Korea's Prodigal Son, China's Surprise Savior - Rookie Is the East's Last Hope

It has been one month since the start of the 2018 League of Legends World Championship, and absolutely nothing has gone as expected.

The South Korean representatives have failed to show up on home turf. Defending world champion Gen.G Esports could only win a single game in a 4th place group B finish. KT Rolster looked like the tournament favorite before a shocking quarterfinals exit. Afreeca Freecs were swept out of the tournament by Cloud9 in North America’s first Worlds Semifinals bid since Season 1.

South Korea isn’t the only elite region who has faltered at Worlds. Royal Never Give Up has been the best team in the world for the entirety of 2018. However, even with Uzi at the peak of his powers, China’s greatest hope met its end at the hands of G2 Esports in the quarterfinals. EDward Gaming put together an impressive Group Stage performance, but that wasn’t enough to stop Fnatic from defeating them convincingly to move on to the Semifinals.

With G2 and C9’s top 4 finishes and Fnatic’s Finals qualification, the 2018 World Championship may go down as the finest international performance in western League of Legends history. However, one player has stood as a beacon of light for both South Korean and Chinese fans in a month of darkness.

Invictus Gaming Mid Laner Song “Rookie” Eui-Jin has put together an absolutely brilliant campaign throughout Worlds 2018. He has led iG to its first final after four years of disappointment, upsetting his old team KT Rolster in the quarterfinals. A semis sweep of G2 leaves only Fnatic standing in-between Invictus Gaming and the Summoner’s Cup.

There is no easy path to the Grand Finals of the World Championship, but perhaps no one has had a longer road than Rookie. The electrifying mid laner debuted in 2014 in South Korea, dazzling on KT Rolster Arrows and quickly earning the nickname “Faker Jr.” for his impressive mechanics and deep champion pool.

In what may be the greatest best of 5 series in the history of League of Legends, KT Rolster Arrows upset Samsung Galaxy Blue to win OGN Champions Summer 2014. However, a defeat at the hands of Najin White Shield in the second round of the 2014 South Korea Regional Qualifier put an end to the Arrows’ season.

The off-season saw a massive South Korean exodus to China’s LPL, and Rookie was signed by Invictus Gaming alongside former teammate and KT Arrows Jungler Lee “KaKAO” Byung-kwon. IG lacked consistency, but managed to qualify for the 2015 World Championship as the 3rd seed representative from China’s LPL.

Analysts heralded the abilities of both Rookie and KaKAO ahead of the tournament. Both players made the LoL Esports Worlds Top 20 as the 5th and 4th ranked players, respectively. However, IG struggled mightily at the World Championship. KaKAO was unable to get the team off of the ground in the early game, and the weak point of Ge “Kid” Yan and Liu “Kitties” Hong-Jun was busted wide open by the rest of the group. IG failed to make it out of Group B, finishing 2-4 at last place.

2016 was far more straightforward for Invictus Gaming. The team failed to make it out of the first round of either LPL playoffs, staying far out of the 2016 Worlds picture. Lee “Duke” Ho-Seong was signed to the Top Lane fresh off of a World Championship with SK Telecom T1, and IG re-tooled a hybrid Korean-Chinese roster around Rookie for 2017.

Rookie, fluent in Mandarin after studying in his spare time throughout his past few years in China, would once again just fall short. After missing the 2017 LPL Summer Finals by a single game, IG managed to take 3rd place by defeating Team WE in 5 games. The teams found each other facing off once more at the conclusion of the 2017 China Regional Qualifier, and heartbreak struck again with WE prevailing over IG to qualify for the 2017 World Championship. 

Throughout the entirety of IG’s trials and tribulations, Rookie has been one of the best Mid Laners in the world. Invictus Gaming has finally succeeded in 2018 by building a team around Rookie that not only can play around him, but is also enabled by his strengths. Rookie has done extremely well when put in a position to carry, but most of IG’s wins have come with Rookie playing to side lanes on utility picks like Galio or Lissandra.

A lack of international appearances has kept Rookie from being a household name to Western League of Legends fans until now, but he is certainly making up for lost time. Despite an affinity for the aforementioned utility picks, Rookie has dominated his opponents across several matchups to the tune of 20+ CS leads despite putting his teammates’ lanes before his own. He’s translating for his Korean Top Laners in addition to being the primary shotcaller for his team.

A majority of the Korean players who moved to China in 2015 have either returned to South Korea or moved to the west. However, Rookie stayed in China, learning the language of his new home in order to communicate better with his team and prove his ability on the world stage.

Invictus Gaming will face the best western team of all time in Fnatic in to restore honor to the East. In a Worlds where the west has dominated the competition, Rookie stands with IG as the last bastion of hope for both South Korean and Chinese League of Legends fans. 

Photo Credit: LoL Esports Flickr

Nick Geracie is a freelance esports journalist in Los Angeles, CA. You can follow him on twitter here.

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