The camera missed it the first time. Six minutes into the opening game of the semifinal best-of-three between GE Tigers and Team WE, Su “xiye” Hanwei’s Leblanc dove Lee "KurO" Seohaeng’s Ezreal and eliminated his health bar while spectators watched Peng “Aluka” Zhenming’s Maokai Teleport lazily back to lane. Shocked silence followed as viewers awaited the replay.
xiye continued to pressure GE’s KurO throughout the match, but WE didn’t win that first game — they just won the next two. The last place League of Legends Pro League team upset the first place League of Legends Champions Korea team in the most unexpected series in LoL history. Throughout the series, xiye received overwhelming praise from commentators for his gall and daring the first time on the international stage.
None of that mattered in the final against Team SoloMid. Søren “Bjergsen” Bjerg and the rest of his team came prepared for xiye’s willful initiative and quelled his snowball before before it could coalesce. In the late game, WE’s lack of coordination in teamfights reflected on their mid laner, who relied too heavily on simple outplays to carry the new team to an international victory.
At the 2016 Mid-Season Invitational, history repeated itself with another Chinese Leblanc player. Royal Never Give Up’s Li “xiaohu” Yuanhao took advantage of a seemingly cocky Lee "Faker" Sanghyeok lingering in lane with health below Leblanc's combo threshold. The stadium in Shanghai erupted as Royal Never Give Up carried the momentum to destabilize the best team in the world in SKT's first loss at MSI.
Like xiye, xiaohu faltered in the last leg of his team’s run in the tournament. Faker took his own revenge in the MSI semifinal as xiaohu stubbornly attempted to brush with the game’s most celebrated player and fell to pieces on the rift.
Beyond dizzying heights and tragic slides on the international stage, xiye and xiaohu’s histories mirror each other in startling ways. From as far back as 2013 in particular for xiye, both players were pegged before they joined the LPL as heirs to the LPL mid laner legacy. In the last two years, they have had some of the best individual performances on the international stage, but also exposed prominent gaps that reflect the will-they-or-won’t-they sentiment that has encased their careers.
As the 2016 LPL Summer playoffs loom, the voices saying “they will” grow louder and louder. 2015’s gods, Yu “cool” Jiajun (from early spring), Heo “pawN” Wonseok, Wei “We1less” Zhen, Ceng “U” Long and Song “RooKie” Euijin, have all dropped to bottom teams or have spent the better part of the season sitting on the bench. 2016 Spring served as an incubation period, but xiye and xiaohu are out of time and out of excuses to take up the mantel. As they compete to lead the next generation, they don’t just compete against the reputations of last year’s gods, but shadows of their own making.
The Twisted Fate at the top of Ionia
Twisted Fate and topping the Chinese ranked ladder are two things synonymous with one of the greatest Korean what-ifs in the history of the game, Jeong “Apdo” Sanggil (also known as “Dopa”). But before Apdo joined Chinese servers, xiye spent the better part of 2013 through 2015 as a Twisted Fate main in the Top 10 of the Ionian solo queue ladder. His prowess tipped him off to WE, an organization well known for yet another Twisted Fate player, Yu “Misaya” Jingxi. He joined the organization’s Academy team in March of 2013.
The whirlwind of promises commenced. WE Academy became a living legend in third party tournaments featuring LPL and Tencent Games Arena teams in the wake of the flagship team’s turmoil and eventual split. WEA placed Top 4 in almost every offseason event between 2013 and 2014, including a victory in G League in which xiye outperformed cool as he subbed in for Young Glory, Invictus Gaming’s sister team.
WEA only placed third in the Tencent Games Arena that qualified LGD Gaming and Vici Gaming for the LPL qualifier that year. Ardent WEA fans considered this a fluke and instead watched WEA trounce other secondary teams in the first ever split of the League of Legends Secondary Pro League in 2014 Spring. WEA automatically qualified for the LPL, and xiye featured as a centerpiece. Capable of besting nearly any LSPL opponent on every champion and frequently drawing Twisted Fate bans, players already in the LPL even acknowledged him in their lists of top Chinese mids.
The freighter that carried excitement for xiye and the rest of WEA lurched to an abrupt halt as xiye eventually found himself replaced by Son "Mickey" Youngmin, a then-fresh-from-solo-queue mid lane Lee Sin main. xiye’s niche picks like Annie looked like spoiled cheese as WEA’s win-lane-win-game formula utterly failed to translate in the LPL.
Some of WEA’s fans blamed internal drama and the departure of support and Team Captain Liu “AhrI” Xudong at the start of the 2014 LPL Summer split. Regardless of the reason, xiye’s LPL debut hardly rippled, and with the exception of playing to keep WEA (later rebranded as Masters3) in the LPL in the 2015 Spring promotion, xiye would return to his roots as a fixture of Ionia’s Top 10 for nearly a year and transferred to Team WE as a mid lane substitute.
Except that the 2015 Team WE roster only experienced atrocious results in the LPL. Amid powerful Korean upgrades, WE’s thrown together group of legacies dragged to the bottom of the standings. They started to pick up two to three weeks before the Intel Extreme Masters World Championships, a tournament for which WE qualified with a different roster, but when scrim results improved with the addition of xiye and Korean AD carry, Jin “Mystic” Seongjun, Korean mid laner Noh “Ninja” Geonwoo allegedly asked management to bench him right before IEM.
xiye more than likely only joined the roster because Mystic represented a major upgrade over Qu “styz” Ziliang and the team couldn’t run more than two Korean players. Yet with Mystic, Lee “Spirit” Dayoon, and xiye, WE’s roster held the top three players on the Ionian ranked ladder, and polished individual outplays gave WE the largest upset win in the game’s history over GE Tigers. It was a lack of synergy and cohesive teamfighting that dropped them against Team SoloMid in the final.
Back home in the LPL, WE experienced modest success, narrowly qualifying for playoffs after spending most of the split in last place and dragging EDward Gaming to five games with their substitute mid laner. Even at their heights, the same problems were obvious. With more match wins, WE’s team play didn’t improve. They still played to crush lanes and snowball, but even midtier LPL teams could slide back into the game against them from a deficit.
One could distribute fault evenly throughout WE, but xiye’s apparently narrow pool of champions and his awkward cooldown timing in teamfights were made increasingly apparent when WE, after only a support player change, again tumbled to the bottom of the LPL standings in 2015 Summer. Their lack of coordination in team fights became almost embarrassing to watch as players on the team turned more and more to solo queue, streaming and isolation.
xiye’s 1v1 destruction of KurO, a player not even known particularly for his laning phase, looked increasingly like it would stand out as the highlight of an otherwise pockmarked career.
The Syndra who failed to qualify for the LSPL — more than once
xiaohu, like xiye, has spent a significant portion of his time in the LPL kissing the floor of the standings. Unlike xiye, xiaohu didn’t have to rub elbows with Ionia’s Top 10 to get noticed by a pro team. xiaohu had barely secured Diamond I on the sixth Chinese server before he joined his first esports club.
As a friend to the staff of MD E-sports Club, xiaohu, the Diamond I Syndra one-trick-wonder joined the team as a substitute in 2013. With constant grinding, xiaohu eventually made himself into a fortuitous investment and started for MD with four other players who crested the top of the ladder.
Excited fans began to speculate that MD would qualify easily for LPL after a split in the LSPL, but MD failed to qualify for the League of Legends Secondary Pro League three times, dropping out as early as the TGA regional qualifiers twice. They still received an invitation to the 2014 Summer Demacia Cup where xiaohu, then known as AngelBeats, gained the most notoriety.
Gamtee bought the entirety of the MD E-sports Club roster in all of its uncoordinated glory, but only started xiaohu. xiaohu’s masterful Zed performance in World Game Master tournament debuting for Gamtee unhinged the then-imposing Team King, showing the first signs that King, like WEA, wouldn’t keep promises made by offseason tournament success.
As a 15-year-old at the start of the 2015 spring season, xiaohu watched his teammates struggle through the first two weeks of LPL before his 16th birthday when he donned the metaphorical Gamtee panda jersey (they had stopped wearing the jerseys at that point, but the suggestion lingered). xiaohu had a slightly more promising start than xiye, as in an early match against Masters3, he took advantage of Bae “dade” Eojin with Fizz into Azir.
That didn’t stop Gamtee’s bleeding. The young team went on a string of 1-1 splits, and when things looked most bleak and Gamtee had no chance of making playoffs, staff advised them to just have fun in their matches. xiaohu showed off a peculiar champion pool with picks like Lucian and Irelia. “I didn’t actually think we’d win those games,” xiaohu laughed, “but we did.”
A niche champion pool and 1-1s wouldn’t provide relief for Gamtee. Though they re-qualified for the LPL, xiaohu felt far from confident in his team, but when Royal bought the spot from Gamtee, they assured xiaohu he would have a place on Royal Never Give Up.
Despite condensing some of the best Chinese talent from Gamtee and Team King into Royal Never Give Up’s roster, RNG’s LPL Summer was just as disappointing as Gamtee’s LPL Spring. xiaohu took the blame for his team’s poor results, saying he believed that even if he didn’t practice, Royal would still do well.
Royal played the promotion tournament, and xiaohu again narrowly helped his team requalify. A second near-relegation from LPL for xiaohu marked a turning point in his attitude. His practice ethic improved rapidly, and over the course of 2016, with the help of new team captain Cho "Mata" Sehyeong, xiaohu would begin to think more critically about his own performances in-game.
The absence of gods
While xiye and xiaohu sunk lower and lower in the LPL standings in 2015, League's leading mid laners wrote their own ballads in the blood of their opponents. Oh My God’s cool built high damage assassins to start the year, blowing through competition until Oh My God splintered critically and dropped near the bottom.
After a spring of absence, U jump-started Snake eSports and nearly pulled them to the World Championship with consistent and safe play in the mid lane and game-turning late game team fighting. pawN’s boldness provided the ultimate diversion for EDward Gaming’s carries to get ahead in the laning phase. RooKie and We1less became figureheads of the league, headlining with mesmerizing duels and risky plays they could force with an alarmingly high success rate.
xiye’s 15 minutes of fame against KurO at IEM Katowice, and xiaohu’s occasional domestic flash of brilliance barely registered on the scale of what the LPL’s most prominent mid laners could achieve. Throughout the year, both were repeatedly outshone and outdone, settling in their bottom tier teams with, at best, mid-tier performances.
In a near systematic unraveling of the LPL’s top mid laners, however, xiaohu and xiye slowly gained minimal recognition in 2016 LPL Spring. cool’s form dropped off irreparably with the exception of the occasional game-winning Twisted Fate play. U’s style conflicted with the team identity Snake wanted to project, so he found himself benched again, this time for Park “TANK” Danwon.
At the 2016 LPL spring final, pawN looked more like a liability than a world-class mid laner, hampering himself in lane and failing to hold waves or time his split-pushing well. He reacted poorly to xiaohu’s all-ins and spent the better part of the summer in Korea seeking medical treatment for persistent back problems.
We1less’ descent is perhaps the most tragic, as he never seemed to be able to pick himself up fully following a humiliating run at the 2015 World Championship. Also citing health reasons, he has taken all of 2016 LPL Summer off.
Things appeared truly dire in Week 6 of the LPL Summer when RooKie switched to AD carry for Invictus Gaming’s series against I May. For that week, all of LPL’s 2015 mid lane giants had vanished entirely. Even with RooKie back to the mid lane, he had one of his worst weeks in recent memory in Week 7, and iG remain out of contention for playoffs for the time being. Who will carry the mantel of LPL’s mid lane legacy? Two names finally leapt to mind, but far from the same way that cool, pawN, RooKie and We1less in particular did in 2015.
2016 LPL hasn’t been about turning xiaohu and xiye into mid lane monsters, but filling some of their greatest chasms: making them consistent team players. Both xiaohu and xiye have been obviously talented since they started playing competitively, but only watching a selection of their games wouldn’t necessarily convey that before 2016. This year, almost any VOD of xiaohu or xiye — with the exception of the latter’s wilting at the hands of the greatest player to ever touch the game in the MSI semifinal — will give the viewer an impression that this player knows how to influence the game positively for his team.
xiaohu’s sense for engagement makes him capable of splitting the opposing team with Azir or Taliyah, looking for an opening to assassinate the enemy with Leblanc, or positioning Lissandra into a choke point. Royal Never Give Up allocates the lowest percentage of team gold to mid lane of any team in the LPL, but xiaohu performs best when he leads the charge in fights and coordinates engagements with Cho “Mata” Sehyeong.
xiye has shored up his teamfighting weaknesses considerably, excels when he’s rotating around the map as a distraction, split-pushing with Teleport or holding the mid lane while jungler Xiang “Condi” Renjie farms. He still receives consistent Twisted Fate bans, and he holds down most of WE’s early game. When he cannot facilitate mid lane control on his own, WE fall apart, but he can still use his teamfighting and split-push pressure to help the team back into the game.
Both xiye and xiaohu have finally hit the right notes of consistency and team play after many of their supporters had given up, but there’s one major knock against them — they still aren’t the horrifying threats last year’s mid laners were.
Part of this comes from the fact that RNG and WE feel well-rounded as teams, and both focus much more on their junglers and bottom laners as threats. Jian “Uzi” Zihao receiving the lion share of RNG’s gold and much of WE’s extended laning phase existing to facilitate Condi’s farming don’t necessarily make xiaohu and xiye less impressive, but there’s less pressure on them to pull out the game-winning outplay, so they do it less often than their forebears.
LGD and iG both made conscious decisions in the past to funnel gold onto their mid laners. We1less faltered when attention shifted from him. RooKie doesn’t have the luxury of sharing the burden. cool similarly struggled sharing the limelight after years as OMG’s main damage threat. pawN’s very function is to draw attention by making ostentatious plays.
If xiye or xiaohu simply tried to outplay for extra flair, they could jeopardize their teams with a misstep. Much more well-rounded units can find success with conservative strategy rather than relying on their midlaner to outplay. That seems to be the formula RNG and WE have looked for this split, aligning xiye and xiaohu much more with U, a mid laner who seldom received his deserved recognition as one of the greatest LPL mids during his time as a starter for both EDG and Snake.
xiaohu and xiye aren’t the only mid laners in the running to lead LPL’s new generation. Game Talents’ Bong “RepubliC” Geuntae is more than worthy of recognition with a much more central role as a threat. RepubliC’s impressive laning phase from 2016 LPL Spring has persisted this Summer, but he’s evolved more facets of his play to carry Game Talents to wins they shouldn’t have achieved. He receives most of his team’s resources and turns fights both in early and late game with his team fighting.
Depending on one’s perspective, this is a massive slight against xiye and xiaohu, but there are others that are more severe. Without a champion that obviously takes advantages of opening for flanks, xiaohu doesn’t have as strong of an impact. When he selects Viktor, RNG can struggle to find an engagement and over-force fights. This also makes it much harder for the team to close if xiaohu doesn’t snowball on these picks.
WE’s strategy relies on xiye to hold mid lane and follow up Condi’s invades, but xiye doesn’t always predict the enemy jungler’s advancement, and he appears to get cold feet and exert less pressure in games WE lose. While xiye’s team fighting has improved considerably, it still doesn’t rival some of the greatest mids of the region, and while his strength is splitting map pressure, he doesn’t always abuse this fully.
But xiye and xiaohu have regained momentum. They’ve finally cashed in on some of the expectations from 2013 and 2014. One can see the development of these players from game-to-game, and xiye’s perseverance and growth in particular has been truly miraculous this year after three disappointing near bottom LPL finishes in a row. xiaohu’s commitment to practice has remained from the end of last year, and he recently procured first on the Korean ladder as a result.
Even with iG slipping more permanently toward the bottom of Group A, RooKie will likely retain the title of best mid laner of the LPL for at least a little longer. pawN's return may also rejuvenate the talent pool if he's regained his form from last spring. But for xiye and xiaohu, the abrupt mid lane talent vacuum of 2016 has served as a nested training ground to prepare them to finally start hitting the ceilings they hinted at for so long.
With last year’s altars of the greats all but empty, time has run out for xiye and xiaohu. By the end of the year we’ll know if they’re finally ready to fill them.
Kelsey Moser is a staff writer for theScore esports who spent 2015 railing against xiaohu and xiye hype only to eat her words in 2016. You can follow her on Twitter.