It’s hard to appreciate how much of a watershed moment the League of Legends 2018 World Championships were if you sleep during normal functional western hemisphere hours. Yes, China winning Worlds for the first time, knocking Korea off a half-decade streak of utter dominance, was a big deal – but one likely to be treated as a fluke by the casual observer.
After all, Korea’s infamously world-class esports infrastructure was still what it was – so heavily entrenched since the StarCraft: Brood Wars days that everybody else was perpetually a decade behind, right? Yeah, China’s top teams – the constant silver medalists on the international stage – were finally getting their acts together enough to pose a threat, but so long as you’re vaguely familiar with the likes of OMG, EDG, RNG, and Invictus Gaming, you pretty much knew the Chinese scene, right?
...well, you’d have a great idea of who’s occupying the lower half of the Spring 2019 table, at least.
“Franchising in the LPL’s really done a number on the old organizations,” said Barento “Razleplasm” Mohammed, casting for the English online broadcast. “There’s been so much new money and [so many] major organizations challenging the likes of EDG and WE, who’ve always been the old guard, and always guaranteed the best players and best coaching staff.”
Like with the North American, and now the League of Legends European Championship, China has locked in permanent slots for their professional League of Legends organizations, making for more secure organizations – and attracting eye-wateringly huge investments as well.
Said Mohammed: “TOP, Suning, JDG – those three organizations were always on the up and up. The moment they joined the League, they were ones with the largest branding power. Suning,” Barento explained, “People will know as a major ecommerce company, and same with JDG. TOP is a reseller for sportswear. So those three can afford the best.”
And by best, he didn’t just mean the LPL’s infamous celebrity-tier six-figure salaries either, used to lure away a giant portion of the LCK’s previous top talents. “In terms of coaching staff and facilities available, it’s no longer WE and EDG being the hallmarks for that. RNG is probably the best old organization still able to compete – I think they’re able to do that because of Uzi; a lot of players want to play with him. But they also just have great backing as well. That works well for them and Invictus Gaming.”
With Royal Never Give Up originally favored to win 2018, and Invictus Gaming as the team that actually did, the Chinese organizations now find themselves in an environment surrounded by newcomers fully capable of matching them blow for blow – as Funplus’s ascendancy to the top of the charts aptly demonstrated. But even internally, Invictus Gaming’s success has less to do with established practices and more to do with the culmination of talent-rearing. Though the team’s established duo core of Korean aces Duke and Rookie has a lot to do with their ongoing success, it’s not as if the two weren’t around during the organization’s roughest periods too – when they were known as unstable heartbreakers, swinging wildly from sweet triumph to bitter disappointments.
But it’s specifically because of their Korean players’ loyalties, rather than their otherwise undeniable talents, that IG eventually triumphed. “Being able to keep Rookie for so long was a real blessing,” said Mohammed. “They had a revolving bottom lane for quite some time.”
Bot lane ace Yu “JackeyLove” Wen-bo originally signed on with Invictus Gaming in 2016 – and at a mere 15 years of age at the time, was ineligible for actually fighting on behalf of the organization for literally years. He was inserted into sister team Young Glory to help foster his talents and accrue experience – making him one of the longest-term player talent investments seen in esports.
With similarly youthful support and jungle players – 19 year old Baolan and 20 year old Ning, respectively – IG’s faith in their budding talents was finally and triumphantly rewarded last year. “It almost reminds me of the Philadelphia 76ers and the patience they had – just telling their audience just a wait a little bit, we know when they’ll come online: on JackeyLove’s birthday. Literally ‘trust the process.’”
But it isn’t just fresh faces turning the tides of Chinese League of Legends fortunes, and it isn’t just the monetary investments driving the scene to new heights. The emotional investments have never been higher either, as a direct consequence of how China established its franchising system.
Unlike the LCS or LEC, where every team plays out of Los Angeles or Berlin respectively, China established a regional system for their teams and venues. No longer are games solely played out of their primary studio in Shanghai – now, we see LGD represent Hangzhou, OMG for Chengdu, RNG for Beijing, and Team WE headquartered in the Guangdian Grand Theater of Xi’an. That regional compartmentalization has proven fertilizer for the fanbase.
“It’s not just about Shanghai anymore,” said Raz. “Everyone in the country has a hand in it, and they can just go out and watch the games live if they want to – they don’t have to fly to Shanghai to get that going.”
“I love that culture,” he continued. “When I went to OMG’s venue in Chengdu, and they were up against Suning in the very first series, it was kind of crazy how well OMG formulates fans. They’ve not performed well for the last year or two, but they still have fans there for the players such that, even when you come into the venue and Suning’s the more successful team, there are so many more OMG fans cheering their name.”
That electrifying atmosphere was only further spurred by China’s victory against the world. “The fact that China was number one – it didn’t feel like a fluke in any sense of the word. Organizations that we sent really were vying to be world champions,” said Raz, pointing out that, for over half a decade now, regional standings for any non-Korean team was less about a shot at the crown and more about just representing their regions well.
“And the way that we did it – I love the fact that Invictus Gaming did it too. They proved their point, that investing in young Chinese talent – ironically, because people were looking at Rookie and TheShy – was the way to go. The finals MVP went to Ning, and they did a lot to be able to get JackeyLove and Baolan on the team.”
Korea will inevitably seek revenge next Worlds. But for now, as Chinese New Year draws to a close and opens up the Year of the Pig, Chinese esports is peerlessly enthroned. And their players are far too young to be anything but hungry for more.