“The curse, lifted. The prophecy has been fulfilled. Uzi now reigns as king. Royal. Never. Give. Up. Champions. And they will take on the world at MSI.”
This was the call of English-language caster Matthew “Fish” Stewart as Jian “Uzi” Zi-hao and Royal Never Give Up bore down on EDward Gaming’s nexus.
Chills. Catharsis. There’s no other way to describe Jian “Uzi” Zi-hao’s first LPL title. The AD carry had been trying for a domestic championship since he was 16 years-old. Now just barely 21 years-old, Uzi finally lifted the LPL trophy with his RNG teammates. After becoming the face of the LPL for years, especially to an international audience, he had a title to back up his popularity. By his own admission, this was the year that Uzi finally learned to truly appreciate his teammates, and this kicked off what appeared to be a red-carpet roll-out straight towards his first League of Legends World Championship finals victory.
RNG began the competitive year with the acquisition of mid-turned-top laner Liu “Zz1tai” Zhi-Hao and former Flash Wolves jungler Hung “Karsa” Hao-Hsuan. With talented prospects like AD carry Dai “Able” Zhi-Chun also joining for the 2018 lineup, RNG’s 10-man roster looked unstoppable on paper. As it is with most 10-man rosters, the only question was of whether the team would be able to balance the players’ personalities and substitutions, especially with star carry Uzi out until Feb. 25. The team looked shaky throughout spring and finished third in their group, behind Invictus Gaming and Rogue Warriors. At that time, the spring title was all iG’s until RNG bested them in semifinals with better teamwork and stifling 1-3-1 setups to complement their already strong 5v5 teamfighting. Even after winning the LPL title, giving Uzi his catharsis, it wasn’t until the Mid-Season Invitational finals, a 3-1 victory over Kingzone DragonX, that the community started to consider RNG as the best team in the world.
The Mid-Season Invitational, Rift Rivals, the Asian Games, another LPL title in summer, this was supposed to be Uzi and RNG’s year.
All of these accolades fell in the face of a shocking Worlds quarterfinals defeat to G2 Esports. RNG tunneled on single-damage and scaling compositions around Uzi. These compositions often had several losing lanes and eschewed the 1-3-1 setups with mid laner Li “Xiaohu” Yuan-Hao that had made the team flexible enough to win MSI. Fans turned on the team immediately. The narrative shifted. The 2018 League of Legends World Championship was now about the rise of the West, the rise of solo laners over AD carries, and ultimately, the rise of an even older Chinese powerhouse in Invictus Gaming. A different kind of catharsis swept over a teary-eyed audience as Song “Rookie” Eui-jin and company raised the Summoners’ Cup. AD carry Yu “JackeyLove” Wen-bo, after a year of disappointing performances in high-profile LPL playoff matches, ascended, still only 17 years-old.
Now, RNG have somehow become the most underrated esports organization in LoL this year despite winning every title they possibly could save one. Their performance at one single tournament has caused them to drop out of the public eye save off-handed remarks about their Worlds failure. In preliminary and ongoing end-of-year awards discussions, RNG has mysteriously vanished from the radar of many, especially in the west.
League of Legends only has two major international tournaments in a competitive year, the Mid-Season Invitational and the World Championship, and one minor international tournament in Rift Rivals. Worlds is considered the default tournament from which to draw conclusions, narrowing down an already miniscule sample size — especially when compared with the amount of games played by Chinese and South Korean teams in a competitive split — to one tournament.
The results of Worlds frequently bind teams or entire regions to a narrative for the next competitive year, regardless of domestic and even international results at MSI or Rift Rivals. For example, South Korea’s struggles can now be traced to several losses to Chinese teams throughout the year: at MSI, Rift Rivals, and Asian Games. Many of these losses were written off due to the teams involved. Kingzone DragonX inherited the ROX Tigers’ narrative of losing in finals simply due to to the presence of Han “Peanut” Wang-ho, Kim “PraY” Jong-in, and Kang “GorillA” Beom-hyeon. RNG’s continuing string of victories also played into this perception — South Korea was still strong, but RNG was contending for best team in the world. Both of these narratives collapsed at Worlds quarterfinals. Retroactive examination shows the pattern of a down year for South Korean LoL, unheard of until 2018. RNG was written off immediately. While people still speak of South Korea, and how the LCK will rise in 2019, RNG has been forgotten.
Narrowing down a team’s performance in a competitive year to a single tournament skews perspective. There are first the inherent problems with how seeds are given and sorted, which wouldn’t be an issue if LoL had more international events, but because the results are based on a similarly small view of Worlds and MSIs past, makes for a small sample size.
Then there’s the amount of games. This past summer, RNG played a total of 63 games across the LPL regular season and playoffs, and Rift Rivals. They played a total of 12 games at Worlds for a total of 75 games over the back half of the competitive year. By writing RNG off entirely based on their Worlds performance, these 12 games — 16 percent of their total competitive results — are given an extraordinary amount of weight. More importantly, what’s really being done is giving RNG’s five total games against G2, a mere seven percent, an unchallenged place above all other games that RNG played this summer, never mind MSI and the full competitive year.
It’s a bit different for LPL teams due to the sheer amount of games that they play. Compare RNG with Cloud9, an organization that defied expectations in a positive way, becoming the first-ever North American team to qualify for a Worlds semifinal match since 2011. C9 played a total of 29 games this summer across the regular season, playoffs, and regional qualifier. As a third seed and play-in stage team, C9 played 22 total games at Worlds. Due to expectations of the team, when considering the organization’s performance in LoL, the whole is considered and C9 is seen as a success. It also makes more sense to consider C9’s Worlds accomplishments when they played nearly half of their games in the back end of the year at Worlds — 43 percent of them, in fact.
Thanks to their Worlds performance — combined with success across other esports titles — C9 is considered the best esports organization of the year. This is a complete departure from what fans and the community thought of C9’s roster decisions at the beginning of the year, and even the beginning of the summer split. The team was roasted on social media for settling on top laner Eric “Licorice” Ritchie over Jung “Impact” Eon-yeong, and later denigrated for the decision to sit mid laner Nicolaj “Jensen” Jensen and AD carry Zachary “Sneaky” Scuderi at the start of the split. These decisions ended up working out well for C9, ultimately giving the team the rotating seven-man lineup that went to Worlds semifinals. Due to that semifinals bid, all is forgotten. When C9’s end of the year, and time at Worlds, is placed above all else, they come out as one of the best organizations NA LoL has ever had.
These comparisons aren’t to underrate, or take away from the successes that C9 had at Worlds. They should be celebrated, especially C9 who are default winners of 2018 due to overwhelming success across multiple esports titles. However, in celebrating those accomplishments, they shouldn’t overshadow RNG’s consistency for most of the competitive year, especially given the high level of competition at the top of the LPL.
The question of RNG’s strength as a LoL organization is answered by how little or how much one values this tournament, the World Championship, above all others. It’s not a question of whether RNG’s loss to G2 was a failure — it certainly was, and on a larger scale than nearly any other teams’ failures in LoL over this past year — but how it compares when placed next to RNG’s many victories and general consistency throughout the 2018 competitive year. If you take that into consideration, RNG is still one of the best teams of 2018.