If the European League Championship Series were a kingdom, it would be split into four. After one of the region's most successful years in 2015 -- with both Fnatic and Origen making the Riot World Championship semifinals -- the league was flourishing. The consensus second best region behind the all-powerful Summoner's Cup threepeating South Koreans. There were stars aplenty; and even with a few players leaving for higher wages over the waters in North America, it didn't deter the confidence of the top teams in Europe.
Spring was a tenuous season for the Europeans. In the end, it was not one of the established clubs that won the championship and ticket to the Mid-Season Invitational, but a rookie organization in G2 Esports. The up-tempo (and sometimes heedless) offense of G2 led it to a regular season title and then a postseason crown. It went on to represent the entire European region at the Mid-Season Invitational against other regions' best combatants. G2 played confidently on Summoner's Rift and it looked to serve them well on the grand stage of the game's second biggest tournament aside from the World Championships.
At the competition, the jolting spear of G2 was broken into two. Out of practice and internally disconnected, the young king of Europe was embarrassed in front of the world. The team was eliminated in the group stages and lost Europe's top seed placement at the upcoming World Championships. G2's only two wins of the entire competition came against the International Wildcard, Turkey's SuperMassive, and it was a slog to even take those wins off the scrappy underdogs.
A warm welcome was the opposite of G2's reception returning home, having disappointed its homeland with lack of practice, a laundry list of excuses, and dispassionate play. Since arriving back, changes have already been made to the roster in an attempt to rekindle the fire that led G2 to a title in the spring and spur it towards a better result at Worlds.
The other three teams that traveled to Rotterdam, Netherlands to battle it out in the EU LCS semifinals have all changed up their starting lineups. G2 has placed itself in the precarious position of being on a besmirched throne, and its three main rivals are watching, ready to bring honor back to the continent that once hoisted Summoner's Cup five years ago.
G2 wants redemption.
The others don't plan to give it any.
The Villain: G2 Esports
In sports, the winners are the ones who are cheered for, and the losers are the ones who are made fools of. For G2 Esports this summer, it will play the role of the villain. A team that brought the hope of an entire league and continent into the second biggest tournament of the year, and failed miserably, then citing a lack of practice for the poor performance. Losing, while criticizable, can be forgotten with better results. Losing and then admitting you didn't prepare for the competition is an entirely different story. G2's offensive firepower was doused during the Mid-Season Invitational in Shanghai, and it must not only do well in the summer split, but do well at Worlds to win back respect from the fans it angered.
G2 Esports will enter the summer split with an on paper upgrade in the starting five, with former bottom lane of Kim "Emperor" Jin-hyun and Glenn "Hybrid" Doornenbal moving way for the former star-studded Origen pairing of Jesper "Zven" Svenningsen and Alfonso "Mithy" Aguirre Rodriguez. The added pairing gives G2 Esports an even better weapon in its arsenal with Zven, and it brings the team a much needed veteran presence in Mithy, which it desperately needed at MSI.
As a five man unit, it's hard to argue, even for staunchest G2 non-believer out there, that this lineup doesn't have the makings of a strong contending team domestically and internationally. The jungle-mid pairing of Kim "Trick" Gang-yun and Luka "PerkZ" Perković is still intact, and you now fuse them together with one of the other best Western pairings in Zven and Mithy. G2, from the jungler position down to support, boasts one of best foursomes in the world today.
The problem, however, comes in the form of the team's top laner, Mateusz "Kikis" Szkudlarek. Kikis, as the team's rock in the top lane, is theoretically a good idea for the team. You don't want another carry in the lineup with an aggressive, attacking jungler like Trick, and Kikis is at his best when he can play his tanks and other unorthodox champions as a cog in the machine.
But even so, being a utility player doesn't mean poor performances can't bring down the whole house of cards. Players such as Choi "Acorn" Cheon-ju and Jang "Looper" Hyeong-seok have made their careers by playing around their teams in utility roles, and as such have lifted everyone around them. A powerful utility player in a non-support role can unlock the full potential of the skilled carries around them. A flimsy one can be a burden on the rest of the team and waste all the talent around him.
A team is only as good as its weakest link, and going into the summer split, Kikis is that piece of the chain for G2 Esports. If Kikis can become the type of top laner that does the little things well -- teleports, flanks, peels, neutralizing his lane opponent(s) -- then G2 Esports should be the odds-on favorite to repeat as champions of Europe.
So go ahead, make jokes about vacationing. You can call Zven -- who playfully changed one of his accounts to 'G2 Judas' -- and Mithy traitors for leaving Origen. Put Kikis' failed Poppy ultimates at MSI on loop and jeer at G2's failed expedition to China.
Like it or not, these 'villains' of Europe might also be the best chance at going far at this year's World Championships.
The Hero: Fnatic
Clad in the familiar colors of orange and black, Fnatic has been the class of European League for the past five years, winning the first Summoner's Cup back in 2011 and five out of seven EU LCS championships. When Europe has its brightest moments on the international stage, Fnatic is the one at the forefront.
The five-time champions struggled to find itself in the spring split, as the team went through a massive overhaul of the starting five when three starters left in the offseason. The team did well to turn it around by the time playoffs came around, but it was unable to make the finals, with a loss to the upstart G2 Esports in the semifinals. Fnatic did, however, take home the bronze medal for the spring split, taking a close series over rival H2K Gaming in mid laner Fabian "Febiven" Diepstraten's home of the Netherlands.
From then to now, Fnatic has brought back the man, Bora "YellOwStaR" Kim, who captained the team to a perfect regular season in last year's Summer LCS and a semifinals berth at MSI and the Riot World Championships. The world class in-game leader parted ways with his longtime organization in the 2015 offseason, eventually opting into a deal with Team SoloMid that brought him into the North American League Championship Series. After failing to win a third straight domestic title there and failing to gel with the team, YellOwStaR returned back to Europe and Fnatic in a quest to bring back glory to the club.
"I'm really excited to be back in Europe, especially with Fnatic," he told ESPN about his return. "I'm happy to find Rekkles and Febiven again, and the new Korean players, [and] a setup that is similar to last year [even though] I didn't get to experience the spring split with them."
Fnatic will be running three of the five players from its Worlds' roster from last year, and it'll be up to the Korean import duo of Noh "Gamsu" Yeong-jin and Lee "Spirit" Da-yoon to prove they're as efficient and reliable a tandem as Fnatic's former Korean import pair of Heo "Huni" Seung-hoon and Kim "Reignover" Yeu-jin. Spirit, once considered the best jungler in the world, will need to find his old form if Fnatic hopes to break through the likes of G2, regain its domestic crown, and make a run at getting back to the World semifinals this year.
"I think that having an Asian and Western background is really helpful to be able to understand both cultures and thus put all the group together," said YellOwStaR. "So I'm ready to work and I'm willing to synergize with them to get the crown back!"
Fnatic's captain is back. And he and his team want their crown back.
The Anti-Hero: Origen
In between the jeers of G2's performance at MSI and the high expectations of YellOwStaR's Fnatic returning to the LCS, we have Origen. Neither hero nor villain, the team dressed in black and blue are in the middle: the grey area of combatants fighting for the crown of Europe. As such, Origen has played both Fnatic and G2 Esports in the past two EU LCS finals and lost both times, barely losing out to Fnatic in a tightly contested 2-3 series last summer and falling to G2 1-3 this past spring.
Gone is the team's former backbone of Zven and Mithy in the bottom lane. In their place, the team swapped Hybrid over to the team and brought in former league MVP Konstantinos "Forgiven" Tzortziou-Napoleon. A polarizing figure, Forgiven has cemented himself as one of the best players in Europe, but has also found little success when it comes to postseason play. He's repeatedly led teams to the top of the standings or to solid playoff spots before faltering in the finals. Or, in the case when he played on Gambit, finding himself suspended for his behavior.
For a team that is desperately searching for an identity, Forgiven could be the man to bring it one. He has been consistently one of the best laning AD carries of the past few years, and if given time and space, a one-man wrecking crew in the latter stages of a game. For a team with Forgiven to succeed, he needs to be the primary focus of the team, and that is where his teams have been shut down in the past if he's missing or focused on.
When Forgiven was asked why he joined Origen, he said, "I just wanna try for once to compete at Worlds to show the actual distance between me and every other AD player."
"Neither hero nor villain, the team dressed in black and blue are in the middle: the grey area of combatants fighting for the crown of Europe. "
Regardless of his follies and seemingly endless team destinations, the two things you can't take away from the Greek superstar is his skill and his confidence. Be it on Origen, Gambit, a Challenger team, or some random normals team with friends, Forgiven plays to prove the separation between him and the rest of his peers, and he wants to win.
Fortunately for him, Origen is an experienced group that should be able to harness his talents instead of trying to subdue them or let him go completely rogue. Maurice "Amazing" Stückenschneider and Paul "sOAZ" Boyer, Origen's stronghold in the jungle and top lane, both experienced one of their worst seasons as pros last split. A recharged second half of the year along with Forgiven's inclusion should bring the team back to regular season prominence.
The other big question is the state of the mid lane for Origen. Tristan "PowerOfEvil" Schrage was pegged to be the team's youthful ace akin to Febiven on Fnatic, yet his regular season was an inconsistent one, and quasi-retired Enrique "xPeke" Cedeño Martínez played in three games that Origen all won. He also came in for a few games during the playoffs, and while PoE got a majority of the workload, the torch wasn't fully passed on.
Win or lose this split, this is PoE's time to grab that torch. For Origen to be a team able to win the European championship and go on to be a contender at Worlds, it'll need PowerOfEvil to be better than he was last year and prove to xPeke he is ready to be the full-time starter for Origen.
"I think Hybrid is a really good player and he has already accumulated a lot of experience by winning the spring split and competing in MSI," said Forgiven. "He can only benefit from my presence, and so do I."
Forgiven wants his championship, and the two-time runners-up is the club he wants to win his first.
The Wildcard: H2K Gaming
A villain, a hero, and an anti-hero. H2K, the only one of the four not to make a European final, is the wildcard of the four. The fourth place finisher of last split has constantly appeared to be on the verge of making the final and winning it all before things fall apart in the semifinals. It failed to make the finals last summer because of Origen, and the same happened this spring versus the same opposition.
The addition of Forgiven was supposed to bring H2K a title last campaign, but it wasn't meant to be. A club that has prided itself on playing as a team of five moving with powerful rotational play moved into a direction of playing under a superstar carry that dictated the pace and style of the team. This time around, H2K is going back to its roots with the signing of Aleš "Freeze" Kněžínek in the bottom lane, playing the role of ice compared to Forgiven's always fiery play and personality.
"I chose to join H2K for the upcoming split because I feel the roster is very strong and will have a great chance to qualify for worlds," Freeze told ESPN. "My goal will be to improve myself and help the team succeed."
"We tried building a team around individually skilled players and it had really great potential," added jungler Marcin "Jankos" Jankowski. "After the spring split, we realized we needed a more team play oriented roster so the organization made some changes. I think Freeze fits the team very well and we can achieve a lot in the summer split. We just need to work hard."
In the face of three teams with superstar talent littered across the rosters, H2K Gaming is going down the route of Counter Logic Gaming from North America. While the other teams grab the headlines with big signings and trades, H2K is setting up a roster it believes fits the ideal of a well-functioning team. As long as H2K can lift the European title at the end of the split, it doesn't matter how the stats look on paper.
"We had been scouting Freeze for a long time dating back to his time in Europe," explained Richard Wells, the organization's Chief Gaming Officer. "We think he has excellent abilities and will fit in well with the lineup."
Above all else this offseason, H2K has prioritized finding a roster of five that fits well together. To them, G2, Fnatic, and Origen can bring as high-priced arsenal as they like.
A superstar can take down a group of individuals.
A superstar against a team of five who trusts and believes in one another is hard to kill.