The Nexus crumbled in less than 21 minutes in the penultimate game between SK Telecom T1 and Royal Club Huang Zu in the Season 3 World Championship. Lee “Faker” Sanghyeok’s now-iconic smirk met spectators as the camera swapped out from a view of the Rift. The series ended with a 3-0 for the Koreans, and as they celebrated their victory, 16-year-old Jian “Uzi” Zihao stared wistfully through ribbons of silver confetti at the greatest team to ever play League of Legends.
For a rivalry to exist, there has to be a competition. If a rivalry exists between SKT and any Chinese team, it would be with EDward Gaming, the only squad to triumph over them in a best-of-five in recent memory. But Royal’s history with SKT is more nuanced. It’s less a rivalry than the pieces of what could become one of the greatest stories in League of Legends.
Born April 5, 1997, Uzi is just shy of one year and one month younger than SKT’s peerless mid lane prodigy. He gained a following when a popular streamer known for ranking players on specific champions claimed that Uzi, and not Gao "WeiXiao" Xuecheng, was the greatest Vayne player on Chinese servers.
From there, Uzi’s career has been fraught in equal parts with misfortune and difficulties of his own making. Famously, Pak Kan “Tabe” Wong temporarily retired in March 2013 partly to escape Uzi’s demanding nature. Likewise, explosive personalities clashed on Oh My God after Uzi joined the team at the end of 2014. But Uzi has also been unlucky — he is the only pro that played for both teams that forfeited the LPL playoffs, and both times it was due to internal conflicts that didn't involve him.
“I would like to win this time,” Uzi said in an interview this spring, "because I haven’t won yet.”
His difficulties haven't kept him from being the first player in the world to play in two World Championship Grand Finals, both with Royal Club. Yet both were humiliating defeats at the hands of Korean powerhouses. In 2013, Royal Club Huang Zu fell in a crushing 3-0 to SKT. In 2014, Star Horn Royal Club suffered a less gruesome 3-1 loss to Samsung White, though the final 22-minute game was nearly as demoralizing.
That second time, Uzi once again stared dejectedly across the stage, as Samsung White’s jungle and support duo, Choi “DanDy” Inkyu and Cho “Mata” Sehyeong, embraced each other before joining the rest of the team to take the Summoner’s Cup. Uzi made it to the largest stage in the world two years in a row, with two completely different rosters, but the result was the same.
At the end of that year, Uzi left Royal, and this spring he wasn’t the one that gave Royal Club their first LPL title. It was Mata, the support mastermind who brought Royal down at the World Championship almost two years prior.
Mata’s history against SKT is far more storied than Uzi’s. He is perhaps the only player that could ever legitimately be called Faker's rival. When Samsung Ozone and Samsung White hit their prime, they had a more commanding hold over SK Telecom T1 than sister team Samsung Blue, who bested them twice in 2014 Champions. Samsung White eliminated SK Telecom T1 K from Champions Summer, doing their part to deny Faker his second consecutive World Championship appearance.
Vici Gaming was the first team to bring Mata to China. CEO Lu “HunTeR” Wenjun has said that “there are three kinds of League of Legends players in the world: there's Faker, there's Mata, and there's everyone else.”
Praised for his understanding of the game, Mata’s greatest flaw has been his temper. In 2013, Mata made his first World Championship, but Samsung Ozone didn’t advance beyond the Group Stage, because the team, in their arrogance, failed to prepare properly for the event. That was only one of several times where Mata played as if enraged; the most famous incident was on Vici Gaming at the Demacia Cup in spring 2015, when he locked in Jayce support and AFK’d in base after dying once.
Renewed dedication this split has made Mata worthy of acclaim again. He made a play for “best support in the world” at the Mid-Season Invitational, and he’s transformed a collection of unpolished Chinese talents into a team that not only makes more rational moves, but communicates effectively and takes the lead in decision-making.
The team have credited Mata for their improvement far more than any of the coaching staff. “It’s like Mata invented this game,” Wang “wuxx” Cheng said early on in the LPL season.
Yet despite their turnaround — which culminated with them besting SKT in not just one but two individual games at the 2016 Mid-Season Invitational — Mata’s incarnation of Royal Club suffered the most devastating series conclusion yet. SKT perfect-gamed RNG, failing to lose a single dragon, turret or player in 27 minutes. Mata respectfully shook Faker’s hand and walked off stage, but his expression was one of determination rather than defeat.
Since Mata came to China, fans have yearned to see him on a team with Uzi. Mata himself has openly contemplated forming a bottom lane duo with the AD carry. But, as with any two explosive personalities, there's also been the question of whether they would clash and destabilize their team.
“If the two of us played in lane together,” Mata said earlier this year, “I would make more concessions. In the game, I would hope we could improve each other and avoid counterproductive personality clashes.”
Based on Mata’s relationship with current AD carry, wuxx, it seems that concessions already come naturally to him. For example, though Mata doesn’t believe Twitch counters Lucian, at MSI he allowed wuxx to play the champion, and end RNG's lane swap earlier to take the 2v2. “It’s true that I think a lot and talk a lot,” Mata said. “But that doesn’t mean that I do everything. Rather, I play the role of enabling other players to communicate like me.”
During his career, Mata has been called many things: genius, savant, master of tilt. This year he has added the title of "teacher."
Following RNG's dizzying defeat, Mata told Chinese press that the team he would like to have in the LPL would be exactly the same as the one that he took to MSI — except that he would have Uzi as his AD carry. When asked why not wuxx, Mata said that, at the moment, the team’s bottom lane wasn’t good enough.
Barely a day later, the announcement that Uzi would join Royal hit Weibo. Uzi and Mata, both now defeated spectacularly by SKT while playing under the Royal Club banner, will finally join forces to challenge Faker’s dominance at the World Championship.
Despite the potential for conflict, this is the best roster change Uzi has made since Star Horn Royal Club’s defeat in 2014. Royal’s successes in 2013 and 2014 came when the team finally clicked into place around Uzi. His style isn't the most flexible, so it wasn't easy for him to adapt to the much more top-side focused dynamic of Oh My God, or the mid-jungle synergy and safe lane play of QG.
“I played very aggressively," Uzi said of his playstyle in 2013 and 2014. "I wasn’t the type of AD carry who cared very much about where the enemy jungle was, just the advantages I could get in lane. So sometimes it was very apparent in competitions that I would get caught very easily by the enemy jungler, but I was also the type who got ahead very often because of this.”
Uzi’s style is much more focused on lane trading, which has often restricted the pathing of his junglers, such that they have to spend considerably more time around bottom lane. Even though Uzi believes his playstyle has become more stable, he acknowledged while playing for QG that he likes to go for lane trades much more than fellow ADC Yu “Peco” Rui, and as a result his jungler needs to head bot more often.
No single style is optimal for every game, so Uzi will have to expand his repertoire, especially with Li “xiaohu” Yuanhao and Liu “Mlxg” Shiyu developing into forces of their own. Both of Royal Never Give Up's solo laners, though capable of carrying games, are much more the type to find opportunities and play a more stabilizing role. As a result, RNG have already had to learn to play around their bottom lane.
Despite Mata often praising self-sufficient AD carries like Kim “deft” Hyukkyu who don't focus on the laning phase, his own engage-heavy style is obviously best complemented by a lane-oriented and aggressive AD carry like Uzi. wuxx tried to achieve that, and he found more success than Zhu “NaMei” Jiawen in his current form — but he isn’t Uzi.
Whatever can be said about Uzi, his individual skill is approaching the upper echelon of great players. Especially at international events, his ability to rally his teammates around him and navigate near-impossible fights — often on the back of plays with a small probability of success — is spectacular. “I still haven’t died,” Uzi cried repeatedly in comms during the famous clip from 2013, where his Vayne wove around Oh My God members in the blue side blue buff area. “I really didn’t die!”
Uzi’s willingness to go for long-shot plays has been both his greatest strength and what's held him back. However, boldness bordering on recklessness is not uncommon among young Chinese talents, and one of Uzi’s new teammates, xiaohu, has also struggled with it.
“Previously,” xiaohu said recently, “I used to be the type of player who really wanted to get a laning phase advantage. All I focused on was being able to trade with the opponent or harassing the enemy mid laner. I would just have more health than the opposing laner and try to use that as an advantage. Now I think about a lot more things, like ways to focus on last hitting, controlling the flow of the minion waves and enemy map movements. ...I think I have become a more stable player.”
Unlike xiaohu, Uzi has played League of Legends professionally in the LPL for several years. His progress in developing a more versatile style has been visible, but slight. xiaohu, on the other hand, has gone from a disappointing prodigy to the second-best mid laner in the LPL, and one of the most consistent players on his team.
Naturally, he gives Mata much of the credit. And just as it helped xiaohu, Mata's guidance (along with the stricter approach of new manager Huang “San Shao” Cheng) could be what finally shapes Uzi into a more refined and versatile weapon. Even if it doesn’t, and even if this Royal Club plays like so many iterations of Royal Club before — focusing too much on bottom lane and snowballing Uzi into the strongest high-risk combatant he’s ever been — Royal will still be a good team.
They just won’t be the team that can finally take more than one game off SK Telecom T1 in a best of five. They won’t be a great team. They’ll never earn the title of “rivals.”
After more than a year of defeat and disappointment since Uzi and Mata first met in the Grand Final of the 2014 World Championship, it’s hard to imagine either player feeling satisfied with SKT continuing to wear the Royal crown.
Kelsey Moser is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter for Mata memes.