Necessary change: Part 2 in a history of Invictus Gaming

by theScore Staff Sep 26 2015
Thumbnail image courtesy of Demacia Cup / CGA.CN

Following the dissolution of Invictus Gaming’s classic lineup, the team would spend the next two years coming to realize that hitting highs but failing to adapt wouldn’t qualify them for the World Championships. Their peaks became more unbelievable. Their lows didn’t seem to have a bottom.

Prior to leaving the team to become one of China’s most beloved casters and personalities, XiaoXiao recommended Liu “Kitties” Hongjun to replace him. Kitties came from a lineup of relatively mature and talented players called RisingStars Gaming.

Almost every top squad lost prominent players. Four members of Royal Club retired. OMG’s Yu “cool” Jiajun took the spring off. WE split in half. Positive Energy lost their bottom lane.

This ushered in what I refer to as “the dark ages” of the LPL, where old talent had vanished and new talent hadn’t yet risen to fill the gaps. Edward Gaming and RisingStars players like Kitties and Tong “Koro1” Yang looked like the only shining lights as they attempted to fill the void left by Chinese legends.

Kitties’ replacement initially rejuvenated the flagging Invictus Gaming. He immediately turned heads as a Thresh player. iG won their first notable tournament following the World Championship at Intel Extreme Masters Singapore, where the “Korean punishers” bested Azubu Frost once more. The team also won the first Demacia Cup in the last iG vs WE final.

Invictus Gaming should have done well as one of the most “together” teams going into the LPL in 2014. Instead, they became a practical caricature of themselves with PDD as a new shotcaller, building overly aggressive items in the tank meta and ending games in around 20 minutes, win or lose. They were in sixth place during the regular season when the IEM World Championship in Katowice rolled around.

The 2014 IEM World Championship will likely be remembered as the worst showing by Chinese teams at an international event. Though Liu "Zzitai" Zhihao impressed on Yasuo, abusing his ability to learn new champions quickly, both iG and WE collapsed and dropped out before the bracket stage. Not only were both teams struggling to find their identities with new rosters, but China playing games two patches behind the IEM LAN server was punishing. The patch was a definite factor in their performances, but LPL itself was in a ragged state at the time.

iG’s and WE’s destructions in Katowice seemingly gave both teams the kick they needed to work things out. In their return to LPL the following week, they split a close series against one another, and iG gave OMG their first defeat all year with an innovative Pantheon pincer and Xerath/Varus composition.

Week 7 started Invictus Gaming on a small winning streak. They 2:0’d LGD, Positive Energy, and Royal Club. Their last two series were against WE and OMG, the third and first place teams in the league. LGD still topped them in the standings for the last Playoffs seed, but 1:1 splits with both teams and a surprising Twitch jungle from Positive Energy against LGD gave Invictus Gaming the impetus to climb.

Prior to leaving for All-Stars in Paris, OMG started to show weaknesses. Hu “xiyang” Bin, Cool’s replacement mid laner, often had very little jungle pressure threatening him in the mid lane at the height of the 4v0 meta. Banning out a few choice champions also made him vulnerable.

Edward Gaming toppled OMG in their first tournament victory at the International Esports Tournament, signaling that OMG’s era of dominance had finally ended. Ming "Clearlove" Kai and his new team had begun their ascent. By December, there would be no rivalries in Chinese League of Legends: only Edward Gaming and the quest to best them.

Chance smiled on Invictus Gaming. As the team to have given OMG two of their three game losses in LPL Spring with the mid laner who had played the most unique champions, they could easily abuse OMG’s weaknesses, even without sophisticated strategy. As had happened to Invictus Gaming the year before, the fourth seed team eliminated the first seed in the first round of Playoffs and placed second overall.

Unfortunately, the delicate balance iG had created crashed with the announcement of yet another retirement. In his statement, PDD thanked Invictus Gaming for the best years of his life. Both Marcus “Dyrus” Hill and Yoon “MakNooN” Hawoon acknowledged PDD for his abilities and legendary status at the peak of his career. PDD declared he would start a new journey.

PDD, ever the fickle retiree, announced a new team this year, which he asked his old teammates to promote on social media. He was once again mired in a few minor poaching allegations, but he wouldn’t be PDD otherwise. As it stands, PDD’s team has very few prospects and is a bit more like a running joke among fans.

Summer went even worse for Invictus Gaming with Korean top laner Gwon "YongSoo" Yongsu. Unable or unwilling to change, the team flailed under Zzitai’s shotcalling. They placed sixth overall, trying various approaches that never seemed serious and still managing to shine individually, but never impress strategically.

As with the previous year, since Invictus Gaming placed well during Spring, they still received an invitation to the World Championship Qualifier at the end of the Summer. They had an even less impressive run, collapsing 0:2 to OMG and then 1:2 to LGD Gaming before dropping out of the tournament. Invictus Gaming’s erratic lack of focus had become a near laughing stock without any strategic advancement.

Something had to change. Wang “Principal Wang” Sicong, Invictus Gaming’s owner, began heavily importing talent, especially in infrastructure, with the acquisitions of Won "MaFa" Sangyeon and Lee "PoohManDu" Jeonghyeon. Rumors suggested he had his sights set on a new jungler, and Cho "watch" Jae-geol perched at the top of his wishlist until XiaoXiao informed him of a Korean jungler who had never been to a World Championship, but whom many also regarded as one of the best in the world.

Lee “KaKAO” Byungkwon and teammate Song "RooKie" Euijin were the first top level Koreans to depart from Korea to China. After rising to contest jungling great Choi “DanDy” Inkyu in Korea, KaKAO had taken the brash and unpredictable KT Arrows to new heights. A bit like Invictus Gaming, KT Arrows had star talents, an aggressive approach, and vaulting skill ceilings. When they won, they crushed. When they lost, they made countless hilarious mistakes.

KTA had won 2014 Summer Champions, but had almost failed embarrassingly in the qualification bracket for Worlds. KaKAO lost his chance to appear at the World Championship two years in a row, despite many considering his KT teams Top 3 teams in Korea. Perhaps he was looking for an easier path to the international stage.

He didn’t find one. Few had heard definitive word from KaKAO or Rookie in the months following the World Championship. Rumors suggested a mystery benefactor had contracted them, promising a team stacked with Chinese talents like Gao "Gogoing" Di-Ping and Jian “Uzi” Zihao that he ultimately couldn’t deliver.

Some feared KaKAO and RooKie suffered harsh environments or may have been mistreated. Chinese memes about KaKAO becoming a miner circulated forums. After some time, the public knew of Wang Sicong’s interest in KaKAO, and iG’s owner managed to track down KaKAO’s contract holder.

After a tryout, Principal Wang allegedly made an offer that was met by refusal. When he increased his offer, KaKAO and RooKie’s contract holder, unable to fulfill the initial promises, released them to Invictus Gaming.

The addition of KaKAO and RooKie to Invictus Gaming looked like an ideal marriage. The brash duo who had piloted KTA were known for aggression, active play-making, mechanical feats: a more refined and successful appropriation of iG’s own brand.

Despite looking like a perfect union on paper, marriage and compromise proved exceedingly difficult for iG. With a two foreign player limit and RooKie and KaKAO coming to iG as a packaged deal, immediate speculation followed both Zzitai and Baek “Save” Youngjin, who Principal Wang had acquired earlier from NaJin White Shield.

Invictus Gaming’s Chinese top laner Zeng “Pokemon” Tao operated on a strict diet of poor Maokai play, making a team with Save and Zzitai seem like a more attractive roster in terms of talent. Yet RooKie and KaKAO’s impressive synergy would be lost if the Korean mid laner didn't play.

Invictus Gaming started the LPL season with KaKAO and RooKie. Many in the community who had never perceived Zzitai as an especially serious player guessed he would simply retire and go back to Beijing where rumors suggested he could easily train to take over a successful family business.

That’s exactly what Zzitai didn’t do. Early in the spring season, Zzitai threw himself into solo queue to improve and perfect his form. He had joined Invictus Gaming at age 14. As a 17-year-old, he’d spent a considerable part of his life as the team’s starting mid laner. Chinese players have to battle 40 to 60 ping and less stable connections to compete with the Korean elite in solo queue. Despite difficulties, Zzitai managed to hold first on the ladder for a day before falling again.

In comparing himself to RooKie, Zzitai has said he’s played competitively longer and wishes he could face RooKie in a serious match. “When I lane against him in solo queue or watch him play scrims,” Zzitai said, “I just think ‘This guy is really scary—why?’

“I didn’t realize how seriously Korean pros too the game until I saw it firsthand. The atmosphere they created really influenced the Chinese players at iG.”

Perhaps as a reward for committing to solo queue, Invictus Gaming allowed Zzitai and Save to play in the first match against Vici Gaming. Invictus Gaming lost their first game of the year—as well as the second one. Most of iG’s opponents up until that point were lower level teams like Energy Pacemaker or WE, and Vici Gaming had a much more organized approach. Regardless of the reason for iG’s losses, however, Zzitai would never play mid lane for the team again.

As for Kid and Kitties, Spring started off much better for Invictus Gaming’s bottom lane. While iG focused on finding synergy, Kid carried some of the team’s more erratic games as their most stable player. Kitties continued to ride the wave of disengage supports from 2014, and while he didn’t initially stand out as a formidable force, he didn’t look like a glaring weakness either. The team attributed many intelligent calls to him as he took part in the shotcalling alongside KaKAO.

The same could not be said for Pokemon. During Invictus Gaming’s heights in 2015 Spring, Pokemon often became the butt of several of the teams’ jokes. In an interview following a win, Kid praised Pokemon as the MVP for the game because “he didn't make any big mistakes today, for once.”

Whatever gods Zzitai prayed to probably interpreted Pokemon as an offering to his suddenly dying career. Zzitai saw an opportunity and began learning top lane from his old teammate, PDD. One of the trials of learning the role for him became restraining his laning phase and moderating his desire to constantly 1v1 his opponent in a longer lane with tankier champions. He left post-its on his computer that said “Focus” and “Restraint.”

On Feb. 28, Zzitai played his first games as Invictus Gaming’s starting top laner against Team WE. Zzitai’s presence on the starting roster resulted in yet another 0:2 loss for Invictus Gaming as WE’s jungler, Lee “Spirit” Dayoon had improved considerably on the patch with easy access to an unbanned Rek’Sai and Nidalee.

This time, however, Zzitai stayed on the team.

Zzitai won his first game of the year the next week in splitting the series with Energy Pacemaker. In the post-game interview, he told Bao Bao top lane suited him better as he could be on the front line more often.

A difficult transition followed for Invictus Gaming. Though Zzitai struggled to learn the top lane role, he proved more self-sufficient than Pokemon and could play a wide variety of champions at a similar level. Toward the end of Spring, Zzitai’s improved performances and LGD Gaming’s messier games made iG look like the second strongest team in China.

At the Demacia Cup, Invictus Gaming handily defeated Vici Gaming and LGD Gaming 3:0 and advanced to semifinals for an even easier victory over LSPL team Qiao Gu. In Game 3, an extremely fed Sion teased Qiao Gu at their base with strings of auto attack cancels. The crowd at the stadium and the Chinese casters chanted “Zzitai” with gusto as the series ended. Though it seemed more like a joke than an actual exaltation, there was a feeling of catharsis that accompanied iG’s victory. Zzitai had finally found his way back on the team, and Invictus Gaming had clawed its way to some semblance of cohesion.

Invictus Gaming failed almost hilariously against a dominant Edward Gaming in the Demacia Cup finals, but iG had far from plateaued. They’d reached a baseline, and Zzitai was only one of many problems plaguing the team.

iG finished the rest of the season strong, placing top four and out-rotating Vici Gaming in quarterfinals, to the surprise of those high on VG’s strategic focus. With KaKAO and Rookie, iG exhibited an even higher ceiling than they had in the past.

Inexplicably against Edward Gaming in the semifinals, Invictus Gaming seemed to give up. After controlling dragon for most of the game, they made a poor decision to go for a fourth dragon while Edward Gaming took Baron. In subsequent games, iG lost most of their initiative. This started a strange trend of intermittent ennui that plagued Invictus for the rest of the season.

The almost hilariously apt union of the ambitious and aggressive KTA Arrows with the unpredictable and flexible Invictus Gaming had begun to turn ironically into an inactive early game team. Invictus Gaming finished third and then won the International Esports Tournament in the same week. Even in victory, they seemed suddenly lifeless.

When Edward Gaming won the MidSeason Invitational, iG decided to give the game another go. Zzitai said beating EDG just once would be like beating World Championships, and iG felt as if they could manage it. Strong drafting and aggressive top lane play in early Summer allowed RooKie and KaKAO to dominate team fights with high farm counts later.

Then Invictus Gaming faced Edward Gaming for the first time that summer. An extremely close Game 1 almost translated to an Invictus Gaming victory until an unfortunate Baron fight. In Game 2, Invictus Gaming crashed again. They became the will-less team that lost the Playoff semifinal.

Problems plaguing Invictus only increased from there. Their play became more passive, and KaKAO and RooKie farmed rather than exerting pressure. Most of the early game went on Zzitai’s shoulders to occasionally disastrous results. The team as a whole seemed disconnected. At the MidSeason Invitational, XiaoXiao described Invictus Gaming as younger and less motivated than teams like Edward Gaming or LGD. They looked it.

RooKie confessed in an interview prior to the spring playoffs that he and KaKAO had expected to have an easy time in LPL, to go undefeated and qualify for the World Championship. After fighting difficult competition in Korea, they had expected a much easier league.

RooKie and KaKAO became increasingly assimilated into the Chinese fan culture. RooKie especially took to streaming well. He topped the Ionian solo queue ladder after marathon streams duoing with Snake top laner, Li "Flandre" Xuan-jun. Fans knew him for his fondness for singing, and he learned Mandarin Chinese faster than other Koreans who had come to China.

KaKAO had a less public persona, but many other Koreans in China praised him for his willingness to eat Chinese food. In response to an interview question, Save said of KaKAO, “He’s pretty much Chinese.”

The team itself had public issues. Coach Mafa, known for his impressive drafting, explained on stream that he refused to draft mid-Summer because he didn’t feel respected by the players. Chinese coach Snow confessed that issues with management and housing conditions kept the team from focusing.

While the Spring season centered around Zzitai finding his way back on the roster, Kid, often known as the more reliable and consistent of the two young Chinese players, wrestled his own demons in Summer. In a game against OMG, Invictus Gaming’s bottom lane managed to deal only 999 damage to champions in total.

Kitties took the approach of not letting online comments affect him. He had begun to struggle as well, unable to control lane phase or have impact as the meta shifted to engage supports. Kid was much more troubled by online comments. His performance declined to the point where the bottom lane was often considered a liability.

Chinese Coach Snow confessed that Kid had considered retirement midseason under pressure, which would have forced iG to play Pokemon as an AD Carry initially. Mafa looked actively in solo queue for a replacement and located Tang “Time” Jintai.

During Demacia Cup Summer, iG entered yet another best-of-five against Edward Gaming in the semifinals, this time with Shek “AmazingJ” Wai Ho in the top lane. Surprisingly, iG won a game. Ekko had become a signature pick for both RooKie and KaKAO, and iG debuted their Lulu and Ekko composition with Kid playing Vayne, his most reliable champion. iG looked a bit like their old aggressive and innovative selves with the composition, but when Edward Gaming banned it in subsequent matches, they went back to passively farming and lost the series.

Time played for iG in the third place match with underwhelming results. He did worse in lane than Kid and seemed to autoattack even less. After two depressing games, Kid returned to the roster, and iG managed to extend the series to five games before falling to a rejuvenated Snake.

In Week 8, Invictus Gaming told fans Kid was going to his hometown to work on his visa while Time played. When Kid returned two weeks later, he had regained some of his positional strength. Kid won’t be a star again, but seemed more daring in team fights. In an interview, he said he had needed the break to recover his mentality.

After a trying Week 11, Invictus Gaming wormed their way into third seed, avoiding the gauntlet portion of Playoffs. They still seemed half-alert, but Kid’s return provided a fair amount of hope. A stressed Zzitai rushed offstage after a Game 1 defeat from LGD Gaming, and Invictus rebounded in Game 2 to split the series with KaKAO ganking top. They 2-0’d Snake, but they also lost 0-2 to WE.

Invictus Gaming’s encounters with Vici Gaming and Qiao Gu in playoffs showed hints of the same split personality team. Innovative pick comps collapsed. When KaKAO didn’t pick Nidalee, they spent entire games without making plays. Ultimately, Invictus Gaming lost another semifinal and fell down to yet another third place match—but a surprise defeat at the hands of LGD Gaming pitted iG against Edward Gaming yet again.

Going into the third place match, Invictus Gaming had faced Edward Gaming more than any other LPL team and had accumulated an 18-1 loss record. During playoffs, iG shuffled shotcalling responsibilities, giving Kitties more of a role in making key calls and freeing up KaKAO in the jungle. The team orchestrated group invades, and Mafa’s drafts heavily targeted Clearlove.

Invictus Gaming managed to 3-1 Edward Gaming and knock them down to fourth place. Since their formation, Edward Gaming had never once placed below second in a Chinese tournament. While LGD’s defeat of Edward Gaming seemed reasonable given their rise through the season, iG had once again pulled the real upset and kicked in the door of a dynasty.

Using flexibility that had long suited them, Invictus Gaming continued their rise through the 2015 World Championship Qualifier, rejuvenated by their win over their year-long demoralizers. They didn’t defeat Edward Gaming again, but they more impressively maintained their form after a defeat and dragged out the series to four close games.

KaKAO drifted more freely to lanes outside mid and went for builds with more emphasis on ganks and less emphasis on farming for late game. Invictus Gaming said the patch change had caused KaKAO to alter his approach as he “thought more about the team.”

RooKie played more aggressively in lane and amplified early game pressure. The advent of Ashe gave Kid a place for the engage sense that initially made him a successful Kalista player. Kitties didn’t perform exceptionally, but it seemed the team gelled better with KaKAO free of shotcalling.

For perhaps the first time all year, Invictus Gaming looked like a team instead of two dejected Koreans and three Chinese players trying to prove they still belonged in the scene. Invictus Gaming became more serious—at least for now.

iG still have the unpredictable moxxie that made them the unconquered, but they've learned the value of dedication and improving upon flaws. The marriage of Invictus Gaming and KT Arrows made sense on paper, but it’s only just now hit its ceiling.

We know from experience the abyss at the bottom must be even deeper.

Kelsey Moser is a staff writer for theScore eSports. She hopes you enjoyed her account of iG's history, and if you missed Part 1, you can find it here.