The first shock at the Mid-Season Invitational comes in its first game

For the first time in years, a Western team has a realistic chance to win an international tournament against Asia’s best

Photo by Jacob Wolf

For the first time in years, a Western team has a realistic chance to win an international tournament against Asia’s best. That’s the top storyline for this weekend Mid-Season Invitational, a Riot Games international tournament that pits the best League of Legends team from every major region worldwide against each other in a clash for supremacy. And the West’s two contenders, Team SoloMid from North America and Fnatic from Europe, kicked off the tournament.

The opening match at the Donald L. Tucker Civic Center in Tallahassee, Florida in front of a crowd of 10,000 spectators provided the first shock of the tournament.

Team SoloMid, winners of the Intel Extreme Masters Katowice championship in March, entered as favorites, with both Korean and Chinese whispering that the Americans looked strong in scrimmages heading into the tournament. But Fnatic and their strong early game playmaking blitzed the Americans in front of a home crowd silenced by the Europeans’ dominance.

The match showcased the importance of the strategic side of League of Legends with an interesting pick and ban phase. Fnatic banned out three top laners, Maokai, Lulu, and Sion, depriving Marcus “Dyrus” Hill of his favored champions. Team SoloMid looked to shut down Europe’s rookie of the year, the effervescent and lovable Heo “Huni” Seung-hoon, whose early game playmaking ran rampant in Europe during the youngster’s first professional season of League of Legends.

With six of the top lane’s top champions missing, something had to give. SoloMid grabbed Gnar in their first rotation, depriving another potential playmaker from Huni. Fnatic turned to a surprising choice: Cassiopeia. The late game hyper carry is a powerful mage with a lane advantage over Gnar, but her lack of mobility meant Huni likely couldn’t make his typical early plays.

In theory.

What actually happened was a slaughter. Jungler Kim “ReignOver” Yeu-jin secured Huni an early kill with a gank on Gragas, and Fnatic jumped to a four-kill lead after a couple more successful ganks. Huni abused Dyrus in lane, and the expected exciting mid lane matchup between Fabian “Febiven” Diepstraten and Søren “Bjergsen” Bjerg, which should be in favor of Bjergsen’s Cho’Gath over Febiven’s LeBlanc, ended up in Fnatic’s favor with two kills.

Fnatic looked unstoppable with the early lead, roaming around the map and putting out constant pressure on objectives like turrets and the dragon, leading to a free Baron at 22 minutes. Team SoloMid never had a chance.

I’m impressed with Fnatic’s gameplan coming into this match. They had a good read on TSM. I wonder if Sion/Mao/Lulu will continue as bans.

— MonteCristo (@MonteCristo) May 7, 2015

Team SoloMid seemed surprised by the Cassiopeia pick. They didn’t lane swap, putting Dyrus’ Gnar into a poor matchup, and they didn’t provide jungle pressure to help mitigate Cassiopeia’s impact.

Fnatic simply looked two steps ahead of Team SoloMid through the entire match.

That throws a major wrench into expectations before the tournament. Many had Team SoloMid pegged as a tournament favorite, with Fnatic likely falling behind the other big teams at the event. Fnatic looked unstable, their critics said. Their aggressive early games won’t hold up against teams more talented and prepared than Europe’s best. But Fnatic played their style, and it crushed SoloMid.

In a post-game interview, support player and captain Bora “YellOwStaR” Kim said they came into the match with a game plan to shut down Dyrus, and it worked. “We put Cassiopeia top and we knew he’d have a hard time,” he explained.

The matchup between Bjergsen, America’s top mid laner and European import, and Febiven, perhaps Europe’s best, was supposed to show just who could emerge as one of Europe’s transcendent talents. But it hardly had an impact on the match. Bjergsen had a farm lead, but he couldn’t leverage it into an advantage, especially after falling prey to early ganks.

“I didn’t expect him to pick Cho’Gath against me even though its really hard in the lane phase,” Febiven said after the match. “I actually lost but my team was winning hard. I was basically just getting carried.”

That’s what Fnatic is all about. They are able to put on a ridiculous amount of pressure thanks to the playmaking ability of Huni, Reignover, and YellowStaR, setting up Febiven and marksman Pierre “Steeelback” Medjaldi to carry the late game. And they have a mandate from an entire continent to succeed at this event, an event where Europe enters as perhaps the least well regarded of the major regions at the tournament.

“We still have to prove that Europe is a good region,” Kim said. So far, so good.