What is a Chinese League of Legends team? For many years, they were aggressive and bottom lane centric. Most recently, they were international jokes. Chinese teams put forward a pale representation of strategy and coordination at the 2015 World Championship and Intel Extreme Masters San Jose, and the only thing that seemed truly unique about them was how badly they played.
If you've kept up with my Rebuilding China column every week, you may have read my nostalgia-fueled musings about what once made Chinese League of Legends great, and that came bottled in the type of gameplay you couldn't find anywhere else. QG Reapers were the first team since before the 2015 World Championship that I felt truly brought a unique identity to the table.
"The Chinese way may not be perfect, but it’s always been its own. Korean League of Legends is the best in the world, but so far it hasn’t been the best in China. Instead of copying without a cause, Chinese teams should resort back to developing the different kind of League of Legends they always used to play."
A gut reaction to my claim may be to say I'm making excuses or arguing that LGD Gaming, EDward Gaming, and Invictus Gaming lost because they didn't play like real Chinese teams. If I'm realistic about Intel Extreme Masters Cologne, the overall level of competition didn't provide a steep challenge. QG Reapers defeated a new Dignitas and Fnatic roster that had very limited practice time together. Though they did drag KeSPA Cup winners ESC Ever to a five game series, I still think Ever levels off as a mid-tier Korean team at best. To put it bluntly, this QG Reapers team likely would not have performed better than the other Chinese teams at the World Championship.
The QG Reapers went through IEM Cologne with sometimes vexing success. Stylistically, their approach did not suit the current meta, and they struggled to snowball games. Only in the finals did Baek "Swift" Dahoon manage to bully Kim "Ares" Minkwon for early game control. QG bucked their usual trend and fell apart later in the game.
QG Reapers' debut at Intel Extreme Masters against Dignitas yielded Game 1 to a hungry Elise player. QG only managed to finish out the series by stalling out the games and giving up additional early kills in Games 2 and 3.
On Saturday, QG progressed in form, but still made repetitive drafting mistakes. They relinquished a strong wombo-combo composition to Fnatic, which proved difficult to play around as QG rely on team fights.
Today, QG improved even more in the finals against ESC Ever. Swift had more proactive play in the early game, and the team executed a less questionable lane swap in Game 3. They still offered up plenty to criticize, however, as Swift took a lot of the team's kills, they drafted curious picks and continued to insist upon holding hands across the map rather than splitting up to extend their pressure.
As much as I complained about Swift's selfish play or rolled my eyes at Cassiopeia picks, it struck me that these qualities were, ironically, part of the very things I'd missed about the LPL in the latter parts of 2015. Despite his Fiora fixation, top laner Bao "V" Bo seemed stressed whenever he separated from the team. He should have split pushed far more, but he meandered as if magnetized back to the main squad looking to fight a 5v5.
Swift, Kim "Doinb" Taesang, and Yu "TnT" Rui toed the line of positioning, playing jump rope with the threat zones of the enemy team. Sometimes their aggressive styles netted them extra kills and sometimes it spelled disaster, but constant pressuring of the positional line resulted in a higher rate of success through practice.
Regardless of how much the community complains, Doinb will always be Doinb. The Cassiopeia into Lissandra represented a deep disaster, as he often got caught out before he could be effective. With that being said, he still (somehow) managed to do more damage than his compatriots in Game 4 of QG's finals series.
TnT and V found a balance with their jungler that allowed the AD carry to flex his ability to play from behind while V slipped back into the carry role he enjoyed throughout his time in the LSPL. Then V showed he could still play Nautilus because as a combination, Nautilus and Nidalee are an effective and unique setup that the QG Reapers have fallen back on multiple times.
And that's exactly what QG are — they're unique.
Today, though their play often had me pulling out my hair, it was refreshing to see them rewarded for putting their own spin on the game rather than copying a more optimal strategy that they may not have been able to execute well. They took what they thought they could apply from their competitors in Europe without being intimidated and feeling the need to drastically alter their established style.
Changing their approach fundamentally in such a short time probably wouldn't have worked out for them. LGD Gaming and Invictus Gaming slowed down their pace at Worlds and tried to play more like Korean powerhouses to no avail. It backfired, and they dropped out of the Group Stages quickly.
Even though the meta game at Intel Extreme Masters Cologne favored rapid snowballs and a better handle on split-pushing to demolish turrets, QG remained committed to what they already knew they could do well: team fighting. In many cases, teams even hung up the aggressive plays and tried to match QG by picking better scaling. QG's flanks from this weekend could easily fill a collection of team fight highlight reels, but no one will study these games for lane flow strategy unless it's to understand what not to do.
So when the Reapers won games this week, they did so in a way that made them easily recognizable. They adapted, but they didn't conform and instead forced opposing teams into situations that suited them as best as they could. While QG didn't always succeed, they won more games than they probably would have trying to play to the pace of Dignitas, Fnatic, or ESC Ever.
Going into next year, the QG Reapers will need to change. They cannot continue to wait for the late game to teamfight, but the final series showed they've already begun to realize this with more proactive play from Swift, V, and Doinb. QG won't have the same level of success going forward if they don't improve their early game; it's pretty obvious they know.
Yet the Reapers also showed that they are aware of their limits — they may not necessarily be able to play optimal League of Legends. Weaknesses in laning phase, macro game confusion, and a ceiling on both talent and stylistic diversity restrict them from playing what will be considered as standard League of Legends in 2016. They'll have to adapt to what their opponents are doing to refine their own strengths and weaknesses, but if they do that then QG may be able to continue forcing other teams to play to their style.
I don't think the QG Reapers will be able to top the LPL, as EDward Gaming will come through whatever furnace they've been burning in with better infrastructure and better focus in the spring split. Yet the 2015 LPL Summer Season's second place team seem to understand themselves better than most of their opponents.
Even without an Intel Extreme Masters Cologne win to see them back to China, 2016 will be a very successful year for QG.
Kelsey Moser is a staff writer for theScore eSports. You can follow her on Twitter for European and Chinese LoL content and Doinb pictures.