The Call to Bench Pomelo Misses the Mark
Fan response to OMG's performance at All-Star was a call to bench Pomelo, highlighting a misunderstanding of skill vs strategy that plagues the Chinese scene.
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At the conclusion of the All-Star 2014 Paris finals between SK Telecom T1 K and OMG, in which OMG failed to win a single game in the best of five series, Chinese fans nearly instantly responded to the announcement on Weibo, a site similar to Twitter, with calls to bench OMG's jungler, Ouyang 'pomelo' Wei-Qi or for pomelo to do the honorable thing and choose to retire.
Retire, pomelo, for us and for OMG
—translated comment on OMG's Weibo
Royal Club's defeat at the World Championships 2013 in Los Angeles were met by similar outcries against the team's then jungler, Liu 'Lucky' Jun-Jie, who is no longer a starting member of RC's lineup. This begs the question of whether there is something fundamentally wrong with Chinese jungle talent that prevents teams from challenging SKT T1 K or if these types of outcries might be missing the mark. Benching pomelo would deflect a larger problem in Chinese League of Legends, which is the over-valuing of individual skill at the expense of strategical development.
A Scenario Based in Speculation
A casual glance at the set between SKT T1 K and OMG certainly points to pomelo's play as a weakness. In the first two games, opposing jungler, Bae 'bengi' Seong-ung found first blood against pomelo on OMG's side of the map. Bengi also found easier ganks and more farm, while Pomelo struggled to catch up in a matchup of Pantheon vs Kha'Zix, which Pomelo has stated he believes can be Pantheon-favored.
It wasn't just this set or even just this tournament where OMG faltered in early game jungle control, however, as OMG often struggled in early games throughout LPL 2014. Despite their record of 25-3, they frequently gave up early advantages, either due to ganks or overly passive play to teams like Positive Energy, Enery Pacemaker and Royal Club, all of which placed in the bottom half of LPL. They ended the series with an average game time of a little over thirty five minutes, which was the second longest in LPL.
This wasn't always the case, of course. Fans of OMG might remember their runs in 2013 LPL Summer and the World Championship 2013 group stage where OMG's early game seemed like a strong point. Yin 'Allen' Le, previously known as Lovelin, has switched off as a jungler with Pomelo twice, and during his stint as a jungler, OMG created strategies around taking advantages in level three dives or constant counter-jungling. OMG has tried to remain true to this strategy to an extent, but it doesn't have the same efficiency as it did with Allen at the helm.
OMG has stated that they reverted the swap because pomelo and Allen's champion pools and play styles in jungle and support worked better with the 2014 Season changes, despite both players claiming they prefer to play in the jungle. If this is the case, it's possible pomelo's longer range glass cannon support champions fell out of favor, forcing the switch, and Allen is the superior player in both roles in the current meta. In this case, benching pomelo could seem like a solid move, especially if Li 'Sicca' Hao-Yu, star support player from the 2013 Positive Energy lineup, currently serving as sub and coach for OMG, could be convinced to take a spot on the starting lineup.
A Bigger Picture
During LPL Spring, Hu 'xiyang' Bin ranked first in MVP points, Gao 'Gogoing' Di-Ping third and pomelo fourth (Ceng 'U' Long, Edward Gaming's mid laner, was the only non-OMG player to break the top five). Guo 'San' Jun-Liang and Allen, arguably the stars of OMG at All-Star, placed fifth and 21st in the rankings respectively.
Given China's reputation for valuing a deep talent pool of AD carries, including Gao 'WeiXiao' Xuecheng, Zhu 'NaMei' Jia-Wen, Ge 'Kid' Yan, and more recently, rising mechanical prodigies Han 'Sm1z' Jin and Qu 'Styz' Ziliang, it's surprising that all other members of OMG should rack up more MVP points than their bottom lane duo. This is especially surprising considering that Allen and San seemed like the most reliable memebers of their team at All-Star, even in losing matches against SKT T1 K.
This is exactly why xiyang, Gogoing, and pomelo seem like the more prominent carries of OMG in the LPL context. San's display at All-Star is a required benchmark for a team to succeed at all in LPL, and a powerful AD carry needs an equally skilled support player to shine. The rest of the team, then, makes the difference on the LPL stage between a giant and a team facing the newly implemented auto-relegation scheme.
By this logic, it seems that xiyang and pomelo are the best in LPL at their respective roles. You might argue that a better replacement for pomelo is already on the team's roster, but this seems to me to be avoiding the real question: are xiyang and pomelo the best mid and jungle players in LPL, or do they have the most MVP points because OMG has the best team play in LPL?
Skill vs Strategy
OMG's choice to replace their star mid laner, Yu 'Cool' Jia-Jun, during his split off with xiyang raised many eyebrows. Chinese players are by-and-large known for their versatility and individual skill, allowing them to play a wide variety of champions. Xiyang was known for playing Syndra, Leblanc and Cassiopeia almost exclusively to reach Challenger in solo queue, and many expected his limited pool to create problems for OMG in LPL. This didn't happen, but not because xiyang instantly learned to play a new repertoire of champions. Rather, OMG, on a level of strategy and synergy, outclassed every other team in LPL.
It seems strange to say this after watching a set of games at All-Star where SK Telecom T1 K was always at least one step ahead of OMG. When one considers that Edward Gaming, the second place team in LPL that lost only four more games than OMG this split, wins games on an extremely one-dimensional strategy of farming and stalling out until they can get a pick at Baron and win the game off one fight, it's easy to see how OMG rose to the top.
It's also easy to see why, in this context, Chinese bot laners always perform well at international events while the rest of the team breaks even or plays inconsistently. Arguably, the AD carry is the role with the least strategical elements to it. AD carries farm until they can deal a respectable amount of damage and rely on their positioning and the rest of their team to peel for them. Supports are partially responsible for maintaining vision, but where supports excel is in picking fights. Often this is simply a matter of assessing which team has the advantage in a situation. The work of obtaining the advantage in the first place is a team-wide task, which spectators will often place almost entirely on the shoulders of the jungler and mid laner.
A lot has changed since LPL Summer, aside from pomelo and Allen switching roles. OMG's coach has stated that they have made an effort to slow down the pace of their games because it's harder to snowball off early objectives. The way vision control works has shifted drastically, and it's easy to see the strides OMG made in this regard just over their four days playing at All-Star. It was a struggle in their group stage match against Cloud 9, but an asset against them in the quarterfinals.
Aside from vision, Chinese LoL teams have grown accustomed to playing isolated 1v1s in the mid lane. 4v0 pushes have dominated since the beginning of the 2014 season (yes, even when LPL was still on Patch 3.16) with freezing strategies only slowly starting to take hold. As a result, xiyang has rarely been forced to deal with jungle pressure. And while he looked stronger on Syndra than on the other champions he played at All-Star, he simply did not have experience dealing with junglers. By forcing OMG into a situation they did not have to face in LPL, xiyang was left flailing, and pomelo was forced to divert more attention to the mid lane in an attempt to play catch-up. This had nothing to do with the individual skill of the players in question, but rather a lack of familiarity with a strategy that would seem common in almost any other scene.
Zeroing in on one player and mistaking poor team pressure across the map for poor individual performance is not unique to Chinese fans alone. Royal Club, after a flagging split, has picked up a solo queue star named corn, a member of King, a team that failed to qualify for LSPL. During these qualifying matches, corn played Orianna, simply outfarmed his opponent, and helped his team attempt to brute force the games with hit-or-miss Shockwaves. While his individual skill level was obviously high, his team impact seemed less impressive. Despite this and a lack of competitive achievements, professional players still rate him highly. World Elite's mid laner, Chen 'suk1M' Zhi-Yuan has listed corn amongst China's top three mid laners.
This level of emphasis on individual skill seems to be a problem stunting the strategical growth of Chinese League of Legends. Obviously, individual skill level is important, but only as a base line of performance. Having stated that they've learned a great deal from their international experiences, OMG has a genuine opportunity to correct this over-emphasis and spread their knowledge. There's no hard evidence to indicate that pomelo is individually weaker than Allen or any other Chinese jungler at the moment. And suggesting that OMG's performances are entirely on his shoulders seems ludicrous. I fear benching pomelo would be a sign of a missed opportunity to correct a larger issue.