This is likely to be the most interesting matchup of the tournament; it's just a shame that it happens in the quarterfinals.
Before "Oscar Weekend" where every team did their best Reggie Robby impression, Vici Gaming and Invictus Gaming looked like the second and third best teams in LPL. Sadly, they're on Edward Gaming's side of the bracket, so they are unlikely to make the finals.
In the matchup, Invictus Gaming has the talent advantage with a strong player in almost every role. Rookie is shaping up as at least a top two, if not the best, mid laner in LPL. Zzitai's unexpected strengths as a top laner have been a jewel of the team. Kid and Kitties have long been an underrated LPL bottom lane. KaKAO is a thing. Their large champion pools allow them to excel in the research and counter-strategy game.
Vici Gaming doesn't have stars in their lanes. They win in the lane swap, setting the opposing top laner behind and out-rotating for objectives.
Most would give the advantage to Vici, but I think that undersells the strategic elements of Invictus' game play. Outside Edward Gaming, iG is the only team in LPL with both the strong talent lineup and strategic edge. Even so, this should be a close series lasting at least four games.
The Preshow: Energy Pacemaker vs AD Gaming
The 12th place LPL team and the 3rd place LSPL team should be the match the LSPL team is most likely to win.
Unfortunately for AD Gaming, they have not had a fun time on Patch 5.6. Their carry solo lane style and BaeMe's limited champion pool have made strange strategies they've relied upon like top lane Jarvan IV and Katarina mid look like weak attempts at cheese. Beyond that, they tend to contest every single dragon — even when their composition relies upon scaling, and they probably shouldn't be fighting in the early game.
Energy Pacemaker also likes to go for the early dragons at ill-advised times, so this could be a matchup decided early on in every game. This set might be closer than expected, but should go in AD Gaming's favor, as EP's strongest asset is their top laner, AmazingJ, and AD is nothing if not a team hard-carried through most of their sets by Ray, their Korean top. This head-to-head is the one to look out for.
Like they never left home
Coca Cola or Pepsi. Dark or milk chocolate. DanDy or KaKAO. Last year, the answer to this question said a lot about a person as an eSports fan. KaKAO's return to the KT Rolster Arrows placed him on a team that probably shouldn't have been strong enough to win a Champions title. His early pressure carried the likes of Ssumday and Hachani to a first place finish in Champions Summer. He ganked, he dove, he grabbed the kill, and then he took Rookie, the team's mid laner, all the way to China with him.
DanDy's team, Samsung White, had some of the strongest players in League of Legends history in the lineup. He lit the map for them. He knew which lane to gank or countergank to snowball to victory. His gold per minute should not have been possible for a jungler. His mindgames were unmatched. However, when Samsung White won the 2015 World Championship, it was not on his back alone, unlike the way KaKAO and Rookie won Champions Summer.
Circumstances in China have reversed themselves. Position for position, KaKAO has one of the strongest teams in LPL in terms of talent. DanDy has Mata and a young top laner prone to rash judgment calls. His mid and AD carry are not going to win serious MVP awards.
KaKAO can now modulate his style depending on his team's strategy. He can play more safely and scale for the late game, or he can still be the carry. DanDy has to pitch his tent top, itemize more aggressively, and function as his team's primary carry force.
DanDy might have to personally seek and destroy KaKAO to give his lanes breathing room, but this match should be close, and fans of both junglers will enjoy seeing how one performs in the other's role.
The prodigy from Beijing
Watching Zzitai's mid lane career, it seems almost as if he's never had to try as hard as other players in China. He effortlessly commands the secrets to new champions and smacks his foes in the face with his unwieldy champion pool to cheese them out of perfectly winnable games.
Zzitai hails from a wealthy family in Beijing, and he started playing League of Legends competitively at around the age of 14 in 2011. He was an instant prodigy who role-swapped with Kid and became one of the greatest Zeds and Yasuos in China on release. He played champions that were almost good in the meta and defined Invictus Gaming as a wildcard team.
But he could always go home if he wanted.
When KaKAO joined Invictus Gaming, he came as a package with mid laner Rookie. Some guessed Zzitai might have grown bored with League of Legends. Rumors that he had considered retirement prior to Rookie joining the team cropped up. Most would have guessed he'd return to Beijing or become a streamer.
He didn't. Invictus also acquired Save, and Zzitai agreed to share the spotlight with Rookie in rotation with Save as the top laner. Zzitai played solo queue and climbed both the Korean and Chinese ladders.
Invictus finally let Zzitai and Save play for the first set against Vici Gaming. It would be the first Bo2 Invictus lost all split. iG didn't field Zzitai as a mid laner again.
It's arguable Zzitai was a victim of circumstance. Vici was starting to find their team identity and played to avoid confrontation, removing Zzitai's asset as a duelist. Perhaps the Rookie lineup would not have done better.
Zzitai didn't give up. For a two day period, he held the first rank on the Korean Challenger ladder. Zzitai the prodigy had returned. It still wasn't good enough.
So he started playing Hecarim.
Invictus Gaming's Chinese top laner, Pokemon, wasn't working out. KaKAO and Kid both publicly disparaged Pokemon's performances, but the team couldn't play both Save and Rookie in the same rotation. Zzitai saw an opportunity and started learning from his old teammate, PDD.
When Zzitai appeared on iG's roster as a top laner, they dropped another 0-2, this time to Team WE, but iG didn't return him to the bench. He finally won a game with the team as Maokai against Energy Pacemaker. A 1-1 against the last place team in the league wasn't ideal, but Zzitai told the interviewer after his first map win of 2015 that top lane suited him.
That Monday, iG faced Vici Gaming again in the Demacia Cup round-of-sixteen and 3-0'd them.
After iG 3-0'd Qiao Gu in the Demacia Cup semifinals, casters and the crowd chanted Zzitai's name while he took down the Nexus. Zzitai continued to perform well in the regular season of LPL, winning lane against the best in the league.
Zzitai is yet to play top lane in an LPL Playoff race, and in the quarterfinals, he faces Carry, Vici Gaming's most essential lane.
If there isn't a lane swap, DanDy will camp Zzitai. If there is one, Mata will starve him of gold. VG is the toughest team to contend with as a top laner in LPL. Zzitai is fighting for his spot on iG's starting lineup, but if he fails, a new top laner will become a transfer season priority.
The work Zzitai put into learning top lane so far shows he doesn't want to return to Beijing yet. He might be more serious about League of Legends than he's ever been during his career. The most important matchup in this Bo5 is the jungle, but if iG wants to advance, it hinges on Zzitai, and this is his chance to prove he still belongs.
Mata was fined roughly $8,000 for unsportsmanlike behavior when he remained in the fountain and locked in Jayce support during the Demacia Cup round-of-sixteen against Invictus Gaming. While DanDy has been dedicated all split to adjusting to the environment on Vici Gaming, Mata's tilt has been visible in several games.
Earlier on, Mata seemed to peel for DanDy in fights, ignoring his Chinese teammates. He sometimes flashed after ill-advised catches and fed in the late game. In Korea, we've seen Mata tilt, but in China, VG has been a continuous battle between Mata and his own sense of focus.
It isn't clear why Mata has struggled. Some guess he's unhappy with his lane partner; other rumors suggested fights with DanDy. Over the past few weeks, Mata has improved his consistency. He's played a stronger role in lane, Vici Gaming's rotational calls have improved, and he seems content to guide Vasilii through his potential follies.
But, how will Mata react in a five game series if VG starts to lose? With the apparent decline of OMG, LGD Gaming, and Snake, VG and iG look like the second and third best teams in China. One of them will go out here. If the games don't fall easily into VG's pocket, Mata's focus will become a larger factor. If VG wants a shot at Edward Gaming in the semifinals, Mata has to care.
Kelsey Moser is a staff writer for the Score eSports. She likes to imagine a world where LPL Playoffs are still Double Elimination. You can follow her on Twitter.