The Chinese 2014 and 2015 offseason featured a scramble for renowned Korean talents. One team, recently qualified from the LPL, was noticeably absent from the shuffle. They contracted lesser known Korean players and instead worked on team synergy. Yet since last year, Snake Esports have repeatedly been touted as a top team in the LPL. Even without major Korean names, Snake have pushed their way to the top four or five in multiple events.
Snake sit in third place in LPL's Group A on a three series loss streak. It isn't immediately obvious that they should be considered a threat. Yet teams like EDward Gaming and Invictus Gaming who brushed against Snake and lost have recently made drastic changes to their early game. The opposition has only recently been able to counter Snake's efficient lane swap tactics that have previously netted them the highest gold leads at 10 and 20 minutes.
"We are... right now not very good at just teamfighting," Snake Esports General Manager Cao "Zuowu" Yu told me, "so we use our current strategy to compensate. Our coach decided that we would use and practice lane swaps."
Snake Esports adopted lane swaps before other teams in the LPL. This isn't the only time they've brought new ideas to the league, as top laner Li "Flandre" Xuanjun was the first to play Smite top last year in a professional match, and last summer they continuously attempted to incorporate new composition styles into their repertoire. Zuowu wants creativity to be the defining characteristic of Snake. It's this creativity that could slowly ripple through the LPL as more teams like EDward Gaming are forced to adapt.
When I arrived at the Snake Esports gaming house, Zuowu was already waiting for me outside. He greeted me with his translator before inviting me through the elaborate entranceway.
Zuowu's interest in esports started from a young age. “When I was in primary school,” Zuowu said, “I watched Chinese FCG games, and the Chinese won second place. That’s when I got into esports and realized that this is what I wanted."
Zuowu has worked in the Chinese esports industry since his graduation from University in 2007 and has been with Snake since before they qualified for the LSPL. “The first game the team played when I came was the first qualifying TGA for the LSPL... We lost, but the founders were patient, and they gave me enough time to try to qualify again.”
With the help of his translator, Zuowu showed me around Snake’s house, including the trophy case where he proudly held Li "Flandre" Xuanjun's best top laner award from the 2015 Demacia Cup. Like EDward Gaming’s base, the house includes a training room set aside for new players.
Snake’s base also includes a meeting room for VOD reviews, an office for their three-man coaching staff, a main training room, and a management office on the ground floor. The third floor consists of bedrooms, and the second floor includes a mess hall, a small gym, and an enclosed courtyard where Zuowu says they intend to build a basketball court so the team can play outdoor games without contending with Shanghai's polluted air.
As a league, the LPL is undergoing many changes in 2016. With a shrinking LSPL and only one spot for auto-promotion as well as the introduction of a reserve league and rookie player draft system, it appears as if the league is moving more towards a franchise mode where LPL teams remain fixtures and players begin to enter through a draft rather than being promoted to the league under a new team. This would strengthen existing organizations at the expense of introducing new ones with different ideas.
As a relatively new LPL team, Snake have recently experienced a focus described by some as “LSPL hunger.” When EDward Gaming first began to rise in the LPL, manager Huang “San Shao” Cheng mentioned that many LSPL teams were hungry to beat them in scrims and that they learned a lot from them. In 2015, new top LSPL teams brought excitement to the league and the best placed high in the standings.
“Every LSPL split there’s a team that makes you think they will definitely make the LPL next season," Zuowu said. "You can feel they are very strong because they can beat you sometimes. Playing against these teams, LPL teams can learn a lot about new styles, especially early game play.”
Snake Esports were one of these teams in late 2014, and before that they were already showing promise in TGA, the LSPL qualifier. Zuowu said that besides consolidating talent on sister teams Snake.s and Snake.q, Snake benefitted a lot from scrimming with LPL teams.
“Even though we were just a TGA team, we were able to find scrims with EDward Gaming, LGD Gaming, and other LPL teams," he said. "When playing with these stronger LPL teams, perhaps they would not be very serious, but we regarded every team seriously, so we surprisingly won a lot. This built our confidence and helped us improved our skills.”
The magnitude of success Snake enjoyed during their first LPL split in 2015 Spring caught many off guard. Playing a teamfighting style around Yang “kRYST4L” Fan allowed Snake to immediately begin building a fanbase. They placed second in the regular season and fourth overall.
Snake brought out some of their best strategies in their first regular season, including their Xerath and Nidalee poke composition and Smite top Shyvana. At the time, I remember criticizing them exposing all of their strategies in the regular season and "trying too hard,” but now it’s possible the LPL could use more of this approach.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Snake’s entrance into the LPL, however, was that, during a time when teams chose to sign famous ex-Samsung Koreans, Snake gravitated toward lesser known pickups, Kwak "Ella" Nahoon and Kim “Beast” Joohyun. Despite not lacking sponsorship or resources, Snake continued to contract less notable Korean pickups in 2016 with Park “TANK” Danwon and Im “T0M” Jaehyeon.
“The famous players are too expensive!” Zuowu said with exasperation. “We also think that, in making many efforts to study these less famous players, that they have many emotions or the drive to prove themselves… Maybe for them, the LPL is the first major league in which they are a main member of the team. We think in this case, these emotions will allow them to perform better.”
Snake’s initial successes with Ella and Beast seemed to corroborate this. By contracting Ella and Beast over Chinese players of similar skill or well established Korean talents, Snake developed an effective style that bolstered them for less of the cost faced by teams that chased bigger names.
The climbs of teams that have recently risen from the LPL like Snake Esports and QG Reapers speaks to the importance of the LSPL and teams that may have to invest more sparingly in imports. As Tencent recently announced a shrinking of the LSPL to 12 teams as well as a reduction in the number of LSPL teams that can make the Promotion Tournament, I worried LSPL investors may be dissuaded from attempting to enter the league, but Zuowu disagreed.
“If an LSPL team can make the LPL, they can still show their skills and beat existing LPL teams. This is very important.” As a team that had to play the TGA qualifier for the LSPL twice and then managed to ascend to the LPL through the LSPL to place within the top five of the LPL two splits in a row, Snake understand the value of persistence. No matter how large the LSPL is, this will remain the determining factor.
Alongside the shrinking of the LSPL, a reserve league for the LPL has risen. Teams are encouraged by Tencent to try out new players in the reserve league (LPPL). Ideally, this reserve league could sustain the strength of existing teams as they work on developing new talents before they're needed on the LPL squad.
“I think the LPPL is a good idea,” Zuowu said, “but at this time, we can’t really afford a lot of new players or to give it a lot of attention. It’s just starting. After the LPPL starts to get more attention and resources, I think it will be a very important resource for us to improve our main team as well.”
All these factors seem designed to place more emphasis on improving the quality of top tier competition. They cannot be completely effective if teams don’t consider their own needs. According to Zuowu, Snake is a team that has spent a lot of time considering their improvements and the direction in which they want to develop. Both Zuowu and team captain Flandre expressed that as a team, Snake Esports wants to move away from the stereotypical LPL team fighting style.
“We think that team fighting is not necessarily a good way to win the game. Many times, just one team will decide whether we win or lose,” Zuowu said. “It’s like gambling.” Zuowu and Flandre both also mentioned that the coaches made the final decision on how the team should play.
Snake have given their coach a fair amount of say in other aspects of their play as well. When defining his own role on the team, Zuowu said, “I look at how players perform in training games… Perhaps a player plays really well on stage, but then continuously doesn’t perform well in training. Then ultimately if the coach decides one player can perform better in matches, he will choose that player and he can make the decision, so I have to enforce this.”
An emphasis on the importance of scrims is rooted in Snake’s history as an LSPL team, but it’s something they’ve managed to retain even after a year in the LPL. It was clear from my conversation with Zuowu as to why he would bring up scrims and training so often. As Snake are a team that, though they haven't performed internationally, have been very close to qualifying for Worlds to represent Chinna. When the topic of recent international results achieved by LPL teams arose, Zuowu again broached the subject of the league's attitude toward scrims.
“Our whole environment needs a change,” Zuowu said. “In some scrims, I feel that either our players or players in some other teams do not take these scrims as seriously as they could. Perhaps this is a tradition, but it needs to be changed to improve results.”
Zuowu’s sentiment is one I’ve heard discussed reluctantly by Chinese teams before. Chinese teams have a long history of not practicing strategy in scrims or keeping consistent scrim times. Korean players like Lee “Spirit” Dayoon have publicly expressed frustrations with Chinese scrim culture.
According to Snake’s players, their lane swap style of play is something they practice frequently in scrims. If this is true, and they can make an impact in the LPL standings again, the scrim ethic may slowly begin to change among Chinese teams. Snake are not the first team in the LPL to have begun to look at this problem and make steps to change it. As a third place team in Group A, Snake will likely be unable to make a large enough impact to force other teams to adapt on their own, and according to Zuowu, this is still a problem he has seen in his own players.
Poor results internationally aside, Snake’s manager still had reason to feel optimistic about the current state of Chinese esports. During his account in his history of the scene, Zuowu spoke of an earlier time in his career where he worked to run a Star Craft 2 tournaments between mainland Chinese and Taiwanese teams. “Although the Taiwanese league was smaller than the mainland,” Zuowu said, “I thought [at the time] the TeSL was more similar to the Korean KeSPA. This is why I was interested in the Taiwanese league. I thought studying them would help our mainland leagues become better.”
When I asked him if he still felt mainland Chinese teams could apply principles from KeSPA and TeSL, Zuowu didn’t think the relationship between Korean and Chinese esports had to be entirely one-sided. “Maybe the Korean league will begin to study us in some ways. Except for results, China is the best esports country because the market is the largest in the world. Before the LCK began, many LCK teams couldn’t afford player salaries. Teams like Anarchy before they were Afreeca and NaJin didn’t have funding. In this aspect, the Chinese environment can be better.”
With ongoing struggles to find orgs willing to sponsor Korean teams, it’s hard to deny that Zuowu has something of a point. Even without the best results internationally, Chinese teams have managed to curry favor with a large market that’s currently booming, at least for now.
Every team in the LPL is trying to find a unique answer to recent disappointing results on the international stage. As each team strives to better themselves, however, they also want to cater to a market and differentiate themselves.
To conclude my conversation with Zuowu, I asked him what he wanted fans in the west to think of when they think of Snake Esports.
“A creative team,” Zuowu said. “Just like smite top. Creative.”
At the moment, Snake are on a three series loss streak in the LPL. Their lane swapping is finally meeting resistance and counter-swaps. Snake have once again demonstrated their creativity by bucking strategic trends, but to best a top four finish in playoffs, they'll have to adapt again. As the final round of the regular season begins, I'll be looking for the change.
Kelsey Moser is a staff writer for theScore Esports. You can follow her on Twitter.