Two games down and 30 minutes in, the third game of Royal Never Give Up’s spring League of Legends Pro Series final against Team WE looked much the same as the ones that came before it. After a smart laning phase of strong picks, RNG had stalled out into group pushes bot and baiting Baron, oscillating between the two.
Every push RNG made on the mid inhibitor chipped slightly at Team WE’s last line of defense, but baits at Baron followed a more infuriating formula. Li “xiaohu” Yuan-hao’s Taliyah ultimates split Team WE, creating opportunities for Jian “Uzi” Zi-hao to walk forward and ult to assassinate a member of the enemy team. He either charged forward too late or too conservatively or found himself caught just behind the retreating front line.
Ultimately, WE forced back and broke the three legs of RNG’s base. Thirty minutes later, WE’s final turret dive caught the rest of the team while xiaohu sent Threaded Volleys desperately against the front line. After bases and Teleports, they dove Uzi past Royal’s Nexus. After Yan “LetMe” Jun-ze’s Gragas fell, xiaohu flashed alone after Jin “Mystic” Seong-jun. He watched the final Nexus disintegrate as the last man standing.
The chance at an LPL title once again slipped through Uzi’s fingers, but it felt more like pity for the loss belonged to Royal Never Give Up’s mid laner, who had played beautifully as Ekko, Galio, and Taliyah in all three games. He found himself unable to have as significant an impact as Uzi’s Caitlyn, Sivir, and Twitch when each match turned, and WE smashed through to an LPL victory.
It wouldn’t happen again. Xiaohu has dragged himself from the pitiful performances of last year’s League of Legends World Championship into a more refined carry machine. In a split where Royal continuously swapped out members around him this summer, xiaohu drew on new reserves and star performances to become the star of his team. He has surpassed even the LPL’s crown jewel in Song “Rookie” Eui-jin to claim the title of summer split MVP and the best mid laner in the league.
Against EDward Gaming on Friday, xiaohu will face his most difficult challenge: carrying Uzi to his first LPL championship.
Since 2015, Team WE has felt more like Royal Never Give Up’s rivals than EDward Gaming, the opponent RNG has faced in three of its last four finals. In summer 2015, both teams battled through the promotion tournament to become the only squads to re-qualify for the LPL. Last year, EDG and RNG’s clashes often ended in a one-sided landslide one way or the other, but WE and RNG’s brawl in the spring dragged out to five games.
For much of this year, it felt as if WE had the upper hand on Royal Never Give Up. WE bested Royal in their match in the spring — even given the fact that jungler Liu “Mlxg” Shiyu was out sick — and then more handily in the LPL final to cement a place in the Mid-Season Invitational.
In the spring, Royal’s tendency to blind pick mid lane champions and Mlxg’s tendency to prioritize ganks over efficiency often left the mid-jungle 2-v-2 unable to contend with a fed Xiang “Condi” Ren-jie and Su “xiye” Han-wei’s scaling mid lane picks. Even when RNG got smart leads, its 1-3-1 collapsed with the team over-grouping, or xiaohu and LetMe trying to force in a side lane.
Royal Never Give Up started to change the formula, but it came at a cost. Uzi took time off for his health, and the team won Demacia Cup in his absence. Fans spotted Uzi in the audience staring longingly at the stage as RNG played without him.
The core of RNG hoisted another trophy. At the end of 2015, a roster of LetMe, Mlxg, xiaohu, Wang “wuxx” Cheng, and Le “LeY” Yi (now L1ght, the support player for Royal’s LSPL team, Royal Club) won two offseason tournaments despite playing in the LPL relegation tournament in the summer.
“I think one of the reasons our team didn’t do well (in 2015) summer was because of me,” xiaohu said of his first season in LPL. “I thought, even if I didn’t practice much, the team could still win matches. I didn’t practice that much, and my mentality got progressively worse.”
The wins in NEST and WCA gave xiaohu and the core Royal squad a necessary confidence boost. That team didn’t include Uzi. Including Demacia Cup, WCA, NEST, and the 2016 LPL spring, Mlxg, xiaohu, and wuxx have won more domestic titles than Uzi has in his much longer career.
Demacia Cup seemed like the third party tournament win Royal needed once again to boost momentum after a humiliating defeat at the hands of WE in the spring final. Xiaohu’s performance on his signature pick in Syndra, a champion he has mained since his initial climb to Diamond I in 2014, cemented him as the centerpiece of the new Royal team in Uzi’s absence.
Royal, as it turned out, needed momentum. A stuttering spring saw every role rotated out except for mid lane and support. Shi “Ming” Senming has had the shot-calling role on Royal Never Give Up since his rookie debut in the spring, and as long as the core duo of xiaohu and Ming remains intact, Royal plays a consistent style: keep lanes pushed, look for picks, and force in the corners of the map.
Disappointing losses dotted the early parts of Royal’s summer split. A humiliating 2-0 defeat at the hands of Oh My God, the other all Chinese team in the league, signaled that life would become difficult without Uzi. Adding Tong “Koro1” Yang didn’t seem to improve matters, as his debut on Royal ended in a 2-1 loss to Suning, a team that barely dragged itself into playoffs and spent much of the split meandering through its early games without direction.
But with each defeat, xiaohu became stronger and more important to Royal. Corki and Taliyah were his signature choices for their ability to pressure side lanes with ease. Corki had the added benefit of brute force carrying at four items: something missing from xiaohu’s arsenal in the spring final against WE.
In 43 games, xiaohu dealt 31.7 percent of his team’s damage on average and had 76.8 percent kill participation. Among mid laners who played more than five games this split, that put xiaohu below only Jing Dong’s Kim “Doinb” Taesang in both categories, and Doinb’s team didn’t even qualify for playoffs.
As Rift Rivals approached, Royal Never Give Up relied upon xiaohu more and more. Rather than just sub out top and mid, Hu “Y1HAN” Zhi-wei took the place of Mlxg with promising results, but he and Uzi didn’t join the team for the fantastic clash between the LCK and LPL.
The event ended up having multiple layers of significance for xiaohu. In the group stage, the LPL placed last of all three regions and only managed to scrape two wins from eight games against LMS and LCK teams. One victory was a convincing win by RNG over ahq e-Sports Club, but RNG also lost at the hands of a struggling KT Rolster.
For xiaohu, Cho “Mata” Se-hyeong is one of the most significant figures in his development. Although RNG won offseason tournaments with LetMe and LeY, players still credit the roster change and addition of Mata for a lot of what made RNG a top LPL team in 2016.
“Before, when I used to lane against an opponent,” xiaohu said, explaining the significance of the move, “I really wouldn’t think about my actions critically. If someone asked me why I did a certain thing, I wouldn’t necessarily be able to explain it. After Mata joined the team, he was really able to teach me to think about why I do things and make clearer decisions.”
In a lot of ways, Mata’s impact on RNG can still be felt. The engage and follow-through relationship between Mata and xiaohu has echoes with xiaohu and Ming. Royal has some of the same problems as KT in terms of setting up 1-3-1 compositions and failing the execution because they try to go for just that one extra objective instead of taking smart backs. The Chinese brother to KT dropped at the hands of the more developed KT Rolster after poor Baron baits. Even with a 6/2/4 and 405 CS on xiaohu’s now most devastating champion, Corki, Royal couldn’t close the lid on the 40-minute game.
The loss had an obvious impact on xiaohu, and when the LPL coaches ground out late nights planning for the playoff stages, WE was given the nod as the best team in the LPL once again. Despite not winning a single game in group stage, when the series against LMS went to four games, and Royal Never Give Up managed to nail down Machi E-Sports after EDward Gaming lost to ahq, WE was put up for the last match against Flash Wolves. WE was the team the LPL called on to close with their backs against the wall.
“After winning the game (against Machi),” a Royal Club staff member wrote, “the coaches group voted that WE would be the last team. After learning this, xiaohu went alone to the lawn behind the arena. When a worker asked, he just said ‘I just want to be alone a while,’ but from behind, we discovered he was silently shedding tears.”
Despite coming through for the LPL in Game 4, xiaohu felt pained that Royal was not the team selected to get the final win against LMS. After all, few expected the opportunity the LCK laid at his feet the following day after WE defeated Flash Wolves in Game 5 to advance.
They went down the first two games: not LPL, the LCK’s aggressive and awkward little brother, but the LCK teams themselves, and arguably the best the region had to offer. The LPL coaches group decided to face LCK’s best with LPL’s best, pitting WE against SK Telecom T1, and then EDward Gaming against Samsung Galaxy. LPL, the coaches seemed to decide, could chip away with its stylistic equivalents and beat the LCK teams at their own game.
A few stumbles to land Kog’Maw first blood in Game 1 for WE, and then an improvement on drafting for more efficient early game jungling by EDward Gaming in Game 2 brought the LPL to a shocking advantage. LPL sacrificed Oh My God to KT Rolster, and Royal Never Give Up took to the stage.
Perhaps kicking down the bleeding mess that was MVP wasn’t the most satisfying victory, especially with the overall sloppy execution of the game, but it brought the win home for the LPL. Royal Never Give Up earned the final win to claim the first Rift Rivals title at arguably its worst form of the season, and RNG ended with the best overall record (3-1) of any team attending. Xiaohu’s Corki closed a 55-minute game after jungler Mlxg died seven times.
The rest of the LPL split for RNG became about re-integrating Uzi. Mlxg and xiaohu drifted as a duo from mid lane to bottom lane much more, when the team had fixated on snowballing LetMe for the previous split. Xiaohu used the push from lane to head through bottom river and set up dives for the recovered AD carry star.
But make no mistake — RNG didn’t become the Uzi show. The meta might have dictated more Kog’Maw and Tristana, and Taliyah and Galio sit among xiaohu’s best champions, but the way in which xiaohu manages to rotate across lanes in mid game to keep turrets up and comes in for a flank in crucial Baron fights swiftly transitioned him into an MVP.
Then finally, Royal bested Team WE. In the final week of cross-conference play, RNG drafted strong crowd control picks in Jarvan IV, Maokai, and Alistar, then filled out the composition with Uzi’s Vayne and xiaohu’s Corki. Certainly, picks of Orianna and Caitlyn could have plowed through the laning phase without incident, but RNG still managed a 24-minute second game victory against its year-long betters with Mlxg snowballing his laners and both xiaohu and Uzi on hyper carries.
WE didn’t just lose to RNG, though. Even last split, WE had a bad habit of slowing down near the end of the split, and only a narrow single game loss by EDG at the hands of QG (now Jing Dong) gave WE the semifinal bye.
In this split, however, a difficult second half set WE in second place in its group after EDG despite an imposing opening round. That meant that, should WE climb from quarterfinals to semifinals, it would come into contact with Royal Never Give Up before the final best-of-five. More importantly, the winner would snatch the region’s top seed to worlds, representing China on home soil.
WE ticked up in playoffs and looked like the favorite. RNG still had some of the same problems in making mid-game errors in trading turrets in side lane or backing too late with advantage. WE took advantages of those deficiencies well, and xiye’s Cassiopeia became the most lane-dominant mid lane pick on Patch 7.16.
Unlike in the spring final, however, it went to five games. Then, in Game 5, in RNG’s most important match of the entire year, it came down to xiaohu.
Royal Never Give Up drafted a Corki composition. With LetMe on Shen to protect xiaohu in long package delivery runs, Mlxg on Jarvan IV to set up for area of effect damage, Uzi on Ashe to initiate, and Ming’s Karma ready to push bottom and provide Ardent Censer bonuses for both xiaohu and Uzi later, xiaohu had all the tools to make sure RNG’s final game loss to WE from spring wouldn’t be repeated. He was far from powerless.
Xiaohu and Mlxg again looked to bot lane dives on nearly every wave of mid priority, but a poor turret trade left mid lane vulnerable. Xiaohu, as the safest source of wave clear on the team, had to stall out. He pushed the wave to river in both top and mid and avoided dying for 40 minutes into the game. When WE grouped bottom, xiaohu pushed out top to neutralize inhibitors. Nearly entirely on his own, he set up vision and kept control of half the map, ready to use the threat of the package or call in LetMe’s Shen ultimate.
It came down to a 59-minute fight at Baron. After skidding across Team WE with a hasty Package, xiaohu found himself zoned away from his team. Careful navigation kept him alive while the rest of RNG stalled, and he went to life-steal off Wolves. Then, in one of the riskiest decisions he could have made, xiaohu decided to solo the Elder Drake.
Just as xiaohu returned to Baron, WE had delivered the killing blow, but couldn’t make its way out of the pit. With the Elder buff from xiaohu’s venture, RNG smashed Team WE to take the game, a place in the LPL final, and a spot at worlds.
Over the course of the 60-minute game, xiaohu dealt 95,100 damage, nearly double Mystic’s Kog’Maw at 48,000. Days later, the LPL announced that xiaohu had won the summer split MVP award as the primary carry of a team with Uzi on it.
“My progress this season is pretty clear,” xiaohu said solemnly after the match, “but earlier in today’s games, there were a lot of mistakes.”
But with all of that, xiaohu isn’t done. On Friday in Beijing, Royal Never Give Up will meet EDward Gaming in their third LPL final in two years. In their last LPL final clash with Mata and Jang “Looper” Hyeong-seok on the team, RNG lost 0-3.
In the mid lane, xiaohu will play against Lee “Scout” Yechan, the only Korean player in the final. Scout, like xiaohu, has stepped into the shoes of the primary carry role after changes to his team’s bottom lane. Rookie player Hu “iBoy” Xianzhao has taken over the starting AD carry position for EDG, and he’s prone to over-aggressive plays that require balance and heroics from other parts of the map.
The OGN Spring Final Show Opening featured SK Telecom T1 mid laner Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok standing near his throne while Mata approached. Given Scout’s past as Faker’s under study and the ways in which Mata has molded xiaohu and the rest of RNG, the battle between Scout and xiaohu feels like another front of the same war: a means of succeeding where KT failed.
But more than that, the focus of Royal Never Give Up this year has changed lanes. It isn’t LetMe, Mlxg, or Uzi that eyes will watch in the Beijing best-of-five. It’s up to xiaohu to succeed where Uzi has always failed and the LPL’s other star, Ming “Clearlove” Kai, has succeeded: in the LPL final. In Rift Rivals, xiaohu managed to secure one last win for LPL; it’s time to secure an LPL for Uzi.
Cover photo courtesy of Riot Games