During the summer of 2014, several team analysts expected Chinese import team LMQ to place in the bottom half of the North American League of Legends Champion Series. Instead, LMQ topped the regular season standings with aggressive play that forced opposing teams to react quickly. They didn’t have the best strategy—but they had more strategy than analysts had predicted.
Whenever coaches or analysts talked about LMQ in the 2014 summer season, they frequently broached the subject of scrims. LMQ never seemed to perform and would spend most of their time constantly forcing fights, whether advantageous or not, pushing their boundaries and ignoring objectives. While LMQ did love to fight in professional matches, they usually fought around dragons and looked for opportune moments rather than simply pushing their limits.
Chinese scrim culture has typically been poor in League of Legends. In 2013, OMG had a reputation for going so far as to role swap in scrims to give their players a feel for “how the rest of the game is played.” In an interview with Wei “GODV” Zhen, he told me that “scrim results are meaningless,” and so teams are more likely to try things during the LPL. Upon their formation in late 2013, EDward Gaming preferred to scrim against League of Legends Secondary Pro League teams over LPL teams because they were more likely to take the game seriously and try to win.
Over the last two World Championships, I’ve criticized western teams for basing too much of their expectations about LPL teams on scrim results. Often the LPL practice ethic is to try to get something from the enemy team without giving away too much while also pushing limits. Time and again, the LPL teams weren’t punished for using practice time inefficiently and still managed to make it further through international tournaments than western teams.
That's finally changed, and it's a good thing.
A history of using professional games over scrims
Many will remember this 2015 World Championship as the worst showing by a Chinese team at an international event in the history of League of Legends, but I can remember a worse one. At the 2014 Intel Extreme Masters World Championship in Katowice, neither Invictus Gaming nor Team WE managed to escape the Group Stages. In the entire event, a Chinese team only won one game over a western team with Invictus Gaming’s Liu “Zzitai” Zhihao performing impressively on Yasuo.
Going into the tournament, the LPL was two patches behind the rest of the world, which gave Chinese teams an uphill battle in meeting western and Korean teams strategically at IEM. As Emily Rand noted in her recent article, LPL teams have often preferred to get a feel for a new patch in professional games before developing a strategy. They’ll choose to experiment to find something that suits their own playstyle. WE in particular attempted to latch onto picks and compositions with which they could experiment, but were shut down by other selections like Morgana from Gambit Gaming.
Often because LPL teams have played drastically differently in scrims than they have in professional matches, they won’t develop a strong strategy or approach on a new patch without having played professional matches. IEM Katowice and this year’s World Championship have made it impossible to ignore this flaw within the development of the Chinese League of Legends community.
Going into this year’s World Championship, GODV bragged on his own stream about how frequently he was dying in games, as if he were feeding, but saying his team still won. Snake's manager claimed LGD often performed very poorly in scrims because they didn't seem to take them seriously. Likely a combination of cockiness and China’s continued lack of emphasis on using scrim and practice time efficiently prevented LGD Gaming from acquiring a grasp of the patch.
Strong performances at IEM Katowice this year from WE, the then12th place LPL team, and EDward Gaming at the Mid-Season Invitation led to high expectations for LPL teams at Worlds. When LGD Gaming won the 2015 LPL Summer Playoffs, instead of being punished for their poor practice ethic and tendency to use the regular season rather than scrims themselves to adjust and change, they were rewarded.
The FireFox debate
It’s much more difficult for a team to be willing to listen to their coaching staff and adjust when they’re performing well. For LGD, a more lackadaisical summer split, most of which was lead by the players themselves with a revolving coaching door, likely made it difficult for Head Coach Huang "FireFox" Ting-Hsiang to implement change when he transitioned from his analyst role.
Many have publicly criticized FireFox for his drafting at the World Championship this year. While LGD Gaming’s draft against KT was less than ideal (and they left Mordekaiser open against TSM) some of the drafting decisions were dependent on the players themselves. Jungler Zhu “TBQ” Yongquan has long been known as a one trick Lee Sin player who has gravitated toward Rek’Sai this year. His second most played champion in Chinese solo queue is Vi, and when Origen banned both Lee Sin and Rek’Sai against LGD, TBQ picked the Piltover Enforcer.
GODV has not seemed confident or played like his usual self lately, so the team made the decision to select a Diana pick against Team SoloMid and a Varus against KT, both of which are comfort picks. Coaches have fallen under fire for letting players decide or do much about the drafting, but if your team is under-practiced and wants to make certain picks, it’s hard to deny them their own comfort. It’s clear from the compositions and picks the team gravitated toward that they hadn’t practiced or learned some of the stronger picks in their off time.
Regarding Siu “Chris” Keung, he only worked with the team for two weeks. Many have said LGD’s drafting in those two weeks was much better, but the team was also practicing much harder at the time. They had something to prove in the playoffs.
Three weeks prior to the 2015 LPL summer semifinals, Gu “imp” Seungbin claimed to have started practicing much more. Some in the community speculated that he had broken up with his girlfriend. Regardless of the reason, the improvement was easily reflected in his play. The players themselves had practiced much more, at least individually, and become comfortable on the patch, so drafting was easier.
According to GODV and members of LGD staff at this time, much of the pick and ban strategy was developed by FireFox during semifinals. During this set, EDward Gaming also made drafting mistakes, which made LGD’s own drafting easier.
Chris’ track record isn’t especially strong. In 2013, the Royal Club Huang Zu team joked that they initially thought he had joined them only to order them food, as he didn’t seem to do anything else. In Xiao “GoDlike” Wang’s post-retirement vlog, he claimed the team’s understanding of strategy was exceedingly poor going into the 2013 World Championship, and they only caught up by learning from western teams at the event and not their coach.
In 2014, Royal Club’s sloppy play and lackluster in-games focus nearly got them relegated, as they placed sixth in the spring season. The inclusion of Coach Kim “vicaL” Sunmook improved the team’s coaching staff when he came to the team with Choi “inSec” Inseok and Yoon “Zero” Kyungsup.
The team described their separation of responsibilities as vicaL working with the team on the over-arching meta, and Chris studying the “Chinese meta,” with which vicaL was unfamiliar. Zero later confessed that vicaL did most of the work with the team and made most of the strategic decisions.
In the 2015 spring season, vicaL left Star Horn Royal Club, the team was relegated. Chris left the roster, took responsibility, and went to work with Team NewBee. NewBee failed to make the LPL through the LSPL playoffs, and Chris abandoned them before they could have a second chance in the Promotion in favor of working with a practiced LGD for two weeks.
Chris is now working with Invictus Gaming alongside who are struggling with similar problems of grasping the current meta game and drafting picks that didn’t seem to suit them until their third game victory over ahq e-Sports club.
This is not to say that Chris has been worthless to his teams. His mediator style certainly has its values, but a lot of blame has been placed on FireFox and the changing of coaches when more blame can be placed on other factors, including the players' work ethic going into the Paris Group Stage.
It can certainly be argued that FireFox’s drafting isn’t as strong as it could be, and that he also wasn’t prepared, but a coach can only go so far to instruct unwilling players. When Chinese fans pointed blame against LGD management, the team’s only defense was that they didn’t have the same kind of money as EDward Gaming — not that they didn’t support their coach in his efforts to improve the team’s attitude. Regardless of what the staff did, when a team performs, they’re much less open to change, so there may not have been much they could do to motivate the team to use the off time wisely.
Chinese teams at the World Championship
Having used time between Playoffs or Regionals inefficiently—Song “RooKie” Eujin and Lee “KaKAO” Byungkwon spent most of their time vacationing in Korea during off season—both LGD Gaming and Invictus Gaming, performed poorly in the opening week of the World Championship Group Stage. As already mentioned, both teams suffered somewhat questionable drafting that seemed to surprisingly be patches behind. Unless they can learn from their failure, they have very poor outlooks for Week 2.
EDward Gaming's coach, Ji “Aaron” Xing, has received some criticism for his questionable drafting, but these questions also surrounded him at the Mid-Season Invitational. He stated that his players, at that time, had wanted to draft a safer composition against SK Telecom T1, so he had allowed it. The team learned from their failure in the Group Stages and adjusted to defeat SKT in the finals.
It’s unclear if something similar has happened with EDward Gaming in the wake of their loss to SKT in Paris, but EDward Gaming is often heralded as the serious exception to the rule of frivolity. They’ve filled time between their Regional Qualifier and Worlds with scrim blocks and, according to support Tian “meiko” Ye, have done well against European front-runners Fnatic and Origen.
EDward Gaming have also said they’ve scouted their opposition, having expected H2K to invade their jungle. It seemed as if LGD had failed to do the proper scouting for Origen, however, as they simply banned Varus and Gangplank, bans used against them in Regionals, ceding Jesper "Niels" Svenningsen his undefeated Kalista.
Ming “Clearlove” Kai is speculated to have left Team WE in part because he felt they lacked the infrastructure to match his ambitions, and Aaron stated that part of his motivation for joining a League of Legends team was because he “had a lot of thoughts on how [he] can make the game better and how we [Chinese teams] can make the professional teams more professional, and how we can make the industry more mature.”
Even Manager and partial owner Huang “San Shao” Cheng seems to have invested himself enough to understand the strategic differences between the Chinese and Korean and western teams at the World Championship and discuss them in EDward Gaming’s travel diary. Most accounts suggest EDward Gaming seems to have the best infrastructure and approach in practice to go far. Other teams and analysts have remain impressed with them.
Beyond drafting, Chinese teams seem to have to overcome problems in trading dragon for farm advantages. In past metas, it has been possible for extremely talented individual players to simply over power their opponents, but the game now focuses on team play with double Teleports and gaining an experience advantage on all sides of the map.
LGD Gaming, the team I pegged as the best from China, had the strongest ability to control minion waves and was most comfortable in lane swaps, having lane swapped in 48% of their regular season games. Going into the tournament, they’ve seemingly abandoned their old identity and attempted to brute force improper fights, especially since their defeat at the hands of Origen.
RooKie, Invictus Gaming’s mid laner, simply said his team lacks “game management,” which could include anything from drafting to controlling minion waves, and it doesn’t seem like something they can solve in a week.
Looking forward to 2016
At the conclusion of the World Championship, the poor showing from the Chinese teams in Group Stages should finally spur change to the practice ethic. Teams need to focus on experimenting and learning in scrims, and not just regular season. Not all tournaments provide enough games and time to ignore the values efficient scrim practice can bring.
Western infrastructure has begun to catch up. In 2011, China had already acquired coaches and analysts for their teams, but over time it seemed as if they didn’t develop enough past that stage. Part of the infrastructural talent hasn’t been allocated efficiently, and more money doesn’t necessarily mean money applied where it needs to be. But now western teams can finally punish China for having learned the wrong lessons.
For many team owners, winning the World Championship is the ultimate goal. Some owners may have seen players from Korea winning World Championships and assumed that buying those players would also yield victories, but I worried they were importing the wrong things from their opponents.
Importing Korean players improved individual practice dedication among Chinese players. Team owners stated the influence of Korean players constantly practicing encouraged their Chinese teammates to also practice more. Zzitai mentioned that the Koreans in iG strongly influenced the Chinese players.
Not a lot can be done about streaming contracts influencing individual player focus in downtime, but enforcing better scrim practices can go a long way. Despite many teams around them still not understanding the importance of scrims, EDward Gaming have made changes. They still seem to have some unfortunate habits in preferring to scrim weaker teams from Korea due to not wanting to give too much away or playing more aggressively, but most accounts suggest that EDward Gaming’s seriousness has been a big part of their strength in China all year.
Perhaps my biggest fear is that some owners, frustrated in having spent so much money on Korean players this year only to see Chinese teams fail horrifically at the World Championship and look weaker next to international opponents than ever, will give up completely. Some team owners are young sons of rich men who may get bored or not see their own mistakes and throw in the towel.
Though the departure of owners less interested in improving the infrastructure of the scene will definitely hurt players and teams in the short run, it will ultimately create a healthier China. One at a time, teams like EDward Gaming will begin to understand the value of a more serious environment and understand that the problem rests primarily in infrastructure and approach to make necessary changes.
This year, growing pains when OMG decided to give more power to their coaching staff over their players caused some of their problems, but could put them in good stead next year or in years to come. If OMG can make their own attempts at improving their ethic and infrastructure yield results like EDward Gaming, even more teams in LPL will take notice and change.
If western teams eliminate Chinese teams from the Group Stage this year, a European or North American triumph is also a triumph for esports in China. Any organizations still invested in League of Legends at the end of this year have a chance to learn the right lessons this time and slowly start to make the changes to scrim culture and infrastructure the scene has been needing for years.
Kelsey Moser is a staff writer for theScore eSports. You can follow her on Twitter.