Going into the League of Legends World Championship, FunPlus Phoenix had frequently led ESPN's global power rankings and consistently been at the top of China's League of Legends Pro League standings.
Like all top teams around the world, FunPlus were compared with the likes of eventual worlds final opponent G2 Esports and other strong teams in and outside of the LPL like Royal Never Give Up, SK Telecom T1 and Griffin. The somewhat restrictive playstyle FunPlus leaned on left doubts as to whether they would be able to stand up to other top international opponents, and their shaky performances in the worlds group stage only compounded that uncertainty.
On Sunday, FunPlus Phoenix became the first team since SKT in 2013 to win a world championship in the same year as their worlds debut.
Here's FunPlus Phoenix, from start to Sunday's finish, complete with the failures and successes that ultimately led this two-year-old franchise to the Summoner's Cup.
FunPlus Phoenix are founded. The roster includes top laner Kim "GimGoon" Han-saem, bot laner Lin "Lwx" Wei-Xiang, and support Liu "Crisp" Qing-Song, who all stuck with FunPlus from then until Sunday's championship victory.
Spring and Summer 2018
FunPlus finish below .500 in both of their inaugural splits, with a 9-10 record in the spring and 8-11 record in the summer in the LPL West. That summer record is good enough to qualify FunPlus for the post-split playoffs, but they're brushed aside in the opening round by eventual third-place finisher JD Gaming.
FunPlus mid laner Yu "Cool" Jia-Jun, a legacy player in China, leaves following the November expiration of his contract. FunPlus, in need of stability and pedigree at the position, begin courting Kim "Doinb" Tae-sang aggressively. Although he had previously publicly stated his intent to retire from League of Legends, Doinb considers and eventually accepts an offer on Dec. 14 to return to pro play for FunPlus. Three days later, former Young Miracles and Suning jungler Gao "Tian" Tian-Liang joins the team to complete the starting roster.
It isn't a team that fans and analysts were overly hyped about in the preseason, but FunPlus are considered an LPL playoff team at worst.
Historically, Doinb's teams have been simultaneously praised and derided for playing one style -- much like Doinb himself. However, FunPlus lean into this criticism and instead build around Doinb's tendencies by allowing Tian and Crisp to follow his lead and roam the map to gain advantages and skirmish. Every time FunPlus log on to Summoner's Rift, the story looks the same: Doinb shoves up his mid lane minion wave, roams either top or bot, returns to mid, shoves the wave and repeats, with Tian and Crisp joining in when they can.
The unorthodox playstyle works. FunPlus begin the spring split with an impressive 8-0 start in the best-of-three series in the LPL. The two series they drop all regular season spring come in Week 7 against Chinese powerhouse Royal Never Give Up and the rising talents of Topsports Gaming (now Top Esports).
Many an LPL team has put up stellar win rates in the regular season only to falter in playoffs, however, and this 13-2 FunPlus squad is one of them. They fall to JD Gaming in their auto-seeded semifinal but bounce back to beat Topsports 3-1 in the third-place match.
FunPlus really begin to hone their playstyle and focus on individual flexibility. The goal: Regardless of what the players draft, the combination will allow Tian, Crisp or both to help Doinb get going so he can roam and make an impact for the side lanes.
FunPlus do one better than in spring and lose only one series in the summer regular season, this time falling to 2018 League of Legends World Championship winner Invictus Gaming. The then-reigning champs show the world the recipe for beating FunPlus: Force Doinb to pick a melee champion matchup so he can't push the mid lane as quickly, lock down Crisp in the bot lane and match Tian in the jungle.
That loss, FunPlus fizzling out in the spring and the performance of Doinb's past teams in playoff scenarios made FunPlus anything but a lock for the LPL summer title.
FunPlus seems wholly lost from the draft on in Game 1 of their semifinal series against Bilibili Gaming, but the team adjusts, placing more focus on the top side of the map rather than constantly sending Doinb to the bottom lane. A 3-1 semifinal victory earns FunPlus automatic qualification to worlds as China's first or second seed on championship points alone.
In the final against RNG, it again looks like FunPlus are outmatched after a Game 1 loss. However, FunPlus stick to their gameplan and playstyle -- drafting very similarly to what they would draft in the future at worlds -- and unexpectedly beat RNG 3-1 for the team's first LPL title.
FunPlus start the group stage with lackluster and shaky performances against some of the worst competition in the main tournament field.
The No. 1 seed out of China loses to J Team on its first day of groups, and a rush to compare FunPlus to the LPL first seed in 2015, LGD Gaming, follows. That LGD squad fell entirely flat once they reached the worlds stage.
But FunPlus aren't, and never were, 2015 LGD.
One of FunPlus' biggest strengths throughout the worlds tournament becomes their mental fortitude. They push through a shaky start to the group stage and top European third-seed Splyce for the top spot in their group. From there, they face another team with the home crowd behind them: Fnatic, the No. 2 seed out of Europe that is being sold as one of the most dangerous teams at the tournament.
FunPlus stymie Fnatic in the quarterfinals and overcome fellow LPL team and defending world champions Invictus Gaming in semifinals. Throughout the bracket stage, FunPlus refuse to deviate from their style, relying on Tian's early pressure, Crisp's roams and Doinb pushing out the mid minion wave to help his side lanes. The team drafts accordingly, regardless of their opponent, and supplements their compositions with by giving three players Teleport as a Summoner Spell or picking champions that had map-wide or semi-global ultimates in order to turn any skirmish into a FunPlus victory.
FunPlus use the same gameplan against G2 Esports:
In Game 1, the Chinese squad brings out another triple-Teleport composition along with Gangplank's global ultimate for Gimgoon.
In Game 2, FunPlus put Doinb on one of his strongest champions, Ryze, in a double semi-global composition with Galio support for Crisp.
In Game 3, FunPlus return to the triple-Teleport look and run Gangplank and Galio for good measure to create extra map pressure.
Paris has been turned into a library except for the cheers of the diehard Chinese fans— The Esports Writer (@FionnOnFire) November 10, 2019
Europe is stunned @FPX_Esports 3-0 @G2esports to become League of Legends world champions pic.twitter.com/suFarN4AVd
The drafts and micro plays remain pretty similar, too. Tian picks Lee Sin every game, automatically giving him an early jungle advantage in most cases. When he doesn't get that advantage, FunPlus go for their signature early bot lane dive, forcing G2's Marcin "Jankos" Jankowski to respond rather than build a lead over Tian.
Despite how seemingly telegraphed the play of FunPlus is, G2 can find no answer. FunPlus do what they do better than anyone else in League of Legends, and if you can't counter their strategy, then you can't stop it.
Lwx goes without a death throughout all three games. Gimgoon dies just once, only a few seconds before G2's Nexus explodes for the final time. And FunPlus Phoenix win their first-ever trip to the world championship in a surprising 3-0 sweep of the favored European side.