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Remembering Alex Ich: The Sheriff of LoL’s 2012 Wild West

 

The first time I met Alexey “Alex Ich” Ichetovkin in person, anger had taken over his determination. He strode past members of the media briskly, brushing off requests for interviews and comments with a cold wave of his hand. Still in our young years in esports, me and my colleague Michale “Drexxin” Lalor dared not approach him further. His figure was never minatory, but Alex Ich’s eyes alone could kill, we thought.

This was in January 2013 at IEM Katowice in Poland. Alex Ich and his Gambit Gaming had come in the tournament, largely considered the best team in the world, or at least in Europe. It didn’t matter they had missed on the actual World Championship in November, losing to eventual champions Taipei Assassins, nor that they failed to make the finals of Tales of the Lane and IPL 5 thereafter. Even with two Korean teams at IEM Katowice, fans believed Gambit Gaming to be on top of the scene.

Yet after the first day, Gambit was 0-2 in their groups, losing not only to Azubu Blaze, but a very out-of-shape Curse Gaming, too. At that time, what fans believed didn’t matter to Alex Ich. On the verge of elimination, these otherwise respectable top 3 and top 4 finishes began to sting. What if that was it? What if an exit in Katowice would mean that Gambit Gaming would never again contest greatness?

At the time, we didn’t know IEM Katowice 2013 was going to be Alex Ich’s peak.

As fate would have it, a crazy tiebreaker scenario defined by an even crazier tiebreaker rule advanced Gambit Gaming to the playoffs. Refueled, Alex Ich led his legendary roster to back-to-back 2-0’s against Azubu Frost and Azubu Blaze. Gambit were, after all, on top of the world at that moment.

A day later, we met Alex Ich again, this time at Katowice airport. With heavy snow storms delaying all flights, we caught ourselves wandering the bathed in cold LED lights halls of the airport and stumbling upon the newly crowned champion. We engaged a second attempt to have a conversation with Alex Ich, to a surprising outcome.

The Gambit captain wasn’t terrifying this time around. He didn’t behave how you’d expect one of the best mid-laners in the world to behave. Instead, Alex Ich stood modest, conversing with two awe-struck greenhorns as if they were his equals.

At the time, we didn’t know IEM Katowice 2013 was going to be his peak. We didn’t know that less than a year, he’d part ways with the team he elevated and would never recapture his glory days of 2012-2013.

We knew, however, that already his was a legacy that was forever etched in the books.

A year prior, Moscow Five conquering IEM Season 6 World Championship. Photo by: ESL

* * *

2012 ushered in the wild west era of League of Legends. This was a time where the meta was unsolved, playstyles were unpolished and the major regions were — more or less — on equal footing. Unlike modern days, where LoL is defined by its superstars, its Fakers, Uzis, Bjergsens, Rookies and Rekkles’s, the “true” inaugural year for the esport was more about team cohesion and synergy, rather than individual excellence.

It is no wonder then that it was Alex Ich’s Moscow Five that carried the banner for the west in battle and they didn’t only wave it high; they bashed their enemies’ skulls in with it.

Under M5, Alex Ich gathered and mentored a group of players that would unlikely flourish anywhere else individually or without his fatherly guidance. A family man in real life, Alex Ich became the beacon that put together an uncanny Moscow Five gestalt. He understood the in-game insanity of his esports family and never tried to control it, or cure it — merely harness it.

Alex Ich found a way to turn the bizarre top laner that was Eugene “Darien” Mazaev into a champion, throwing him to the pyre time and again, while his enemies — puzzled by these moves — could not understand why they were losing. He allowed Daniel “Diamondprox” Reshetnikov to grow from a rookie to a revolutionary jungler, still considered among the godfathers of the position. He welcomed the unbridled bloodthirst of Edward “Edward” Abgaryan, the “Thresh Prince”, whose aesthetically pleasing playmaking style matched — and often surpassed — that of the other super-support of that time, Azubu Frost’ s Hong “MadLife” Min-gi.

Pound for pound, Moscow Five were far from the best, yet as family, they made magic.

Of the entire Moscow Five roster, perhaps only Diamondprox could be considered at the top of his position. Darien and Evgeny “Genja” Andryushin lacked the stats and consistency to even come close to the likes of Park “Shy” Sang-myeon, Yoon “MakNooN” Ha-woon, or Gao “WeiXiao” Xue-Cheng. Likewise, despite having his own deep and unorthodox champion pool, Alex Ich certainly trailed behind Henrik “Froggen” Hansen and perhaps also Lau “Toyz” Wai Kin and Kang “Ambition” Chan-young. Pound for pound, Moscow Five were far from the best, yet as family, they made magic.

Before the LCS era imposed a soul-crushing travel regime on the CIS-bound roster in 2013, Alex Ich led this magic on a gilded trail of gold and high finishes in 2012. Back-to-back IEM championships and a near flawless run through the EU Regional Qualifiers for Worlds defined Alex Ich’s Moscow Five as the favorites for Worlds 2012. A 1-2 loss to eventual champions Taipei Assassins pried the world championship from their hands, but pundits and fans believed that this was only the beginning of Moscow Five’s illustrious career.

That never happened.

Their IEM Season 7 Katowice championship would indeed by the last stand of the now-rebranded Gambit Gaming on the LoL peak. Until the second half of the year, Alex Ich’s five held their ground, even contending Fnatic at the Spring Playoffs, but the grueling travel schedule between Russia and Germany ate away at the heart of the legendary squad. Edward left with the coming of Summer and the family that ruled the scene the year prior had lost its gestalt. A disastrous Summer Season was the end forwhat Alex Ich built and what so many hoped would never end.

Alex Ich’s Gambit hold the last trophy they’d ever win together. Photo by: ESL

* * *

If today a young fan looks back at the history books, they might find it hard to believe why Alex Ich and his Moscow Five are held in such high, almost divine esteem. Their period of domination lasted less than a year and a half while missing on the World Championship trophy. Compared to the legacies that SKT, TSM and Fnatic left in their regions, why is Moscow Five’s of any note?

The truth is, Alex Ich’s five made us believe. Before Korea subjugated the scene to years-long tyranny, Moscow Five was perhaps the last instance when the west could truly, unashamed claim it was world-class. Before the rise of super carries that would define their own teams, it was Moscow Five who stood as perhaps the last definition of a “true” team for the next several years. And regardless of the circumstances back then, it would be quite some time before the west would not only defy, but rip apart the best of Korea on an international stage.

There are many reasons to romanticize that period in League of Legends and Alex Ich’s bequest was certainly one; one that not only should not be forgotten, but admired and studied. For as brief as LoL’s wild west period was, Alex Ich was the sheriff and within his frontier lay glory.

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