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Worlds Notebook: Newbies not shaken by League's biggest stage

Royal Never Give Up support Shi "Ming" Sen Ming, right, plays in his League of Legends World Championship debut Thursday in Wuhan, China. Ming is participating in Worlds for the first time as a player this year and paced RNG in its opening-day win. Provided by Riot Games

Watching the League of Legends World Championship opening ceremony in Wuhan, China, with the crowd doesn't give a glimpse of the matches that will unfold, the way the metagame will develop over the course of a monthlong journey from Wuhan to Beijing or the heroes who will see the stage.

It's about taking it slow.

"We tried to play more steady," Royal Never Give Up support Shi "Ming" Sen Ming said, "and it was my first time playing at Worlds, so I didn't want to make mistakes."

In the opening match of the World Championship, Royal Never Give Up played against 1907 Fenerbahçe Esports in what should have been an easy match. After an unsettling invade from the underdog Turkish team, Royal Never Give Up's duo lane of Ming and Jian "Uzi" Zihao gave up pressure to send Ming mid. He and jungler Liu "Mlxg" Shiyu looked to pressure mid instead of contesting dragon or warring over buffs.

For Royal Never Give Up and Ming, its young shotcaller and rookie of the League of Legends Pro League in 2017, having control of the waves comes before objectives. That meant forcing the enemy mid off and securing jungle vision. RNG paid almost singular attention to denying enemy vision and keeping the river secure before making a move.

Ming didn't want to open the first World Championship in China with a failure from the LPL's second seed, a team he couldn't quite believe he even managed join in the offseason before 2017.

Less than an hour before my interview with Ming, I stood in the press square on the floor to the left of Wuhan Indoor Sports Center. When Royal Never Give Up took to the stage with the rest of the Group C teams, I could feel the echoes of the crowd's cheers jarring inside my rib cage. Ming spent 2016 on a Secondary Pro League team ironically named Young Miracles that failed to qualify for LPL in four separate five-game series that would have granted it a slot.

Now he leads Royal Never Give Up and occupies the shoes of legendary Cho "Mata" Sehyeong with AD carry Uzi, who is legendary for deep World Championship runs.

"I felt really pressured," Ming said, reflecting on when he initially joined RNG, "and the pressure turned into motivation to play better. Now I'm just really happy to be here."

Ming wasn't the only player participating in his first-ever Worlds. Longzhu Gaming's Moon "Cuzz" Woochan, another newbie, is the only member of the LCK Championship team that didn't make the top 10 on LoL Esports' Top 20 Players at Worlds 2017 list.

In Longzhu's game against Immortals, Cuzz had the simple role. Immortals drafted an Ezreal, Varus and Morgana jungle and bottom lane designed to pressure Longzhu's Kim "PraY" Jong-in and Kang "GorillA" Beom-hyeon. The plan, Cuzz explained, was to trade pressure on top side.

"They couldn't even go to the top lane because I was there," Cuzz said.

The game snowballed in Immortals' favor early, however. Though Longzhu's Kim "Khan" Dongha often gets credit for carry performances in the team's calling card split-pushing method of play, Khan could only push the wave to the river in mid game because PraY and GorillA could not exert enough pressure in the center of the map with an uncharacteristic deficit. LZ had to rely on a Baron call in a trade for infernal drake to reclaim tempo.

"I admit I have some weak points personally," Cuzz said. "Looking back, I could have done better. We could have ended the game a bit earlier, but I want to mention that I practiced a lot before Worlds. As Worlds progresses, I want to show you a better performance."

Cuzz is competing with legends and two other young stars for attention in his first World Championship. During his debut, Cuzz didn't gain enough pressure top side to compensate for the damage dealt by Immortals jungler Jake "Xmithie" Puchero.

But, as with many Longzhu drafts, the composition didn't rely on Cuzz. Longzhu's victory over Immortals was the first sign that Korea's powerhouses might have a different understanding of champion priority than some of their Western counterparts.

In draft, Immortals and Longzhu left both Tristana and Jarvan IV open. Longzhu first picked Jarvan IV for its early power and prowess in terrain creation and team fighting, but Immortals responded with Varus (taking it as a preferred AD carry with few counters) and Ezreal to emphasize the early game. Longzhu responded later by drafting Tristana.

This combination has so much strength because Jarvan IV's Cataclysm provides free positioning for a long-range AD carry. If it's Tristana, she can thwart Jarvan by leaping in and out of Cataclysm. A first pick Jarvan IV almost necessitates selecting Tristana, but Immortals didn't want Longzhu to respond to a Tristana pick with Varus. This combination is made especially deadly when an Ardent Support is added.

SK Telecom T1 managed to get a similar draft with Jarvan IV, Kog'Maw and Janna in its Day 1 dismantling of Cloud9.

"We know that it's a famous and popular combination," jungler Han "Peanut" Wangho told me. "Coach [Kim] kkOma [Jung-gyun] has picked a lot of this kind of combination for our games."

The deadly Ardent Support and hyper-scaling AD carry combination became a theme in most of the day's wins. Teams like G2 Esports that are accustomed to having their supports play as champions who are good at engaging enemies tried to find workarounds. G2 banned Janna and Lulu, popular Ardent users, and chose Alistar. It then picked Ivern, as Ivern can build Ardent Censer from the jungle.

Samsung's Park "Ruler" Jae-hyuk didn't think much of the attempt.

"Although I am not part of their team," Ruler said, "my personal opinion is that I don't think Ivern is a good pick for the Censer. They should have picked a different support because Janna and Lulu were banned."

Immortals' and G2's drafting faux pas illuminated part of the same problem. They couldn't go slow enough to meet a more reactive LCK-style teamfight or management of waves around Baron.

But the slow-scaling into a teamfight that Ardent Censer has brought to the opening of this World Championship isn't for everyone. In the most exciting game of the event, GIGABYTE Marines threw Fnatic into confusion with a Level One lane swap that sent Tristana and Lulu to the top lane. And unlike the other Lulus of the day, Phùng "Nevan" Thiện Nhân, another newcomer to the Worlds stage, didn't rush Ardent Censer. He built Boots of Mobility and Sightstone before the Ardent.

"In my team," Nevan said, "I think we value the info and the vision more than just skirmishing."

Though Nevan didn't go for the same cautious approach as RNG's Ming, he still emphasized the importance of vision and wave prep before acting. Nevan said that, by keeping vision of the entire enemy team, Marines always knew the right move to make despite the chaos it created.

With my appearance in Wuhan, I've now attended four World Championships in a row. Meeting younger players like Ming, Cuzz and Nevan and getting a feel for Ming's caution, Nevan's daring and Cuzz's nerves keeps every Worlds fresh. It's always interesting to see how the first time on the biggest stage in the game will affect players.

A rough start at home

For Ming "Clearlove7" Kai, there has been only one good first day in the past four years of Worlds -- and that wasn't today.

For the first time in his career, Clearlove opened the World Championship in his own neighborhood. His EDG squad, the No. 1 seed out of China, faced off against longtime League of Legends Master Series rivals ahq e-Sports Club. A drawn-out slog that came down to what Kang "Albis" Chiawei referred to as "50-50 teamfights" ended in an ahq victory.

Despite the loss, Clearlove7 bore a congratulatory smile with each handshake.

Fans of EDward Gaming covered the stands in lit signs with encouraging messages for their favorite team. The biggest one in the Indoor Gymnasium was dedicated to Clearlove7.

"Wuhan is my home town," Clearlove had said during an opening interview. "I wouldn't let them down."

Luckily for Clearlove, G2 and Cloud9, Day 1 is just that: the first day. It may set the tone of the World Championship. It may begin to shape the meta. It may bring nerves, caution and surprises -- but it is still the first day.

No one has been let down yet.