BUSAN, South Korea -- A lone photographer stood in the parking lot behind the BEXCO Auditorium on the last day of Group B at the League of Legends World Championship. A maroon and yellow bus approached and he hoisted his camera onto his shoulder. South Korean photographers behind him did the same. Loud footsteps echoed from around the corner at the parking lot gates.
"Uzi! Uzi jia you!"
"RNG jia you!"
A group of ten to twenty Royal Never Give Up fans appeared with RNG branded shopping bags filled with gifts from the team's fan club. Some had coffee cups in their hands from the RNG coffee stand on the corner, also run by RNG fans and the Jian "Uzi" Zi-Hao fanclub specifically.
The man himself, Uzi, popped out of the bus in the middle of his team and staff, immediately standing at attention. Uzi is a player who is used to being watched, photographed, and generally followed. He doesn't bloom with charisma under a camera lens, but he is aware of the mantle he carries as China's best. As fans continued to yell, he gave a shy smile and nod before walking into the auditorium with his team.
Seven hours later, Uzi, deemed the best player at the tournament before it had even begun, held the same pose. It had not been a good day for RNG, who were used to winning this year; they were spring and summer LPL champions and Mid-Season Invitational champions, after all. Uzi and three other RNG players even won a gold medal at the Asian Games on Team China.
But on this day, RNG bled. After dropping their first two games of the day against Vitality and Cloud9 RNG was in danger of not making it out of Group B at all. Even after RNG reclaimed their first seed in a tiebreaker against C9, the outlook on the team was significantly less bright.
This didn't make their quarterfinals loss to G2 Esports, the third seed from the European League of Legends Championship Series, any less shocking a few days later.
Disrespect is a strong word. In traditional sports, the idea of disrespecting an opponent is more reserved for displays of emotion or showmanship, like the unwritten Major League Baseball rule of forbidden batflips. In League of Legends, disrespect is reserved for drafting choices and in-game micro decisions. Draft specifically is given its own immediate and frequently furious social media reaction, which is again revisited at the end of the game and revised based on which team won or lost.
Fortune has not favored the slow, methodical, scaling compositions for optimal late-game 5v5 teamfighting, despite many teams following this playstyle prior to and during their qualification to worlds. Gen.G was the first to fall. Then Flash Wolves, who inexplicably drafted similar single-damage scaling compositions and failed to make it out of Group A. RNG followed suit, nearly costing the team advancement to the quarterfinals. Even when RNG drafted a lane-dominant champion for Uzi, like his Lucian in the tiebreaker with C9 and again in a Game 1 quarterfinals win over G2, he was sometimes the sole damage dealer on his team, and RNG would not draft winning lane matchups or supplementary damage to compliment him.
Yet, RNG stubbornly stuck to these methods, and in front of a packed audience already stunned from KT Rolster's loss earlier that day, the tournament favorites were eliminated by G2's scrappy split-push style around solo laners Luka "Perkz" Perković and Martin "Wunder" Hansen. Forums both in the west and in China exploded, especially after a team-issued apology. Common responses called the team arrogant and deserving of the loss.
While it's true that RNG's drafting and playstyle at worlds could be considered arrogant, this wasn't a new look for RNG. In fact, their over-reliance on a scaling, sometimes single-damage style around Uzi and generally lackluster early game is why the team dropped an unlikely game to Team Liquid at this year's Mid-Season Invitational, before adjusting just enough to win the entire tournament. In the LoL Pro League Summer, when Uzi returned to the team after a short hiatus due to injury, the team immediately returned to a slower-paced early game with Uzi on scaling champions like Kai'sa, but also rogue Kog'Maw and Vayne picks in an upset loss to Suning Gaming. This is the playstyle that the team defaults to, whether they feel that they are significantly better than their opponents, or simply just want to double down on comfort picks.
That being said, fans frustration was understandable, especially with the team seemingly refusing to adapt quickly enough, as they did at MSI, to advance to a title that most considered theirs if they were just willing to reach for it.
The night of their quarterfinals loss, a group of RNG fans, approximately 50 strong, waited just outside of the press interview entrance behind the auditorium looking out at the bus landing. There were no press cameras, just a still-stunned collection of supporters that would later board the Busan subway bound for Suyeong. One young woman leaned on a friend's shoulder and finally allowed herself to cry now that she was away from the team.
Again, there were loud, racing footsteps from around the corner. A young woman in a beige trenchcoat with a tear-streaked face appeared behind the crowd of RNG fans.
"Uzi jia you!" she yelled. She continued to stand, slightly to the left of the group, clenching her RNG fan gifts in her hands while openly crying. The group echoed her cries, cheering for each and every individual RNG player as they boarded the bus that would start the journey back home sooner than anyone expected.