The Brutality of Hubris: Royal Never Give Up's success and G2 Esports' failure

by theScore Staff May 10 2016
Thumbnail image courtesy of MSI / lolesports flickr

We win, we stay humble, and we keep winning… Hard work always pays off. Always.

Carlos "ocelote" Rodríguez Santiago, G2 Esports owner

G2 Esports' “vacation” is more than just a running joke that’s traveled as far as the MidSeason Invitational Broadcast — it’s the theme of the entire event. Teams that were expected to do well struggled to adapt or didn't use their practice time efficiently, and teams that did profited.

Of all the regional rivalries that have cropped up throughout League of Legends history, the one between Europe and China had the greatest tournament of all time to set the tone. Since Team WE's victory over Fnatic in the IGN Pro League 5, Europe and China have competed quietly — China has placed better at international events, but European teams have had competitive moments where they've overtaken Chinese teams. It’s rare for teams from both regions to perform exceptionally at the same event.

European and Chinese team placings at major international events

Event EU highest placing CN highest placing Total teams
2013 IEM World Championship 3rd-4th N/A 12
2013 All Stars Shanghai 5th 2nd 5
2013 World Championship 3rd-4th 2nd 14
2014 IEM World Championship 2nd 5th-6th 8
2014 All Stars Paris 3rd-4th 2nd 5
2014 World Championship 9th-11th 2nd 16
2015 IEM World Championship 5th-6th 2nd 8
2015 Mid-Season Invitational 3rd-4th 1st 6
2015 World Championship 3rd-4th 5th-8th 16
2016 IEM World Championship 2nd 3rd-4th 8
2016 Mid-Season Invitational 5th TBD (1-4) 6

Usually the top spot at a major international event is reserved for a Korean team, which means there's typically a heated battle for second, with one region winning out. Though China has had higher placements overall, both regions have had periods of ebb and flow.

Until recently, the overall best-of series record between European and Chinese teams was in favor of Chinese teams, but toward the end of 2015 this changed. Only one Chinese team advanced to the World Championship quarterfinals, and a European team 3-0'd a Chinese team in a best of five for the first time in the game’s history.

"[E]ven if we played badly we still thought that at least we would get out of groups,” LGD Gaming’s Chen “pyl” Bo confessed after his team, considered a possible favorite to win the entire World Championship, went 0-3 to open the group stage. “[A]fter we won the LPL finals, the practice we got was making us go in the wrong direction.”

That loss, as well as flops at Intel Extreme Masters San Jose and the humiliation of top LPL teams at Intel Extreme Masters Katowice by then-mid-tier EU team Fnatic, set low expectations for the region. Western audiences' interest in Chinese games dwindled, and they were written off as the “Land the lane swap forgot.” According to popular opinion, LPL teams weren’t cocky, they were just bad.

Yet pyl's statements at Worlds are eerily similar to those made by Luka "PerkZ" Perković of G2 Esports this year at the Mid-Season Invitational. “We could not scrim, we could only maybe scrim Challenger teams, but we decided… taking that vacation would be maybe better for us,” he said in a Day 1 interview. Both players, despite coming from very different circumstances, claimed their practice was insufficient to prepare them for international competition.

Ahead of their games, both LGD Gaming and G2 made a public show of confidence. LGD’s mid laner, Wei “We1less” Zhen, claimed he’d solo-killed Lee “Faker” Sanghyeok in scrims, and even when he died repeatedly, his team would still win. PerkZ told theScore he believed that European mid laners were just as good as Asian ones, and he planned to show it on the stage. “My prediction is that we go second place,” Coach Joey "YoungBuck" Steltenpool said before the event, “but we will take at least one map off of ROX Tigers or SKT, depending on who qualifies.” Both teams were so confident, in fact, they didn't bother to practice efficiently, or in G2's case, at all.

LGD's return to China was also met with internal strife. Despite a roster change, the team failed to win a single series in offseason tournaments, or find success in the LPL for most of the season. In G2's case, community members close to the team have already hinted that their decision to avoid practice was a result of internal conflict.

These are the stories that have stood out at Worlds and MSI. But they overshadow another pair of storylines, belonging to the teams that practiced hard and exploited their opponents' overconfidence.

After taking the first game from LGD Gaming at the World Championship, Origen’s mid laner Enrique “xPeke” Cedeño Martínez said he thought that “maybe they haven’t prepared as much for us as we have for them," so OG felt they "had a good chance” against their Chinese opponent.

Unlike G2 Esports, after winning Europe’s Regional Qualifier, Origen flew to Korea to bootcamp. They managed to defeat a vulnerable LGD Gaming, take a game from KT Rolster, and advance to the semifinal against SK Telecom T1. Both Paul “sOAZ” Boyer from Origen and Martin “Rekkles” Larsson from Fnatic (the other EU team to make semifinals at the event) said their teams practiced to the point of burnout.

Origen began to improve during the EU LCS playoffs and ramped up steadily through the Worlds group stage. Their smart use of comebacks, map movements and drafting priority made them a powerful opponent, despite the widespread prediction that they would fail out of the group stage.

Extensive preparation for LGD allowed them to topple the Chinese favorites, sending them on a four-game losing streak. The same thing happened when China’s Royal Never Give Up tipped over powerhouse SK Telecom T1 in the round robin of the Mid-Season Invitational to start the Koreans on a four-game losing streak of their own.

“We studied SKT, their strategy, their picks, and we tried to be more like them," Royal Never Give Up Captain, Cho “Mata” Sehyeong said after the SKT match. "I think that’s how we were able to win.” Despite Royal’s impressive victory, he was not satisfied with what the team had achieved, calling the team's performance "so-so."

Li "xiaohu" Yuanhao, Royal Never Give Up’s mid laner, echoed Mata’s sentiment. “Even though we have been winning quite a few games early on in the tournament, we have a tendency to review each and every mistake after every game,” he said. Their meticulousness has paid off. The team has improved throughout the tournament, showing they can learn from their opponents and execute new strategies in each match.

Royal Never Give Up is not the only Cinderella Story of the Mid-Season Invitational. The second place team in the Round Robin is Counter Logic Gaming from North America. Though they faced, on average, lower expectations than Royal, their teamfighting and reactive play have drastically improved, surprising many opponents in the late game. The team has credited their perserverence.

“This has been a non-stop grind for us,” Coach Tony “Zikzlol” Gray said in a Day 5 interview. “Before we came to MSI, we took a few days off as well, but we still scrimmed Challenger teams for about a week and a half.” Through this exercise, CLG were able to practice on the new patch and keep their team communication and cohesion sharp.

Zikz dismissed G2 Perkz's complaint that there weren't any teams to scrim. “I think it’s mostly just poor mentality, to be honest,” he said. “You make of practice what you want to make of practice, so if you think that you can only be as good as your opponent, then you’re never going to be the best, right? You have to always strive to be better.”

CLG loves to repeat the phrase "Respect all, fear none" in their interviews. This self-critical attitude is the undercurrent driving both of the powerful breakout teams from the Round Robin.

Though it’s hard to imagine SKT suffering from complacency on the level of G2, one has to wonder if they were shocked when RNG beat them. Some analysts were seriously predicting that SKT would not drop a game at MSI, but they opened the second day with a four-game spiral — the longest losing streak an SKT LoL team has had against non-Korean opponents.

The Korean favorites lost coordination, and old flaws from the regular season reemerged, like jungler Kang "Blank" Sungu’s indecision and Lee "Duke" Hoseong’s puzzling Teleports and over-extensions. For those four games at the very least, they were no longer the SKT that toppled KT Rolster or the squad that demolished ROX Tigers in the Champions final. They were mentally shattered, and by the Round Robin’s conclusion, it still looked like they hadn't completely recovered.

Both China and Europe have histories of over-confidence leading to poor performances at international events. North American and European teams have laughed off Chinese squads for poor scrim behavior and an over-emphasis on teamfighting. Chinese community members have looked incredulously at the individual skill of Western challengers.

The recent World Championship and the Mid-Season Invitational have shown how brutal a companion hubris can be. Confidence is earned through careful study of your opponent and your own limitations. Just because the last two major League of Legends events were humiliating for Chinese teams doesn’t mean they aren’t worthy of consideration. Just because EDward Gaming won the Mid-Season Invitational in 2015, doesn’t mean that LGD didn’t need to prepare respectfully for the World Championship.

Just because North American teams have rarely ever contended for a title doesn’t mean they can’t still surprise us.

The hard work and dedication that Royal Never Give Up and CLG have shown at MSI and that G2 haven’t is the real story of the tournament. It isn’t about China vs. Europe. It isn’t about stylistic differences or individual matchups. It’s about practice ethic. As G2 struggle against the onslaught of criticism that will no doubt bombard them in the coming months, they’ve hopefully learned a difficult lesson.

Perhaps the coming World Championship will feature both Chinese and European teams with fresh shame driving them to heavy preparation. As an avid follower of EU LCS and the LPL, I can hardly wait for the showdown.

Kelsey Moser is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.