How did the LPL era begin?
The video trailer for China's upcoming League of Legends Pro League summer split begins with this question. Although many international fans may think solely of Invictus Gaming's 2018 League of Legends World Championship win, Chinese fans and the LPL faithful know differently.
It began with Jian "Uzi" Zi-Hao and Royal Never Give Up (or Royal Club, depending on what you believe an era to be).
Uzi's retirement at some point this year was expected. For years he has been plagued by hand and shoulder injuries. Toward the end of the 2019 competitive season, prior to his appearance at the League of Legends World Championship, he gave an interview with his sponsor Nike, sharing that doctors had told him he had the arm of a 40- to 50-year-old, not the 22-year-old young man he actually was. This marked the first time he officially and directly referenced his injuries in public. Before this interview, there was always a bit of joking at how he would sit out certain games to relax before appearing back in the starting lineup for playoffs.
He's taking some time off, fans would say. He deserves it.
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On Jan. 6, 2020, Uzi's contract was changed in the Riot Games global contract database to expire on April 30. In the later years of his career, Uzi frequently sat out a significant portion of the spring split due to chronic health concerns, yet he would always return to lead Royal Never Give Up through the playoffs. In 2018, he led them to his first-ever LoL Pro League championship and a subsequent Mid-Season Invitational victory on top of it.
Regardless of how injured Uzi was, he would always return. He always led RNG to a League of Legends World Championship appearance. He would always return to the international spotlight.
This year felt different from the start.
Former Flash Wolves bot laner Lu "Betty" Yu-Hung started every game for RNG this spring -- earning the fan ire that always appears when any bot laner that isn't Uzi starts for RNG, despite some strong in-game performances. What RNG seemed to lack this spring was a voice. Betty cannot be blamed for this, but a voice and in-game direction is something that Uzi brought to every one of his teams since he was 15 years old, whether they wanted to listen to him or not ... whether it was the so-called correct way to play the game or not.
RNG fell to EDward Gaming in the first round of the 2020 LPL spring playoffs. Uzi was still nowhere to be seen. He had posted to Weibo about an unrelated foot injury from moving, but otherwise appeared to be as healthy as he ever was going to be -- that is to say, still plagued with chronic shoulder and hand pain, among other things.
"How did the LPL era begin?" the LPL teaser asks. "In this journey, some chose to give up, while others persevered. Some have left with regrets, while others join the fight."
LPL pro players from a variety of teams appear in the video. Uzi is conspicuously absent. He has featured prominently in every LPL promotional video to date (including a particularly hilarious one where he smashes a keyboard into a wall) save this spring, another harbinger of his imminent retirement. In 2019, he was featured as the final boss, the player who led his team to both LPL titles the year before and the person you had to beat to win a title. In 2020, he was gone.
And on June 3, Uzi retired.
As of today, LPL0006 @UziRNG will officially retire. Uzi was not only the heart and soul of RNG, but also an icon in the esports world as a whole. From a teenager onwards he never gave up and worked as hard as he could to be the best he could in his role, he inspired many. pic.twitter.com/wsqqOnqE4o
- Royal Never Give Up (@RNGRoyal) June 3, 2020
His Weibo announcement spoke of his injuries, but also the fact that he had been diagnosed with Type II diabetes due to the unhealthy lifestyle he has led for years as a professional player. He mentioned that he had tried to control this with diet and exercise, but the medications hadn't left him in a healthy enough position to continue playing.
It was expected, and somehow also sudden. Above all else, it was sad. How could Uzi retire now? How could he leave before winning a world championship? He was just dominating solo queue with RNG support Shi "Ming" Sen-Ming, so how could he be gone? How could his career end like this, felled by injuries and sickness?
With a whimper rather than a bombastic finish?
Within minutes, it was the No. 1 trending topic on the Chinese social media platform Weibo. Fans reacted with disbelief and sadness. Uzi wasn't just a good League of Legends player, he was a sports icon who was still remarkable at the game he played regardless of outside complications. His retirement was a reminder that we aren't always able to choose our own path. Sometimes, due to outside factors, it's chosen for us, and a lot of the times it won't be fair. Uzi wasn't able to go out on his own terms, despite his monumental success. The line "Some chose to give up, while others persevered" in the LPL trailer stings even more in light of his retirement. He didn't choose this. If he had "persevered" it could have led to an early death.
For years, most League of Legends fans knew of only one Chinese player: Uzi. From the moment he appeared in the international spotlight, fresh-faced and hungry for a win in Los Angeles during the 2013 League of Legends World Championship, Uzi stole the show. Even pitted against a similarly ambitious up-and-coming talent at the time, SK Telecom T1's Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok, Uzi still claimed his share of the attention. As the primary focus of his team, everything on then-Royal Club revolved around Uzi. This became a strength and a criticism of his playstyle through the years, but he never relinquished that spotlight. Whenever Uzi appeared at worlds -- he represented China's LPL at six of the seven available world championships he could have qualified for in his career -- he was a story.
How did the LPL era begin?
If the qualifications are the LPL doing well at international events, then it began with Uzi and RNG in 2018 when they won MSI and then four of the five starting RNG members, including Uzi, won the gold medal at the 2018 Asian Games. They were poised to make a miraculous golden run, winning everything they could en route to a world championship, before they were stymied by G2 Esports and the rise of a solo-lane focused meta. Invictus Gaming took the crown, overshadowing Uzi and RNG's efforts throughout the rest of the year. But the winning streak of LPL teams internationally still began with Uzi.
If the qualifications are the LPL's existence as a league, then that too involves Uzi and then-named Royal Club. They were the first Chinese team to make a run to the finals, forcing the international audience to pay attention. For years, the name Uzi was synonymous with the LPL.
How did the LPL era begin?
It began, but won't end, with Uzi. Thank you, Uzi, for everything.