League of Legends teams to watch at IEM Katowice

Taylor Cocke

(Photo: Lolesports/Riot Games)

IEM Katowice marks the first time League of Legends squads will test their might against the international competition in 2016. After a chaotic offseason rife with seemingly endless roster swaps, it’s difficult to predict how things will shake out.

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But we’re going to give it a shot anyway.

(Photo: Lolesports/Riot Games)

The (formerly) big three

If you took a time machine back to November and looked at the IEM lineup, you’d see a lot of familiar faces. Three of the four semifinalists from Worlds 2015 — Fnatic, Origen, and SK Telecom T1 (the reigning World Champions) — are making their way to Poland. Exciting, right?

Well, sort of. Despite their successful runs on the Worlds stage, all three squads are struggling in their home regions, seemingly as a result of big roster swaps.

Fnatic is the biggest victim of the offseason changes, having lost shotcaller support Bora “YellOwStaR” Kim to Team SoloMid and top/jungle lane duo Heo “Huni” Seung-Hoon and Kim “Reignover” Yeu-Jin to Immortals. Only AD carry Martin “Rekkles” Larsson and Fabian “Febiven” Diepstraten are left standing from the team’s stellar 2015 Spring Split, in which they went 18-0 in the regular season.

But those days are gone. The gutting of the core of the team has led Fnatic to an 8-6 record after 7 weeks of play in the EU LCS.

(Photo: Lolesports/Riot Games)

Meanwhile, their European counterparts Origen are sitting at 7-7, one game back from Fnatic’s 5th place spot. But unlike Fnatic, they’ve only swapped a single player, with legendary mid laner Enrique “xPeke” Cedeño stepping into a coaching role and former Unicorns of Love mid Tristan “PowerOfEvil” Schrage taking his spot. Analysts consider the swap to be an overall upgrade, as xPeke’s play had been declining and POE had proven himself more than capable on his former team.

The lineup hasn’t gelled as well as they would have hoped, however, especially after IEM San Jose, where they took home the top prize. They’ll have to settle down, find a strategy that works, and execute if they hope to do well in Poland.

Topping off the three returning semifinals is SK Telecom T1, the 2015 World Champions. They’ve only made one roster swap, bringing in Lee “Duke” Ho-Seong for Jang “MaRin” Gyeong-Hwan. And yet, they can’t find their rhythm. They’re holding a 5-4 match score, solidly in the middle of the LCK pack. Sure, it’s tough for a team to keep motivation after they win League’s biggest prize, but few would have expected them to do this poorly.

Then again, SKT has regularly shown up on the international stage. Lee “Faker” Sang-Hyeok could certainly do his thing and take over the tournament. As it stands, though, they’ll have to do a lot of work to return to their dominant Worlds form.

(Photo: Lolesports/Riot Games)

The favorites

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They dropped highly talented Yiliang “Doublelift” Peng from their roster (he’s on TSM now), but they’ve looked stronger for it. They had a slightly rocky start, but have established themselves as one of the most consistent teams in the West. Hell, they’re coming out of a 2-0 Week 7, with wins over the previously undefeated Immortals and the now third place Cloud9. If there’s a time for CLG to prove themselves in an international tournament, this is it.

But to do that, they’ll have to work their way through a pair of very strong Chinese squads. First up, there’s Qiao Gu Reapers. The team-fighting masters coming out of China are arguably the favorites this year, and that’s even without them able to successfully integrate legendary AD carry Jian “Uzi” Zi-Hao into their team. In a meta so focused on finding the right fights, winning them, and pushing objectives as a team, 2016 is their time to shine. For now, they’ve found much more success with AD carry Yu “Peco” Rui on the roster, but they’ve always got the option to pull out the big guns.

(Photo: Lolesports/Riot Games)

And then there’s Royal Never Give Up. Focusing more on sneaky objective control and splitting (they have master split pusher Jang “Looper” Hyeong-Seok, after all), RNG is the counterpart to QG. They have a heavy (and we do mean heavy) focus on taking Baron, prioritizing the big worm’s buff over just about anything else. They win just about every game in which they manage to get a solid Baron push.

That focus can be their downfall, though. Teams in the LPL know exactly what they’re aiming to do, and occasionally are able to punish them for it. If the teams at IEM have done their research, they’ll be looking to do the same. That is, if they can find a way to deal with RNG jungler Liu “MIxg” Shiyu.

(Photo: Lolesports/Riot Games)

The dark horses

It’s slightly odd to talk about Team SoloMid as anything but a strong contender, but that’s absolutely the case at IEM Katowice.

They look great at a glance, however. They picked up one of the strongest (on paper) bot lanes in the world by nabbing Doublelift from CLG and YellOwStaR from Fnatic. Their top half of the map is (once again, on paper) solid with aggro jungler Dennis “Svenskeren” Johnsen and up-and-coming top laner Kevin “Hauntzer” Yarnell. Oh, and they’ve got this guy Søren “Bjergsen” Bjerg holding down the mid lane. No big deal.

But despite all that talent, TSM is sitting in fourth place with an 8-6 record in North America. They dropped their head coach in hopes of recovering for the latter part of the season, but haven’t shown themselves to be a true top tier team, especially after dropping to Team Liquid in Week 7. This may not be TSM’s tournament.

Finally, there’s ESC Ever. These guys came out of absolutely nowhere earlier in the year, bringing down some of the biggest names in the LCK to win the KeSPA Cup. Technically a semi-pro team, they weren’t supposed to end up anywhere near the finals in that competition, only to bring down Rebels Anarchy, SK Telecom T1, and CJ Entus on their way to the top spot. Granted, many teams don’t take the KeSPA Cup terribly seriously, so they may have snuck the win from under their noses.

(Photo: Lolesports/Riot Games)

And let’s not forget that they’ve already beaten Qiao Gu at an IEM event — and one only a few months ago — in Cologne. Since then, however, they’ve lost their star mid laner Kang “Athena” Ha-Woon and brought in rookie Kang “Tempt” Myung-Gu to take his slot. While Tempt has had solid showings in the amateur scene (Ever is 9-3 with him starting, so far), this will be a whole new level of competition for him and the Korean upstarts.

Taylor Cocke is always on the lookout for an underdog to flip the League of Legends table and send the established teams flying. You can join him in his search by following him on Twitter @taylorcocke.

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