Devastated after ten games, Snake eSports’ players deflated on stage. The stress that had mounted after a reverse sweep against Vici Gaming, five games against Team WE, and at least two incredible comebacks from gold deficits, and they simply wilted. They didn’t cry as they dragged their backpacks from the team room and left the stadium — at least not yet.
They didn’t cry, but their manager did. Cao “Zuowu” Yu covered his face for the cameras as he shepherded his players out of the stadium. Snake had played two best-of-fives in one day only to lose to the fourth place team in 2016 LPL Summer.
With the commercial nature of Chinese League of Legends esports — the streaming contracts, Jay Chou playing a showmatch with other celebrities on the same stage at the conclusion of the Regional final, the Choi “DanDy” Inkyu flip flops, the jerseys and the color change mugs — it’s sometimes easy to become jaded and detached, to forget this is a sport about winning.
One question I receive on Twitter almost daily is, “Do you think [X Korean player in LPL] still wants to win?” This question confuses me. No matter how many compromises one makes, making concessions to dedicated practice for something else, when the day arrives where a player has the opportunity to compete to win, they reach for it. Every pro player has risen through the ranks of the ordinary to gain attention, to join a team — to do that, they can't not want to win.
This weekend in Guangzhou, after EDward Gaming re-ascended to the LPL throne in the place in which the organization was originally conceived, four other teams bore the heavy lighting and sweat of the stage. Either one of them could have represented China as their third best team, but as the stands rocked and victory came down every time to a single moment — a ward, a Teleport, the fourth strike of a Jhin ultimate — you could feel how badly these teams wanted to win.
Vici Gaming, toppled in the first round after sliding past the first two games, splintered against Snake’s Game 4 comeback and crashed again without an opportunity to make the World stage. DanDy thought about returning to Korea to take a break earlier this year, but he stayed for another split. His ex-Samsung White teammates, he says, taunt him as the only one who still hasn’t won an LPL.
Lee “Easyhoon” Jihoon had great expectations for climbing out of Lee “Faker” Sanghyeok’s shadow, but had them crushed with the slipping away of two of his best picks in the meta. Without Ekko, Zhu “Loong” Xiaolong missed Rumble ultimates, he failed to impact the map, but he knows esports is a profession; it’s not about being famous or earning money, it’s a job. It’s almost certain that, as far as they’ve come, Vici Gaming’s two AD carries are tired of being blamed — but they still aren’t good enough. The fifth game closed, judged them unworthy, and Snake eSports, not Vici Gaming, advanced to the next round.
Snake eSports didn’t win another series, but they were the only team to leave the stadium “heroes.” In 2013, Star Horn Royal Club played two best-of-threes and a best of five in a single day to advance as the first seed for LPL in the Season 3 World Championship. They lost their first series in the upper bracket to Oh My God, defeated Invictus Gaming in the lower bracket and climbed back to 3-0 OMG and take the tournament. They played nine games in total. Snake eSports played ten.
Every split has been the same for Snake since they joined the League of Legends Pro League. For them, every game is a final. Manager Zuowu has said that some of the famous Korean players are too expensive to sign, but the lesser known Korean players like Park “TANK” Danwon come to China with a wound, with something to prove. But perhaps because of their hunger, Snake always play all their cards too early. Their opposition know what they will do before they do it, and they never evolve from the first style they use after a roster change.
This split, Zuowu took a gamble on the LPL’s first non-Korean import, Vietnamese jungler Lê "SofM" Quang Duy. His debut in Week 2 of the split made him an instant sensation with writers and analysts internationally — who made attempts to decipher his early game movements, to label him predictable, and he was, but this style, the Style of SofM, took Snake much further than expected.
SofM takes many kills, he endeavors to constantly outplay his opposition, and his solo laners back him up, not the other way around. This split has been a struggle of integrating SofM into the team, of breaking bad habits and making him think of himself more as part of a unit.
In different splits since they entered the LPL, Snake have had three different stars. In 2015 Spring, Yang “kRYST4L” Fan’s apparently selfish playstyle required peel to keep him safe in a fight. His target selection was precise, but his positioning required him to be the center of attention. He’s been benched from the roster several times, and has said that getting back on the team has often been about finding other ways to be useful, including becoming an increasingly vocal team member as part of their communication.
kRYST4L’s return in the tie-breaker match against Vici Gaming allowed Snake to beat Vici twice: first in the best-of-three to determine Regionals seeding, and then in the first round. He, along with the team’s new support, Xia “Jiezou” Heng, who was a whisper in Chinese solo queue and as a substitute before he dazzled in LSPL and LPL proper on Energy Pacemaker All, gave Snake firepower in the bottom lane.
The team’s second star has always been Snake’s real focal point. Their captain and top laner, Li “Flandre” Xuanjin played more and more carry champions in the LPL when kRYST4L first went to the bench. Known for his outlandish top lane picks in LSPL, Snake’s first game against WE featured one of his old favorites, Yasuo, and he started with three kills in the first six minutes. Snake still lost the game.
But if Snake had to go down, it should have been with all three stars: kRYST4L, Flandre and SofM finally operating together as a unit, finally sharing the spotlight and looking increasingly, though not yet completely, like a team.
“Sorry” was the only word Zuowu left on weibo after Snake’s final loss and exit from Worlds contention. I saw him briefly before the final game of the day, but he stopped me from saying a word for fear it would jinx them.
Today, Aug. 28, 2016, Flandre turned 18. Tank, at age 20, is the oldest player on the roster. They’ve already braved one of the longest days in LoL esports.
Team WE spent 2015, the year after one of the greatest Chinese players to ever play League of Legends, Gao “WeiXiao” Xuecheng, retired from their team, at the bottom of the LPL standings. Roster changes gave them energy to make it to Top 8 in 2015 Spring, but they had to scrape back into the LPL through Promotion at the end of the summer split.
Many credited WE’s bare minimum miracles to jungler Lee “Spirit” Dayoon, and when he left the team, publicly criticizing the Chinese team work ethic, WE had lost two stars in two years. Under the radar roster changes revived the team with Yoon “Zero” Kyungsup, Xiang “Condi” Renjie and rookie top laner Ke “957” Changyu.
The transformation WE’s top and mid laner went through this year is astounding. Su “xiye” Hanwei, always a staple at the top of the solo queue ladder in China, began to impact the map and became a powerful contender for China’s new generation of mid lane giants. 957, suffering in laning phase, took up the mantel of zoning top laners, controlling teamfights. While they developed, Condi kept the team climbing this spring with miraculous Baron steals, earning him the name “son of Baron.” His early pathing isn’t the most methodical, but he understands how to make the low probability play more probable.
Mystic, during his time in Korea, was regarded as one of the worst AD carries in Champions. With a selection of champions — Lucian, Ezreal and Sivir — he can tussle with the league’s best in LPL. Since Uzi’s departure from Star Horn Royal Club at the conclusion of 2014, Zero has oscillated between frustrated and scintillating as an individual player. This weekend, his Tahm plays made him the latter.
WE’s magic comes in the amount of risks they take. They shouldn’t get away with losing turrets, with juggling aggro in close fights, with complicated compositions that require the careful stacking of ultimates like Kindred and Taric. In the League of Legends Pro League, you pressure Baron with an advantage. Even if your advantage isn’t monstrous at 25 minutes, the enemy team can only delay the inevitable by taking the Baron from you, but securing it can ensure a win. WE were the masters of this play.
But I May and Snake both demonstrated how to abuse it. WE lost winnable games with heavy leads twice. The last one was the one that sent I May to Worlds instead of them.
After pressuring top lane and pushing the final game into I May’s base, the team got caught at the bottom lane inhibitor turret. I May had scaled their durability and damage. WE lost too many fights, and one well-placed ward, one Teleport, was all they needed to smash through WE’s base, to take their first inhibitor turret, their first inhibitor and advance to the 2016 World Championship.
This was far from I May’s first close five game series. Outside the one they played against Royal Never Give Up in the Summer semifinal, I May played an extremely close best-of-five in the 2016 Spring League of Legends Secondary Pro League final against Young Miracles. In the fifth game, Young Miracles had a lead, as did Team WE, but they dropped the game in a fight around Baron. I May made their way back and entered the LPL.
That demonstrates how much they’ve grown as a team. Young Miracles again had the opportunity to enter the LPL. YM have played four five game best of fives with the winner making it into the league this year, and lost all four of them, but I May are going to the 2016 World Championship.
For I May captain and top laner, Shek “AmazingJ” Wai Ho, this is about redemption. At the 2015 World Championship, he played for EDward Gaming. He was slated as the “dead weight” top laner from the LPL in a team fans constructed from what they called "dead weight" players. The desire to return has driven him to moving speeches, to declaring the team wouldn’t stop at making LPL, they’d make an assault on the 2016 World Championship.
Their analyst, Huang "FireFox" Tinghsiang, was coach of LGD Gaming. Blamed heavily for LGD’s loss, FireFox joined EDward Gaming as an analyst for their LSPL team and worked tirelessly with I May to advance back to Worlds for his own redemption story.
The rest of I May barely have any experience in major leagues to scrape together. AmazingJ and jungler Fan “Avoidless” Jun Wei played under the same organization years ago for a Hong Kong team known as You Can’t Stop Me. Today, it seems you really can’t.
Growth has propelled I May forward. They don’t have the strongest laners, and that became clear today when WE could often out-pressure them when high-skilled coordination was required. Yet the cleverness and understanding of the map, as well as their patience made them the better team.
Chinese players like Yu “Misaya” Jingxi or I May’s owner Pun Wai "Wh1t3zZ" Lo have emphasized countless times that the key to international success is being open and willing to learn quickly in scrims or otherwise at events against competition from abroad. The growth witnessed from Royal Never Give Up from the 2016 LPL Spring final to the Mid-Season Invitational underlined that point.
At the 2016 LPL Regional, all sets went to five games. Any of the four teams at the Regional could have represented the LPL at Worlds. This arbitrary need we have to assess how badly teams want to win is absurd — they want to win, that’s why they advance to the highest level, and they don’t need our validation.
I May didn’t triumph over WE because they wanted to win more. The very act of wanting to win didn’t take them from LSPL to Worlds in the span of a split. But what did — the perseverance and the willingness to adapt not just across the span of the summer split but within their series — is what makes them the best team to complete China’s lineup of representatives.
As I May took the last nexus of the 2016 Chinese regional final, it came down to the right ward, the right flank, the right Teleport. This weekend, Guangzhou crushed a year’s worth of hard work and dedication for three teams, but it made heroes. The halls are lined with collections of photos from previous years’ Regionals — even photos of the ones who didn’t win.
Because they all wanted to, and as I May head to Worlds this year, that’s something they take with them.
Photo credit: 刘一村
Kelsey Moser is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.