TAIPEI, Taiwan -- It took Yiliang "Doublelift" Peng, the greatest American League of Legends player of all time, nine years to make it out of the group stages at a major international event.
It only took him two days from breaking his curse to make his first major international final and record the greatest upset in the game's history.
At Heping Basketball Gymnasium in Taipei, the reigning world champions Invictus Gaming looked to move one step closer to establishing a dynasty. They won last year's League of Legends World Championship, took home their region's most recent domestic title and were coming into the Mid-Season Invitational semifinals with the best group stage record (9-1) in the tournament's history. Their opponent, North America's Team Liquid and champions in their own region, were, in contrast, limping into the knockout rounds after accumulating more losses than wins in the group stage.
For one night, the past didn't matter. Nether Doublelift's futility internationally nor Invictus Gaming's chokehold in the earlier rounds mattered. Liquid took a hard-fought Game 1 to stun a crowd expecting a swift series victory for the world champions. And that's when things really spiraled out of control. The North Americans pulled it together in the second game to put iG a single game from elimination.
Although the best team in the world didn't go down without a fight, winning a blowout on the third map behind mid lane superstar Song "Rookie" Eui-jin's play, wasn't enough.
Team Liquid showed killer instinct and went for the win in Game 4, executing a lock-and-pick composition around Skarner and Lux to perfection to close out the series. What began as a pro-Invictus crowd with only a smattering of Liquid cheers transformed into a chorus of "LET'S-GO-LIQUID!" chants.
"We definitely came in expecting to win," said Doublelift in the postmatch news conference. "It's crazy to think that we're the underdogs and stuff, but that's just my mindset."
Before Liquid arrived at the news conference, Invictus Gaming sat for thirty minutes and fielded questions from the media. They applauded Liquid for their performance, but for the most part, felt like they didn't play up to their standards.
When asked what their motto was, the players told me, "The only ones who can defeat us are ourselves." That wasn't completely true against Liquid, rather the loss was a mixture of them not playing as well as they could and the North American champions playing the best they've ever had together to pull off an upset for the ages.
At their lowest point in the tournament, on the edge of being eliminated before even the knockout rounds began, the Team Liquid players decided to stop trying to emulate iG and the other top teams at the tournament with a lane-dominant style. Liquid is a team that prides itself on its mid-to-late game teamfighting and control around dragon, and with a few added wrinkles to their game to make sure they didn't fall behind too far in the early game, they played their game.
The difference in the series came down more to mental fortitude than what the players did on their mouses and keyboards. Following the first loss, Invictus Gaming played too emotionally, continually trying to carve their way back into the series in big chunks in lieu of taking it one step at a time. While their overaggressive nature worked in their favor in the group stages and at last year's world championship, it was their undoing against Liquid. The emotional play led to sloppiness and unforced errors.
Liquid, on the other hand, stayed calm when iG took the third map in the series. They could have faltered, began to sweat, blaming one another for losing some control of the series. Instead, they regrouped, trusting in one another every step of the way. In the second game of the series, Doublelift locked in an old favorite in Vayne when a majority of his preferred AD carries were taken. He had barely practiced it -- and when he did, things went poorly -- but his team trusted in him that he could make things work.
"This team, the thing is, we trust each other a lot," Doublelift said. "One thing that happened was I wasn't sure how I was supposed to play Vayne, because I didn't practice Vayne, and when I did practice it it was pretty bad. So, it was like the right time to pick it, but I was like I dunno, and no one on the team said [don't select it], so essentially we just went for it. Our team has a lot of trust with each other that we can play at a really high level."
In the mob of Invictus Gaming supporters at the venue, one bright-haired fan in Team Liquid gear boomed over the rest. Benjamin Heltzel, 24, has been traveling across Asia to watch his favorite team make the miracle run to the finals. In Ho Chi Minh City during the play-in stage, he sat in the front row as TL bested the home country's Phong Vu Buffalo to qualify for the group stages. During the semifinal in Taipei, he was armed with large cutouts of the team's bottom lane of Doublelift and former world champion Jo "CoreJJ" Yong-in, starting a chant whenever his team would make a positive move. The night would end with Heltzel at the front of the stage, Doublelift basking in the cheers fit for an international finalist.
"It's indescribable," said Heltzel following the game. "It's absolutely incredible, mind-blowing, wonderful. Being in the stadium, having 20, maybe 25, other Liquid fans screaming back at you when you cheer for your boys and the rest of the stadium is against us. Then seeing your boys who are the complete underdogs with a tiny fraction of probability beat the former world champions, it's basically a dream come true."
At last year's world championship, Nicolaj "Jensen" Jensen made the semifinals with Cloud9, becoming the consensus pick as the best team in North America history. Fast forward a little under a year later, he's on a new team, and he's at it again, this time one-upping himself by taking down the world champions to cement this Team Liquid squad as the greatest side in the region's history. When asked if this team has officially surpassed C9, he already knew the answer.
It was the reason why he joined Team Liquid in the first place.
It's why Jo "CoreJJ" Yong-in joined Liquid. It's why the five starters decided to play together. They knew they could do something special, and with the win over Invictus Gaming, Team Liquid has officially arrived.
"Yeah, I don't think you can speak against that [TL is the best NA team in history]," Jensen said. "The results speak for itself. I changed teams because I wanted to win the whole thing. This is the beginning."