The last time a Chinese team won a major international title, their name was World Elite. They crushed through the IGN Pro League 5, only dropping two games. Following their accomplishment, they went on to dominate domestically through superior team fighting, going six months without dropping more than a game to any other opponent.
That World Elite is not the Team WE that showed up at the Intel Extreme Masters Katowice 2015 World Championships.
Three of the five members of Team WE have been playing in the 2015 LPL Spring season with a record of 1-6-8: that is one 2-0, six 1-1 splits, and eight 0-2 losses, amounting to eight total wins in 30 total games.
Early on, starting support player, Conan, benched himself when losses hit him. His replacement, YuZhe, supposedly had a breakdown and doubted his own abilities. Jungler Spirit, having come from a The Champions-winning Samsung Blue roster, was vocal about his dissatisfaction with his current team's performance.
By an account from WE's CEO, smallorc, mid laner Ninja instigated additional roster changes, prompting the team to use substitute players when he felt his own champion pool insufficiency held them back.
After the team began rotating the roster in scrimmages, they started to find some success in LPL with their existing roster of Aluka, Spirit, Ninja, Styz, and YuZhe. In Week 6 of LPL, WE played three Best of 2 sets and went 3-3, taking two games from Invictus Gaming, a team then-tied for fourth place in LPL, and a game from Vici Gaming, who field the Worlds MVP duo of DanDy and Mata. At the time, they had only four map wins. The next week, they would win a game against the third place team, Snake.
By the CEO's account, when WE received a 2-0 defeat at the hands of eighth place Master3 the following week, Ninja urged the team to send the second roster to IEM Katowice. The CEO agreed on the condition that Ninja would continue training after a brief vacation in Korea.
It would make sense if I told you the substitute players were Misaya and WeiXiao, the carries of Team WE at their heights, one of the greatest mid laners and the greatest AD carry China has ever produced. Only they weren't, nor were they as-yet undiscovered savants.
From Aluka to YuZhe, each of WE's players has a history in the competitive scene, and aside from Spirit, one wouldn't expect to see any of their names on a roster that eliminates the best Korean team in a best-of-three series.
Aluka has won an LPL. From the start that sounds impressive, but he wasn't the best, the second best, or even the fourth best player on his team. In September of 2012, two World Elite rosters formed: the team that would go on to win IPL 5 and their sister team, World Elite i-rocks. There's only one name on that roster that those who don't follow the LPL might recognize: Devil, the AD carry who would later change his name to NaMei.
The roster would later become Positive Energy, and NaMei, support Sicca, and jungler Jing, who joined during the 2013 LPL Spring split, formed the core of the team. During the Spring, Jing stood out as the best jungler in China, supporting solo lanes while NaMei and Sicca would dominate bottom lanes.
This team would make both 2013 LPL Finals, and even after Jing left the team in LPL Summer, NaMei and Sicca would carry them to win the title with Aluka along for the ride.
After NaMei and Sicca left in 2014 Spring, the new Positive Energy roster would only win six of 28 games before getting relegated to the League of Legends Secondary Pro League. In LSPL, Aluka remained on the team, and Positive Energy placed tenth of sixteen teams.
After such terrible results in 2014, it might shock many that WE would offer Aluka a place on their 2015 Spring LPL team, but they did. Since then, he has looked far worse.
In 2013 and 2014, Aluka would reliably do well in lane. Jungle pressure would allow him to take early leads and hold his own. His biggest problem was then converting the leads into late game, as his mechanical misplays in team fights would cost Positive Energy.
In 2015, top lane talent levelled up, and Aluka found himself out of his depth. While other top laners excel with picks like Gnar or Rumble, Aluka has suffered both in laning and team fight phase. WE performs best in laneswap situations where Aluka plays Maokai or Sion and can hold out through dives and simply become a tanky menace to soak damage later.
Of the Chinese players, Aluka has the longest and most impressive resume. Xiye was part of another sister squad created by the WE organization - this time in Summer of 2013 - called WE Academy. This team went on to destroy the first split of the League of Legends Secondary Pro League, only dropping two games.
Jungler Soist (the best of the LSPL junglers at that time) and xiye stood at the center of the roster as a high ranking solo queue star held in high esteem by several professional League of Legends players in China. He was known to play Annie mid and build Mejai's Soulstealer against his competition to rack up double digit kills.
Before xiye and WE Academy would rise to LSPL glory, they competed in G League, a tournament regarded by some fans as more exciting than the LPL for its format and production value. The most important team in their qualifier bracket was LMQ TianCi, who they 2-0'd in the final before progressing to the tournament proper.
On paper, WE Academy's group was the most stacked group of the event, featuring Team WE, CC Club (the team that eliminated Team OMG in a separate qualifier bracket), and Royal Club. The group stage featured best of threes between each pair of participants, and WE Academy only lost to one team, WE, but they managed to take a game.
The problem was that those rosters weren't the powerful rosters they were in 2013 LPL Summer. Team WE was on the verge of splintering in two as a result of internal drama and removed themselves from the 2013 LPL Summer Playoffs that took place after Worlds that year. Three-fifths of Royal Club's 2013 World Championship roster had already retired, leaving the squad in shambles. CC Club didn't go on to achieve much of anything after the event.
Outside the group stage, WE Academy faced WE again, and another rising LSPL team called Young Glory twice. The most significant thing about Young Glory at that tournament was that, in the finals, they would use Cool, OMG's star mid laner, as a substitute. Despite the 3-1 victory, Xiye performed the worst in laning phase of any member of his team.
Following G League, WE Academy had their meteoric rise through LSPL and would auto-qualify for 2014 LPL Summer. There, Xiye played six Best of 2's before being replaced by Mickey, a Korean solo queue player. In 12 LPL games, he only won once — against Young Glory, the team directly above WE Academy in the standings.
During his time in LPL, Xiye had a problem similar to Aluka's: he played fast in the early game, typically amassing gold and kill leads over his opposition on a variety of champions, and then wandered unconvincingly through the late game. In the first split of LSPL, winning laning phase usually meant winning the game, but Edward Gaming had made their mark on LPL, and if a team couldn't team fight in the late game, they wouldn't win.
YuZhe played with Xiye on WE Academy, not during their G League victory, but as part of the LPL team. WE Academy's previous support and shot-caller, AhrI, stepped down from the team after his teammates complained about him bringing his girlfriend to the house too frequently and distracting him.
WE Academy's new support was chosen for his experience in the scene as someone who had played with Invictus Gaming's Zzitai in 2012 on a team called Agfox before fading into obscurity. Under YuZhe's leadership, the team faltered hard and had a split only marginally more successful than Positive Energy's 2014 LPL Spring split, winning nine games of 28 before placing last and dropping into the LPL Expansion tournament for 2015 Spring.
There, Xiye and YuZhe reunited to fight for WE Academy's place in the LPL. There also, they played with Mystic, WE's current AD carry, for the first time. After Mystic's time on Jin Air Falcons where he failed to put up any noteable performances, he joined the WE organization — as their jungler. After WE Academy re-qualified for LPL, every member was benched when the team rebranded to Master3.
Once again, WE's Chinese players find themselves on a last place LPL team, and once again, they find themselves on the verge of another lofty accomplishment. This time, both things are happening at once.
Aluka and xiye succeeded at IEM the same way they succeeded in LPL and LSPL, respectively: they relied on the relative skill of their junglers to let them play confidently in lane. Spirit is the one player I've hardly mentioned so far, but his accomplishments are easy to recite. In 2013, Spirit appeared in two League of Legends The Champions finals in Korea, winning one. His team, Samsung Blue, made it to the 2014 World Championship semi-finals before dropping to their sister team, the eventual winner, Samsung White.
On Samsung Blue, Spirit played a more supportive style, securing vision to keep eyes on the enemy jungler and hovering around lanes rather than ganking them. In LPL, Spirit is the carry, and the reason WE started winning games had nothing to do with a recent burst of team togetherness, but rather a massive spike in Spirit's performance.
It's no coincidence that WE has won the most games (two each) against Invictus Gaming and Vici Gaming in LPL. IG and VG are home to Korea's top junglers from last year, KaKAO and DanDy; these are both opponents who like to keep the jungle fast paced, and players who Spirit knows very well. Spirit has seemed to constantly guess their movements in LPL, appearing wherever he's needed to keep his lanes safe.
Spirit seems capable now of performing to the level of his opposing jungler despite not being closely familiar with them; he guesses their movements and selects the lane to gank, reacting when they make a move. We saw that side of Spirit today.
That doesn't take away from the performances of WE's laners, but they did what they've always done best: take an edge in the laning phase, knowing their jungler will back them up. Xiye's in-your-face style overwhelmed GE Tigers' kurO. Aluka, with early ganks from Spirit, could avoid losing and play safe on meat shield style tanks. With help from xiye, Spirit made incredible plays around dragon and bottom lane, relying on high levels of individual skill to force mistakes from isolated Tigers and win the day.
WE didn't beat out GE with a revolutionary style. They didn't out pick, out comp, or completely outsmart. They took advantage of GE Tigers' typically more patient style to force skirmishes and the individual outplay, then capitalized on their confusion.
Xiye, Mystic, and Spirit are the top three rated solo queue players on the strongest server in China for a reason. WE played pick compositions and let Aluka soak damage in larger confrontations. They chose high mobility champions so that they could move to lanes more quickly and keep GE surprised.
WE didn't want a 5v5. They didn't want a situation that would rely on superior coordination or team play, because that's not what any Chinese player on the roster has displayed in his career. WE has the best jungler in the world and some of the best solo queue players.
There's more than one way to be elite.
Kelsey Moser is a staff writer for the Score and provides weekly LPL coverage. She swears she really enjoys Chinese League of Legends, even if she doesn't show it. You can follow her on Twitter.