Chinese teams need good showing at IEM Katowice

League of Legends has few opportunities for teams to demonstrate international strength. With sparse tournaments, it’s important for representatives to be prepared and capable of performing, lest they spoil their reputation on the international stage. One only has to remember how GE Tigers were mocked for losing to Team WE at last year’s Intel Extreme Masters World Championship for the point to be driven home.

This year, however, is not about China playing spoiler, but about redemption. Five months ago, Chinese teams disappointed at the League of Legends World Championship, dropping out in early stages after being favorites to win it.

At IEM Katowice, which begins Friday, China’s two best teams, Royal Never Give Up and Qiao Gu Reapers, compete against mostly middle-of-the-pack teams from Europe, North America, and Korea, barring two exceptions. If audiences are to begin forgetting about the disaster of worlds, China must win.

The implosion

Many speculated China to be the strongest region last year after a large number of top Korean players joined teams in the League of Legends Pro League. Early performances in international tournaments supported the theory: EDward Gaming defeated SK Telecom at the Mid-Season Invitational in a nail-biting series by employing a clever draft in the final game.

Coming into worlds, EDward Gaming and LGD were among the favorites to win. Instead, they imploded. EDward Gaming could not muster a challenge to SKT in the group stage and was  swept by Fnatic in the quarterfinals.

LGD embarrassed itself with a 2-4 record in a group it was expected to win, even losing a game to North America’s Team SoloMid. Nothing about either team looked remotely similar to what had led them to be LPL champions in spring and summer.

The failure of LGD and EDward Gaming (less so Invictus Gaming, which performed within expectations) was attributed to poor scrim culture and poor preparation. Scrims weren’t taken seriously, and teams prefered to experiment on patches in competitive games.

That culture, combined with the drastic metagame changes Riot Games introduced just before worlds, produced catastrophe.

New contenders

Qiao Gu Reapers and Royal Never Give Up have risen to the top of LPL, taking spots previously claimed by EDward Gaming and LGD. Both attend IEM Katowice as the best LPL can currently offer, and the pressure is on. This tournament is their chance to show China is learning from its mistakes from worlds.

Unlike most of their adversaries, Qiao Gu and Royal are atop the domestic standings. Korea’s SK Telecom sits in a tie for fifth place after struggling to adapt to a carry/jungler meta and the departure of top lane Jang “MaRin” Gyeong-Hwan. EVER, champions of IEM Cologne, made a remarkable run through KeSPA Cup to get to IEM after failing to qualify for League Champions Korea.

EVER’s story is remarkable, if not somewhat smeared by the poor showing of every Korean team that attended worlds at KeSPA Cup. For all purposes, this is still a Challenger team that also went through a minor roster change in the mid lane.

North America’s attendees are Team SoloMid, invited as reigning champion from last year’s event, and Counter Logic Gaming, qualifying through a finals finish at IEM San Jose. TSM has woefully unimpressed with its touted roster and suffered internal issues resulting in the firing of its coach. CLG, on the other hand, recently handed NA’s first place Immortals its first loss and solidified a second place standing.

Europe offers Fnatic and Origen, two teams that were at the top of the European League Championship Series last year that are now struggling to string wins together.

Save for CLG and the wildcard EVER, Royal and Qiao Gu are the two best performing teams from their respective region. Therefore, it’s imperative for one of them to get to the final and win. Failing as the best from a region against teams who struggle domestically is only going to add to the chagrin surrounding the LPL.

The Obstacles

Qiao Gu and Royal don’t have free passes, though. Problems familiar to the Chinese scene still loom, while the LPL format also complicates matters.

The mentality of these teams seem as callous as ever. When asked by Kelsey Moser of The Score why Qiao Gu lost game 2 against Vici Gaming on Feb. 21, AD Carry Yu “Peco” Rui simply stated “we knew we could win the third one,” later saying that effort level “is very common.”

Assuming Peco was telling the truth and not just playing it cool, LPL teams haven’t learned anything from worlds and continue to practice poorly. That doesn’t bode well.

North America’s Counter Logic Gaming is one of the six teams in the way of a Chinese ascent at IEM Katowice. Photo courtesy of Riot Games.

LPL’s format only serves to further sabotage its teams’ international chances. The LPL employed a split group stage format where teams compete in a double round robin in their groups, and then a single round robin against the opposing group. All matches are best of three.

The problem lies in LPL’s patch management: rather than updating patches as they come out, the LPL keeps to the same patch through a phase of a tournament. Because of that, LPL played on 5.23 for its first three weeks, and has only switched to 6.1 in Week 4.

In contrast, the LCS switched to 6.3 at that time for its sixth week. For a region that chooses to disregard scrims and consider professional play the only practice time, Qiao Gu and Royal could have no idea how to play on 6.3.

Another thing to note is that Qiao Gu and Royal didn’t usurp the old leaders of LPL. They ascended in a power vacuum left by EDward Gaming’s and LGD’s collapses. Had they beaten those teams in their peaks last year to claim first place, there would perhaps be more faith.

But they instead filled a vacant throne. They are China’s best, but that could be a statement to how China has fallen rather than how those teams have risen.

Remember, Qiao Gu lost to EVER in the finals of IEM Cologne back in December, after almost losing to Dignitas and Fnatic prior. While Qiao Gu has notably improved, that’s in the context of the culture of LPL. As seen previously, that success might not translate onto the international stage.

If there’s a time for China to begin regaining the respect it lost at Worlds, it is now. Its best teams face mid-level talent from EU, a failing super team, NA’s second best, an SKT woe with strife, and a Korean Challenger team that hasn’t been seen in months.

Should Qiao Gu and Royal fail to make it out of groups or lose decisively in the playoff round, then LPL hasn’t learned anything.

Cover photo courtesy of Riot Games.

Freelance writer for Slingshot, Liquid Legends, and DraftKings.

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