PARIS — Before FunPlus Phoenix set foot in France, jungler Gao “Tian” Tian-Liang said that he wanted to hear a few FunPlus cheers in the crowd at the League of Legends World Championship, even though their European opponent, G2 Esports, would get most of the fanfare.
The French fans stuck by their team. They erupted when G2 Esports founder Carlos “ocelote” Rodriguez Santiago took the stage before the opening ceremony. “Let’s go G2!” cheers rang out between bursts of the French national anthem.
But after three fairly quick games, Tian stood on that same stage where ocelote had been interviewed hours before and nodded, smiling as tears welled up in his eyes. The crowd chanted, “F-P-X, F-P-X!”
FunPlus had swept G2, prevented the first-ever League of Legends grand slam and won a world title in their first appearance at the international tournament.
A phoenix, for those who don’t know their ancient Greek legends or who haven’t read or watched any Harry Potter, is a mythological bird that dies and is reborn. The most common phoenix motif features a bird bursting into flames before turning into a pile of ashes and returning to life. The members of FunPlus acted this out in China’s League of Legends Pro League and again on the worlds stage this past month, from Berlin to Madrid to their Summoner’s Cup victory Sunday.
After a disappointing spring playoff series where they lost to JD Gaming, FunPlus rebounded to win the summer LPL title. After a disappointing worlds group stage performance, FunPlus won both of their quarterfinals and semifinals matches 3-1 and swept G2 Esports in the finals. They did all of this while stubbornly sticking to a specific playstyle that seemed to leave so many opportunities open for opponents to exploit. They rarely did.
The easiest comparison to a phoenix on FunPlus is their charismatic midlaner, Kim “Doinb” Tae-sang. Doinb has had major setbacks throughout his entire career, including an internal feud with Qiao Gu jungler Baek “Swift” Da-hoon that split the team apart in 2016. The midlaner has said repeatedly that he doubted himself year after year, and went as far as to announce his retirement this past offseason before FunPlus convinced him to join their team.
If he could go back and tell his younger self anything around the time of his seemingly imminent retirement, it would be to have hope.
“I think it’s a really similar scenario right now,” Doinb said via a translator, “because this might be my last game. If I had a chance to go back and tell the old Doinb at the start of the year, I would tell him to not give up, there’s always hope.”
It was a bittersweet sentiment before the confetti had been swept from the AccorHotels Arena stage — that the star player of a team that just won the world championship would retire in the following offseason. He later hinted at a life beyond League of Legends, another rarely-expressed idea upon winning a world championship.
“I’m really sorry to my wife,” Doinb added. “I didn’t have any time to spend with her this year. Following this, I’ll use more time to be with her.”
But lost in the admittedly compelling story of Doinb, there are the other phoenixes of FunPlus who deserve just as much recognition.
Top laner Kim “GimGoon” Han-saem was seen as a prodigious prospect in South Korea from his time on Xenics Storm in OGN Champions Winter 2013-14. From there, he bounced around as a substitute before going to the LPL. FunPlus are the first team on which he’s had true success.
Tian was inspired to become a professional jungler when he watched Ming “Clearlove” Kai and EDward Gaming win the 2015 Mid-Season Invitational. By the time he was 18, Tian was already regarded as a washed-up jungler due to the fact that Yang “H4cker” Zhi-Hao started over him on Suning Gaming. FunPlus were predicted to be a test of his true skill, whether he was an LPL caliber jungler or not. His jungling became the backbone of this FunPlus team and now he is the worlds finals MVP.
This is also bot laner Lin “Lwx” Wei-Xiang’s first successful team. Lwx drew notoriety for an ill-timed Kai’Sa ultimate during the group stage that ultimately led to his in-game death; in the aftermath, people wondered if FunPlus were even a contender. In the worlds final, he had a perfect KDA of 21/0/14 across all three games.
Like Tian, support player Liu “Crisp” Qing-Song has become the backbone of FunPlus and a crucial part of their three-man roaming strategy with Tian and Doinb. He has been Lwx’s laning partner for years, but FunPlus were the first team to take advantage of Crisp’s roaming prowess and translate it into a definitive strategy.
There’s a lot to unpack from this finals, including where G2 Esports went wrong in a final that they were overwhelmingly favored to win, whether China’s LPL is now definitively the strongest region in the world and what the worlds tournament has become as a whole over the past two years. That will come later. Now is the time to celebrate FunPlus Phoenix: a team that was peerless and fearless in sticking to their own playstyle, and won a world championship doing so.