It’s been a year since Team SoloMid triumphed at IEM Katowice, after the unexpected exit of the then-GE Tigers. A year since World Elite, at the time a bottom-ranking LPL team, took down the Tigers in one of the biggest upsets in competitive League history.
Though Katowice may not be as high-stakes of a tournament as other international tournaments in the year, it’s a rare chance to see regions clash in the lead-up to the Mid-Season Invitational. If nothing else, it will provide us with a peek into how the various metas could clash in Shanghai.
The undisputed kings of Europe in the summer may have fallen somewhat from grace since their Top 4 finish at Worlds in October. Without their captain and shotcaller YellOwStaR, they have looked significantly less coordinated than their 18-0 summer split selves, and with the duo of Huni and Reignover also in the rearview mirror, this is a very different Fnatic. That said, they still have a strong bottom lane with Rekless playing the same safe, cleanup role he served before — with added shotcalling duties. As a bit of a mixed bag in the European LCS, it’s hard to predict how they’ll match up against international competition, but they do have the talent to go far. It just depends how they use it.
Origen was the other European team to make Top 4 at Worlds on home turf last fall, but like their summer rivals Fnatic, they look to have fallen a ways from the top of the European standings. It's not that Origen's roster is not as strong as it was in the summer — you could make an argument that the addition of PowerOfEvil has only improved the squad's mechanical prowess.
The problem is that Origen has always relied on beating down their opponents on raw skill, and their late-game macro play. They seem to be making many of the same mistakes they did in the summer, just in an environment where teams are more adept at punishing them and snowballing the game in the opposite direction. Will international teams with perhaps less experience playing OG have the same results? The jury is still out on this one.
Technically the reigning champions at IEM, TSM — like almost all of the Western teams in attendance — have fallen somewhat from their comfortable position at, or near the top, of North America.
They may have finished Top 2 in every split, but TSM looks to be struggling more this year than they have at almost any time in the past. Their new roster is, on paper, incredible — but like superteams that we have seen in other regions, they have struggled to convert individual talent to the coordination needed to succeed in the current competitive environment. That said, no one expected TSM to win last year either. And given the mixed bag of invites brought to Katowice, anything could happen.
Counter Logic Gaming
Although they aren't in first place, CLG is certainly still a top North American team — they beat the previously undefeated Immortals last weekend. CLG has had to shift their dynamic somewhat with the departure of longtime AD carry Doublelift to TSM, but they are still able to make plays around their impressive top laner Darshan, and Huhi has been able to somewhat serve the same role in the team dynamic as Pobelter once did. A lot of pressure falls, therefore, on the shoulders of their relatively inexperienced ADC Stixxay, but he has so far risen to the occasion — at least on the NA stage.
CLG is also probably a ways from their peak form at the end of last summer, but thanks to the ways in which teams qualify for Katowice, their competitors are also largely not completely dominant in their respective regions. The Western teams seem to be a big question mark at this tournament, and it's hard to say how they will stack up.
Let's talk about question marks. Ever's fairy tale win at the KeSPA Cup was the stuff that Disney Channel movies are made of — but the semi-professional team that took out Korea's best is not the same roster that will be in Poland. Their mid laner Athena has since moved to EDward Gaming, and they have not played another event since their win at Cologne following their KeSPA triumph.
It’s not clear how they will perform without Athena, since we've yet to see them play any games outside of Korea's challenger series (they did not qualify for the LCK). We also have not seen them play any games on the current patch, or in the current meta. So they are certainly not favored to win — but they've never entered a tournament as the favorites. And so far it has worked out for them.
SK Telecom T1
Continuing the trend of teams attending Katowice who have fallen somewhat from their standings in the summer, SKT may be a strong Korean team right now, but they look to be having difficulties achieving the same level of dominance they had on the way to their second World Championship. Some analysts have compared their current slump to their 2014 season, where SKT was unable to play the same style of game that earned them their first Worlds win in 2013, and crumbled somewhat under the pressure.
That said, SKT are almost certainly the favorites coming into this tournament. They face a mixed bag of international talent also struggling to find their way in the 2016 season — and they are the clear favorites to steamroll over Katowice. Of course, that’s what we said about the Tigers last year.
Qiao Gu Reapers
China is technically the only region to be sending both its top seeds to IEM — in the QG Reapers and Royal Never Give Up. QG faltered for the first time this split, taking a loss to RNG in Week 5, but they have the best record in the LPL, at 7-1. The addition of legendary AD carry Uzi to a team already known for strong teamfighting has made QG a force to be reckoned with so far this year. Whether you feel QG or RNG is the stronger of the two Chinese squads, if anyone is going to give the Korean powerhouse SKT a run for their money, it is almost certainly one of the two LPL teams in attendance.
Though the roster headed to Poland differs slightly from their 2015 lineup, the QG Reapers remain for all intents and purposes a similar team. They win games thanks to the strengths of their vision control and world-class teamfighting. Whether that will be enough to brute force their way through Katowice remains to be seen.
Royal Never Give Up
The other Chinese representative at IEM, RNG sit at the top of Group B in the LPL (though are technically tied with iG with a 6-2 record). After their convincing 2-0 over QG, there is certainly an argument that RNG may be the stronger of the two Chinese teams. But since they are in different groups in the LPL, it’s hard to say with certainty which is the stronger squad — they play each other very rarely. As theScore eSports’ Kelsey Moser wrote, RNG rely heavily on maintaining baron control to compensate for jungler Mlxg’s tendency to farm it out, alongside split pushing form top laner Looper.
All that said, the LPL has been even wilder and more unpredictable this split than they were last year — and with all of both QG and RNG’s professional games against extremely fluctuating competition, it’s hard to say with certainty how they will perform at Katowice. They are absolutely favored against the Western teams in attendance, but the likes of SKT could be more than they can handle. It would, however, seem RNG has the easier path to the finals — they are not in a group with SKT, unlike QG.
But whatever I can say about the relative strengths and weaknesses of the eight teams battling it out in Poland, it’s worth mentioning that anything could indeed happen. Teams tend to take tournaments like IEM less seriously than the likes of MSI and Worlds, and when even top international teams play it fast and loose, there is always a chance for upsets. No one pegged WE to topple the Tigers, or TSM to win the whole event in 2015. 2016 could offer just as many surprises.
Sean Wetselaar is the weekend supervising editor for theScore eSports. He also writes about fantasy. If you disagree with him, you can respectfully point out he is a moron on Twitter.