The greatest tournament in League of Legends history didn't happen at one of developer Riot Games' world championship events, but was hosted by IGN in Las Vegas. Storylines and narratives for future faces of League of Legends esports were born, game knowledge was freely shared across regional lines, and 6 million unique viewers tuned in to the entirety of the IPL tournament, surprisingly close to the 8.2 million who tuned into the League of Legends world championship that same year. It's a pittance compared to the 100 million of Riot's 2019 League of Legends World Championship, but was a harbinger of what was to come for LoL and esports.
On Nov. 29, 2012, the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas was rated as "The Best Hotel in the World." That same day, the Cosmopolitan hosted IGN's ProLeague 5 gaming tournament, featuring StarCraft II and League of Legends. After three grueling days of group and double-elimination tournament play, Team World Elite and their cunning sixth man, coach Ji "Aaron" Xing, were crowned victorious in the League of Legends tournament.
Viewers didn't know it at the time, but IPL 5 was the end of an era, a sunset on individually-organized international tournaments, with the dawn of the LCS on the horizon.
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In August 2012, when IPL 5 regional qualifiers were in full swing, Riot Games announced the creation of a League of Legends Championship Series (LCS) for North America and Europe, beginning in 2013. The idea was that both LCS leagues would act as challenges on par with South Korea's Champions tournament, allowing all regions to rise in strength separately.
South Korea's OnGameNet had run the Champions tournaments throughout 2012 and they quickly became the premier LoL esports competitions. Chinese, European, and North American teams were invited alongside domestic South Korean teams. While teams were separated by region previously, it was due to location more than anything else. The arrival of the European LCS, North American LCS, and China's LoL Pro League in 2013 drew these lines more firmly.
With the two LCS leagues in the near future, the LPL, and Southeast Asia's Garena Pro League, LoL esports were headed toward a series of entirely separate tournaments with only the world championship and a few Intel Extreme Masters events to unite them on an international stage. These, like IGN's IPL itself, faded as Riot took firmer control of their own regional leagues and league structures. IPL 5 arrived in the twilight of the open era, marking an end to the early days of competitive LoL.
Now, teams meet only for the Mid-Season Invitational (created by Riot in 2015 after a plea from the community for more international events) and the League of Legends World Championship.
The gameplay seen at IPL 5 is nowhere near the level of understanding that we have in 2020, or even that we had two years following IPL 5 at the start of 2015. League of Legends analysis was still in its infancy in 2012. Yet, the teams and players at IPL 5 showcased a stronger understanding of the game at that point in time than any other teams in the world. Many of them would later go on to pioneer individual position play or macro game strategies that are now basic knowledge that nearly every player, even a casual fan, will know.
In China, Team WE was known as the "smart team" compared to the recklessness of rival organization Invictus Gaming. AD carry Gao "WeiXiao" Xue-Cheng was a pioneer of his role, setting an example for AD carries around the world to follow.
Team WE had a stronger understanding of side lane pressure and split pushing, largely thanks to their coach, Aaron, who had gone to South Korea to learn from Champions teams. WE's understanding of minion waves was taken a step further in 2013 by CJ Entus Blaze (Azubu Blaze at the time of IPL 5) and their "sixth man" minion push strategy. This strategy relied on freezing minion waves so they would build up and push side lanes for the team as if a champion was also pushing the wave. It's now common knowledge at even the lowest levels.
While IPL 5 wasn't the pinnacle of League of Legends at its finest, it was without a doubt a gathering of the smartest and best teams in the world at that time. Their influence on each other helped build a foundation of macro game understanding in League of Legends that holds up to this day.
This specific timing in LoL history -- immediately before LCS as the LoL player base was growing exponentially -- combined with multiple gaffes at the Season 2 League of Legends World Championship gave IPL 5 more weight as a premier international event than it would have had otherwise.
A month and a half before IPL 5, Riot's Season 2 Worlds was fraught with technical issues. Due to the stage setup, the entirety of the map was visible to certain players, providing information that they wouldn't have had in game. Five matches had official rule violations and Azubu Frost's match against Team SoloMid was impacted directly, although the eventual outcome was not affected. Hours-long technical delays occurred during the Counter Logic Gaming Europe and Team WE quarterfinals, with players disconnecting from the game. The worlds tournament structure also came under scrutiny as it included round-robin single-game group play with a single-elimination playoff bracket, giving teams less time to adapt and making it less likely that the winner had to face the strongest teams. Since there were five first seeds and only four byes into quarterfinals, a team was chosen at random -- this ended up being Azubu Frost, who razed through their group undefeated -- to forgo a bye and go through the group stage.
Part of IPL 5's lasting legacy comes from the strength of its format and the idea that the best teams in the world at that time truly were meeting in a double-elimination tournament. IPL 5 had multiple qualifiers across multiple regions, and only one team was invited to the tournament: IPL 4 champion Team SoloMid. IPL 5 was the first premier tournament following the world championship, and the double-elimination setup allowed for an event that was rich with storylines as top teams from all around the world met each other and, in certain cases, played each other multiple times. Team WE avenged their early Worlds exit against CLG.EU by beating them at IPL 5 in a series that included a game that was over an hour long. At the time, people called it one of the best LoL matches they had ever seen.
This format allowed for a team like Fnatic to have a miraculous tournament run off the backs of top laner Paul "sOAZ" Boyer, mid laner Enrique "xPeke" Cedeño Martínez, and new addition Martin "Rekkles" Larsson. Although a different Fnatic roster had won the Season 1 Championship, the game had evolved significantly since then, and the strongest team in Europe was Moscow Five. Fnatic didn't even qualify for the Season 2 World Championship.
Rekkles was arguably the star of this tournament, holding his own against WE's own WeiXiao. IPL 5 gave Rekkles an early career spotlight, a year before he would become age-eligible to play in the new EU LCS league, and established Fnatic as one of the best teams in the world at this specific point in history.
En route to facing Team WE in the grand finals, Fnatic had to go through Azubu Blaze in their group and Season 2 world champions Taipei Assassins twice in the bracket stage. Throughout IPL 5, the only team that could best Fnatic was Team WE. Fnatic would later become one of the greatest European organizations of all time, and only in the past few years have they been challenged on that front by G2 Esports.
Team WE would go on to become the legacy organization of China alongside then-rival Invictus Gaming. Coach Aaron would later leave the WE organization in a messy offseason breakup, founding EDward Gaming. EDG is currently the most decorated Chinese team in the LPL with five LPL titles.
Of players featured in the IPL 5 grand finals match, Ming "ClearLove" Kai just retired this past offseason to become a coach for EDG. Only sOAZ and Rekkles are actively playing. Rekkles has stayed with Fnatic for the entirety of his career, and sOAZ is currently on Immortals.
In retrospect, IPL 5 offers many things. It cements legacies, showing the early impact of players like WeiXiao, ClearLove, Rekkles, sOAZ, xPeke and many others who weren't in the grand finals. It's also a tempting snapshot of what could have been had LoL esports gone down a different, more open path. It's a frozen moment in time that through format and execution leaves little doubt that the best team in the world at that moment was truly tested by the best, something that not all League of Legends World Championships have been able to accomplish.