What is the LPL? League of Legends in China

Only the deepest, largest, and most exciting professional LoL league in the world.

What is the LPL?

The answer to “What is the LPL?” is a simple one. It is the deepest, largest and most exciting professional LoL league in the world. Since its creation in 2013, the Chinese LoL pro league (LPL) has charted its own course with how the game should be played on and off Summoner’s Rift. Their rich history, deep-pocketed clubs, and uniquely aggressive play has captured the hearts and minds of LoL’s diehard fans across the world and led to the current era of China’s dominance on the international stage.

History of the league

China, like Korea before them, had a seemingly ready-made culture for LoL to succeed before the game’s launch there in 2011. The country had already seen video games explode into the mainstream with 1 million players playing World of Warcraft simultaneously in 2008. They had the dedicated infrastructure in their PC bars, bars where gamers can meet up and play on preloaded computers. So, when League of Legends launched there and the subsequent LoL Pro League (LPL) in 2013, it surprised no one that it quickly became one of the most popular leagues in the world with over 90 million people watching their finals.

LCK dominance

Popularity did not lead to instantaneous world championships for LPL teams like it did for the LCK. As the LPL made its way onto the international stage, it was clear there was going to be one consistent roadblock to domination: Korean players and Korean teams. 

In 2013, as LPL team Star Horn Royal Club (later, RNG) burst onto the scene and easily dispatched the North American and European teams, many wondered if the LPL, not the LCK, would become the new center of LoL. That question was quickly answered as SK Telecom and Faker easily handled the Chinese team in a 3-0 sweep. That trend would continue for the LPL at international events until 2018. Their teams were capable of competing with the European, North American, and lower-tier Korean teams, but when it came to getting over the hump of beating the top-tier Koreans (especially SKT), LPL teams could never quite manage.     

Korean exodus

After years of losing to top Korean players, LPL teams decided to try a “if you can’t beat’em, join’em” approach in 2015. The ten man roster of the 2014 World Champion Samsung Galaxy all made the jump over to the LPL from their home league. It was assumed at the time that the players were looking at significant pay bumps in the LPL, although that is difficult to confirm because LPL teams are notoriously tight-lipped about salaries. Whatever it is that has drawn Korean players over, since those initial Samsung ten, almost every successful LPL team has fielded one or two Koreans. 

Despite drawing away some of the best talent from LCK, LPL teams still struggled to beat them at international competition. This was especially emphasized at the 2015 World Championship where no LPL team even made the semi-final, despite having bought all the most recent world champions. 

New era of LPL dominance

2018 marked the dawning of a new era for the LPL and international LoL as a whole, an era we are still in today, the era of LPL dominance. Invictus Gaming, instead of buying established Korean veterans, tried the approach of the best LCK teams: signing and growing young talents from Korean solo queue. 

No one personifies this approach like TheShy, an 18-year-old Korean top laner who at the time was known for his specialty on a few champions in solo queue, not the depth and diversity required for pro play. IG saw the raw talent in him and grew him into the MVP of the time en route to the 2018 World Championship. After finally breaking through with IG, the LPL has now won 3 of the last 4 most recent Mid Season Invitationals and World Championships (the most prestigious LoL competitions).

Their new dominance over the LCK was on display in 2020 at the Mid-Season Cup–a replacement tournament for MSI due to the Covid-19 pandemic played between LPL and LCK teams– as the final featured two LPL teams and the semi-finals featured three. Going into the 2020 World Championship, the question was no longer “Will a Chinese team finally beat a Korean team?”, but rather “When will this era of LPL dominance end?”.       

Some will say, it ended at the 2020 World Championship where the LPL’s Suning was defeated by the LCK’s Damwon Gaming, but that is an over-simplification. The LPL had more teams make the semifinals and the turning point for Damwon’s dominant season came at the Mid-Season Cup where they seemed to learn some things from the top Chinese teams. Damwon looked nothing like a traditional, control-style LCK team at the World Championship, but rather the aggressive look that was popularized in China. Perhaps, that was a sign of a reinvention in the LCK that will bring them back to international superiority or it was a momentary blip in the LPL’s command of international play. 2021 will tell with multiple international tournaments again. 


In the Jungle!
Credit- artubr

Comparison to other leagues

The LPL has always stood out in two major ways in the world of professional LoL: its aggressive play and rumored astronomical spending. As previously mentioned, the spending is difficult to confirm as there is no required reporting on salaries. However, it was recently leaked through Chinese team JD Gaming that LPL teams are advertising million dollar salaries in recruitment posts. But rather than spend too much time on rumors and leaks, let’s focus on what truly defines the LPL: their relentless, attack-minded play.

Aggressive play

LPL teams have rejected the slower, methodical, team-play oriented style of the LCK since the very beginning. LPL games are on average shorter, but still manage more kills than LCK games. This should tell you: LPL teams will fight over anything and everything. 

It does not matter if it is a game-ending buff or a singular lane minion, LPL players want to contest every advantage available on the map. For a long time, this was their downfall as the LCK teams out-thought and out-maneuvered them, recently it is their strength. Watching a great LPL team is like watching a great no-huddle team in football, a run and gun basketball team, or a high-pressing soccer team. They aim to outpace their opponents and pounce when they let go of their focus. This makes for a dizzying and mesmerizing watch, if not always perfect execution.  

National prominence

It is not hyperbole to say that the LPL is the most popular sports league in China. They have seen multiple finals average over 90 million viewers, a number that rivals the Super Bowl. Their players sign endorsement deals with Nike and appear alongside Lebron James in advertisements. LPL superstar, UZI, was even named Weibo 2019 Person of the Year, a fan-voted ranking of celebrities on a popular Chinese website. The LPL is serious business in China.  


Teams

Invictus Gaming

  • Abbreviation: IG
  • Roster
    • Top-Theshy
    • Mid- Rookie
    • Jungle Xun
    • Adc- Puff/Snow/Wink
    • Support- Baolan/Lucas/Southwind
  • LPL championships:1
  • Best International Finish: 2018 world champions

No team defines the LPL quite as well as their first world champs: Invictus. A team with a long history of success before the LPL, IG has always been in contention in the LPL through their aggressive style on and off the rift defined by mid laner, Rookie. When IG signed Rookie in 2015, it marked a new era for the team of trying to pluck the best young talents out of Korean and Chinese solo queues. It also defined their style in-game as a team set on gaining individual advantages in their lanes to outpower their opponents in the later stages of the game. Theshy and Rookie have proven to be a match made in heaven since teaming up in 2018 and winning a world championship. Both players love to counter their lane opponents and are two of the most dominant 1v1 players in LoL history. 

That kind of play can lead to volatile outcomes for IG like it did in 2020. After sitting atop the LPL standings in both spring and summer, IG caught a couple of bad playoff matchups and found themselves on the outside looking in at the World Championship. Aggressive 1v1 play can crush opponents like it did in 2018 for Theshy or it can lead to him losing the game entirely by himself like it did in 2020. He is a kill or be-killed kind of player and IG will hope the new players on the roster are ready to support that if they plan to return to success in 2021.   


Fun Plus Phoenix

  • Abbreviation: FPX
  • Roster
    • Top- Nuguri
    • Mid-Doinb
    • Jungle-Tian
    • Adc-LWX
    • Support-Crisp
  • LPL championships:1
  • Best International Finish: 2019 world champions

The other LPL team to win a World Championship, Fun Plus Phoenix, could not be more opposite of Invictus. While Invictus is one of the oldest names in the LPL, FPX is one of the newest. While Invictus emphasizes 1v1 matchups, FPX almost exclusively focuses on team play. They completely redefined the way LoL was played in 2019 after signing Korean mid laner, Doinb. Doinb plays like a second support or jungle from the mid lane who sacrifices the 1v1 matchup in his own lane to gank and set up his teammates. Their identity as a team-over-individual squad brought them the LPL’s second World Championship in two years in 2019.

By the end of 2020, it was clear that FPX was feeling the effects of a post-championship hangover. As the metagame moved away from their preferred style of play, FPX failed to adapt and looked straight up lost in the Summer en route to missing the World Championship a year after winning it. There’s reason to hope for FPX in 2021 though. They maintained their championship-winning core and made one upgrade in the top lane by getting 2020 World Champion, Nuguri, from Damwon Gaming. Nuguri is a superstar carry who will love having the supportive Doinb ganking his lane. It’s seemingly a match made in heaven, but only time will tell.  


Royal Never Give Up

  • Abbreviation: RNG
  • Roster
    • Top-Xiaobai 
    • Mid-Cryin or Xiaohu
    • Jungle-Wei or XLB
    • Adc- GALA
    • Support- Ming or Lele
  • LPL championships: 3
  • Best International Finish: 1st at MSI 2018, 3rd at 2017 Worlds

If an LPL team was going to win the World Championship before Invictus in 2018, it was RNG. They were the dynasty team of the LPL in the early years thanks to one player: Uzi. Uzi is still thought of as the second-best player to ever play the game, behind T1’s Faker. He personified the LPL with his extremely aggressive, lane dominant, and, at times, wonderfully arrogant play. His off-the-rift swagger and bravado were the perfect contrast to Faker’s humility. He, unfortunately, could never carry the team to a World Championship. They came closest in 2017 when they played one of the best 5 game series LoL has ever seen in a GOAT against GOAT matchup with SKT. In 2020, Uzi abruptly retired after battles with injuries. RNG will have to find their next generation of stars in the years to come to deliver this storied club their first World Championship.

In 2021, it could be argued that RNG has found their next generation of stars. They poached all of the best players from the E-Star team that shocked the LPL in the Spring of 2020 with a set of unknown studs and mixed them in with some of their own academy prospects. Mid Laner Cryin, Jungler Wei, and ADC GALA are perhaps the three most exciting prospects playing in the LPL in 2021 and they all play for RNG. If this team lives up to its enormous potential, this generation could bring them the World Championship they deserve.  


Edward Gaming

  • Abbreviation: EDG
  • Roster
    • Top-Flandre
    • Mid- Scout
    • Jungle-Clearlove
    • Adc- Viper or Hope
    • Support- Meiko
  • LPL championships: 5
  • Best International Finish: 1st at MSI 2015, 5th at 2018 Worlds

The other grandfather club of the LPL is Edward Gaming. In some ways, EDG is the team that changed the LPL forever and paved the way for their subsequent world champions. They were the first team to find real success from signing established Korean stars to surround their young Chinese prospects in 2015. The team’s former core of Deft, Pawn, and ClearLove was one of the best collections of talent the game has ever seen and probably should have won more than they did. Unfortunately, that core only won one MSI before breaking up due to retirement from Pawn and Clearlove and a team move from Deft. Since then, EDG has struggled to find the right mix of players to bring them back to LPL glory. 

In 2021, EDG will try to recapture the magic of those Clearlove teams by having him step back into the lineup from retirement. Whether or not this is a nostalgic move to collect a paycheck or a real upgrade remains to be seen, but EDG is clearly expecting it to be the latter. EDG took their already playoff-qualifying roster and upgraded or maintained every lane. If Clearlove still looks like Clearlove this team could win the league. If Clearlove looks like the LoL equivalent of Wizards Michael Jordan, this could go bad quickly for EDG. 


JD Gaming

  • Abbreviation: JDG
  • Roster
    • Top-Zoom
    • Mid-Yagao or xiye
    • Jungle-Kanavi
    • Adc- Loken or Mystic
    • Support- LvMao
  • LPL championships:1
  • Best International Finish: 3rd at 2020 Mid Season Cup

JD Gaming may just be the future of the LPL. They are the rare team with no definable weak spots. Every one of their players can hold his own in his lane and their teamfighting, objective control, and overall their macro play is as controlled and measured as we’ve ever seen in the LPL. Their measured, methodical style is more commonly seen in the LCK, but JDG has one major difference. That difference is Jungler, Kanavi. In the vein of ClearLove before him, Kanavi completely takes over games by seemingly controlling the enemy jungler. Kanavi appears to be first to every gank, objective, and team fight.

Despite a disappointing flameout in the quarterfinals at the World Championship, it’s clear that JDG still thinks of themselves as one of the best in the world. They kept their entire roster together, but added a substitute mid laner and ADC who are good enough to start for most teams in the league. JDG is in championship or bust mode and should be firmly in the top 3 of the standings in 2021 again.  


Top Esports

  • Abbreviation: TES
  • Roster
    • Top-369
    • Mid-Knight
    • Jungle-Karsa
    • Adc-Jackeylove
    • Support-yuyanjia or Zhou
  • LPL championships: 0
  • Best International Finish: 1st at 2020 Mid Season Cup

The next team vying to be the future of the LPL is Top Esports. After spending their first few years in the LPL middle, Top Esports has skyrocketed to the top attached to the rising star of their Mid Laner, Knight. The latest player to be declared “the next Faker”, Knight has started to beat teams all by himself. He almost always ends up with advantages in lane even against the other top players in the world and outplays his opponents in teamfights. The rest of his team are the kind of solid, near elite players who can unlock a true carry by allowing him the resources he needs. 

The 2020 World Championship meta forced Top Esports to go away from their Knight-centric style and had them bowing out in the semi-finals despite being favorites. It’s clear that Top Esports felt like they were one lucky break away from winning a World Championship and they brought their entire roster back. With the growth of 369 as a superstar carry top laner, there’s no reason to believe that this team can’t run back to another championship in 2021. 


Team World Elite

  • Abbreviation: WE
  • Roster
    • Top-Breathe
    • Mid- Shanks or Teacherma or Yimang
    • Jungle- Beishang
    • Adc- Jiumeng
    • Support- Missing
  • LPL championships: 1
  • Best International Finish: 3rd at MSI 2017, 3rd at Worlds 2017

The irony of Team World Elite’s name is that they have never had a player considered among the world’s best. They rather have a long history of having their whole adding up to more than the sum of their parts. As the oldest team in Chinese LoL, WE has almost always been in the 3-8 spots of the LPL playoffs. Always good enough to get in, never quite good enough to win. Their single run to an LPL championship occurred in 2017 after the purchase of some of Korea’s best. 

In 2021, Team WE has their highest expectations in a long time. The best parts of their team from 2020: Jiumeng, Missing, and Beishang are all back with the team with playoff experience under their belt. The underperforming parts of the map, Mid and Top, have been replaced by two highly touted youngsters in Breathe and Shanks. If just one of those players becomes the type of star he’s touted to be, Team WE could have an argument as the most talented team in the league and a chance to finally live up to their name. 


Oh My God

  • Abbreviation: OMG
  • Roster
    • Top-New
    • Mid- Bright or Wuming
    • Jungle-Aki
    • Adc- Eric
    • Support- cold or Bafang
  • LPL championships: 1
  • Best International Finish: 3rd at 2014 Worlds

The team Oh My God is seemingly named for the two eras of the team: the early LPL years where they were “Oh My God, they’re good!”, and the current period where they are “Oh My God, they’re bad!” Their commitment to playing only Chinese players worked well when they were first to sign the best talents from Chinese solo queue during the formation of the league, but has caused them to fall behind as the best teams in China started to import better players from Korea. That’s led to today’s OMG feeling like they’re being left in the past. The days of an all-Chinese team contending with the massive player pool from all nationalities that the other teams are drawing from. OMG could catch lightning in a bottle again with a Chinese solo queue talent like they did in the early days, but it will be much more difficult as everyone has adapted around them.


LGD Gaming

  • Abbreviation: LGD
  • Roster
    • Top-Cult or Garvey
    • Mid- Uniboy
    • Jungle-Flora or Kui
    • Adc- Kramer
    • Support- Peace
  • LPL championships:1
  • Best International Finish: 9th at Worlds 2015

LGD, like so many before them, was an expansion team in 2015 that tried desperately to win right away over building for long term success. The team bought multiple players from the most recent World Champions and tried to recreate their success in a new environment. LGD was able to win an LPL championship through sheer skill with that iteration, but have basically been like one-hit wonders since, always trying to buy immediate success to limited returns. It was still the guiding principle of the team in 2020 with Peanut and Kramer, two Korean greats who were entering the later years of their careers. Those moves brought them an unlikely run to the World Championship and a subsequent flameout in the group stage.

In 2021, LGD will try a new combination of players with changes to every lane except ADC. Veteran Kramer will be joined by a lot of prospects from the Chinese second division and young Tiawanese Mid laner Uniboy who impressed at the World Championship as a part of PSG Talon. It is a new era for LGD who has never really done a full rebuild before. If they have the patience to see it through, this team could be ready to compete in the Summer.  


Suning Gaming

  • Abbreviation: SNG
  • Roster
    • Top- Bin
    • Mid- Angel
    • Jungle- SofM
    • Adc- huanfeng
    • Support- ON
  • LPL championships:0
  • Best International Finish: N/A

Suning was once one of the benchmark teams of the LPL. They were often right on the edge of the playoffs and seem to beat everyone below them and lose to everyone above them. Their approach to team-building though brought them unbelievable success in 2020. They have brought in and developed some of the most interesting prospects in Chinese LoL over recent years and let them learn under the guidance of their veteran support and jungle. It all came together for them at the 2020 World Championship where they finished second and upset LPL rivals Top Esports in the semis.  

In 2021, they will have to prove they consistently belong among the LPL’s elite. A lot of experts felt that last year’s metagame fit them perfectly and their run at the World Championship was a bit of a flash in the pan. They will have to do it without Swordart this time as he left for North America’s TSM and a big payday. Still, SNG has huanfeng and Bin who are two of the best young players in the LPL and will rely on them to keep them in contention.  


Rare Atom 

  • Abbreviation: RA
  • Roster
    • Top- Cube
    • Mid- FoFo
    • Jungle- Aix or Leyan 
    • Adc- iBoy
    • Support- Hang or Maestro
  • LPL championships:0
  • Best International Finish: N/A

Despite being in the LPL since its founding, Rare Atom (formerly Vici Gaming) has never finished high enough to make an international event. A curse of underperformance seemingly hangs over this team year-after-year. Rare Atom rosters when written down on paper, often look like one of the best in the LPL. When they are asked to perform out on the rift however, they never live up to potential. Today’s team is another roster chalk full of potential and looks great on paper. Adc, iBoy, was once thought of as the next superstar in the LPL and jungler Leyan is coming off a stint with IG. Still, the team struggles to translate talent into results finishing outside the playoffs in spring and summer in 2020. They will run the same promising roster back in 2021 and hope the name change brings new results for Rare Atom.


BiliBili Gaming

  • Abbreviation: BLG
  • Roster
    • Top- Alielie or Biubiu
    • Mid-Zeka
    • Jungle- Meteor
    • Adc-Aiming
    • Support- Mark or XinMo
  • LPL championships:0
  • Best International Finish: N/A

Bilibili is another team that has made their intention to win clear, but never done it in any significant way. Their signings, their commitment to holding onto their best talents, and play style make it clear that they want to be among the LPL’s elite. Their results have just yet to catch up. If they do catch up, it will be because of jungler, Meteor. Meteor is the latest in a great tradition of aggressive, in-your-face Chinese junglers who can carry their teams. BLG will look to him to get them back to the playoff spot they so clearly desire.


Victory Five

  • Abbreviation: V5
  • Roster
    • Top- Langx
    • Mid- Mole
    • Jungle-Weiwei
    • Adc- y4
    • Support- ppgod
  • LPL championships:0
  • Best International Finish: N/A

As one of the newest clubs to the LPL, V5 had a rough start that culminated in the first 0-16 season in LoL history in the 2020 spring split. Then, V5 did something else nearly unprecedented: they replaced their entire roster for summer. Instead of trying to stick it out with a team that would never bring them into contention, they opted for a full-on Sam Hinkie-style “blow it up”. It has completely turned the team around in 2020 and nearly made the World Championship. 

Victory Five will make their run in 2021 with the weight of expectations this time on essentially the same roster, save for an upgrade in the top lane. The optimism for V5 in 2021 will be in how they turned the team around. There was nothing fluky about this team. They played standard, sustainable LoL that can seemingly only get better. Victory 5 is officially in playoffs or bust mode.


Rogue Warriors

  • Abbreviation: RW
  • Roster
    • Top- Ziv
    • Mid- Forge
    • Jungle-Haro
    • Adc- Zwuji or Betty
    • Support- QiuQiu
  • LPL championships:0
  • Best International Finish: N/A

Rogue Warriors has had their moments in the LPL, but will largely be remembered as the team that had Doinb and let him go. As he went on to become a world champion and perhaps the most valuable player in the world in 2019, Rogue Warriors has fallen all the way to the bottom of the LPL. The team is still trying to find the diamond in the rough they once had with Doinb though as they regularly switch up and change out players. If they can find him again, hopefully for their sake, Rogue Warriors hold onto him.


Estar

  • Abbreviation: ES
  • Roster
    • Top- zs
    • Mid- Insulator or Irma
    • Jungle- H4cker
    • Adc- rat or Wink
    • Support- ShiauC
  • LPL championships: 0
  • Best International Finish: N/A

Estar is the newest team to the LPL, but has shown the ability to compete right away by making the playoffs in their first split. They had immediate success from superior team play, but also standout play from mid laner, Cryin. They then sold Cryin in the summer to one of the LPL’s megaclubs, RNG and missed out on the playoffs. If Estar is serious about long-term LPL success and not just being a feeder team for the league’s bigger clubs, they have to hold on to players like Cryin.

In 2021, Estar will try again to turn prospects into reality. Their new mid laner, Insulator, was known as the best player in the second tier of Chinese LoL and never made the jump to the LPL because he was stuck behind doinB at FPX. The Jungler, H4cker, was part of the disastrous 2020 OMG team, but is a buy-low candidate. E-star will hope their infrastructure can get the best out of these guys like they did with the players before them and get back to the playoffs.


LNG Esports

  • Abbreviation: LNG
  • Roster
    • Top-M1kuya
    • Mid- Hoyoung or icon
    • Jungle- Tarzan
    • Adc- Light
    • Support- Iwandy
  • LPL championships:0
  • Best International Finish: N/A

When LNG was called Snake Esports they were a perennial playoff team with a high ceiling, since renaming to LNG, they have been one of the worst teams in the LPL. Their promise in 2021 will come from jungler, Tarzan, who was once thought of as the best jungler in the world. Still, the rest of the roster remains question marks. Icon and light have at one point showed promise and then at other times not looked up to snuff. M1kuya is essentially a total unknown. It is hard to be too optimistic about LNG again this year.  


Thunder Talk Gaming

  • Abbreviation: TT
  • Roster
    • Top-Chelizi
    • Mid-Captain
    • Jungle-bless
    • Adc-Samd
    • Support- Teen
  • LPL championships:0
  • Best International Finish: N/A

TT ( previously Dominus) is consistently among the worst in the league since joining in 2019. Their players and organization have, frankly, never looked up to the level of the LPL. For 2021, they will still be fighting uphill with mostly unknown players outside of former V5 ADC Samd and heralded youngster Captain.  A lot of folks project this to again be a last-place team. 


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