Though they lead the LPL, Royal Never Give Up and Qiao Gu Reapers had a miserable showing against a European team ranked in the middle of the EU LCS standings at the recent Intel Extreme Masters Katowice. IEM followed a near-disastrous run for Chinese teams at the 2015 Riot Games World Championship in the fall.
As these disappointing results accumulate, I find myself looking to EDward Gaming as a possible candidate for changing the landscape. EDG are the only Chinese team since WE to have won a major international event in League of Legends. Of 21 competitive League of Legends events in which they participated in 2014 and 2015, they placed first in 15.
Yet in the last two weeks of the LPL, EDG have been losing as many series as they win. They play like an echo of the dominant team that ruled Chinese League of Legends for nearly two years.
Huang “San Shao” Cheng, co-founder, previously general manager of EDG’s League team and current director of the organization, has been a very vocal figure in Chinese esports. With this in mind, I spoke to San Shao about some of the trials Chinese teams are facing, hoping to get a better feel for the organization’s mindset.
He told me EDG 's vision changes with the times, and now the club is focused on where interest in esports begins — with young, inexperienced players. “Now esports in China is very big, and the hottest topic it's ever been for the young people,” he said. “I am working to attract and educate young people to join esports and become successful. I want EDG to be a stage for these players to maybe better themselves.”
Streaming has become a popular form of entertainment for Chinese youth, and esports has established its place in this realm. But that also means there's a lot of money flowing into the market, and teams are struggling with the escalating value of players. One possibility for organizations in this atmosphere is to invest in young talent and try to build mindsets geared toward team success, amid the many distractions. EDward Gaming have brought in multiple novice players this year, and in the past they've raised rookies from the LSPL or TGA who've demonstrated high competency and work ethic over time, including Tong “koro1” Yang, Ceng “U” Long, and Tian “meiko” Ye.
“Not only are we looking for players who have skills in game, but we really want the player who understands teamwork and how to contribute to the team,” San Shao explained. “We want to help prepare the professional player to not just play the game, but to realize this is real work.”
EDG's pro players practice on the first floor of their gaming house, in a group of office-like rooms surrounding the main area. In the center, there’s an island dedicated to honing the skills of young players who aren't yet on a pro team. Novices must first demonstrate skill and teamwork in the open-layout main hall before they can join a team room. Many of EDG's reserve players practice in the open area.
San Shao sees preparation as key to dealing with new players, as well as winning competitions domestically and abroad. “I think that preparation is not only about preparing players outside the game,” San Shao said, “but translating things like strategy and ban-pick so players know it inside the game. We also need to work on motivating the player to keep them happy and excited on stage. Those kind of things are what I think of as good preparation.”
Overconfidence can sometimes factor into a lack of preparation. Speaking specifically of the Shanghai Major in Dota 2, San Shao said the Chinese teams may not have analyzed their foreign opponents deeply enough.
“Chinese teams maybe still thought they are number one, or the most famous in this game," he said. "Following the match, they had such a disappointing result. I think maybe they will realize that they need to change and come back and have a stronger result.”
In a similar vein, at least one pro League of Legends player, LGD-Gaming Captain Chen “pyl” Bo, expressed his regrets over the team's overconfidence after the World Championship in the fall. “Even if we played badly, we still thought at least we would get out of Groups. But when we first started playing, we thought that every team was difficult to play against," he said, adding that he felt their practice and preparation made the team “go in the wrong direction.”
San Shao stressed that adequate preparation takes a talented support staff, but as he's made it clear in the past that sometimes support talent is hard to find. In one of his journal entries at the World Championship, he wrote, “The LPL scene at the moment is lacking in strategic and open-minded talents in the backroom staff… Skilled players who can think and express themselves often go on to pursue other careers… The scene in China is truly missing talents who are willing to fill the less glamorous positions.”
Many retired pros, who in other regions would consider becoming a coach or analyst, are drawn into China's more lucrative streaming scene. Though some ex-pros choose to pursue streaming in South Korea and the West, it's far less common than for retired Chinese pros.
In our interview, San Shao shied away from placing the blame entirely on infrastructural gaps. A popular criticism within the Chinese League of Legends community is that, when Chinese teams attend international events, they stop playing the traditional Chinese teamfight style and attempt to imperfectly mimic Korean or western teams' playstyles instead. When asked what he thought of this criticism, San Shao agreed it's an issue, but he speculated that it comes down to the nerves the players feel when confronting a style they haven't played against before.
“EDward Gaming's team has also had these problems," he said. "Our preparation in China is very good. We beat everyone. Then we go to Europe, for example, we start training, and we also find good results there. Yet on stage, there is a slightly different style, and their performance was different. These kinds of problems can leave Europe and continue to affect teams when they return to China.”
Though he wouldn't elaborate on what kind of problems those might be, he said that something small can result in a "big bomb."
“The management team cannot really predict when and where these problems will happen," he said. "The only thing we can do is react when it happens. We need to solve the problems immediately. If we can solve these problems, players may have a breakthrough on stage. If we cannot solve the problem, then often times we will only know it when teams have a totally different result on stage.”
Despite obvious challenges for Chinese esports teams and less-than-ideal standings in the LPL, one of EDward Gaming’s goals has remained constant: the quest for the best result.
“We have only done well at one of two major international events [we've attended],” San Shao admitted. “We are focusing on the Spring LPL. If we can win this, we can go to MSI in Shanghai and try to fight for the second consecutive MSI title. [...] We are trying to challenge for the Championship as well.”
Last year, EDG looked like a possible contender for the World Championship title, but they lost in the quarterfinals, just as they had in 2014. So far in 2016, it appears EDG have a lot of work to do to achieve the results they desire.
EDward Gaming’s expansion has been undeterred by challenges posed by the changing Chinese esports climate. While visiting the club, I was shown team rooms for Heroes of the Storm, Counter Strike: Global Offensive, and Hearthstone. Partly as a result of increased funding set aside for building EDG’s staff, San Shao’s role in the organization has involved him less with the LoL team and more with their new CS:GO division.
“FPS gaming is very traditional,” he said. “They have a loyal fanbase, so the market is very good in China. It hasn't really been funded before this year, and after CS:GO launched in China, I thought that this could be a hot point for Chinese esports.”
My visit to EDward Gaming’s facility reinforced a lot of thoughts I already had about the state of esports in China. There’s a need to focus on how teams interact with young players entering the scene, and to create a better environment to prepare players for high-level competition. Even as the scene grows at an incredible rate, it's important not to lose sight of these fundamentals.
It remains to be seen whether increasing funding for EDward Gaming’s staff and focusing on young players will translate to good results for the team. EDward Gaming’s current placement in the LPL isn't encouraging, but they have had a measure of consistency in the past. And the fact that they have clearlove and Ji “Aaron” Xing, who have been part of both Chinese teams that have won major international events since the end of Season 2, speaks volumes. (Though Aaron is currently taking a break from coaching.)
This is an important year, not just for Chinese esports, but for EDward Gaming. If they can build themselves up again, whatever they’re doing behind the scenes will be well worth observing.