The League of Legends offseason is still ongoing for many squads, but vacation time is over for others. As the Intel Extreme Masters in Gyeonggi, South Korea looms, eight teams take on one another for a chance to qualify to IEM Katowice, a distant matter in esports terms. However, the stakes lie outside of the ticket to Katowice. Riot's latest balance patches as well as roster changes constitute challenges that need overcoming, and IEM is a step towards both.
Samsung and Kongdoo lead the pack
Contestants have a tough ordeal ahead of them as they face World Championship finalists Samsung Galaxy and Kongdoo Monster, the squad that took a second-place finish at the 2016 KeSPA Cup Finals.
The two teams have retained the core of their lineups that have allowed them to reach their objectives in 2016; Samsung's starting lineup took SK Telecom T1 to the brink in the World Championship finals (losing 3-2), and Kongdoo dispatched ESC Ever 3-1 to qualify for the LoL Champions Korea Spring 2017.
The two teams have bullseyes drawn over them as they are favorites to qualify from their groups, if only due to team chemistry and skill levels. However, recent balance patches may throw a wrench in Samsung Galaxy's takeover plans, should their playstyle no longer fit the mold of the ever-changing metagame.
IEM Gyeonggi hosts a number of teams that have undergone changes to varying degrees. Taiwan's representative, J Team, is the least affected team, with Chen "Achie" Chen-Chi switching roles and taking over Chen "REFRA1N" Kuan-Ting's spot, adding an element of mystery to the squad.
On the other hand, Team Liquid, Dark Passage and Giants are rebuilding around their core members -- either out of necessity or willingly -- whereas Immortals have pressed the rebuild button and are fielding a new roster around Eugene "Pobelter" Park.
Among them, Team Liquid's roster seems most promising on paper, with 2017 NA LCS Summer MVP Kim "Reignover" Yeu-jin leading the charge and helping Samson "Lourlo" Jackson, Greyson "Goldenglue" Gilmer and Chae "Piglet" Gwang-jin leverage advantages throughout the game. The squad may show early signs of strength, provided Goldenglue holds his own, which may be challenging against players of Lee "Crown" Min-ho's caliber.
Dismissing Immortals as nonfactors would be a great slight, as they house the up-and-coming Cody Sun as well as proven veteran Lee "Flame" Ho-jong, former Hong Kong Esports support Kim "Olleh" Joo-sung, and emerging star Joshua "Dardoch" Hartnett. Such a squad may not be as gun-shy as its previous iteration outside of the top lane.
As for Giants, some of their players have an opportunity to make a name for themselves. The opportunity for Olof "Flaxxish" Medin to test his mettle against Flame, Samsung Galaxy's CuVee, and others may represent a milestone in his career, but he may rely more on NighT and Hustlin's mayhem-creating prowess across the map. If Mightybear is on par with Nubar "Maxlore" Sarafian, and if Elias "Upset" Lipp proves devastating outside of the European Challenger circuit, observers might be in for a treat.
Did someone say Wild Card?
The 2016 World Championship may have taught squads at large that the Wild Card teams like Albus NoX are not to be trifled with. Now for something potentially scary: since Russian squad Vega Squadron acquired Edward "Edward" Abgaryan, it has been an equal match to ANX. In addition, the roster has barely changed since then, with Alexei "LeX" Kitsak joining the fray.
Vega may be the blue shell to squads not named Kongdoo Monster or Samsung Galaxy, and even then, squads may need to worry should they concede early advantages. In fact, the Russian team faces Samsung on its first day.
The same cannot be said about Dark Passage on paper, as they have lost their ace, Rasmus "Caps" Winther, during free agency, and are fielding temporary substitutes in the jungle, top lane and AD carry spots. Their presence does remain noteworthy considering their road to IEM Gyeonggi, as they went undefeated throughout their matchups against Rampage and the Saigon Jokers.