We can only practice against the same teams," brTT said. "We are really far from the best teams in the world without a bootcamp. We lack a lot of money of course, but also investment in coaching staff and analysts."

With the myriad difficulties of even qualifying to worlds as a minor region, it inspires another question: why continue to play?

"The passion of competing," brTT said. "I have a goal. That is to make good and perform well at worlds and make everyone around the world respect me and my team and my region. There's so many people that cheer for us. Our Brazilian fans are insane. I feel like I play for that. Of course, I play to prove myself against the best AD carries in the world and the best teams and show the world that I can do good. But I play for my fans and for my family and anyone that cheers for me."