Dec 6 2014 - 6:32 pm

Thorin's Threads: 9 story-lines for IEM IX San Jose

As exciting as matches and tournaments are on their own, I always find the context surrounding matches to be a key factor in enhancing the experience of watching the matches unfold.
Dot Esports

As exciting as matches and tournaments are on their own, I always find the context surrounding matches to be a key factor in enhancing the experience of watching the matches unfold. Knowing the historical component of the impact, a win or loss can have on a player's or team's career heightens the excitement. Seeing how individual performances can shape the way we think of players, make the big pressure moment they rise to or fall from only more intense. Thorin's threads picks out key story-lines to follow, with their historical and cultural context explained.

IEM IX San Jose is upon us, beginning today, and features six teams all battling for the first place spot. Here are nine story-lines which are worth noting and bearing in mind as the tournament plays out.

1. Santorin's first test

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While Amazing was rightly criticised for champion pool problems while in TSM, the German Jungler and Lee Sin specialist had obvious strengths and a pedigree of competitive experience that ensured the base level for his play was understood heading into that chapter of his career. Santorin, on the other hand, comes in with barely any experience of note against top level players, as is resume shows only a relatively weak history in the European challenger scene and no hype surrounding him as kind of soloq god. Playing for a team with a name as large as TSM and a history of never finishing below the top two in LCS splits brings a lot of pressure, both in terms of how a player will perform and how they will keep their calm admist the media circus that follows TSM after their losses.

The first match for Santorin is a little forgiving, as his TSM will face either UOL, a team of players on the level Santorin is used to previously having competed at, or Lyon, a Mexican side who come into the tournament with no fanfare or wins of note. The bigger problem is that TSM's chances of defeating both are high, meaning the Danish Jungler is likely to have to face Meteos' C9 or Shook's Alliance in the final. A single tournament performance should rarely decide a player's fate, but the weight of fan expectation means this tournament will likely set the tone for how people discuss Santorin's play in the upcoming Spring split of 2015.

Facing the best Jungler in the history of North America (Meteos) or the most mechanically skilled in Europe (Shook) is a big challenge for a player who has the resources, with two of the best solo laners in the region, but not the experience.

2. Rekkles' Alliance journey begins

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It has been apparent since Rekkles' rise in late 2012 that here was a player who had all the mechanical skills to succeed in international League of Legends competition. Even during those early days, as a mere 16 year old, the Swedish ADC ace was able to display composure under pressure and deliver some very respectable performances against even world class opponents. Back then, all that held him back was his age. When he turned 17, now he just needed a spot in a top tier team, which ended up being FNATIC, as the black-and-orange decided to roll the dice on him over Puszu, the latter having helped them to a semi-final finish at the S3 World Championship.

Joining FNATIC was not the end of the line for Rekkles though, while on the surface a team who had won both LCS splits and had a still fresh resume of top international finishes should, by all rights, have been the last stop for Rekkles, a place to build his legend and rack up top placings, it was not always the fit he wanted. Sure, Rekkles and YellOwStaR quickly formed the best Western botlane and were rarely ever challenged for that title. Sure FNATIC reached both LCS split finals with Rekkles, winning Spring and losing in the Summer. The problem for Rekkles was that his youth and drive meant he still wanted to maximise his individual practice and playing with veterans who had more lax notions of how much one must apply themselves brought about some obvious disagreements in vision for the direction FNATIC was headed in. One could imagine that failing to make it out of Group C, the Group of death, at the S4 World Championship was the final nail in the coffin.

In Alliance, Rekkles has a team of players who have a history of being hard workers, for the most part, and he gets to join up with the other name in his region (Froggen) always put forward in debates over who the best EU player is. That Froggen is famed for his work ethic and dedication to improving bodes well for Rekkles in Alliance. That Alliance was a team seemingly in need of another carry and someone to make plays also opens the door for Rekkles to expand his game and improve his impact on every match he competes in. The only problem, as strange as it might sound, for Rekkles now, is that he has everything he could ask for now. There can be no more complaints or mild grumbling or discontent at lacking something which could take him to the next level. Now, Rekkles has it all and it's time to show what can be done with those resources.

At San Jose, Rekkles will still be very early on in his Alliance career, but the potential of playing a grudge match for his team, facing off against C9, means that fans will be heavily invested in the outcome, from a standpoint of not only seeing how Rekkles performs, but getting "the decider" from Worlds and finally in terms of the region vs. region battle. If Rekkles can help ALL to victory, then he'll be starting out in a great position PR-wise, as some fans will cite him as a potential difference-maker, since the teams drew at Worlds.

3. paiN's chance to prove themselves

On paper, paiN Gaming should have been the best or at least a top two team in Brazil. The pedigree of international performance is there, with two of their five members being in the line-up which defeated Creaton and Tabzz's Millenium back at the IEM VII World Championship in March of 2013 and three of the current five being present for the defeat of Oceloteworld, later to become Gamers2, in the semi-final of IEM VIII Sao Paulo in January of 2014.

Having imported a Korean botlane, in the form of Olleh, Support player and formerly of KT Arrows and Midas FIO, and Lactea, AD Carry and also formerly of Midas FIO, one could have expected the Brazilian side should be ahead of the pack or at least in contention with Keyd Stars, the other team in the region to import Koreans. Instead, paiN found their events in all vain when the Brazilian Regional came around, as they lost out to CNB in the semi-final. Now, having recruited that team's top laner (Leko), paiN looks to prove they have the chops to give the bigger Western names some trouble. KaBuM famously toppled Alliance to put the European champions out of the S4 World Championship and now paiN get the chance to face Cloud9, top eight finishers at that competition and two time champions of the NA LCS.

That C9 have not changed their roster since its inception under that name, also means that if paiN could play the American side close or upset them, it would bring even more cache, the NA side's line-up being famed for its synergy and long time playing together.

4. Cloud9's tournament to lose

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While Alliance and TSM are certainly worthy contenders for the IEM San Jose title, the fact both teams come into the tournament with new line-ups and the uncertainty that always surrounds teams that have not been fully tested with their current five, means that Cloud9 should stand as the favourites to take the title in San Jose. Their line-up is more than merely battle-tested, having won two LCS titles and played numerous series and matches against international competition, picking up game wins along the way.

The others can all cite excuses about as-yet-unfinished synergy-building or perhaps even blame poor performance from a newer player, but C9 come into San Jose with the same five that have formed one of the greatest Western teams of all time, constantly impressing with their intuitive synergy and ability to shot-call themselves out of trouble mid-game. If every there was a time for C9 to take an international title, this is it.

5. PowerOfEvil to the stage, please

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Unicorns of Love making it into LCS, defeating veterans Millenium in the Promotion series, was a result worth boasting about in its own right, but the peak of German Mid laner PowerOfEvil's career had already come early in the qualification route. In the third place match of the Spring Promotion Tournament, he faced up against Ninjas in Pyjamas and Alex Ich, legendary Mid laner, formerly of Gambit fame, and icon of the position. When PowerOfEvil was able to not only help his team to victory, but effectively style on one of the greatest European Mid laners of all time simultaneously, a potential new star was born.

Now, PowerOfEvil will get the chance to potentially go up against Bjergsen. If UoL can dispatch Lyon in the first round, which seems highly likely, then the German gets to battle the man some consider the best Mid and player. Bjergsen has shown his skill both in his four LCS splits of competition and now internationally at the S4 World Championship. Known for, at times, hard-carrying TSM to wins, Bjergsen is considered one of the most mechanically skilled players in the entire West. If PowerOfEvil ever wanted an opportunity to show he is really made of something special and destined to join the line of great European Mids, now is a perfect chance to prove as much. Alex Ich had a weaker team surrounding him and was only a few months removed from a change from Top lane, but Bjergsen is in the prime of his career and at the peak of his powers.

Europe is known for its great Mids and now the stage is set to find out if POE has a future amongst them.

6. Maplestreet at an IEM

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The last time Maplestreet tasted anything close to top level competition was his fateful and disappointing time in Velocity, as the team bombed hard during the NA LCS Summer split of 2013. More recently, the Canadian AD Carry has been plying his trade for Team8, even helping them to qualify for the upcoming LCS split in a tight 3:2 series over compLexity. Subbing in for Lyon now provides him a chance to show his skills on an international level. The task of subbing in is not quite as daunting as it might be either, as he gets to bring along Dodo8, his Support player from Team8, with him.

Facing off against UOL, Maplestreet finds himself battling players who are arguably less experienced than him, so the opportunity is there to possibly force an upset with some individual plays. Were Lyon to manage to best UoL, then a Bo3 series against TSM, the champions of the previous NA LCS split, would await. Maplestreet will be in the next LCS split anyway, but now he has a chance to show off his skills outside of the context of Team8.

7. The C9 vs. ALL rematch

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Cloud9 won the first match against Alliance at the S4 World Championship with their help of their famed shot-calling, picking apart the European side with the right calls and plays, stemming from the high LoL IQ the American side has always boasted. When Alliance won the rematch, it was in true Alliance fashion, rolling over solo lanes as a result of Shook getting rolling and never looking back. When they got to the team-fights, the Alliance players showed their mechanical strength and pushes through to a victory. Had KaBuM not have spoiled the party, fans of both regions would have gotten to see a tie-breaker between the two teams, a third game to decide it all, if you will. Instead, C9 played NJWS to decide who finished first in the group, but both progressed on to the play-off.

Now, the rematch is lined up for the semi-final of this tournament, assuming C9 can progress past paiN. Firstly, if C9 were to fall to paiN, it would provide a sweet note of revenge in itself, as fans of European LoL and Alliance could cite failure to beat a Brazilian team being what cost C9 a chance to play ALL again, mirroring Worlds in itself. Beyond that, this rematch is a great one in as much as it is such a clash of styles. One could imagine that both teams were creating RPG characters in PC Games where one can choose how many points to allocation into each category. C9 have stacked up on intelligence, intuition and synergy, while Alliance have put the majority of their points into mechanical skill and Froggen. In boxing they say that styles make fights and this match-up is one which surely proves that the principle carries over into esports.

Whether this will truly be the rematch the Worlds games deserve is debatable, particularly with Rekkles' addition allowing the potential to edge it either way, depending on how the Swede plays and integrates himself with his new team, but the prospect is certainly a tasty one.

8. Bjergsen vs. Froggen

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In the debate over who the best Western players are, three names typically come up and two of them are Mid laners. Those two Mid laners, Froggen and Bjergsen, could face in the final of IEM San Jose if their respective teams can win their semi-final match-ups. The last time they played was when Bjergsen was living the dream of the broken assassin Mid lane meta of the Summer of 2013 and Froggen was still attempting to straddle a world in which he would sometimes play assassins but other times still play mages, attempting to hard-carry an aging EG side to the play-offs with his individual play.

Since that time, Bjergsen has gone on to become the star of TSM and taken them to the LCS title in the Summer split of this year. Froggen has made his own team and they too won their regional championship in the last split of 2014. The two met in the All-Star match, with Froggen's Anivia showing up Bjergsen's Zed, but that result cannot be truly counted against the younger Dane. Now, the great Western players may get the opportunity to battle in a Best-of-Five (Bo5) final. Admittedly, each player's team has a roster change, but after so much anticipation as far as seeing them battle, we'll take whatever we can get.

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Who will win out? Can Bjergsen's aggressive skill-set and assassin dominance show itself superior to Froggen's cool and controlled passive play on farm-oriented champions? Will Froggen bring out his Fizz and match Bjergsen's penchant for assassins?  Bjergsen has been able to dominate most Western Mid laners he has faced in Bo5 series so far.  Froggen was able to handle dangerous Zed player Ggoong at Worlds. The possibilities are as mouth-watering as match-up itself may end up being, should we get to see it.

9. C9 vs. TSM, yet again

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If Alliance does not win their side of the bracket, then there is a good chance the final will be Cloud9 vs. TSM. That match-up has been played out in the last three LCS split finals, all Bo5 also. This time around, C9 retain their original line-up and TSM comes in with Santorin. With the previous final between the two going down to a fifth game which was in part decided by the blessings of RNGesus on WildTurtle's Tristana, C9 will certainly be looking for blood and some revenge. This match-up would not only be a good match-up of styles, with TSM certainly more in the Alliance camp of less-decisive shot-calling than C9's crisp rotations, but also a great primer for the upcoming NA LCS split, which is likely to feature both as serious contenders for the crown again.

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