Last year, at the close of a five-game final for the 2016 World Championship Regional Qualifier in Guangzhou, China, Team WE players hid their faces from cameras. A massive comeback from I May after Team WE held a lead for most of the final match, along with the feeling that the latter squad was the projected favorite, rankled the players; they knew they should have won.
After WE secured a Baron at 22 minutes in the fifth game of the 2017 World Championship Regional Qualifier final against Invictus Gaming this year, that same feeling may have resurfaced, just for a different team. Invictus Gaming, after all, won the third-place match against Team WE the week before, just as I May had in 2016.
But after Su "xiye" Hanwei's game-winning Rift Walk at Elder Dragon less than five minutes later, and after xiye snuck into Invictus Gaming's base to back door while the rest of his team distracted the enemy team at its front inhibitor, the camera panned to jungler Xiang "Condi" Renjie, elated, but almost shocked. Relief crept over Condi and his mid laner slowly before xiye started laughing and rubbing his hands together.
Team WE had finally made it back to the World Championship -- after five years, WE had a chance to avenge its dragged-out semifinal loss against Counter Logic Gaming Europe that made "Silver Scrapes" sound more like Chalkboard Scrapes to Chinese LoL fans.
But WE's success had an unexpected victim: one of the most fun teams to watch in the LPL. An overhaul of Invictus Gaming's roster this year, intended as an investment project, turned into a solid in-game product ahead of schedule that included a nail-biting run from semifinals to determine the top three teams to attend the World Championship. WE and Invictus Gaming split best-of-fives in playoff settings, with WE winning the more important regional final matchup. But the results beg the question as to which team could do better at Worlds.
If consistency and the aim to get as far as possible matters, it's WE. If fans only want shock victories and for a team to tumble out of group stage, to represent the all-out aggression some of the best Chinese teams have long been known for, Invictus Gaming would have made a larger impact.
"I didn't expect to win today because we didn't play well yesterday," Song "Rookie" Euijin told Chinese press after Invictus Gaming won the third-place match, "but we discovered that WE's state also wasn't very good, so we won."
With a long-standing rivalry beginning when League of Legends first had servers in China, Team WE and Invictus Gaming have always represented opposing approaches to the game. Even years later with entirely new rosters, WE and iG express the same values that made them so distinct in 2012.
Team WE have changed its roster the least in the past two years of any team in the LPL. Invictus Gaming overhauled its roster between Spring and Summer split and introduced rookies like Gao "Ning" Zhen Ning and Kang "TheShy" Donggeun as well as green prospect Chen "West" Long. The move echoes Invictus Gaming's 2012 introduction of extremely young talents Ge "Kid" Yan and Liu "Zzitai" Zhihao. Both moves gave iG a boost to the top of Chinese LoL as well as erratic play that both put talent on display and made it difficult for the team to consistently win against a more stable WE.
The aggression of Invictus Gaming's central mid laner, Rookie, controls its fast pace in much the same way the old iG operated. Rather than wait for the wave to push or check for the jungler, Rookie takes the opening presented to him and relies upon his raw skill to take one-on-two fights if the need arises. WE plays much more reactively, understanding the need to push out mid to set up for Baron and using accumulated advantages on its AD carry Jin "Mystic" Seongjun and jungler Condi to win fights.
This clash in styles led to two entertaining five-game series to determine the final spot at the World Championship. Team WE went for strong bottom-lane picks and mid laners with a global presence, while Invictus Gaming went for stronger top-lane picks and an almost flagrant disregard for mid-lane matchup. Rookie picked Corki into Lucian multiple times and blind-picked Syndra in the final match with a staunch belief that, if WE let it through just once, iG would win the game from it.
The bottom lane two-on-two was highly contentious. West debuted in Spring 2017 for Game Talents weeks into the split after just turning 17. Much of iG's Summer Split featured West duking it out with his demons and learning to maintain stability in the laning phase and position himself well in teamfights. He opened the third-place match against Team WE with a two-on-two kill on WE's crown jewel, Mystic, which opened the door for Invictus Gaming to snowball with dives from Rookie's Yasuo.
"My mentality didn't really change," West told press after his final match of the regular season. "I just want to get better and better."
And he looked a bit better in that pivotal matchup with a Worlds berth on the line. However, WE went to great lengths to make sure Mystic and Nam "Ben" Dong Hyun acquired a favorable advantage. The team went so far as to select jungle Ezreal for better dives in Game 2, and though WE ultimately didn't win that game, the pick did the trick. The youth of West and Wang "Megan" Liuyi began to show, and Mystic and Ben completely outclassed them in the final hour.
Invictus Gaming brought spectators some of its favorite moments this split, such as 12th-minute top lane inhibitor turret dives from Ning and TheShy. Watching iG allowed fans to hearken back to a time when great pains weren't taken to dissect the game and the way the minion wave bounces when it hits the turret. In its first split of LPL as a new roster, Invictus Gaming cared much more about showing its ceiling than honing its map play.
That ultimately makes Team WE the better team to represent LPL at the World Championship this year. In Game 4, Team WE not only showed better control of Baron area but also displayed its ability to juggle aggro in team fights and keep Invictus Gaming's Tristana away from low-health targets. The victory demonstrated what time together as a roster can yield in a teamfight setting. Team WE's reactive play and use of globals in its Shen and Taliyah composition makes it better at tackling the map and drafting against some of the world's international heavyweights.
But staunch fans of the classic aggressive Chinese style from OMG and Invictus Gaming might rather still have iG attend, and it would bring its benefits. For young players to get international experience in the infancy of their careers, the impact could be life-changing.
"I'm still not satisfied," TheShy told press after Invictus Gaming finished third in the LPL Summer regular season.
The team's hunger and high-skill ceiling would surely surprise more practiced and seasoned squads at Worlds, just as it did in the LPL. A mid laner with both accounts ranked No. 2 on the Korean solo queue ladder might brute force wins in the best-of-one Group Stage that might hold WE back from making a quarterfinal.
Just moments after Invictus Gaming lost to Team WE in the regional qualifier, a subdued Rookie shuffled offstage and posted to his weibo account.
"RNG EDG WE come on!"
To make semifinals, teams need to win best-of-fives. They need to demonstrate better adaptation and bring more than a Rumble/Kayn/Lucian composition to overwhelm their foes in one game. Although iG might have been an entertaining squad to watch, Team WE and those other two squads have a better chance of besting an opponent in a five-game series than Invictus does.
Invictus Gaming fell one game short of the Worlds this year, but it shouldn't feel defeated. With four young players under Rookie's guidance and the option to rotate in Kid and Lee "Duke" Hoseong, iG has more than a head start on next year. A rebuilding roster almost made Worlds in its first split, and the top three teams of the LPL carry iG's bold lessons with them.