Doing the Impossible: I May's Path to Worlds
On May 27, 2016, I May stepped onto the stage of the Chinese LoL Pro League (LPL) to play their first game in the premier league. Some viewers had doubts I May should even be there; they had been promoted from the Chinese amateur league, LSPL, by clawing back a close series with Young Miracles in the fifth game.
They featured a relatively unknown lineup of players, mostly composed of subs from EDward Gaming (EDG) or players with nearly no competitive experience. Their top laner Shek, “AmazingJ” Wai Ho, and mid laner, Kang “Athena” Ha-woon, were the only players who had achieved any notoriety, AmazingJ playing for EDG in the Season 5 World Championship and Athena playing as part of team ESC Ever when they defeated the world champions, SK Telecom.
This painting of I May did not damage their mentality at all; upon winning the LSPL Championship, AmazingJ said to coach Son "Kezman" Dae-young “our goal [is] to make it to the World Championship.” Kezman recounted the interaction later, saying “I asked myself isn't this person a bit abnormal?” Doubts aside, I May destroyed their opponents in the first week, beating OMG and LGD 2-0.
I May was not a perfect team throughout the season, but they placed themselves among the top teams in the Chinese region by the end of the summer split. They defined themselves by making aggressive roams, looking for players to catch off guard. Sometimes, this worked spectacularly, netting them a lead that they could push to victory. Other times, it backfired, as evidenced by their support player, Yun “Road” Han-gil having the fifth highest deaths of any support in LPL, higher than the supports of Saint Gaming and OMG, the two teams at the bottoms of groups A and B (the Chinese league divides the 12 teams into two groups based on Spring Season performance).
With those deaths, however, came kills: Road had the fifth highest kill participation of any support, higher than the likes of Mata, the support for China’s second seed at Worlds, Royal Never Give Up (RNG). This aggressive, yet not teamfight oriented approach to the game left I May third in their group, behind World Elite (WE) and RNG. Ironically, these teams would be I May’s biggest adversaries in their climb to the World Championship.
The playoffs and the regional gauntlet revealed many strengths and weaknesses for I May. Their roam-heavy style was very strong for establishing leads against inferior teams, but it had one major, consistent flaw: putting their ADC Xie “Jinjiao” Jin-Shan behind. Jinjiao had the fourth lowest CS per minute of any ADC in the LPL’s regular split, only leading xQ, the ADC of the aforementioned Saint Gaming, and the two ADC’s of Invictus Gaming (IG), Marge and Rain.
However, Jinjiao, like Road, is not defined by a stat. While he sometimes fumbles his positioning when I May decides to teamfight, he is given so little resources that there is no room for error. This makes games like game two of I May’s series versus IG or game four of their series versus RNG, both cases of Jinjiao having incredible games and destroying teamfights with Kog’Maw and Twitch, respectively, all the more impressive.
Another aspect of I May that was tested somewhat in playoffs and especially in the regional gauntlet was Fan “Avoidless” Jun Wei’s jungling. Avoidless likes to roam with another member of his team for a gank, be that top lane teleporting bot or support roaming mid. This method works well when I May has a lead or are even, but when they get behind, Avoidless tends to play a little too aggressive, sometimes being caught out in the river or enemy jungle. This preference for Avoidless and I May as a whole to make roaming plays doesn’t completely prevent Avoidless from making ganks, but he has a tendency to get outjungled by more proactive junglers willing to take the risk on a solo gank.
I May’s solo laners are probably their most consistently impactful players. AmazingJ, while sticking mostly to tank champions, like Shen and Nautilus, manages to make incredible plays for his team on those tanks. In a worrying start to game five of I May’s series with WE, AmazingJ found himself 0/5/3 at 22 minutes. All looked lost, but a beautiful TP flank from AmazingJ’s Nautilus sealed a fight for I May, winning them the game.
Athena, perhaps with something to prove after leaving Ever in Korea, managed the second highest KDA ratio in the regular split (excluding PawN who only played five games), only falling behind Kang “BaeMe” Yang-hyun, I May’s other midlaner. BaeMe seems to have a love of Twisted Fate; it is his most played champion with six games.
Athena, on the other hand, has a much larger champion pool, with 11 champions played in 20 games, compared to BaeMe’s seven champions in 17 games. The only champion exclusive to BaeMe’s champion pool seems to be LeBlanc, so it will be interesting to see how I May swaps between the mid lane duo in their games in the group stage. In any case, these solo laners make a core that allows the roaming plays of I May to succeed.
I May’s successes and failures in the playoffs undoubtedly tested them as a team, but no test seemed greater than the final game in their series against World Elite. Everything was on the line; the winner would advance to the World Championships, the loser would go back home.
The series had gone back and forth up to this point, the teams trading kills, gold leads and wins. As mentioned before, AmazingJ was heavily targeted by World Elite, being ganked three times before 10 minutes, and only on the third gank did Avoidless manage to secure a return kill from a turret dive. Once mid-game approached, I May showed a few more signs of life. Athena picked up a double kill in the mid-lane due to overagression from WE, but still they seemed to mostly be controlling the tempo of the game, taking dragons and turrets.
At 26 minutes, all of WE, controlling vision around Baron, picked Avoidless’ Elise; their trap was a success. As WE turned towards Baron, the rest of I May sprung into action, contesting WE’s Baron attempt with a teamfight. At first, I May seemed to be making headway, but a perfect Unleashed Power from Syndra, WE’s mid laner Xiye, deleted Jinjiao from the fight, and AmazingJ quickly followed.
As WE battled Baron, only Road and Athena remained to slow WE’s attempts and pick at their health bars while Avoidless respawned and instantly scrambled towards Baron. As he moved closer, Baron’s healthbar dropped lower and lower, but he reached the pit while Baron had a little over 2000 health left.
WE were one step from victory. The crowd cheered louder than at any point in the game thus far. Avoidless rushed into the pit. Xiye reacted with a Syndra stun. Avoidless rappeled into the air. World Elite bursted Baron down to its last sliver of health. Avoidless dropped. Avoidless stole baron. The crowd cheers became deafening.
As incredible as this play was, I May were not out of the woods yet. Over the next 20 minutes, World Elite accrued a 10k gold lead through a successful Baron attempt, an Elder Dragon, and taking I May’s mid inhibitor. After taking this inhibitor, however, WE got greedy and tried to rotate to bottom lane, tanking the inhibitor tower. This caused them to lose three members and forfeit some of the tempo to their opponents.
I May seized this advantage and pushed down the mid lane, catching Xiye and taking two towers. After this, there was a lull. Both teams caught their breath and looked towards Baron; the gold differential dropped to 6K.
At 45 minutes, while WE attempted to push top lane, all of I May made an aggressive rotation, ignoring them and pushing down mid lane. WE immediately responded by recalling and coming to mid lane, but I May were one step ahead, turning from mid lane towards Baron. While WE scrambled to catch up, I May fearlessly started Baron. As WE tried to contest, I May turned, diving into World Elite’s team.
Once again, things looked bright for I May, but Xiye again turned the fight; this time, Syndra’s Scatter the Weak stunned four members of I May, which allowed WE to narrowly win the fight, taking down two members of I May and only losing one of their own.
WE recalled, rushed back to Baron, and took it. Surely, with Baron buff at nearly 50 minutes, they could finish the game. The team grouped mid lane first, taking the open inhibitor. They then took their second Elder Dragon, recalled, and proceeded to top lane. Froskurinn, one of the casters during the game, said “This is… I’m just trying to project how [I May] come back from this. It’s going to have to be a miracle teamfight.”
WE’s top laner, 957, quickly took the second inhibitor in the bottom lane by brute force and then joined the rest of his team sieging the top lane. World Elite pushed forward, then backed off. AmazingJ channelled his Teleport behind WE. As it finished, I May stepped forward. Xiye tried to foil I May’s attempts a third time with a Scatter the Weak, but he was caught off guard by AmazingJ’s Nautilus lumbering towards him. Xiye panicked; he had nowhere to run, and AmazingJ’s anchor came down on him, a death sentence. With Xiye out of the way, I May tore through the rest of WE, winning the fight 4-0. They crowd screamed, I May screamed, and the team of rejects and rookies dashed across the map and destroyed World Elite’s nexus. I May won, against all odds.
The aftermath of this game was unlike any other I have seen in esports. I’ve witnessed player victories across many games, but they pale in comparison to the raw emotion expressed by I May, the crowd, even the casters. As AmazingJ teared up, Froskurinn as well said that she was about to cry. The team ran to hug Kezman, who had just witnessed AmazingJ’s ridiculous prediction coming true. Perhaps he was “a bit abnormal,” but that mentality had carried the team from the amateur league to the world stage in just three months.
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Image credit: 刘一村