LOS ANGELES -- Prior to the 2017 League of Legends All-Stars event, the Chinese LoL Pro League team decided to boot camp in preparation. Reading between the lines of myriad Weibo (China's version of Twitter) posts and fun cartoons from Chinese media outlets, the LPL All-Star team was taking this event seriously and was using any means provided to prepare for the event.
On the victorious finals stage, they pushed the trophy into AD carry Jian "Uzi" Zhi-hao's hands. He wouldn't take it until the entire team held it with him -- it was a poignant finish in front of a predominantly Chinese crowd that travelled from far away to support their home team. On the other end of the preparation spectrum -- not by choice -- was the Garena Pro League's Southeast Asian team, who had less than a day to train with a hastily-assembled replacement lineup.
Three days before the tournament, Gigabyte Marines and GPL All-Star coach Dương "Tinikun" Nguyễn Duy Thanh announced he and four of the other selected players were unable to acquire visas for the event. Star jungler Levi was the only selected member approved to make the trip. Top laner Park "Jisu" Jin-cheol, mid laner Im "Patrick" Jin-hyeok, AD carry Joel "Dantiz" Poon Kah Heng, Kra, and coach OMO -- two South Korean imports and a Singaporean bottom lane -- were selected to replace the all-Vietnamese lineup.
OMO received the call en route to his vacation.
"A couple of days before, I got the approval to go on my trip because they told me that Tinikun probably got his visa," OMO said. "I was at the airport when the Garena staff messaged me and told me that they needed me to come over. Right before I boarded the plane they told me, 'Okay, it's confirmed, we need you to come.'"
As this new GPL lineup was thrust into the international spotlight, the narrative circled around how hard Levi could carry the team to victory.
"We got here the day before the competition started," Sovereign and unlikely GPL All-Star team coach Leonard "OMO" Loh said. "We met Đỗ 'Levi' Duy Khánh, he was already training. We came by, we said hi, we did a bit of warm-up. And then me and Charles 'Kra' Teo were dying from the jet lag so we went back at about 9 p.m., slept, came back the next day and started to play."
"We had a total of four games," he continued, laughing. "And we got smashed in all four games."
The GPL would falter against the LPL in their first match and the team returned, dejected, with players apologizing to each other for poor performances and silent comms.
"My thought process was a rollercoaster," OMO said. "At first I thought, 'Okay, this roster isn't too bad. We can probably do okay.' When I met everyone I was like, 'We're going to get smashed. They don't even talk.'"
Deep down he knew that they could beat North America, but it would take better communication and a simpler gameplan. On Day 2, the GPL put Levi on the playmaking Lee Sin, Patrick on Malzahar, and flexed Shen to Kra, relying on Jisu's Sion to keep down Kevin "Hauntzer" Yarnell's Jayce. With Varus conveniently off the board in the second ban rotation thanks to the NA team, Dantiz secured his comfort pick of Tristana. Levi pinpointed the bottom side of the map, applying pressure through counterjungling to help secure mid and bot lane. They won in just under 30 minutes.
"Once we won one game against NA, everyone's mood just lifted," OMO said. "Everyone got super chatty and tried to talk a lot more."
During their match against Brazil, all five players were constantly yelling on-stage. They rarely stopped talking, even after falling behind early, and stuck to their plan of easy-to-execute comfort compositions. It earned them a semifinals berth against the LMS All-Star team in an old, GPL grudge match.
"Honestly, it's at a different level right now," OMO said, shaking his head. "Except maybe Vietnam, the rest of the GPL is really falling behind. Singapore has no full-time players. Everyone is part-time, so the gap is completely -- it's not even the same tier really. It's a matter of international success. Someone needs to be the trailblazer and do something good. GAM did it for Vietnam. Someone else needs to do it for the rest of the places."
Since leaving the GPL, the LMS has struggled in its own way, but most GPL regions have continued to struggle due to stricter conscription laws, fractured playerbases, and a lack of monetary investment. The GPL All-Stars team's story ends with a predictable 3-0 LMS sweep. Yet, for an event that Riot Games explicitly said they wanted to mean more, the GPL's surprise appearance in the semifinals should not be discredited. Like the LPL All-Stars, the GPL used this opportunity to the best of their ability.