The first set of semifinals for MSI 2016 kicks off tomorrow at Shanghai Oriental Sports Centre with China's hot prospect Royal Never Give Up taking on the reigning world champions of SK Telecom T1. I'll be here in China as the tournament heads into its final stretch, spectating games, attending Q&As, interviewing people, wondering whether stealing my fellow passenger's white chocolate chip cookie on the flight over was really a crime because it was over international waters and he was asleep... But before that starts let's have a quick look at how the tournament is shaping up so far.
The teams left in the competition are (in order of their standing in the competition at the end of the group stage):
1. Royal Never Give Up (8W - 2L)
2. Counter Logic Gaming (7W - 3L)
3. Flash Wolves (6W - 4L)
4. SK Telecom T1 (6W - 4L)
(Flash Wolves get third billing here because, although equal on number of matches won and lost, they beat SKT both times the teams faced one another)
What's the big story?
Well, broadly this has been a tournament of upsets. Or rather, there are particular narratives that tend to get assigned to particular regions and at MSI 2016 the regions didn't seem to have been cc-ed in on the memo.
Let's start with SKT. SKT are a famous Korean squad which boasts Faker, a man widely dubbed the best League of Legends player of all time. They've won the World Championship twice and when they're on form their play is phenomenal. They're not unbeatable but they are terrifying with an intimidating reputation as the best team in the best region. Thing is, they're not invincible. I'm not saying that based on their losses here, either. At previous events and with previous iterations to their lineup they've made mistakes or been forced to work for their victories as other regions rose to the challenge. I watched European side Fnatic take them to a full five games in the semifinals of the last Mid-Season Invitational. They clawed their way to the finals but another five-game battle had Chinese side Edward Gaming claiming the ultimate victory at that tournament.
SKT were in their element at Worlds 2015 with MVP Marin playing particularly beautifully but their performance at home this spring has been patchier, the current lineup less assured and fluid in terms of its communication. It looked like they'd hit their stride coming into MSI 2016, particularly off the back of a victory at the Intel Extreme Masters Season X event, but a rude awakening lay in store.
SKT were by far the most frequently predicted winners of this event but their early group stage gambit of a four-game losing streak and a lack of team synergy left the competition wide open. SKT are still fantastic, don't get me wrong, but that mythic sheen that tends to accompany them got rather a denting in the group stage.
Then there's Counter Logic Gaming and Royal Never Give Up. I'm grouping them together because both came into the tournament to low or muted expectations. China as a region crumbled at Worlds 2015 and the temptation was to combine that with the intense pressure of being the home team in Shanghai to get a prediction of high hopes but a far less impressive reality. North American representatives CLG were also expected to do relatively poorly when facing up to the top dogs of other major regions.
Both have defied expectations. CLG's "Respect All, Fear None" approach appears to be paying dividends and it's worth bearing in mind that that way of thinking helps guard against the twin evils of complacency and nerves. It's a kind of esportsy due diligence plus knowing yourself/your opponent. From what I've watched of RNG, what they lack in strategic finesse at times, they more than make up for in aggression.
Finally, we come to Flash Wolves. In the time I've been following competitive League the LMS region - which is the domestic league where Taiwanese side, Flash Wolves hail from - tends to get ascribed an underdog tag. They don't seem to get much air time internationally and their league seems to be dominated by a couple of teams (Flash Wolves and ahq). But when I've seen the LMS at international competitions like last year at Worlds they've been able to hold their own - certainly they don't stick out to me as outsiders or underdogs when I see them in those contexts. Jungler Karsa stuck out as one player to keep an eye on but mid-laner Maple and support SwordArt also have their own buzz coming into MSI.
I guess the problem might be one of depth when it comes to the domestic league. If there are only a handful of dominant teams that make it through to international events or a smaller player base it can be hard to judge the actual strength of regional sides.
So yeah. It's a tournament of upsets but some of them aren't exactly upsets if you follow the teams and regions involved as well as their approach to this particular tournament.
So now what?
The semifinals start Friday with Royal Never Give Up versus SKT and I'm anticipating something special. SKT have had several days to shake off their groups performance and work on mistakes and confidence. RNG, meanwhile, are on an aggressive tear. I'm hoping for a five-game punchup. Matches start at 1.30pm CST which I think works out at 6.30am BST.
And if you think that time difference makes your life awkward, imagine what unholy sleep deprivation I'm contemplating as I investigate the possibility of finding and then watching the Eurovision Song Contest after Saturday's games.
We'll have coverage of the remaining rounds. All images in this article were taken from the lolesports Flickr stream.