The first Mid-Season Invitational (MSI) playoff matchup was also the biggest upset as North America (NA) defeated the defending world champions, China, to advance to the grand finals.
MSI is a “League of Legends” (LoL) international tournament composed of 13 champion teams from the different LoL regions. Due to the championship caliber of player and aspirations of international victory for every team, the atmosphere is charged before the first player even steps on the stage. While there is always a certain level of hype going into the playoffs, the playoff matches of this year’s MSI exceed expectations.
NA’s representatives, “Team Liquid” (TL), were expected to lose across the board. NA’s LoL teams are known for performing extremely well domestically, but failing to follow through on international stages. It is said that the North American league puts the NA in NaCl, because of how bitter the fans get when the NA teams consistently lose. However, the experienced bottom lane combo of ADC Peng “Doublelift” Yiliang and support Jo “CoreJJ” Yong were ready to show the world what NA can do on the world stage.
On the other side of the Rift stood China’s “Invictus Gaming” (IG). IG was expected to blow TL out of the water. IG are not only the defending world champions; they set the record for the fastest victory in a best-of-five series to win that title. During the group stages of MSI, they only dropped a single game, and went into the playoffs with the best record of any team. The question was not “Who will win,” but “Can TL win a single game in the best-of-five?”
Going into game one, it was clear that TL had done their homework and was willing to play into IG’s style of constant fighting. They drafted a comp that would not get run over in the early game but would scale much better into the late game and encouraged grouping to win fights. Then, they played to the neutral objectives on the map. IG attempted to play aggressively early, and secured the “First Blood” at mid through a beautifully coordinated 3-man gank, but, every time IG attempted to take down a member of TL, the rest of TL quickly secured one of the powerful neutral objectives on the map. IG normally uses their individual skills to gain the advantages required to win games, but TL found their own advantages in IG’s selfishness. TL traded small losses and individual players to gain team power, better positioning on the map and victory. At the end of game one, TL’s neutral objective count was four dragons, one elder dragon, one rift herald and one Baron. IG had a single dragon and two Barons.
While TL had played well to secure their victory, the game was still hard-fought. Analysts believed that IG would simply clean up their objective play and win the rest of the series. Then TL won game two in a very similar fashion to game one. Suddenly, NA was at the match point and IG, the defending world champions, had their collective back against the wall.
In game three, IG demonstrated why they are the world champions. They started exerting pressure early and often, targeting TL’s mid-laner, Nicolaj “Jensen” Jensen, with repeated attacks to ensure that Rookie got ahead and stayed ahead. Then Rookie used his mobility to exert his pressure around the map to win other lanes and eventually force TL into defeat. IG’s victory was expected to be the start of a reverse sweep, and NA’s fans were proud of the games that TL had played.
TL only needed to secure one more victory on the rift to move on to the grand finale, but it seemed as though everyone had counted them out as soon as they lost that single game. TL, however, expected IG to adapt to them, and reached into their back pocket. TL’s coaches won game four before the last champion was locked in. They exploited Rookie’s confidence on piloting Zoe into blind-pick situations with a counter-pick of Lux for Jensen.
Lux’s ability to deal damage over a large area at high range made her a great pick into the predictable patterns of Zoe’s movements while also giving a boost to the team-fighting strategy that worked well for them before. Lux is also a very unorthodox choice in general as well, as the last time it was played on the international stage was 2012. The combination of niche counter-pick and rarity meant that Rookie didn’t have the practice to win the matchup. TL then went back to the strategy that won games one and two, adding four more dragons, one more herald and two more barons to their overall neutral objective count.
While the entire TL roster performed outstandingly, CoreJJ earned player of the series for his playmaking and ability to always be in the right place at the right time to turn a play around. He ended the series with an 80 percent kill participation rating, and his kill plus assist average at 15 minutes was an astronomically high 3.8. His leadership and proactive playstyle allowed TL to keep pace with the early game of IG, while his mechanical play ensured that TL won the fights they wanted to.
TL defeated the defending world champions, IG, in four games, but would eventually go on to lose in the finals to Europe’s G2. However, with this victory, North America has proven that it can perform at the levels required for international play. The gap has closed.