Going into Worlds 2021, China was a region to be feared. Strong teams like Top Esports and Team WE didn’t even make it to Worlds, and RNG, the reigning MSI champs, got knocked out of playoffs early on by LNG. The LPL standings are constantly fluctuating, and it feels like the top 8 teams all have a chance at taking any given split. The level of competition in China made it difficult to believe that Western teams had a chance, especially not against a big name like FunPlus Phoenix.
Group A was dubbed the “Group of Death”. Rogue and Cloud9 being in the same group as FPX and DWG KIA stacked the odds against both Western reps. Day 1-3’s results were what most people expected. DWG KIA went 3-0, and FPX won against both Western teams to earn a 2-1 record. With Kim “Doinb” Tae-sang at the helm, many were still confident in FPX.
FPX proceeded to go 0-3 on Day 4 of play followed by losing the tiebreaker to Rogue. Not only was FPX out, they got 4th in their group. What fell apart for a roster filled with former world champions?
Finding the weak link(s)
There’s an old saying that goes something like, 'A team is only as strong as its weakest link.' For FPX, there wasn’t just one weak link. There were 2. Despite taking 2 wins on the first day, those games looked uncharacteristically shaky from FPX.
A win’s a win, but considering C9 were up on gold and around 4 seconds away from backdooring, this was much closer than most would have expected. However, it became more and more clear as the days went on that there was a part of FPX that was easy to focus down: top side.
Jang “Nuguri” Ha-gwon is a player who commands a lot of respect. He was an acquisition for FPX that replaced one world champ top laner with another one. Nuguri’s World Championship win in 2020 cemented DWG KIA as the best team in the world. Unfortunately, he didn’t carry that torch to China.
Nuguri looks lost in this clip of their Day 4 game against DWG KIA, legitimately lost. He spent around 15 seconds indecisively deciding whether or not to flank only to walk over a ward anyways and land his ultimate on 1 target. Not good. Then again, this wasn’t a one-off occurrence for this game, or even for FPX’s Worlds run as a whole.
Here’s Nuguri’s slashline against DWG KIA. Being more than half your team’s deaths usually isn’t a good sign. But this was against DWG KIA, right? Poppy denies Gragas’ dash, and Kim “Khan” Dong-ha is a great Jayce player. Doing well against one of the best topsides in the world is no easy feat. He did better against the Western teams, right?
This is from FPX’s game against C9 on Day 4. Things were a bit less focused on shutting Nuguri down here, but it’s hard to deny that Fudge had much more impact on the map this game. C9 drafted to rotate and exploit topside, and that’s exactly what they did.. This leads to the biggest problem Nuguri seems to have: He needs resources to do well.
To give an example from the LPL, someone like EDG’s Li “Flandre” Xuan-Jun does just fine without resources. He can be put behind by jungle pressure, keep himself in the game with CS, and show up big in teamfights.
Nuguri needs resources to succeed, and FPX weren’t able to put enough effort into Nuguri to get anything out of having him on the team. He had a few good moments, but Nuguri spent the majority of his time at Worlds down on gold and out of the game. However, this is in large part due to jungler Gao “Tian” Tian-Liang's poor performance.
During the LPL Summer Playoffs, Gao “Tian” Tian-Liang was very good… at Viego. His stats on Viego were really good, and his stats on everything else were mediocre. In other words, Viego’s heavy nerfs in the pre-Worlds patch wiped Tian’s entire champion pool off the map. Viego can still be worth picking in some instances, but he has a hard time against new meta junglers like Jarvan, Talon, and Qiyana.
Viego was a crutch for Tian in through Summer, one that he doesn’t function well without. His stats on Diana are good (but she got nerfed), and his stats on Lee Sin and Xin are ok, but there’s nothing spectacular about this jungler. EDG permabanned Viego in the LPL Summer Finals to get a leg-up on FPX, and now every team has that advantage.
In all fairness, C9 played this pretty well. They identified Tian as the target, put everything into killing him, and cleanly disengaged. However, the way Tian played this fight was questionable. Fighting into Trist/Rakan with Kai’Sa/Rell early on is almost never a good call considering how strong Trist’s early game is, and Xin Zhao is way stronger than J4 at level 3. Upon seeing the enemy Xin botside, the right move was likely to disengage.
Instead, Tian used the J4 flag and drag combo at a very short distance. Tian was likely trying to find a quick auto off the combo here, but Blaber was able to flash out just in time. The issue then became that Tian blew his mobility for nothing and didn’t get himself out of Tristana’s attack range. Even if Tian managed to take down Blaber, his fate was surely sealed.
Tian never played any of the new meta junglers other than Jarvan, and it felt like the new meta left Tian in the dust. A staggeringly low KDA of 1.57 really drives home how mediocre Tian’s performance was. The setup for Worlds compounded Tian’s weaknesses, and it seems like he broke under the pressure.
Between Tian and Nuguri, FPX seemed entirely out of sorts. It felt like FPX lost their games more than the enemy team won them, and that was almost always a result of their topside falling apart.
A shining light
It wasn’t all doom and gloom for FPX at Worlds. Lin “LWX” Lei-Xiang’s performance was lukewarm, but Doinb and Liu “Crisp” Qing-Song both had great showings. Doinb was heralded as one of the best mid laners in the world going into the Group Stage, and he had a strong individual performance despite FPX seeming weak overall.
DoinB did his best this game and managed to do some serious damage to Damwon despite being essentially 1v5. He baited Poppy’s W and used the space to get onto Damwon’s carries, only for his team to drop the ball and leave him hanging. It felt like DoinB was the best performer on his team when he played carries, and it felt like he tried his best despite the odds quickly stacking up against FPX.
With this quote from a PentaQ article that hasn’t aged too well, it’s clear that DoinB was confident going into Day 4. His performances showed that, but the rest of FPX had a hard time playing to the standard they likely set for themselves. Going from “we won’t lose one single game” to 0-4 is a sure shock to the system, and one that shakes the reputation of FPX as a whole.
FPX’s legacy is undeniable. However, a weak topside put FPX in a bad spot. Once every team in the group learned to exploit their clear weaknesses, FPX didn’t stand a chance. It’s sad to see such a storied team go so early, but it’s hard to say they didn’t deserve to be knocked out of the tournament. Now, it’s time for the rest of the LPL to show what they’re made of throughout the rest of Worlds 2021.
Carver is an esports journalist and analyst who specializes in Eastern League of Legends.