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Photo by Yicun.

The other night, a friend tells me he just doesn’t understand poetry, which is something I hear all the time when I tell people I am a poet. Which is a thing I get in that we are taught to strive for understanding when it comes to art. But it is also a thing I don’t get. You don’t listen to music or look at a painting and demand to understand it. You feel something or you don’t. I could work to understand something, but that’s not the only point or the point at all. Which is to say, when TheShy bolts out of his chair after IG obliterates SKT and is the first person to dart across the stage, despite being the furthest away, I felt something. Which is to say watching IG is not a quest in understanding League of Legends so much as it is one in feeling it.

Our game is centered around three different phases in the game. The first is the early game, which is often tied to the taking of the first turret, which can often signal a lane swap and thus an end to the traditional laning phase. This is generally the first 15 minutes of a game. The second phase is the mid game, where teams begin to group to contest more difficult objectives, and team fighting begins to happen. And finally, the late game comes around the 30 minute mark, where teams do their best to posture around major objectives like Baron and Elder Dragon, which provide them with the right buffs to end the game.

I tell you this because IG finished the game when most teams are just entering the mid game. I tell you this because Ning successfully secures not one and not two, but three Level 2 ganks on Camille, a champion that likely no one else will play in Hanoi. I tell you this because the SKT bot lane is later zoned off of their turret for two and a half minutes — relegated to counting the passing minions as they huddle together and wonder what the hell is going on. I tell you this because JackeyLove’s Draven is up 11,000 gold to Teddy’s 4,000 gold at one point in this game. And I tell you this because IG did not at all adhere to the three phases of League of Legends.

The early game concluded around the 6:30 mark, where they took the outer bot lane turret. Their mid game began at the 11:00 mark, when they captured the Rift Herald, and then proceeded to barrel down the SKT mid inhibitor at exactly 13:01. Their end game finished a single lane rotation later, with JackeyLove’s Draven placing the final axe into Teddy’s Sona at exactly 15:37 to secure a team fight, and with minions crashing into the Nexus turrets, IG would finish the game at 16:01, which is — by over four minutes — the fastest game in the history of international League of Legends.

Why would anyone believe this to be the same team that played a 50-kill slugfest against what is currently the last place team in the MSI Group Stage? It makes no sense, but it doesn’t have to make sense. Nothing makes sense about beating Faker and three-time World Champion SK telecom T1 in 16 minutes. Nothing makes sense about a jungler who is famous for Level 2 ganks, and nothing makes sense about him completing three of them in succession in a single game.

When I ask Ning about this duality in his team, he says, “We’re all very young players, so when we see strong teams, I think the entire squad wants to play up to their potential. We want to bring 100% of our performance. But when we play against [weaker teams], we try to play a… happier game… and play for fun a little more. But the bottom line is that we always feel like we can win.”

You can pinpoint IG’s strengths and weaknesses and you can highlight many times where they make the correct decision, but like a poem, there doesn’t have to be any rhyme or reason. This is a team that will jump higher than you if you jump next to them, and they will run faster than you if you start to outpace them. They’ve had literal shouting matches in their house to see who can scream louder. You don’t need a reason to want to win or to want to have fun or to want to have style. League of Legends is not a game that awards you differently for how you win. It only matters that you do.

And so far in Hanoi, IG is running with no equal. Even at their ugliest so far, the catalyst of their struggles have always been themselves. Whether it’s TheShy diving hopelessly under a turret or Rookie trying to assassinate a carry by walking through the front door of the enemy team composition, IG has dictated the terms of their fights. When Phong Vu pulled them into a wrestling match in the mud, IG dug deeper towards the Earth and seemed almost offended PVB was not able to dive any further down.

And when they knocked SKT in the mouth over and over as if trying to punch out each individual tooth, it wasn’t an understanding that I lacked. Sure, my jaw dropped, and sure, I screamed obscenities, but what IG did to them wasn’t out of my realm of imagination. Especially not when SKT locked in Sona and Taric and I thought about how many LPL diehards have told me you’d never see that duo in the LPL because it would just get dove to hell and back. And especially not when they immediately clashed at Level 1, where Rookie would die, only for him to immediately Teleport back. I didn’t need to understand any of that, but I could really feel it. I could feel their brain cells bouncing up and down, and I could feel the game would come to match that pace.

Ning tells me that they’d made a conscious decision to beat down the Sona lane early in the game, and that they would win in that phase, and, in his words, “We had to do it through diving their towers.” Immediately, I am thinking probably there are other avenues and ways to win that lane without necessarily diving. And then I think about IG and I feel like maybe I am wrong. Maybe there actually isn’t any other way.

He says, “We had a pact on the team that if we locked the #1 seed in the Group Stage, then we had to play a Camille game. But I felt like this was a good Camille game to play anyway. In recent patches, Camille is not a tier-A jungler anymore, so to be able to play my own champion and use my own skin… it was a very happy thing.”

Like, of course they had to play a Camille game, and why wait until they’ve secured the #1 Seed? It kind of feels like they’ve already done that anyway. They’re at least playing as if it’s true. There’s a pause in this game that lasts eight minutes, which is exactly half the length of the entire game, and during the pause the camera pans back and forth through the SKT lineup, and all of them look shell-shocked. They have been swept up by the IG momentum, and for two lanes worth of structures to be thrashed by 13 minutes means you are just looking for a graceful exit. We joke about how players who are getting crushed aren’t allowed to play League of Legends, but for a two minute and thirty second window, the SKT bot lane very literally wasn’t allowed to return to their turret.

Of course it makes sense. It is a Sona lane into a Draven lane. They are behind and they have no control over their jungle. But all of that together also makes absolutely no sense. We will not see a Sona lane into Draven from SKT again, and we will not see a triple Level 2 gank ever again and we will never get a 16 minute game again. None of this was possible in the first place, and it shouldn’t be again, and yet IG still exists, and so when I say never, I don’t mean it as a fact but as a feeling.

I mean it in the way IG understands it, which is that “never” is a temporal thing more than a permanent fixture. Never just means someone hasn’t accomplished it. The chance to be the first is still there. And for Invictus Gaming, a 16 minute victory is now their never. A 16 minute victory over the greatest team and player to ever shift onto the Summoner’s Rift. A 16 minute victory that will be a single blip on the history of our game. Here is a team I don’t understand at all. Here is a team I understand completely.

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Mechanics | TheShy’s Akali (2019 MSI Group Stage)