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Less than a year ago — a lifetime in League of Legends esports — Topsports Gaming were one of the worst teams in China’s LoL Pro League. They won a grand total of three of their nineteen matches in 2018 LPL Spring, a record only bested (worsted) by Vici Gaming at 2-17. Previously known as DAN Gaming, this roster had seemingly gone as far as they could go. Even the addition of former SK Telecom T1 World Championship winning top laner Jang “MaRin” Gyeong-hwan in February couldn’t save TOP from their bottom-feeding fate in the LPL’s East Region last spring.

Now meet the new TOP, one of the most highly-anticipated rosters of 2019 that includes Chinese mid lane prodigy Zhuo “Knight” Ding, former JD Gaming bot laner Lee “LokeN” Dong-wook, and former Team WE support Nam “Ben” Dong-hyun. They’re a Chinese-South Korean hybrid lineup expected to top the LPL leaderboard by the end of the 2019 LPL season, and already made waves in their two series against reigning League of Legends World Champions Invictus Gaming in the winter Demacia Cup despite a second-place finish.

Invictus Gaming, 2018 Winter Demacia Cup champions (courtesy of the LPL)

The winds of change are sweeping through the LPL and TOP’s lineup is only the beginning. Unlike South Korea’s LoL Champions Korea, where offseason change was born from coming up empty at the 2018 League of Legends World Championship, the LPL is continuing to reinvent itself. First it was through their successful franchising and georelocation efforts, which now stand as an example for other franchises and leagues to follow. The LPL is continuing with its goal of 20 teams by 2020, and all signs point to having a dedicated fanbase and talented playerbase to support this.

China has also established the LPL as the league to beat thanks to the international success of two teams: Royal Never Give Up and Invictus Gaming.

Although the name “RNG” still carries the lingering stench of failure from 2018 Worlds into the 2019 season, RNG won everything else that was to be won for a Chinese team last year, including two LPL titles and the Mid-Season Invitational. Four of their five starting players were instrumental in winning Team China the gold medal at the 2018 Asian Games esports tournament, taking down then-favored Team South Korea, and RNG played their role in beating South Korea again at the 2018 LCK-LMS-LPL Rift Rivals event. The success of RNG’s eight-man lineup in 2018 showed what an all-Mandarin-speaking LPL roster could do after years of Chinese teams forcing hybrid South Korean-Chinese combinations seemingly at random.

By contrast, iG’s Worlds victory proved how strong an LPL hybrid roster could be if attention and care was paid to its construction. Mid laner Song “Rookie” Eui-jin has been with iG since he left South Korea at the end of 2014, part of the first large influx of South Korean pro players to Chinese shores. Despite Rookie’s near-immediate dominion of the LPL mid lane, iG struggled until late 2017, when they nearly made it to the world championship over spring champions Team WE. A world championship lineup had almost assembled with South Korean top laner and solo queue phenom Kang “TheShy” Seung-lok coming into his own, the aggressive jungling of Gao “Ning” Zhen-Ning, and Rookie’s continued dominance. At the end of a grueling 2-3 iG loss, the memory of Rookie walking offstage in tears, before congratulating and extending his support to WE at Worlds almost immediately on social media, was burned into the retinas of the LPL faithful.

It wasn’t yet iG’s time, but it soon would be.

Yu “JackeyLove” Wen-Bo was already a known name before he ever set foot on the LPL stage. An iG bot lane trainee for years, JackeyLove was part of a new crop of young and aggressive Chinese bot laners that included EDward Gaming’s Hu “iBoy” Xian-Zhao, who made a splash at the 2017 World Championship as a rookie, and then-RNG bot lane substitute Dai “Able” Zhi-Chun, who was famously accused of cheating in South Korean solo queue matches because his accuracy and performances were that impressive. Of the three, JackeyLove was the most well-known prior to his debut, and the most highly-anticipated player in the LPL of last year. One of iG’s weaknesses over the past year was in their bot lane with Chen “West” Long. With JackeyLove in their pocket, iG was expected to flourish in 2018.

iG kicked off the 2018 season with a series loss to RNG and then refused to drop another series in a historic win streak. They were the favored team to take it all in the spring playoffs, but due to an injury to TheShy and lack of coordination with substitute top laner Lee “Duke” Ho-seong, iG fell to RNG in the semifinals. After another 18-1 run in summer, RNG once again stymied iG, this time in the summer finals. At every turn, when it seemed that iG were finally ready to be crowned kings of the LPL, RNG and Uzi were there to stop them and take the title for themselves.

Despite the core of the roster — TheShy, Ning, Rookie, and support Wang “Baolan” Liu-Yi — having been together for nearly two years, iG was, and is, still very young. The team struggled when they couldn’t accrue massive laning leads from their individual talent alone, and were slow to react to unexpected strategies from opponents. JackeyLove had bursts of brilliance that hinted at the bot laner he would become, but faltered in important matches, especially when pitted against RNG and Uzi.

This all changed at 2018 Worlds. The building blocks were already in place. No one was more aware of their own weaknesses and mental hangups than the members of iG. They had focused on improving their 5v5 teamfighting through LPL Summer, and now turned their attention to stronger mental fortitude going into the world championship. A favorable meta shift for iG towards solo laners and adjustments made by Ning in the jungle was credited for their 3-0 sweep of Fnatic in the Worlds finals, but the real winner was the rookie bot laner JackeyLove, who refused to let go of the Summoner’s Cup in post-game interviews, even as he seemed to buckle under the weight of it. JackeyLove had learned better teamfighting, better trading, and together with Baolan, they ascended at exactly the right time to win their team a championship together with the known brilliance of Rookie and TheShy.

JackeyLove and iG will now kick off the 2019 LPL season in a headlining premiere matchup of reigning world champions pitted against the on-paper powerhouse lineup of TOP. There, they will begin their search for the domestic LPL title that has eluded iG for years.

Zhuo “Knight” Ding with Topsports at the 2018 Winter Demacia Cup (courtesy of the LPL)

Beneath all of the new player acquisitions, massive celebration in honor of Knight escaping contract hell to retake his place in the LPL mid lane, and a strong performance at the latest Demacia Cup,  the story of 2019 TOP truly began towards the beginning of the 2018 LPL Summer split.

It began with homegrown LoL Secondary Pro League talent from the original qualifying DAN lineup, a new head coach in Luo “BSYY” Sheng, and the unlikely rise of mid laner Lei “Corn” Wen. Since his Star Horn Royal Club days, Corn has generally been maligned and panned by domestic and international audiences alike, sometimes for legitimate mistakes made on the Rift, at other times, for the perception of his play based on the 2014 World Championship and inconsistent performances on a variety of Royal Club LPL and LSPL iterations that followed. Yet Corn was an instrumental component in the late 2018 rise of TOP from one of the worst teams in the LPL to playoff contender.

Around Corn’s surprising consistency in the mid lane, players like top laner Xiong “Moyu” Hui-Dong, jungler Xiong “Xx” Yu-Long, and bot laner Zhang “QiuQiu” Ming began to shine. Suddenly, TOP had a stronger and more coordinated top side than they had ever had with MaRin. Their early game improved with each passing series. As the dust settled at the end of the summer split, TOP snuck into playoffs with 50 percent game winrate. Corn now has a new home on Victory Five to make room for Knight, but the building blocks of this TOP lineup’s expected 2019 success began with him, Moyu, Xx, and QiuQiu in 2018 LPL Summer.

The acquisition of Knight alone would make this TOP lineup a must-watch, but the addition of LokeN and Ben in the bottom lane suddenly makes this team a potential title contender on paper. TOP is another well-constructed hybrid lineup that through 2018-19 offseason acquisitions, improved on a few of the team’s problem areas in 2018 while also bringing in up-and-coming young Chinese talent like top laner Bai “369” Jia-Hao, who impressed in TOP’s Demacia Cup matches. In their first LPL match as a team, they’ll face the default LPL hybrid lineup in iG.

On paper, it can be difficult to know how a lineup will perform on the Rift. Demacia Cup is an interesting preview but, as has been made abundantly clear by previous results, cannot be taken as a true indicator of how well or poorly a team will play in the LPL. iG enter this matchup with synergy and experience on their side.

Yet, many LPL matches, especially early in the season, can be decided by individual matchups and there is no other individual matchup more intriguing than Knight taking on Rookie. Rookie has been the best in his position in the LPL for years. Knight isn’t the first to challenge Rookie for that position, but is the most exciting prospect that the LPL has had in years, and his split away from the LPL stage has only added to the Knight fervor. There isn’t a more explosive match to watch in all of League of Legends this opening week simply for the 1v1 in the mid lane alone. That said, TOP taking on iG is also a show of strength for China and the LPL as a whole with the reigning best team in the world taking on a lineup that showcases rising LPL talent.

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