Of course it would end like this.
For the third straight season and sixth time out of 10 North American League Championship Series seasons, Team SoloMid, the kingpin of the region, won the domestic league title. TSM dispatched Immortals by a scoreline of 3-1, winning the last two games of the series in comeback fashion. Once down over 10,000 gold in the fourth game of the best-of-five series and one lost member away from going to a climactic Game 5, TSM stopped the bleeding, reversed the momentum and eventually captured the NA LCS championship in front of a packed TD Garden in Boston under chants of "T-S-M!," willing the team to victory.
TSM has made it to all seven world championships, and the same starting five will be returning from last year's Worlds, where the American hope got stopped on home soil in the group stages by China's Royal Never Give Up and eliminated from the tournament. Heading into the event last year, TSM, which only dropped a single best-of series the entire summer split, was expected to at least make the knockout round. The team was anchored by the region's two brightest stars, now four-time league MVP Soren "Bjergsen" Bjerg and veteran AD carry Yiliang "Doublelift" Peng. TSM managed to split the group stage series with eventual runner-up and South Korean powerhouse Samsung Galaxy, but the moral victory meant little -- a team that preached gaining success at Worlds over all else was sent home before even getting a chance to test itself in a best-of-five chess match.
It was all right, though. As always with North American clubs at Worlds, excuses were aplenty.
"They were never supposed to be that good, anyway."
"Biofrost is a rookie! Too much pressure, too soon."
"It's North America -- what did we expect? Overrated, per usual."
After TSM took home its first of the NA LCS three-peat last year at the summer final, the team didn't hesitate to aim for the highest peak of the mountain. TSM didn't go into last year's Worlds to try its best and hope to maybe get into the quarterfinals. It expected to go far, and when the team failed to even make the knockout stage, it was a major setback for possibly the best North American team of all time.
A year later, TSM will not have the luxury of playing in front of the hometown fans and traveling only a few hours from its team house in Los Angeles to an arena in San Francisco. This time, it'll take the long trek over to the country of the team that broke their hearts last year, China, where RNG, the runner-up of both the spring and summer LPL splits, will be waiting for the North American champion.
At the news conference this year -- TSM's third finals winning news conference in a row with all five members sitting next to one another -- the message was clear: Last year was unacceptable.
"We came into last Worlds pretty cocky," Doublelift said. "We thought we were a top-4 team. We were like, 'We're gonna win it,' and we were all super crushed when we started to lose in the group stages because like, whoa, we weren't supposed to lose. I think coming into this one we're humble. We were hungry last time, but I don't think we had a great approach to practice and our mentality was just wrong coming in. I think coming into Worlds thinking like a winner but also being humble at the same time is just so important because every team is so good."
The Mid-Season Invitational this year was supposed to be the redemption arc for TSM, sans Doublelift who was on a short sabbatical, and yet, it only continued the narrative of the best North American club falling short when it mattered most. In a similar situation to what Immortals had over TSM in Boston, TSM threw an almost unlosable position to European representative G2 Esports to begin the club's downward spiral at the event, dropping from what would have been a third-place position to being forced to play in a tiebreaker. Then Taiwan's Flash Wolves would send TSM home once again before playing a single best-of-five.
If TSM is to ultimately redeem itself at the international level, it isn't going to be easy. Due to its disastrous fallout against G2 at MSI, North America lost its Pool 1 seed at Worlds, meaning even as summer split champion, TSM will be drawn into a group with one of G2 Esports (Europe's champion), Longzhu Gaming (South Korea's champion), EDward Gaming (China's champion) or the Flash Wolves (Taiwan's champion). There are scenarios where TSM could get the Flash Wolves, SK Telecom T1 and Team WE all in its group. Even in the most favorable matchup, making it out of groups isn't going to be easy, and one week of subpar play will send TSM back to the United States without a best-of-five under its belt for the fifth straight international event.
There are no excuses or moral victories to go around this year. The team stands as one of the few that returns an exact snapshot of its roster from last year's Worlds, and its ace player, Bjergsen, is coming off another spectacular season with his fourth league MVP. The team's greatest weaknesses -- the inability to come back in games or make the right decisions in crucial objective-oriented moments -- has seemingly been fixed through its showings in the playoffs (at least on a domestic level), and it can't blame anyone but itself for not receiving a Pool 1 seed at Worlds.
From top to bottom, this should be the best team North America has ever sent to Worlds. A three-peating champion held up by the undisputed player in the league (Bjergsen), the best AD carry in the league (Doublelift), and a top laner who finished second in MVP voting last spring (Hauntzer). The green member from last year, Vincent "Biofrost" Wang, has matured and walked away from Boston as NA Finals MVP, his Rakan plays saving his team at crucial moments in those games where Immortals were on the doorstep of victory. Everyone on the team is familiar with each other. Nothing should surprise this team. It will also have ample time to boot camp in Asia before the event and get adjusted to the time zone difference before beginning play in the round-of-16 group stage.
No amount of flowery words or impassioned speeches of valor will protect TSM if it is to fail again. The team has worked all year to get to this point, surviving the spring without Doublelift before returning to its optimal form in summer where it won the most competitive NA LCS split in history, where teams like Dignitas and Team Envy improved leaps and bounds from the spring split. Anything but a quarterfinal appearance for TSM will be seen as a disaster, and honestly, it should.
To be an elite team on the international level, expectations must come with it. North American or not, TSM has the skill and experience to make it into the top 8 and possibly beyond in China at the World Championships.
If TSM fails to make it out of groups, regardless of how many fans chant those three letters over and over, crying into their merchandise, the team will return to the newly franchised NA LCS as a massive disappointment.
When TSM set off to Wuhan for the group stages, it won't only be going to represent North America. In the country of the team that crushed them last year, TSM is about to embark on a journey to win back something even more valuable than another NA LCS trophy: its pride.