Confetti swirled at the foot of the stage, buoyed by the breeze of Busan beach. It pooled in ribbons on the sand as members of League of Legends team KT Rolster Arrows, clad fittingly in polos and khaki shorts, walked onto the beach to collect their trophy. After a grueling five-game victory over Samsung Galaxy Blue, mid laner Song "Rookie" Eu-jin implored the crowd to look past the team's most well-known player, Lee "KaKAO" Byung-kwon, and to the up-and-coming talent on the young lineup. At the time, Rookie was a rising star, the latest mid laner to be compared to SK Telecom T1's Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok. This victory was supposed to be the first in his long legacy.
Rookie and KaKAO were a package deal in the 2014-15 offseason when they left South Korea for China and joined the League of Legends Pro League's Invictus Gaming. While KaKAO was better known, it was the loss of Rookie that fans lamented the most: a rising talent who wouldn't be able to hone his skills against South Korea's best. KaKAO left iG after a wild and inconsistent 2015 season that ended with the team bombing out of Group B at the 2015 World Championship. Many high-profile South Korean players returned home in the 2016-17 offseason. Yet, Rookie remained.
The new iG looks nothing like the team that failed to make it out of the group stage at Worlds. Rookie remains the only constant, now occupying a similar leadership role that was given to KaKAO on the 2014 Arrows. And unlike the inconsistent Arrows, iG has inarguably been the best team in China during the 2018 LPL spring split and is likely poised to qualify for the 2018 Mid-Season Invitational.
Caster Zack "Rusty" Pye said iG is the best team China has had since 2015's EDG at MSI.
"We had the absolute pleasure of watching a team of rookies grow alongside Rookie into stars as they just fell short of Worlds in 2017," he said. "They continued together, persevered as a team and actually continued that upward trajectory to be where they are now."
Based on pure individual skill, iG is one of the strongest mechanical teams China has had in years -- likely since 2014's Oh My God -- according to caster Barento "Raz" Mohammed. Due to individual outplays in every position, iG often can get by with dominating opponents in 1v1 and 2v2 matchups, whether those skirmishes are in lane, or with jungler Gao "Ning" Zhen-Ning. Rookie and Ning are quick to establish early map pressure, and iG often draft around having the early push.
"iG's greatest strength is how aggressive they are in each position," caster Matthew "Fish" Stewart said. "Frequently they win games off of this just from the fact that they were incredibly dominant during the early phases of the game."
Kang "TheShy" Seung-lok has had a career split in the top lane, and although he's out with a hand injury, his substitute, Lee "Duke" Ho-seong (formerly on SKT and Najin), is an incredible laner in his own right. AD carry Yu "JackeyLove" Wen-Bo's debut has been highly anticipated since fans and analysts alike caught wind of his solo-queue and scrim prowess as an iG trainee. This year, he made his debut in the LPL. For Raz, this was the final puzzle piece.
"[iG] have been strong since late last year when they took Team WE to five games in the Regional Qualifiers for Worlds, so a stark upgrade in the AD carry position carried over that success into spring," Raz said. "While teams in the LPL through the years have tried to carry this mantra of strength in skill (LGD Gaming and Snake Esports), iG found in-game structure within that."
For all of the compliments that iG receives from analysts, casters and fans, the players remain humble and aware of their weaknesses. At the start of the split, iG was a team that erred on the aggressive side, eerily reminiscent of the 2014 Arrows. In one match, all of iG dove their opponents while they spawned in their base. All 10 players died on both teams while the minions finished off the job for iG.
iG has focused on growing beyond these flashy tendencies and harnessing its aggression in a controlled, objective-focused manner, which has been difficult, since the team is capable of winning off laning advantages alone.
"In multiple interviews, iG criticized themselves on their only visible weakness that was their teamfights," Richard "Pulse" Kam said. "Which, to be fair, they rarely got to play out on an even playing field."
"The biggest challenge we encounter is consistency," Rookie said. "Every member on the team has highs and lows we really need to wait out and make sure we can control ourselves to perform more consistently."
According to Rookie, a big reason why iG was able to remain at the top was sheer luck. The LPL spent the majority of the spring split on patches 8.1 and 8.2. The dramatic change from 8.2 to 8.4 and then 8.5 caught many top teams like Snake, Bilibili Gaming and Rogue Warriors off guard. However, even as iG adjusted to the patch, and experimented with scaling 5v5 teamfighting compositions, the team was able to keep pace with its opponents.
"We managed to come back from some games that we were supposed to lose, and other teams may not have played at their best against us," Rookie said. "If I have to say one reason we are leading, [it] might be because we adapt to the patch better than other teams. Some teams just got lost in patches."
"I don't think we have any particular strength compared to other teams," he added. "We do make mistakes and have problems."
But unlike any other team in China, iG have consistently been the best team in the region for most, if not all of the spring split. Now, the team's true test comes with an upcoming semifinal and potential final match to finally qualify again for an international event.