Predicting where Royal Never Give Up would place was one of the greatest challenges of pre-Mid-Season Invitational analysis, but one expectation was unanimous: they wouldn’t sit at the top at the end of the third day.
So much for that.
Royal Never Give Up were undefeated in the first round of the Mid-Season Invitational, and in the first match of the second. Things have changed for them drastically. This isn’t anywhere near the same team that played the League of Legends Pro League Final less than two weeks ago, but at the same time, nearly every game they’ve played has been close. They’re still Royal — they just happen to look like the best team at MSI.
Many factors contributed to their results. Through poor preparation, emotional unease or other unknown circumstances, G2 Esports and SK Telecom T1 have failed to show up at the tournament. But that doesn’t take away from the real improvements Royal have made. This has become Royal's tournament to win in Shanghai, after nearly six months of disappointment from Chinese teams at international events. It's the first time a non-Korean team has been favored over a top Korean team like SKT since the region took over in 2013.
The xiaohu factor
Royal's improvement hinges on their mid and support duo. Li “xiaohu” Yuanhao has been the most consistent member of Royal Never Give Up for most of the split; when he appeared at Intel Extreme Masters Katowice, xiaohu showed conservative promise, with strong engage sense on Lissandra. At the time, he still struggled against Fnatic’s Fabien “Febiven” Diepstraten, but he’s only improved since then.
xiaohu has heavily credited Cho “Mata” Sehyeong for his improvements. “Before… If someone asked me why I did a certain thing, I wouldn’t necessarily be able to explain it," he said in a pre-MSI interview. "After Mata joined the team, he was really able to teach me to think about why I do things and make clearer decisions.”
As a mid laner for Gamtee and Royal Never Give Up last year, xiaohu’s approach to League of Legends was casual. He personally admitted he didn’t put as much effort into the game as was necessary. “I think one of the reasons our team didn’t do well last summer was because of me," he said. "I thought, even if I didn’t practice much, the team could still win matches.”
xiaohu’s steady improvement throughout 2016 seems to be the result of careful coaching from Mata and his own improved dedication. Even when the other Chinese members have shown a tendency to get caught out or over-aggressive, xiaohu seems to be a constant way to get back into the game.
Much of this comes down to xiaohu’s core strength, which is finding an opening in the enemy team when flanking. xiaohu’s strongest champions are Azir, Lissandra and Leblanc, all champions that excel in looking for an opportunity to engage or find a pick.
Even when xiaohu wasn’t far ahead on Leblanc in the game against G2 Esports, he found openings. Royal were punished when he wasn’t able to one-shot opponents and instead got caught out, but with a strong lead, xiaohu would have been able to easily eliminate threats.
It seems, to an extent, that Royal have come to rely upon xiaohu’s sense for finding openings. If he isn’t far ahead, they struggle to use him effectively. Against G2, when xiaohu went over-aggressive in the mid lane and then around dragon, G2 immediately took advantage, either by taking mid lane turret or bottom lane inhibitor.
Yet as xiaohu continued to look for opportunities, even from behind, Royal were eventually able to capitalize. xiaohu’s application of pressure has been Royal’s greatest advantage, and it makes him easily stand out as a top player at MSI.
The Mata matter
Mata’s greatest accomplishment isn’t teaching Royal Never Give Up how to ward, or the macro improvements often attributed to him — it's his attitude toward MSI. While teams like G2 haven't taken the event too seriously, Mata has said he's disappointed his team hasn't done better. He called Royal’s accomplishments so far “so-so” after going 4-0 in the first two days, and is unconvinced that they have a chance to succeed — claiming that Royal can only win if all of SKT fall ill.
If this mentality is genuine, it’s a fundamental change for a region like the LPL where LGD Gaming at the World Championship admitted they came in overconfident and didn’t have efficient practice. Constant pessimism keeps teams grounded, even when they’re succeeding, and allows them to keep improving, even when they’re at the top.
Royal were the team most consistently near the top of the 2016 LPL Spring season. QG Reapers imploded due to internal drama, and EDward Gaming had ups and downs throughout the season. Though Royal Never Give Up threw series against Invictus Gaming and Team WE, they constantly showed signs of steady improvement.
Perhaps Mata’s attitude is the primary reason Royal were able to absorb so much information from the teams around them at MSI. 15w published a feature ahead of MSI where they interviewed internationally successful players from top Chinese teams in the past, and the overwhelming sentiment was that they had achieved international success by not feeling too overconfident and by being open to learning from foreign competitors. This seems to be exactly what Royal have accomplished. Mata openly admitted that Royal have adapted a facsimile of SKT’s playstyle, after having poor results copying ROX Tigers. When Royal started the tournament with a risky game against Counter Logic Gaming, they corrected their habit of over-aggression by disengaging when fights began poorly.
After their abysmal run at Intel Extreme Masters Katowice, RNG adopted fast-push lane swap techniques. They are far from the best lane-swapping team at MSI, but their blunders are no longer as severe. RNG can use tempo advantages for Level 2 ganks to snowball the mid lane.
Aside from teaching RNG constant and stable improvement, Mata’s own performances have been exceptional. His Alistar needs to be denied, as he often chains crowd control beautifully with xiaohu. Some questions arose when he selected Braum against G2, but he had several highlight Braum saves in the LPL. His performance and his leadership has apparently created the perfect storm for RNG's swift rise.
When the shoe drops
The other players on Royal Never Give Up are far from a liability. Top laner Jang "Looper" Hyeongseok has a high level of stability and Teleport play that his buffed Royal’s dragon control. This style forces opponents into teamfights, where RNG often excel on an individual level.
Liu “Mlxg” Shiyu and Wang "wuxx" Cheng have had high moments well-deserving of praise, but they still display over-aggressive tendencies that cause RNG to get caught out. Kindred has been a useful pick for Mlxg since Lamb’s Respite can turn a catch by the enemy team into a successful teamfight. Denying the pick should be a focus for enemy teams looking to abuse Royal's weaknesses. wuxx seems to exemplify a certain level of cockiness that’s exploitable if teams target him.
Because of Royal’s daring, they make every game a close one. It isn’t so much that they play to the level of their opponents, or that they bring opponents down to their level — Royal’s "level" is difficult to pinpoint anyway. Rather, RNG tends to take narrow victories because their team coordination is still a work in progress. Individuals will make risky plays and get caught out, but the team have the trust and willingness to join up to save them and turn things around. This unstable formula has brought them success, but only through a constant back-and-forth with opponents.
Mlxg’s vision control has improved significantly, but not enough to overcome some of the struggles that make RNG's games close. Another vulnerability comes from their tendency to split and look for collapses to pick targets, which opens up individual players to get picked or eliminated before a fight begins.
Royal's playstyle is a double-edged sword, as dangerous to them as it is to the enemy. It's an unconventional marriage of recklessness and suffering patience. But if they manage to use Mata and xiaohu as an effective duo, and the rest of the team consistently follows them up, the attacking edge of the blade will keep getting sharper, while the chance of cutting themselves will lessen.
This is the key to RNG securing the second consecutive Mid-Season Invitational title for China. It's how Royal can once again topple Korea's representative halfway through the season. This may be Royal's tournament to win, but even if they lose, their combination of daring and patience is exactly what LPL needs this summer.
Kelsey Moser is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.