Usually when League of Legends' second biggest international tournament of the year -- the Mid-Season Invitational -- rolls around, all eyes focus on the mid lane. Since the tournament's inception three years ago, the world's best mid laner, SK Telecom T1's Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok, has participated in each, making the final in all three. MSI, which brings forth every domestic champion from the first half of the year to battle for ultimate supremacy, has often been built around Faker vs. Team SoloMid's Søren "Bjergsen" Bjerg, Faker vs. G2's Luka "PerkZ" Perković or which mid laner has the best chance to topple the world's best player.
This year, though, there is no Faker. There is no Bjergsen. There is no PerkZ. In the 2018 edition of the Mid-Season Invitational, the role of AD carry and the bottom lane will be where the major storylines are drawn. Of the top four regions that are automatically seeded into the six-team main event group stage -- South Korea (LCK), China (LPL), North America (NA LCS), Europe (EU LCS) -- each will bring to the table its region's most tenured superstar marksman. All four, having reveled in domestic success and individual accolades over their careers, will be looking to add their first international championship to their trophy case.
Kingzone's Kim "PraY" Jong-in, Royal Never Give Up's Jian "Uzi" Zi-Hao, Fnatic's Martin "Rekkles" Larsson and Team Liquid's Yiliang Peng will be competing not only for their MSI trophy but also for the title of the best marksman in the world. Although the quartet were all integral to their team's advancement to MSI, a spring split championship will have a bittersweet aftertaste if they can't perform on the international stage in Germany and France over the next three weeks.
PraY expectations: Championship, nothing less
No AD carry will have more pressure to perform in Europe than PraY. The veteran leader of Kingzone alongside his longtime bottom lane partner, Kang "GorillA" Beom-hyeon, PraY has qualified yearly for the World Championships but has failed to win the big one. With SK Telecom T1 out of the picture and the only South Korean team at the event, a title -- especially with how dominant Kingzone was in its domestic split -- is expected. After winning the summer LCK title and getting swept by Samsung Galaxy at last year's World Championship, another failure on a big stage won't be as easily shrugged off.
Over the course of his career, PraY has been the perfect teammate, rotating between a hyper carry or a gold-starved, initiate-utility AD carry, depending on what his team needs at the time. When the ROX Tigers first formed, it was PraY's solo carry Kog'maw that broke the team into the mainstream, and as Longzhu/Kingzone has played around top laner Kim "Khan" Dong-ha, PraY has been more than happy to take the back seat as the world's best Ashe player.
At the LCK spring split final against the Afreeca Freecs, PraY made sure to remind the world that he can still be the ace if called upon, playing Kai'sa in all four games and taking home the postseason MVP award. Long seen as South Korea's most consistent AD carry that has failed to achieve the same highs as other carries, this MSI is the perfect opportunity for PraY to get his moment. If not now, it's only going to get tougher heading into the World Championships in October.
Uzi expectations: Finals and probably another international loss to a South Korean juggernaut
Although it's hard to argue against the tandem of PraY and GorillA entering MSI as the best bottom lane, no player at the tournament brings as much excitement and ability to flip a match on its head as China's legendary AD carry. After failing time and time again to win a domestic title, Uzi finally had his curse come to an end at the LPL spring finals, with his Royal Never Give Up squad taking out former MSI champion EDward Gaming in a four-game set.
Now that one streak of futility has come to an end, MSI could be the home where Uzi finally lifts a major international trophy. Twice Uzi has failed in the finals of a World Championship, first in 2013 as part of Royal Club in a one-sided loss to a rookie SK Telecom T1 squad and then again the next year in another defeat to a South Korean team, this time in the form of Samsung Galaxy White. Uzi has had monumental moments on the international stage, but each time, he has gotten close to a championship, a South Korean giant has brushed him aside in the final.
At MSI, the script has a familiar feel. RNG should at least make the semifinals, and if the Chinese champion can make the final, it would be a major upset if Uzi isn't looking across the stage from PraY and Kingzone, another South Korean supernova with the potential to go down as an all-time squad. At RNG's current state, a loss to Kingzone in a final wouldn't be the end of the world, though a title win, especially if it comes beating KZ, would skyrocket Uzi into the discussion of the No. 2 in history behind Faker.
Rekkles expectations: Semifinals at worst
Fnatic is in a peculiar position heading into MSI. Starting top laner Paul "sOAZ" Boyer had to miss the EU LCS postseason due to injury, and while replacement and up-and-coming talent Gabriël "Bwipo" Rau did well in his stead, experience can't be understated at international competitions. Time and time again, hyped-up rookies have come off from impressive domestic splits to be broken down on the world stage.
For Rekkles, the last memory fans have of him at an international competition was him shellshocked in his chair following his team's loss to Uzi's RNG in the quarterfinals of Worlds. It was one of the lowest moments in the career of Europe's greatest AD carry. Returning to Fnatic and the EU LCS for this year's spring split, Rekkles had the best season of his career, playing in the ace role of a team that took home the regular-season championship before rolling through the playoffs as the No. 1 seed. At the EU LCS finals in Denmark, Rekkles was awarded league MVP in a runaway.
On his home continent and playing much of the tournament in the same venue as his regular-season EU LCS games, Rekkles should be comfortable playing against the world's best. With the team's lineup still up in the air, Fnatic's success isn't guaranteed, but with a young jungler and mid laner getting valuable international experience last year in China, a better performance should be expected. After Counter Logic Gaming and G2 Esports made the past two MSI finals to eventually lose against SKT, a place in the finals wouldn't be all too surprising.
Doublelift expectations: It's North America. Anything can happen
Who knows what we're going to get with Team Liquid at MSI? During the playoffs, no team was close to touching the new North American champion. The team rampaged through scrimmages and transferred its practice dominance into reality by running through the playoffs, with only a single dropped map in three matches. Altogether, if you forget TL's forgetful regular season, it was one of the most impressive runs to a title in NA LCS history.
But really, who knows how strong NA is? The times when the NA LCS has come in expected to do well at MSI -- such as last year, with Team SoloMid -- the team struggled to make the main group stage and failed to even make it into the knockout rounds. When no one expected anything from the 2016 CLG team that upended TSM to make it to MSI, the NA squad put up the best international performance in North American history by making it all the way to the final.
Unlike the other superstar AD carries vying for the title best in the world, Doublelift doesn't have a marquee international performance. Sure, PraY, Uzi and Rekkles have never won an MSI or Worlds, but they've had moments of glory. PraY has made a final. Uzi has made two finals. Rekkles and his 2015 Fnatic team that made the Worlds semifinals is still considered one of the best western teams of all time. Doublelift is best remembered for his Lucian death against Samsung Galaxy two years ago at Worlds and failing to make it out of the group stages in his past three World Championships. At worst, Doublelift needs to make it to the knockout rounds and end his string of early exits from international events.
Team Liquid has the potential to make it to the MSI final over RNG and Fnatic. But as always with North America, potential means nothing when only results matter, and Doublelift, in maybe his best form ever, will need to put up results at MSI if he wants to prove everyone is trash except himself.