BERLIN -- After trading blows early and mid game with Team Liquid during the League of Legends World Championship on Sunday, Invictus Gaming set up for Baron Nashor.
"It's the part of the game where one wrong step, or one great play, can decide absolutely everything," English-language caster Joshua "Jatt" Leesman said.
Less than a minute later, iG had the Baron. Song "Rookie" Eui-jin hit his promised Orianna Shockwave on top of a Hemoplague ultimate from Kang "TheShy" Seung-lok's Vladimir. Less than three minutes after their Baron fight, iG had their much-desired win against the North American team that knocked them out in the Mid-Season Invitational semifinals back in May.
Invictus Gaming, the reigning world champions, are currently 2-0 in their group. This shouldn't come as a surprise, but it does to some, especially given iG's performances in the League of Legends Pro League since that MSI loss. Prior to MSI, iG were a powerhouse in China's premier league, blazing through the LPL spring season with the momentum of a world champion. They set a record in their spring final victory, defeating JD Gaming 3-0 with a blistering total time of 86 minutes.
But iG's demise at MSI precipitated a rough summer split, and the 2018 champs barely qualified to defend their title at worlds.
"I don't think there's that much of a difference [from worlds last year]," iG bot laner Yu "JackeyLove" Wen-Bo said, "but the feeling that we have in group stages is worse than the previous year. Right now, our opening record is good, and our player conditions are good as well, so if we can maintain this momentum, we should be able to get out of groups easily."
Despite the overwhelming amount of individual talent on iG, their inconsistencies made their Day 2 matchup against Team Liquid a charged MSI semifinals rematch for fans. It was just one game in a round robin that will last until Sunday, but the narrative going into Sunday's showdown made it feel like a game with heavy implications.
That weight was felt by just about everyone except Invictus Gaming.
"We didn't really feel any pressure going into the game even though we lost to Team Liquid at MSI," JackeyLove said. "In the single games, we always beat them quite handily, so we weren't too worried about this one."
Each of the three Chinese teams in the main event have their own playstyle. Of those three, iG are the most volatile squad, a more momentum-reliant team than FunPlus Phoenix or Royal Never Give Up. By their own admission, iG can feed off of their own success or be hindered by their mistakes.
The key to understanding iG is simple and has been reiterated by multiple members of the team: if you pick fights with them, they will almost always fight back. It doesn't matter if iG are at an item advantage or disadvantage, power spike or power trough, outnumbered or with a numbers advantage. If their opponent is attacking, iG are too, for better or for worse.
That made iG's play against Team Liquid significant. In an odd move for this fight-happy squad, iG backed away Team Liquid as the North Americans made a move for the Cloud drake and opted instead to take down two turrets and gain more control over the baron pit. The decision to trade instead of assault showed a side of iG that could make them even more dangerous, even if JackeyLove said that iG are in slightly worse condition than when they entered worlds last year.
After all, he too is a different player than last year.
With another year of professional play behind him, JackeyLove has gone from promising rookie who made a lot of mistakes in-game to a key part in his team's success. Had the AD carry not stepped up so significantly in iG's regional gauntlet run, this team likely wouldn't have had a chance at defending their worlds title.
"I think for last year, I had a lot of unexplainable deaths that happened suddenly, but this year in clutch moments like worlds or the playoffs, I'm much more of a steady performer," JackeyLove said. "As a player, I'm someone who heats up slowly, but once I get acclimated, then I start performing much better."
In this way, JackeyLove is a microcosm for the team itself. Invictus Gaming's 2-0 start to Group D not only gives them a strong position going into Day 3 but feeds into iG's tendencies to snowball their own success.
If this team can continue to gain momentum in the group stage, it will be a serious threat to repeat as world champions. And given iG's trials and eventual success during the summer, the weight of that 2018 title and their MSI loss is all but gone.
"I don't think there's much pressure at all," JackeyLove said. "You just play the game how you're supposed to play it and try to make it as far as possible."