Kelsey Moser's LPL Mid-Season Review

by theScore Staff Feb 29 2016
Thumbnail image courtesy of LPL / LPL Screengrab

As someone who avidly follows the LPL, the question I receive most often from my English-speaking audience is “Why?” This split, more than any other, it has been difficult to answer this question. Gameplay suffered. Some of the best teams have dropped significantly due to internal issues or otherwise, leaving a gaping maw where the league's dominant forces once battled and the overall quality lagging behind much of the rest of the world.

Yet I persist, and though the game quality has declined surprisingly between 2015 and 2016, some of what drew me to the LPL initially has become more prominent. In 2013 and 2014, teamplay grabbed my attention — not the kind of strategic teamplay many think about when observing a sophisticated lane swap or ward relays, but the kind that relies on timing and chaining of ultimate cooldowns and crowd control. Team fighting has once again taken charge as teams with fewer stars are able to challenge some of the top contenders with more cohesive collapses and wave control. The best teams aren’t the best because they play like Korean teams or because they play logically, but because they play a way that makes sense to them.

This was the LPL that, while they may not have been able to challenge Korea, at least overcame other regions with surprising play and a willingness to engage-engage-engage. The LPL has fallen considerably, but this split they seem to be focusing on the right tools to build themselves back up to where they were before 2015 — if not to 2015 spring status. Watching that progression may be frustrating, but it’s the reason I started making a habit of staying up late to watch Chinese League of Legends, and I’m happy to see it look a lot more like its old self these days. Love it or hate it, this is the kind of League you can only find in China.

Without further ado, it’s time to check in on how well LPL teams are progressing — in their own unique direction.

Top story: The crumbling dynasty

While some might expect to read about LGD’s collapse or QG’s rise here, something more significant has occurred, though it’s subtle. This time last year, EDward Gaming had hardly broken a sweat. EDG have just come off two of the worst weeks I have seen from them in a long time. Aside from Ming “clearlove” Kai’s triumphant return against Vici Gaming and a handful of impressive performances since, EDward Gaming seem out of sync.

Their teamfight calls are muddled. Kim “deft” Hyukkyu positions too far forward. The team starts fights before they’re grouped for a collapse. Heo “pawN” Wonseok has been temporarily replaced by Kang "athena" Hawoon allegedly because he “wants to recover his form,” and because, according to Ming “clearlove” Kai, athena is a better choice against teams that like to team fight a lot.

Given the fact that EDward Gaming’s team fighting against Snake should have been an easy way for them to abuse a squad that still doesn’t seem to synergize in the mid and late game, this recent set hinted at serious destabilizing problems. The EDward Gaming dynasty — likely only the second true Chinese LoL eSports dynasty in the game’s history — is crumbling. It’s slow, but it’s happening. With LGD Gaming contending for last place in Group A, this has left a giant hole at the top.

For those unfamiliar with Chinese League of Legends history, the only truly dominant teams have been Team WE and EDward Gaming. Team WE’s six month undefeated streak meant multiple domestic and international titles. Their collapse left a momentary gulf before interim regents, Oh My God, rose to fill the void. OMG’s unique style and talent made them popular and exciting to watch, but OMG always had another shoe — and it always dropped. The team that brought the pick composition to China seemed rife with internal squabbles and unable to convert strings of wins into periods of stability long enough to call dynasties.

OMG kept the seat warm for clearlove as he returned with a second team. EDward Gaming went on to win all but two tournament titles in 2014 and most of the events in which they participated in 2015. Rumors of internal strife — not unlike those that plagued WE in their final days — have cropped up for EDward Gaming. Coach Ji “Aaron” Xing has “taken a break” from coaching and pursued other outlets, such as casting. Both mid laner pawN and jungler clearlove have spent games on the bench. clearlove has reverted to his inconsistent low pressure ways in many of his games.

QG Reapers and Royal Never Give Up have made cases for becoming China’s next leading team. For both these squads, the question becomes whether or not the emergent victor can maintain a level of consistency worthy enough of creating a dynasty, or if clearlove has been the motivated presence that has made the concept of consistency remotely attainable in a league of back-and-forths and low infrastructure.

Several dark horses like Snake, Invictus Gaming, WE, and even Vici Gaming more recently, have emerged to make a play. If Snake can continue to improve, they may become the first strong Chinese team that isn’t about fighting. They’re the only team to rely on lane swap advantages to succeed but split at the seams in a fight.

One can’t completely count EDG out yet. clearlove is as much a staple of the LPL scene as turret dives. It’s almost an easier call to say EDward Gaming will rise again than QG or Royal have the qualities that can put them in command of the LPL for an extended period of time.

Almost. At the moment, China is in the midst of a feudal period. QG are no longer the undefeated figureheads. Chunks of EDward Gaming are chipping off into dust. One has to ask whether or not the victor will emerge stronger or weaker for it at the end of the Spring.

Main rivalry: QG Reapers vs. Royal Never Give Up

The new group system has created a simple foundation for rivalries to form. QG Reapers and Royal Never Give Up stand at the top of both (though technically a tie for first place exists in Group B — with iG holding the head-to-head over RNG, but RNG having achieved their standing with fewer single game losses). Royal Never Give Up gave QG Reapers their first set loss in the 2016 LPL Spring Season, and they did it in only two games (QG had only dropped one single match before to Vici Gaming).

Unless QG meet Royal at Intel Extreme Masters, they won’t play each other again until the playoffs. QG and Royal will slog their way through the rest of the intergroup stage before a final round of intragroup play. Prior to the best-of-three, QG’s understanding of vision, wave control, and teamfighting made them look like the stronger team. Following the loss, it’s less clear. Royal seem to have made marked improvements in understanding how to pressure their 2v2, but still rely upon a simple strategy for snagging Baron early to compensate for Liu “Mlxg” Shiyu’s tendency to shut down and farm it out. They also seem lost if Jang "Looper" Hyeongseok can’t find a lane to split-push.

QG understand minion control well and have an uncanny ability to set up double freezes, but this greedy playstyle can be taken advantage of by teams that can hit them hard enough in the early game. If both teams can progress, this could be an excellent storyline for the playoffs. Looper has said Royal will “definitely go to MSI.” I still favor QG right now, but results say otherwise.

Biggest Disappointment: LGD Gaming

I chose LGD Gaming as the biggest disappointment in my last Mid-Season Review as well, but I would kill for that LGD to resurface right now. The LGD of last summer had inconsistencies, but still offered glimpses of their peaks through the soot. This is an LGDisaster.

Low communication and multiple carries have left LGD strapped for resources. Their three junglers average 16.55 percent of their team’s gold, which is quite distant from the league average at 19.24 percent. Their junglers have been lost more than they’ve been bad, and the carries seem to have lost trust in their teamwork as they try to make plays on their own and solo carry. It usually doesn’t work.

It’s clear that a jungle swap isn’t going to repair LGD’s woes. This may be the case where it’s best to scrap the team for parts, releasing them to better prospects, and look to rebuild around the player with the best attitude. Good luck to them in their quest to avoid relegation.

Best Surprise: Invictus Gaming

WARNING: I in no way ever advocate believing that Invictus Gaming will become a consistent team. Proceed at your own risk.

It’s rare that the perceived worst move of the offseason — and this isn’t just a bad move, it’s replacing one of the best junglers in the history of the game with Ge “Kid” Yan, a player who doesn’t even jungle, and whose recent form on his main role, AD carry, let much to be desired — will lead a team to a first-place tie. Halfway through the LPL regular season, this seems to be the case.

Invictus Gaming’s ability to not just trounce bottom teams, but to beatdown on EDward Gaming and Royal Never Give Up, has left many spectators puzzled. “Is Kid actually a good jungler?” seems to be the most common query crawling through Reddit threads. The answer is, “Not really,” or rather, “He’s just okay.” The team isn’t simply hard-carried by star mid laner Song “RooKie” Eujin either, though he has been central to their success.

It comes down to Invictus Gaming’s successful draft phases, a staple of their play from the start of last summer and the end of spring, their ability to control minion waves in solo lanes, and their communication. The team has spoken positively of their in-game communication system in multiple post-game interviews now. One can observe it in action. If there’s ever a gank from the opposing team, Kid almost immediately responds with an action on the other side of the map or by counter-ganking if he’s in the area.

RooKie and Liu “Zz1tai” Zhihao average the highest CS leads at 10 minutes in their respective roles at 9.94 and 6.22. Looking at the map, RooKie and Zz1tai often hold the waves in the center of the lane to make ganks easier and more accessible. Kid picks up an early Sweeping Lens and wards frequently. Kid played a more gank-heavy Nidalee than I’ve seen in many games lately, as a lot of Nidalees internationally have favored invasion play or farming. In his long explanation for the team's stylistic Nidalee decision, Kid said that “It’s about gank timing. If you can get the right timing on a gank, it can be better than invading the enemy jungler.”

His response was very telling. iG as a team are about timing ganks properly and making this as easy possible. I believe iG will peak with this strategy and hit a definite ceiling. Invictus Gaming are not a good team — but at least they’re playing as team at all. That’s more than I can say about many of the squads in the LPL.

Game of the first half: QG Reapers vs Snake Game 1

This is still my favorite game to watch from the LPL so far this split. Snake flex their lane swap muscles to set QG heavily behind, but QG don’t ever seem to completely lose control. They set up wards in the jungle to allow Baek “Swift” Daehoon to farm and Yu “Peco” Rui to freeze the top wave. QG come back quickly by picking fights on their terms and kiting their way to success.

Moment of the first half: clearlove returns

Though I've foretold the crumbling of EDward Gaming’s dynasty, the most exciting moment of this split was clearlove’s return to the team after Zhao "fireloli" Zhiming played scattered games. clearlove played LPL Spring’s first and only Nocturne in Game 1, EDward Gaming demolished Vici Gaming, and clearlove sipped his coffee casually afterwards.

This moment is less satisfying with clearlove’s recent performances against Snake, but at the time, it felt as if EDward Gaming had returned. Moments like that make me think we might see them again in the second half.

Impact players of the first half

A region in upheaval makes for unclear top players in each position. A lot my picks here may be surprising, but I heavily favor versatility, game impact, and consistency over a collection of carry performances. Mid lane and support were the only roles with clear best players, and even then cases could be made for others.

Top lane: QG Reapers’ V

It's shocking that I chose Bao “V” Bo as my standout top laner of Round 1, especially with all the praise Li "Flandre" Xuanjun has received lately from the LPL English Language casting desk. When one thinks about QG's best players, Swift and the two carries get mentioned 10 times over before V.

Yet I think about the QG of this year and the QG of last year, and a great deal of their improvements are V-related. QG are a better team right now because they’ve succeeded in integrating V better into their playstyle. V could be called a standard LSPL carry top laner forced into a self-sufficient tank role last summer. He appeared to have a limited champion pool, based on his fixation with Maokai and Hecarim. V also frequently fell behind in lane, and the map rippled because of that.

QG’s loss to Royal demonstrated how integral to their playstyle V has become, because they didn’t use him as well as they have been. In swapping after an initial lead, Royal’s Looper fell significantly behind, but the team didn’t pressure it. V has been split-pushing more with better vision placed by QG, and the team has played more around V as a control point than Kim “Doinb” Taesang, as they did in the past.

V’s engages have also been exceptional, and he’s played a variety of champions from Fiora to Nautilus. Flandre and Tong “koro1” Yang, other candidates for top lane notoriety, have seemed fixed into one style each. V has also improved his self-sufficiency, relying less on Swift’s never-forthcoming ganks, but Swift has also seemed less afraid of his lane. As of the end of Week 5, V averages the second highest CS lead at 10 minutes of 4.06 over his opponent on average.

Honorable mentions besides koro1 and Flandre include Looper and Zhu "Loong" Xiaolong, who have both been well-rounded in champion pool, but less consistent than V.

Jungle: Vici Gaming’s DanDy

As with the top lane, multiple contenders exist for the title of best jungler, and none of them have had a great performance in every game they’ve played. Choi "DanDy" Inkyu’s strange Rengar fixation and falling behind clearlove stand out as definite marks against him, but DanDy has been steadily improving his form. This is in part because mid laner Lee “Easyhoon” Jihoon has found more of a foothold. He can at least maintain enough of a presence in lane for Vici Gaming to run invasion-based strategies that showcase DanDy’s skill.

clearlove would still have been a shoe-in for his versatility, but he’s shown very little to impress in the last two weeks outside a creative Nunu game and a Kindred game that gave us a glimpse of the “old clearlove.” Against Snake, clearlove seemed to decide to pretend he was fireloli for a game, as he dove into disadvantageous situations on his signature Rek’Sai, practically intentionally feeding. This heavy underperformance made him a difficult choice.

Mlxg and Xiang “Condi” Renjie suffer similar limitations. Neither seem fond of warding, limiting the strategic depth of their teams’ early games. Condi has avoided Runic Echoes champions, even with how devastating the item has become, and Mlxg has significantly lower game impact on champions not called Nidalee or Graves.

A lot of other promising jungle talent has begun to flood the LPL to make this category even harder to judge. At the moment, however, DanDy has quietly become the best jungler in the LPL. His pathing is almost always creative, he understands vision, and Vici have demonstrated they can play around him as a primary carry. In their recent set against WE, Vici Gaming played a Nidalee-centric style that strangled out WE through invasion and assassination. In Game 2, they changed their strategy.

Following the set, I asked DanDy why they altered their approach. He began his answer by saying, “In Game 1, I wanted to prove myself.”

Congratulations, DanDy. You certainly did.

Mid: Invictus Gaming’s RooKie

One of the only two easy picks in this category is best mid laner. RooKie may well be the best player in the LPL overall at the moment. He understands how to trade through minions, how to freeze for jungle ganks, and how to turn ganks on his own. One of his flaws is and always will be his need to go for the outplay, even when he shouldn’t, but the amount of times he succeeds is mind-boggling.

RooKie leads the CS@10 difference rankings across all five positions, and his communication with his jungler, a player new to the role, has truly opened up the map for iG. RooKie won my “hard carry performance” designation two weeks in a row and has only looked shambled in one game against OMG so far this split.

The LPL mid lane talent has receded significantly with the departure or underperformance of many of this past summer’s stars. RooKie, at least top two for all of last year, has easily made himself stand out.

AD carry: QG Reapers’ Peco

Even when I wrote my extensive feature on Peco last week, I wasn’t sure he was the best AD carry in the LPL. He only played one game this week, and it was a rough loss to Royal Never Give Up, but that was his only “bad game” of the entire split so far. The same cannot be said about any other AD carry in the league.

RELATED: Stepping out of Uzi's shadow: Peco's turn

Other candidates for best AD carry in the LPL include Kim “deft” Hyukkyu and, surprisingly, Jin “Mystic” Seongjun and Han "S1mlz" Jin. deft has done consistently large percentages of team damage, according to the broadcast graphics, and his positioning has made him look like one of the most consistent pieces of EDward Gaming. After this week, he averages a similar CS lead at 10 minutes to Peco of .38, and many parallels can be drawn between him and Peco. They both have been devastating on Ezreal. They both have team fought well from behind.

Every once in a while, however, deft seems to forget himself and dive face first into five enemies. I’m not sure what the thought process is, but it’s happened with modest frequency since early summer of last split. It’s something that Peco doesn’t do, so I’ve chosen Peco over deft.

Mystic loses lane more frequently than Peco or deft, but he has excelled in team fight positioning. Sometimes Mystic looks like he could dance with deft and Peco, but other times he trends toward mediocrity.

S1mlz is a the true outlier in a category full of late game teamfighting AD carries. S1mlz averages the highest CS lead at 10 minutes of AD carries who have played more than one game at 7.76. Farming has always been his strong suit, but I feel his impact with a farm lead has been lacking in the past. That’s improved considerably on OMG, as OMG seems more willing to play around him. He still sometimes fails where he should succeed and plays more timidly than he should with his leads or positions improperly.

That leaves only the question of Jian “Uzi” Zihao. In the first half, Uzi only played four games, and he was the star of none of them. While Peco is truly integral to QG’s ability to team fight from behind by positioning self-sufficiently and timing cooldowns, Uzi often seems to choose the most obvious point of entry into a fight.

Uzi is a great AD carry, and he’s demonstrated this in the past, but QG haven’t been able to play a style that emphasizes Uzi’s strengths. Meanwhile, Peco makes or breaks QG’s playstyle. He’s only lost one game with them this spring, and that speaks

Support: Royal Never Give Up’s Mata

It’s interesting that Samsung White’s jungle and support duo had to be separated to register among the LPL’s elite in a definitive way, but here they are again. Cho “Mata” Sehyoung has his lane-controlling and high roaming qualities intact. He’s come to the LPL with a new team in Royal Never Give Up and strong synergy with previous teammate Looper.

Even when Royal Never Give Up’s draft has lacked, Mata has served as the sole tank on Alistar and made impossible situations work. He has rushed Boots of Mobility to compensate for Mlxg’s lacking vision impact. With more patience and direction, Mata could turn Royal’s over-zealous squad into LPL winners.

When asked if he wanted to return to the World Championship in a recent interview with Duowan, Mata said at the moment he’s more concerned with the LPL title. “I am now considering the LPL. Can I get a league title or cup championship? I thought for a moment about my career, and it’s already been a long time where I haven’t gotten a championship. Last year I saw imp and pawN get the league title, and I want to look back to remember the championship feeling.”

Whether motivated by his former teammates securing something he hasn’t attained for himself or reinvigorated by some other factor, Mata’s commitment to performance in the LPL has resurfaced. It’s going to be an interesting year.

Kelsey Moser is a staff writer for theScore eSports. You can follow her on Twitter.