The members of the Invictus Gaming League of Legends team were sad but not stunned.
Across the stage, Team Liquid staff members poured out from behind the players, who were already jumping and hugging each other in disbelief. Invictus Gaming graciously shook their hands moments later and quickly walked off the 2019 Mid-Season Invitational stage for the final time.
Once again, Invictus Gaming were hampered by self-inflicted wounds in a game they should have won on paper. The team that shocked the League of Legends community in 2018 by winning a world championship did so again Friday with a loss to the North American underdog in the MSI semifinals.
Going into this match, I expected Invictus Gaming to win. Given their playstyle, I thought it could be closer than the Invictus Gaming 3-0 predictions of many, but even while acknowledging their propensity to underestimate their opponents, I gave the nod to Invictus Gaming. Today, due to underestimation or otherwise, the favorite to win MSI was not the better team.
Among many questions surrounding the loss, one rises above the din of disappointment, celebration and frenzy: Will Invictus Gaming learn and change moving forward?
The short answer is no. A longer answer is probably not given the team's attitude at prior events. They cannot help themselves. No one knows Invictus Gaming's faults more than the five members of Invictus Gaming who walked off of the Heping Basketball Gymnasium stage in Taipei.
There's something beautiful and painfully human about the way Invictus Gaming play League of Legends. It's emotionally resonant. This iteration of Invictus Gaming is the type of team that's easy to root for. In many cases -- like Invictus Gaming's victory over KT Rolster in the 2018 worlds quarterfinals or Invictus Gaming's record-setting win against SK Telecom T1 at this year's MSI -- the Chinese squad is transcendent. Rarely is anything more beautiful than watching talented people do something they love, and Invictus Gaming, with their countless strengths and flaws, meet those criteria as well or better than any team in the world.
Invictus Gaming is an amalgamation of all of our faults, miscalculations and triumphs, packaged together in a talented tour de force of five ambitious and mechanically gifted players.
In a translated interview with Elle Men that made the rounds prior to Invictus Gaming's 9-1 group stage performance, 18-year-old Yu "JackeyLove" Wen-bo sagely laid out Invictus Gaming's greatest strengths and weaknesses.
"Invictus Gaming can win against anyone," JackeyLove said. "Invictus Gaming can lose to anyone. When we win against anyone, we win the championship. When we lose to anyone, it's because we're in poor form; there will be problems."
The interview is titled "Climb Countless Mountains to Stand at the Top of the World." Yet the greatest mountain for Invictus Gaming, by the players' own admission, has always been themselves and their own unrelenting confidence in their mechanics. Friday, that overeagerness was Invictus Gaming's undoing.
The mountain cast too long of a shadow -- its height too great.
"No one can defeat us," Ning told ESPN during the group stage, echoing JackeyLove's sentiments. "The only person that can do that is ourselves."
From a giddy North American Team Liquid fan base to a sad and angry Chinese Invictus Gaming community, Invictus Gaming's 2019 MSI loss is still reverberating around the world. There are deserved questions of what it means for Invictus Gaming to obliterate SKT in the MSI group stage and absolutely dominate JD Gaming in the recent League of Legends Pro League finals, yet lose to Liquid, a team that was, for a short period of time, in serious danger of not moving beyond the group stage at MSI.
In a broader sense, Invictus Gaming represent China's LPL, not simply due to being a Chinese team, but in every bit of their oft-reckless playstyle. Above all else, the LPL has historically been about killing the opponent in front of you, and this has informed everything from solo queue to scrims. If you want to be the best, you need to prove you're the best by showing up your opponent.
For Invictus Gaming, a team with indomitable faith in their own mechanical abilities, this is a double-edged sword. That edge cut particularly deep Friday.
Fear not, Invictus Gaming and LPL fans. You've been here before, and in much more dire straits. Invictus Gaming has set a few international records, some of them dubious, like Ge "Kid" Yan's 2015 lowest damage record for an AD carry at 443. China is currently still the region with the greatest talent depth and has the most strong teams at the top. Invictus Gaming's loss doesn't erase this. Give credit where credit is due to Team Liquid and, like Invictus Gaming themselves have had to do in the past and after this series, look ahead.