Thirty minutes into the final game of Group A at the League of Legends World Championship, Chinese first seed EDward Gaming had the advantage over the reigning champions, SK Telecom T1, with a 6,000-gold lead. EDG had just chipped down the mid lane inhibitor turret of SKT's base when rookie AD carry Hu "iBoy" Xianzhao stepped forward as Tristana to trade with Bae "Bang" Jun-sik's Twitch. A venom cask from Bang and the close proximity of an Orianna ball forced iBoy to Rocket Jump out of the exchange early, but mid laner Lee "Scout" Yechan, EDward Gaming's self-titled "double-edged sword," committed to a flank from behind. After triggering the Hourglass, Scout died almost instantly.
The resulting altercation ended in the deaths of top and jungle for EDward Gaming, and the bottom lane disengaged. With death timers at 40 seconds and SKT members heading toward Baron, iBoy saw an opportunity and felt the pressure to outplay and come ahead as his team's hero.
A Trundle pillar separated iBoy from a low-health Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok, and he flashed past into a warded area near blue buff. When Faker flashed away, iBoy had no opportunity to reset his Rocket Jump and escape the trap. The rest of SKT killed him and paved the way for an ace and a Baron.
"As a novice," iBoy told me just after the match, "I didn't feel a lot of nerves. I really wanted to help my teammates because they're veterans, so I wanted to perform well for them on the World stage."
Just a handful of months before the World Championship, iBoy debuted for EDward Gaming in a match against LGD Gaming, just after he turned 17. Some members of the team expressed that they thought the coach might be a little cruel to ask iBoy to debut against legendary AD carry Gu "imp" Seung Bin.
"Why should I be nervous?" EDward Gaming recorded iBoy asking before the match for its documentary series "Fight Back."
Why indeed. EDward Gaming swept LGD 2-0 in iBoy's debut, and an impressive 8/1/2 KDA (kills/deaths/assists) Kalista game against the once-legendary Samsung White carry known for the champion probably made a name for iBoy faster than he would have otherwise earned it.
Perhaps starting iBoy against LGD was a stroke of strategic genius by Coach Jeong "NoFe" No-chul. The tattered LGD still earns respect for its bottom lane, and even if a face-off against imp could backfire, EDward Gaming likely had the overall team play to still pull out a win. If EDward Gaming worked as a unit, and iBoy followed the lead of captain Tian "Meiko" Ye, not even imp would pose a threat to the final result.
And iBoy has a deeply instilled of trust in his team. If his teammates tell him to do something in the game, iBoy follows immediately. He spent time playing with EDward Gaming and getting to know them by living in the team house and playing solo queue well before he turned 17.
"I didn't really scrim with them," iBoy said, "but it was fun to get to know my teammates, and we always had a fun, joking atmosphere."
Whether being hand-picked and brought in-house at an extremely young age by the most dominant organization in the region had anything to do with it or not, iBoy never seems to feel nervous. Before iBoy turned 17, he joined EDward Gaming's Tencent Games Arena squad. TGA is an amateur league separated into provinces, and its best squads qualify for China's League of Legends Secondary Pro League. At the start of his rookie campaign with an EDG team, he chose the ID "De1ft" after imp's legendary opposite, Kim "Deft" Hyuk-kyu.
"Before, Deft was was also an EDG AD carry," iBoy said in an interview after the TGA team qualified for LSPL. "I want to become the second Deft."
But iBoy's boldness instead earned him a vastly different, but equally iconic, comparator. He debuted at the start of the popular Ardent Censer meta. He began building a sturdy Kog'Maw with Randuin's Omen. All of these factors aided in aggressive playmaking as well as occasional over-extensions that got him caught in side lanes or committing too strongly to a play.
When it worked, it looked spectacular. When it didn't, even his teammates teased him with the "Emperor" designation. It's a nickname sometimes given by fans to LPL players who appear to play horribly, and therefore must only remain on teams as a result of nepotism or favoritism.
The brashness of iBoy's play caused fans to liken him to Jian "Uzi" Zi-Hao, Royal Never Give Up's stellar ADC. By the time of the LPL final, with only 18 major stage games under his belt, iBoy had the audacity to shrug off all comparisons. He wasn't Uzi, he wasn't Deft.
"I want to be iBoy," he told the crowd in perhaps the most confident moment of his career up to that point. Then, with just over 20 LPL games played, he accomplished something Uzi never has: He won an LPL final.
At the end of EDward Gaming's 2017 World Championship run in Wuhan, China, however, iBoy didn't have any sense of bravado. He shuffled backstage to the interview room with a translator, his head practically sinking between his shoulders. Though his uniform no doubt fits him perfectly, his sleeves seemed to swallow his arms.
"In general," he said, "I think there's nothing to be very proud of in losing out in Group Stage. It doesn't matter whether I played well or not if we lost, so I don't think I'm really proud of anything."
He answered my questions with the same pause to formulate his thoughts that he had on the English broadcast with Eefje "sjokz" Depoortere.
It gave us both time to think about what the LPL will look like in the coming years.
IBoy is one of three rising Chinese AD carry stars. Invictus Gaming spent the year teasing its fans with rookie Yu "JackeyLove" Wen-Bo, and rumors of Invictus Gaming's scrim results against Worlds teams with him finally gracing the roster have already pegged iG as a favorite to win the LPL in 2018. Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok has even accused Royal's new AD carry prodigy, the heir to Uzi, of scripting on stream.
But iBoy is the only one to have already played matches in the LPL. With Ardent Censer nerfs on the horizon, it's hard to appraise his rough willingness to play far forward and look for the opening for a high level demonstration of skill. In may regards, however, that willingness to outperform cannot be taught.
Of players who played all the group stage games for their team, both Scout and iBoy were among top three for gold lead at 10 minutes. And the rookie's impressive 8/0/1 Twitch in a game against ahq e-Sports Club showed hints of confidence and lack of hesitation paying off.
Even if iBoy doesn't feel proud of his first World Championship run, so many novices have balked at less. Though iBoy's desperate attempt to buffer Scout's mistake against SKT drove EDward Gaming deeper into a hole, his willingness to take responsibility for the game in the moment is a skill some players never develop; it has taken him less than 30 stage games to show it off.
"The goal for us is to do well in Worlds next year," iBoy said, looking forward, "and in LPL, we want to continue to be the best team."
Worlds has ended for EDG, and young names changing hands on fan boards promise to make LPL again the region for AD carry stars. JackeyLove played stage games for iG in third-party tournaments between 2016 and 2017. He may have mechanical skill, but he hasn't demonstrated the same easy stage confidence as EDG's rising AD carry.
Even if it costs him games in the short run, iBoy should hold onto that. If he refines it, it could make him a legend.