The opening day of IEM Katowice's World Championship has come and gone, and we're down to six teams vying for the crown. One of the tournament's favorites entering the tournament, China's Royal Never Give Up, didn't disappoint in the rebranded organization's international debut. They swiftly sidestepped the competition to advance into the semifinals, awaiting the second place team from Saturday's second group of four squads.
Katowice's second semifinalist came in the form of the tournament's defending champions, North America's Team SoloMid. Although their road to the final four was rockier than Royal's, as they had to battle through the lower bracket to make it out, the preseason NA LCS favorites will play on Sunday because of their 2-0 deciding match victory over South Korea's ESC EVER.
Before we step forward into Saturday's games, featuring two-time and current world champions SK Telecom T1, let's take a closer look at the biggest winners and losers from the opening day in Katowice.
Winner: Royal Never Give Up Regains China's Pride
I'm not going to beat around the bush here -- Chinese teams have been terrible these past few months. They entered the 2015 World Championships in Europe as the odds-on favorite region to have a team lift the Summoner's Cup, but what occurred instead was nothing short of a disaster. Domestic champion and supposed titan LGD Gaming embarrassed themselves in the group stages, and failed to even make it into the top eight. Even their team's most consistent squad, Edward Gaming, couldn't pick up a win in the top eight, as they got swept by Fnatic to eliminate the entire nation of China from the tournament in its earliest stages.
Things only got worse when LGD traveled to IEM San Jose, vowing they would prove their strength and gain redemption for themselves on an international stage. LGD's plan to bring back some respect back to the regopm was a complete failure, with the team dropping out of the tournament in straight losses. The Chinese teams, which had spent the most money in 2015 to compete with the South Korean region, in terms of infrastructure development and big player signings, had been left with nothing to show for their investments.
Royal Never Give Up had a similar narrative heading into IEM Katowice. They're atop Group B in LPL's two conference system, and boast an impressive lineup led by one of game's all-time greats, Cho "Mata" Se-hyeong, in the in-game leader role. It's a team built on [a lot of] money, explosive offense, and immense skill. Expected to make it to at least the semifinals, anything but a top four finish would be considered another international folly for China.
Fortunately for the proud fans of China, RNG did what LGD could not last IEM -- bring a bit of pride back to their region. Royal might not be the best team in the world when it comes to the macro-sense of the game, sometimes looking lost in terms of objective control in their game against Origen, but they more than make up for it with their skirmishing prowess and technical skill. RNG's jungler, Liu "Mlxg" Shiyu, is the player with the greatest chance to breakout as a household name this event, as he's the key to whether or not Royal can take home the championship. The Chinese jungler leads all players at his position in the LPL when it comes to kills, and RNG rewards their ace jungler with a hefty percentage of the team's gold in-game to get him rolling. If Mlxg can find relevance in the early-game, or can farm steadily into Royal's favorite objective of Baron Nashor, then the two-time Summoner's Cup runners-up might very be seeing gold on Sunday.
Is China back to the reverence it was given before the 2015 Worlds? Not even close. But, as their apt name would suggest, the former Royal Club is not giving up on bringing back the respect to China's LPL.
Loser: (Not) Happily EVER After
The plucky underdogs from Korea's minor leagues saw their fairytale come crashing down in flames on opening day. Their luck seemed to be continuing when Team SoloMid botched a 10k gold lead in the first game of the day, but EVER followed that fluky victory with three straight losses to get knocked out of the tournament.
EVER made it to Katowice through smart drafting and finely-tuned synergy that made them appear wise beyond their years, and the team was at their absolute best when they could capitalize on mistakes from their opponents -- using global ultimates and teleports to force opportune fights when their enemy made a small mistake. While not being in Korea's premier league, LCK, there was an aspect about them that made you believe they might have the potential to win IEM Katowice in an upset.
Sadly, fairytales aren't often real, and EVER's hopes of winning a major tournament as a minor league team weren't either. Outside of their AD carry, Lee "LoKeN" Dong-wook, the squad played like what they are: a Challenger team that has some good talent on the squad, but needs a lot more practice and time to be anything more on a consisten basis. On the plus side LoKeN, in their one win against TSM, was world-class on his Lucian -- dipping in and out on the agile champion with multi-kills even when his team was down a massive amount of gold.
Everyone else, including EVER's rookie phenom at the support role, Kim "KeY" Han-gi, looked lost against the major league teams in their group. KeY's signature Bard lost all of its luster during Friday's games, with the young support player consistently making illogical mistakes in their deciding match series in a rematch with TSM. The team was out of their depth, and it showed through in their spotty, inflexible play.
Winner: The Bjergsen and Doublelift Show
TSM were on their way to being the big losers for the day after just one game. The team had a 10k gold lead and a Yiliang "Doublelift" Peng Pentakill, but the team still lost the game through indecision as TSM fractured under the pressure. Individually the team did great, as the all-star lineup of TSM performed as promoted -- they got a lot of early-game kills, looked flashy at times and dominated the opponent. The issue here, though, was that their late-game was still splintered as badly as it was last year, with their constant dancing around Baron and lack of decisiveness allowing the teamfighting-happy EVER back into the game.
Their lower bracket match against Origen wasn't all that clean, either. It took a heroic effort from Bjergsen -- believe me, I know one when I see one as I wrote this line a lot in 2015 -- for TSM to get out of their dogfight with the equally troubled Origen from Europe. It wasn't until their rematch with EVER, another team that was having trouble adapting to the international stage, where TSM began to play like you'd expect on paper from a starting five like theirs.
In six games Bjergsen went 35/10/42, with Doublelift going 31/17/46. Together, the double carry core of SoloMid accounted for over 60 percent of the team's overall damage -- and they both went over 670 damage per minute in those games. These are the types of numbers that TSM fans salivated over during the offseason when it announced that one of the best western AD carries of all time would be joining the two-time NA LCS MVP and consensus best player in North America, Bjergsen, on the same squad.
As long as TSM can come together when it matters, that being their late-game shotcalling, this work-in-progress lineup could mature faster than once thought. Before I call all of TSM winners, though, let's see how they do in a possible SK Telecom T1 or Qiao Gu Reapers semifinal match on Sunday, shall we?
Loser: Origen in Stagnation
Origen's struggles could be stretched out into a full-fledged article of its own. The closest thing we can compare Origen's faltering this split to would be Cloud9 from North America last year, when they dropped their captain Hai "Hai" Lam in favor or a more mechanically-gifted mid laner in Nicolaj "Jensen" Jensen. The team flatlined without their in-game leader in the center of the lineup, and it wasn't too long before Hai returned to the team as jungler. With his help, and Jensen's evolution as a mid laner, the team went to Worlds last year -- and now it's faring well in the NA LCS' regular season.
The Worlds semifinalists had their captain and mid laner, Enrique "xPeke" Cedeño Martínez, step back from the starting five in the offseason and become a substitute. He was replaced by another young European talent who was considered an upgrade when it came to mechanics, that being former Unicorns of Love mid Tristan "PowerOfEvil" Schrage. The results so far have been completely average -- not good enough to contend with the top teams in Europe (and internationally), but good enough to keep afloat over the bottom four teams in the EU LCS.
IEM Katowice was a mirror image of their games in Europe. They were steamrolled by a tournament favorite in RNG, and they had a close losing effort to TSM in a match between two teams that have teetered around average this season in their respective leagues.
Will things change with the postseason a few short weeks ahead? Will they go the Cloud9 route and bring back Xpeke to see if his leadership can relight the spark for the team? All we know is that, currently, with the team's starting five and form, this Origen squad will have trouble going very far this spring playoffs.