Welcome back to ESPN's League of Legends Power Rankings, dear reader. With the end of the first splits of the year completed across the globe, we enter Riot's second annual international halfway event: the Mid-Season Invitational.
MSI, the Prelude to Worlds, can be considered the second most prestigious tournament of the year. The five champions of the power regions during the first half of the campaign (Korea, China, Europe, North America, Taiwan) and the wildcard winner (Turkey being this year's qualifier victor) converge on the designated battleground to see which region will reign supreme heading into the World Championships.
Last year, it was this season's MSI hosts, China, that reigned supreme, with LPL's spring champion EDward Gaming prevailing over Korea's SK Telecom T1 in a 3-2 instant classic. Although securing the massive victory, EDG couldn't continue its success into the latter half of the year, and the MSI champs failed to capture the summer championship before falling out in the quarterfinals of the World Championships.
SKT T1, the team that lost the mid-season event, retooled its game plan, went into the summer months stronger due to the loss, and went on to rampage through the next LCK season and Worlds.
Winning the Mid-Season Invitational is important and very well could catapult a formerly disregarded region to the limelight -- but it's only as important as what you learn from it. As a champion of a region, your peers' representative, you have two goals when walking into the war that is MSI:
1. Win, obviously
2. Learn as much as you can from your high-level opposition and grow as a team in the summer season
With that being said, let's get to the rankings of our six combatants heading into the tournament next week in Shanghai.
1. SK Telecom T1
The kings of Korea (and thus the world) smile gently down at its foes below, ready to strike another accolade into its already overflowing history book. SKT T1 comes into this tournament as the odds-on favorite, even more so than how it entered last year's Worlds. While many still picked T1 to win the Summoner's Cup in 2015, the rise of China and its MSI victory gave the impression it'd be an all-out war between the two sides come the biggest event of the year.
However, when we got to Europe and the World Championships, Korea dominated like usual. The Mid-Season Invitational is the only trophy missing from T1's trophy case, as the team did win the spiritual predecessor of the tournament, All Stars Paris, but failed to beat EDG last year in Florida. A victory in Shanghai would mean SKT T1 would be the current holders of the Summoner's Cup, IEM World Championship, and the Mid-Season Invitational crown, completing the international triple crown and putting it in another galaxy compared to the other organizations in the scene.
Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok, the world's best player, will of course have all eyes on him throughout the competition, yet it'll be up to the team's greenest player, Kang "Blank" Sun-gu, whether T1 completes the trio of titles or not. The rookie has improved rapidly from his missteps early in the spring split, and his crafty play was a major part of T1's wins at the IEM World Championships and the LCK Finals. In a meta where a jungler's ability to assert a presence on the map early can either make or break a team, Blank can solidify himself as one of the world's best in the jungle with a third straight stellar tournament performance.
Moreover, Bae "Bang" Jun-sik is really good. Really, really good. SKT T1's AD has been the most consistent cog for his squad in 2016, and the fleet-footed carry has put himself in the conversation as one of the top five players in the world. Even when the likes of Faker and Blank have disappointed this split, Bang has been the X factor that has kept T1 intact.
2. G2 Esports
Now this is where things get interesting. Following SKT T1, we get to four teams where you can make a debate on where each one should go. For me, I sided with the European title winners, G2, as my second team entering the event. The team, while inexperienced in international tournaments, could be the world's best chance at giving a good shot on the grand stage.
When the year started in Europe, it was seen as a possible down year for the region, quite like Korea in 2015 due to its exodus of established stars. Champions Fnatic was in a rebuilding season, runners-up Origen was struggling, and favorites on paper, H2k-Gaming, was dealing with roster issues for a large part of the split. G2, a true rookie to the EU LCS, came up from below to surprise the veterans of the league, winning the regular season title and then winning the playoffs in a 3-1 victory over Origen.
When I watch G2, I see a team in a meta perfectly made for it, and a starting five that has all the potential in the world to grow into Fnatic-like international giants come Worlds if it can make MSI a successful trip.
The team's core comes in the form of two relative rookies, one European and the other Korean. Luka "PerkZ" Perković, EU LCS' Rookie of the Split award winner, is a magician in the mid lane and the next in the seemingly never ending line of stud European mid prospects. A player with confidence beyond his years, he has the skill-set (and foresight) to take fights against his lane opponents at odd timings. Perkz has a large champion pool, quick thinking mind, and dazzling mechanics. The only thing separating him from 2015's all-star European rookie mid laner, Fabian "Febiven" Diepstraten, is international glory.
Febiven was a key part to Fnatic's semifinal performances at MSI and Worlds last year. Can Perkz match, or better yet, surpass the orange and black's heralded ace?
G2's other core carry won the MVP of the EU LCS award for his first-class work in the regular season, that being Kim "Trick" Gang-yun. Trick, a former CJ substitute player, came over from Korea in the off-season with minimal hype, mirroring Kim "Reignover" Yeu-jin's debut in Europe with Fnatic in 2015. Like the Perkz and Febiven comparison, Trick quickly turned on the jets in his abroad debut, and it didn't take long before he became head of the class of EU LCS junglers.
Maturing should be the top objective for a talented unseasoned team like G2 Esports. A top four finish. Maybe a finals appearance if the stars align. Another split of Perkz and Trick growing together as a world-class duo could result in a long stay come Worlds in the United States.
But, as we saw in the EU LCS this spring, G2 isn't the ones to take the slow and easy road. When the samurai of G2 Esports set foot in the EU LCS arena, it was brushed aside as a rookie organization with a possible chance at top four if the stars aligned. By the time things came to a close, though, G2 was the champion.
Sure, T1 is the clear favorite and seen as a team strong enough to possibly sweep the entire tournament. That doesn't mean G2 isn't going to do its best to knock it the hell out.
3. Flash Wolves
Out of all the teams joining the fight for the MSI title, the Flash Wolves is the most mysterious. While we've seen glimpses of China, Korea, Europe, and North America clashing in IEM events throughout the opening months of the year, Taiwan has kept to itself in the LMS. The other countries and regions have watched from a distance as AHQ Esports and Flash Wolves waged war, yet you can't really gauge how strong a region is from a distance.
We know Korea is the strongest, China is struggling, Europe is resourceful, and North America is, well--North America, but what about Taiwan? Going back to 2012 when the region won the Summoner's Cup with the Taipei Assassins, it was still a mysterious region. People whispered about how TPA had all the tools to beat international giants like World Elite, Azubu Frost, Moscow 5, but there were no tangible results to support those rumors.
So when the Assassins went into Worlds that year and won the title, it was considered a shock for many and not so much of one for the whisperers. Although the region became a shell of its 2012 self the next two years, there was always a bit of an aura surrounding Taiwanese teams. The most separated and overlooked of the five power regions, you never knew if one day another team like the Taipei Assassins would slink out from the shadows and steal another major international trophy under the noses of the other regions.
Those hushed murmurs are back in the form of Taiwan's elusive wolves.
In what is seen as Taiwan's best chance at making a major international final since 2012, the Flash Wolves is at least a somewhat proven commodity. The team made it to the quarterfinals of last year's World Championships (albeit in a favorable first round) and played a competitive series against Europe's Origen before falling out. The Wolves switched out its inconsistent meat-shield of a top laner, Chou "Steak" Lu-Hsi, for an apparent upgrade in Yu "MMD" Li-Hung, and the runners-up of last year was able to finally thwart its rival AHQ in the spring finals to take Taiwan's combatant spot at MSI.
Watching the Flash Wolves on tape, it's easy to see why followers of the scene are high on this LMS championship team. Currently in a meta where the synergy between a carry jungler and a reliable mid laner is at the utmost importance, the Wolves possess that in spades with its shining duo of Taiwan's strongest jungler, Hung "Karsa" Hau-Hsuan and Huang "Maple" Yi-Tang, two of the region's best overall players.
When trying to rank G2 and Flash Wolves, it was difficult. Both teams have a jungle/mid duo I might even say have better chemistry than Faker and Blank currently on T1, yet are still lacking in all of the other areas compared to the Summoner's Cup holders.
With G2 Esports, you have a team from a region with a known recent pedigree. You can argue Europe dipped a bit in talent with Fnatic rebuilding, but even that squad was able to break through China's champions, Royal Never Give Up, at the IEM World Championships and make the final. I can trust the strength of Europe as a region.
With Flash Wolves, you have the experience edge over G2. Karsa and Maple have played on the big stages before. These two have felt the sting of losing on the international stage, and the two have grown together over the past year to where they are now. No team at this tournament, including T1, can match the trust between Karsa and Maple when it comes to the jungle and mid lane. Though, in the back of your mind, you have to ask yourself if Taiwan is really becoming the second best region in the world, or if it's simply being overrated because it's had the luxury of not getting destroyed by Korea this year or facing anyone but its own region.
The team's 'secret ace' comes in the form of its support, Hu "SwordArt" Shuo-Jie, who diced up the LMS this spring split with his electrifying Thresh and Alistar play. Although ranking in the lower rungs of the Taiwanese support ladder when it came to placing wards, the Wolves' maestro more than made up for it through his play-making ability. He led the entire league in assists (the next closest 18 behind), and was also tied for most kills at the support role.
SwordArt. Karsa. Maple. Despite the fact the roster has been slightly shaken up with Ha "KKramer" Jong-hu moving over to Korea's CJ Entus and the stepping down of Steak, the Flash Wolves employ the same three-headed beast that got it to the quarterfinals of last year's Worlds.
Fool's gold or not, the Flash Wolves will be one of MSI's most compelling narratives. Are the Wolves the next coming the Assassins, or will it be another disappointment for the region fighting for relevancy among the rest of the world's major powers?
4. Counter Logic Gaming
5. Royal Never Give Up
Instead of writing about these teams one at a time, I decided to talk about them together. To me, CLG and RNG are the teams I'm intrigued by the most entering MSI.
North America--the region that went 0-10 in the second week of the 2015 World Championships and bombed out without getting a single team into the quarterfinals.
China--the region expected to at least make the Summoner's Cup Finals, didn't even make it past the quarterfinals. LGD Gaming and Edward Gaming were heavy favorites entering the competition, and neither showed up when it counted.
Counter Logic Gaming, a methodical team. The true definition of a team. Greater than the sum of its parts. It took two razor thin victories in the semifinals and finals to repeat as champions and make it to the Mid-Season Invitational. On paper, it'd be easy to pen the team into the fifth slot above the wildcard winner Supermassive.
Royal Never Give Up, an explosive team. A team that can burn down the map in a matter of minutes. A team with two former world champions, regarded Chinese role players, and a jungler, Liu "MLXG" Shi-yu, who could be the big star of the tournament in front of his hometown fans. Led by Cho "Mata" Se-hyeong, my pick for greatest support in the game's history, you'd expect it to be second in the rankings behind SKT T1.
Mata vs. Faker. MLXG vs. Blank. The reigning MSI champion region vs. the reigning World champion region. On paper, it seems so very simple.
However, as we saw at the IEM World Championships, RNG has a lot of holes it needs to cover up on the global stage if it wants to be considered a rival to SK Telecom T1. The team failed to adapt in a series against Fnatic where it was favored to win, and RNG went out of the tournament in 3rd/4th place when a top two finish was expected.
CLG is a team that gets more out of its players than expected, and RNG is the opposite. It's rare for a single member of CLG to shine above the other, while Royal is a team where one player can rise above the next depending on the game or mentality of the starting five.
At home, defending its championship, Royal has everything to lose this tournament. If RNG loses in front of its home crowd, there will be backlash. This is not some no-name Chinese team that dice-rolled its way to the top. Royal paid a lot of money to acquire Mata, and the Chinese players on the squad aren't unknowns or complete works-in-progress like Mata had to work with last year on Vici Gaming in the summer split.
For CLG, what does it really have to lose? Last year at MSI, Team SoloMid got slapped around by the top regions and went home with a lone victory over the wildcard representative. If CLG loses, it'll just be another international setback for North America, people will make a few jokes about how the region is terrible, and everyone will move on with their days like it's normal.
It's been that way for Counter Logic the entire year. People have disrespected it, ranked it lower than record suggested, and pegged it as ultimate underdogs in the playoffs even as the second-seed. It's always been an us vs. them mentality for CLG, and MSI will be no different. Everyone expects the team to fall to stronger teams on paper, and CLG will believe in its own inner strength like it did against better on paper squads Team Liquid and TSM in the playoffs.
I wrestled with this ranking a lot. I had RNG fourth, CLG fifth. Then reversed. Then reversed again. It was a back and forth between my mind and gut. RNG has the talent. CLG has the team structure. RNG has the potential to be great. CLG is capable of adapting and striking down teams greater than it.
In the end, I went with the team I think, currently at least, plays better together as a team. If I were to rank players individually, Royal would enjoy a hefty lead over CLG. But looking at them as teams, Counter Logic Gaming has shown the resilience and fight to stay together even when its backs are against the wall and everything around it is crashing down.
If RNG loses its first game and the crowd starts to turn sour, can it withstand the pressure and bounce back? Royal has finalist-caliber talent. We'll see at MSI if it has a finalist-caliber starting five.
Turkey's SuperMassive is quite possibly the strongest wildcard team to enter a Riot-sponsored international tournament.
Unfortunately, this isn't Worlds, and SuperMassive doesn't have the chance to possibly make a deep run over the secondary and third-ranked teams from other regions. If the Turkish squad was able to advance to the semifinals, it would be the biggest Cinderella-run in League history, and two of the major five regions would not hear the end of it for the rest of the year.
Don't get me wrong, I think SuperMassive can surprise folks at MSI. Other than SK Telecom T1, I don't think any of the remaining teams are clear 100% wins over the wildcard champions. Unlike other wildcard region teams in the past -- looking at you Bangkok Titans from 2015 Worlds -- this isn't a team that gets by through flashy mechanics and throwing rocks against a wall.
A wildcard team can have great individual talent, but it'll be completely exposed on the international level if the team's macro is severely lacking. We saw it with the Titans at the last Worlds. The team had a lot of fun players that could get ahead early with strong mechanics, and yet, by the 30 minute mark, none of it mattered because the team had no clue how to play around the map in the late-game and control the flow of the game.
That isn't SuperMassive. The team has veteran leadership, and two of the players, Berke "Thaldrin" Demir and Mustafa "Dumbledoge" Kemal Gökseloğlu, played in last year's MSI. Dumbledoge even came into prominence when his squad's all-in opening gank on the mid lane gave him a kill against Faker and SK Telecom T1. His team lost in the end, but that's not the point -- he killed Faker, so the whole tournament was worth it.
Coming back, however, Dumbledoge and co. should be aiming higher in their goals. Everyone in this tournament, including SKT T1, has weaknesses, and it's not out of the realm of possibly the Turkish team can take a few games off its opponents.
Making the semifinals would be a historic event I'd option to write the Hollywood movie about.
But two or three wins? While an outwardly small goal, it would be one that could give SuperMassive the confidence to do even greater things come autumn at the World Championships.