Cue the music, and ready up the drums. League of Legends' version of "Game of Thrones" is ready to commence at the Mid-Season Invitational.
Thirteen champions from 13 regions are converging on Asia for the annual clash of kings, with the reigning champion, China's Royal Never Give Up, failing to return to defend their throne.
With Thailand's MEGA winning the Southeast Asia championship over Malaysia's Team Empire, the field is set, and the representatives from around the world are ready to see who will pick up the crown left by RNG's Jian "Uzi" Zi-Hao.
Which domestic champions are playing at MSI?
Invictus fGaming (China)
SK Telecom T1 (South Korea)
G2 Esports (Europe)
Team Liquid (North America)
Flash Wolves (Taiwan/Hong Kong/Macau)
Phong Vũ Buffalo (Vietnam)
1907 Fenerbahçe (Turkey)
INTZ e-Sports (Brazil)
DetonatioN FocusMe (Japan)
Isurus Gaming (Latin America)
Vega Squadron (Commonwealth of Independent States)
MEGA (Southeast Asia)
When and where is this "clash of kings" taking place?
It all begins on May 1 in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Invictus Gaming, SKT, G2, Team Liquid and Flash Wolves will have more time to prepare; the remaining eight teams will battle it out in the play-in stage.
The two teams that survive the play-in stage will move on into a four-team bracket along with Team Liquid and Flash Wolves. There, the weakest link will be eliminated in a double-elimination tournament, with the victorious trio joining the top three seeds, Invictus Gaming, SKT and G2, in the main-event group stage at the National Convention Center in Hanoi, Vietnam, beginning May 10.
In this stage of the tournament, the final six teams will compete in a double-round-robin format, and the four teams with the best record will advance to the knockout round. When we get down to the final four, the setting moves from Vietnam to Heping Basketball Gymnasium in Taipei, Taiwan. After two best-of-five semifinal matches on back-to-back days, the remaining two teams will do combat on May 19 for the title.
Which team is the favorite to win it all?
At this point, it's foolish to choose anyone but one of the three top seeds: Invictus Gaming, SKT and G2.
All three teams are rounding into form at the perfect time and showcased their skill ceilings in their respective domestic finals, each of the trio sweeping in dominant fashion.
That said, the victor might all come down to the meta. Invictus Gaming is the reigning world champion and has brought back all five starters for this year, which means they shouldn't shrink in the face of any challenge at MSI, the second-biggest event of the year in League of Legends. G2 is Europe's version of Invictus Gaming, as they deploy five of the most talented players in all of Europe, a true superteam led by a generational talent in 19-year-old Rasmus "Caps" Winther from Denmark.
SKT, the winningest franchise in League history, plays a relatively slower game than their main rivals for the trophy, but they've shown throughout the spring season they can turn it on when needed with the addition of jungler Kim "Clid" Tae-min and the resurgence of the GOAT, Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok.
What about North America? Do Team Liquid have a shot, or is it a lost cause like most international events?
Team Liquid is a very good team. On paper, they might be the best team North America has ever brought to an international event. On the best day for each of their starters, they can be world-class talents that can beat the very best in the world.
The issue for Liquid is that for them to upset and have a chance at winning the MSI championship, they're going to need to have all five of their players playing at that level at the same time whilst working in unison. They fell behind 2-0 in their North American domestic final against Team SoloMid and needed a reverse-sweep with some slip-ups from the opponent to even make it to MSI.
Team Liquid's chances at a miracle run begin and end with the LCS MVP and the team's best player, former world champion Jo "CoreJJ" Yong-in. He is as good as they come in the support role, and if CoreJJ and Yiliang "Doublelift" Peng can get off to a hot start, maybe, just maybe, Liquid can have aspirations higher than getting knocked out in a sweep or 3-1 loss in the semifinal.
Team Liquid should be the No. 4 team at MSI and make it to the semifinals, but unless they can take the next step and get ahead of the new game patch, that's as far as they will likely go.
What other domestic champions have a shot at breaking into the knockout round?
Everyone loves a good home crowd advantage, and we are definitely going to see that in Vietnam with the Phong Vũ Buffalo.
Vietnam's esports community has blossomed over the past few years, and the ravenous crowd is going to be behind the Buffalo 100 percent in the play-ins and group stage.
But don't just bet on the Buffalo because of the sentimental value. This is the same starting roster that took games off of G2 (albeit an inferior version) and Flash Wolves at last year's world championship, and they should be better with international experience under their belt. Team Liquid is more talented and has more experience than the Buffalo, but if there is one team with the right mixture of potential, experience and talent to make North America cry, it will be the Buffalo.
Looking beyond PVB, my other two picks for dark horses would be the Flash Wolves and 1907 Fenerbahçe. Flash Wolves, in a reverse of last year's G2, might be an inferior version of its 2018 form, but they still have some talent on the roster and are playing to make it into the top four to play in front of their own home fans in Taipei. Most of their best players might have gone to China, but the Wolves still have Lu "Betty" Yu-Hung, and loaned Griffin player Shin "Rather" Hyeong-seop is a solid starter at the mid lane position.
The real dark horse of the group stage might be Fenerbahçe. Flash Wolves are a constant force at international events, and PVB is a trendy pick, but it wouldn't be too shocking if 1907 Fenerbahçe made a strong run toward the main event. They don't have the same potential the Buffalo have to upset the likes of Team Liquid or take a game or two from the leading trio, but Turkey has consistently been a successful region with impressive results qualifying over the fellow fledgling regions.
Keep your eye out for Fenerbahçe's top laner Kim "Ruin" Hyeong-min, who ran wild over Turkish favorite SuperMassive in their domestic final and will need to be even better if Fenerbahçe wants something more than a short vacation in Vietnam.
Who are the superstars who are going to be the main characters in the tournament?
Unlike other international tournaments in the past where one or two players were highlighted, this time around, we have 10 to 15 you need to keep your eye on.
I already mentioned Caps of G2, but there is a strong argument he's not even the best player on the team right now as Martin "Wunder" Hansen is playing the best League of his career in the top lane. Invictus Gaming, as advertised, is a wildly explosive and kill-hungry team, powered by a hivemind of five individuals who love to flex their mechanics on the opposition. Of the world champs, I'd say the player to highlight is Kang "TheShy" Seung-lok, the undisputed best top laner entering a tournament with the best top laners on the planet.
CoreJJ will need to make his presence known if Team Liquid wants to go far, and it's impossible to use the words "main character" without mentioning Faker. We are spoiled this tournament with the class of players we have competing.
You talked about a possible shift in the meta earlier. What changes are going down?
MSI will be played on Patch 9.8, and there are going to be a slew of changes to champions on Summoner's Rift.
While the first thing that stands out could be the possible return of a "tank meta," with Ornn and Nautilus returning to the battlefield, that would be overlooking buffs to some high-powered carries. TheShy's signature champion at worlds last year was Fiora, and with his new Invictus Gaming skin being released on the patch, we could be seeing him playing a lot of Fiora in the top lane. SKT's Kim "Khan" Dong-ha, another Fiora aficionado, is going to be happy to see the duelist return to prevalence. A buff to Gnar will also probably see the return of the cuddly monster onto the Rift. In the jungle, Kayn could be a favorite for the playmakers at the position, especially Invictus Gaming madman Gao "Ning" Zhen-Ning.
Also, as expected, Vladimir, the late-game terror of the top lane, has been nerfed and will no longer be playable at a high level at MSI.
Wait, they didn't touch him at all?
Alright, now I know the teams, the format, the players to watch for and the patch. How about you give us an actual prediction of who is going to win?
My bet for the main-event teams are Invictus Gaming, SKT, G2, Team Liquid, Phong Vũ Buffalo and 1907 Fenerbahçe.
I'll take SKT beating Team Liquid 3-1 in the first semifinal, too, and Invictus Gaming taking a crazy 3-2 win over G2 in the other. In the final, I've got SKT reclaiming their throne, besting TheShy and Invictus in a five-game classic to set up an even more epic showdown at worlds this fall in Europe.