IEM Katowice~Two Weeks Later: Finding the Truth in the Hyperbole
IEM Katowice was a watershed moment in competitive League of Legends simply because it was the first tournament in years that a Korean team participated and didn't win. In fact, it was the first tournament in years that a Korean team didn't just stomp their way to victory. And unlike past IEM's, this wasn't Korea's 4th or 5th best team participating, this was its best team and 3rd best team. While it would be easy (and lazy) to try to draw massive conclusions from IEM, Katowice, it was still just a single weekend of competitive play. Now that we are a few weeks out and the participants have had a few more weeks of domestic play, it's time to reevaluate each team based on what we knew then and what we know now.
Team Solo Mid
TSM left IEM Katowice with the first major international victory for a western team since Season 2. This is, without a doubt, a huge accomplishment and one they deserve praise for. But the fact remains that they only played a single game against a Korean Team. Their Best of One victory over CJ Entus. Now, it's not exactly fair to punish a team for beating the teams that were placed in front of them, but we'd be having a much different conversation of it was the GE Tigers that TSM beat in the best of 5 final. They did win all four games against World Elite and take a best of 3 off of the Yoe Flash Wolves, who themselves had beaten Cloud 9 and SK Gaming.
In the two weeks since, TSM has gone 2-2 with losses to the Urgot empowered Gravity in week 8, and Cloud 9 in week 9 after they had already locked up the number one seed. The loss to Gravity was a prime example of TSM's reliance on preparation and their ability to make adjustments between games to reach their full potential. Gravity had two weeks to prepare for their match while TSM was away at IEM Katowice, giving them a significant advantage over a TSM roster that wasn't back in the US until late Monday night and was dealing with jet lag for a few days after that. Add in a new patch and you have the anatomy of an upset. We saw the same struggles from TSM in their opening match against the Yoe Flash Wolves. Having spent most of the night preparing for the assumed victor, SK Gaming, TSM was vastly under-prepared for a match against the Flash Wolves. Once they had that initial match under their belts, TSM was able to make the necessary adjustments and come back and win the next two games.
The loss to Cloud 9 is significantly harder to process. For starters, their are mitigating factors that have to be stated. TSM had already locked up a number one seed and had little incentive to take the match seriously. This would be the easy and logical explanation for such uncharacteristic moves as Lustboy walking blindly into the enemy and Bjergsen getting caught out/flashing blindly into team fights. Neither of these are characteristic of how these players normally play. I am willing to give that to TSM. It appeared to me that TSM was either playing lazy, testing out a comp, trying to test their limits to see how far they could push it before Cloud 9 was able to win or some combination of the above. But the fact remains that Cloud 9's rotations were so vastly superior at times that it couldn't have all been TSM's lazy play. It is certainly possible that TSM just took a game off and will return in the Playoffs with the same form they had at IEM Katowice. But even so, Cloud 9 is clearly in the best form they've been all season and is not to be underestimated come playoff time. All in all, I think TSM is pretty much the team we thought they were. Likely the best team in North America by quite a bit, but not unbeatable by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, if there is one conclusion we can draw from IEM Katowice, it's that nobody is unbeatable.
After World Elite took down the GE Tigers, the question on everyone's mind was whether it was a fluke, or a sign of things to come. The former explanation was given credence after World Elite got steam rolled by TSM in the finals. But World Elite's improved performance since then would seem to say otherwise. In the week following their 2nd place finish at IEM Katowice, World Elite split a series with OMG and LDG, and then beat Starhorn Royal Club 2-0. At the Demacia Cup this past weekend, they again beat Starhorn Royal Club (this time 3-0), got stomped by EDG, and lost a close series to the surprise of the tournament, Qiao Gu, after QG beat Snake in the quarterfinals. World Elite's new roster is clearly performing better than their old roster and that improvement should continue as the players gain more experience playing with each other. Unfortunately, this split is already toast. But they could be a player come the second half of the season.
World Elite's victory over the GE Tigers was without a doubt the biggest upset in the history of competitive League of Legends. It would have been one thing for TSM, SK Gaming or Cloud 9 to beat the Tigers. All well-respected teams at or near the top of the region. It was something else entirely for the 11th best Chinese team to roll in and take down the presumed best team in the world. Since that loss, the Tigers took a 2-0 win over CJ Entus in a series that was much closer than the result would indicate, and then lost to the KT Bullets 2-1. The key takeaway from Katowice for the GE Tigers and the competitive scene in general is that no one is unbeatable. The community at large was quick to place the same dominant tag on the Tigers that we placed on Samsung White without waiting for the Tigers to establish the same track record. We saw a team dominating Korea and just assumed they were the best in the World.
There were two schools of thought entering Season 5. One was that the mass exodus of Korea's top players would cause irreparable harm to the scene. The other was that Korea would inevitably restock with new players and retain its status as the strongest region in the world. When the Tigers rose to prominence, proponents of the latter were quick to hop on board the Korean hype train and proclaim the Tigers the next great Korean team. This is hugely unfair to the Tigers, and the blame lies mostly with us for holding the coronation before we even held en election. It's pretty clear now that the real state of Korea lies somewhere in the middle. The scene isn't irreparably harmed, but nor is it as strong as past years. The Tigers rose to prominence not just because they are really good (they are), but because the teams around them got worse. The Tigers are filled with veterans taken from different teams, so it makes sense that they would adapt much quicker compared to other rosters that are working in new players. I expect the gap between the Tigers and the other top Korean teams to continue to close as the gap in experience between rosters also closes. We're already seeing it happen. In the end, the shock at the GE Tiger's failings at IEM Katowice has more to do with the community's unnecessarily high expectations than it has to do with the team itself.
Yoe Flash Wolves
The other surprise team from IEM Katowice. The fact that they surprised ins't surprising considering that most of the west ignores China and SEA until Worlds. The Flash Wolves were able to take down both Cloud 9 and SK Gaming on route to a semi-final series against TSM. While they were unable to take home the victory despite winning the first game, the Flash Wolves proved that they deserve to be considered alongside the best the west has to offer. The hasty thing would be to think the rest of the LMS should come along for the ride. They shouldn't. At this point, the Flash Wolves have proven that they are far and away the best team the LMS has to offer. It's quite shocking when you consider that most of the roster participated in the Season 3 World Championship as the Gamma Bears. They deserve a lot of respect for maintaining and even increasing their level in the years since. Two years is an age in competitive League of Legends. Just think of the long list of players from Season 3 that have retired. If you want proof of the Flash Wolves dominance of their region, you have only to look at their recent game against worlds participant AHQ, a 31 minute victory in which the Flash Wolves accumulated a 22k gold lead, to see that they are clearly on another level. In short, the Flash Wolves are definitely worthy of a spot at the table in the MSI or Worlds, but the rest of their region isn't ready for the spot light.
One of the faults with the League community is a tendency to draw massive conclusions from the smallest of sample sizes. SK Gaming only played three games at IEM Katowice. They lost to the GE Tigers, and then effectively split with the Flash Wolves. Unfortunately for SK Gaming, their loss to the Flash Wolves came in the loser's bracket, resulting in their expulsion from the tournament. There is really only one conclusion that can be drawn from SK Gaming's performance at IEM Katowice, and it's one we already knew. Their poor vision control is going to kill them in international competition. The same self-confidence that makes Forg1ven and the rest of SK Gaming is also their down fall here. They are clearly better than the rest of the EU LCS, but that same advantage won't exist in international competition. They're going to have to work on better vision control, expanding their champion pools, and making better use of their advantages. If they can do that, SK Gaming will meet their own lofty expectations. If they don't, then they will end up like TSM circa Season two and three. Dominating their home region but continuously coming up short in international competition.
Cloud 9's performance at IEM Katowice was a perfect example of something that is absolutely normal in sports. They had a bad weekend. It happens. They also only played two games, and at this point, the failures of the best of one format are widely established and known. This past weekend, Cloud 9 took down Gravity, TSM and CLG to steal the second playoff bye away from CLG. They now look stronger than they've looked all season, and will be a dangerous opponent for anyone in the playoffs. It helps that the meta is winging back into their favor. Meteos made his name on tank junglers that farm up into indomitable late game machines, and he remains as adept as ever at clearing the jungle faster than anyone else. In their match against TSM, he was actually keeping even in experience with the solo laners and outfarming Santorin despite exerting superior map pressure. It was Meteos at his very best. A welcome sight for a Cloud 9 roster that hadn't experienced any real adversity since joining the LCS before this split.
Despite being the 3rd best team in Korea, expectations were all over the place for CJ Entus heading into IEM Katowice. When they participants were originally announced, the general belief was that there would be an all Korean final. But as Katowice got closer and they began to fall off domestically, expectations plummeted. This corresponded with Gambit's rise in the EU LCS, and the belief that the Kings of IEM would rise again took on steam. While CJ was able to beat Gambit, who then lost to World Elite and exited the tournament, they were unable to beat either TSM or World Elite and soon followed Gambit out the door. They showcased an uncharacteristically poor (for a korean team) draft face that left them without many options in the face of a TSM roster that clearly came prepared. Against World Elite, they again seemed unprepared for a composition that was nearly identical to the World Elite had used the day before in their victory against Gambit.
The most surprising thing about CJ's poor performance at Katowice was the lack of surprise on the part of the international community. Even the denizens of inven clearly had low expectations for the team. Since then, CJ has gone on to take series from the KT Bullets and Samsung, while losing a hard fought series to the GE Tigers. There is a growing belief that SKT T1 is now the strongest team in Korea, having worked through their early season issues and finally chosen to play the best player in the world every game. The GE Tigers stand as a close second despite currently holding first place in the standings, while there is a gulf between them and CJ and Jin Air in the third and fourth spots. We'll know which of those two teams is really the strongest when SKT T1 and the GE Tigers face off this Saturday. As for CJ, I think a lot of the Korean community wanted to believe that CJ was on the downswing entering Katowice and would consider to fall afterwards, proving that they weren't really a top 3 team in Korea and limiting the damage to Korea's reputation. Unfortunately, their performance since, including a victory over a KT Bullets roster that then beat the GE Tigers, would appear to prove that they are in fact a top 3 Korean team.
Gambit was riding high heading into the IEM World Championship, finding themselves in the middle of a 7-1 streak that included a win over Fnatic. What went unnoticed was the fact that most of those wins came against the likes of Roccat, MYM and Giants! Gaming. It is likely that we had overestimated their improvement slightly and failed to account for the inexperience of betsy in the mid lane. Gambit has always been known for off meta picks, and betsy was quick to join in on the party with a decidedly off-meta Twisted Fate pick in both of Gambit's losses. While not the sole reason for Gambit's poor performance, betsy made a few key mistakes that helped bring on Gambit's eventual defeat.
In the two weeks since, Gambit went 2-2 and finished in fourth place. That record includes losses to SK Gaming and Meet Your Makers. It's clear at this point that SK Gaming is on a different level then the rest of Europe, with H2K, Gambit, Fnatic and UOL standing on equal ground and trading blows below them. In a sense, the disappointment over Gambit's poor performance at IEM is a result of fan nostalgia. Gambit spent so much time as a dominant force in Europe that any hint of a strong performance tricks fans into thinking they might be back. That the Moscow 5 that took the scene by storm might rise again in fulfillment of the scriptures and take their rightful place upon the thrown. IEM was that Moscow 5's turf, and not even the Koreans could encroach upon it. But that Moscow 5/Gambit is gone, and no matter how much Diamond flashes his old brilliance, it's never coming back. It's something that fans of sports and players have had to come to terms with for centuries. All Empires eventually fall.