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Rookie and the rookies: Invictus Gaming makes a bid for worlds contention

Rookie and his rookies are trying to get Invictus Gaming to worlds.
Rookie and his rookies are trying to get Invictus Gaming to worlds. Photo courtesy of Riot Games.

“Can Rookie go back to Korea? When will he get a better team?”

Comments like that flood any Invictus Gaming-related thread that reaches front page of the League of Legends subreddit. Since his time on KT Arrows, Song “Rookie” Eui-jin’s mid lane prowess has been a well-known gem locked in the League of Legends Pro League vault. His duels with Wei “GODV” Zhen delighted audiences, and he never seemed afraid to go in for a sometimes rash trade in lane. Some have ranked him top three in the world, despite playing outside the LCK for the past three years.

Rookie appeared only once at the League of Legends World Championship, though, and it didn’t go well. In 2015, Invictus Gaming barely won matches against ahq e-Sports and then Cloud9 in the final week of the group stage. Although Rookie didn’t make as many daring plays as expected, it became difficult for him to find openings with a dark map and when almost every member of Invictus Gaming had deplorable showings depending upon the game.

Rookie’s depressing run continued last year. The bottom lane showed the most strain with five AD carry prospects (including Rookie himself) rotating into the position at one point. An “Rain” Hyeon-guk might be the worst player to ever start in the AD carry role for a major league team, but he spent a good deal of that spring and summer as the starter before the team settled on the serviceable, but uninspiring, Feng “Marge” Li.

Support position only improved toward the end of the season when iG snatched up rookie player Wang “Megan” Liuyi (then known as Baolan), whose Tahm Kench and Alistar turned heads. He remains the only other member of the 2016 roster who still starts regularly for the team.

A terrible year of barely qualifying for the LPL playoffs and dropping in the first stage drew the ire of not just Redditors, but many Chinese fans of Rookie. As such, earlier this year at the iG and Phoenix1 show matches, Invictus Gaming team owner Wang Sicong strung together the perfect combination of words to appease the team’s supporters:

“This year, we will have a good AD carry.”

Speculation instantly went to some of the Korean giants like Kim “PraY” Jong-in, but Invictus Gaming had had a rookie prospect in Yu “JackeyLove” Wenbo sitting on the bench for at least a year. He had just started playing with the team in offseason events, and iG had managed to win the National Electronic Sports Tournament, defeating both Royal Never Give Up’s worlds-attending roster and LGD Gaming along the way.

JackeyLove had rough edges; as a Draven main, he didn’t take to Ashe easily, and his first stage matches disappointed despite obvious gains made throughout the tournament. His biggest rough edge, however, turned out to be the persistent age deficit. Invictus Gaming remained cagey about how old JackeyLove actually is, and he was unable to start in the LPL for the entirety of this year’s spring split.

After yet another disappointing run from Invictus Gaming, in which the team tried Ge “Kid” Yan back in the AD carry position and an underwhelming rookie jungler in Wen “Rio” Fuhua, Invictus Gaming went for the all-in approach on rookie AD carry buys. JackeyLove re-signed with the team, but the team also signed the Caitlyn main from Game Talents, Chen “West” Long, and Young Miracles’ rising star Gao “Ning” Zhenning. Surely, one of these would work.

As a Graves main who transitioned to the jungle position after the departure of his faithful support, Shi “ming” Sen-ming to Royal Never Give Up, Ning could theoretically help solve two of iG’s deficits. But Invictus’ start didn’t come easy. Initial runs from this iG roster looked a lot like Rookie and Lee “Duke” Ho-seong’s home for troubled teens. With less than a year of major league play under the belts of any of the Chinese players, Ning’s overly aggressive invades without lane coverage or West’s stage fright cost them simple mistakes, and simple mistakes cost them games.

Beyond that, Invictus Gaming had atrocious wave control. Even when the team ran its increasingly comfortable combination of top and jungle lane-smashers (the famous Renekton-Elise, for example), Rookie freezing the wave in the mid lane made it easy for an erstwhile Kassadin to roam top and punish iG in their series against Suning Gaming.

Rookie had long enjoyed an all-go-mid approach from the team. Megan coordinated his roams after first back with the team’s jungler. Most vision went around the mid lane, and Kid trained in the jungle to gank mid on a freeze for an easy kill. With Ning playing more and more to top side, the approach stalled.

What finally seemed to make the team click, however, wasn’t top laner Duke stepping up to shoulder the burden and maintaining pressure in 1-4s. Invictus began working yet another rookie into the team well into the season.

Kang “TheShy” Dong-geun came to China for Team WE in the initial exodus between the 2014 and 2015 season. As an underage player, he only streamed for his new squad. Many fans waited eagerly to watch his Riven games as he blazed through his lane in solo queue in as early as 15 minutes.

Invictus added TheShy for his 1-v-1 prowess and Ning’s tendency to play toward top side. The two of them talk animatedly on stage, and especially with champions like Kayn making their way into the arsenal of the Chinese jungler, snowballing top and counter jungling tanks on the enemy team gave Invictus a boost along with Patch 7.14.

When Invictus play now, it follows a simple formula: secure a bottom lane lead to transition Megan mid and snowball Rookie, Ning and TheShy will secure top side with harrowing 12 minute dives of the Inhibitor turret. This fast and dangerous style might give western League of Legends fans pause, considering the success of tanks and grouping mid in Europe and North America.

Indeed, it doesn’t work perfectly. A recent 2-0 loss to Snake and one game loss to Oh My God highlight the flaws in the team’s approach. Invictus hasn’t worked out the kinks of a cohesive team fight, which might be why the team defaults to snowballing and setting up 1-3-1s, but iG might as well play like a scrim team. Ning fears almost no dive. Rookie looks to aggressively dive his lane opponent, and West has become increasingly proficient at holding his lane without Megan.

One can levy easy criticisms against Invictus Gaming. Its approach feels a lot like solo queue. The team merely patched together TheShy’s tendency to push out his opponent with Ning’s habits of ganking top side from when he had Moon “Clowz” Junseok playing a similar style on LSPL team Young Miracles. Young Miracles failed to qualify for the LPL in six series in a row that could have landed them a spot for a reason.

Snake managed to keep top side guarded with wards, using stronger mid lane matchups, and when they baited Invictus Gaming into mid fights, iG too eagerly accepted. A fight in Snake’s base even cost iG a game it had been winning for nearly 40 minutes.

But so far, Invictus Gaming has caught most opponents off guard. Finding success with this sweeping early approach might help the team batten down the team play it so sorely need. The more specific the formula, the more important synergy and communication become in executing it. iG may find that, like Fnatic in the European League of Legends Championship Series this year, when the rookies come into their own, they no longer need the crutch of a predictable formula to succeed.

Since Duke was noted in Korea for not being the most communicative top laner, the key to iG’s success with its high risk play may come down to the squad’s ability to keep comms flowing with TheShy. Both Rookie and TheShy streamed frequently, interacting with Chinese fans to improve their Mandarin skill since they arrived in China.

Rookie takes the blame for iG’s stumbles against Snake (Photo courtesy of Riot Games)

And Rookie, of course, remains core to the team. After the Snake loss, he shouldered much of the blame for the team’s failure, especially considering his struggle to keep mid control against former teammate, Liu “Zzitai” Zhihao.

“I think the form of the other players on my team right now is quite good,” Rookie said in Mandarin Chinese before a match against Team WE, “but recently, in my opinion, I haven’t performed very well. So I think if I play well during the games against WE, we can win. I think right now WE isn’t invincible, but they teamfight quite well, and their synergy is quite good.”

Invictus took the early openings in WE’s play to prove Rookie’s suspicion. With heavy mid and top centric proactivity, it closed both games against the spring LPL champions in less than 30 minutes.

While I wouldn’t necessary bet on them — you never bet on iG’s LoL team — Rookie and his collection of young players should be considered serious contenders for a World Championship birth. That’s something to get excited about.

Photos courtesy of Riot Games

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