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The Right Lessons: Fnatic and Invictus Gaming's Rise to the 2018 Final

Fnatic and Invictus Gaming's histories as the two oldest LoL orgs representing their regions at Worlds share shocking similarities. The Grand Final will be a battle of the orgs with the longest memories.

The Chinese and European rivalry has roots extending far back before the age of the LCS. The largest will-they-or-won’t-they candidates came from the two largest base population regions and battled Korean teams before they rose to unquestionable prominence.

Only one organization at the 2018 World Championship from each region really remembers the age of the open circuit tournament. Only Fnatic can remember the iconic IGN Pro League 5, and only Invictus Gaming attended the Season 2 World Championship. Both organizations waited years to definitively topple South Korean teams when their dominance was still testable.

That both Fnatic and Invictus Gaming emerged when the LCK looks its weakest and no South Korean team advanced beyond the quarterfinal feels too poetic. Patience and rebuilding yielded fruit, and organizational experience comes to the forefront in a battle between two rosters full of young talent. Europe and China have always been the real Rift Rivals, and it’s only fitting that they two teams with the longest memory of the rivalry will decide who inherits the international throne and crowns his region the best of 2018.

First successes in the era of LoL's infancy

Both Fnatic and Invictus Gaming have exhaustive histories in the League of Legends space. Both teams purchased existing promising rosters when they entered the LoL scene in 2011. For Fnatic, an acquisition of the myRevenge roster after the team’s victory a month earlier at IEM Season V Hanover mirrors Invictus Gaming owner Wang Sicong’s approach to purchasing the champions of the first ever Tencent Games Arena in 2011, then known as Catastrophic Cruel Memory.

For both teams, initial success petered out. Fnatic won the first ever Riot-sponsored League of Legends season Championship, and iG qualified as China’s representative at the first ever LoL World Cyber Games, giving them the distinction of being the first ever team to represent China against broader international competition.

But both teams struggled immediately after success as a result of roster changes. For both teams, it took the signing of extremely green talent to put them back into contention for best in the world.

JackeyLove and Baolan

Luck struck first for Invictus Gaming. Liu “Zzitai” Zhi-hao and Ge “Kid” Yan both joined iG at the age of 14. Combined with the departure of iG’s more experienced leaders, Lo "Wh1t3zZ" Pun Wai and Wong “Tabe” Pak Kan, gave iG a more aggressive and surprising identity. This team didn’t hold back in its attempt to dominate through laning phase. That made it both more aggressive and more unreliable. Even after numerous roster changes, the org has sought similar players, and the identity has stuck.

The new injection of young players gave Invictus Gaming enough of an oomph to qualify for the Season 2 World Championship, where they encountered two European teams. iG beat SK Gaming in the Group Stage, but were crushed by Moscow 5 in the bracket stage in the mid-to-late game when early advantages faltered. Highlights of Moscow 5's comeback fights still make their way into montages.

Fnatic didn’t find their Season 2 stride until after the World Championship with the addition of their own new extremely young talent. Martin “Rekkles” Larsson wasn’t quite as young as Kid and Zzitai. He joined Fnatic after just barely turning 16. With Rekkles, Fnatic won Dreamhack Winter 2012, defeating the then-prominent CLG EU in the final.

With this strong showing and both Against All Authority and Eclypsia unable to attend IGN Pro League 5, Fnatic had a last minute chance to play against a Chinese team in 2012 by happenstance. Fnatic’s unexpected attendance brought them all the way to the Grand Final. During their tenure, Fnatic lost five games in total to the rising Chinese powerhouse and IPL 5 champions, Team WE, and only won two.

Both Fnatic and Invictus Gaming played pivotal games in 2012 against rivals in China and Europe and lost. Since then, both teams have retained identities that have aided them in the 2018 World Championship. Paul “sOAZ” Boyer and Enrique "xPeke" Cedeño Martínez gave Fnatic solo lane power, and Liu "PDD" Mou and Zzitai did the same for iG.

For years after 2012, however, Invictus Gaming struggled. In 2013, iG had their pivotal victory over Team WE in StarsWar League Season 2 Grand Final, ending one of the most dominant streaks in Chinese LoL history. They placed first in the regular season in 2013 Spring, but lost out in Playoffs to Positive Energy and didn’t have nearly as respectable a performance in Summer. Oh My God seemed like the favorites, but AD carry itemization gave Jian “Uzi” Zi-hao of Royal Club Haung Zu agency. Oh My God and Royal Club Huang Zu advanced to the 2013 World Championship over iG.

Rekkles

Unlike iG, Fnatic continued to find domestic success. Even though minimum age requirements prevented Fnatic from starting Rekkles in the LCS in 2013, the team eventually settled on a bottom lane of Johannes "puszu" Uibos and Bora “YellOwStaR” Kim. This duo should have allowed Fnatic’s solo lanes to flourish, but Royal Club Huang Zu’s Wh1t3zZ found a surprising advantage that facilitated a Chinese series victory over a European team for the first time ever at a World Championship.

One of Fnatic’s most explosive and memorable encounters against a Chinese representative occurred in 2014. Likely one of the worst players to ever represent China at a World Championship, Fang “Dada777” Hong-ri started for Oh My God in the 2014 Group Stage. In a 71 minute and 34 second game with multiple attempts at both nexuses, OMG triumphed over Fnatic with Dada777 to advance to the Quarterfinal.

The first encounter

Fnatic took the failure to heart and completely rebuilt their roster for 2015. That was the first time Fnatic would play against Invictus Gaming.

After years of coming just short since 2012, Invictus Gaming made one of the boldest moves in a sea of bold moves for Chinese teams prior to the 2015 season. The two players of significant performance to announce a move to the LPL were Lee “Kakao” Byung-kwon and Song “Rookie” Eui-jin. Kakao and Rookie had just won the 2014 OGN Champions Summer, so the idea that they couldn’t have been domestically successful evaporated. iG had all-inned to bring proven Championship talent to China.

Rookie and Kakao represented iG the next year in the 2015 World Championship. Many projected the Chinese team to advance from Group Stage in first, especially after EDward Gaming won the first ever Mid Season Invitational in 2015. Fnatic, Cloud9, and ahq-Esports had more to say about iG’s chances. In the conclusion of Week Two, iG finished the Group Stage in last place, winning against Cloud9 and ahq e-Sports in Round Two, but losing both games to Fnatic.

Fnatic had the superior approach to lane swaps, moving Rekkles, YellOwStaR, and Heo "Huni" Seung-hoon before iG could react. Korean and Chinese teams often started supports with their top laners and didn’t consider the bouncing of top or bot wave to set up a lane swap. Zzitai easily fell behind Huni in the top lane, and Fnatic pushed iG out of the tournament all together. Fnatic then went on to overcome the LPL first seed, EDward Gaming, at the event in a best-of-five.

Invictus Gaming

Again, Fnatic and Invictus’ Gaming’s rebuilding period coincided. Unlike iG, however, Fnatic continued to find rookie players in Fabian "Febiven" Diepstraten and Huni for firepower, relying on the more experienced YellOwStaR and Kim "Reignover" Yeu-jin for leadership. Fnatic stuck to formula in raising its own talent, while iG bought into importing two star Koreans as carries.

But rather than keep that message in mind, Fnatic and iG both made awkward changes to their rosters for the 2016 season. Fnatic signed ex-Dignitas top laner Noh “Gamsu” Yeong-jin and impressive high farm jungler Lee “Spirit” Da-yoon to replace Huni and Reignover.

Despite a promising Spring Split where Fnatic triumphed again over Chinese opposition, but lost to SKT, at the IEM World Championship and advanced all the way to the semifinal against G2 Esports in EU LCS, the team didn’t reach the heights to which it had grown accustomed in 2015. Additional roster changes left the team in disarray, and the removal of lane swaps prior to the Summer Playoffs meant that Fnatic’s poor laning phase play and low jungle pressure shone through glaringly against H2K-Gaming. Fnatic were then unceremoniously dismantled by Unicorns of Love and didn’t advance to the World Championship for the first time since 2012.

While Fnatic’s stops and stutters seemed awkward, Invictus Gaming’s disaster of a 2016 season verged on comical. The departure of KaKAO meant Kid rotated to the jungle position, and iG signed An "Rain" Hyeon-guk, who gave one of the worst performances by an LPL AD carry. iG’s bottom lane turmoil continued, and they went through four different supports and three different AD carries throughout the course of the 2016 season.

One of iG’s more unbelievable rosters played for a single series in Summer against I May. Baek “Save” Young-jin returned briefly to the team to play the top lane role after spending time on iG’s LSPL sister team, Young Glory. Zzitai switched back to the mid lane after nearly two years as a top laner. Kid played jungle. Rookie played AD carry alongside returning iG veteran Tabe in as support. iG still managed to take the series to three games against the LPL’s eventual third seed representative at Worlds.

But through the chaos of Invictus Gaming’s 2016 season, they had a trump card prepared. Young AD carry Yu “JackeyLove” Wen-bo signed with the team on June 22 at the age of 15: far earlier than he would be eligible to play on stage. That one small investment would pave the way for iG to begin turning their fortunes around in 2017.

The Road to the 2018 World Championship Final

Both teams only found success again after moving away from hiring the biggest names on the free agent market across the world. Fnatic announced their new roster in 2017 as an all European team, including the return of sOAZ and, crucially, the signing of rookie mid laner Rasmus “Caps” Winther. Caps was known both for acting up in solo queue and his impressive 1v1 play in scrims, granting him the name “Baby Faker.” After the team’s initial struggles, Fnatic added a second rookie in Lee Sin main Mads “Broxah” Brock-Pedersen early on in the Spring Split from their Academy team.

Invictus Gaming didn’t settle on a roster until 2017 Summer, but when it finally did, the amount of raw talent and disorganized aggression harkened back to the Invictus Gaming of 2012. Kang "TheShy" Seung-lok had only just turned 17 at the end of the 2016 season, but he had spent many years in China already. He came over with the first wave of imports at the end of 2014 to stream for Team WE as a Riven one trick. iG signed him along with once-AD-Carry-Graves main turned jungler, Gao “Ning” Zhen-ning, who had spent three splits dominating with his team Young Miracles in the LSPL only to fail Promotion each time, and a young Caitlyn main, Chen “West” Long.

Even with Lee “Duke” Ho-seong on the team, iG found far more success with the combination of TheShy and Ning playing far up on top side of the map and taking control. But iG were untempered and wild, pulling Rookie — finally the father-like veteran of the team — into questionable pre-15 minute Inhibitor turret dives in search of prey.

This immature iG still almost made their way to the World Championship in 2017. iG were one game off from taking down EDward Gaming in LPL Summer semifinals, one game off from taking down Team WE in LPL Summer’s third place match, and then finally, one game off taking down WE again in the LPL Regional Final. All series went the full distance to five games, but EDG and WE’s more consistent play won out.

Fnatic showed similar signs of immaturity with their new young acquisitions. Caps constantly looked hungry for the outplay, causing him to lose trades he shouldn’t take. Broxah’s pathing bordered on perfectly predictable and didn’t seem to vary from game to game. Still, after hiccups in 2017 Spring, Fnatic stormed through 2017 Summer’s regular season with an approach to heavily playing to the bottom side of the map. Rekkles’ personal growth as a carry for his team gave Fnatic an easy approach to winning games that they didn’t stray from too heavily, and their lack of adaptation lead to a devastating loss at the hands of Misfits in the Summer Semifinal.

Misfits targeted key picks from sOAZ that the team relied upon for engages, and Fnatic bowed out early. Despite the setback, they still made their way back to Worlds as Europe’s third seed, sending them on a collision course against China’s most famous AD carry, Uzi.

Fnatic limped through Group Stage, becoming the first ever team in Worlds history to start 0-3 and make the Quarterfinal. But clinched success was only met by  another best-of-five 1-3 against Royal Never Give Up. But this roster was only ramping up. And so was iG.

Fnatic and Invictus eye the trophy

When JackeyLove finally came of age to play his first LPL match in 2018 Spring, excitement was already thick. On the bench for nearly two years for iG, JackeyLove was possibly the most anticipated player in the league’s history. JackeyLove rounded out iG’s young talent nicely, and the team went on to play through two regular season with matching series records of 18-1. Despite losing to Royal twice in Playoffs, iG didn’t have to try to fight for third seed. They grabbed the second qualifying spot easily and took to the meta well at Worlds.

Fnatic, like iG, added another rookie player to their roster for 2018: Gabriël "Bwipo" Rau. Many believed Bwipo would never even get a chance to play if not for sOAZ’s injury in Spring, but he increasingly became a reliable cornerstone for Fnatic. He attended MSI with Fnatic, but needed to learn to play without jungle pressure and become a more versatile laner. The 2018 Summer meta offered that and more when he took over Rekkles’ starting spot in the bottom lane to play mage champions. Now it’s hard to argue that Bwipo isn’t Fnatic’s most well-rounded member.

Fnatic dominated European playoffs in both Spring and Summer by catering to their mid lane and playing with side lanes focused on snowballing Caps. They remain the only first seed team left in the World Championship.

Not only are Fnatic and Invictus Gaming the two most experienced LoL organizations coming from Europe and China, not only are they the only two teams that can remember the European and Chinese rivalry stemming from Season 2, but they’ve also hit similar notes in success and failure. Both teams have built rosters that have allowed solo lane talent to flourish. Both teams have hit highs in similar years. But crucially, both teams learned the same lesson when it came to investing in talent.

Going for the best and most established names hasn’t worked for either Fnatic or iG. iG experienced success in that not only did Rookie perform at a high individual level, but he invested time into integrating with his Chinese team. Fans celebrated him over KaKAO for his stream and his attention to learning Mandarin Chinese, which hadn’t happened to him back in OGN. When KaKAO left iG, Rookie chose to stay. When so many Korean imports gave up on winning Worlds in China, when Kim “Deft” Hyuk-kyu and Cho “Mata” Se-hyeong (arguably, China’s most successful Korean imports in 2016) chose to leave, Rookie stayed.

He stayed and helped shephard a roster of young Korean and Chinese players, to invest his time into building a team in the LPL he could win with. iG had Rookie on the roster for four years, but they only found international success and made the World Championship final with an investment in younger talent. When Zzitai and Kid joined iG in 2012, the team earned the moniker “Korean killers” for the success of their no-holds-barred style in online tournaments against the likes of Azubu Frost. iG earned the name again by taking down KT Rolster in 2018 with Rookie leading an entire team of near-rookies.

Ning and Broxah both joined their organizations last season.

Since the acquisition of Rekkles, Fnatic have worked on developing their own players with the exception of one year: the only year they didn’t attend Worlds since 2012. Fnatic quickly scrapped the 2016 experiment with the likes of Spirit and Gamsu to bring in some of the most promising talents Europe has ever seen and rise again to the top this year.

iG and Fnatic also share a long history of losing out to Royal, but with RNG already eliminated from the competition by the European third seed, G2 Esports, the ultimate EU-China rivalry decider rests with the two organizations who remember it best. In Season 2, both Invictus Gaming and Fnatic were on the losing end of the Chinese and European rivalry in key best-of-fives in the World Championship and IPL 5. Korea’s dominance long stalled out China and Europe’s fight for the top. Whoever wins, the winds through history’s halls rattle, relieved.

They finally did it. They finally won it all.