Unconquered: The last rise and fall of Invictus Gaming

by theScore Staff Sep 25 2015
Thumbnail image courtesy of IET / IET Screengrab

When counting the greatest teams in League of Legends history, the word “consistency,” inevitably occupies the criteria list. “Inconsistent” is the red hand analysts have used throughout the years to slap Invictus Gaming down from the upper echelons. iG are “inconsistent” in the same way would-be Basketball players are “short,” less popular models are “big-boned,” and radio hosts have a “grating” voice.

WE’s less ambitious rivals have never missed a World Championship qualifier and have remained in the conversation of China’s top teams year after year. In some ways, that should make them an even greater team or organization in League of Legends than WE, but their highs are less developed and shorter than their lows. iG may never make a prominent list of greatest teams of all time, but they’re one that’s informed the history of the game and, at times, were the only team that could unsettle one of the greats.

In 2011, Defense of the Ancients still dominated the Chinese landscape. A lot of the early talent in League of Legends was imported to mainland China, which gave rise to a team comprised of players from Hong Kong called Catastrophic Cruel Memory in May. A month after the team’s formation, they changed the roster to include two players from Mainland China, but the players from Hong Kong still formed and controlled the team's core.

Pun Wai "Wh1t3zZ" Lo captained the team, alternating between mid lane and jungle with Zong “Monkey D Luffy” Yuan. Wh1t3zZ was the team’s premier talent. Sun “XiaoXiao” Yalong played top lane. The other two players from Hong Kong played in the bottom lane. Wong “MikakoTabe” Pak Kan played AD carry, and Siu “Chris” Keung played support.

Alongside CCM, three other monarchies ruled Chinese League of Legends: NGG, EHOME, and WE. The initial rivalry between CCM and WE played off CCM as “Hong Kong’s team” and WE as a team comprised only of players from Mainland China.

In July, Tencent Games undertook their largest effort to date to promote League of Legends in the July 17 Tencent Games Arena. Catastrophic Cruel Memory defeated WE in the final and plunged themselves into the spotlight. NGG placed third. At the time, NGG’s AD Carry, regarded by many in China at the time as the best in his role stated, “CCM is a very strong opponent, individual abilities are varied, so fighting against them is a big headache.” His name was Liu “PDD” Mou.

Wh1t3zZ’s squad continued to ride one of their well-regarded highs until Aug. 2 when the son of the richest man in China, Wang “Principal Wang” Sicong, grew interested in eSports in part because of the visibility of TGA. Principal Wang, son of Wang Jianlin, Chairman of the Wanda Group—perhaps best known in the west for their subsidiary, AMC Theatres—purchased the entirety of Catastrophic Cruel Memory, including their Defense Against the Ancients, StarCraft II, and League of Legends teams. The entire transaction totalled around $6 million USD.

Principal Wang rebranded CCM as Invictus Gaming.

CCM win their first TGA in 2011

“Invictus” is a Latin word meaning “unconquered.” In many ways, iG’s League of Legends team have lived up to their name since Principal Wang’s acquisition in 2011, though perhaps not in the ways their wealthy benefactor intended.

Invictus Gaming placed first in the World Cyber Games qualifier for China, beating out WE and NGG. The Hong Kong team would represent China at WCG.

Following the qualifier, iG didn’t perform nearly as well in domestic tournaments for the rest of the year. Both WE and EHOME acquired new star AD Carries in August. PDD transferred to EHOME from NGG, and the infamous Gao “WeiXiao” Xuecheng joined WE. They both became relatively unbeatable for iG going forward.

In October, Invictus lost at IEM Guangzhou to SK Gaming and EHOME. They fell to EHOME and WE in the Pro League round robin tournament. The event was also one of the initial appearances of TM.Origin, the first team of then 13-year-old prodigy, Liu “Zzitai” Zhihao. TM.Origin fared even worse than iG; they didn’t win a single game.

Due to pressures from his parents, Luffy left iG in November. Chen “illuSion” Xinlin joined Invictus Gaming as a jungler from solo queue. XiaoXiao moved to mid lane full time, and Whit3zZ played top lane to accommodate illuSion as a fulltime jungler. Whit3zZ lost some of his presence as the main playmaker, and iG’s early game didn’t seem as crisp, leading to clashes with illuSion. Invictus Gaming lost the Tencent Games Carnival to EHOME that month.

When Invictus Gaming finally appeared at the World Cyber Games in December to represent China, they went undefeated in their group against Team Dignitas, Meet Your Makers, and RageFace, but they lost in the first round of the bracket 0-2 to the Canadian Counter Logic Gaming. Tensions within iG were high, leading to poor performances. Some speculated that if Luffy hadn’t left iG, they could have done better at WCG and changed the course of development of League of Legends esports in China.

Conflict between Whit3zZ and illuSion escalated until January of 2012, after iG lost to WE in the TGA finals, when Whit3Zz openly blamed illuSion. illuSion responded by leaving and forming a new team called 影梦. 影梦 defeated iG in a minor match. By March, Whit3zZ left Invictus Gaming for Canis Lupis Campestris, and illuSion returned to the team with Yang “BlackWeapon” Ao. With three members from Mainland China, iG lost their reputation as Hong Kong’s team.

During 2012, iG continued to reform without their old captain. Tabe and Chris would eventually follow White3zZ, and XiaoXiao became the team's shotcaller. With the loss of a maturer focus from Tabe and a stricter captain in Whit3zZ, the environment within Invictus Gaming grew much more relaxed as they picked up young stars.

Meanwhile, WE’s environment became more serious. Ji “Aaron” Xing, WE’s analyst, became more involved in dictating WE’s strategic approach. iG, who had their own analysts, lost some of their advantages in development of early infrastructure.

Zzitai was iG’s next acquisition, as the team was in need of a new star mid laner. Zzitai’s name comes from a popular song called “花的姿态“ (“Hua de zitai” or ”Flower’s Pose”). He joined the team in early April. His previous team, Agfox, included Zhang “YuZhe” Zhe. Agfox participated in a small online tournament against Taipei Assassins. After Zzitai had a strong individual showing, he received many offers, but chose Invictus.

In his early career, Zzitai focused on making an impact in the laning phase. One of his largest claims to fame was in running Ignite on Karthus and using the champion much more aggressively. “You’ve never heard of a Karthus getting first blood”—unless you watched Invictus Gaming in 2012. When people called Karthus a “farming champion,” he took it as a challenge.

PDD also joined Invictus Gaming that April. Though WE won IEM Guangzhou the year before, they were unable to attend the IEM VI World Championship in Hanover. EHOME, after placing second, took their place. Prior to the tournament, PDD complained of pain in his hands, but went with EHOME to Hanover anyway.

At this time, PDD had begun playing mostly solo lane roles rather than AD Carry. The EHOME roster at Hanover included Zhong “Max” Shenfa, Li “TS” Weijun—now known as Vasilii—Hou “IMBA” Xuelin, and Chen “Air” Ying. EHOME only won a single game at IEM VI World Championship, and the team was summarily decimated by Moscow 5.

Following the tournament, PDD announced his retirement, again complaining of a hand injury. A little over a month later, however, PDD signed with Invictus Gaming as their top laner. Many EHOME fans complained that PDD had cheated them, but for others his “retirement” became a running joke. PDD would frequently say he was looking to retire after a bad game or tournament or would threaten that “iG might actually disband.”

A few western journalists have fallen for his games a little too hard in the past.

Invictus Gaming did not participate in the Tencent Games Arena Grand Prix in June, but a new team called HanGong Clan entered the fray. Much like Zzitai’s previous teams, HanGong didn’t win any games in the group stage, but their mid laner stood out. Ge “Kid” Yan performed exceptionally well against WE’s star mid laner, Yu “Misaya” Jingxi.

Not many had heard of Kid before the tournament, but he held high ranks on China’s top solo queue server, and iG took immediate interest. They offered him a contract, and he joined the team on June 28. He officially joined iG as an AD Carry, but he and Zzitai would spend a lot of time switching between mid and bottom lane in 2012.

If Invictus Gaming has ever had a “golden age,” it began with the acquisition of Kid. In the middle of 2012, online tournaments featuring Chinese, Korean, and even some Taiwanese teams were common. NiceGameTV hosted tournaments called “Battle Royal,” that often featured clashes between WE or Invictus Gaming and Korean opponents.

Invictus Gaming frequently placed toward the top in these events with PDD, illuSion, Zzitai, Kid, and XiaoXiao. On July 24, they defeated NaJin Shield 3:2. On July 31, they defeated MVP, with outstanding performances by Kid on Corki and one of the earliest exposure of the world to PDD’s legendary Jayce. Invictus Gaming later took down the Taipei Assassins, and even CLG NA when they competed in an online tournament while bootcamping in Korea.

Invariably, in games iG won, the kill counts were exorbitant. They would attack hard and fast and pick fights that most team wouldn’t rationalize. In their July set against MVP, for example, the kill count was 50-to-41 in one of the games they won, but only 3-to-10 in the single game they lost. Even shorter games would average more than a kill a minute when iG had control. Though OMG would later refine the concept of “Chinese aggression” with vision placement and a pick style, iG liked to go for extreme 1v1s and messy fights, often ignoring objectives entirely.

Perhaps because of their apparent lack of logic, iG initially gained a reputation as the “Korean punisher” in China, moreso than the patient and farm-oriented WE. Domestically, WE and Invictus Gaming were still the primary rivals of China, trading first and second place titles, though WE, for the most part was considered the strongest. They auto-qualified for the Season 2 World Championship, but Invictus Gaming had to win the Regional Final at China Joy to gain China’s second seed.

Despite this, Invictus Gaming continued to gain international recognition. Around September, they had started to look like contenders at Worlds because of their individual skill ceilings. They again defeated MVP at CPL Shenyang and on September 13th won 3:2 against Azubu Frost in another Battle Royal, but lost to LG-IM and Azubu Blaze.

Encounters with Azubu Frost resulted in a conflict between PDD and Lee “CloudTemplar” Hyunwoo. A comment made by CloudTemplar offended Invictus Gaming’s Chinese players, and though CloudTemplar sought to apologize, PDD took it as a point of pride and avoided shaking hands with Korean players on stage for much of the rest of his career.

Prior to the WE acquisition of Ming “Clearlove” Kai and Feng “Fzzf” Zhuojun in early September, Invictus Gaming and WE enjoyed their closest period of competition until 2013. WE had an extremely professional demeanor in the public arena, but Invictus Gaming came off more as a “fan’s team,” making many jokes on stream and enjoying camaraderie with owner Principal Wang.

XiaoXiao in particular was known as an extremely funny person who cheered up the team. PDD took care of and looked after his little brothers and had a very approachable stream persona devoted to teaching and entertaining. Kid and Zzitai, the younger members of the team, would steal snacks from illuSion, who they all referred to as 点点 or “little cute” as he was the skinniest player on the team. They referred to the team dog by the same name, sometimes resulting in comedic misunderstandings.

Zzitai was filmed singing, and fans called him “MC God” or, because of his background as a relatively well off individual from Beijing, “rich prodigy from Beijing.” PDD to this day hasn’t told fans what his name stands for, but they often affectionately referred to him as “胖弟弟” or “chubby brother.” XiaoXiao became known for some of his “legendary” missed Sona ultimates.

At this time, illuSion, Kid, and Zzitai were performing well individually, but fans began to criticize XiaoXiao and PDD for poor form, retreading the EHOME conflict and impersonating XiaoXiao’s girlfriend maliciously. Fans also heavily pressured WE. WE were at top form early in the year, but after iG leveled up their roster, the barrier between the best and second best team in China seemed much smaller. Misaya invited the team to a showmatch in late August, but retracted the invitation. At the time, more critical fans called him a coward.

When WE acquired Clearlove and Fzzf, they stopped losing to Invictus Gaming or any other Chinese team all together. Both teams attended the World Championship in 2012, and both teams lost in quarterfinals, though Invictus Gaming faced the formidable Moscow 5, and WE’s series was plagued by technical issues.

Back in China, Invictus Gaming didn’t win a single title after October, except in a Go4LoL in November where WE forfeited the tournament early. iG continued to beat mid to top level Korean and Taiwanese teams in online tournaments, but lost every encounter with WE. Invictus Gaming lost the third place match to Incredible Miracle after getting knocked down by WE in Enter the Dragon, a tournament Christopher “Papa Smithy” Smith remembers casting before the IGN Pro League 5. After the event, he decided WE would handily win IPL5 without dropping a game.

WE didn’t quite go undefeated at IPL 5 in maps, but they didn’t lose a best-of-series before triumphing. When WE was the strongest team in the world, some Chinese fans speculated Invictus Gaming may be the second strongest, as they seemed to be the only team capable of taking games off them in repeated encounters.

WE win IPL 5

That didn’t make Invictus Gaming look dominant. They would still give up games against lesser teams from time to time due to their inconsistencies. They dropped a game to Wayi Spiders in the LPL Spring qualifier due to an over-performance by Chen “Yeluo” Libin (then called Leaf). Wayi Spiders would go on to place eighth in LPL Spring.

Before the LPL began, Tian Ci, the owner of Royal Club, made a bid to sign PDD in private, but when PDD refused and alerted management, Principal Wang offered three times the amount for Jian “Uzi” Zihao. After Tian Ci apologized, Principal Wang retracted the offer, and the League of Legends Association for Chinese Esports implemented anti-poaching rules in China, including a rule that prevented organizations from privately contacting contracted players.

Principal Wang hung on to his assets for a reason. A stumble in the LPL qualifiers and a scandal would usher in Invictus as kings. On March 9, 2012, Invictus Gaming played the G League Final against WE and took the team to five games. The rivalry started to come back. Angry fans lectured each other. WE followers believed their team didn’t care about besting iG anymore, and iG fans looked for a chance to believe in the team that had never been reliable.

If one ever wants to refer to iG as a great team, this is the period during which he might make the strongest case. LPL Spring 2013 began, and in Week 2, WE lost their first best-of-one encounter to Invictus Gaming. In the first weeks of LPL, though OMG had an impressive and interesting style, WE was still the ruler of China, and iG their only real challenger. iG’s defeat of WE made them the only remaining undefeated team in the league.

Invictus Gaming lost their first game the next week to OMG. OMG’s more calculated approach to iG’s early aggression may not have worked on WE, but drew iG to a long game and a defeat. In Week 4, iG lost yet another game, this time to Royal Club Huang Zu, and WE took first in LPL, where many expected them to remain.

The first encounter between Invictus Gaming and WE in GIGABYTE Stars War League Season 2 seemingly affirmed this suspicion. On April 9, WE and iG played a best-of-five that went 3-1 in WE’s favor, knocking iG to the bottom bracket.

In Week 5 of the LPL, however, WE lost not one, but two games: one to Invictus, and one to Team LiveMore. LiveMore’s only truly notable player was Yu “F1sh” Rui, now known as Qiao Gu Reapers’ TnT, and the team placed sixth overall in LPL that season. This stood out as WE’s first noteworthy map loss all year. That week, iG resumed first place in the LPL and went on to 3-0 NaJin Sword to return to the Grand Finals of Stars War to face WE on April 23rd.

In the week leading up to the Grand Final of Stars War, WE lost two more matches to Royal and OMG, while iG soundly rebuffed Positive Energy and LiveMore. Even with WE splintering, very few would dare to predict the fall that coming week.

With a one game deficit, Invictus Gaming gave WE their first series loss in six months while they procured their first tournament title since WE’s rise. In Game 1, WE commanded the early game, controlling the lane, but PDD and Zzitai’s coordination granted iG the first victory. Clearlove’s camp top lane with CaoMei snowballed Game 2 in WE’s favor after Zzitai demolished Misaya.

In Game 3, Invictus Gaming let Misaya pick his yet undefeated Twisted Fate. Zzitai pushed Misaya out and killed him on his own signature Karthus and kept him in lane. Invictus Gaming toppled the Twisted Fate and set the game score to even.

An explosive Game 4 went in Invictus Gaming’s favor. One of the most memorable moments in League of Legends history was conducted by an important team, if not a great one. The age of Invictus began. The era of the old gods of League of Legends in China would end with iG, and not WE, captaining the ship into the storm.

Invictus Gaming won the first LPL regular season with a score of 22-6. The inconsistent Invictus Gaming only dropped matches to WE and OMG in the coming weeks with a singular game loss to Royal Club from before. They kept their losses in the Top 5, which was more than WE could claim, losing an additional game to LiveMore and and one to seventh place team, Wings of Aurora. They only remained undefeated against Positive Energy and Wayi Spiders.

Still, the signs of decline persisted. OMG, who had only lost one more game than Invictus that split, owned the head-to-head against LPL Spring’s first place team with a 3-1 record and seemed to have the strongest concept of objective control in China. They set the pick composition trend that most other teams, including iG, followed. Zzitai and iG could conform to the pace OMG and patch changes set more easily than WE, but new power was flooding China, and though most of iG remained talented, it’s possible that their team of prodigies didn’t want it as much.

Positive Energy had a strong concept of global map control with jungler Rao “Jing” Jing, and though they hadn’t managed to take out Invictus Gaming in a single game all Spring, Zhu “NaMei” Jiawen was reaching his peak. With Varus in hand, PE were able to get more catches for objectives and smashed iG 2-0. With OMG’s defeat of WE, China had its first major tournament final in recent recollection that didn’t feature either WE or Invictus Gaming. The old rivalry fell, and China’s most iconic teams would spend summer going through the motions.

That wasn’t it for the roster that many considered “Classic iG.” Both PDD and XiaoXiao accompanied Clearlove, Misaya, and WeiXiao to All-Star Shanghai in May of 2013 before Playoffs. Though new blood would ultimately win out, the old guard still commanded the hearts of fans. WE’s top laner, Wei “CaoMei” Handong, politely asked his own fans to vote in PDD over himself, given the overwhelming perception that PDD was the best top laner in China.

Though PDD lost in the 1v1 match in All-Star to Paul “sOAZ” Boyer, many still remember his iconic Rumble play against the GPL squad. China’s team only lost to Korea in the final 2-0.

In LPL Summer of 2013, Invictus Gaming became a caricature of their stereotypes. High over-performances by individual players got them wins, but they managed a score of 10-11 for the entire season and placed fifth. Strangely enough, they bested OMG this time around. A 2-1 record against OMG in 2013 Summer marked the only positive head-to-head iG kept for the split.

Outside LPL, WE and Invictus Gaming suffered in Chinese tournaments. Invictus Gaming would continue to be bested by the likes of OMG, Royal Club, and Positive Energy. WE and iG had one last hurrah in IEM Season VIII Shanghai. Notably, PDD suffered a car accident and could not participate in the semifinal against Royal Club, but he returned to play one last WE vs iG final after a day of rest. WE won.

Though Invictus Gaming didn’t place high enough to play in the summer playoffs, they were still invited to the 2013 World Championship Qualifier for placing first in the Spring regular season, while WE were not. As Positive Energy had just lost their jungler before the event, iG were able to best them in the loser’s bracket. Invictus Gaming placed third, but China only had two seeds available for the World Championship, or we would have seen their fifth best team head to Worlds that year.

As XiaoXiao recounted while casting the most recent regional qualifier alongside Positive Energy’s support, Li “Sicca” Haoyu and discussing Whit3zZ, “In Season 3, I beat the crap out of you, then he beat the crap out of me, and we both retired.”

Following the Regional Qualifier, XiaoXiao left Invictus Gaming to pursue casting and streaming. Classic Invictus Gaming lost its longest-standing member and only holdout from Whit3zZ’s era.

Zzitai still remembers this roster most fondly. He’s said that, if it comes a time when he’s no longer able to keep up with the upper echelons of professional play, and XiaoXiao or PDD would ever want to form a team again, he would join them. He still plays with a mousepad featuring the 2012 and 2013 Invictus Gaming lineup and says that “Those memories are probably the best ones I have of this scene.”

Perhaps more hardened analysts who value strategy and consistency remember a team like Invictus Gaming with disgust. In 2011, their support structure had many advantages with multiple analysts employed, but after the departure of Whit3zZ and Tabe, the team lacked a defined hierarchy, focus, and will to improve. Many of iG’s players were remembered for adapting to new changes easily rather than perfecting a playstyle, for throwing the kitchen sink rather than isolating a refined approach.

Yet it’s hard to talk about the history of League of Legends without mentioning Invictus. They’ve been present for important moments in time, and it’s in part due to their constant and sometimes illogical presence that WE had competition that motivated them to reach the top. WE were intelligent, talented, and driven. Invictus Gaming was the oft-discredited little brother who could easily be dismissed with the word “inconsistent.”

Invictus Gaming was the kind of team whose wins were almost always upsets, who were fondly dubbed the underdogs. It made them easy to cheer on. It made them easy to love.

As the old gods fell, however, it was Invictus’ occasional genius and the youth of their core members that allowed them to keep rubbing elbows with the top while WE crumbled. XiaoXiao’s departure at the end of 2013 signaled an end of era, but also a rebuilding that has brought a shaky Invictus Gaming to their second World Championship appearance. In some ways, they haven’t changed at all. Invictus remain “unconquered.”

A major thank you to Felon Lee who helped me with a lot of initial research more than a year ago and to others who have helped and wished to remain anonymous.

Kelsey Moser is a staff writer for theScore eSports. You can follow her on Twitter.