In a tournament that was headlined by four western teams debuting new starting lineups, it was a semi-professional team from South Korea that took home the grand prize. ESC Ever, a squad that failed to qualify in the most recent Champions Korea qualifier, tinkered with their starting five before last month's KeSPA Cup and have been unstoppable ever since.
Having already beaten four teams from Korea's premiere league — including reigning world champions SK Telecom T1 and CJ Entus — to win the KeSPA Cup title that qualified them for IEM Cologne, Ever's trip to Europe was a test to see if they were the real deal or merely a flash in the pan that exploited fatigued squads craving offseason rest. However, a thrilling 3-2 victory over summer LPL finalists Qiao Gu Reapers saw them hoist their second trophy in as many months, and should put the latter theory to rest. Regardless of how inexperienced they are on paper, Ever play like a team that's wise beyond their years.
When you see rookie teams like Cloud 9 in 2013 or Faker's 2013 SK Telecom T1 K squad that went on to win the world championship in their first year, it's only natural to attribute their success to individual talent. Faker's SK Telecom T1 K squad bursted into the scene in the spring of 2013 and made it to the Champions semifinals in their inaugural season. By the time the summer had ended, they were celebrating their first domestic title which Faker and co. followed up with a Summoner's Cup victory in the fall. Although they would eventually become a diverse team that could win through shot calling and macro play, SKT T1 K's early days were filled with mechanical outplays, lane dominance and relentless offense.
Despite having a player like KeY, who is likely one of the best support prospects we've ever seen, Ever isn't a team that can overpower their opponents through pure mechanical skill and talent. Their bottom lane of Loken and KeY are capable of winning lane and grabbing early kills and Athena held his own throughout the tournament, but the top and jungle pairing of Crazy and Ares constantly found themselves trailing their positional oppositions in the first 10 minutes. As they did in the KeSPA Cup, Ever won IEM Cologne as result of having one of the hardest traits a League of Legends team can learn: poise.
The semi-professional Korean team doesn't play like a group that has only played as a starting five for a few months. From their smart drafting that allowed them to flex picks until their final selections to their veteran-like late game play, I wouldn't believe Ever were a team in the Challenger scene if I had only started watching them this weekend.
While a lot of amateur and newly put together teams will get itchy trigger fingers and try to contest every objective that comes their way, the IEM Cologne champions never panicked when they were down a few dragons or kills. They understood their win conditions, be it through fast pushing towers with a double AD comp or scaling into the 30 minute mark with Ryze and Dr. Mundo, and they didn't try to force the issue like you'd expect from a semi-pro team taking on one of China's best in their first international tournament final.
One of the knocks against Ever during their now six match winning streak (spanning back to the start of the KeSPA Cup) is that they're merely capitalizing off of their opponent's mistakes. We saw SK Telecom T1 get ahead of them in the second set of their semifinal series, and Ever eventually won the war of attrition when the reigning world champions made key errors in the late game that let Ever steal a win in a game they were losing for a majority of the time. But, that's what makes this Ever team so great. Most talented new teams have to win games through pure skill with a lack of communication and shot calling. Ever does the exact opposite — sometimes looking weak in the early game but having strong enough macro play and understanding of their team compositions that they can stretch out the game long enough to get one opening that will let them blow the game wide open.
And that's how Ever went on to win this weekend's tournament. They would be losing for a large amount of time in a couple of their games, and then, like it was planned, KeY would set up a beautiful engage, the team would collapse on their enemy, and Loken would exit a few seconds later with three more kills to his name while he and the rest of his team broke down the opponent's base. Crazy, Ares, and even Athena, to an extent, might not be at the point where they can fight with the better players at their position in Korea, yet they know their personal and team limitations so well that they can survive the storm of a stronger adversary. Ever looked like they would crack in both of their series against H2k-Gaming and the QG Reapers, but they never did which is why they have the potential to be one of the best teams in the world. If they can stay together that is.
Ever aren't infallible, though that makes how they could possibly develop in the future even more interesting. For how strong he is as a support, KeY still found himself tripping up in the early game by getting caught trying to roam the map, and Loken wasn't perfect with his positioning in his first few teamfights. But when it came to the point where the game had reached its final stage at 35 minutes — death timers are no joke this year — Ever's bottom lane and the rest of the squad knew what to do to secure a series. The needless mistakes, such as overstepping their boundaries in the enemy jungle or Crazy repeatedly dying to laning mistakes, can be fixed with practice and professional experience. The things that are harder to teach, such as superb macro game and team synergy, are traits that Ever already possess.
Now, with two championships in their trophy case, the next question will be the one that was being asked after they upset SKT T1 in the KeSPA Cup: are they going to get poached by bigger teams?
We know that China isn't afraid to offer large contracts to Korean players that excel on the international stage, and there are teams like CJ Entus that still need to fill positions on their roster. With Ever not set to compete in Champions next season, players like Loken and Key could bolster one of Korea's middle of the pack teams and transform them into one that challenges SKT's crown.
The silver lining for Ever is that they still have a chance to play in Champions Korea this upcoming spring season. NaJin, one of the pillars of Korean League, are all but dissolved and reportedly looking to step away from the eSports scene. If that would happen and no team simply buys their spot, it would leave an open position for the spring split that could be filled by the world's hottest rookie team. Although it would appear logical for KeSPA and Riot to give Ever the spot due to their impressive offseason tournament results, there is precedent set from similar situations in the LCS that would call for a tournament between the region's best challenger teams to see who gets the final slot.
Happily ever after or not, these past two months have written a story that won't be soon forgotten. When people talk about the amazing technical skill and overall power of Faker's monstrous new team in 2013, maybe one day in a few years we'll talk about Ever, the rookie squad that beat teams through genius drafting, understanding of win conditions, and meticulous macro play.
Tyler "Fionn" Erzberger is a staff writer for theScore eSports who covers the North American LCS and Korea's Champions. You can follow him on Twitter.