Yesterday we saw multiple superstars from around the globe debut in the North American League Championship Series (LCS), but there’s one that no one seems to be talking about.
He didn’t have the most exciting performance in his game on Saturday—he played Orianna, a support mid laner, and didn’t score a kill until 43 minutes into the match (finishing with a 2/3/12 KDA). But Alexey “Alex Ich” Ichetovkin won the first LCS game he’s played since April 15, 2014, and winning is enough for one of League’s most legendary players.
“The game didn’t go as good as we wanted and expected, but the win is the win,” he told me as Renegades filed into the press room, relieved after closing out an hour-long thriller against Team Liquid.
Ichetovkin is a mixture of tired and composed, likely ready to head home to relax and prepare for tomorrow. We chat about Diablo 3—he snuck in a little time on Friday for the launch of the new season, but he’s only level 43. His beautiful wife, Ekaterina, hovers around him with a phone, actively streaming to an audience of 40 or so Russians, die hard fans and friends happy to see their idol back in the big leagues. He asks if she can sit in on the interview, saying the viewers won’t be able to understand us anyway. She sets up in the corner, phone trained on Ichetovkin.
After over a year and a half of effort, he’s returned to competing in the top league. When I ask him how he feels about it, he shrugs. Those 40 Russians watching are more excited than he is.
“Well I gotta go to LCS again…” he sighs, slouching in his chair like a laborer returned from a dreary 9-to-5. Of course, that’s just Ichetovkin’s patented dry humor. He’s clearly happy to be back on the big stage. But even so, for a veteran like him (one with multiple championships to his name), it really is just another day on the job. Some might mistake that attitude for indifference, a difficult place to stand in the extremely competitive world of esports. But in many ways that kind of level-headed mentality is enviable for a pro gamer. Ichetovkin just saves his fire for when he needs it.
“I feel like LCS as a league is a bit tiresome for players,” he says. “It’s a long run, so you need to be careful, you don’t need to be super excited. You just need to be chill and go in with a clear mindset.”
The playoffs—or relegation—is when you need that intensity. The goal is to avoid relegation, Ichetovkin says, but Renegades will be happy with playoffs. In what looks like the strongest LCS field ever, it’ll be tough for Renegades to make it. But they’re on their way with a victory against Team Liquid in their LCS debut.
“You need to be careful, you don’t need to be super excited. You just need to be chill and go in with a clear mindset.”
Not only was the match the LCS debut of Renegades, the team Ichetovkin joined in March last year, but it was a good old fashioned grudge match against what should prove to be a bitter rival, Team Liquid. The founder of Renegades, Chris Badawi—who gave Ichetovkin a chance to play in America after his first squad in the region fell apart—was accused of tampering by Team Liquid in May, eventually leading to a Riot Games ruling that banned Badawi from officially participating with the team throughout 2016.
Even for Ichetovkin—the consummate professional—that means something. Or it would have, if he remembered that detail before the match. When I asked him about it, he looked perplexed for a moment. “There would be a lot of rivalry, at least in my head, if I remembered it! I forgot about it,” he said. “Man… I wish I played better.”
Of course, the 2/3/12 Orianna performance isn’t what fans expect from Ichetovkin, a player famous for flying around a team fight as Kha’zix, scoring kill after kill. But it’s the role he was tabbed to play in the team composition, providing control through devastating ultimates and using his shields to enable the Renegades superstar everyone is talking about, Aleš “Freeze” Kněžínek. Ichetovkin actually teamed with Kněžínek on Ninjas in Pyjamas in 2014, but since then Kněžínek has shown the world he’s a premiere marksman talent during two seasons in the LCS with the Copenhagen Wolves. The Czech AD carry was one of the offseason’s hottest commodities, and Badawi managed to woo him to Renegades.
Any team would be lucky to slot a player like Kněžínek into the lineup. Squads like Team SoloMid and Team Liquid considered signing him this offseason. In a different world Kněžínek wears Liquid blue, but today, he was destroying them—posting an 11/2/7 KDA on Kalista while dealing 38.7 percent of his team’s damage.
“He’s a really good mechanical AD carry so you can rely on him doing well just outplaying the enemy, winning the lane. You don’t need to worry about that part of the game,” Ichetovkin says. But in a League world where macro play and communication are becoming more and more important, getting superstar production from Kněžínek wasn’t as simple as slotting him into the lineup.
“I think at first it went hard,” Ichetovkin said. “But now we’re finding our ways to communicate with each other, our ways of playing. I think he’s doing really well… This was our main work, we’re working with him as a team, and everyone as a team. I think it’s working really for us.”
Even last year, when some viewed Renegades as an all-star lineup ready to stomp the Challenger Series, they were not a team that dominated through individual talent, but through better understanding of the game. Yesterday, Team Liquid may have fielded a more individually-skilled lineup led by solid performances from Chae “Piglet” Gwang-jin and mid laner Kim “Fenix” Jae-hun. But Renegades kept Team Liquid on the back foot from the get-go, building a lead with skilled team play and never giving an opening for Liquid to get back in the game.
Part of that success is likely due to featuring veterans like Ichetovkin and Alberto “Crumbzz” Rengifo in the jungle, but the coaches have had an impact, too. Coaching is a luxury new to even Ichetovkin, a five year veteran. The emergence of coaching in Western League of Legends is a relatively new phenomenon, and Ichetovkin’s been away from the LCS. While Gambit Gaming had a coach, it wasn’t even comparable to Renegade’s resources.
“It was much worse,” Ichetovkin said. “Now… it’s a super new experience and I think it’s working out for us really well. Coaching staff helped us a lot.” He credits David “Hermes” Tu with helping the team out of a couple slumps, and with finding a team identity that works for them after they added Kněžínek. “We started winning scrims, and now you can see it in the LCS.”
Of course, coach Tu might have some words for his players after his team took nearly half an hour to close out a match where they had an 8k gold lead at 35 minutes.
“We had three opportunities to close the game out but we went for some weird stuff. We chased Viktor, it got people killed, it slowed us down super hard.”
“It’s just the first game of LCS. We played pretty sloppy. We’ll try to work out our mistakes and get better on stage.”
So far that’s par for the course during a new year and new season of the LCS. Renegades featured a dive composition featuring Kalista, launching an Orianna-ball laden Alistair into foes to grab picks. But Team Liquid countered with Janna, allowing them to disengage fast. You won’t see many gold graphs as smooth as the one showing the lead Renegades methodically built through 30 minutes in this game, steadily using their map movements and engage ability to force Team Liquid away from key objectives and even farm. But a few key mistakes in the midgame made closing out the match a dicey affair. And with everyone in the game sporting Ionian Boots of Lucidity, giving both teams more chances to use Flash, it was difficult for either team to start a fight late.
“It’s just the first game of LCS,” he said. “We played pretty sloppy. We’ll try to work out our mistakes and get better on stage. I think all the mistakes, we could have avoided them.”
If Renegades can do that, they’ll be well on their way to success in what should be the toughest season of LCS in history.
It wasn’t a glamorous return to the LCS for Ichetovkin, one of League of Legends’ formative superstars. He’s likely not a superstar talent any longer. Maybe it’s okay fans aren’t cheering his return, instead turning to newer stars like Kněžínek. Ichetovkin isn’t entirely excited about it, after all. But Ichetovkin’s tale isn’t always one of excitement, it’s the story of a man who proves that when we call esports “professional,” we really mean it.
Photos via ESL & Riot Games | Remix by Jacob Wolf
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