StarHorn Royal Club 2014 Worlds RosterStar Horn Royal Club’s climb from seventh place in the LPL regular season to the World Championship Finals became emblematic of the era that would follow. Prior to Royal’s success, many analysts still doubted the effectiveness of a mixed language roster. Team WE’s import roster change dragged the team from a promising top three in Spring to failing to make playoffs and the end of Gao "WeiXiao" Xuecheng’s legendary career. Invictus Gaming suffered a similar fate with one imported top laner after making the 2014 Spring Final. Team SoloMid and Star Horn Royal Club were the only teams with imported Korean players to qualify for the 2014 World Championship. They played in the same group, and both advanced to the bracket stage over the GPL’s Taipei Assassins and Europe’s SK Gaming. Following Group Stage, Star Horn Royal Club ran a tour through its LPL rivals by besting both all-Chinese teams EDward Gaming and Oh My God in five game series. “I made a terrible, terrible error,” popular League of Legends color caster and personality Christopher “Monte Cristo” Mykles said at the close of the five-game semifinal between SHRC and OMG. “I actually disobeyed my own rule by betting against Korean players, and I feel so damn stupid for doing it now… But at least we have the most Korean players in the Finals that we’ve ever had at Worlds.” Rather than bemoan communication difficulties, the SHRC lineup claimed that speaking two different languages was not a problem as long as they could use a ping system. In fact, Zero highlighted, almost tongue-in-cheek, the benefits of the team not always being able to communicate with one another. “We’re actually thankful we can’t communicate fully,” Zero said. “Uzi and inSec both have very short tempered personalities. So if they understood each other, I am sure there would be many fights, but there are no fights!” The success of the Royal Model rippled through the rest of the world either directly or coincidentally. Top European teams Fnatic and, later, G2 Esports dominated their leagues with lesser-known Korean players, and though TSM moved away from Korean players slowly, their biggest domestic rivals often skimmed the top of the Korean ladder before checking in on the North American alternatives.
Fnatic with Gamsu/Spirit - Spring 2016But it didn’t take hold as strongly anywhere else as it did in the LPL. The World Championship hadn’t even ended before whispers that Champions winners Lee “KaKAO” Byungkwon and Song “Rookie” Euijin would make the move to China. Every player from the then-kingly Samsung Galaxy rosters followed them. In LPL’s 2015 Spring, only three rosters of twelve didn’t include at least one Korean import. EDward Gaming followed up Royal’s rise by storming the LPL and running near flawlessly through the regular season. Heo “pawN” Wonseok and Kim “Deft” Hyukkyu glistened on the stages of MSI and cemented the “Korean carry” narrative for China. Uzi, meanwhile, left Star Horn Royal Club for Oh My God, an all-Chinese super roster. His old organization was placed in a position where it had to make a last minute signing outside the transfer window. Zhu “NaMei” Jiawen could not start for the team until Week Nine of the regular season. Royal Club faced relegation. Oh My God cracked at the seams and lost to the sixth place team, LGD Gaming, in the first round of the LPL playoffs. None of the all Chinese teams advanced to semifinals, and only two made playoffs. In 2015 Summer, two of the all-Chinese teams consolidated when Royal Club bought their way into the LPL and formed Royal Never Give Up, finishing outside the playoff cutoff. OMG toyed with starting Zhang “North” Yuze over Uzi and barely advanced to playoffs at all. It seemed no argument remained to rebuke the 2014 two import Royal Model. But the end of 2015 also marked the lowest point for the LPL’s international competitiveness. Pegged as potential champions, LGD Gaming, EDward Gaming, and Invictus Gaming headed to Paris for the Group Stage only to crash unceremoniously in the first week of Group Stage. Only EDward Gaming advanced to quarterfinals and lost 0-3 to Europe’s Fnatic in the first round. China’s greatest international failure forced the region to re-examine its struggles. It’s possible they had focused on the wrong things when looking for success. Chinese caster and ex-professional player Sun “XiaoXiao” Yalong broke down the difference between top Korean team SKT and top Chinese team EDward Gaming as brains vs brawn. “SK Telecom has better strategy, but Edward Gaming has stronger mechanics,” he said at the 2015 Mid Season Invitational. Teams looked first at practice culture, and then at improving communication quality. Weibo boasted pictures of Chinese lessons for their Korean players, suggesting that they had not been a priority in the year leading up to the World Championship. Even so, teams still signed high profile Korean players, and the number of all Chinese rosters heading into the 2016 season dwindled to just one. Royal Never Give Up added Cho “Mata” Sehyeong and Jang “Loooper” Hyeongseok. Royal once again became the symbol of import success when an Uzi-less roster with two Korean players catapulted to the top of the LPL, giving the organization its first domestic championship and a first place in the Group Stage at the second ever Mid Season Invitational. Almost everyone connected to Royal’s turnaround attributed the success to Mata. He had taken the Chinese squad under his wing and spoon fed them knowledge. “The addition of Mata in particular on my team has really raised my individual level and the level of the team as a whole,” xiaohu told me that Spring. “Before, when I used to lane against an opponent, 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.” The undercurrent of the narrative had changed subtly. Royal Never Give Up hadn’t eliminated its all Chinese lineup to get better players; it did so to get better knowledge. The primary carry roles were Chinese stars. Pushing further, I asked xiaohu to explain the difference in playing with an all Chinese lineup as he had in the previous year and in playing with Mata and Looper. “I really don’t see the difference between a ‘Chinese player’ or ‘Korean player,’” he told me, imagining this was my implication. “Any player, if you’re Chinese, Korean, or American — if you’re a good player, you’re a good player.” LPL Worlds placement improved slightly in 2016 following these roster changes. China still didn’t advance past quarterfinals, but two teams managed to advance to the bracket stage and pulled away at least one win against top LCK representatives in the process. If fans had at all paid attention to the underpinning story of the Royal team and its history, its next roster moves for 2017 would not have come as a shock. Mata and Looper made the decision to leave the team for KT Rolster and Echo Fox respectively, and Royal Never Give Up replaced them with former top laner Yan “Letme” Junze and rookie support talent Shi “Ming” Senming. Most preseason power rankings attributed RNG’s success heavily to Mata and projected the team would land outside of playoffs, even with Uzi. After all, when was the last time an all Chinese team made a run? OMG seemingly only retained its roster out of stubbornness. The first two weeks confirmed suspicions with both RNG and OMG dropping their first sets, but when LPL returned from Lunar New Year break, Royal left a swathe of victories in its path and raced to the top of its conference. More importantly, the method of their wins shocked audiences as the team played around its solo laners and used disengage to hold mid in efficient 1-3-1 setups -- with Uzi on the team. In almost every press conference following the games, startled journalists asked the same question. “How?” Answers always came back to communication. Everyone on the team spoke perfect Mandarin Chinese, allowing them to advance in macro and game understanding faster than their opposition. Royal Never Give Up continued its ascent throughout Spring and Summer and were projected to win the Summer Split. Despite a reverse sweep victory by EDward Gaming, a few analysts still pegged RNG as the strongest team coming from the LPL. When they blew past Samsung Galaxy not once, but twice, the Royal organization was once again an international phenomenon. No team had come out first in Group Stage over a Korean team since Flash Wolves in 2015. Even Zero, then a support substitute for fellow LPL representative Team WE, had completely reversed his stance on communication after arriving at the World Championship as his region’s third seed. “We did lose to EDG and RNG a lot of times in the LPL,” Zero said, “but I think that’s due to the communication issues. They are all composed of Chinese players [sic], so they have very good communication. That’s why they can take advantage in the Chinese league.” Communication, previously perceived as less relevant in the wake of Star Horn Royal Club’s 2014 World Championship climb to the Grand Final, had become the cornerstone of the rebranded Royal Never Give Up’s success. For Head Coach Huang “FireFox” Tinghsiang, one of the orchestrators of Royal’s new roster, this was the plan as soon as Looper and Mata’s departures became official. “One of my dreams is that, if RNG perform well this year, it can inspire other teams to move back to the all-Chinese rosters,” then Head Coach Firefox told me at the close of the 2017 World Championship Group Stage. When the season came to a close and Samsung and SKT had a Grand Final rematch, the term “Royal Model” popped up again, but it was the complete inverse of its former self. The game had evolved, what it took to become champions clarified. Communication and knowledge became the true determinant of success. A good player was just a good player, and “Korean” didn’t necessarily mean “better.” Despite another slow start, Royal Never Give Up again made its mark with elevated mid-late game strategy in the 2018 LPL. RNG used its ability to control waves to coordinate sieges with solo lanes using fake pressure to move up with the wave at the same time that minions crashed mid. When RNG got a lead on the bottom side of the map, and the enemy team made a trade for top lane, mid laner xiaohu often Teleported top to defend, and Uzi would use pressure to rotate from bot to mid and clear the wave, getting substantial leads on his opponents and pushing two lanes for one. Uzi, like Royal, had spent much of his 2015 far from peak of LPL competition and voiced interest in retiring because of struggles with wrist pain. Even when he rejoined Royal in 2016, the organization didn’t win the Grand Final against EDward Gaming, but they had taken the LPL giants 3-1 without Uzi the split before. 2018’s Uzi played well with his team and constantly pressured matchups. He elevated his own play higher than ever, often winning losing matchups alongside Ming and navigating team fights with ease. The new Royal had the best or both iterations of the Royal Model: stardom and knowledge. When RNG reached Berlin for the 2018 Mid Season Invitational, LCK’s representative, KingZone Dragon X, was still the favorite. Winning LCK made KingZone the best team in the World, and no one had contested that since EDward Gaming won the first MSI in 2015 with two ex-Champions stars. But when KingZone lost, first to Fnatic, then to Flash Wolves and Royal themselves, cracks showed more prominently than they had at home. Kim “Khan” Dongha, who had long struggled with Teleport flanks, seemingly hadn’t fixed his problems. KingZone’s habit of almost never saving counter pick for its bottom lane in draft mattered more in a tournament full of each region’s best AD carry competitors. While everyone will point to RNG’s exceptional team fights, to the history of excellence in the Chinese AD Carry talent pool that Uzi has risen above, bouncing side waves always gave Royal an opportunity to to take a 5v5 with better macro play. One Flash Malzahar ultimate from xiaohu and Uzi’s calls urging his team to end opened the door. The best team in the world doesn’t have any Korean players. Royal Club was a leader in one of the largest phenomena that consumed the League of Legends landscape with the rise of Korean imports and SHRC in 2014, but it didn’t earn them a Championship. Four year later, they have a chance to tilt the narrative in the opposite direction. And this time, Royalty wears the crown.