Welcome home WE: The Chinese team that has almost always surprised us internationally

Team WE after their first LPL victory (刘一村)
Team WE after their first LPL victory (刘一村)

In 2011, foreign League of Legends teams came to China to compete for the first time. Team WE attended as one of three domestic representatives. Following Invictus Gaming’s loss to Counter Logic Gaming at the World Cyber Games earlier that year, IEM Guangzhou would be the world’s first proper introduction to Chinese LoL.

On reflecting on Counter Logic Gaming’s IEM Guangzhou attendance, Steve “Chauster” Chau wrote, “The team still had confidence in [jiji]’s playstyle until IEM Guangzhou when he died three times to Misaya and Jungler and lost the game through laning phase alone. The backlash from the community was a precedent, but the most detrimental effect was team confidence in jiji.”

CLG in particular didn’t see WE coming. They dropped a match in the Group Stage to WE and lost again in the Grand Final. But China’s most celebrated esports organization came prepared.

“We hadn’t played against any of [the foreign teams] before either in scrims or matches,” AD carry Gao “WeiXiao” Xuecheng said about the team’s preparation for the event in an interview feature for 15w.

“We were completely unfamiliar … At that time, it was really hot in Guangzhou, and we didn’t have any money, so we had to walk everywhere … We walked very far to find an internet cafe, and at that cafe, it was also tremendously hot. We just sat there sweating and watching VODs.”

The worst thing you can do is underestimate Team WE.

Though roster iterations have changed over time, Team WE has set a precedence in League of Legends for constantly surprising at international events. From their first appearance and tournament win in Guangzhou to a victory over the leading Korean team at IEM Katowice, WE rarely disappoint.

WE’s victory at Guangzhou became part of a string of victories and near-victories within China, but more importantly, it launched them into international relevance. Over the course of the next year, they underwent several roster changes and joined top EU, NA, Korean, and Southeast Asian teams at major tournaments.

Following a Round of 8 finish against CLG EU at Korea’s 2012 Champions, Team WE made a significant roster change that formed one of the greatest teams in the history of the game.

Yu “Misaya” Jingxi spoke of this period as a time when WE had the sparest accommodations – only three rooms for five players and Coach Ji “Aaron” Xing – but were the most content.

Team WE's 2011 IEM Guangzhou lineup (15w)
Team WE’s 2011 IEM Guangzhou lineup (15w)

“We might not eat every day,” Misaya said, “but … all of our hearts and souls were in the game and in the match.”

WE lived in these sparse accommodations for several months because they had a strong connection to the internet and could play against Korean teams. Every time they lost to powerful opponents like Moscow 5 or CLG EU, they would tell each other “We can study them, we can practice.”

The Season 2 World Championship marked WE’s first event since Ming “Clearlove” Kai and Feng “Fzzf” Zhuojun joined the team. Though WE lost out in the quarterfinal, they made impressive strides in a month, had a surprising Blitzcrank-based strategy, and their loss still bears the doubt of an 11 hour pause and remake due to technical difficulties.

WE’s next string of successes quickly overshadowed their let-down at the World Championship. They continued to tear through online and domestic events for the next two months. One of their more notable victories came in an online tournament, Enter the Dragon. In the Grand Final, they played against KT Rolster Arrows and triumphed over a somewhat controversial technical failure.

“Although we got disconnected,” WeiXiao said about WE’s victory at Enter the Dragon, “KTA didn’t have any intention to wait. I thought that it wasn’t very fair to us. It was a disconnection. They could see that we couldn’t move. Then they were never willing to remake the game, so I thought it wasn’t fair. There was nothing we could do, we had to brace ourselves. Then later, we won the match. I remember I got a pentakill.”

WeiXiao’s Corki dove deep past the top lane inhibitor turret. WE looked beyond compare, decimating KTA in a 3-0 despite a technical disadvantage. Their vindication bolstered them, and they rode a high into their next event.

Yet when they came to IPL 5 less than a month later, the west was still barely watching WE.

Team WE’s most notable achievement to date is their victory at IPL 5. WE managed to find revenge over their most difficult rivals in Moscow 5 and CLG EU.

“Even though I made mistakes,” Misaya said, “and WeiXiao made mistakes, CaoMei made relatively few mistakes. If WeiXiao made a mistake, if I made a mistake, we could help each other. This way, it was like we were unbeatable.”

At the conclusion of WE’s final four game series against Fnatic, they dragged Coach Aaron on stage to lift the trophy with them. Shreds of silver confetti fell as China’s greatest team reaped their reward for months of skipping meals just so they could play against some of the strongest Korean teams.

Team WE at IPL 5 (IGN)
Team WE at IPL 5 (IGN)

Unfortunately, 2012’s December IPL 5 was the last the western World would see of China’s crown jewel for an entire year. A year of squabble and poor domestic results blocked WE from Worlds and other international competition.

The parting gift of WE’s most romanticized lineup was a third place finish at World Cyber Games, a tournament with few major notable attendees and technical difficulties so extreme that Xin Zhao became a popular pick for his straightforward targetable abilities. WE won third place by defeating Latin American team Lyon Gaming, but lost to an amalgamation of Oh My God and Positive Energy before having a chance to face long-time rival CJ Entus Blaze one final time.

WE’s final picks were truly a nod to their fans. Misaya’s Twisted Fate, Wei “CaoMei” Handong’s Rengar, WeiXiao’s Ezreal, and Fzzf’s Blitzcrank all made an appearance. In retrospect, spectators should have known that these were the last matches WE’s most celebrated lineup would play as a team.

“Julian and I casted WE’s last ever match,” Christopher “PapaSmithy” Smith said to me once. “We weren’t to know they were going to break up days later. I bought a Team WE mousepad while I was there and thought about having them sign it, but there was always security around the players who looked super stressed, so I thought better of it.”

PapaSmithy is one of few English language casters who followed WE throughout their peak.

Following WE’s WCG loss, the once powerful Chinese LoL giant would recede even further from the international spotlight. The team’s rebuild with WeiXiao and Wei “CaoMei” Handong at the core kept them among the top four or five Chinese teams, but a fixation on lane swaps made WE irrelevant as dragon gold changed and the meta shifted to 2v2s. WE lost a playoffs spot in 2014 Summer because they had a longer average game time in wins than LGD, the fourth place LPL team with the same match score and head-to-head as WE.

Both WeiXiao and CaoMei retired at the conclusion of 2014, and WE began their long rebuilding process. It didn’t go well.

For the early part of 2015, WE challenged the long-time LPL loss streak record, at the time held by Wayi Spiders. They dropped 11 straight games before finally winning a match against Vici Gaming.

“It was so close,” ex-Wayi and current Snake eSports manager lamented when I interviewed him. “I was watching their 12th match, but then they won. They only tied us. So sad!”

WE’s first win signaled something of a turnaround for the team. Lee “Spirit” Dayoon, star Korean jungler of the rebuild, selected Jarvan IV to isolate targets and rely more upon his teammates.

This wasn’t enough to propel WE far above the bottom of the table. Following a loss to Masters3, Korean mid laner Noh “Ninja” Geonwoo suffered crippling self doubt, and, according to CEO Zhang “smallorc” Wei, personally requested a roster change.

According to smallorc, Ninja felt it best if WE sent Su “xiye” Hanwei and Jin “Mystic” Seongjun to the IEM World Championship instead of himself and Chinese AD carry, Qu “styz” Ziliang.

The roster change meant that foreign teams spent even less time contemplating WE. As the last place LPL team with apparent gut-reaction substitutions, WE not only slipped on the priority list, but they became nearly impossible to scout.

A lackluster group stage and narrow entry into bracket stage off a Teleport mid lane Diana gimmick only hurt WE’s case as a contender. It’s possible GE Tigers, the top Korean team attending the IEM World Championship in 2015, didn’t even consider reviewing their group stage VODs.

No one would blame them — until xiye solo killed Lee “KurO” Seohaeng off-screen. xiye’s skill on assassins in the 1v1 begged jungle attention, and WE’s fearless exploitation of their opponents knocked GE Tigers out of IEM Katowice just before the Grand Final.

Tigers made it their goal to win IEM Katowice without dropping a game. In my mind, the last place LPL team triumphing over the domestically undefeated LCK team in a best-of-three still stands out as the greatest upset in the history of League of Legends. Though Wildcard team Albus Nox Luna has since defeated Tigers at the World Championship, this was still a single game. WE’s series victory is more pronounced because it wasn’t a fluke best-of-one.

At minimum, the Tigers didn’t properly scout Team WE. They disrespected them with a Yasuo pick. In 2015, Tigers got most of their wins from intelligent counter-strategies and early game work-arounds. WE’s unassuming roster change and brute forcing with the top three players on the Ionian solo queue ladder sent the tournament’s projected top team home after the semifinal.

Not scouting WE, or disrespecting WE, is the worst thing international teams can possibly do. From 2011 IEM Guangzhou Season VI to 2015 IEM Katowice, it can easily be argued that Team WE are the most internationally successful Chinese League of Legends team in the game’s history.

Their success doesn’t just extend to LoL, however. Li “Sky” Xiaofeng, one of history’s most iconic Chinese gamers, is also regarded as perhaps the greatest Human player in Warcraft III. As the only back-to-back World Cyber Games WCIII champion, Sky bolstered WE’s international recognition long before they entered LoL.

Team WE enter the Mid-Season Invitational as group of players who know how to impress. Even when their domestic record has been the lowest in the organization’s history, WE have joined international competitions fearlessly and drawn blood. As soon as WE leave exclusive domestic competition, performance relative to expectation has always been high.

Condi celebrating after Team WE's victory (刘一村)
Condi celebrating after Team WE’s victory (刘一村)

After WE’s last humiliation at the hands of Team SoloMid, they will surely seek revenge as a far more polished squad. Anyone who predicts less than Top 4 for the LPL representative clearly hasn’t been paying attention.

To most teams heading to MSI, I say good luck. To Team WE, welcome home.

You can follow Kelsey Moser on Twitter @karonmoser.