Shad0w's road to the LEC: dropping out of school to pursue esports stardom

Photo by Michal Konkol for Riot Games


Teenagers with unconventional skills and incessant amounts of drive cannot be curbed by conformist methodology. Zhiqiang "Shad0w" Zhao has overcome his high school dropout status, writing his own story as a successful professional gamer. Starting in 2020 as MAD Lions’ Jungler at the LEC, Shad0w wants to prove he deserves this spot.


Before seeking a professional career in League of Legends' esports, Zhiqiang was your regular teenager: attending high school during the day, playing video games with friends during the night. At age sixteen, he decided to drop out in hopes of pursuing his dreams; he had started to work at his family’s business serving Chinese food, in Milan, Italy, where he lived for eighteen years.


“One or two months after I quit high school, an Italian team found me in solo queue. They randomly added me as a friend and asked me if I wanted to try out for their team. After four or five months, I had an offer to join Outplayed in Italy. I was with them for one year. It is a shame we would always be second place, but at that point, I had hit rank one in solo queue. A lot of teams wanted me," Zhiqiang said.




The offer from Movistar Riders seemed promising. In 2018, Zhiqiang joined the Portuguese organization only to see himself benched for three months, due to visa issues. Eventually, he left the team. Moving on to what seemed like a bad luck streak, his new home, Team Atlantis, had gotten stomped in EU Masters. At the time, his parents started to question his decision. They believed this to be the wrong path for their son and turned on their parental instinct to protect him.


“I was not making enough money to sustain myself just working as a pro gamer. They said it was unhealthy because I was always staying inside, sitting in front of a PC all day. So I asked them for one last chance.”


Noticed by League of Legends Pro League teams, Edward Gaming gave Zhiqiang a chance to try out. He had spent six months in China and eventually was chosen to start for the team’s 2019 roster. Professional gamers seeking the major leagues often face the challenge of career stability until they land on a major team. The LPL would have meant the search for solidity was over, yet he had declined the team’s offer.


“I knew EDG was a good team in a prestigious league, but their staff was very on-hands with their players. I usually prefer to manage my own time. I like to have free time to do what I want, and EDG did not seem to have that, the environment there was very different from what I was expecting, so I returned to Europe and joined Mouz.”


Prime League Pro Division team mousesports had an astounding performance and Zhiqiang proved his skills regardless of the League’s prestige. Waiting in the weed was MAD Lions, noticing his efforts.


And just like that, almost as abruptly as he turned down EDG's opportunity, he had been poached to join the LEC under a new organization. Considering he was still with mousesports when the offer was made, he recalls mentioning he lacked confidence since his leap of faith from LPL, having no expectations to join the LEC.


MAD Lions ready to take on the stage.


The path to success hardly ever comes with no strings attached. Zhiqiang says playing at the highest level adds a whole new meaning to the word stress. Counting on teammates and friends as his support system, he recalls Rogue’s Top Laner Finn "Finn" Wiestål as being one of the first to lend a hand.


“I have never been this stressed before. My emotions are not so stable. I get very frustrated at stupid things and I am not usually like that. Mac, our head coach has helped me a lot, he is my current mentor. He helped me learn so much about the game and about life. Orome and I played in the same team for a few months, and as of this day, he gives me a lot of advice. Mostly life advice, he is way more mature. He tells me how to approach the professional gaming career and my personal life.”


Dreaming big, his ultimate goal is to win the League of Legends World Championships. Proving that his skills can get him to the top is his priority. 


“Hopefully, it will still happen in China this year. I want to be noticed as the only Chinese player in the LEC. I want to be unique.”


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