The call for a jungle substitution came through as SK Telecom T1 are one game down to Royal Never Give Up in the 2016 League of Legends World Championship quarterfinal in Chicago. The tiny theatre is hot, brimming with fans rooting for the underdog despite no regional allegiance. Kang "Blank" Sungu sits on stage, dabbing his forehead to keep his focus. He's been here before. The Chinese jungler, Liu "Mlxg" Shiyu is someone he knows very well.
After two jungle bans in champion select, Royal Never Give Up give Mlxg priority with a first pick Olaf: a more aggressive, albeit blue buff dependent and predictable, choice than Blank's Zac.
Members of SKT spot a cluster of RNG players 40 seconds into the game. Pings follow Mlxg up through bottom river, mid lane and to his blue buff. Blank's path mirror's Mlxg with a red buff and raptor start while Lee "Faker" Sanghyeok wards the entrance to RNG's jungle by its raptor camp. When Mlxg crosses it, Blank is ready. Mlxg, invading against mid priority, get caught by Blank in the brush behind blue buff. Although RNG's bottom lane have the push advantage, it takes them too long to come help their jungler. SKT's Zyra snares Mlxg, and Faker and Bae "Bang" Junsik deal enough damage to finish what their jungler started.
"First blood to SKT!" Trevor "Quickshot" Henry alerted the excited crowd.
Mlxg's escape from an ill-considered invade had been halted by his decision to throw one more axe. Blank had enough daring to flash to finish the job. Throughout the 2016 competitive season, Blank was often decried as a player who made SKT less effective than when the more experienced Bae "Bengi" Seongwoong played. But against RNG at both the Mid Season Invitation and the 2016 World Championship, Blank had some of his best stage games.
"Mlxg is one of the most aggressive players in the jungle," Blank said a year later in the Wuhan interview room after SKT qualified for the quarterfinal. "While most junglers go for the green smite, Mlxg still tends to play with the red smite and play more aggressively."
Blank and Mlxg have a unique history. At the conclusion of 2014, Blank joined his first League of Legends team in China: Energy Pacemaker Carries. This LoL Secondary Pro League team had close ties with Star Horn Royal Club, and after an emergency accident left starting jungler Choi "inSec" Inseok hospitalized, Blank transferred to Royal as a temporarily as a jungle sub.
At the time, Blank demonstrated he was clearly out of his depth, failing to facilitate a bitter and crumbling SHRC squad that had had more than its share of poor luck that season already. Still, the right engages with Gragas and a few creative bottom lane ganks demonstrated that Blank had the willingness to go for the flashy outplay and the skill to capitalize.
When the team got relegated, Blank remained with the Royal organization, but one of the biggest shuffles and rebrandings in Chinese LoL history saw members of the Team King squad transfer to Royal to form Royal Never Give Up with a purchase of a new spot in the LPL. In Summer, both Mlxg and Blank played under the Royal banner for LPL and LSPL respectively.
"I'm pretty close with Blank, and we both have the same hobby," Mlxg said. "We love eating crawfish together."
RNG itself ended up following in the footsteps of Star Horn Royal Club and had to play relegation. Again, the daring of its jungler didn't quite facilitate team play, and Royal stumbled. True to its name, however, it survived the Promotion Tournament to return to the LPL.
During this time, Blank played for Star Horn Royal Club, and his method of jungling continued to mirror the likes of Mlxg. Blank played on an LSPL roster of Park "Yizhen" Uijin (now known as Untara), ex-King mid laner Zhou "Sask" Yixiang, and other members of Energy Pace Maker Carries. Sask and Untara's more stable approach contrasted with Blank's willingness to invade aggressively, and the new SHRC roster dropped out in the early rounds of LSPL Summer Playoffs.
Blank's transfer to SK Telecom T1, however, marked a chapter of success for both junglers, but also a major diverging point in their developments.
In Game Three of the 2017 World Championship quarterfinal between RNG and Fnatic, for example, Mlxg started by taking only his red buff after an SKT invade. He then immediately went top, having only done one camp, to try to pressure the lane. Following that, he went to krugs, backed, did his raptors, and went for a mid camp. By four minutes into the game, Mlxg had not even looked at his own blue buff, and with a weaker early bottom lane matchup, it could have easily fallen into the hands of Fnatic.
For Mlxg, getting his lanes into a good position means setting himself behind. If mistakes occur, then a lot of the compositions RNG have drafted at Worlds will scale up to team fight around the AD carry for a later victory.
"Our main purpose was to stably scale," Mlxg said of RNG's first week game against G2 Esports. "Their team composition for early and mid game was definitely stronger than ours, and they can counter-jungle us, so it was very important for us to clear the vision for our jungle."
The same logic can be applied to some of Royal's games against Fnatic. In Game Four, though Fnatic got early kills, Mlxg sacrificed a lot of his own time and experience to help Li "xiaohu" Yuanhao maintain the advantage after he solo killed Rasmus "Caps" Winther. Eventually, Fnatic couldn't maintain enough of a foothold in the game to hold off RNG's Shen, Jarvan IV, Corki, and Twitch composition.
Blank's philosophy is almost the exact opposite. He won't take these risks to try to brute force losing lane matchups into advantages.
"When my team's lanes aren't ahead," Blank said, "that means that they are losing the lane. Although I could make a proactive move, there are some risks. So, if my teammates are behind in lane, I help them with minimal support like grabbing vision to help them farm in a safer environment."
Blank will often turtle and farm in his own jungle if SKT draft multiple losing lanes and rely on keeping his own area clear of vision. Yet, if SKT get advantages, that's where Blank really shines.
As the Misfits quarterfinal against SKT progressed, SKT continued to favor strong solo lane matchups and deny the successful Tristana pick. The turning point for SKT came with the level two gank by Blank in Game Four. While this move his some echoes of Mlxg, the reliable snare from Ryze and follow up from Jarvan IV's Flag and Drag against a level two Karma made it almost a sure thing, and something Misfits should have expected.
From there, Blank excelled at using the mid lane pressure generated by Faker to invade and deny camps from Nubar "Maxlore" Sarafian. Even in Game Three, which Misfits won, Maxlore devoted almost all of his attention to the bottom side of the map, and though Misfits got the first turret, they did so at the expense of Maxlore's top side camps, and Blank leveled ahead of his opponent early on.
Blank's style emphasizes more of a reliable approach to denying his opponent and getting leads, but if his lanes fall behind early, he doesn't have the same impact as Mlxg. Both teams will no doubt draft compositions that take advantage of the strengths of each jungler, and as RNG has favored scaling side lanes while SKT looks for more aggressive picks, both teams should also get what they want. It's up to Blank to anticipate Mlxg's risk-taking to counter it, as he and SKT have in the past, in order to keep the situation advantageous for his team.
But the mid and jungle will be most important. Even when RNG has felt comfortable giving up kills in side lanes for the scaling payoff of Soraka and a hyper scaling AD later on, it has insisted on a strong matchup for its mid laner, so much so that it has avoided picking one of xiaohu's best champions, Corki.
"It's not a good champion to play in lane," xiaohu explained. "So we won't have much pressure."
For Blank, keeping a strong mid-jungle 2v2 is also the most important thing. That's where Royal and SKT will align and from where most of the tension will generate.
"I think mid-jungle dominance early game is most important to get ahead," Blank said. "I think our team failed to achieve that during the ahq game."
A level two mid lane altercation could prove pivotal in this matchup, just as it was when SKT played against RNG in 2016. Most eyes will be on the stars of the show, Faker and Jian "Uzi" Zihao, but the game could well come down to a split-second play between old friends and rivals.
"Last year," Mlxg said after RNG won its quarterfinal against Fnatic, "we played against SKT in the semifinals at MSI, and this year it's at the same venue so we really want to avenge ourselves."
But at MSI and then at Worlds, even when almost every SKT fan called for Bengi to start, Blank has never faltered against Mlxg.