While the daring feats of mid laners Li "Xiaohu" Yuanhao and Huang "Maple" Yitang have captivated audiences at the Shanghai Oriental Sports Center, the unsung heroes of the 2016 Mid-Season Invitational have all been supports. The teams bound for the bracket stage in the coming week — Royal Never Give Up, Counter Logic Gaming, Flash Wolves and SK Telecom T1 — all have supports that define their team's playstyle. Here's a look at their impact and influence.
RNG: Cho “Mata” Se-hyeong
If Royal Never Give Up were a band, they’d probably be called Mata and the RNGs. Mata’s talented teammates, most notably mid laner Xiaohu, have praised the star support for giving direction to their play. In Xiaohu’s words, Mata taught him why he needed to do certain things in game, and to think about his actions in the context of the team, rather than as an individual player. Mata’s leadership transformed the team from a loose collection of solo queue players to a more unified and scrappy squad, who wrest control of the map from their opponents through teamfighting.
He's already star of countless highlight reels from his days on MVP/Samsung Galaxy White, and his individual plays from this tournament alone could make many more. His Alistar and Bard have been peerless at MSI, and he's pushed the limits of aggressiveness with Braum and Thresh. There’s little doubt that Mata’s individual mechanics make him one of the best supports to come out of Korea.
However, his true value comes from the way he sets the team up for success. So far RNG has led the MSI pack in vision control, with the highest number of wards placed per minute (3.85) and wards cleared per minute (1.69) in the group stages. The team have cleared a whopping 85.4 percent of their opponents’ visible wards.
Unsurprisingly, Mata leads this focus on vision with the most wards placed per minute of any support in the group stages at 1.48. He has an unexpectedly low kill participation — 64.1 percent, second-to-last of all MSI supports — but the highest First Blood rate, at 60 percent. RNG often relies on making picks and then forcing opponents into uneven fights, which is made possible by the vision Mata has provided. He doesn’t need to be present for a kill in order to facilitate it, but he also roams the map constantly, applying early pressure alongside RNG jungler Liu “Mlxg” Shiyu.
Mata’s role as RNG’s in-game leader is multifaceted — he provides top-tier mechanical ability, key initiation for his team’s fights, an exemplary vision net for map control and strategic guidance. Regardless of RNG’s final placement in this tournament, Mata has proven that he is still the best support in the world.
CLG: Zaqueri “aphromoo” Black
Rightfully known as a whole greater than the sum of their individual parts, Counter Logic Gaming have impressed at MSI group stage, not just with their mastery of the map but with their deep understanding of how to operate as a unit. aphromoo is a key cog in the CLG machine — a playmaking support who controls their teamfights along with jungler Jake “Xmithie” Puchero and top laner Darshan “Darshan” Upadhyaha.
aphromoo has always been known as a playmaker, even before he role-swapped from AD carry to support and signed with CLG in late 2012. After a brief departure from the team — between May 2013 and January 2014, after plans to join Team Curse fell apart — aphromoo made a name for himself as one of the strongest supports in North America. Together with laning partner Yiliang “Doublelift” Peng, the CLG bot lane was at times considered the best in the region. Their laning dominance first earned the team a regional title in 2015, when they bested erstwhile rival Team SoloMid at Madison Square Garden and earned a spot at the 2015 World Championship.
Following a disappointing group stage turnout at Worlds, CLG released Doublelift, and replaced him with Trevor “Stixxay” Hayes off their Challenger roster, CLG Black. Though the community had low expectations of the new bot lane duo, aphromoo went on to have a career year, guiding the young AD carry while aiding Xmithie in applying early jungle pressure. The results have been impressive, and both Stixxay and Xmithie have repaid their star support with monstrous performances.
Of all the supports at MSI, aphromoo had the highest kill participation in the group stage, at 76.6 percent, which is also third-best of any player at the event. CLG’s teamfighting — maligned throughout the NA LCS Spring Split — has massively improved at MSI, with aphromoo guiding Stixxay through teamfights, and chaining crowd control with Xmithie and Darshan. CLG has been praised for their self-knowledge, and aphromoo’s guidance has been a major factor in their ability to leverage their strengths to overcome weaknesses.
Flash Wolves: Hu “SwordArt” Shuojie
At just 16 years old, SwordArt was already leading his team (then called Gamania Bears) to high-profile international events. The young support was initially part of the 2012-13 Taiwan eSports League Draft Season, which plucked top talents from solo queue and put them to work growing Taiwan’s League of Legends esports scene. SwordArt’s skill at this event did not go unnoticed, and the Gama Bears signed him in the leadup to their Season 3 World Championship appearance, which included an automatic bid into the bracket stage thanks to Season 2 champions Taipei Assassins. Unfortunately, the Gama Bears' run didn't go much further, after an unlucky draw into SK Telecom T1 #2.
After this defeat, the Gama Bears disbanded, and SwordArt and his teammates joined the Flash Wolves. SwordArt's personal growth accelerated throughout the following year, as the team struggled with the absence of Gama Bears jungler and primary team initiator Chen “Winds” Pengnien, along with the constant mispositioning of AD carry Hsiung “NL” Wenan. Come 2015, SwordArt led the Flash Wolves to another World Championship, and in 2016, he helped orchestrate an upset victory over ahq e-Sports Club in the 2016 LMS Spring Split. Simply put, if SwordArt wasn't on Flash Wolves, they wouldn't be at the Mid-Season Invitational.
His role on the team makes for an interesting comparison to RNG’s Mata, especially with both supports receiving the smallest share of their team’s gold of any player at 2016 MSI (tied at 10.7 percent). As a general rule, teams funnel gold to their carries and support players make do with a small allotment, but this stat underlines just how efficiently these two supports are able to fulfill their duties.
SwordArt and Mata both facilitate teamfights — especially on the tanky initiator Alistar — but they take somewhat different approaches to influencing the map or applying pressure. SwordArt’s technique involves using his team’s vision to invade the opposing jungle, and lying in wait for foes. While he's shown he is fully capable of initiating fights out in the open, like Mata, his skill in ambushing opponents is what makes him both unique and dangerous.
SKT: Lee “Wolf” Jae-wan
Of all the supports in the semifinals, Wolf has the lowest profile. His affable, laid-back on-camera presence frames his primary role on SKT. Unlike Mata, aphromoo or SwordArt, Wolf excels at disengaging from and reinitiating teamfights, rather than starting them.
In light of SKT’s group stage struggles, Wolf has been criticised for his lack of playmaking, especially given some uncharacteristic mechanical missteps and overly-aggressive positioning from mid laner Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok and the well-documented woes of Kang “Blank” Sun-gu in the SKT jungle. Whenever a team fails to play at their highest level, what-ifs begin to creep into community discussion, and along with calls to replace Blank with veteran jungler Bae “bengi” Seong-woong, we've heard whispers that Wolf isn’t a carry support who can step up in SKT’s time of need.
Wolf is never going to be a hard initiator for SKT, like SwordArt is for Flash Wolves or Mata is for RNG. While one of his most-played champions — with an impressive 73.7 percent career winrate — is Alistar, and he’s certainly capable of engaging on opponents, he tends to hold off on using the Minotaur’s crowd control once until team is embroiled in a fight, to either further lock down opponents or peel them off of AD carry Bae “Bang” Jun-sik. There's no question Wolf can play hard crowd control tanky initiators like Alistar and Thresh, but he uses them in a completely different fashion than other, more proactive support players.
It’s telling that his most successful champion is Janna (90.5 percent career winrate), the queen of disengaging and resetting fights in a team’s favor. Across the MSI group stage, Wolf has looked best on Trundle, who slows opponents down and shifts terrain, giving advantageous positioning to the rest of his team. Where Mata and SwordArt have locked in Alistar every possible chance, Wolf has dabbled in mage supports like Karma and most recently Soraka at MSI, a further nod to his very different playstyle.
Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore esports. She thinks Mata is the best support in the world. Wait, did she say that already? You can follow her on Twitter.