No more excuses: Anything less than a win would be a disappointment for the EU LCS at IEM Katowice

Yahoo Esports
G2 Esports at the EU LCS in 2017 Spring (lolesports)
G2 Esports at the EU LCS in 2017 Spring (lolesports)

Following the Week 5 EU LCS match between Giants Gaming and H2K-Gaming, G2 Esports AD carry Jesper “Zven” Svenningsen joined the analyst desk to break down the games. The topic inevitably turned to the looming Intel Extreme Masters Grand Final in Katowice, Poland.

“Do you agree that if we don’t get at least two European teams in the semifinal, it would be a huge disappointment?” EU LCS caster Martin “Deficio” Lynge asked Zven.

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“Having expectations for yourself that’s going to make you let down when you don’t win,” Zven said after he, Deficio, and Eefje “Sjokz” Depoortere discussed G2’s cockiness and failures in 2016.

Deficio let Zven off easily. Despite insisting that, given the circumstances of Katowice and the lack of high level teams from regions outside LMS, he still hesitated to predict a win for Europe’s best team.

“I expect them at least to make it to Top 4, and I’m gonna say, they’re going to make it all the way to the final.”

The reality of the situation is that just making the final would not be enough for G2 Esports at this point — or any European LCS team attending the event in Katowice, for that matter. With Flash Wolves struggling to execute strategies other than ones that sacrifice side lane advantages for mid lane leads, and only the eighth and tenth place teams for LCK in attendance, the EU LCS has no excuse to not take first at the IEM Season 11 World Championship.

In the short exchange between Deficio and Zven, the desk strove to remove the pressure from G2. G2 gained a reputation for choking in their only two international events: the 2016 MidSeason Invitational and the 2016 World Championship. Disastrous “vacation” announcements and nursery rhymes criticizing Luka “PerkZ” Perković resonate more strongly with G2 ESports than expectations for success.

But it would be dishonest to let G2 off easily this time. Though they have flopped at all the international events they’ve attended, appearing uncoordinated or failing to play well around their jungler, G2 have still blown through their competition in Europe. After a 2-0 victory over previously undefeated Unicorns of Love, G2 cemented themselves at the top of the EU LCS. They haven’t lost a domestic match in over a year.

IEM Katowice cannot just be a break from LCS for the European teams in attendance. After two consecutive years advancing to World Championship semifinals and victories at California-based IEM Final qualifiers, it’s unacceptable for the best team in Europe to consistently fail to impress internationally, even at an event almost no one will “take seriously.”

One of the easiest ways to correctly predict outcomes of international tournaments is to simply say the highest ranked Korean team will win. It’s often difficult to see past stylistic differences across regions and decide which method is optimal or which will beat another. Judging players against steeper or poorer competition sparks heated debate.

The reticence to predict a European victory doesn’t just come from G2’s underwhelming international performances. Even with only eighth or tenth place LCK teams in attendance, League of Legends analysts will almost always default to predicting a Korean victory. While some analysts have genuinely analyzed the games and concluded a Kongdoo or ROX victory as the logical outcome, others may hesitate to predict a win for a European team even if they decide it’s most likely.

Many like to reference historical examples like KT Rolster Bullets in 2014, who eventually placed 5th-8th place in Champions Korea Spring and won Intel Extreme Masters Katowice in the same split. With similar placement, SK Telecom T1 K also won All Stars, or the first iteration of the MidSeason Invitational that year.

That hasn’t consistently happened since 2014. In 2015 at Katowice, GE Tigers, the first place LCK team, were eliminated by last place LPL squad Team WE. Later that year, the rebuilding Jin Air Green Wings dropped to North America’s Counter Logic Gaming.

In last year’s IEM, SK Telecom T1 didn’t come into the IEM World Championship from a dominant position within the LCK. SKT did, however, go on to win LCK Spring split after overcoming their competition in Poland. In the same tournament, Challenger team ESC Ever won a single match before elimination. Longzhu Gaming had disastrous matches against Oceanic Wildcard team Chiefs before being eliminated by Flash Wolves.

Exceptions to poor performances by mid-to-low tier Korean teams at IEMs certainly exist. The same ESC Ever won 2016’s IEM Cologne against a QG Reapers that would go nearly undefeated in the first weeks of LPL. The same Kongdoo Monster that will attend 2017’s IEM World Championship placed second at IEM Gyeonggi.

Both Kongdoo and ESC Ever played against newly formed rosters from Europe and North America. Ever still struggled against H2K-Gaming and QG Reapers, and 2016 LPL Spring stands out as one of the worst competitive splits of LPL to date. Both of Kongdoo’s LCS opponents, Immortals and Giants Gaming hover near or within the bottom half of NA LCS and EU LCS this split.

A cursory glance at the ROX Tigers and Kongdoo Monster reveals that both teams have gaps in fundamentals. Kongdoo will fail to convert leads into jungle invades or objective control or sometimes even to make plays as a team. G2 should at least be able to defeat them in teamfights, while Unicorns of Love can potentially trip them up in early swaps.

ROX Tigers only seem capable of gaining pressure off mid lane leads, and Son “Mickey” Youngmin has appeared unwilling to drastically vary his playstyle as a result. He and jungler Yoon “SeongHwan” Seonghwan have established strong synergy since their time on Afreeca Freecs, and SeongHwan has consistently identified when he can take advantage of Mickey’s lead to punish enemy junglers.

Mickey’s playstyle is somewhat rare and surprising within the context of LCK where mid laners prefer more patient trades. Willingness to position far forward in lane, even without vision coverage, has made Mickey worthy of highlight plays, but has in part kept his teams from establishing a form of consistency. His style may actually match up more uniformly with the likes of Perkz or Unicorns of Loves’ Fabian “Exileh” Schubert.

Exileh, mid laner for Unicorns of Love (lolesports)
Exileh, mid laner for Unicorns of Love (lolesports)

Yet the pressure for pundits to err on the side of a Korean victory lingers. Fear of being wrong makes it easier to take the safe bet, and even if a Korean team doesn’t win, at least they took the safe option. At least they weren’t insane enough to predict a G2 Esports victory, given the team’s track record at international events so far. It also makes it easier for G2. If they lose, at least they can say they lost to an LCK team.

Arguably, SK Telecom T1’s constant ability to adapt, even when they have started poorly at an event, has made it nearly impossible to bet against Korean teams. Though SKT only narrowly made it into MSI’s Top 4, they smashed through the playoffs stage. Most who predicted an SKT win did so in spite of their messy group stage in which Lee “Faker” Sanghyeok got caught in side lanes frequently, and SKT had to rely on wave clear and flanks to compensate for early game ails.

That’s because SKT have the fortitude and the understanding to fix their mistakes in a short turnaround. The fact that SKT have consistently represented their region in past international events has led  casual viewers to consider SKT an embodiment of LCK as a region. Teams and organizations in LCK have had problems not dissimilar to those plaguing western regions: poor synergy, a lack of understanding of basic concepts, and slow reaction to map movements. These are problems bottom tier teams have failed to fix quickly.

Of course, ROX Tigers could still win IEM Katowice. They aren’t a bad team, and arguably their peaks would let them contend far above their average level, even in LCK.

If three of Europe’s top four teams cannot even compete with LCK’s current bottom three, it will reflect that the rest of the world is even more behind Korea than they were in 2014. If G2 Esports cannot demonstrate their strength against foreign teams in Poland, no matter how much they believe in their current roster and staff, additional change may become a necessity.

Last year, a similar storyline existed for China’s LPL teams, QG Reapers and Royal Never Give Up. When they attended IEM Katowice, they topped their respective groups in LPL, and their strongest competitors were mid-tier teams from other regions. QG and Royal failed to meet expectations, and the entire international community rightfully condemned Chinese League of Legends for the remainder of the split when Royal almost miraculously redeemed themselves at MSI.

This year it’s Europe’s turn. As much as “the gap is closing” gets tossed around, when an international competition approaches, it’s fair to say that here the gap doesn’t even matter. Those wanting to take the pressure off EU LCS teams like G2, Unicorns of Love, and H2K at the coming IEM World Championship know it’s disingenuous.

For those already standing at the top of Europe, there’s nowhere left to look but beyond its borders. The pressure to perform will always be there, in the moment, when the lights of the stage brush their faces — no matter the excuses they give themselves.

It’s time to embrace it.

You can follow Kelsey Moser on Twitter @karonmoser.

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