Until Snake’s near-miraculous run at the Regional Qualifier this year, the longest day of matches for any team in Chinese League of Legends esports was Sept. 8, 2013, the day Royal Club Huang Zu played nine straight games to qualify for the 2013 World Championship as China’s first seed. In the final series, the crowd, more lukewarm than they would have been had fan favorite Team WE made an appearance, waved blinking green batons as Royal Club and Oh My God settled into their chairs. Not only was it Royal’s third series of the day, but it was the second time they played against Oh My God; they had started their run by losing 1-2 and dropping to the loser’s bracket of the tournament.
In part because they were denied their Annie support pick, Royal didn’t choose their duo lane mid strategy for the first game. They instead used the aggressive Elise against Yin "Lovelin" Le’s farming Yorick by first ganking mid to burn Yu "cool" Jiajun’s flash, then pressuring with an invade that Royal mid laner Lo "Wh1t3zZ" Punwai could follow up with easily for first blood. The deadly Elise and Gragas combination slayed cool and snowballed from there, adding Jian "Uzi" Zihao’s assassin Twitch to the mix for a 26-minute opening devastation. Royal 3-0’d the series against China’s most dominant team of 2013, a team they’d already lost a best of three to earlier that day.
In 2013, pick compositions and deep vision reigned supreme with supports buying inventories full of wards. Oh My God started the LPL revolution themselves, but Royal took it even further with strategies that pressured the mid lane with the duo lane, using Twitch to take advantage of gaps in vision and the zoning power of Annie as a support to control the jungle. When people remember Royal’s climb from a three-way tie for second place in the LPL regular season to the finals of the 2013 World Championship, they highlight Uzi’s Vayne, the power of Royal’s duo lane and the "raise the puppy" strategy.
Royal’s innovations conveniently slip out of the narrative, as does their impressive, nine-game Regional run to claim first seed from a powerhouse OMG that went toe-to-toe with SK Telecom T1 K, the eventual tournament winners, in their first game of the group stage. When people think of Royal Club at the World Championship, they call it an inexplicable "Uzi World Championship buff." They expect that, no matter how poorly Royal Never Give Up have been doing domestically in 2016, the same mysterious Worlds Buff will re-emerge.
This buff doesn’t actually exist. Both seasons, Royal Club had upswings, in part due to synergy finally coming together, in part due to familiarity with their opponents coming to fruition, and in part due to favorable meta changes. This persistence in form carried over with them to the World Championship. The same upswing didn’t occur for Royal Never Give Up this year. Instead, they spent most of the summer split looking progressively worse.
The announcement that Uzi would return to Royal Never Give Up came after the team’s devastating defeat at the hands of SK Telecom T1 at the Mid-Season Invitational. Cho "Mata" Sehyoung informed Chinese press that, if he could choose four LPL players to face SKT again, he would select himself and the rest of the existing members of RNG, with one exception — he would change the AD carry to Uzi.
Uzi rejoining Royal seemed logical on paper. Though Jang "Looper" Hyeongseok and Li "xiaohu" Yuanhao had both had impressive moments at MSI, Royal needed a closer, and Uzi’s team fight targeting could have provided that for them. For a while, it worked out, as Royal Never Give Up used raw strength to sweep through their lanes for the early part of the 2016 LPL Summer split.
Over time, however, Royal appeared increasingly strained. Their inability to close remained. For most of the regular season, they averaged a gold lead over 1700 against their opponents at 15 minutes, the highest of any team in the five major regions. Yet they tunneled on Baron. Their side wave control lacked, and Mata got caught out continuously warding on his own.
On the topic of Mata and Uzi, their synergy never seemed to truly set in. In the third game between Royal Never Give Up and EDward Gaming during the regular season, Uzi and Mata’s engage went awry in part when Uzi tried to retreat while Mata had EDward Gaming AD carry Kim "deft" Hyukkyu stunned, only one of many trade-based awkward moments for the duo.
This isn’t the first time it has taken Uzi a while for his rhythm to align with his support’s. Yoon "Zero" Kyungsup often seemed to play catchup with Uzi when he would dive aggressively in 2014, and many of Uzi’s ex-teammates from 2013’s iteration of Royal Club remember him clashing with Wong "Tabe" Pakkan. In his retirement video, Royal Club top laner Xiao "GodLike" Wang described Uzi as demanding, criticizing his teammates excessively for any misplay, and when Tabe had had enough and threatened to leave, GodLike said Uzi re-directed his ire toward the team’s jungler instead.
These factors, in addition to the perceived reduced impact of solo laners xiaohu and Looper, even when they’re over their opponents in creep totals, have resulted in several criticisms of Uzi’s stubbornness. To compound the situation, Royal’s gold distribution has drifted drastically toward Uzi in the LPL summer compared to the team’s peak form at MSI with Wang "wuxx" Cheng.
Royal Never Give Up's Gold Distribution in MSI and LPL Summer
|Role||Royal@MSI||Royal in LPL Summer||Difference|
There is certainly some validity to these criticisms. Uzi’s laning is very confrontational. When forced to choose between contesting the opponent’s last hit and last hitting his own creep, Uzi said near the end of the 2016 Spring season, "I generally choose to harass if I see the enemy AD carry will last hit. If I do this, it’s very easy to get a CS lead and pressure out the other ADC."
Part of Uzi’s struggles against SKT in the 2013 World Championship finals came when he tried to constantly play aggressively against Chae "Piglet" Gwangjin and Lee "PoohManDu" Jyeonghyeon, at times disregarding the minion flow. EDward Gaming’s bottom lane has often been able to get advantages against Royal’s despite generally better laning technique on the part of Uzi and Mata because they always prioritize pushing out the wave, while Uzi will try to trade and lose control of the flow of the minions.
Uzi also demands jungle attention. Both Uzi and jungler Baek "Swift" Daehoon affirmed that Uzi needed more jungle attention than QG Reapers’ other ADC, Yu "HappyY" Rui. "I like to go for lane trades a lot more. Because of this, our jungler will go to bot side a lot more when I’m playing," Uzi said.
GodLike, in his retirement video, also said that Uzi’s style restricted Royal Club Huang Zu from playing more split-push oriented strategies, and they could "only play raise the puppy compositions" in 2013. While these tendencies are visible, it’s also unfair to completely blame Uzi for Royal Never Give Up’s recent decline in form.
"I think that my playstyle is different [from 2013 and 2014]," Uzi said, "in that I’m much more stable than at that time … AD carries don’t really get ahead a lot in the early game. There aren’t as many opportunities to get ahead. Usually go through laning phase, then the teamfights."
Though Uzi is far from a completely different player, his approach to teamfights has become less all-in. While he will still tunnel on the ideal target and not appear to think as much about how he can get out of the fight, it happens less often than it did two years ago, and he’s become much better at managing games from behind. Mlxg’s pathing has also been somewhat more creative than one might assume given the fact that Uzi himself has said he will frequently call his jungler to his lane.
In fact, during the LPL Summer playoffs, jungler Liu “Mlxg” Shiyu ganked nine times in total in the first ten minutes of Royal Never Give Up’s games. Only two ganks went to the bottom lane. The majority of the ganks were directed toward xiaohu’s lane in mid.
Despite having two accounts in the Top 20 of the Korean solo queue ladder, xiaohu’s form in competitive games has been dubious. He’s made simple mistakes in trading and map positioning in the side lanes, getting caught repeatedly by EDward Gaming’s global compositions. Lissandra and Syndra, both known as strong champions for xiaohu, didn’t have the same impact as they’ve had when he has played them in the past.
Focusing more toward the mid lane may be an attempt on Royal Never Give Up’s part to give xiaohu more responsibility and confidence to carry games. So far, it isn’t working. xiaohu’s story this split has shared some similarities with that of Luck "Perkz" Perkovic’s of the EU LCS’ G2 Esports. The jungle and mid lane duo owned Royal in Spring, but he's been displaced. Two champions he relied upon heavily earlier, Azir and LeBlanc, fell out of favor, and xiaohu’s confidence plummeted, even as he was able to latch onto Taliyah.
"In my current state," xiaohu said at the press conference following the LPL final in Guangzhou, "I feel like, no matter which mid laner I face, I won't be a match for him." He has tried unsuccessfully to find a new place on a team that is increasingly bottom lane focused.
For Uzi’s successful teams in the past, the mid laner’s go-to has been Orianna. Even in an assassin-driven meta, Orianna was Wh1t3zZ's most picked champion at Worlds. Orianna was one of two champions Star Horn Royal Club mid laner Lie "corn" Wen was known to play with a high degree of competency, and at the 2014 World Championship, Orianna, Lulu and Zilean were played in 70 percent of Royal’s games.
This time around, buffs to Orianna hit on patches 6.16 and 6.17, but recent basic mistakes made by both xiaohu and Mata, two of Royal’s strongest assets at the Mid-Season Invitational, indicate it isn't likely to make a major difference. If Uzi is impacting their under-performance, it isn't directly.
The missing link for Royal, this time around, is a surge in synergy and strategy. In 2013, Tabe’s innovation with Annie support, and the team’s decision to run the duo in the mid lane to increase jungle control gave them a boost against their domestic competitors, especially the mid and jungle-centric OMG.
In 2014, despite clashes between Uzi and jungler Choi "inSec" Inseok behind the scenes, the sudden shift to the 2v2 bottom lane meta with increased dragon gold and the buffing of Lucian allowed Uzi and Zero to pressure advantages while inSec ganked bottom lane heavily. It was hard for the enemy team to punish Uzi’s over-aggression when mid lane champions like Orianna and Lulu were a staple, and the support meta swung to include the disengage and protective powers of Janna.
2014's same perfect meta storm could come to fruition, but the thing that seems to be missing most from this iteration of Royal, however, is the ability to identify opponent tendencies and learn from them. Almost every game in the LPL this summer, Royal tunneled on the same invade-based strategies, they contested buffs, they relied on bottom lane getting ahead and hoped they could close their disorganized team fights around Baron. At this point, their play feels stale.
Though every successful iteration of Royal Club before has played around Uzi, they’ve refined their method by identifying how to destabilize their opponents. The more games they played against them, the better.
The 3-0 against OMG by Royal in the 2013 LPL Regional final wasn’t the only victory Royal had had over them that day. A nine game slog began with Royal taking the first game of the best of three against Oh My God.
Royal expected OMG's invade, presumably based on studying their VODs, and expected OMG to wait in Royal’s blue side red buff buff after laying vision. In response, Royal rushed to their own bottom side tri bush, circumventing OMG’s wards, and counter-ambushed OMG in their trap.
Royal’s efforts landed them two kills. From there, Tabe and Uzi could zone the mid lane effectively and close the game. It snowballed almost entirely off understanding Oh My God’s habits and responding to them in a creative way. Both series between OMG and Royal in the qualifier and later at the World Championship had interactions where Royal abused some of OMG’s tendencies to get the better of them.
A very similar phenomenon happened between Oh My God and Star Horn Royal Club at the 2014 World Championship. Royal Club and OMG played 12 games in playoffs and the Regional Qualifier that season prior to the World Championship. OMG bested Royal in their two best of fives in playoffs, but again lost the series that qualified Royal Club for Worlds.
In all of those 12 games, Oh My God heavily targeted inSec. Loveling invaded his jungle and denied his camps. They levied multiple bans against him, preventing him from using Kha’Zix or Lee Sin, knowing he would often then default to Jarvan IV, in which case he would engage too eagerly and trap himself to die instantly without the mobility of Kha’Zix or Lee Sin to escape.
But at Worlds, Royal had prepared specifically for this scenario. They had Pantheon and Fiddlesticks to answer for OMG’s bans, and OMG, with internal problems of their own and disagreements among their ranks, struggled to avoid the stacked teamfight composition Star Horn Royal Club ran with Fiddlesticks.
"I have often asked myself this question," OMG’s cool said earlier this year, "Why did we lose to Royal? When we played against Royal, we had less confidence than when we played against NaJin. We had lost some matches against them in the qualifier, and even before during the regular season. I think both OMG and Royal knew each others' playstyles well. When they’re well prepared, confidence matters a lot."
Both previously successful Royal Club rosters had a pluckiness to them, a determination to find small advantages and improve against opponents they had lost to many times before. Mid laner Wh1t3zZ recalled of Royal’s 2013 run: "Before, Tabe would just go knock on [the other teams'] doors to ask if they would scrim with us. We had almost no connections. At that time, we had almost a little self-importance, but then [when we did get scrims] we basically didn’t win at all."
"Loss is a difficult thing to accept," Wh1t3zZ said, "and we also lost so much we’d fight a lot, but outside of the arguments, we all wanted to win … To sum up a bit, 34 days later, every scrim, our win rate generally increased."
In their reflections, both Wh1t3zZ and GodLike noted that in 2013, OMG refused to scrim them at the World Championship, but their laundry list of frequent scrim partners included Fnatic. By the time they faced Fnatic in the semifinals, they were well-acquainted with how Fnatic reacted to aggressive bottom lane pressure and knew to counter-pick mid laner Enrique "xPeke" Cedeño Martínez. Wh1t3zZ mentioned Royal also applied double jungling, something they had learned from OMG, to defeat Fnatic.
It’s possible, this time around, the same phenomenon can occur for Royal, but so far there hasn't been any evidence it will. They didn’t take games off their biggest domestic competitors in the LPL final or the regional this time. They didn’t display the same level of confidence or ingenuity after repeated losses to LPL's giant.
The Uzi Worlds buff doesn’t exist. There isn’t a magic incantation that will make him invincible at international events. Uzi plays to contest creeps beautifully, though sometimes at the expense of wave control or attention to the mini map. He targets well in teamfights and sometimes clashes both stylistically and argumentatively with a his teammates.
Uzi will and always has played his game the way he plays it. Even with the increases in consistency he has made over time, he's still Uzi. What Royal are missing this time around is the synergy that old rosters carefully developed and the perfect circumstances that allowed Royal to face the opponents with which they were most familiar in their bracket stages.
It’s still not clear what Royal will emerge from their Korean bootcamp when the World Championship begins in San Francisco, but it's clear given the stacked Group D Royal Never Give Up face, that the incline this time around is much steeper than it has ever been. To make it up the slope, they'll need more than a myth.
Header image credited to 刘一村.
Kelsey Moser is a feature writer for theScore esports. She doesn't hate Uzi. You can follow her on Twitter.