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Worlds 2016: EU’s Redemption?

Europe turned in an epic performance at last year’s Worlds, defending its honour on home soil. As we make our way to San Francisco to see regional heavyweights clash in the 2016 tournament, we take a look at EU’s prospects going into this year’s event. Scepticism prevails due to the fall of Europe’s historically dominant teams and a poor performance at MSI. While the EU teams heading to Worlds 2016 are packed with talent, they have everything to prove.

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Rewind one year. As the final Nexus exploded in Fnatic’s semifinal loss to the KOO Tigers (now ROX Tigers), EU fans left the Brussels Expo disappointed but ultimately proud of what European teams had achieved during Worlds 2015. Both Fnatic and Origen reached the semifinals before bowing out to finalists KOO Tigers and eventual winners SKT T1, capping off a resurgent year for Europe. Many considered EU to now be the definitive second-best region in the World, following China’s complete capitulation on the Worlds stage.

Now as we prepare for this year’s World Championships, and that confidence and pride in Europe’s best has all but dissipated; EU fans so joyously spammed “NA 0-10 LUL” memes in Twitch chat now grimace at the sight of “G2-8”, silently praying their dreams of a repeat performance don’t become memes. The pressure is on for G2 Esports, H2K and Splyce to carry the European flag to San Francisco and beyond. To the loyal European fans that will cheer them on in the small hours of the morning, and to each other as they aim to reclaim their position amongst the world’s best: the European teams at Worlds have everything to prove.

After a disappointing 2014 summer split, finishing second to Alliance, and crashing out at Worlds in the Group Stage, Fnatic overhauled its roster for the 2015 season, adding Huni and Reignover as top-laner and jungler respectively. The Korean pair joined Fnatic at the start of the 2015 season to no fanfare: after all, they were replacing sOAZ and Cyanide, two of Europe’s most veteran players. Many called them “budget Koreans”, a derogatory term used to refer to lesser-known Korean players imported into western leagues. After Fnatic’s first game in the 2015 EU LCS spring split, when they dominated reigning champ Elements (formerly Alliance), people walked back their criticisms. By the end of the split, Huni and Reignover had completely endeared themselves to Fnatic fans, and the best was still to come.

The smiles that stretched across the Fnatic players’ faces following the new roster’s first win together symbolised the spirit in that team, and they went on to win the spring split, outlasting a quality SK Gaming team that featured FORG1VEN and current TSM jungler Svenskeren. Though they replaced AD carry Steeelback in the offseason, heralding the return of long-time Fnatic player Rekkles, the team spirit never died. In fact it only grew stronger, as coach Deilor led them into the their most dominant split since the team’s founding.

Summer saw SK Gaming fall, and the rise of new and old talent alike as Origen made their entrance in the EU LCS. Comprised of LCS veterans from Fnatic (sOAZ and xPeke), Lemondogs (Mithy) and Team SoloMid (Amazing), along with rookie Niels (now Zven), the new outfit took the LCS by storm, firmly establishing themselves as EU’s second-best team, behind Fnatic. Fnatic welcomed Rekkles back to the squad despite Steeelback performing admirably in the spring split. Fnatic’s management vindicated their decision, however, as Fnatic became the first team to win a regular season undefeated, with an 18-0 record.

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After an intense playoff final in Stockholm, where Fnatic confirmed themselves Europe’s #1 seed and H2K qualified as Europe’s 2nd seed on championship points, Origen ran the entire gauntlet in the European regional qualifiers, earning Europe’s 3rd seed at Worlds. Fnatic and Origen kicked off Europe’s first Worlds tournament since Fnatic took the Season 1 crown at Dreamhack Jönköping. Fnatic and Origen kicked off Worlds 2015 in boisterous fashion, taking down Chinese teams Invictus Gaming and LGD at the opening stage in Paris.

Despite a shaky first week after those victories, Europe bounced back in week 2 as both Fnatic and Origen advanced to the Knockout Stages. H2K, condemned to a group with SKT and EDG, unfortunately could not advance. Fnatic and Origen continued to fly the flag for Europe in the quarterfinals, taking out EDG and Flash Wolves respectively, and earning a double date with Korean teams KOO Tigers and SKT T1 in the semifinals. Though they could not conquer their Korean foes, Fnatic and Origen cemented Europe’s position as the second-best region in the world of League of Legends esports.

Until the 2016 season, anyway.

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Huni and Reignover dealt the first major blow to Europe in the off-season, opting to leave Fnatic and the EU region entirely to move to NA, joining Immortals. Despite proving Europe could challenge the best teams in the world, the pair opted for a change in lifestyle, hoping they could translate the success they earned in Europe to the NA scene. Though ultimately they failed to qualify for Worlds 2016, Huni and Reignover left their mark on the league. One can’t help but wonder, however, had they stayed with Fnatic and built upon their success from 2015 if they could have made a run at winning Worlds this year. We’ll never know what could have been.

The off-season wasn’t kind to Europe overall, as veterans like Froggen and Freeze also jumped ship to the NA LCS with Echo Fox and Renegades respectively. Many teams would have to undergo another rebuild, as is typical in European post-seasons at this stage. Fnatic attempted to fill the void left by their Korean stars by importing another pair of Koreans, Spirit and Gamsu. Spirit had long been considered one of the World’s best junglers, and certainly during the 2014 season that was true. Having spent a year in the depths of the LPL on Team WE, however, success on Fnatic would not be a foregone conclusion. Gamsu spent the 2015 season on Team Dignitas, but struggled to make a lasting impact on the NA LCS.

Origen made a voluntary change to their roster in the off-season, adding former Unicorns of Love mid-laner PowerOfEvil to the lineup. The German mid-laner was brought in to allow owner xPeke to focus on the business and management side of the organisation rather than playing. On paper it was a good fit: they shared similar playstyles and champions, and PowerOfEvil was a younger player with strong mechanics. Owner xPeke’s attempt to future-proof the team made sense on paper, even if it didn’t exactly pan out in practice.

While most expected another season of Fnatic and Origen grappling for the top spot, H2K and G2 Esports would have something to say about that. The former overhauled their roster, adding Jankos, Vander and FORG1VEN in an attempt to push for the top spot, while newly qualified G2 Esports added Korean veterans Emperor and Trick. G2’s strong mix of youth and experience and the sheer talent playing for H2K meant the 2016 EU LCS spring split did not go according to predictions. G2 pipped H2K to the post in the regular season, while H2K collapsed in the semifinals, falling to Origen and then losing to a struggling Fnatic in the 3rd-place playoff. G2 went on to beat Origen, earning their spot at the 2016 Mid-Season Invitational.

G2 entered the fray at MSI with the expectations of an entire region on their shoulders that, half a year ago, watched their heroes reach the semifinals of Worlds and falter only to two top-tier Korean teams. They beat a powerful H2K lineup and conquered an Origen team that many would have considered better than last year’s iteration despite a poor regular season, they had the best jungler in the region in Trick, promising rookies Hybrid and Perkz, and two experienced competitive players in Kikis and Emperor. Surely they would challenge for the title.

European fans’ hopes quickly perished as G2 slipped to a 0-4 record in the first two days of competition, clearly struggling to compete with the talented, practiced teams that came to Shanghai to win. Instead of bootcamping in Korea before the tournament like the other contenders, G2 decided to go on vacation after what they considered to be a long, hard split. Their lack of practice showed, and they crumpled against every team except for Wildcard qualifier Supermassive.

Rumours began to surface of tension between G2’s bot-laners Emperor and Hybrid. The pair, along with mid-laner Perkz, looked all but checked-out on stage in Shanghai, and rumours suggested this was due to the pair being informed of their impending replacement. These rumours continued into the offseason and G2 finished MSI in fifth place with a score of 2W-8L, enshrining Europe’s fall from grace. To make matters worse, finishing outside of the top-4 meant Europe would lose its 1st seed in the Worlds 2016 Group Stage.

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The off-season prior to the 2016 summer split offered European teams another chance to rebuild or, at the very least, tweak their rosters. Fnatic managed to recover former captain YellOwStaR following a disappointing spell on Team SoloMid, while H2K dropped FORG1VEN in favour of Freeze, following the Czech’s stint on Renegades. The most talked-about shakeup of the summer, however, was Zven and Mithy’s decision to abandon Origen for G2. The rumours of G2 dumping their bot lane had finally come to pass.

The EU LCS summer split began in rotten fashion for Origen; they finished week one 0-0-2 (0-4 in game score) following the introduction of EU’s new best-of-two format. ADC FORG1VEN was subsequently kicked, and former mid-laner xPeke became the team’s new ADC, at least temporarily. They later added rookie ADC Toaster to the roster, though that lasted only a few weeks before xPeke took the reins once again. Last year’s semifinalists finished the regular season in 9th place, dropping into relegations before barely scraping past Misfits to defend their LCS spot.

Fnatic fared slightly better but still fell far short of the organisation’s goals. Their 5th-place finish was a major disappointment considering they held the #2 spot for most of the split, challenging the league leaders G2. Their landslide showed the clear issues this roster experienced since the departure of Huni and Reignover; Spirit and Gamsu simply did not have the same presence in the team, and the team eventually dropped Gamsu in favour of ex-G2 top-laner Kikis, who was replaced on the G2 roster by Expect. That did not have the desired effect, however, as Fnatic crashed out of 2016 summer playoffs in the quarterfinals.

A resurgent H2K played spoilsport in Fnatic’s quest for another Worlds appearance, though they too struggled for most of the split. Adding Freeze to the lineup didn’t pay dividends as hoped, chiefly due to Freeze’s nagging wrist injury. They limped along in 5th place until week 9, when they summoned FORG1VEN back to the team. H2K leapt to a 5-0 finish in that week, and went on to crush Fnatic in the playoffs quarterfinals. Though they fell to Splyce in the semis, they earned their spot as Worlds 2nd seed through championship points and took the 3rd spot in the EU LCS overall.

Splyce surprised everyone with their summer split performance, finishing 2nd in the regular season and in the playoffs. They managed to recover from the loss to G2 in the EU LCS final in Krakow, beating Unicorns of Love in the gauntlet to secure their spot at Worlds as Europe’s 3rd seed. Their strong solo-laners and jungler were the catalyst for many of their victories, while adding Mikyx to the roster transformed Kobbe from liability to potential carry. Coach YamatoCannon deserves a lot of credit for aiding Splyce’s transformation from relegation candidates to Worlds contenders.

Zven and Mithy elevated reigning champions G2 to another level in the summer split, an expected outcome considering they’re a direct upgrade over G2’s previous bot-laners. There aren’t many split-winning teams that have the opportunity to make such an obvious upgrade to half their team, never mind a single player, and have it work out; for a prime example, consider the 2015 spring split when Elements added Rekkles to their starting roster in place of Tabzz and failed to repeat their 2014 form. G2 won the regular split without losing a single series, earning 10 wins and 8 draws, before dropping only two playoff games on their way to winning the EU LCS championship in Krakow.

With all three EU LCS teams locked in for Worlds, we look forward to the Group Stage in San Francisco starting on September 29. Two of Europe’s best have a strong chance of escaping groups; G2 and H2K should be comfortably second best in the groups despite having to deal with ROX Tigers and EDG respectively. Splyce, however, will need to stage some serious upsets to advance from their group, which also contains TSM, Royal Never Give Up and Samsung Galaxy.

The groups hosting European teams offer a perfect opportunity for the region to prove itself on the international stage once again. G2 and H2K can prove European teams can handle some of the more mediocre competition at Worlds and potentially upset the two best teams at the tournament, while Splyce could completely surprise their international opponents, and many of the esports analysts that rate them so poorly. Should Splyce manage to scalp TSM, the salt will flow for days.

Europe goes into Worlds 2016 plagued by the scepticism of its fans back home. These teams have the talent, but after a shaky year for the region many underestimate Europe’s best. If they can come close to replicating Fnatic and Origen’s heroics from 2015, that narrative will surely shift, and a strong early start to the tournament remains key. In that regard, G2’s first game of the tournament against CLG is more important than it looks at face value. EU > NA memes aside, if G2 falter against a team many consider weak, European fans could be in for a rough tournament.

It all comes to a head on Thursday September 29 at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco, California. Tune in at watch.lolesports.com and cheer on Europe’s representatives on the Worlds stage!