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Does ‘the gap’ still exist? Damwon and RNG stand at the top of MSI 2021

As Damwon Kia decimate both Cloud9 and MAD Lions in the same day, it leads us back to an age old question: Does the gap still exist?

The concept of ‘the gap’ has existed in League of Legends esports since the MOBA was popularized in South Korea and China. Ever since 2013, international events have largely been dominated by LCK and LPL teams. This era headed by the likes of SKT T1 created the notion that an inherent skill gap between western and eastern teams have taken hold.

Was the gap closing?

The idea remained unchallenged until 2018, when Fnatic became the first European team to make a finals appearance since 2011. 2019 seemed to reaffirm that western teams in general were catching up. MSI 2019 featured one of the few all western finals between Team Liquid and G2 after defeating former World Champions Invictus Gaming and SKT T1 respectively. Though both  European teams were 3-0ed, consecutive World finals appearances made it clear that Europe specifically was ‘closing the gap.’

2020 was perhaps a step back for the west. G2 and Fnatic fell relatively early when compared to previous runs and all 3 NA teams fell in groups, TSM notably failing to find a single win. Since then, promising offseasons by G2, Team Liquid, Cloud9, and to an extent even Fnatic made it appear as though western teams would return to international competition reinvigorated with consolidated talent. MSI 2021 has so far shown that this is not the case.

RNG: LPL underdogs, International superstars

Royal Never Give Up were considered underdogs by many LPL analysts, players, and fans as FPX, EDG, and TES were all projected to place above the ultimately winning squad. After one of the biggest LPL upsets in recent memory, RNG have solidified themselves as the best team in MSI.

Though typically playing a slower paced style in LPL, RNG have embraced a faster pace style more stereotypical of LPL teams.  Competing with Damwon for the best team fighting squad, RNG have posted the highest combined K/D (1.96) while averaging the bloodiest games (1.13 KPM). Xiaohu, former RNG midlaner turned topside, has undoubtedly been the top performer of the tournament. With the highest KDA (16.0) among players and heralding similarly dominant laning stats, Xiaohu could potentially lead RNG to their second MSI trophy.

MAD Lions vs Damwon: the gap between 2nd and 3rd

While RNG are the sole holders of first place, MAD Lions and Damwon Kia are seen as the primary contenders for the throne. Though MAD Lions have shown excellent form throughout MSI and exceeded expectations, when directly comparing the two, Damwon hold a clear position above the EU representatives.

The differences between the LEC and LCK teams appear stark on paper. Damwon lords advantages over MAD Lions such as GD@15 (1862/592), herald control (57%/50%), dragon control (64%/53%). Damwon appears to hold greater map control while MAD Lions win off the same scrappy, team fight centric style that ultimately won them their organization’s LEC title. In actuality, Damwon hold advantages here as well, taking relatively less fights, but finding decisive wins with the objectives listed above.

These stark differences show that even though the base level of LEC competition has improved, it still pales in comparison to the top LCK seed.

PSG Talon looming in the periphery

Similar to the glory days of the LMS, Taiwan has remained on the periphery perhaps in a greater position to claim third place. With the Flash Wolves core of Maple and Hanabi continuing into PSG Talon, the PCS champions have found the only win against RNG and defeated Cloud9 and MAD Lions firmly. Looking at the rumble stage alone, PSG hold the highest KDA (1.93)and EGR (73.5) with their substitute ADC, Doggo, leading the charge surprisingly. 

Ultimately, the narrative that the west was on the rise with the consolidation of talent seems to have derailed. With plenty of time left in MSI and even more time before Worlds 2021, western teams will have ample opportunity to prove themselves, however if current trends persist, seeing even an echo of 2018 or 2019 looks unlikely.

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Image Credit: Royal Never Give Up