With very few chances left in 2015 to see pro play, IEM Cologne promises to provide a litmus test for a number of questions. Which teams and regions have adapted best to the preseason patch? Is Qiao Gu still as strong as analysts have always thought? And are Ever, the cinderella men of the Korean scene, the real deal?
Though based on which teams will be attending the tournament there are some clear favorites, here’s a look at who will be vying for the trophy next weekend in Germany.
Dignitas - The constants
Dignitas have been stalwarts of the North American scene pretty much as long as there’s been one — but so far top results have eluded them both domestically and internationally.
They’ll be fronting a new roster at this tournament, featuring two up-and-coming talents from the European challenger scene in former Denial jungler Kirei, and Gamers2 top laner SmittyJ. Veteran AD carry Apollo has also joined the roster after playing for Team Impulse last year, where he saw much success along his extremely aggressive teammates.
Returning to the team are mid laner Shiphtur and support KiWiKiD, though KiWi will not be attending the tournament due to a wedding. Taking his place at this tournament will be Jesiz - the former ADC for Gamers2, who has announced he's stepping back from playing professionally to assume a coaching role. It's obviously hard to say how the ADC will fit into support, but Apollo’s generally consistent play should provide a safe laning partner.
As with any new roster, we’ve yet to see how well Dignitas will play with their new lineup, and whether they’ll be able to make the most of the relatively inexperienced Kirei and SmittyJ. They are certainly the underdogs here, but if nothing else, Cologne should give them a chance to get comfortable before the LCS returns in full force.
Cloud 9 - Who knows, honestly
Since they first fell from their pedestal as the undisputed kings of NA in 2014, analysts have been waiting for the moment to declare Cloud 9 as being back. Even now, several iterations from their original five members, you’ll probably hear much ado this weekend about whether Balls, Rush, Incarnati0n, Sneaky and Hai (or BunnyFuFu?) can play “like the old C9.”
The truth is that this new roster, although largely untested, will probably play very little like the C9 of old — apart from the same crisp shotcalling from Hai that has always been a staple of the roster apart from his brief retirement earlier in 2015. What this roster of players promises is a chance to harness Rush’s aggressive jungle pathing in a perhaps more productive manner than he was able to in 2015, while giving Incarnati0n a chance to continue improving on his late-season form.
There are obviously a lot of unanswered questions, and we likely won’t have a real idea of how strong the new Cloud 9 will be until the 2016 season kicks off, but if they’re able to adapt well to the new roster, there’s a chance they could make a real run at the title.
Qiao Gu - Will they reap the rewards?
The Qiao Gu Reapers are a relatively new team, having just qualified from the LSPL for the summer split, but they were able to make it to the LPL finals, where they were taken down in a close 3-2 series by LGD. They’ve always been heralded as team with exceptional teamfighting, and the strength of their roster as-five has been what has carried them to victory against a slew of more experienced teams.
That brute teamfighting force is enough to leave them considered by many as tournament favorites — though they were eventually bested in the LPL playoffs, few international teams can put up the kind of resistance to their play that peak-condition LGD offered the rookie squad.
That said, we’ve yet to see QG play on anything close to the current patch, and there are a lot of question marks when it comes to how their team will adapt to the new meta. But if they’re able to play comfortably around the power picks, and Ever doesn’t go on another Cinderella run, Cologne may very well be QG’s to lose.
Ever - the Cinderella men
After completing what has to be one of the most shocking tournament runs in the history of League, Ever — a semi-professional Korean team, that failed to qualify for the 2016 spring season of the LCK — took down Korea’s best to win the Kespa Cup. Korea’s best included SKT, fresh off a World Championship, who were swept 2-0 by the underdogs.
It’s hard to pin down exact tendencies in this squad, since they’ve played so few professional games. In their wins against SKT, their ADC, LokeN, put up big numbers beside KeY’s Bard (which has come much more into the meta since that tournament). Their Athena also performed admirably against both Faker and Scout — and even better against Coco in their 3-0 sweep of CJ Entus in the finals.
So yes, it’s safe to say Ever has the potential to take on the world’s best on any given day. Whether there will be a repeat performance in Germany has yet to be seen.
H2K - the path to victory
Rounding out the slew of new rosters at this event, is H2K — which replaced much of the roster that saw them take third place in the EU LCS’ summer split. Remaining are only Ryu and Odoamne, with Vander, Jankos and FORG1VEN rounding out what has potential to be a very impressive team.
Once again, there are a lot of questions about how they will perform together, but certainly this is a team brimming with individual talent. Jankos was heralded at his zenith as the “First Blood machine,” and Vander’s abilities are likely to be a strong stylistic fit for the mechanically-gifted FORG1VEN.
The Greek AD carry’s position on the team in particular could have a serious impact on the roster — his lane dominance and tendency to push towers hard and fast were staples of SK’s period at the top of the standings at the beginning of this year. FORG1VEN tends to push teams towards playing a certain way, but then again we’ve yet to see how he’ll fit into the cogs of this latest machine. In all, H2K have the potential to make a deep dive at this tournament.
Fnatic - The Remake Season 2
If it were any other organization than Fnatic, it might be easy to say that their odds at IEM Cologne as somewhat limited. They’ve lost three of the five players on the hyper-successful roster that led them to a Top 4 finish at Worlds, including captain YellOwStaR. But this wouldn’t be the first time a complete remake on Fnatic’s squad had people doubting them in the preseason. And last time, it worked out okay.
Their new roster has potential to live up to their predecessors, though the absence of YellOwStaR’s unflappable shotcalling may hurt the team’s macro play as they adjust to a new squad. Spirit is arguably among the best, if not the best outright, junglers in the world, and Gamsu proved himself to be a force to be reckoned with even on a lagging Dignitas team last season. And though NoXiAK lacks his predecessor’s experience, he certainly has a lot of potential, particularly in a lane with the likes of Rekkles.
Like much of their competition, almost everything will likely come down to adjustments. Not only to the patch, but to their teammates.
Sean Wetselaar is a writer for theScore eSports. You can follow him on Twitter.