In keeping with the instantly iconic line from Wandavision, what is a 5-1 finish if not Cal League of Legends persevering? On Saturday, the Bears played their last set of the 2021 West Conference regular season, going 2-0 against Simon Fraser University and qualifying for the regional playoffs.
You could say they took a page out of Wandavision’s book, given that after its hot streak in the 2020 season got cut short by COVID-19, the team now has a chance to fight its way onto the national stage once again.
The playoffs begin March 13th, and Cal will compete with five other West Conference schools — Arizona State University, Cal State Fullerton, the University of British Columbia, UC Riverside, and UC San Diego — to determine the region’s final rankings. The top three will move on to the League of Legends College Championship, which brings together schools from across the country in pursuit of the national title.
Arizona State University, as the only team in the West to finish with a 6-0 match record, automatically earned the No. 1 seed. Out of the five teams that ended 5-1, Cal emerged at the top thanks to the team’s individual game record (11-2), earning second seed and a playoffs bye.
Having the week off is huge, as the team needs just a single win to hit a minimum of third place, which would guarantee it a spot at the College Championship.
“Our goal is absolutely to make nationals, since it’s never been done before and it’s super feasible this time in our eyes. We are very hungry to get there for the first time,” said Patrick “LegendAchiever9” Visan, the team’s competitive coordinator (and former top laner).
The West Conference playoffs look a little different this year. UC Irvine, which earned first place in 2018 and 2019, failed to even qualify for 2021, despite the acquisition of ex-professional jungler Michael “MikeYeung” Yeung. The Anteaters are typically considered to be among the region’s strongest, while the Bears are perennial underdogs. Cal has never been seeded higher than seventh, which means the team is generally not expected to make playoffs (despite having done so in 2017, 2019, 2020, and now in 2021).
“Our solo queue rankings have never been the highest on their own, and our players tend to be newer — most other schools, you start to recognize their names after a while, but Cal’s tend to switch out every two years,” Visan said. “That combination makes us the underdog almost every year. This season, we started at seventh seed, and now we’re second seed going into playoffs. So maybe people have noticed our abilities.”
Three of Cal’s five team members are completely new to College League of Legends play this year, though some have other competitive experience ranging from playing on lower-level collegiate teams to coaching. Mid laner Eugene “Eugenium” Tang and bot laner Steven “Issys Cutie” Dai are returners from 2020 and 2019, respectively.
“We had a pretty rough start. At least, I had a pretty rough start, because our style is very different from how we used to play. Specifically, transitioning junglers from eXyu (Lawrence Xu) to Jason (Jason “RexRequired” Nguyen) was a pretty big shift. It changes my gameplay in mid a lot,” Tang said. “But I think we identified the problems pretty early on, and we’ve really come a long way.”
Even with a playoffs bye, Cal has a few more hurdles to jump before it can break into the College Championship for the first time. Among the five other Western teams remaining, the team agrees that first-seed ASU is a huge standout.
“Most of the West is a rock-paper-scissors, where anybody can beat anybody on a given day, with ASU being the most notable exception. Last year, we did knock them out in Dreamhack finals, but they’ve gotten a lot stronger since then,” Visan said.
Visan and Tang were on Cal’s DreamHack Anaheim-winning team, beating ASU 2-0 in the finals last February, but things are never the same year-to-year in collegiate esports. Players swap in and out at a moment’s notice, even changing roles, as Visan and Tang both have. Tang was formerly a jungler before swapping to mid for the 2020 season.
“Honestly, we’ve been 3-0ing or 2-0ing other teams in scrims, but we’ve dropped quite a few games against ASU,” Tang said. “Their gameplay is really good, their individual micro and mechanics are really good. They’re definitely a team to beat.”
Despite the challenges in their way, the Bears are feeling good coming off of their most successful regular season yet; they’re already dreaming bigger than their local competition.
“We haven’t really played outside of the West in an official Riot-sponsored tournament. This would be the first time we get the chance to see how we stack up,” Visan said. “The North is notoriously a very, very strong region. Hopefully, we can show them what the Bears have in store for them.”