Day 2 of the League of Legends [official site] Mid-Season Invitational brought with it the best games of the tournament so far, when Europe's Fnatic and LMS's AHQ took on Korean side, SK Telecom T1. SKT had dominated the first day of proceedings but Fnatic were the first team to ruffle their feathers and it looked like the European side might actually take a win off the Koreans. Meanwhile, at the other end of the leaderboard, North America's Team SoloMid continued to crumble despite the chants and support from the home crowd.
I sat down with shoutcaster Trevor "Quickshot" Henry to take stock of the day's proceedings and get his take on the MSI so far. The first question: What the heck is TSM's problem?
"I think they massively choked," says Quickshot. "Team SoloMid came into this tournament looking better than they ever have. They also won an international tournament a couple of months back [the IEM World Championships in Katowice]. It wasn't against the absolute pinnacle of the world. The field they were facing wasn't the strongest but they showed up.
"Coming into this tournament we had come to expect a certain playstyle and a certain level and they didn't do that in game one. It felt like they overthought things and were like 'This is the way to win'. Then it didn't work and they panicked. In the very last game of the day they did go back to their previous playstyle but the damage was done."
One of the most visible issues facing TSM here was that of the multiple kills on Dyrus, their top laner. That's not necessarily a problem in and of itself because letting an enemy team get distracted by one player can help create space elsewhere on the map - MOBAs are about balancing sacrifice and gain. But there's a difference between letting someone get camped to create other opportunities and letting them become an extra neutral creep to be farmed.
"I think you've hit the nail on the head," says Quickshot. "It's traditional Team SoloMid style. They're a 4-1 team and more often than not Dyrus is left on an island - it's the playstyle of the team. This particular event it was very heavily punished because teams could recognise that. What was more important wasn't necessarily that he became the value of a creep but that they lost the towers, then lost control of the jungle.
"You can give up kills on a player but you cannot give up control in the area. There's some pressure to be pointed on Santorin, the jungler, for not being in the area to back up his teammate. It's not the kills or the camping, it's what happened after. TSM needed to respond by protecting their objectives and their jungle mobs. Or, if Santorin wasn't there to defend [Dyrus], he needed to have been pushing or challenging. If you know somebody's being dived, steal [the opposition's] buff or push their towers."
TSM were punished for not adapting on that front. Fnatic too, were sticking with their signature style, but theirs reaped more in the way of reward. There's a certain amount of "ramming into the other team" in their aggressive play, sometimes yielding great results, sometimes leaving you wondering why on earth that seemed like a good time to initiate.
"They're a heavily aggressive team and a team that gets victories through kills and fights," says Quickshot. "Do they always have to take those fights? No. But their approach is that proactive plays will more frequently win you games than reactive plays. An extreme example: GE Tigers from Korea are a very defensive and reactive team. They were beaten on the international stage and on the local scene by teams who are more proactive.
"Fnatic have that style of go in, go ham, go deep. They're not necessarily refined enough for it always to be right. AHQ in the final game against SKT - that was refined but too refined because they were too defensive."
I ask whether he thinks that proactive instinct is the better one to work with. "Completely," is the response. "The proof is in the pudding. TSM tried to play reactive; they're not in the playoffs. Fnatic, despite being messy and not really showing up, the aggressive style put up a better performance against SKT. They had a chance to win. They weren't necessarily as shut out as TSM were, and they smashed TSM."
Fnatic ended up losing to SKT and you'll see a lot of talk about a bug during the game when Fnatic's jungler, Reignover attempted to use Sejuani's Q ability to jump over a wall but ended up back in the midst of SKT and unable to escape death.
According to caster, Josh "Jatt" Leesman, the bug is being investigated to see whether it's a spectator bug or in-game, while Cloud9's Sneaky weighed in on Twitter to add that rubber banding is "pretty common" with wall dashes right now.
I talked to production and the wall dash bugs are being investigated. Whether it was spectator only or in game as well.
— Josh Leesman (@RiotJatt) May 9, 2015
that rubber band bug is pretty common with dashes over any wall in the game atm
— Zach Scuderi (@C9Sneaky) May 9, 2015
But, in terms of this particular game, there will be no remake. There's a specific procedure players must follow if they experience a bug while playing in a tournament so Fnatic would have needed to pause the game and get bug confirmation from match officials in order to get that remake and they didn't.
"Since they did not, the result stands," James "Dash" Patterson explained from the analyst desk after the game. "Referees are still investigating the issue. All teams are aware of the remake policy and how to respond in the case of a potential bug."
On less controversial ground, earlier in the day Fnatic had faced the Chinese side, Edward Gaming and been crushed. It was the sort of game where EDG were so far ahead at the 31 minute mark they could afford to be a little playful, Deft hitting Meiko with a Fate's Call after he flashed, pulling him back and then nipping in for the kill on Reignover.
"Edward Gaming played to their style," says Quickshot of the team's Day 2 performance. "They've got an incredibly high skill ceiling but they also have incredibly large glaring weaknesses. Despite the fact they played very well I still think some of their picks and bans were questionable."
That was probably most noticeable in their matchup against SKT on Day 1 where a Tristana pick on Deft raised brows throughout the auditorium. "Tristana was a terrible pick," says Quickshot. "Nobody liked it on the shoutcaster team." Nobody sitting next to me in the audience liked it either.
"Today I still think they had questionable picks but their playstyle and individual ability and shotcalling is impeccable and Clearlove is a monster. When they get rolling they can still win even if they have bad picks based on playstyle.
"One of the problems EDG have is, since patch 5.5 where the Cinderhulk item was introduced, they've been on a bit of downward turn. They were undeniably the best team in China prior to that - this is about 6 weeks ago. They barely scraped through the playoff final, 3-2 in a series they shouldn't have won."
Let's just take a moment to talk about Cinderhulk. It was introduced to the jungler's kit as part of League of Legends' jungle overhaul. The overhaul was intended to increase the diversity of jungle play.
"[Riot] made it more difficult to play and realised, now that it's more difficult to play, the damage-dealing junglers are having a tough time and the tanks aren't really relevant so they introduced an item that bridged that gap," explains Quickshot. "That's what Cinderhulk is. It's an item that increases your health based on how much health you've purchased and deals an aura damage which increases based on the number of enemy champions you're around. You're rewarded for being in the middle of team fights.
"It also works well on teamfight champions: Sejuani and Gragas as the primary examples. That item shifted the game and brought more tanks. Because you could have that teamfight player in the jungle it allowed you to play even more damage in the other lanes or - what the teams are favouring at the moment - tanks from the top lane."
I ask about the role of the top lane at this point. Generally the superstars of League teams are the famed mid laners. Faker is one such name. Another came up when I heard one attendee attempting to explain LoL to one of the puzzled security staff - "That blonde guy with the glasses," he said, pointing at the stage. "He's Bjergsen. He's like the Tom Brady of this game."
Top laners have felt like a far bigger part of this tournament compared to previous LoL events I've attended and I'm trying to work out whether that's a noteworthy shift.
"The depth of ability required in the top lane is arguably more than the mid lane," says Quickshot. "That's why I think you're feeling this pressure, because there's so many things. You have to 1v1, 1v2, you have to learn to lane swap, you have to learn to teleport. It's multiple playstyles on multiple champions - you have to jungle.
"It depends on the game you're watching," he adds. "Mid laners have had a very big impact in winning games and top laners have a very big impact in losing games.
"In terms of the top lane, players and their champion pools are very impactful. As we touched on with the meta changes as Cinderhulk has come in, carries or tanks or even AP bruisers like LuLu and Rumble are things you have to have in your arsenal. Not everybody does and not everybody can adjust.
"A top laner unable to adapt or provide what a team needs will cost you the game. A mid laner who can do everything can help bring those things into play. When Fnatic almost beat SKT today it was primarily because Febiven and Huni had fantastic performances mid and top. Febiven's Cassiopeia [against AHQ] yesterday sucked. It was terrible. But today he's hitting multiple targets and has great positioning."
Then we come to the aforementioned AHQ. What Quickshot refers to as "the quintessential LMS team".
"LMS as a region - [although they] actually have a world champion in TaiPei Assassins from Season 2 - are the perennial underdogs. Every event they go to. [But] these are guys that play on both the Chinese and Korean servers because their pings are relatively [ok]. Their mid laner Westdoor once held the number one ranked ladder of both NA, China and the number 2 in Korea at the same time. This is a guy who is incredibly gifted in his role. To talk about their playstyle, they were the number 4 team inthe regular season and to qualify they had to beat the number three team, then two then one. So this is a team that underperformed then really showed up in playoffs.
"Much like EDG they can have good and bad days and their picks and bans you can debate, but they make it work. The Fizz for example - it's not successful anywhere else, it's not good! We don't like it but Westdoor just finds a way. As a team they have the ability to win and topple anybody. They need a little bit of luck, they need individual performances to step up. If you look at today's matchup against SKT, as a team they performed perfectly but then one or two players get caught out.
"That's what I think defines them - those momentary lapses - whereas SKT won't have those same problems."
We do touch on Beşiktaş and what lies ahead for them post-MSI. The team won't be advancing to the playoffs having finished the day bottom of the leaderboard with five defeats and no wins, but they do take away a ton of experience and a taster of the international limelight.
"The trick is to stay together," says Quickshot. "The amount of experience you gain from a tournament like this is honestly priceless. You do get destroyed - some games more than others - but you learn an exceptional amount. Not only do they have five games on stage but they have a little over a week's worth of practice games and scrims on a NA server against NA teams. I know that Challenger teams have reached out to play them. The only thing I hope is that they stay together. What we found in the past is International Wildcard teams are quite volatile. Changes happen frequently. The biggest takeaway is to learn."
At this point we take a brief detour into a discussion of substitutes and how teams are using them. It's sparked by SKT who swap Faker and Easyhoon in and out of mid to great effect.
"Substitutes on a League of Legends roster should be able to bring a difference in playstyle or champion pool or team dynamic," is Quickshot's view. "That's exactly what Easyhoon and Faker have brought to MSI. Faker is an assassin solo expert. He can singlehandedly win you games by removing one member of the opposing side and he can do it every single game from a multitude of champions.
"But that makes your playstyle very spearheaded. One guy at the front who you play around. Easyhoon is more of a control guy. He's more defensive and reactive. He tends to play - dare I say it - smarter with more numbers. This is a guy who plays a different champion pool entirely, some better than Faker - that will be very debated! However he takes that spear style and turns it more into a Spartan phalanx where everybody has to work and cover one another.
"What's more impressive about that is he tends to be partnered with a different jungler and this is what they do in Korea, SKT, they swap out both the midlaner and the jungler because once you remove the spearhead everybody else has to adjust. I feel SKT use subs better than anybody else in the world. China is trying to do it but I don't think they have the depth of player talent."
And as for the Western scene?
"In the Western world substitutes are a non factor. They don't exist. They're there in most teams because they have to be."
From my vantage point it feels like Western teams view subs more as an absence cover - a standin for a sick player - rather than a playstyle resource. Quickshot agrees but is keen to point out that the reasoning behind not embracing subs varies from team to team and region to region. For example, you need to find players close enough in level to the existing roster but who play a different style and that takes time, talent pools and a particular managerial infrastructure. He thinks the sene is evolving in that aspect and we'll get there but "you need coaches, talent scouts, analysts - then you need players to work as well."
Looking ahead to the playoffs and finals I ask for Quickshot's predictions. Earlier in our conversation he'd said that "Edward gaming looked like they could win the tournament if they can play the way they did today throughout playoffs" but, when it comes down to making a final call, he's going with SKT v AHQ.
"It's SKT versus Fnatic first and SKT should win that," he says. Then there's a pause which rather acknowledge's Fnatic's capacity for causing upsets. "Should," he reiterates.
"And AHQ versus EDG. After the confidence AHQ got today I think they'll be exciting games and EDG might crack under AHQ's pressure so I'm going to go for the underdogs. Then I think SKT should win in the final if it's AHQ."
The quarterfinals begin at 4.30pm ET/9.30pm BST today as SKT take on Fnatic in a best-of-5