To a Western audience, regardless of reasoning, I look less intelligent when I predict a Chinese team will win a major best of series against a western or Korean team, and they don’t, than I do if I predict a European or Korean team will win a major best of series against a Chinese team, and the Chinese team wins. One doesn’t bet on the erratic. LPL teams have had highs during the past two years that allow them to challenge Korean powerhouses in best of series more than any other region in professional League of Legends, but they’ve had lows, especially recently, that have seen them trampled by Western competitors.
It would make logical sense if, after the World Championship, I would stop picking an LPL team to triumph in a major series. It’s safer to go with the more consistent bet. I should have learned my lesson instead of taking the bait.
Except that, in this case, the more consistent bet is the Chinese team. Despite a playstyle easily perceived as high risk, Royal Never Give Up emerged from the Mid-Season Invitational Round Robin stage in first with an overall 8-2 record, only dropping games to Counter-Logic Gaming and SK Telecom T1, who also managed to make the top four. SK Telecom T1 limped into the top four after dropping four matches consecutively on Days 2 and 3.
Even in the League of Legends Pro League, Royal Never Give Up were most consistently considered a top team in the league. While initially a perplexing Baron focus and uncoordinated invasion attempts made Royal appear disjointed, they improved steadily, defeated EDward Gaming 3-1 in the final and advanced to represent the LPL in Shanghai at the Mid-Season Invitational.
By contrast, SK Telecom T1 displayed obvious dips in form related to Lee “Faker” Sanghyeok’s tendency to play too far forward in the lane without vision coverage and perceived communication struggles with Kang "Blank" Sungu and Lee "Duke" Hoseong. Though both Royal Never Give Up and SK Telecom T1 weren’t favorites to win their league final, Royal’s season makes their success less of an upset than SKT’s. SKT finished the regular season with a 67 percent win rate relative to RNG’s 81 percent.
But I’m not predicting Royal Never Give Up will defeat SK Telecom T1 in the MSI semifinal simply because RNG have won more games. LPL’s domestic competition was lackluster this spring, and if Spring Season has taught us anything it’s that the most important thing is how teams will perform on game day.
Both stylistic differences between the teams, and how they're expected to adapt with several days off to prepare, will be major factors in the matchup. The main consideration that has determined the group stage matches between SKT and Royal Never Give Up has been late game teamfighting. Even from behind, SKT have been able to take advantage of RNG’s style of teamfighting and positioning to carve comebacks. Yet Royal’s approach is oppressive and surprising when it works.
Largely as a result of their match record, Royal Never Give Up lead most Mid-Season Invitational early game statistics. They’ve acquired first blood in 90 percent of their games, have managed a 72 percent dragon control rate, place the most wards per minute and on average have spent 10 percent more of game gold than their opponents, emphasizing that they keep control through most of the game.
The statistics where Royal don’t lead are the most telling. Royal are actually only at .72 Combined Kills Per Minute, setting them fourth overall, their gold lead at 15 minutes pits them third in the tournament, and they’re last, even below Super Massive, for percentage of games where they secured first turret at 20 percent. They also average the longest game time in the tournament.
Despite only coming fourth in the group stage, SK Telecom T1 still average the second highest first dragon rate, gold spent percentage difference metric for game control, the second highest gold lead at 15 minutes, and are nearly on par with Royal Never Give Up in percentage of total jungle minions killed, wards placed per minute, and wards cleared per minute. These are the two best map control teams in the tournament but they go about it very differently.
Royal Never Give Up Captain, Cho “Mata” Sehyeong, said that RNG have observed SK Telecom T1 and tried to be more like them. This isn’t immediately obvious. Lane swap technique improved drastically for Royal Never Give Up since Intel Extreme Masters Katowice, but we saw in the first game against Flash Wolves, they’re still prone to making crucial errors and falling behind. They compensate in mid lane control.
Aside from SuperMassive AD carry Nicolaj “Achuu” Ellesgaard’s impressive 10 CS at 10 difference on average, RNG mid laner Li “xiaohu” Yuanhao averages the highest CS at 10 difference of the event at 6.8 relative to Faker’s -5.8. Going into the tournament, Faker’s tendencies in Champions Korea to play far forward in the lane with less regard for jungle pressure were observable. A team like Royal who studied SKT could easily take advantage of it, as they did on the first game of Day 2.
Getting xiaohu ahead has been an important mechanism for Royal Never Give Up to control the jungle. They’re much less likely to target side lanes turrets, which are easier to eliminate, and instead put a lot of pressure into dropping the mid lane turret first. Royal Never Give Up often won’t opt into a 1-3-1 situation until the midlane turret goes down, which can put them behind in mid game lane assignments.
In exchange, however, Royal Never Give Up gain a lot of jungle control by prioritizing dropping the first tier turret in mid lane early. Mata’s 1.48 wards placed per minute and the team’s 56.3 percent average jungle minions killed show that RNG like to pressure with jungle invades, laying vision and looking to catch out targets throughout the early and mid game. Despite awkward turret trading and a lower gold lead at 15 minutes than expected, Royal Never Give Up still average the highest Early Game Rating on OraclesElixir.com for the event.
So even though SKT may lead in side lane control and secure turrets earlier in the game, Royal’s emphasis is different and tends to result in more overall map control. This allows them to set up vision better around dragon and look to start fights. A preoccupation with dragon and teamfighting is the greatest similarity shared between RNG and SKT.
SK Telecom T1 and Royal Never Give Up should both ultimately be classified as teamfighting teams. xiaohu told theScore that both he and Faker tend to play more team-oriented roles than Flash Wolves mid laner Huang "Maple" Yitang, and he believes that, at least at this event, their ability to play the laning phase is similar, but that Faker is much more useful to his team in fights.
In terms of differences between SKT’s and RNG’s teamfighting styles, Faker has shifted more and more into playing a utility role, while Bae "Bang" Junsik is more the primary carry of SK Telecom T1. SKT are famous for their Lulu-Lucian composition, and xiaohu said that he expected them to play the composition if it was available to them. Contrary to his laning phase, Faker will play more toward the back line to stay alive and create opportunities for his allies throughout the fight by buffing Bang and dealing sustained damage.
xiaohu and Wang “wuxx” Cheng work very differently. wuxx is also set up to do a lot of damage in fights, but xiaohu plays more of a front line or initiation-oriented role where he’ll look to flash on Ryze, assassinate on Leblanc, or find an opening to use his ultimate on Azir. He’ll share this duty with nearly every member of the team, creating a much riskier front line all-in style.
Royal Never Give Up have taken tendencies of some of their young Chinese players to engage aggressively into fights to create a very bait-oriented style of teamfighting. This is most evident when the team runs Kindred, which is why the pick is so powerful in particular for Royal Never Give Up, even in the context of a tournament where Kindred is easily the best jungle pick.
Liu “Mlxg” Shiyu and wuxx in particular have a tendency to misposition in team fights, getting caught out of place while diving too deep for the back line. There have been many instances where wuxx has been pinned between members of the enemy team. To avoid situations like that, they put Mlxg on highly mobile champions that allow him to dive deep and act as a bait. Royal secure vision around an area where they want to fight, allow Mlxg to appear to be caught out, and then flank when the enemy team collapses onto him.
This style of fighting isn’t exclusive to Mlxg. In the final game of the Round Robin, top laner Jang "Looper" Hyeongseok played this role with Ekko. He would push out in the mid lane while Royal flanked in the river bushes on either side and waited to collapse. Royal seem to be able to transition easily to using different members as baits depending on their composition. So while teams like Counter-Logic Gaming and Flash Wolves have designated members as baits in Choi "Huhi" Jaehyun and Hsiung "NL" Wenan, Royal Never Give Up’s flexibility and versatility makes them less predictable and the priority target more obscure.
Comparing percentage of damage dealt to champions by SK Telecom T1’s Faker and Bang, and RNG's xiaohu and wuxx for the Round Robin demonstrates the difference in how these two teams like to fight. Both Bang and xiaohu sit in the top three for the event in percentage of team damage to champions at 31.3 percent and 30.9 percent respectively, but wuxx hovers much closer to xiaohu’s percentage at 29.1 percent, and Faker sits at 24.1 percent.
SK Telecom T1 top laner Duke and jungler Blank both contribute a higher percentage of team damage than their opposites on Royal, but neither break 20 percent, making Bang the obvious threat for SKT. SKT’s condition for victory at this event has been to keep Bang alive. In the Champions regular season, Faker dealt a higher percentage of team damage to champions than Bang, but the two were still relatively even at 31.6 percent and 29.1 percent respectively, making their threat juggling much more like Royal’s.
Part of this comes down to team tendencies to focus mid lane. Faker also appeared to be getting caught out more than usual, and could be eliminated early on, but Faker was only responsible for 20 percent of his team’s deaths, meaning in most cases he simply took a step back, and SKT focused on building up Bang. Bang’s own awkward positioning on Day 3 made this strategy untenable against Flash Wolves and Counter-Logic Gaming.
Both teams have different strategies for keeping the enemy team from their main damage threats. Royal run compositions with multiple threats and use different members of their team as bait, or go all-in for a distraction play while SK Telecom prefer a more traditional front line and back line approach to keep Bang alive at MSI. Both methods have risks. Because of SK Telecom’s skill in executing their own style, it has appeared less so.
Yet because of the unpredictably of Royal Never Give Up’s style, it’s more difficult to adapt to. It’s difficult to discern the priority target or to distinguish the difference between a bait set up for a fight and a legitimate catch. If Royal manage to secure another devastating lead through picks and Teleports against SK Telecom T1 the way they did in both games in the Round Robin, SK Telecom T1 will naturally need to look for picks to get back in the game, and that makes them all the more likely to fall for this trap.
One of Royal Never Give Up’s greatest advantages has been in Mlxg’s level two mid lane ganks and the utility of Looper’s Teleports over Duke’s. Throughout the tournament, Duke has over-extended in side lanes to get caught out. Since Royal often group early, this kind of mistake is something they’re naturally disposed toward catching and punishing. Once Royal have an advantage on their top laner, their more likely to win bottom lane fights, especially if Looper’s Teleports are more timely.
The synergy between Looper and his team have made his Teleports more effective throughout the tournament. Using Duke’s Teleports has been something with which SK Telecom T1 have struggled the entire split. Now that these problems have re-emerged in Shanghai, it seems unlikely that they can fix them with only five days before the semifinal.
Blank has farmed much more than Mlxg in the early game, due in part to indecision. In many lane swap scenarios in the LPL, the level two mid lane gank became a staple. While top and bottom lanes were tied up trading turrets, the jungler and mid lane often engaged in 2v2s. xiaohu and Mlxg became proficient at this style of play from there and began using it more and more in standard lane scenarios.
This is something SK Telecom T1 can easily adapt to, and that’s likely why they didn’t apply it in their second game. Instead, Royal showed more variety by using Teleport advantages and a different jungle path to bottom lane for kills. This versatility is something SK Telecom T1, potentially trying to find equilibrium again after unexpected losses, were unable to demonstrate throughout the Round Robin stage.
If one were to choose one team to maximize break time and adapt, it again seems safest to pick SK Telecom T1. Kim "kkOma" Junggyun’s guidance should lead the team back to equilibrium and allow them to analyze where they went wrong most efficiently.
Yet Royal Never Give Up’s rapid improvements over the course of the tournament may make them one of the teams that have shown the greatest growth at an international event in the shortest period of time. Royal Never Give Up have demonstrated more versatility in ten games of Group Stage than they did throughout their LPL season, using 1-3-1 split strategies, improving their lane swapping, juggling different teamfight compositions, and methods for flanks.
This doesn’t mean that Royal aren’t without their flaws. They’ve thrown a game against Counter-Logic Gaming, and their bait strategy of teamfighting seems to backfire the most in the late game, which is troubling for a team with the longest game time. SK Telecom T1 abused this in both of their matches. This is likely to be a long series.
It’s just that Royal’s flaws are fewer and easier to correct than SKT’s. SKT have struggled with some of the same problems in making Blank a consistent force and using Duke’s Teleports all season, whereas when Royal have steadily made improvements, and as they make them, they seem to stick with the team.
Perhaps Royal haven’t developed in the most conventional way, but their style of teamfighting suits them well, even with the risk, and if SKT continue to use Bang as the predominant threat, they bear risks of their own. Regarding the CLG loss with a 17K gold lead, xiaohu said, ”I think in the big picture it's probably a good thing that we lost that game so that we are able to reset our mental state a little bit and feel like we can make a lot of improvements.”
If Royal can use this week as efficiently as they’ve used the whole of MSI, they should be in form to take down SK Telecom T1 in a drawn out series. Going into this event, I, like many others, predicted SKT to take home the title. The organization’s history time and again makes them the safe bet.
But this time around, it’s a bait, and even with the risk, Royal deserve the nod.
Data provided by OraclesElixir.com.
Kelsey Moser is a staff writer for theScore esports, still gun-shy after LGD's collapse at Worlds. You can follow her on Twitter.