The LEC’s second week of action ended on Saturday, Jan. 26, and Team Vitality (3:1) stood near the top of the standings, behind the undefeated new-look G2 Esports (4:0). In a way, they proved many doubters wrong, following a roster change affecting the jungle position. Then again, the team has built a habit of doing so since signing a roster that included three rookies.
In fact, the rookies went as far as qualifying to the 2018 World Championship, and observers had mostly been dismissive of their prospects. However, they came close to doing the unthinkable: qualifying to the Worlds quarterfinals.
So close, yet so far: Daniele “Jiizuke” Di Mauro remembers how close they were, and how well-equipped they were for the task.
Team Vitality flipped Group B upside down when they beat Gen.G twice and Royal Never Give Up once. Jiizuke remembers how their playstyle was a perfect counter to Gen.G’s, and why it ultimately defined a solid portion of the World Championship meta. “We played really aggressive early-game, and that was what the meta was about,” Jiizuke said. “If we didn't mess up early and mid-game against Cloud9, we would have been in the quarterfinals, or maybe more.”
Their victories eventually inspired North American opponents Cloud9 to a semifinal run — but that run could have been theirs instead. So, when Cloud9 secured two victories, Vitality’s 2018 season run ended abruptly, their wings clipped, and their hopes faded.
To say it was a tough pill to swallow would be an understatement.
“I never cried like I did after the second Cloud9 loss,” Jiizuke recalled. “Yes, we would have had another chance if Gen.G beat RNG, but after Cloud9, after we were done with our team talk, I went outside, put music in my ears, and I started crying. I didn't care about the outside world. I never felt so much pain in my mind, so that changed me. I wanted to go forward, and I felt I deserved to.”
A World Championship participation is a symbol in itself: every competitor works hard to achieve the feat, as it validates the players’ hard work. For some teams, qualifying is not enough: a deep run is necessary. Just ask Gen.G, as the community reacted in shock when they dropped in the group stage. By comparison, few had expected Vitality to come close to a quarterfinal berth. But Jiizuke definitely had high hopes. In fact, he still does.
“I felt that we could go further than that,” he said. “After we failed, I was sad like never before, but I moved on from it now. I'm ready to go there again.”
Within a year, Jiizuke had come far. In Sept. 2017, he helped Giants Gaming qualify to the European LCS from the Challenger series. In December, he won his final tournament in the LVP, before joining Team Vitality alongside Amadeu “Attila” Carvalho and Jakub “Jactroll” Skurzynski. By the end of their Worlds run, he was a changed player. He had the mechanical prowess back in his LVP days, but he had evolved.
“Worlds was for sure my best form that I ever had,” he said. “Last year, I wanted to show up a lot in the spring split, and I played purely on mechanics. I wasn't thinking about what the enemy jungler could do, which came back to bite me later. I was losing games alone because of that. After a while, I had to evolve. In the summer playoffs and at Worlds, I was playing a calculated aggressive style, and I could not die from the enemy jungler. I was also 30 cs ahead every game against all teams, at least one time.”
Reaching top form is one thing, but maintaining it is another. So, Jiizuke took a drastic decision, as he stayed in Korea past their World Championship run. There, he practiced in a vastly more competitive solo queue ladder than he experienced in Europe. For one, he practiced against the best Korea and China had to offer. In addition, players in the higher echelons of the Korean solo queue ladder are more competitive and more attuned to macro play.
On both counts, that may not be the case in Europe. An overwhelming majority of high-ranking players in the Korean ladder have ambitions of going pro (if they aren’t, or weren’t). The stakes are high, as applicants for limited in-house substitute positions are often required to reach the Master rank (currently Grandmaster).
On the other hand, a majority of high ranking players in Europe don’t take it as seriously. When Jiizuke asks why some of them don’t try, ‘xD’ and similar replies are fairly frequent. That is, if he doesn’t mute everyone in-game as a result of flame-baiting attempts. “They are just playing for fun, and they don't care about the pro level,” he said. “For me, playing in solo queue is investing time, and I felt like investing two months in Korean solo queue was for sure better than [doing the same] in EU West.”
“In Korea, the first week I was climbing. [LPL and LCK] teams took a break from Nov. 5 to Nov. 20, and then they went back to scrimming and practicing after that,” he added. “There was also free agency, so every team was playing. The first two weeks, I climbed and didn't meet many pro players, but after Nov. 20 it was full of good players, and it was really enjoyable. It was like scrimming, but in solo queue. I think that it won't happen in EU West if the mentalities don't change.”
Jiizuke barely took any breaks, as VoDs and solo queue were on the menu. However, he did allow himself some moments of respite. There was the All-Star event in December, and a trip to Tokyo that involved visiting the overcrowded Takeshita Street — he remembered being unable to walk at times. There was also a Black Pink concert in Korea. But mostly, it was all practice. “I felt I wanted more, and I wanted to be ready for the season,” he said.
When he returned, Team Vitality had changed a little as Lee “Mowgli” Jae-ha joined them. He soon discovered that Mowgli was a significant upgrade from the junglers with whom he previously played. “He's the first jungler I built synergy with, and we understand each other and what we think,” he said. “We can all improve from there, and we can evolve together.”
But mostly, he was waiting for the LEC with bated breath. All of that hard work during the offseason wasn’t for show. Just ask his Week 2 opponents: Fnatic — who he beat using a devastating Irelia — and Misfits, who experienced the consequences of leaving LeBlanc open first-hand.
“I was waiting for this day for two months, I guess. I was making sure that I had no weaknesses coming into this season,” he said, with a sense of nonchalant confidence. “Right now, I don't feel like I have any right now because of the practice I had.”