IEM Oakland: The League of Legends Mario Party

Team SoloMid in a triumphant huddle at IEM San Jose, Bjergsen center. Patrick Strack/ESL

If a League of Legends tournament occurs during the offseason, days before free-agent frenzy (and most of the clubs invited reject the invitation faster than an RSVP to an ex's wedding), does it really matter in the grand scheme of things?

IEM Oakland is going to be the Mario Party of League of Legends tournaments. The event is going to start out as a fun game night with your friends that quickly turns into everyone wondering why they agreed to come over in the first place. Someone is going to win, and the others will file out the front door, telling the winner they didn't actually try to win and only came over to have some good-intentioned "fun."

There are six teams that will be traveling to the Bay Area to compete for the $50,000 first-place prize and ticket to the IEM World Championships in the spring of 2017. There were supposed to be eight teams, but with the tournament's awkward placement in the offseason between the end of the 2016 World Championships and free agency, a slew of teams declined to focus on shaping their rosters for the new campaign.

Team SoloMid, for example, is without a starting AD carry after Yiliang "Doublelift" Peng announced he'd be sitting out the 2017 spring split to clear his head. ESPN recently reported that former TSM AD carry Jason "WildTurtle" Tran will be standing in for the team in Oakland before jetting off to South Korea for a tryout with the recently NBA-cash-infused Team Dignitas.

If WildTurtle does play, it'll encapsulate this entire tournament: fun, but the result won't mean much. Well, except for one team (we'll talk about that later). The Bay Area fans will see a return of the "Baylife" TSM for one weekend, TSM will get to take a breather after a long, tiring year, and everyone will enjoy themselves. There will be laughter, and in the end, there will be a trophy given out, with the fans probably chanting "T-S-M!" -- whether or not TSM actually wins the tournament.

Fear not, dear reader, I have you covered. As this is still one of the only international tournaments we'll have all year -- wow, that's a depressing thought, isn't it? -- a preview is necessary. So here are the storylines to watch for when six international teams battle it out for supremacy at the Oracle Arena in Oakland, California.

In the past two years, the winners of the IEM Bay Area offseason tournament have gone on to be runners-up in their respective domestic spring splits.

Coincidence? Most definitely. Grasping at straws? Once again, most definitely. The past two years, IEM have held similar tournaments before the free-agency period, and those tournaments ended with Cloud9 (2014) and Origen (2015) exiting as champions. Both clubs would then go on to make the finals of their respective LCS leagues that spring, and both would fall in defeat -- C9 losing to TSM in the 2015 NA LCS spring final and Origen falling to G2 Esports in the 2016 EU LCS final.

Now that it's scientifically proven that winning this tournament means you're going to get second place in your upcoming league, it'll be a treat to see which club leaves Oakland with $50,000, a seat at the table for the IEM World Championships and a guaranteed silver medal for the spring split.

People can finally chant "T-S-M!" appropriately.

Covering the World Championships was awesome. Even when TSM was knocked out in the group stages, it never actually felt as if they left the tournament. The crowds in Madison Square Garden and Staples Center chanted for the team with a tireless fervor. This time around, the American fans will actually get to see TSM in person. And it'll actually make sense when fans chant the three most known letters in NA esports -- instead of chanting them before the fifth and final game of one of the best League matches of all time (SK Telecom T1 and the ROX Tigers inside Madison Square Garden).

Yes, that actually happened.

Lose-lose for Longzhu.

Out of the six teams competing in Oakland, only Longzhu can leave a loser. If TSM loses, all they need to do is bring up the AD carry substitute. Chiefs and INTZ are from wild-card regions. Flash Wolves are using two substitutes. Unicorns of Love are the Unicorns of Love. Longzhu was a supposed super-team that never reached its full potential last year. Longzhu is a South Korean team, and South Korea just made a mockery of every other region at the World Championships, and you have a club that needs to win this dangerous game of Mario Party in fear of being booted from the LCK.

Longzhu really have no excuses if they lose. They've had the same roster for an entire year. They're from South Korea, the mecca of esports infrastructure. On paper, the team's individual talent is more than enough to beat some clubs playing with substitutes, wild-card teams and Unicorns of Love.

And if Longzhu does win, then it doesn't really mean much since -- you know -- they're playing against a bunch of misfit teams in an offseason tournament. So whether the team dominates everyone or gets bounced in the first round by a wild-card team, there really isn't an ending here in which Longzhu comes out looking better. The club just lost to the Jin Air Green Wings in the first round of the KeSPA Cup, so it's not as if Longzhu comes into Oakland with any momentum behind them.

Here's the bright side: Longzhu still has a lot of money, so if things go awry, the Chinese-sponsored team can always drive garbage trucks filled with money to the front of Kim "Deft" Hyuk-kyu's house in hopes of turning around their fortunes.

Hooray for wild-card regions!

It's always fun to see the wild-card regions participate alongside the clubs from major regions, and we'll get to see that with Oceania's Chiefs and Brazil's INTZ coming to IEM Oakland. We already saw INTZ at the World Championships, and although the team didn't make it out of the first round, INTZ did take a game off of China's champion EDward Gaming. IEM Oakland isn't going to be as structured or as long as Worlds, so INTZ could have a chance of making a surprise run into the bracket stage.

" On paper, the team's individual talent is more than enough to beat some clubs playing with substitutes, wildcard teams, and Unicorns of Love."

For the Chiefs, this will be one of the first times we see Oceania on the world stage. The team has been the overlord of Australia for seemingly forever, yet the club has always failed in the wild-card qualifications to make it to one of the bigger international events. This time, however, the Chiefs didn't let the opportunity slip by, and they will now have the chance to possibly beat a team like Longzhu.

This is all we have.

We have Worlds, the Mid-Season Invitational, the One-Week Players Vacation (aka All Stars), two or three IEM circuit events and the IEM World Championship. That's it. We get less than seven international tournaments a year, and only three of them are classified as major tournaments. IEM Oakland is a mess in a lot of ways, but it's one of the only times we'll get to see a team such as the Chiefs take on Longzhu.

Unicorns of Love vs. INTZ? I didn't ask for this, but it's actually an interesting match if you think about it. We know the top tier of South Korean teams is better than everyone else in the world, but can Longzhu -- a non-playoff team -- make fools of the rest of the world, too? How deep is South Korea? How good is the middle of NA compared to Europe? Are the Chiefs out of their depth, or can they shock the world?

IEM Oakland will probably turn out to be a silly event, but we want to see these "what-ifs" come to life in a somewhat competitive environment. Before we know it, the free-agency period will be over, and we'll be back to domestic play, with the regions separated until the Mid-Season Invitational, when SK Telecom T1 will probably sweep whoever is lucky enough to reach the finals.

So to answer the question: Does this tournament matter? Yes, it does.

IEM Oakland, like the prior IEM San Jose tournaments, is different. And in League of Legends, where domestic play has taken over the calendar year, except for two weeks in May and a month in the fall, different will always be a good thing, no matter how many teams show up to the party.