The 2014 Intel Extreme Masters World Championship saw a mid-tier Korean team pull off a 3-0 win against a mid-tier European LCS team. A slow bleed and several assassinations saw Fnatic return to Europe and win the EU LCS while the KT Bullets' quest for a Champions title ended in the quarterfinals.
The 2016 Intel Extreme Masters Katowice feels a lot like its 2014 rendition.
Both Chinese teams in attendance floundered and fell out of the standings early, but unlike in 2014 one of them made it out of the group stage this time around. Despite entering the the 2014 tournament in the bottom half of the LoL Pro League standings, both Invictus Gaming and team WE would finish in the Top 4 by the end of spring. The lone North American team in 2014, Cloud9, were sent home after losing the tournament's semifinals.
Perhaps the one real difference was that this event lacked a Taiwanese team to jostle the groups.
In 2014 and 2015, the results of IEM didn’t have bearing on long-standing trends in the hierarchy of League of Legends. The KT Bullets couldn’t convert their overwhelming success to the Korean league when they returned home. Fnatic placed second, but when they arrived at All-Stars in Paris, they barely advanced beyond the round robin with only a single win and lost to SKT in the semifinals. Chinese teams flopped, but performances at other events made them stand out as 2014's second strongest region. North America ended the year with one of their better World Championship showings in League of Legends history.
It’s unfortunate that an institution of eSports like the Intel Extreme Masters has become a tournament that merely passes the time in League of Legends. Organizers stagger qualifying events well before the main tournament, patch changes sometimes render strong teams irrelevant later and games are jammed into a single weekend.
Teams view IEM as a chance to either try new things or gain experience, but ultimately their importance and ramifications for the storylines that make up a season of League of Legends hardly register. The QG Reapers and SK Telecom T1 didn’t play with the main rosters they have run in their domestic leagues — not to mention that WE debuted a completely fresh lineup at IEM Katowice last year.
Then 2015 IEM World Championships saw Team WE overwhelm and upset Korean favorites GE Tigers. After the event, Team WE, who were tied for last place in the LPL before heading to Poland, returned to China and rose slightly in the standings but didn’t achieve anything significant that split or the following split. The team they lost to in the finals that year, Team SoloMid, went on to win the North American League of Legends Championship Series, but didn’t advance beyond the round robin stage at the 2015 Mid-Season Invitational. In contrast, European teams didn’t advance to the semifinals at IEM that year, but performed well at both the World Championship and the Mid-Season Invitational.
With that in mind, one has to wonder how much can be gleaned from this year's iteration of the Intel Extreme Masters World Championships. It’s likely that the results we saw this weekend won’t translate directly to domestic leagues, the Mid-Season Invitational, and the World Championship, but will they be rendered entirely irrelevant when the regular season resumes this week?
I have a few expectations based on IEM results, but they’re hardly new. This weekend’s games merely reinforced predictions I had going into the tournament or focused my thought process one direction or the other.
Chinese teams won’t bounce back this year
Intel Extreme Masters World Championship in Katowice wasn’t the only major international eSport event this week as Dota 2 teams participated in the Shanghai Major. Despite the home-field advantage, none of the Chinese teams advanced to the Top 8.
Even with overwhelming production problems, the event's results are still very relevant to Dota 2's standings. Many problems plague the Chinese eSports scene, and while they aren’t all shared between Dota 2 and League of Legends, many of them are. A focus on streaming and the salary boom that has accompanied it, a hunger for imports, and stunted infrastructural growth are all things that both Chinese MOBA scenes have in common.
In the offseason, I predicted a stagnation of Chinese League of Legends performances before the region recovered. This will likely take the entire year at least, and it may last until the streaming platforms collapse and salaries normalize. Streaming platforms aren’t the only problem, but they exacerbate the existing ones.
Many of IEM's analysts distilled China’s problems to not adapting to the western lane swap meta. However, Snake Esports have avidly lane swapped and executed the standard formula well in almost every game they've played, successfully taking first tier turrets in the bottom and top lanes. Despite Snake’s struggles in almost every other phase of the game, they have perfected the lane swap formula and used it to average the highest gold lead at 10 minutes in the LPL. When asked why they choose to do this, jungler Liu “Zzr” Yuan merely said that Snake practice that strategy a lot in scrims.
Even with this very obvious evidence that the lane swap formula can grant wins in situations where they probably shouldn’t, the region's top teams haven’t learned from Snake’s approach. But that doesn’t mean that QG and Royal Never Give Up will instantly change their approach because they lost to lane swapping teams at IEM. Nor does it mean that lane swapping was their only problem.
SK Telecom T1 didn’t consistently execute lane swaps well either, as Fnatic were able to get turret and gold advantages against SKT in multiple games in the final. Yet SKT still won, directing attention to Royal’s many other flaws: a poor understanding of side wave control in the mid game, strange fights, and low vision. QG also had problems, like their drafting and the loss of late game comeback potential they've become reliant on.
All this is to say that Chinese teams probably won’t just learn western lane swaps, nor that they necessarily should if they don’t make sense to them. QG have adopted a legendary StarCraft coach who may not necessarily understand League of Legends. Most Chinese teams have coaches and analysts, but are still primarily player run with coach figureheads. If they want to win international events, they have more severe problems beyond lane swaps.
With their one-dimensional approach, I thought Royal may not have even escaped their relatively easy group. QG Reapers didn’t execute their turret-surrendering freeze style strategy optimally, and they lost some of their team fight finesse and synergy with Jian "Uzi" Zihao. Even with reports of them struggling more in scrims with Yu “Peco” Rui, QG have yet to come back from a deficit in a game starting Uzi, but have done so with Peco many times. I predicted QG would perform better, but them not advancing to the finals was never out of the question.
I’ll continue to cover the LPL because I think their approach to the game can be unique and interesting, but I’m not expecting them to perform well at international events until the status quo changes. On the more positive side, 2014 LPL Spring was probably the least competitive split in LPL history, and the top teams still rebounded convincingly by the end of the year.
Fnatic will improve — but not enough
On Saturday, I wrote about Lee “Spirit” Dayoon connecting more with the team in terms of vision control. Christopher “MonteCristo” Mykles praised Fnatic’s decision to make more use of Spirit’s carry potential by playing around him. This Intel Extreme Masters World Championship featured some of Spirit’s best showings and some of his worst.
Unlike with some of the teams that have performed well at IEM in the past, one could see Fnatic improve throughout the course of the event. Fnatic’s first four games didn’t make them look powerful, as QG handily defeated them early on. Fnatic only overcame the Chinese team when Spirit dug deep, set up flanks with support Johan "Klaj" Olsson, and created opportunities for Fnatic.
The semifinals and finals featured a mix of both Spirits. In some of their games against both Royal and SKT, Spirit’s proactive play gave Fnatic early leads, but he got caught out diving too deep in multiple instances as well. Spirit’s place on Fnatic has become more defined, but he still makes mistakes and the team's communication doesn’t seem to be as tight as it could be.
With the Unicorns of Love declining, Fnatic can probably grab fourth place in the EU LCS and at least contest H2K Gaming or G2 in the playoffs, but they still won’t feel like a top three team. They simply make too many mistakes too frequently.
Their strides at the Intel Extreme Masters leave some hope for the future and it's clear that Fnatic have yet to reach their ceiling. Yet in the words of Martin “Rekkles” Larsson, “It's not the optimal state because it's very tough for an AD carry to have all these responsibilities, but I'm putting all my time into solving this.” Though he’s not assuming this responsibility on Team SoloMid, leadership like Bora “YellOwStaR” Kim’s doesn’t come easily. Rekkles cannot become that kind of a leader overnight, and YellOwStaR himself mentioned difficulty in playing the AD carry role and shotcalling at once.
Fnatic have had less consistent performances throughout the season. Fabian “Febiven” Diepstraten alternates between solo killing his opponent and floundering to find an impact. Not to mention that it’s impossible to predict how successful Noh "Gamsu" Yeongjin will be from game to game. Problems don’t only lie with Spirit and the support, but at least when I watch Fnatic, I feel as if they have a communication system and game plan established. It’s just about executing it as often as possible.
I don’t think this Fnatic can reach the same level of last year’s roster. Perhaps they will find a higher standing next split, but I don’t see an LCS win for them in 2016 barring a large change.
SK Telecom T1 may win LCK in the summer, but not this spring
It didn’t take a broadcast interview with Kim "kkOma" Junggyun to make it clear why SKT chose to start Kang "Blank" Sungu at IEM as Bae "Bengi" Seongwoong has repeatedly demonstrated that he’s a meta-dependent player. SKT should want to train a replacement for him, or at least a jungler who can play during the periods in which Bengi’s style isn’t powerful in the meta game.
Blank showed more promise in this week’s IEM than he has in the LCK. In his four LCK games, Blank averaged a depressing 52 percent kill participation, even against em-Fire, now Kongdoo Monster. It’s likely that at least one of the teams SKT faced in IEM is better than Kongdoo Monster, so this evidence of improvement in Blank and SKT’s team fighting are both relevant. Blank got more involved with the team’s early game, and his presence was actually felt on the map for once.
Like Fnatic, SKT have improved slightly, but not enough to make a mark on this split. SKT sit in fifth place in the LCK. They may yet make playoffs, but ROX Tiger’s strangling presence and KT Rolster’s steady improvements almost ensure that SKT won’t place above third in the playoffs barring a massive meta change.
Bae "Bang" Junsik has made a mark, and Lee "Wolf" Jaewan has strayed from the Wolf of last year who seemed to wander into jungles and make a mark of himself for easy eradication. Despite struggling with communication, Lee "Duke" Hoseong shows almost weekly signs of improvement.
Lee "Faker" Sanghyeok appears more strained. His high amount of deaths at IEM reflects something we’ve also seen of him in LCK: an increased willingness to take risks. With SKT performing below expectations, Faker puts himself out of position to look for opportunities. This tends to backfire more often than it succeeds.
Faker’s play reflects SKT’s general struggles, but with a more reliable jungler and better vision control, it will probably happen less. Blank has expressed small improvements, but he still appeared lost on Nidalee and doesn’t understand pathing as well as Bengi. Blank is a good investment, but he isn’t where he needs to be.
As it did with Wolf, this could change for Blank in the summer season. With SKT’s general talent level and proven infrastructure, I expect the team to find themselves on top or at least much closer to the top in the summer. ROX have some limitations when they can’t play the jungle aggressively, and their lanes won’t always be the best and capable of compensating for a lack of vision in invades. There are exploitable weaknesses. SKT like to figure out a strong and consistent way to play and execute it, which may give them a leg up over ROX’s willingness to push the envelop, as it did in the World Championship final in 2015.
For now, SKT will still probably remain about the same in standings in LCK Spring, but this is an organization that understands time investment. Even with a disappointing 2014, SKT are difficult to dismiss. I foresee a strong summer surge.
There’s hardly anything to conclude about North American teams at this event. CLG performed below expectations, and Group A was difficult to call from the onset. North America may be the most consistent region in League of Legends in that you can usually predict NA teams will place near the bottom in a tournament. With improving investment in the region, this could get better or worse. As always, IEM’s results won’t tell us one way or the other.
Kelsey Moser is a staff writer for theScore eSports. You can follow her on Twitter.