"If you want to prove yourself," Cloud9 mid laner Nicolaj "Jensen" Jensen told Riot Games to kick off his second World Championship, "you have to beat Faker, and that’s what I’m going to do."
The hopeful mid laner’s aspirations were crushed almost instantly in his first game of the Group Stage, just shy of the six-minute mark when SK Telecom T1 jungler Bae "bengi" Seongwoong collapsed on an over-extended Jensen, granting Lee "Faker" Sanghyeok First Blood. What followed was a near-complete dismantling of Cloud9 from the mid lane, as Faker overtook the game; Jensen ended around 90 CS behind the World’s greatest mid laner, with a score line of 0/5/4.
Though Jensen spent most of the year improving and is regarded by many as having the best laning phase of LCS mid laners, he lacked the same impact in the Group Stage, and was unable to reliably gain laning leads against Faker and LMS star Huang "Maple" Yitang. In games where he did manage to secure a modest lead, he wasn't able to convert it into pressure.
Unlike Jensen, the tournament’s only Chinese mid laner, Li "Xiaohu" Yuanhao, has already had a strong showing against Faker, at the Mid-Season Invitational in May. Xiaohu’s first MSI match started with a mid lane gank orchestrated by himself and jungler Liu "Mlxg" Shiyu. When Faker cockily remained in lane, Xiaohu went in to finish what he started on his own. As the match progressed, RNG's mid continued to wear the Korean superstar down, picking him off in side lanes with Leblanc flanks.
Yet, although Xiaohu said before Worlds that he wanted the world to see what Chinese mids are made of, his story in the Group Stage was eerily similar to Jensen's. "Underperforming" was a frequent refrain among critics. Despite their fundamentally different styles and storylines, both mids failed to supply much-needed pressure for their teams across the rest of the map. Jensen didn’t convert his leads well, and Xiaohu fell behind or lagged in roams when he tried to make a move, partly due to poor team coordination.
To an extent, however, both mids redeemed themselves in their quarterfinals appearances. Though their teams both bowed out in the Round of 8, the two had some of their best showings of the event. In dissecting their performances — even their best games — it’s easy to see how both of them fell short of meta expectations at Worlds.
Xiaohu's struggles have been different from Jensen's, because he now plays a much more secondary role on his team. Heading into the summer season, Xiaohu was a contender for the title of the LPL's top mid laner, but he flared out abruptly. By the time Royal qualified for the World Championship, he was regarded as a glaring weakness on the lineup. After the LPL final against EDward Gaming, Xiaohu himself said, "In my current state, I feel like, no matter which mid laner I face, I won't be a match for him."
When Xiaohu was at his peak at the MSI Group Stage, he roamed frequently in conjunction with Cho “Mata” Sehyeong and Mlxg. Royal’s frequent skirmishing presented opportunities for Xiaohu to thrive, as he looked for flanks and openings in fights. On Friday, in Royal’s Worlds quarterfinal against SKT, that side of Xiaohu peeked through again. He played Vladimir in fights like he did Lissandra earlier in the season, searching for engagement opportunities that maximized the number of enemies he could impact.
His play was notable in part because of how much of a departure it was from the Royal style that has evolved over the course of this summer. After MSI, they altered their winning formula, in part because of the addition of lane-dominant AD carry Jian “Uzi” Zihao. Royal became much more focused on the laning phase, with each lane attempting to brute-force independently across the map. This hasn't gone as well as it could have, and they have had trouble with early coordination across their lanes.
Xiaohu in particular isn't as comfortable in a laning-focused role, because he lacks proficiency in the 1v1 that other mids like Jensen have honed. Moreover, in locking Xiaohu down in his lane, Royal have neglected one of their most underrated core components from 2016 Spring — that is, Xiaohu and Mata’s chain-crowd control on engage picks. With Mata staying bottom more often, the team’s overall coordination has dropped significantly, making Xiaohu much more awkward.
Royal's weak early-game coordination looks a lot like what troubled Cloud9 in the Worlds Group Stage, and for much of the summer before that. The American team has long been focused on brute-force laning of just this sort. Jensen has never been a roamer — he remains an almost permanent fixture of his mid lane domain. His strength is his near impeccable 1v1 style: his ability to dodge skillshots and trade efficiently while he farms. He thrived in a "win lane, win game" environment, averaging a 2.5 CS lead in the regular season, 31.1 percent of his team’s damage, and 25.9 percent of team gold with relatively low coordination with his jungler — the highest percentage of his team's gold of any Worlds mid laner during his regular summer split. Cloud9's resource allocation also shows how central he has been to their strategy.
Yet Cloud9 have had a problem with fragmented laning for much of the year. Their lane swaps often featured an isolated Jung "Impact" Eonyeong falling behind in CS and experience because the team didn’t know how to reallocate pressure to support him. The removal of lane swaps made this problem less obvious, but it was still there.
In their quarterfinal against Samsung Galaxy, Jensen did what he normally does. Though he individually outperformed Samsung’s Lee "Crown" Minho, he almost never left the mid lane. He did not pop his trinket ward, though he would occasionally venture to place a pink ward near the mid lane, either by wraiths or in a river bush. He would take his blue buff, or join a dragon take with the dragon almost completed by his team, but in general, Jensen didn’t roam for ganks or change his lane assignment in the first 15 minutes of any of Cloud9's three games. He simply pushed out.
If his opponent left lane for some reason, instead of following him, Jensen would push for another wave of minions under the turret. This tradeoff could be risky, especially if his flanks weren’t warded. With such plays, teams with better mid-jungle synergy, like Samsung, suddenly had an opening to gank Jensen and set Cloud9 substantially back on their lead.
Moreover, Cloud9's side lanes suffered from a lack of pressure, both from jungle and mid. Something as simple as Jensen ducking into a river bush could have caused the enemy top and bottom lanes to play more reserved, for fear of him roaming to gank after he disappeared from the map. But Jensen almost never considered the option of giving up mid lane pressure to create opportunities for his side laners to make plays.
C9's lack of cross-lane synergy seems to have also reinforced Meteos’ power-farming style, rather than pushing him to better coordinate. Against Samsung, Meteos would venture towards a lane, gank without much setup from the laner, and either force the opponent laner back or waste time. This awkwardness allowed Samsung to quickly adapt their pressure and set up for objectives better. It wasn't Meteos that made himself a non-threat, but the fact that Cloud9 almost never coordinated with him, which also nullified any impact Jensen could have.
Royal had very similar problems with fragmented coordination across lanes, especially in the Group Stage, but Xiaohu’s more successful games highlighted the pressure he can bring (and hasn't for much of the summer). In RNG's first quarterfinals game against SKT, Xiaohu changed his lane assignment to allow his side lanes to continue to pressure strong matchups after SKT attempted a swap. He also roamed top lane for a game-winning flank on Vladimir.
It was when Xiaohu didn’t leave his lane, or was slower than Faker to react to possible plays, that disaster struck. In Games 2 and 3, Faker secured better pushing lane picks like Varus, so he could roam to the bottom lane more proactively than Xiaohu. In Game 4, Xiaohu had an impressive initial impact with a roaming Aurelion Sol, but a key top lane play was countered by Faker’s roam bottom when Xiaohu backed and returned mid to catch the wave. That was the moment when the game turned back in SKT’s favor, and RNG ultimately lost the series.
Xiaohu’s growing discomfort through the summer split seems to have been a result of Royal's transition to a lane matchup team like Cloud9. As the season progressed, their new, more isolated laning-focused style of play became a drain on Xiaohu, who, without the opportunity to coordinate with Mata and Mlxg to make plays, averaged the lowest percentage of team gold among mid laners in the LPL and started falling behind in CS more often.
Mlxg has started attempting to power-farm much more like Meteos, but his inefficient pathing reflects the same fundamental lack of communication between laners and jungler that Cloud9 suffers from. Both junglers have commented on the importance their teams place on winning lanes outright — Mlxg, in an interview after the Group Stage, explained that the team relies less on his roaming with Mata so that they can have stronger lanes to stand up to opponents. “The reason we decided to change our strategy is that we noticed a lot of teams are playing really strong bottom lanes, so they can have a lot of advantage in the lane,” he said. That sounded a lot like Meteos, who in his own post-Groups interview said, “Going into Worlds, stuff like Karma and Nami bot lane looked really really strong because, in scrims — bot lanes would just play full aggro all the time not caring about the rest of the map.”
Jensen is an obviously more comfortable laner than Xiaohu, and Cloud9 domestically gained a lot of advantages from his laning skill, but he still has much room for improvement. In an interview after their loss to SKT, he acknowledged that he has faults, but pointed out how far he has come since Worlds 2015. “In the beginning, I was just like — I wouldn't say brainless, but I would say I was just way too over-aggressive," he said. "It bit me sometimes, but I think I came out smarter and understood the game better on a macro level ... I'm still one of the best mechanical players, so I just need to become better in that aspect.”
Especially in the current Worlds meta, better macro understanding means being able to play around and with the jungler. Even though it looked like Samsung Galaxy won every lane at once, it wasn’t because Cloud9’s players were unskilled, but because they couldn't convert a lead in one lane to pressure on the other side of the map — either by Teleport use, deep vision, or a mid laner who roamed with lane control rather than relentlessly pushing turret.
Jensen had an exceptional individual summer, and Xiaohu a poor one, but their similar struggles with game impact and World Championship trajectories provide hope for both. They fell short in map positioning more than anything else, which is something they can fix with their teammates.
Maybe next year they’ll both return the better for it. And if Jensen wants another shot, it’s clear Faker isn’t going anywhere.
Kelsey Moser is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.