One of the biggest international events on the League of Legends calendar hit Katowice, Poland last week. But the best team in North America wasn’t invited.
Immortals clinched playoffs weeks ago and now they’ve got the No. 1 seed locked up, too. They’ve tied up a stunning 15-1 record on a season that’s quickly becoming one of the most dominant in League Championship Series (LCS) history. But they didn’t play at the Intel Extreme Masters (IEM) World Championship last week.
Immortals spent the time off moving into new digs, ditching their cramped apartment for a spacious mansion. Support player Adrian Ma also tossed his old hair color for bright orange, but quickly ditched the Dragonball look before LCS returned this week, bleaching it and putting on some splotchy brown. Apparently he isn’t as good at dying his hair as he is at League of Legends. “I’m going to have to redo it later.
“It’s a work in progress.” He shrugs. “I might do something crazy for playoffs, but I can’t tell you yet.”
Immortals teal, perhaps? “Possibly,” he says, hiding behind his patented grin.
The brash and confident Ma is putting together one of the best seasons ever seen from an American support player, carrying games with champions like Janna and Soraka that most other supports in the league aren’t even playing. Immortals suffered their first and only loss of the season just before IEM. If that loss at all shook the confidence of the league’s most assured team, then watching an international event from home surely restored any lost drive.
The IEM championships is a chance for regions to test their mettle on the global stage. It’s the biggest international League event of the year besides the Midseason Invitational (MSI) and the World Championship itself. North America sent teams representing two of its most storied franchises, Team SoloMid (9-7) and Counter Logic Gaming (11-5)—and they dropped the ball for American fans of League.
“It felt really weird watching it because like, not the best teams were representing each league,” Ma says on Saturday, just after trouncing NRG eSports. “We felt we could have really done well at IEM and shown up for NA. It was really disappointing for CLG and TSM to look so, bleh.”
CLG did not advance from their group, failing to win a series. TSM recovered from a slow start to reach the bracket, but looked hapless against SK Telecom T1. The Korean squad may be the defending world champions, but they’re only middle of the pack this season in the LCK. Surely they should be beatable for one of America’s top teams.
Last year, teams like Fnatic and Origen gave hope that the West may be able to catch up. IEM painted a different picture. An article on Korean site Naver pondered if the West has capitulated and given up on challenging Korea. Playing against SKT is like battling a “brick wall,” Peter “Doublelift” Peng said after IEM, “you just can’t do anything.”
For Ma and his team, sitting at home and watching IEM was tough because that international stage is where Immortals not only wants to be, but where it expects to be. And Ma is confident a brick wall won’t stop them.
“I think we would have made NA look like a strong region,” he said. Korea is still the strongest region, he admits, but he feels like Immortals isn’t too far behind. And he’s not afraid of SKT.
“They’re like sixth place LCK team,” he says. “We’re first place NA!”
Sometimes it’s hard to gauge how much truth and how much sarcasm Ma puts into a statement like that. He’s always smiling and grinning, like everything he says is half a joke, especially when making brash and even arrogant claims. But there’s an underlying confidence in the way he says them, like the joke is that he’s telling the truth, but people don’t want to believe it.
He certainly realizes how cheap that statement can sound. If you’re the king of the losers, you’re a loser still. But Ma takes real pride in that position, in being responsible for representing an entire region.
“I feel like if we underperform, the quality of the games—we’re playing really good so everyone else is playing really good. We can’t slack,” he says. Shouldering that responsibility makes Immortals a better team. “I’m more motivated to try harder. I’m not going to get complacent. I’m always motivated to improve.”
Of course, Ma is still a rookie when it comes to international tournaments. He hasn’t faced that brick wall, like Doublelift has. He hasn’t failed to climb it, crush it, topple it, year after year after year. Perhaps he’ll taste that feeling of futility if Immortals makes it to MSI. But many of Ma’s veteran teammates have smashed into that wall headfirst and sometimes they came out on the other side. Immortals is ready for their shot, but they’ll have to get there first, and that means stopping what counts as a slump for them.
The team suffered their first loss during the week before IEM, falling to the CLG team that looked dismal in Poland. They haven’t looked dominant in other recent wins, often falling behind early before somehow pulling out a win. They needed a near miracle to come back on Sunday against Dignitas.
The slump—if you can call a single loss that—hasn’t changed how the team approaches the game, Ma said. “Even though we made mistakes, we’re not going to change anything. What works still works. We’re not going to change everything. Even though we lost, we know why we lost, and we’ll fix it. It won’t happen again in the future.”
That loss ended Immortal’s chance at an undefeated season. But that was never their real goal. “We don’t really care about the undefeated season. We’re just looking beyond that,” he says. “Performing internationally. MSI and then Worlds.” Of course, that goal is still a long ways off, he notes.
Immortals will certainly need to go a long way to prove that being the top of North America really means something in League of Legends.
With their playoff spot clinched and the top seed—along with an important playoff bye—secured, Immortals is expanding their arsenal in practice, preparing for those future battles.
“We’re definitely experimenting with new comps and new champions,” he says. “We’re expanding our champ pools but we’re not trying to show too much right now because we’re waiting for best-of-fives where we can dig into our champ pools. We’re not really being challenged right now in best-of-ones.”
One day after Ma made that statement, Immortals tried their best to show its true. They gave Dignitas six kills and a nearly 4k gold difference 15 minutes into their Sunday match. With most teams, that’s enough to call the game. But with Immortals, that’s barely enough to instill doubt in their ability to win. Then Dignitas scored Baron and two inhibitors, a lead that even Dignitas, couldn’t throw (even if they had done so the day before against Echo Fox).
Yet Immortals still won, somehow. Guess even a 10k gold deficit isn’t a challenge for them.
Ma chalked it up to the team’s belief in his post-game interview. They not only knew that they could come back and still win, with a solid late-game team composition, they believed that it’d happen if they just held out. Of course, it still took a few Dignitas mistakes to open that door, but that belief is admirable and perhaps special. It’s not necessarily Doublelift’s fault that he sees SKT as a solid brick wall that’s futile to even face. But if Immortals comes up against that kind of resistance, they’ll believe they can vault it.
Worlds is a long way off. Even the Midseason Invitational, the international tourney where the top placing teams in each region clash before the Summer season, is still a playoffs away for Immortals. Anything can happen, even in a best-of-five series. They’re certainly not invincible—they have lost one game, after all—though that won’t stop Ma from acting like they are truly immortal.
Next week, Immortals will face Team SoloMid and Team Impulse to conclude their regular season.
“They’re not looking like the strongest team right now so we’re more worried about the other teams,” Ma said, noting that he’s not just talking about their form at IEM. “They’ve never looked good, before [IEM] or after. They might have improved with IEM but I’m still not really scared of them.”
But then, even after their recent slump, Ma isn’t really scared of anybody.
Photo via Riot Games/Flickr