It's difficult to live up to the label of a prodigy. As they transition from amateur play to the professional league, few players manage to satisfy high expectations placed on their shoulders early in their careers. Li “xiaohu” Yuanhao was no exception.
xiaohu, Royal Never Give Up’s mid laner, is barely 17. As a result of the meta and Royal’s team dynamic, xiaohu hovers in the background, receiving the second lowest percentage of team gold of mid laners in the League of Legends Pro League at 22.73 percent. Still, aside from support Cho “Mata” Sehyeong, xiaohu may be the most important player in ensuring Royal’s success. But he's far from the star player some anticipated he would become.
In 2014, an organization called Mi Di Esports Club snatched up five high-ranked Chinese solo queue players. MD was one of four amateur teams invited to compete with eight LPL and 16 LSPL teams in the second season of the Demacia Cup, running alongside the LPL and the LSPL every Monday. MD only made the Round of 16 at Demacia Cup, but they managed to surge to Top 8 in X Championship Series, another third-party tournament featuring LPL and LSPL teams, at the end of summer 2014. As a result of their success and the bold plays from the team’s mid laner in particular, MD were pegged as easy favorites to qualify for the 2015 League of Legends Secondary Pro League.
Of course they didn’t. Many blamed the format of the Tencent Games Arena qualifier for the LSPL for MD’s failure, but a seemingly over-confident young team picked duelist champions across the board without a mind for team composition. MD lacked direction, if not maturity and discipline.
Undeterred, newly qualified LPL team Gamtee purchased the entirety of the MD Esports roster. As one could guess from observing MD’s team in TGA, this roster never played for Gamtee in its entirety. Unable to refine the raw talent into a team with synergy, Gamtee decided to retain only the aggressive mid laner, then known as “iAro” (sometimes “AngelBeats”) for their LPL team.
During the World GameMaster Tournament, Gamtee’s new mid laner peaked the interest of spectators with crisp Zed play. WGT debuted several new rosters laden with high-profile Koreans, including Invictus Gaming’s new jungler, Lee “KaKAO” Byungkwon, and LGD Gaming’s Choi “Acorn” Cheonju and Gu “imp” Seungbin. Gamtee skid past Invictus Gaming in their group and gave Team King their only offseason loss not at the hands of EDward Gaming to advance to the tournament final against LGD. LGD dropped a game to Gamtee before winning the title.
With the addition of a new and talented rookie mid laner, Gamtee went from a team that barely scraped into the LPL in the Expansion Tournament to a group of five with modest Playoffs hopes in 2015 Spring. There was a catch, however — iAro, soon to rename himself “xiaohu,” was only 15, and the minimum age for the LPL at the time was 16.
Gamtee’s temporary mid laner, Yin “Luo” Peng, lacked the finesse and initiative to give the young Chinese team a head start. In the weeks before xiaohu turned 16 during the 2015 LPL Spring, Gamtee only won one of eight individual games in which they participated. They dropped 0-2 to Invictus Gaming, Snake Esports and Star Horn Royal Club, finally splitting 1-1 against Vici Gaming.
In Week 3, the first week in which xiaohu would be permitted to play in the LPL, Gamtee faced Masters3 and Energy Pacemaker, teams significantly lower in the standings than their Week 1 and 2 opponents. This should have given Gamtee’s new prodigy mid laner a softball; it didn’t. Gamtee split 1-1 against both Energy Pacemaker and Masters3. xiaohu played a more team-reliant Xerath against EP to mixed results, but he did demonstrate the potency of Fizz into Azir in his second game against Bae “dade” Eojin. Given dade has never been known for his laning phase or his Azir, this wasn’t impressive.
xiaohu wasn’t a prodigy. As the weeks of the regular season stampeded by, this became evident. xiaohu couldn’t single-handedly rescue Gamtee from the bottom rung of the LPL, he couldn’t supplement the inconsistencies of Zhao "Tale" Xiaoyu with reliable heavy lifting or rack up 15 kills a game on his own. xiaohu wasn’t the next Yu “cool” Jiajun or Wei “We1less” Zhen.
That didn’t mean xiaohu didn’t have a certain something. xiaohu didn’t hard carry every game, but he brought a deep champion pool and a keen sense for opportunity to the forefront. During the 2015 LPL Spring Split, xiaohu played 14 unique champions with a 3.5 KDA on the 11th place LPL team. Gamtee seldom dropped a series in its entirety. xiaohu’s wide champion pool and versatility allowed them to craft compositions to suit their opponents, granting them games against every team but Star Horn Royal Club and EDward Gaming.
When Gamtee played against Star Horn Royal Club in the 2015 LPL Summer Promotion, it seemed the odds didn’t favor them. Despite Gamtee gathering unlikely wins, Choi “inSec” Inseok returned to the starting jungle position for Star Horn after recovering from a broken leg. Gamtee had yet to string together consecutive LPL wins, amassing the most splits of the regular season at 12.
Gamtee 3-0’d Star Horn Royal Club. xiaohu, once hailed as a prodigy, stood at the center with three different champions played. His 9/2/13 Leblanc overwhelmed the first game, and his 2/1/8 Azir shut down Star Horn Royal Club in under 30 minutes.
Later that year, in the 2015 summer promotion tournament, Gamtee beat Royal Club for a spot in the LPL. Royal responded by purchasing Gamtee and condensing the team with another young all Chinese team, Team King. xiaohu and top laner Yan “lemte” Junze joined King’s jungler and bottom lane on Royal Never Give Up. xiaohu’s initiative could reinject proactive play into ex-King’s suddenly passive style.
Again, xiaohu failed to meet the bar set for him. The control mage meta cemented xiaohu’s place as an Azir player, but he seldom had the opportunity to take over games the way he had as Leblanc or Zed in the past. xiaohu’s active champion pool also shrank. He gave up the Lucians and Irelias for more reliable Jayce and Orianna picks and played only nine unique champions in 2015 LPL Summer.
Rather than become the primary carry of Royal Never Give Up, xiaohu’s developing reliability slowly rebuilt jungler Liu "Mlxg" Shiyu. Part of King’s disappointing drop to seventh place from consistent top three placements in the offseason came as a result of Mlxg losing an apparent hunger to invade. By almost always going even or outperforming his opponent, xiaohu opened to door to the enemy jungle for Mlxg once again. Royal had a momentary resurgence that ended in dashed playoffs expectations, but they easily slipped back into the LPL in the Promotion.
xiaohu isn’t the only player who was once slated as something of a prodigy on Royal Never Give Up. After receiving the 2014 Rising Player award during the Demacia Cup Awards in December, Mlxg disappointed audiences in 2015. With a changing top lane meta, Mlxg lost a strong solo laner to play around, and Team King dropped in the standings. Mid laner Zhou "Sask" Yixiang had late game carry power, but not as much early-game pressure as xiaohu. Over time, xiaohu and Mlxg developed into a unit that didn’t make either of them into superstars, but it opened the map. xiaohu relit pathways that used to exist for Mlxg, but had seemed to disappear in the LPL.
Between 2015 and 2016, Mlxg’s team once again won offseason events. xiaohu continued to excel, though subtly, in the wave clear meta. Royal Never Give Up decided to retain the synergizing jungle and mid lane duo as well as AD carry Wang “wuxx” Cheng, but added ex-Samsung White Mata and Jang "Looper" Hyeongseok to the roster to give Mlxg and xiaohu something they never had in 2015: experienced leadership.
Despite setbacks in losing to Invictus Gaming and Team WE, Royal Never Give Up entered the 2016 Intel Extreme Masters World Championship on invitation after securing first place in their LPL group. Unlike many of the teams attending the event, Royal Never Give Up take to the rift as leaders of their region. That doesn’t make them consistent. That doesn’t mean that Mlxg has finally been properly harnessed or tamed.
But it does mean we’re starting to get a better understanding of the kind of player xiaohu really is. In 2016 LPL Summer, xiaohu no longer plays like the cocky iAro of MD Esports. On a team full of inconsistencies, especially in their top, jungle and AD carry positions, xiaohu has brought out some of the more exciting things about his playstyle on both Gamtee and the 2015 LPL Summer iteration of Royal Never Give Up.
In 18 games in 2016 LPL Spring, xiaohu has played 10 unique champions. His most successful have been Leblanc and Lulu with 14.5 KDA and 10.0 KDA respectively in four and three games played. xiaohu has been able to find fights with crowd control and create zones well, a quality that made him a powerful Azir player, but he can also use assassins to back up Mlxg’s more daring invades.
At Intel Extreme Masters Katowice, xiaohu didn't stand out in his team's group stage games, but he played confidently and created opportunities for his team to succeed. On Corki against Origen, xiaohu used The Package to split OG in team fights and isolate targets. Despite his low win-rate on Lissandra in the LPL, his placement of the ultimate and chaining of crowd control has made it one of his best champions to watch. xiaohu’s Lissandra against Song “RooKie” Eujin in Royal’s Game 2 loss to Invictus Gaming in the LPL underscored xiaohu's consistent status on the team. His Lissandra at IEM snowballed Mlxg into a monstrous Nidalee.
Royal Never Give Up’s mid laner sets up Mlxg. He does it almost every game when the need arises, and it’s up to Mlxg whether he can convert it into a lead for himself.
xiaohu isn’t the flashy solo-carrying prodigy some expected him to become between 2014 and 2015, but he’s something just as valuable. The ability to visualize and set up a play consistently is a quality xiaohu started to develop early, but it was often mistaken for raw mechanical talent. With better vision control from Mata, xiaohu creates the opportunities for his team to compensate for deficits contracted through lane swaps and questionable invasion attempts. Even in the first three weeks of the LPL before Royal improved their early game, xiaohu’s stability created a bridge to a strong mid game.
With low gold distribution and a relatively even laning phase, xiaohu’s mid game aggression and playmaking are unexpected. Mlxg and wuxx, the flashier carries for Royal, create most of the distraction as Looper and Mata handle vision and map control. After that, it’s all about the waiting game.
“Xiaohu” means “little tiger.” Whether or not xiaohu intended for his name change to match his developing playstyle, it does. Looper, Mlxg and wuxx all have set roles on Royal, but the team receives their flexibility and unexpected qualities in team fights from their mid laner and support. Mlxg and wuxx are weapons juggled between them.
If Royal Never Give Up make the final or win the IEM World Championship, spectators will sing the praises of Looper, Mlxg, wuxx and Mata. xiaohu isn’t a prodigy, but shirking the limelight has allowed him to focus on his affinity for team fight control. It’s the unexpected pounce of Royal’s little tiger that has the potential to carry them through.
Kelsey Moser is a staff writer for theScore eSports. You can follow her on Twitter.