Kelsey Moser's LPL Review: A hint of desperation

by theScore Staff Aug 4 2016
Thumbnail image courtesy of 一村 / LPL / 一村‘s album

Life after Demacia Cup feels a lot like life before Demacia Cup. EDward Gaming and Royal Never Give Up have continued their domination of the league, though EDward Gaming more convincingly, and Royal Never Give Up with a tinge of too much arrogance.

As the second half winds down, desperation manifests. Invictus Gaming rendered a glimpse of an implausible roster change. The bottom teams defied any ranking of bottom teams, but also convinced spectators that their respective problems are too innumerable for a ranking to seem like a viable use of time. Wheels have slid off Game Talents, Team WE and Snake eSports, as other teams punish flaws that have seemed pronounced all split long.

Naturally, all of this can change, and it probably will.

Top story: Invictus Gaming’s new look

Teams below the playoffs cutoff have truly nothing to lose. Fifth place in Group A may have motivated Invictus Gaming’s daring maneuver in their match again I May that, frankly, turned out better than their most ardent critics expected.

Baek "Save" Youngjin played his fourth game for Invictus Gaming’s main roster, his third match in the top lane position. In the winter between 2014 and 2015, Save joined Invictus Gaming along with Song “Fly Yongjun (now the starting mid laner for KT Rolster). At the conclusion of the transfer season, two other Koreans joined iG as last minute additions: KT darlings Lee “KaKAO” Byungkwon and Song “RooKie” Euijin.

Save, Fly, and Chinese mid laner Liu “Zz1tai” Zhihao would become casualties of iG’s quest for a Korean jungler and KaKAO’s alleged insistence on RooKie accompanying him to China. Over the course of the year, RooKie’s jovial nature and skill would make him more fundamental, more lauded and more loved by fans than KaKAO, but at the time, iG’s owner made KaKAO the primary objective, allegedly willing to pay high transfer fees to the contractor who originally brought KaKAO to China.

Save, once a star of NaJin White Shield

Initially, the team had agreed that KaKAO would sit as a permanent fixture of the roster, but iG wanted to rotate solo lane pairs. Some speculated that, at the first loss, Zeng “Pokemon” Tao and RooKie would hit the bench for Save and Zz1tai. With Pokemon’s hangups — read: an inability to play things other than Maokai to continuous mocking by his own teammates — the Save and Zz1tai duo appeared to have an overall higher talent level, but due to an easy early schedule, iG won all of their initial series.

Zz1tai’s determination allowed him to grind to first on the Korean Challenger ladder, tipping him and Save into the ring for a series against Vici Gaming. They lost two games in a row, and RooKie and Pokemon returned. Games grew more difficult, and iG lost more, but Save and Zz1tai would not return for the rest of the season.

Eventually, Zz1tai debuted as the team’s top laner, but Save joined Invictus Gaming’s League of Legends Secondary Pro League, along with Fly, only to be benched when Young Glory found slightly more success with Kim “Profit” Junhyung. At the end of the year, he dropped from the YG roster.

KaKAO parted ways with Invictus Gaming as RooKie remained. RooKie’s popularity and obvious skill made him a favorite. He became the only Korean player voted to attend 2016 All Stars from the League of Legends Pro League, quickly learned to speak Mandarin Chinese and sang for his fans on stream. Those who would dispute RooKie as the best mid laner in the LPL, even on a team barely sitting on the cusp of playoffs in 2016 Spring, became near-extinct curiosities.

Ge “Kid” Yan, criticized for his AD carry performances at the 2015 World Championship, became a jungler guided by iG’s ability to hold farm in the top and mid lanes. Described as an emotional player, the new bottom lane’s frequent critique allowed Kid to thrive with less curses thrown his way.

Zz1tai's command of his lane grew, and RooKie himself commented on Zz1tai’s ever-improving attitude as a good teammate. Following a 1v5 kill and near-escape as Fiora against Game Talents, LPL featured Zz1tai in a short. During the interview, he said his attitude and commitment to the game had improved, and if he returned to the mid lane, he would be even better than he was in the early years of his career before moving to the top lane.

Invictus Gaming’s situation became dire this summer when they fell into fifth place. Prior to Demacia Cup, reporters and fans noticed Save had been re-added to the roster as a free agent. With an equally unimpressive Chinese AD carry substitute available and Demacia Cup’s reputation as an experimental tournament, a few fans wondered if Save would play in the top lane role, replacing Zz1tai.

This still didn’t seem like the solution. Invictus Gaming kept their LPL roster, but lost all but one game to EDward Gaming, LGD Gaming and LSPL team Star Horn Royal Club in the group stage.

The new Invictus Gaming roster debuted this week in a single series against I May. It started as a whisper on weibo. Journalists showed off detailed matchup graphics with chagrin, mumbling about slated changes to iG’s roster, and the news that RooKie would change roles slipped through a half hour early.

As the broadcast started, Invictus Gaming unveiled their lineup. Save sat in the top lane role, Kid as jungle, Zz1tai returned to the mid lane, RooKie occupied the AD carry role, and Pak Kan “Tabe” Wong remained the support. They won a single game against I May, a Top 5 team in the LPL, before dropping the series.

Invictus Gaming’s role swaps seemed like an affront to many who love RooKie’s aggressive style as a mid laner. Facilitating one of the greatest mid laners in the game to change his role ruffled fans. There are a lot of reasons Chinese teams value role swapping and are willing to try it. It’s also not my job to be offended by iG’s change so much as to assess whether or not it results in a net gain for the team.

Overall, it’s too early to say, but a win from I May and possible wins with better drafts in Games 2 and 3 give this team a temporary reprieve from what’s shaping up to be the bottom four (five, if this doesn’t work out). RooKie gained some apparent respect from his opposite on I May, Xie "Jinjiao" Jinshan, following the match, and the overall talent level seems greater.

Yet RooKie positioned far forward for a mid laner, which made him capable of spectacular outplays. He got away with it in Games 1 and 2 as an AD carry, but I May’s Hecarim and Sivir composition collapsed instantly on his over-extensions as Lucian.

The biggest concern has less to do with role swaps and more to do with iG’s persistent over-eagerness and poor mid game decision-making, taking fights with incomplete vision coverage. As always, iG generate hope only to dash it. By all accounts, however, iG’s atmosphere remains positive, which gives them as good of a chance as ever to turn it around this week when they play Vici and LGD Gaming.

Recommended Watching

Game Talents vs. Royal Never Give Up takes it home this week. In Game 1, Royal showed their hubris can always get the better of them, but Games 2 and 3 had more practiced team fighting and some fancy Taliyah play from Li "xiaohu" Yuanhao. He used the ultimate to pick off targets, sending Game Talents looking for a new formula.

With time to spare, EDward Gaming’s series against WE reads like an abridged “how to dominate the LPL, even when you pick things like Kog’Maw and Kha’Zix.” I maintain Ming “clearlove” Kai’s Kha’Zix fascination is actually a clever bait to get all of the LPL junglers trying and failing at the pick by the end of the season. It has already worked on LGD Gaming and Invictus Gaming — though one shouldn’t laugh off Tang “1ntruder” Sheng’s MVP performance for LGD.

Most Valuable Player: Uzi

I think many times, Jian “Uzi” becomes the player who, at the end of the match broadcast for Royal Never Give Up, MVP award givers grant the nod simply because it will make fans happy. Both of RNG’s Korean players and mid laner xiaohu have been snubbed in favor of Uzi or Liu “Mlxg” Shiyu when they snag a Baron steal or pick up a triple kill.

But this week, Uzi deserved it. Royal had a few more flaws, dropping objectives they shouldn’t and stalling as a result of poor decisions around Baron. Uzi may have missed almost every Ashe arrow, but every other aspect of his performance was on point from more than 30 percent damage share games, to staying with the team more often with objectives in play. His willingness to pick up Ashe marks development in and of itself.

Mlxg dove turrets for no reason, Cho “Mata” Sehyeong pushed the envelope too hard, and the team’s strange fear of playing around Jang "Looper" Hyeongseok put him on the back-burner. Royal have struggled more when xiaohu doesn’t play an engage champion, but Uzi pulled them through in the late game fights.

He more than earned his MVP as RNG overcame Game Talents and I May and have started to transition to trending back upwards.

That’s so China pick of the week: Kha’Zix

Beyond the Oceanic Pro League, a league one may call the reluctant cousins of the League of Legends Pro League as a result of geographic proximity and a sharing of English casting crew to provide inspirations, only LPL and LSPL teams have played Kha’Zix since the very early days of Patch 6.12.

I’d prefer to refer to this as clearlove syndrome. The god of the Chinese jungle has claimed that Kha’Zix is his best champion on the patch, and it seems he’s begun to convince his peers that it is indeed worth a trial. Including Demacia Cup, six other LSPL and LPL junglers have tried Kha’Zix on 6.12 or 6.13, and in 14 total games, it has only lost two.

Since six of these games are clearlove himself, it’s not time to pull out the Kha’Zix picks in other regions yet. LPL teams have a history of being less risk-averse, but picks like Karma mid have made Kha’Zix look more attractive. Typically chosen in at earliest, a second rotation, Kha’Zix can have a terrible time with a lot of crowd control on the enemy team. Teams draft less and less of that as well, and Kha’Zix becomes a snowballing ally in lane swaps with a more open map.

Kha’Zix isn’t terrible, but it is niche, and as LPL grows increasingly fond of it, one should remain apprehensive, but not over-critical, especially with how frequently targeted jungle bans arise in the league. I’m still of the opinion that clearlove is starting this Kha’Zix revolution to troll his opponents as EDward Gaming continue to dominate.

Standings summary

Placement Group A Score Group B Score
1. EDward Gaming 9-0 Royal Never Give Up 9-1
2. Snake eSports 5-4 I May 6-3
3. Game Talents 5-5 Team WE 6-4
4. Newbee 4-6 Vici Gaming 5-4
5. Invictus Gaming 2-7 LGD Gaming 3-6
6. Saint Gaming 1-9 Oh My God 1-9

EDward Gaming are playing with their food. With some caveats I've already discussed at length, their victory over Team WE bordered on humiliating as Kim "deft" Hyukkyu and Tian "meiko" Ye dominated a 2v2 as Kog'Maw and Braum.

Royal Never Give Up are less convincing, but their overall talent level and ability to prioritize objectives early make them easily the second best team in the league. The area gets grey as one discusses Snake eSports, Team WE, and I May. Previously innovative in strategy, Team WE again seem slow and overly-reliant on late game fights. I May's macro startegy belies a team that's, pound-for-pound, weaker than the top of the table. Snake eSports have an all-or-nothing strategy that strains them against stronger squads. They all have pitfalls, but one of the three will likely join EDG and RNG at Worlds.

Game Talents has less momentum without Trundle or some other gimmick, and they'll plummet while they look for a new one. Vici Gaming looked renewed in their victory over GT, but still suffer in fights.

Entering the land of the bottom four is not advisable. Matches between LGD Gaming and Newbee, Oh My God and Newbee, and Oh My God and Saint Gaming have only taught us that these teams will all stall out matches due to in-game indecision and have too many flaws to be distinguishable or feel like they have a true identity.

"How do you feel?" The LPL's host prompted Saint Gaming's top laner, Choi "Acorn" Cheonju, after they secured their first victory this week. "I don't have any feeling," Acorn replied in Mandarin Chinese. Sitting this close to the bottom of the table at this stage can motivate teams to perform miracles, but more likely, ennui and a resigned countdown to the end of the split and the slog of the Promotion Tournament sets in.

Invictus Gaming's radical roster change shows they at least have some fight left, so I'm willing to applaud them until the judgment hammer falls next week.

Photo credit to 一村's album.

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