Spring is the season of upsets. From March Madness in the U.S. to the Champions League in Europe, crazy things tend to happen in sports during this season. But this year, nothing compares to the run that JD Gaming have been on in China’s LPL.
JDG entered the LPL playoffs as the eighth seed. It was surprising when they upset Team WE, downright shocking when they beat RNG, and mind blowing when they won game five against first seed Fun Plus Phoenix.
Now they have one more mountain to climb. The only thing that stands in the way of JDG and glory—or even immortality—is the world champions, Invictus Gaming. If JDG can emerge victorious, it would cap off the greatest Cinderella run we’ve ever seen in League esports.
Zoom and Yagao: From the ashes
To get a sense for how improbable this run is, you have to turn to before the season started. Last summer, we called JD Gaming one of the best teams in China. They were fun, liked to fight, and took it to the top teams in the region.
But they faltered in the playoffs, losing to none other than IG. And that was just the start of their problems. In the offseason, the team lost their best player—jungler Kim “Clid” Tae-min—to South Korea’s SK Telecom T1, and their owner was embroiled in a sex scandal.
But instead of faltering, JDG started the split strong behind the impeccable play of their two stars, top laner Zhang “Zoom” Xing-Ran and mid laner Zeng “YaGao” Qi. They even got a revenge win over IG in week two.
We’ve written about YaGao’s ability to hold mid lane in a variety of matchups, but this year, the real show stopper has been Zoom. Zoom—and the rest of the team—often look better when he’s on aggressive champions. But in key moments last year, JDG blinked, putting Zoom on the likes of Sion and Gangplank.
This season, JDG have gone all-in on Zoom, letting him pick a variety of early pressure champions. Even when he picked Gangplank in the decider vs. FPX, it worked out.
But IG will present another level of challenge that JDG haven’t seen yet in these playoffs. IG were content to round into shape after their Worlds victory, letting their players experiment some and playing both top laners. And at the end of the split, they still finished in second place, a testament to just how damn good these guys are.
IG’s starting solo laners, Kang “TheShy” Seung-lok and Song “Rookie” Eui-jin, can both make a case for themselves as the best not only in the region, but in the world. That’s something JD Gaming can’t yet say about themselves.
Zoom and Yagao have carried this team from the brink of implosion to the precipice of victory. It will continue to be an uphill battle, but these guys are not going away.
The underdogs: Flawless and LvMao
Even if Zoom and Yagao hold up against IG’s relentless pressure, that may not be enough for JDG to pull off the win. IG won Worlds off a team effort that required each player to contribute. It was the sort of coordinated play that had beguiled so many LPL teams before.
It’s the same sort of play that JDG are discovering in themselves. If Zoom and Yagao are the rocks that brought them to the playoffs, jungler Sung “Flawless” Yeon-jun and support Zuo “LvMao” Ming-Hao are the ones who are popping off in the playoffs.
Flawless, in particular, has looked amazing against some of the best junglers in the region. He absolutely took it to RNG’s Hung “Karsa” Hua-hsuan in helping send his team to the semifinals. He struggled against FPX—the fifth game teetered on a sharp edge, and Flawless was lucky FPX’s Baron setup was poor. You could tell by the way he collapsed in a heap of tears after the game ended just how much pressure he was facing in a crucial moment for his team.
The player that JDG look to most of all to absorb that pressure is actually LvMao. LvMao seems like a defensive support in lane, but that’s mainly because he spends most of his time making sure that Gu “Imp” Seung-bin—a former world champ with Samsung White—is alive.
But when the team needs to make a play together in the late game, it’s usually LvMao who’s organizing them. That’s how they out-teamfought FPX, a squad that loves to brawl and take nearly every single fight.
If Zoom and Yagao stand up to TheShy and Rookie, and if Flawless is able to channel his emotion and passion into cold-blooded analytical jungling, JDG will likely get to late game vs. IG in one shape. And that’s when it’s time for LvMao to take them home. We’ll find out if he’s able to do so or if IG can turn them into a pumpkin when the series kicks off at 2:30am CT on April 21.