FunPlus Phoenix seemed to have the 2019 LoL Pro League Spring split down pat. Kim "Doinb" Tae-sang controlled the mid lane with champions that could roam to affect side lanes and his signature tanky builds. This allowed jungler Gao "Tian" Tian-Liang to thrive. After years of saying that it was their time, it finally seemed time for the bottom lane of Lin "Lwx" Wei-Xiang and Liu "Crisp" Qing-Song. FPX remained undefeated for six weeks of regular season play.
Yet, FunPlus were perceived as a paper phoenix; a team that had a strong singular playstyle, but lacked the ability to adjust. They had a comparatively easy schedule until a mini-gauntlet in Week 6 and 7 that put them to the test.
Test one: reigning world champions Invictus Gaming. A success.
True to form, Doinb jumped up from his chair and pumped his fist, cheering and egging on the crowd. His headset was still attached and the cord dangled awkwardly; he paused before continuing to wave his arms above his head. His teammates, likely used to Doinb's expressive post-victory dances, simply high-fived each other, removed their headsets, and stood up to shake the hands of the players of the unexpectedly defeated iG.
After two lopsided games that gave both FunPlus Phoenix and Invictus Gaming a win, it came down to a Game 3 Baron secured by Lin "Lwx" Wei-Xiang's Kai'Sa and a teamfight in iG's bot side jungle to give the game away. iG was the first large threat to FunPlus' then-undefeated record, and they emerged victorious at 8-0. Yet two formidable challengers were on the horizon.
Test two: reigning LPL champions Royal Never Give Up. A failure.
After losing Game 1, RNG targeted Doinb and FunPlus in draft. They out-teamfought FunPlus late, but more importantly, a lot of RNG's setups came from mid laner Li "Xiaohu" Yuan-Hao flanking and initiating on Lissandra and map pressure from RNG jungler Hung "Karsa" Hao-Hsuan. Game 3 involved a more targeted approach to Doinb's Sion mid -- bot lane duo Jian "Uzi" Zi-Hao and Shi "Ming" Sen-Ming rotated the mid at four minutes for a two-for-one trade in favor of RNG. With stronger teamfighting containing Doinb, and having stronger jungle-mid synergy, RNG created a blueprint for other LPL teams to follow. Now the question was of how FunPlus would recover and move forward.
Test three: the phenomenal young talent of Topsports Gaming. A failure.
Going into the matchup against Topsports, Doinb was only two tenths of a percentage point ahead of oppossing mid laner Zhuo "Knight" Ding in kill participation, yet ninth to Knight's first-place in the LPL team damage share of nearly 31 percent. By contrast Doinb and Tian had the highest mid-jungle proximity of any LPL duo at nearly 28 percent. A simple snapshot of both teams' mid laners told the story of how they wanted to play: Doinb the facilitator pitted against Knight the damage carry. In the first game, Doinb the facilitator, his Ryze and Righteous Glory build won out. Like FunPlus' series with RNG, their opponents adapted. Topsports and Lee "LokeN" Dong-wook picked for lane with Kalista and tried to hit their opponent early. LokeN and Nam "Ben" Dong-hyun kept Lwx and Crisp down in the bot lane while Knight's LeBlanc overwhelmed Doinb's Karma in Game 2 and used Corki to push in Doinb's Urgot in Game 3. The end result was another 1-2 loss for FPX.
The result: shutdown Doinb
FunPlus' playstyle, like most teams where Doinb is present, relies heavily on their mid laner for map pressure and teamfight initiation. This is a constant with Doinb teams. His mid lane style is a specific pattern of tanky builds on what would otherwise be high-damage mages, tanky top lane champions played in the mid lane -- going all the way back to a 2015 Demacia Cup Spring performance where he played mid lane Maokai -- and teamfighting.
He is frequently a primary initiator in skirmishes and teamfights, regardless of his teammates, and generally racks up a strong kill participation percentage, especially in the early game. Doinb prioritizes pushing his waves out so he can use that pressure to affect his side lanes, or partner with his jungler. Above all other mid laners, Doinb is known as a "jungler's mid" and has been credited for the rise of former Suning jungler Tian, who was not highly-regarded going into this split as FunPlus's jungle pickup. Mid lane is always a high-priority position on the map. Doinb is well aware of how much mid lane pressure affects the entire game and plays accordingly. In order to shut down FunPlus, a team would need to shut down Doinb, something that even iG ultimately failed to do when they met in Week 6.
An LPL split stretches beyond the visible horizon, full of tough challenges. Above all other regions, China is the most grueling test of endurance available for a League of Legends team. This includes not only their regular season (which includes a region-high 16 teams) but their playoff setup and their world championship qualification gauntlet.
To succeed in China takes patience. There will be times when even the worst team in the league will pull off an unlikely upset, and talent can be found on every roster, from the last-place team in the standings to a roster trying to remain undefeated throughout the split. With the undefeated dream now firmly dead, FunPlus now need to prove that they're not as one-dimensional as some of Doinb's previous teams, adjust, and move forward.