Chinese League of Legends fans have long-waited for this moment, especially those who stuck with the LoL Pro League through the lows of the 2015 World Championship. Then, China's ascendency to overtake South Korea, iif not at least compete with the South Korean teams, seemed assured, thanks in large part to an influx of cash from Chinese streaming companies that led to a mass exodus of top-tier South Korean talent to Chinese teams. Yet, all three 2015 Worlds teams, LGD Gaming, EDward Gaming, and Invictus Gaming all faltered for one unique reason or another; this was the performance that stayed in the minds of those international fans who watched with glee or horror depending on where their loyalties lay. This became the narrative that clung to Chinese teams at international events regardless of contradictory performances until this year.
The harbinger of China's 2018 ascent to the top of the competitive LoL landscape alongside South Korea has been Royal Never Give Up: winners of LPL Spring, the Mid-Season Invitational and, when considering that four of the five starting members in the finals against South Korea were all from RNG, the 2018 Asian Games. No sooner had legendary bot laner Jian "Uzi" Zi-Hao won his first domestic title after five and a half years of trying than he won his first international title by defeating Kingzone DragonX at MSI in Paris. This kicked off a winning streak for RNG that has yet to be broken.
On Sept 14, Invictus Gaming will try to break that streak in a rematch of the spring semifinals that most viewed almost as a finals match. With both teams already qualified for the World Championship and stubbornly sticking to their respective preferred playstyles going into the finals, the matchup could easily play out in similar fashion. Unlike the recent LCK finals between KT Rolster and Griffin, there is no rookie Royal Road, no stubborn veteran who has hung around the competitive scene since early 2012 without a title to his name like Go "Score" Dong-bin. Uzi's first LPL title kicked off what has become almost an embarrassment of riches for the veteran AD carry, elevating China once more in the international court of public opinion. Yet, Uzi and RNG were not the expected victors of that title. They were supposed to fall to iG in the semifinals. Instead, they beat not only iG, but EDG and later won MSI.
It's impossible to talk about the current state of iG -- or the state of iG since 2015 -- without mentioning mid laner Song "Rookie" Eui-jin. Part of the initial 2015 wave, Rookie has gone to Worlds with iG before, as part of an unlikely third seed lineup that featured fellow former KT Rolster Arrows teammate Lee "KaKAO" Byung-kwon. That iG was volatile, lacked cohesion and failed to make it out of the group stage.
Even then, Rookie's individual performance was impressive, and unlike other South Korean players in China, Rookie adapted to his new home and team so well, that native Chinese players and media later joked that his Mandarin was better than theirs. Endlessly buoyant in personality and ruthless on the Rift, Rookie became a mainstay in China, even as other South Korean players slowly began to return to the LCK or left for other ventures in North America or Europe. Despite his loyalty to iG, Rookie has yet to win the LPL trophy. This will be his first finals appearance since 2014 KT and his first true chance at an LPL title.
It's a chance that comes with a team of young players that was formed around Rookie in late 2017 and narrowly missed qualifying as China's third seed, losing in the gauntlet to Team WE. Given the amount of raw talent -- especially with jungler Gao "Ning" Zhen-Ning and Yu "JackeyLove" Wen-Bo -- this team was projected to do well this year, and has delivered on some of these promises with two, first-place regular season finishes, the first of which was rendered moot by an RNG victory in spring semifinals.
There are some that still attach a small asterisk to RNG's victory, not because RNG played poorly or didn't deserve its win, but due to the absence of starting spring top laner Kang "TheShy" Seung-lok. A hand injury kept TheShy from playing in spring semifinals, and the team started Lee "Duke" Ho-seong. Duke's split-pushing style lacked coordination with the rest of iG, despite strong individual performances from Duke himself. RNG played a better 1-3-1, spreading iG on the map with a variety of pressure.
Whether the team starts Duke or TheShy, iG's playstyle still heavily relies on winning lane matchups and a strong early game from Ning. Ning has performed well as of late, but his aggression can still be taken advantage of by strong vision and more evenly matched lanes from opponents.
Meanwhile, RNG have returned to the team's signature style of playing around Uzi, and continue to stick to 1-3-1 setups when RNG wants to create more map pressure. General passivity in RNG's early game will be iG's easiest way in - especially with strong red-side drafts as the iG is wont to do - using strong early laning supplemented by an aggressive Ning. This is a matchup we've seen before, and both teams have already qualified for the World Championship, but they've also both honed their respective playstyles across another season. iG wants to prove that it is just as strong of a team as RNG, while RNG want to continue a golden season.
The LPL finals have always had marquee matchups between strong teams. Now, thanks to RNG's domestic and international success, they're starting to be viewed as such by the international LoL community outside of China, similar to the manner in which South Korea's LCK finals are viewed. Regardless of who takes the summer LPL title, it should mark another victory for China overall.