Since 2013, the start of LPL, Invictus Gaming have never placed below third place in the Spring Playoffs. They also haven't made the World Championship since 2012, but they've always had a spot at the Regional Qualifier. This is the first time they've made the LPL Summer playoffs since the league's inception.
The plight of the iG fan this year is familiar. With great promise and a bold approach, Invictus Gaming ramp up during the spring split. They seem dedicated to surprising their opponents and overpowering lanes. Liu "Zzitai" Zhihao's versatility and wide champion pool as a mid laner was often complemented by AD carry Ge "Kid" Yan's self-sufficient positioning. With Liu "PDD" Mou in the top lane, iG could ramp up both other lanes easily as PDD exerted extensive pressure.
Known for an inconsistent and sometimes random style, iG survived as the yin to Team WE's more patient yang in 2012 and early 2013. They became the team to end WE's six month series win streak and placed first in the 2013 regular season.
Then Positive Energy took advantage of iG in the LPL Spring Playoffs. Jing answered Chen "illuSion" Xinlin's jungle pressure, and AD carry NaMei exerted a surprising amount of map presence for a marksmen main. IG couldn't do enough just by pulling pressure in the top lane. PE's 2v1 shut PDD down.
From there, it seemed they never recovered. The team plummeted below OMG, Positive Energy, WE, and Royal Club Huang Zu in the summer split. By placing top two in the Spring regular season, they were invited to the Regional Qualifier for the World Championship. They took advantage of the recent departure of PE's jungler to upset them, but that's as far as they would go in the bracket before dropping out of contention.
History repeated itself in 2014. This time, PDD's retirement shook the team after they managed to take second in the 2014 LPL Spring Playoffs. They failed to develop more nuanced strategy and once again didn't make Summer Playoffs. Their presence at the 2014 Regional Qualifier was practically a joke as Zzitai's Ahri simply chased stray targets across the map. They dropped in both upper and lower brackets to OMG and LGD Gaming.
It's 2015, and something as changed. Lee "KaKAO" Byungkwon and Song "Rookie" Eujin have joined iG from KT. KT, like iG, have had the chance to qualify for the World Championship these past two years. Unlike iG, they've looked good at the end of Summer. Rookie and KaKAO's team, the KT Arrows, won 2014 Champions Summer, but lost to NaJin White Shield in their miraculous gauntlet run for the third World Championship seed.
When KaKAO and Rookie came to LPL, it was likely with the World Championship qualification in mind. As the first big names announced in the great migration of top level Koreans to China's LPL, Rookie and KaKAO imagined they'd have an easier time making the World Championship. When other large names, including the rosters of both Samsung teams, followed them to join other LPL teams, it became clear that things would be much harder than expected.
Like in 2013 and 2014, Invictus Gaming had a powerful Spring run. Until LGD smashed through their Playoffs bracket and took Edward Gaming to five games, iG looked like the second best team in LPL. They placed third overall, facing Edward Gaming in semifinals and skinning Snake in the consolation match.
Zzitai's transition to the top lane allowed him to take over PDD's distraction mantel, but to less success. He continued to ramp up on more niche-but-still-meta picks, as Zzitai often did in the mid lane, like Irelia and Trundle. If Zzitai got an inch, he could solo the opposing top laner, but things worked out better if he pulled the enemy jungler top, even if he died.
Rookie and Kid managed to scale well in more relaxed lanes. Giant creep leads transitioned into well-coordinated team fights. KaKAO adapted the most quickly of junglers in LPL to Cinderhulk champions like Gragas and controlled the landscape. Even though iG only placed third, they looked like they could be better in the Summer. They looked like they could fix a few problems and upset LGD or even EDG. Zzitai said after Edward Gaming won MSI that beating EDG just once would be like beating a world champion.
Despite illuSion's departure form iG's starting lineup, the specter of his name still haunts the team. After a devastating 0-2 at the hands of Edward Gaming earlier this summer, iG started to stagnate again. Mafa stopped drafting consistently for the team, and they lost one of their largest strategic advantages. Rumors of poor management circulated. Sun "XiaoXiao" Yalong, previous support for iG, claimed that many of iG's players now are young and might not be as motivated.
While teams like Snake, Qiao Gu, Vici Gaming, and LGD experimented with strategy or looked to improve their roster in the regular season, iG stayed the same. They didn't improve their side lane splitting. They relied too much on team fighting, and as other teams discovered their top lane formula, they lost early game advantages. It seems the malaise of iG, despite their third place in the regular season, has spread to KaKAO and Rookie.
For fans of iG, the reverse sweep against Vici Gaming to secure a top four placement in Summer Playoffs and a spot at the 2015 World Championship Regional Qualifier for LPL is a relief. It's also a disappointment. The series between iG and VG went into iG's hands more through VG's misplays than iG's strong strategy. When it came down to it, iG made just as many mistakes but their stronger carries, especially Rookie, could practically solo team fights against VG's more inexperienced charges.
Now that iG have made top four, it won't be as easy. In the Snake and LGD Gaming series following iG vs VG, both teams capitalized on small positional errors by taking not just one objective, but strings of objectives. A single pick could result in multiple towers, a Baron, a dragon, and an inhibitor in one sweep. IG didn't accomplish this feat against VG.
Happily for iG, they don't have to face LGD or Snake, but Qiao Gu can be an extremely devastating team from behind, and what iG lacks in team fight coordination has formed Qiao Gu's core identity. If iG want to play the stall game, QG are happy to match their pace and beat them in a 5v5.
Going into 2015 LPL Regionals in September, iG are the definite underdogs. Despite higher regular season placement, they didn't use their time to improve like their opponents. LGD can out-rotate and outlane them. Snake can out team fight and outpressure them. QG will play their game much better. I don't have the patience to list the ways in which EDG outclass iG.
But there's still time for things to change. If iG do indeed lose to QG, they have the rest of the month to prepare for Regionals. Perhaps securing their spot will be enough to motivate the team to finally work on their problems, but I'm not optimistic. Even though iG found their way into the Playoffs, they haven't shaken their old pattern. It seems likely that this will be the third year in a row that both iG and KaKAO fail to make the World Championship.
Kelsey Moser is a staff writer for theScore eSports. You can follow her on Twitter.