MSI Preview: the World's Best head to Tallahassee

by Sean Wetselaar May 4 2015
Thumbnail image courtesy of Dennis Gonzales / theScore eSports

The first ever Mid-Season Invitational tournament is less than a week away, and with the Spring Split's best teams heading to Tallahassee, FL, it's time to take a look at each of the prospects vying for the regional glory that comes along with the inaugural MSI title.

Here's a roundup of each team, their prospects in the tournament and which players to watch.

Team Solomid: The Baylievers

Though TSM became the first Western team to win a major international tournament that featured Korean teams at March's IEM World Championships, they did so without facing the tournament favorites. At that point, the GE Tigers had never lost a professional match. That is, until they fell victim to Team WE's miracle run in what is considered to be the biggest upset in competitive League of Legends history. Though TSM managed to convincingly dismantle the Chinese crew in the finals, many critics feel that their win was hollow without a triumph over the top Korean team (though they did manage a win against the third-place Korean team CJ Entus).

In many ways, MSI is a chance for TSM to show the world that North American teams can compete at a high, international level. It's true that TSM had a fantastic split in NA — seemingly never forced to really pull out all the stops, as they did at IEM. The question now becomes whether they will be able to rise to the occasion or roll over when the pressure is on. After so many disappointments on the international stage, it's hard to regard TSM as the favorites in Tallahassee, but if there was ever a time for an NA team to rise to the levels of their Asian counterparts, it would be now, with this current iteration of the Baylievers.

As has been said more times than anyone can count, TSM's strength lies in their ace mid-laner Bjergsen. His playmaking and carry potential has been the backbone of the team since he joined before the 2014 Spring Split. Their team tends to make sacrifices to get Bjergsen rolling. Because Santorin frequently pressures the mid lane from the jungle, the top and bottom lanes are more frequently left to fend for themselves. 

Plus, especially this split, TSM have done a very good job of setting up objectives and getting vision as a team. Though Dyrus seems to almost always get thrown to the wolves and be left alone in the top-lane, we've seen that it almost doesn't matter if he gets camped and goes 0-3 in the laning phase. The NA vet has a tendency to make an impact in the late game either way.

Fnatic: The new kids on the Rift

Fnatic have been the consistent powerhouse in a region that has often been defined by extremely close splits, with far more variance in who makes it far in the playoffs than NA (where if you have to guess, it was probably C9 and TSM). But the Fnatic of old have been more or less dismantled, with only veteran support YellOwStaR staying on from the previous squad. Surprisingly, the largely rookie roster turned out to have just as good a split as you'd expect from the Fnatic of old, coming out on top of the EU scene despite a dominant regular season split from SK Gaming.

Fnatic plays a crazy game, with a lot of kills, a lot of teamfights and a lot of Huni wiggles. Huni is in many ways the team's playmaker, often going for extremely aggressive moves that help set up positive fights for his teammates. But Fnatic have top regional talent on all of their positions, including Steelback, who gave Huni a run for rookie of the split. Febiven was another surprise, with his success in the mid-lane in a region that has often been lauded for producing some of the best mid-laners in the world.

Fnatic's current roster (with the exception of YellOwStaR) have never played a major intentional tournament like this one, so it will be interesting to see how they perform under pressure. We've often seen teams choke under the pressure of being on such a big stage, but Fnatic has already run through the EU playoffs without any major issues so maybe they've already gotten that out of their systems. 

They're certainly an emotional team — especially at the beginning of the split their comms were often abuzz with the younger players' excitement and YellOwStaR's advice to calm down. The question remains whether their youth, enthusiasm and largely rookie roster will be able to stand up to the hardened international monsters from other regions.

Ahq e-Sports Club: The all-ins

The last time we saw the Taiwanese crew at an international tournament was at the World Championships in Korea last fall, where they were unable to make it out of the group stages but put up an admirable fight against the international competition at the time. After taking out the Yoe Flash Wolves, who represented Taiwan at IEM, Ahq is certainly looking to improve on their performance.

Look for a lack of fear when it comes to tower dives and aggressive play. Ahq's roster is at their best when they can get aggressive roams and out-number their opponents with positional play. It's hard to say how this sort of thing will work out against the likes of EDG and SKT, but there is no question that if they are able to get ahead with aggressive moves, they are very good at snowballing a lead. 

With Westdoor on the likes of Twisted Fate or mobile carries like Zed, and Ziv teleporting aggressively on pretty much whoever he plays, fights involving Ahq tend to get a little crazy. The backbone of these relentless engagements is AN, who, when the team is succeeding, does a remarkably good job of staying safe at the back and doing enough consistent damage to compensate for his solo laners' amazing ability to dive in and die.

Basically, Ahq is an in-your-face, all-in team. This means that their games will be a lot of fun to watch regardless of whether they snowball a lead and look unstoppable or bite off more than they can chew and implode.

Besiktas: The Underdogs

Since Riot formalized Worlds and the International Wildcard system of qualifying for that last spot, the IWC teams have been a mixed bag of scrappy underdogs that struggle to compete with international superstars (remember Kabum!?). However, they do sometimes manage to win games no one expected them to (remember Kabum!?). Though it is always hard to judge how a wildcard team will perform internationally when nearly all of their players have almost no experience at an international tournament, Besiktas look ready to fall into that space at MSI.

The Turkish roster did not have an easy run through the IWC tournament – qualifying on home soil after a difficult group stage that left them looking weaker than some of the other teams, like INTZ who they eventually toppled in the finals. Scrappy is probably the best word to describe the Turkish crew. Their laning phase is not spectacular, and even in their wins they often get behind early, only to find ways to claw their way back into the game through picks, reality-bending baron steals — like one Energy managed in that final Bo5 — and well-timed teamfights.

The team seems to take turns deciding who will pull a remarkable comeback, be it Thaldrin dropping a perfect Rumble ultimate (and also a Baron steal) or Energy with some surprising teamfighting despite being down. You should also keep an eye on Besiktas' bottom lane, partly because they front a support named Dumbledoge, and partly for Nardeus’ uncanny ability to win trades it looks like he shouldn’t.

Besiktas might be down, they might be really down, they might be climbing out of a hole with weights strapped to their backs. But they are not out. If you wanted a team to personify the scrappy underdog that somehow wins against their favored opponents — here they are.

Edward Gaming: The Deft Around

In the wake of the GE Tigers’ shocking collapse at IEM, many analysts pegged Edward Gaming as the frontrunners for the best team in the world. While GE did not become Korea’s representative at MSI (and SKT is arguably stronger than even the Tigers were heading into IEM), EDG is certainly a serious contender in this tournament. With their nearly-impeccable, objective focused play and sometimes outrageously strong teamfighting, EDG is a team that has the brains and the pawN (sorry, it had to happen).

EDG’s ace is their AD Carry Deft, who could probably give Faker a convincing run for the crown of best player in the world. EDG secured their ticket to Florida in a dramatic Game 5 win over LGD that largely came about when Deft managed to score a pentakill in a critical Baron fight, one that his team had been losing, almost single-handedly. 

The scary part? There is nothing surprising about that statement.

EDG is by no means limited to their bottom-lane when it comes to terrifying carries. Their mid-laner, pawN, won the World Championship alongside his Samsung White teammates last year, and he has continued to be a force in the mid-lane despite some struggles towards the end of this split with back pain.

EDG played more games in the regular season than any other team, by a long shot, due to the ridiculous inundation of games played in the LPL, and though we haven’t seen this roster at a major international tournament, they may be more comfortable on the big stage than just about anyone else at MSI. 

The bottom line: EDG are the favorites against almost any team at this tournament beyond SKT, and you can certainly make the argument that they are favored overall.

SK Telecom T1: The Powerhouses

If you want to place bets at any major international tournament as to who will win, you’d be forgiven for blindly picking the event's best Korean team. History has shown us that you’d probably almost never be wrong, and let’s talk about this Korean team. 

Remember a few months ago, in the build-up to IEM, when all the analysts hyped the GE Tigers as being the best team in the world? Put their poor showing at that tournament aside, and that was still a fair argument. Although 5.5 was not kind to the Tigers, SKT T1 dismantled them in a convincing 3-0 to take the Champions Spring title with a sub roster.

SKT probably has the deepest talent pool of any team heading into MSI, with Easyhoon proving in the finals that he can carry almost as well as Faker, and T0M making a strong argument for himself as one of the brightest rookie lights in the jungle. As one of the only teams to often make roster swaps between games in professional League of Legends, SKT has done a remarkable job of fostering more than just five elite players, but seven (eight if you count Picaboo who we may see again in the summer).

While Easyhoon and T0M have proven themselves, don’t expect Faker and Bengi to be benched at this tournament. The mid-jungle duo have been together for years, and are the last remaining members of SKT T1 K, whose perfect split in 2013 and subsequent World Championship cemented them in the annals of League history. The current meta is perfect for Bengi’s playstyle – a more conservative, less mechanically focused style that relies on smart positional play and backing up the mid lane, and Faker is Faker.

MaRin is a reliable, if not overly flashy, top-laner and SKT’s bottom duo of Bang and Wolf has proven itself more than capable of carrying games by themselves, especially on the likes of a Juggermaw composition where Faker plays a utility Lulu to support Bang as the primary damage dealer.

This team likes to gain early advantages and snowball their leads from there, taking later teamfights easily while already ahead. SKT is packing a wide range of talent, strong players in every position, and an organization and coaching staff that is one of the most venerable in all of eSports. So yes, there's no question that they are serious contenders — we'll have to see whether they can ride all that momentum into a win in Florida. Either way, the world would certainly do well to take notice.

Sean Wetselaar is a Toronto journalist who enjoys League of Legends, walking places quickly and the colour orange, because he is Dutch. When not writing about eSports, you can find his work in the Toronto Star. You can follow him on Twitter