Bloodletting: Introduction to Chinese LoL
Chinese League of Legends has a relatively low western viewership for the importance and skill on display for what is ostensibly the second (or first) ‘best’ region in the world. In breaking down exactly how Chinese LoL works in terms of play style, politics, leagues and attitudes, maybe a little bit more (summoning) insight can be gleaned by the community at large (especially leading up to worlds).
Given that the Major Chinese League (LPL) recently changed their finals format, I felt it prudent to look back on the Operatic Movements that lead us to Tencent Stagehands pulling the curtain early.
What will be notably throughout this piece is how much duality there is in China. There’s the one hand, and the other hand, and sometimes a sneaky Korean hand comes in to grab all the money out of the first hand. There’s a lot going on in China, especially when it comes to conflicting opinions and very different influences (cultural, game-centric, etc).
Recently, OMG players (half-jokingly) said that they thought that bottom tier LSPL teams could do well in NA/EU. On the other hand, these same players screwed themselves so badly last split (Spring 2015) that many of them were benched- not to mention that the biggest profile trade in Chinese LoL History (UZI from SHRC to OMG) yielded a first round playoff 0-3 massacre).
So what gives? Are these players so confident that they think teams like WE (perennial last place finishers) could stand up against western teams and make it to a finals of an international tournament? Oh wait…
The problem with western understanding of Chinese pros is not only a cultural thing- trash talk and being silly in front of the camera is not met with outward hostility and relentless anger like it is in ‘the West’, and talking big talk is considered a fun and integral part of the game. Not everything players is intended to be taken super seriously- HOWEVER.
However, there is a tendency for Chinese players to be quite a bit more ‘arrogant’ or ‘hard to coach’ when compared to their Korean imports. It’s been said that some coaches wanted to import the quiet, rules following, hard working Koreans not only to secure good talent, but also to breed a specific sort of practise environment in the house- trading off potential language barrier problems in order to foster a team environment that was conducive to players ‘listening’.
So Chinese players aren’t coachable?
Well, because some Chinese players come from extremely well-to-do families (and sometimes are in some way related to the owners of teams that they’re playing for), they have an insane sense of job security. Players like Zz’tai can be found sticking around in the scene because he continues to want to play- and as long as he wants to play, then space will be made for him.
Or, because you’re already playing with huge amounts of money, players don’t feel like they have to break every bone in their body to scrape by on a meagre income. Players that are extremely secure in their positions might feel that they can play more loosely and more freely, and don’t have to listen to authority as much.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the scrimming and play-culture in China aids in creating a problematic system where matches aren’t taken as seriously and players feel like they can goof around more than perhaps they should.
So there’s this huge thing about how aggressive China is, and how they’re these mechanical players who like to scrap at every turn and every opportunity and that they just go crazy with bloodlust and kills.
Sometimes this is exaggerated to saying that Chinese teams don’t even play with strategy (outside of teams like EDG) and that their fast and loose style is reliant on mechanical skill.
A point was made on SI long ago (Worlds Season 4) that, when comparing say, Chinese teams to Korean teams, strategy is less important than individual skill and out-playability, but when comparing Chinese teams to Western teams, their sense of strategy is quite pronounced and even better (just because of the skill gap).
Now, with the Korean imports, and even higher emphasis on Strategy has come into play. Each Korean team has their specific way of playing, and their specific way of playing around their language barrier and problems communicating. When looking at Western teams, Chinese teams seem almost a touch more ‘rigid’ in terms of approach, with certain teams playing the exact same style game in and game out (if they want to win).
Except for the obvious “what in the name of fuck is China doing” moments.
Let’s look at some random Chinese teams and identify their extremely over-viewed play style.
EDG (with MSI roster): Because this roster has been played less this split, their system remains relatively stable. What EDG does best is keep up pressure at all points of the game through different avenues. Firstly, the “Chinese Mafia” (Clearlove/Koro1/Meiko) run around the jungle early in the game, causing disruptions and making sure that Deft/Pawn have it as easy as possible. These three (and especially Meiko/Clearlove) ward deep and keep an eye on early objectives. Then, eventually, Pawn will be safe to start being ‘silly’ and doing weird things to pull attention and pressure away from Deft/koro1 (and onto him), and will do things that make no ‘real’ sense. Smoke and mirrors, Darien Style. Then Deft turns on and Clearlove comes out waving his magnificent tits in your face and EDG win a team fight at Baron, and then the game.
This system works so well because it focuses on keeping up a consistent stream of pressure throughout the game, while exploiting crazy pawns craziness to pull attention until the mighty Baron team fight can happen.
WE: From first to last, WE still have a strong sense of Identity. Having a stable roster since IEM, WE are a pretty awful team all in all, but they do have a certain set of win conditions. Spirit had, for a long time, a 90% win rate on Nidalee. Aluka can play Sion. They win games where Spirit puts on his big poppa carry pants and Aluka is able to be a front-line.
QG (Snake in Disguise): Is a team that’s on the top of the standings, and have shown themselves to be extremely good at one particular and specific thing that they do game-in-game-out. They remind me very strongly of Snake from Spring 2015, where they try to win every game and they play a specifically team-fight centric style where things come together relatively well. However, watching their games makes it seem that they’re going to falter come play-offs if notorious Actors LDG/VG have anything to say about it.
LGD: For the longest time, LGD had this “Please God let our jungle not get fucked” style where GodV/We1less (same person) would play passively and ‘help out’ TBQ so that he did not get absolutely shit-dumpstered by the likes of Spirit, Kakao, Dandy, etc. And they would have relatively stable drafts that minimized their weaknesses (especially after Cinderhulk).They would also split the playtime of Acorn and Flame in a way that made less than no sense. And that brings us quite well to….
League System and Apathy:
It’s been said that some teams in the LPL have such a strange relation to scrims that that it ‘inhibits’ their ability to continuously improve. For instance, some teams play lots of LSPL teams because they don’t want to ‘show’ their stats to LPL teams. Or teams will play weird/strange/bad champs against LPL teams. Or play their ADC in top-lane for no reason. It’s an adventure.
Well, given the amount of games and their seemingly low-importance, Chinese teams don’t/didn’t have much reason to take scrims super seriously. In a 44 game season (plus playoffs), each given game doesn’t mean as much, and teams can often experiment with rosters and use different players in different positions throughout the season itself. Sometimes, some games feel more like scrims than they do proper matches. Especially when EDG started playing subs and LGD decided to have absolute disdain for the system and hover consistently towards the lower end of the bracket, and players like Insec and Dandy moved topside- it yielded some very… interesting games, sometimes fun to watch and sometimes just plain confusing.
But China is so aggressive and nonsensical!
Like I said above, Chinese teams do tend to go into any given game with an identify and a strategy. Some teams are good at drafting, some teams are good at early game, and most teams are comparatively competent team fighters because many teams have a big focus on team fights (cowards VG are the notable exception). But on any given day, if you just look at their games, there do tend to be lots of kills flying about.
Why all the bloodshed?
Compared to Korea, and especially compared to the Western “No Rush 20”, Chinese teams play fast and loose. They are less afraid of taking insane risks and making crazy dives and crazy plays, and often team fights happen and both teams decide to commit because they feel that it’s very important to take Vimy Ridge.
Despite the aggression, there is a calculation to it- a team might do a crazy dive and sacrifice one player to potentially get a tower and 2 kills. Not to mention that many teams have roaming gank squads of some description, and the aforementioned importance of the team fight (Dragon/Baron), and you’re heading towards a game with higher kill counts.
But I watched this game where Save was mid and…
Yes, that happens too. If you compound all of the above, you’re going to get some games where teams either don’t care to win, try out some crazy things, or move players around here and there. And sometimes you just have dumpster fire teams like WE and King that are going to look terribly sad all the time. And sometimes you have arrogant players that don’t take things seriously enough in one way or another and get a silly game.
With 44 games, several smaller tournaments and playoffs, you can afford to both try out different things and throw a few games. Every given game means a little less. But teams do get a huge amount of exposure and availability to experiment, and sometimes this works out. And sometimes OMG trolls away half a season and then gets their shit kicked in by an LGD that revealed that SURPRISE they were actually good all along.
Trolling and Disrespect-
This is a topic that, having spoken to different people that predominantly follow NA/EU lcs, seems to be rather confusing.
For example, the “storyline” for SSW at S4 worlds was that they were the absolute perfect team (they weren’t) that only lost games because they got too arrogant (not domestically). The narrative stuck the landing when SSW did unspeakable war crimes to TSM and then got so arrogant that they managed to lose. And then the same scenario played out with SHRC.
But, having spoken to many a TSM-fanboy, I was told that TSM won that game fair and square, much less than SSW got carried away. In fact, I’ve heard this quote in various incarnations: “But why would a professional team intentionally make the game harder for themselves or disrespect or troll?” And then I’d be given examples where, if this happens, teams get burned for it (notably IEM with GETigers and the above mentioned OMG playoffs games. It’s been made a point that in these games teams were playing their best and they just lost.
Sorry, but no. In China and Korea, teams sometimes pick things that are intentionally worse or otherwise inferior for a variety of reasons just to style, have a little bit of fun and see if they can win anyway. Faker’s play of Master Yi shows that exact scenario playing out. Yi wasn’t a lynchpin strategy, and any ‘cleanup crew’ midl-aner would work, but Faker wanted to have fun/disrespect/etc. And he won, so we didn’t think much of it.
But what happens when you troll and lose? Well, then people tend to jump on the “he’s not trolling” train, or sometimes the “he’s not good enough to troll”. And the truth is neither of those, really. It’s more the fact that Korea and China have a crazy amount of games and they don’t need to take any given game seriously. When you only have 18 games, a single loss can force you to play an extra bo5 series, or eliminate you from one of the 2 tournaments you’re going to play in this year.
So Chinese players can do stupid things sometimes.
But what if the Stupid things stick?
Recently players like Insec and Dandy found themselves top-lane, and not because they were banking there. They role swapped, and this isn’t too uncommon in China- jokes have been made on the topic that you can play any position in China as long as it’s not the one you play. Players get shuffled around, and a lot of it might be owed to the above mentioned political systems at play and the huge amount of money floating around. It does create a bit of a mess sometimes, and sometimes it doesn’t work out as well as it should, but for the most part, players do try to make the best of these shuffles.
A final note about China’s secondary league, which is rather hard to watch unless you bleed for the region. LSPL has many players that hold high paying contracts, are ex-Korean stars, and sometimes would probably be better than LPL main teams. LSPL games, however, have quite mixed quality. Sometimes you get quite a good team that just rampages through all but the top 2-3 teams, and sometimes you get bottom-feeder teams that look like they’re playing with flippers and not fingers. Team Dolphin Knights, if you were.
That being said, overall, some LSPL teams are quite good and do provide service as a primary scrim partner for some LPL teams. QG, currently second in LPL hopped straight from LSPL. So did last season’s Snake. Both of these teams played a consistent and try-hard style as well, really valuing each win in the main league.
Of course, now that the LPL has changed their format for their playoffs, resident Throw-masters LGD will probably shoot up the ladder… as much as possible anyway.
Thank you for joining me on this short exploration of Chinese League of Legends.
I will endeavour to answer any questions or lead discussions in the comments!
Karon/Kelsey Moser’s video series “Biweekly LPL Rundown” (along with her other content).
China Talk (and CLBC’s other content)
Countdown of MonteCristo (for the high quality games)
Summoning Insight (Sometimes do good overviews of general trends)
Incoming Aggression (Cancelled, but good if you want some history/ideas, esp top 20 episode).
China’s players are a little more loose and less serious than Koreans
Politics play a large role in the swaps and changes that happen in the league
Games tend to be higher-kill, but that’s because risks are more often taken
Teams have very dedicated identities
Each individual game doesn’t mean as much as the next
Experimentation is rife
Trolling isn’t uncommon
Yes sometimes teams get burned by this.