For much of 2013 and 2014, the League of Legends Pro League in China retained the designation of the second strongest region; no LPL team had failed to escape Group Stage since the region joined the World Championships in 2012.
But in 2015, an all-time low in World Championship results for the LPL followed after EDward Gaming's victory over SK Telecom T1 in the Mid Season Invitational Grand Final. Only one team made it out of Group Stage, and it instantly lost its best-of-five 3-0 to Europe's Fnatic.
Since then, it has been a slow climb back to contention for the LPL.
Based on results-based observations, one might argue LPL teams didn't have a significantly better showing than they did at the 2016 World Championship. Only two teams escaped the Group Stage, and both teams lost in the bracket as soon as they collided with representatives from the League of Legends Champions Korea.
"I don't think we're that different," Su "xiye" Hanwei said at the conclusion of the first week of the World Championship, a week that had WE tied for first in its group with a record of 2-1. "We almost made it to Worlds last time, so I think we've performed about the same as we would have if we had come to Worlds last year."
But based on strategic improvements in the League of Legends Pro League representative game play, the teams that came to Worlds from China this year are miles ahead.
At the conclusion of the 2014 World Championship, Star Horn Royal Club had run through both EDward Gaming, LPL champions, and Oh My God, the slayers of NaJin White Shield, in order to reach the final. Both EDG and OMG had all-Chinese rosters. During SHRC's miracle run, Yoon "Zero" Kyungsup said he didn't think it was that difficult to communicate with his Chinese teammates because the team could use the ping system.
At the same time, journalists leaked that Lee "KaKAO" Byungkwon and Song "Rookie" Euijin would leave KT Rolster after winning the OGN Summer Final to join an LPL team. That started the wave of major imports from OGN teams to the LPL.
At the start of 2015, demand from streaming companies filled most LPL teams with brand names from the LCK, and organizations focused on brute forcing their competition. Strategy and team play weren't necessary if you had the best players -- as Zero had said, pings would suffice.
"SK Telecom has better strategy," Chinese caster Sun "XiaoXiao" Yalong said when I interviewed him at MSI that year, "but Edward Gaming has stronger mechanics, so if EDG just plays in a standard way, they can win."
The notion that Chinese players in some way weren't good enough to contend with South Korea took hold. CEOs and managers like Vici Gaming's Lu "HunTeR" Wenjun, (formerly) EDward Gaming's Huang "San Shao" Cheng, and Snake eSports' Cao "Zuowu" Yu all claimed that Chinese players didn't know what it was like to play for a team. It cost more to pay for a Chinese player of similar quality, and they were more susceptible to early retirement once they got popular.
Much of this sentiment spread to western viewership -- LPL was better with big name imports. They brought up the overall skill level. LPL was historically a region that didn't focus on strategy, so it didn't need it as long as it could brute force every game.
That same approach continued within the LPL until 2016. Cho "Mata" Sehyeong's arrival to Royal Never Give Up focused much more on trying to teach young Chinese players game fundamentals in Spring.
"Before," Li "xiaohu" Yuanhao said in 2016, "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. After Mata joined the team, he was really able to teach me to think about why I do things and make clearer decisions."
The impact was nearly immediate. As xiaohu has gotten older, his individual skill and decision-making improved. In Game Three of the 2017 World Championship semifinal against SK Telecom T1, he traded with Lee "Faker" Sangheok under turret and pulled the minion wave so that it would focus fire and deny Faker more minions before he died. This is something he would not have necessarily done or thought about in 2015.
Even with Mata, however, RNG had restrictions. It played almost solely around bottom lane dives, and subtleties of wave manipulation and lane swaps escaped RNG often.
With an entirely new roster this year, however, RNG focused much more on setting up alternative compositions. In Spring, RNG had a strategy focused on strong solo lanes, leaving Jian "Uzi" Zihao often to play a utility "hold mid" style as the game progressed. Teams like RNG began to introduce and perfect 1-3-1 compositions to the region.
That same focus came through when Royal Never Give Up and Team WE made it to the World Championship semifinal again in 2017. Not only did both teams escape their groups in first this year, but they demonstrated a higher level of play against their LCK opponents.
For Team WE, that meant Ke "957" Changyu coordinating with Xiang "Condi" Renjie. When the jungler trended bottom, 957's job became getting vision of the enemy jungler. WE tried to keep pressure in both side lanes and then coordinate again with xiye to invade or transition control around Baron later in the game.
In Royal's case, it meant using top lane tempo to swap and make turret trades. It meant adapting throughout the series to use Ryze's catch ability and strong jungle matchups to control mid and abuse SKT's loss of tempo on bottom to trade sides.
All the while, LPL players still retained the ability to brute force. The departure of star ex-Samsung players like Jang "Looper" Hyeongseok didn't make it more difficult for Royal to contend on an individual level with members of SKT. In fact, Looper's replacement, Yan "Letme" Junze gained praise from analysts like Mark Zimmerman for his play against the once-lauded Heo "Huni" Seunghoon.
In the 2017's Play-in stage, Zero (once the starting support for Star Horn Royal Club, now a substitute for Team WE) explained why he felt WE only just made to the World Championship.
"We did lose a lot in China's LPL to EDG and RNG," he said, "but I think that's due to the communication issues. They are almost all composed of Chinese players, so they have very good communication, and I think that's why they can take advantage in the Chinese league."
The fact that the sentiment contradicts the one he felt in 2014 as a member of Royal demonstrates a change in direction for the LPL. Not only are its players good enough, but LPL has looked more at strategy and team play rather than brute forcing. A return to the semifinals for the LPL teams has a gratifying feeling -- like it is once again the second best region.
It took years, but the LPL has finally come to Worlds demonstrating improvement in strategic development as well as skill. Continuing to focus on that can only take its teams further.