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10 thoughts going into Semifinals

This is the point in your Pokemon game where you max out Full Restores and save the game, because it’s time for the Final Four! This collection of teams is arguably the strongest Semifinalists that Worlds has ever produced as it features the regional champion from the LPL, the LCK, and the LEC in addition to last year’s World Champion. Did we script it to end up this way? Possibly. Here’s 10 thoughts going into the Worlds 2019 Semifinals! 

1. Champions League

2. The best Final Four ever
By the numbers, we have three #1 seeds who are joined by the reigning champion, which to me makes this the strongest Semifinalist grouping ever. The only team you could shift out is if you could theoretically replace the reigning champion, IG (#3 seed), with the final major #1 seed (Team Liquid), but that is a theory that unfortunately hits a wall every single Group Stage. G2, FPX, and SKT were pretty unanimously considered to be Top 5 teams and title contenders before the tournament began, so it’s pretty awesome to have the bracket flesh out in this way. I think the format doesn’t always lend itself to creating the best possible Finals matchup (and that’s fine!), but this year we’re getting a little spoiled. Any possible combination of matchups you can draw at this point for the Finals would have a compelling storyline and should draw tons of interest from both hardcore and casual fans alike. I am reminded of territorial disputes between alpha males on nature documentaries — it is always a little sad to watch the loser stagger off bloodied and downtrodden. But that’s Worlds.There are no consolation prizes. There are no sanctuaries for losers. You are the biggest and strongest stag, or you are not. 

3. Invictus, meaning “unconquerable”
When I think of IG, I think a lot about Rookie crying at Worlds last year. After they beat Fnatic in the Finals, and after Rookie bounces around from teammate to teammate for frenzied embraces, he settles down. He buries his face into his hands, and then he cries. Within seconds, TheShy comes over and holds him. Then Jackey joins them, and finally Ning, before they are wrapped in an IG flag by a staff member. I think about this moment a lot because this is a team that has battled a lot of internal problems over the Summer Split, and yet, here they are. This is a team that was in danger of not even qualifying for Worlds if not for some heroics from their superstar top laner, and yet, here they are. In a group with a rising Korean team — with their own top laner (Nuguri) projected to be the next breakout star — and what was considered to be the best NA team ever, they were expected by many to drop out. And yet, again, here they are. IG has never been a team that fits into molds or expectations. They were not some immaculate machine when it came to teamwork. They were five extremely talented players that disguised their faults through sheer brute force, and once that disguise fell, we saw just how many holes they’d managed to bypass or ignore. I am not sure their win over GRF was “good,” and I would not say they are “back,” but eye tests are for analysts. I am a storyteller, and very literally, IG is back. There are few teams more fun to write about. And this week, they have a chance to bring us back, again, to that brief moment at Worlds last year where they came together.

4. T1 Invitational
If SKT wins this Semifinal matchup against G2, that would mean Faker and kkOma would be attending their 5th Worlds Finals in seven years (5/7 lol), which is the kind of success that draws a lot of haters, and yet I find SKT to be a team that most people like. Faker is extremely likeable, as is kkOma. Neither have found themselves at the center of any sort of controversy (unless you count kkOma not getting married… until now!). Of course there are people who are sick of them winning all of the time, but that’s very different from just not liking them. There are few players as universally respected as Faker. Take his most recent mid lane matchup with SPY’s Humanoid for example, who cited Faker as being one of his idols. Faker is 23. It’s kind of wild to realize that he’s been around for so long that the first generation of players he inspired is now playing against him. SKT is, of course, more than just one player and one coach. kkOma doesn’t even make stage appearances right now, and Faker is flanked by teammates who are either better than him at the moment or at the very least performing better. This weekend they face a G2 team that eliminated them from MSI, and I’d have to say they’re definitely the underdogs on paper. I have said all tournament that G2 is the favorite to win this whole thing, and that’s a statement I will stand by. But if you were to ask me if I had any golden rules for Worlds, then my most simple one is that you should never bet against SKT. And that, too, is a statement I will stand by.

5. Kings of Europe
Throughout the year, one of the repeated questions from people asked if Europe as a whole was good or if they were simply buoyed by the dominance of G2. This was seemingly answered in the Summer Split when Fnatic ran neck-and-neck with them, but after a disappointing Quarterfinals showing, I think it’s fair to ask again. I also think the answer is no — G2 doesn’t become this strong in a vacuum. I don’t think SPY really put a great showing against SKT since they got 3-0ed by the starting lineup with Effort in, but I also don’t think they were demonstrably bad. They showed good resilience at this Worlds, but unfortunately there’s still a clear gap between them and the top, and I think that’s a gap we already saw in the summer between them and G2. That’s one of the reasons this Semifinals is going to be so good — G2 has been so clearly a world-class team for the entire year. FNC of course did not look great against FPX, but based on the press conference, it seems like they’ve struggled through internal problems all year, so it’s not entirely surprising. G2 is a team, though, that clearly gets along. They banter even with their owner on Twitter, and at our internal Features day, you could find them playing ping pong with each other and more or less always moving as a pack. A lot of teams have talent, and a lot of teams are close off the rift. Very few can combine the package as seamlessly as G2 has managed to do — they are one of the few teams in the world that won’t have any sort of inferiority complex (even subconsciously) against SKT, and that’s going to pay dividends in this set. 

6. Fly, Phoenix, Fly
Last week, I mentioned that the LPL might be underdogs in both of their sets, and I guess I was just wrong. Both teams won their sets 3-1 to guarantee an LPL representative in the Finals for the second year in a row, which means the region is only three wins away from repeating as champions. But these two teams are fighting for very different things — there is IG hoping to repeat as champion, and then there is a young FPX squad that is still trying to place its footprint into the League of Legends lore. They are a team that only joined the LPL last year and struggled to leave a mark until adding Doinb and Tian this year. They won both LPL regular season splits with a combined 27-3 regular season record that was capped off with a Summer Split championship. Throughout the summer and Worlds, one thing I’ve heard repeated about FPX is that they only play one style, and if you can counter that, then you can defeat them. But when you are boasting a 90% win rate that you have continued to carry through Worlds, it makes me wonder if their style is truly that simple. If I were to compare it to Team Fight Tactics — someone who always goes Knights as a core might be considered a one-trick, but that is an extremely flexible core to pivot off of. Someone who masters a butcher’s knife, for example, can use it to slice and dice anything. I think Doinb’s roam-heavy style does a similar thing for FPX — because he’s selfless, that opens up a lot of different possibilities for the rest of his team. The coming clash against IG will pit that very style against some of the most selfish laners in the world — IG is the sole team to have defeated FPX in the Summer Split, and this final clash between them this year is the ultimate fight to declare the best LPL team of 2019. It is the Spring Split champions against the Summer Split champions. It is the reigning Worlds Champion against a new phoenix fledgling, and only one team will fly. 

7. “The Dade Award”
This is a community thing that came to be years ago when Dade completely underperformed despite being massively hyped coming into Worlds in 2013. I have never liked the idea of it since it feels extremely mean-spirited for media pundits to punish a player that was “overhyped” by said media pundits. It’s not like players who underperform really run their mouths before the competition. Anyway, the main reason I want to address this is not because I care about The Dade Award (I do not), but because it’s a good chance to talk about how the community decides to treat players after Worlds. I feel like I go on similar rants every couple of months, but it’s really weird to me to see people devote so much time into putting negativity into the scene. I realize this is a thing that’s as old as time and “traditional sports are even worse!” but maybe I am still allowed to wish for esports to be a better place. The line between analysis and calling out a player for performing badly and outright personal attacks on them has always been pretty blurry. You will see, for example, players lambasted for being bad as opposed to having just played badly. The former is subjective and almost impossible to actually prove given the number of games you see at Worlds whereas the latter is pretty easy to identify. Anyway, Gandhi once said, “be the change you wish to see in the world,” so… here are some positive awards:

8. Some positive awards
The Samsung Galaxy Award for Being Okay Domestically and then Randomly Godlike at Worlds
Nominees: Invictus Gaming, Rookie
Winner: Invictus Gaming — even though they won the Spring Split, it’s recent results that matter and recent results meant they had to climb through the gauntlet to even be here, which is very much a move from the Samsung playbook.

The Lee Sin Award for Champion Who Got Buffed to Relevance Right Before Worlds
Nominees: Lee Sin, Orianna, Pantheon, Ryze
Winner: Pantheon (I think — hard to say since he’s 100% banned so far, which might just be an elaborate prank from all of the teams to trick us into thinking he’s too strong).

The 2014 Dade Award for Veteran Who Performed Well, Actually
Nominees: Jankos, Doinb, Perkz, Rookie
Winner: Doinb — lots of players have been exceptional at this Worlds, but only Doinb has managed to make people think he’s a better Ryze than Faker (which is in my opinion still up for debate), and considering Faker has a music video where he is portrayed literally as Ryze, I’d say that’s a really great accomplishment.

The ROX Tigers Award for Team Who is Really Good But Was Unfortunately Knocked Out By SKT
Nominees: RNG, Splyce
Winner: RNG — they played two extremely close games against SKT, and while they lost and have likely been flamed a lot on Chinese forums, I just want to say I think they deserved better and would potentially still be alive if they had drawn into any other group.

The SKT Award for Always Being Too Damn Good
Nominees: SKT
Winner: SKT

9. Preview #1: IG vs. FPX
IG is one of those teams whose biggest enemy is often themselves, and even though FPX are an extremely powerful opponent, I still feel like that’s true here. When all their cylinders are clicking, IG is a team that mesmerizes viewers with an almost hypnotic rhythm — it is just a constant barrage of outplays. Maybe this has all tricked me into believing they are better than they are, like a peacock that spreads her wings to ward off predators. FPX is, of course, no slouch — maybe we are a little down on them because they struggled a bit in the Group Stage, but I think it’s important to remember that just because you are the #1 seed doesn’t mean you will handle the stage well. This is a team that’s brand new to Worlds, and now they’re tasked with representing their region. Doinb even told me he felt extremely pressured to do well because he realized he wasn’t playing just for himself. Ultimately, though, all of these perceptions are put aside once these two teams clash on rift. It’s not like there’s a magic button IG presses to be good or not (*camera pans to Ning having the choice to Flash in or not*). Both of these teams rely on their mid laners for a lot of things, but it’s Doinb who shoulders the larger load in my opinion. I think he may have a difficult time roaming as effectively as he’d like because Rookie should be fairly aggressive at pushing him in and keeping him locked in mid lane (or I guess with Doinb maybe he just forfeits that CS). It feels to me like FPX has an advantage in the jungle with Tian because Ning is still (and maybe always) lacking in consistency, and that should make him the key person to watch. Can IG’s solo lanes continue their dominance, or will they be thwarted by a more mobile-minded FPX mid/jungle duo? My prediction is 3-1 IG — I think Rookie and TheShy will remind us they’re the best 1-2 punch in the world. 

10. Preview #2: SKT vs. G2
Unlike the FPX and IG matchup, which could be completely confusing and hectic, I think we’ll get a much more even-keeled series out of G2 and SKT. Wunder mentioned to me that G2, even in scrims, was trying to reel in some of their aggression to let Jankos better dictate the tempo of the games. They feel extremely confident in their macro if they can get out of laning phase without falling into a hole. On the flipside, it seemed like SKT was trying to dial up their laning phase pressure in the set against SPY with early game picks like Elise. I wonder if this is a sign of teams converging on a set style that is more likely to convert into wins, or if it’s just two teams trying to balance out their weaknesses. Or, I guess, both. SKT is your traditional defensive-oriented team in that they are much more apt to counter your aggression (with good vision and jungle tracking) than to initiate it themselves. Their World Championship years were all characterized by bend-but-don’t-break tempos that snapped an opponent’s head off the second they made a major mistake. Conversely, G2 is like IG in that they push the tempo over and over — sometimes even tripping over themselves — because their players always feel like they can outplay the opposition. This match is your proverbial offense vs. defense collision even if both teams have gestured towards trying to be more balanced. And, as I mentioned above, I favor G2. I believe strongly that this game, as it is now, rewards teams for taking risks, and G2 is very good at identifying which ones to take. They’ve also demonstrated some of the cleanest macro at Worlds so far — I’ll say they win this one… 3-2! 

Worlds Semifinals kick off November 2 starting with IG vs FPX at 4AM PT / 12PM CET. SKT face off against G2 on November 3 starting 3AM PT / 12 PM CET.

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Phoenix – Carpenter Brut Remix