With the group stage nearly underway at the 2017 League of Legends World Championship, there are a bevy of unknowns ahead. Who will emerge victorious? Who, when the chips are down, will choke? How do you pronounce Fenerbahçe (hint, we're pretty sure it's Fen-EHR-bah-chay)?
Before the first mid laner is clapped, we've highlighted the three storylines to follow when the group stage begins early Thursday morning.
Can SK Telecom T1 really be defeated?
In Terminator 2: Judgment Day the antagonist, a T-1000-model Terminator, is made of an advanced liquid-metal mimetic polyalloy, rendering it nearly invulnerable to conventional threats. It shrugs off extreme blunt-force trauma and small arms, surviving even a point-blank shotgun blast as well as being frozen and shattered. So when the T-1000 is thrown into a pit of molten steel during the film's climax, there is very intentional dramatic tension: can even the red-hot liquid metal destroy the T-1000?
The past couple years at Worlds, SK Telecom T1 have been the T-1000. They have yet to encounter a threat they could not survive.
SK Telecom T-1000 have suffered setbacks, to be sure. The team has looked shaky at times during the 2017 regular season and playoffs, and the team's routine use of substitutes in the jungle and top lane means that they had a tough decision to make in narrowing their roster to six players for Worlds. They chose to bring both Han "Peanut" Wang-ho and Kang "Blank" Sun-gu in the jungle, with top laner Seung "Huni" Hoon Heo getting the nod for full-time duty at his position over Ui "Untara" Jin-Park.
Losing the LCK 2017 Summer Playoffs to Longzhu Gaming was a disappointment, but it somehow doesn't feel like that has negatively affected SKT's chances at Worlds. They're still here, and they still have mid laner Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok, who is the greatest player the game has yet seen. As long as that's true, it feels terrifying to bet against them. They also have a ton of experience on the biggest stage in League of Legends, something they will rely on to keep a steady hand as the tournament continues.
But could any of the teams at the tournament represent the hazard that ends a reign of terror? Are Longzhu Gaming the pit of molten steel that can reduce SKT-1000 to a sloppy puddle? Are Samsung Galaxy a runaway truck full of liquid nitrogen?
While we won't see SKT play another LCK team in groups due to regional restrictions, it may be possible to see just what version of SKT we're dealing with. They face off against EDward Gaming and ahq-eSports in Group A, and a dominant performance there would go a long way to reassuring fans and striking fear into their enemies.
In the end, seeing SKT terminate their enemies would not be surprising. And if they were to somehow lose, then, like their T-800 rivals... they'll be back.
What hope is there for the West?
During the modern era of the League of Legends World Championship, hope has often felt like a fool's errand for fans of Western teams.
There have been Top 4 appearances, but each of them seems to have an asterisk attached. Yes, Origen and Fnatic made Top 4 in 2015, but both suffered solid 3-0 defeats against their respective opponents and, compared to that opposition, had more favorable routes through the bracket. H2k-Gaming made it to semis in 2016, but they were gifted a quarterfinal opponent in Albus Nox Luna before Samsung Galaxy threw them out an airlock.
But is there hope this year for Western fans?
If you're a fan of the EU LCS, maybe not. G2 Esports has an incredibly tough group ahead of them, and though mid laner Luka "Perkz" Perković told us he has his eyes set on first place, it's clear that the team has a rough route to the knockout stage. A G2 at their best can make it out of this group, but anything less could see them head home before the bracket.
Despite being in an initially easier group, Misfits will have to pull off some very strong performances to slide by the likes of Team SoloMid, Flash Wolves and now Team WE. WE is potentially the most dangerous opponent of the four play-in teams, and it makes this group even tougher for them.
Fnatic will slot into Group B, and there at least, there looks to be some hope. While Longzhu promises to be a very strong opponent, it's not implausible that they could grab a second-seed if they can somehow overcome Immortals.
On the other side of the Atlantic, things look a lot better.
Immortals have a shot. Though the addition of Fnatic to their group is worse than some of the alternatives, it is also likely better than having WE in the group. Cloud9, stranded in Group A with SKT, EDG and AHQ, sadly drew the short straw.
And the true Western hope may lie with Team SoloMid.
They've been gifted a Group D that could easily see them advance out in first place, potentially also missing Korea in the quarterfinals.
We're not the only ones who think so — Maurice "Amazing" Stückenschneider, who has two Worlds appearances, joined us on theScore esports podcast and said that he felt Yiliang "Doublelift" Peng had the ability to really step up for TSM.
"I think Doublelift is actually going to outperform his already high expectations. I think he’s more integral to this TSM lineup iteration this year because of how the meta is than Bjergsen is simply because of this Ardent Censer craze," he said.
"If he’s able to actually play to the mechanics I think he does have and is not trolling against the Viktor and jumps down and loses the game, I think this guy is actually gong to outperform his expectations."
Now all we need is a catchy hashtag... how about #NAThingIsPossible?
Will China perform on home soil?
Every year, the region that hosts the World Championships pulls out all the stops to ensure that their teams feel the full brunt of fan support and allow that to lift them up to greater heights. This year, the largest player base in the entire world will have the pleasure of hosting Worlds and cheering on their team from more massive stadiums than ever seen before.
There's no doubt in anyone's mind that there is a certain advantage associated with playing at home, among thousands of fans. A great amount of evidence exists to suggest that for traditional sports, and no amount of white noise in your noise-cancelling headphones can drown out the cheers and jeers from venues that large. Couple with that an immense pressure of playing against the hometown heroes and you could see why home is where the heart is.
For Chinese fans, winning on home turf is everything. Despite the loss at MSI, the LPL thrived at Rift Rivals to the tune of an international victory. The results and recent strength of Chinese teams have created some expectations of grandeur, but whether they can surpass expectations and have results akin to 2013 and 2014 has yet to be seen.
And does that mean they'll perform? Look to recent Worlds and you have examples and elements of choking when it matters. EDward Gaming looked abysmal last year, and LGD was even worse after being declared tournament favorites in 2015.
This time around, China has relied less on imports and become more introspective about its strengths, which could be a boon this time around. One thing's for sure, they will need the crowd on their side to do any damage to SK Telecom T-1000 and their fellow Korean terminators.
Josh "Gauntlet" Bury is a news editor for theScore esports. You can find him on Twitter.
Gabriel Zoltan-Johan is a news editor at theScore esports and the head analyst for the University of Toronto League of Legends team. His (public) musings can be found on his Twitter.