Taiwan's turning tide in competitive League of Legends
The interview I did with Clement Chu is posted above. Timestamps are in the Youtube video description.
The Taiwanese narrative in competitive League of Legends (LOL) is a changable one. They have gone from being the best in the world to be seen as the weakest of the five big regions. That is changing though. Taiwan demonstrated at IEM Katowice 2015 that the season two world championship was no fluke. There is only a couple of months between the season four World Championship that was held in September-October 2014, and Intel Extreme Masters tournament in March 2015. The storyline between the two tournaments was very different.
Whereas neither Taipei Assassins (TPA) nor AHQ made it out of their respective group at Worlds, the upstart team Flash Wolves (FW), formerly associated with Yoe, stepped over both the North American team Cloud9 as well as at the time strongest European team, SK Gaming, to reach the semifinals. The tide is turning for the Taiwanese teams.
When AHQ finished as the third seed at the Mid-Season Invitational (MSI) tournament, placing above both North America and Europe, everybody’s fears were confirmed. Taiwan is once again producing teams capable of competing at the highest level of League of Legends. The question is how could the winds change so dramatically in such a short amount of time?
Massive format change
LoL Master Series (LMS) caster and analyzer Clement Chu says the main reason behind Taiwan’s competitive revival is a major format change in how the domestic league works.
“In season four we had two leagues. One called the Garena Premier League (GPL) and one under the GPL called The Nova League (LNL). GPL was supposed to be the more competitive one and Taiwan could only submit two teams into this league.”
“So what ended up happening was that we saw two Taiwanese teams dominate the GPL while also playing in the LNL, which created a dilemma. Because to all the people who watched both leagues it was clear that the LNL was the far more competitive one,” Chu said.
However in October 2014 an announcement was made by Garena, which runs the GPL, that they are splitting up the GPL into two leagues. The GPL was not working out. Viewership was generally low unless there was a Taiwanese team playing, and the other Southeast Asian teams did not stand a chance against the top Taiwanese ones. The competitiveness in the league was questioned. But the GPL will continue. Fielding only Southeast Asian teams, and with the status of a wildcard region. The Nova League were transformed into a new league that would stand alongside the four giants: North America, China, Europe and Korea.
The new league, called the LMS, would field teams from Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau. The format change was an instant success given the FW’s performance at IEM. Chu explained that the main benefit of the new format is that is generates more buzz.
“What the format change did was that it created a lot of focus and drive within the Taiwanese teams to get better players.”
“Of course that comes down like more of a business side answer but the change definitely meant more business, more potential for revenue, more exposure. That will lead people to put more into the league,” Chu said.
Proximity to Korea and China makes Taiwan a breeding ground for talent
However he does not state the format change as the only reason behind Taiwan’s sudden change in international tournaments. Chu lists the closeness to the two best leagues in the world, China and Korea, as a heavy contributing factor and an advantage over the West.
“I also think that another thing was that the Taiwanese region over time would have been one of the stronger regions.”
“It is very easy for us to scrim against Chinese or Korean teams. Most Taiwanese teams scrim against LPL, LSPL and lower tier Korean teams, and speaking of scrim partners I would say that’s significantly stronger than the bottom half of the EU or NA LCS,” Chu said.
On top of that the geographical proximity makes Taiwan an excellent breeding ground for new talent.
Chu said: “You have people like ‘Republic’ coming in from Machi Esports, and is currently the 10th best player in the Korean solo ranking.”
“You also see the interaction with the Korean ladder. Most Taiwanese pro players are asked by the organization to achieve at least master rank, and you have high ranked players like Swordart and Maple on FW as well as An, AHQ’s ad carry, who have achieved over 800lp points on the Korean challenger.”
“An was a top ten Korean challenger player. If you look down the ranking most of the time, looking at ad carries, it was Deft and it was An,” Chu said.
“AHQ in the regular season was not a good team”
When the LMS spring season started AHQ was not doing well. They had been hyped to be a top two team, but was unable to make it higher than 4th. Instead the FW stole the glory. Their midlaner Maple was carrying games due to his skill and champion pool, as well as an excellent coach in Fluidwin, who is an old-timer in the Taiwanese scene.
Chu said: “You can see the FW has the best tactical edge.
“They are the best at taking map objectives, they play the most crisp game, and I think those two edges really push them over the top in terms of Taiwan only,” he said.
AHQ became the last seed into the playoffs. The night before the big day the AHQ players still did not know who would be the starters so the organization decided to go to a temple to seek guidance.
“In that moment I thought AHQ is screwed. But they did two significant roster changes. They put Mountain into the jungle who is an extremely aggressive player, and they moved Albis to support,” Chu said.
It was a match made in heaven, and despite coming in as the last seed AHQ makes a glory run through the playoff gauntlet all the way to the MSI. At MSI AHQ confirmed that FW’s performance at IEM was no fluke. The Taiwanese teams could not be counted out. Both the North American and European teams, TSM and Fnatic (FNC), fell victim to the sheer aggression and the massive snowball rolling out of the botlane. Spearheaded by An.
Their one dimensional strategy: to win a 3v3 or 4v4 botlane and snowball of that lead, did not hold AHQ back. The mechanical skill of the players allowed them to win the skirmishes, get the dragons, get a gold lead and establish control over the bottom half of the map. Chu emphasizes their mechanical prowess as their number one strength.
“I think AHQ’s strength is that they showed a lot of mechanical talent, when they play well they can overcome any team.”
“They could win these early game skirmishes even against teams like EDG, which had the highest stacked mechanical talent. Against teams like FNC, they not only won them, they could run away with them really easily,” he said.
But their simple strategy, to snowball the botlane, is also a double edged sword. While being easy to carry out Chu also adds that it is a weakness.
“In terms of weaknesses it showed that they were really one dimensional. They would not lane swap and they would always take the 2v2 botlane.”
“They would rely on An being mechanically outplaying his lane opponent, and Mountain being more in tune with the meta. When that happened they would win the 3v3, they would win the 4v4 and they would snowball,” Chu said.
For the non-believing in An’s mechanical prowess is that An had an 86% kill participation in the LMS playoffs. That is incredibly high for an ad carry.
AHQ might have beaten SKT in the semifinal
Going up against the Chinese overlords Edward Gaming (EDG) in the MSI semifinals was the worst thing that could happen to AHQ. EDG has a higher ceiling of pure, stacked, raw talent and have scrimmed AHQ several times. They know AHQ inside and out. EDG forced Mountain onto Jarvan, had a botlane that could beat AHQ’s, and thus stopped the Taiwanese snowball in its path in the semifinals.
AHQ did beat Fnatic though and Fnatic went five full games against SKT T1 in the best of five. At first glance it seems like an argument based on arbitrary logic. But AHQ had a lot of advantages against SKT T1. Sure, SKT have a better strategic game, and they have Faker. But as Chu said:
“Faker does not matter too much in this meta. Marin died questionably and played a bit cocky. Bengi played a very heavy vision game, which stunted his own growth a lot. On the cinderhulk patches was ensuring the jungler’s own development very important.”
“So Ziv will have on par or better teleports than Marin, AHQ will have better jungling presence as well as a better laner in An.”
“If you think about these points and combine them with the way AHQ plays then you would realize that what AHQ wants to do is to fight a 4v4 botlane. If you look on that scenario I would say AHQ would have a much better chance than versus SKT than against EDG,” he said.
“Good for the scene if Korea does not win worlds”
This year might be the best prospect since season two for a non-Korean world champion, and the last time a non-Korean team won it was Taiwanese. With the talent exodus from Korea, the Korean teams are looking weaker, losing both international tournaments in 2015 thus far.
This year’s World Championship will be a trial by fire for all teams participating. It will showcase Korea’s ability to produce new talent. China can finally step out of Korea’s shadow. Western teams have the best chance since season one to reclaim the title of world champions. For Taiwan a good showing would finally wash away the stamp that they cannot produce world class teams. Chu is confident in Taiwan’s ability to keep improving until the World Championship:
“Taiwan is in an eco-system with the two best regions in the world, and with the exchange of talent and strategy Taiwan is in a position that gives them an advantage over even NA and EU teams.”
Chu continued by adding:
“In terms of this year I would want to see a non-Korean champion. I think it is best for League of Legends as a whole if other regions feel they have a chance to win champions.”
“And speaking of Korea, SKT T1 did not look very good at MSI.”
I do not own the photographs. They were all taken from Riot esports Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lolesports/