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Suning evolve into 2020 League of Legends World Championship dark horse

Suning's group stage run at the 2020 League of Legends World Championship has made the Chinese team a fan favorite in the West. Photo by David Lee/Provided by Riot Games

Chen "Bin" Ze-Bin didn't hesitate.

The Suning top laner was about to be collapsed on by Machi Esports top laner Hsieh "PK" Yu-Ting and jungler Huang "Gemini" Chu-Xuan during the group stage of the 2020 League of Legends World Championship. After momentarily stunning PK's Jayce, Bin's Irelia made its way back toward Suning's side of the map as if to escape. Instead, he immediately turned back onto PK to kill him.

Bin didn't think about whether he was outnumbered. The idea that he wouldn't be able to pull off a mechanical outplay never entered Bin's mind, and after all, his teammates were on their way up from mid lane. Seconds later, he escaped after securing yet another kill.

"I'm out," Bin said as he darted back into the bot side jungle with his teammates. His face and voice were fixed with a deadpan expression. "What an outplay."

Suning mid laner Xiang "Angel" Tao burst out laughing. "Why is he praising himself?"

"We need to have more fun next match," support Hu "SwordArt" Shuo-Chieh said eight minutes later as Suning destroyed their opponent's Nexus. His bot lane partner Tang "huanfeng" Huan-Feng chimed in.

"We need to fight. Nonstop fighting."

On Suning's final day of group stage play, Bin stepped fully into the spotlight that had been prepared for him and his teammates after their unlikely run through China's LoL Pro League playoffs and the country's regional qualifier to make it to worlds at all.

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Due to the luck, or misfortune, of the draw, Suning will face fellow LPL team JDG in their quarterfinals matchup on Friday. Throughout the regular season, Suning were unable to beat JDG, but the last time they met was back on June 10 in the second week of LPL summer.

Suning have grown a lot since then.

"In both the spring and summer finals, it was a matchup between us and Top Esports, " JDG support Zuo "LvMao" Ming-Hao said. "That means our two teams are strong and maybe quite dominant. In terms of Suning, they're a very special team, and they're quite unique. They can have an opportunity to get a victory against any team, and they may lose to any team as well."

Suning's year did not begin well, and come summer, expectations were low. There were always rumors of the team's prowess in scrims, but those results never translated to the stage, even when Bin became the team's starting top laner mid-spring.

"I didn't have the highest of expectations for this team, especially after spring," English-language LPL caster Robert "Dagda" Price said. "Bin and [top laner Lin "Biubiu" Lei-Xin] at that stage were two of the worst performing top laners in the LPL. Suning were not a team that could play front-to-back teamfights particularly well, which was the meta in spring. They really struggled to set up engages properly, and their fights often devolved into spread-out skirmishes that relied on the individual skill of the players to outperform."

Their first series of the summer did little to dispel doubts. In a matchup against jungler LĂȘ "SofM" Quang Duy's former team, LNG Esports, Suning hesitated to do much of anything on the map. Both teams lacked proactivity, and despite Suning's 2-0 victory, it was difficult to find positives for either team outside of individual mechanical skill.

Suning were a rare younger LPL team that wasn't hyper-aggressive from the start, but oddly hesitant at times instead and then overly confident at others.

"The series against LNG was ... something," English-language LPL caster Joseph "Munchables" Fenny said. He casted the series alongside Dagda. "Definitely a lot of over-extension and silly stuff from both sides, but even then you could see a little of the cheekiness in Suning's play that we're getting to witness against the world's best."

That critique became a trend for Suning over the course of the summer split. They had good players, casters and analysts said repeatedly on both the Chinese and English-language broadcasts, but they hadn't come together as a team.

While JD Gaming and Top Esports were known as the two most formidable LPL teams, Suning fell behind the likes of regular-season sensations Invictus Gaming. Even Victory Five, who had been loaned three Suning players -- Biubiu, jungler Wei "Weiwei" Bo-Han and bot laner Lee "Samd" Jae-hoon -- were often praised as a stronger team than Suning due to their coordination and more cohesive in-game planning.

Interestingly enough, it was Suning's first summer series against JDG when Dagda began to take notice of the team, even in their 2-0 loss.

"Although JDG were looking rough and Suning ultimately lost the series, this by all accounts should have been a 2-0 victory for Suning," Dagda said. "Their early-mid game looked incredible, and they were let down by some unfortunate late game decision-making."

Throughout the summer split, Suning were called one of the worst top teams of any major region. They visibly had strong players and a perfect mix of experienced veterans in SwordArt and SofM combined with up-and-coming young talent like huanfeng, Bin and Angel. The meta suited the team. Bin became the LPL player with the most solo kills on the split while huanfeng was praised as one of the league's best bot laners, winning game MVP awards consistently.

But even with rookies like Bin and huanfeng dazzling audiences mechanically, the team still had yet to truly come together as a unit.

"I would tell [huanfeng], I wish that you could yell at me after scrims or matches, that you could tell me what I'm doing wrong and where," SwordArt said in a feature with the LPL on the rookie bot laner. "Or, you could make some very bold moves in-game and have me follow you. We'd only improve like this. Because if you only listen to what one person says, then I won't improve either, because no one will oppose me."

It took a while for SwordArt and huanfeng to understand each other. Once they did, SwordArt was immediately reminded of the start of his own pro career and found common ground in those memories.

"He really practices so much," SwordArt said of huanfeng in that same LPL interview. "He's that kind of person who really puts his back into it. And every time I see this, I'll think about myself when I just started out as a pro player: Not wanting anything outside of the game, just thinking about playing better, and if I just went all out, just a tiny bit more, then maybe I'd have a chance."

As the other veteran leader on the team alongside SwordArt, SofM cited their practice and raised comfort level with each other by the time playoffs came around as the reasoning behind Suning's qualification and success. Suning changed their approach in game, adapting to the style that their opponents were known for while also relying on their newfound synergy as a team.

The Suning that met Victory Five in playoffs was not the same Suning that had met them in the regular season. Back then in late July, despite the 2-1 win for Suning, most still thought of Victory Five as the stronger team. Come playoffs, V5 were still hot and appeared to have more momentum, yet for Dagda, it was a toss-up between the two teams.

"Suning take their prep to such a high level," Dagda said. "We saw it against V5 in playoffs where they played an entirely different style of game than what we have expected of them over the course of the Summer split. Early game aggression with a very quick pace of game. We see the same against G2, playing through SofM and punishing the jungle of G2. You can tell that Suning are working incredibly hard behind the scenes and it reflects in their level of play as well."

A lot of this comes from SofM creating pressure in the jungle. During group stages, SofM praised his teammates for helping him hone and perfect his playstyle.

"I think to be a good jungler you have to have a really good match with your teammates," he said, thanking them for their communication and coordination with him, especially on the farming carry champions that are in meta currently.

"They're happy to take a 4v5 and push for more when they have the advantage, and they're doing plenty of that now," Munchable said of Suning's evolution this summer. "Just perhaps a little more tempered and respectfully. Mechanics out the wazoo and the coordination to match it."

SofM plays a risk-heavy style that relies on constant information from his laners in order to counter-jungle his opponents' camps effectively as well as to be the front line, for better or for worse, in a lot of Suning's teamfights. This is something the entire team, especially Suning's rookies like huanfeng and Bin, have improved throughout the split and playoffs.

"We are actually pretty strict to the rookies during our scrims," SofM said, "and during our training we talk about how to do well and work better as a team."

Bin credited both SwordArt and SofM to his own individual improvement throughout the year. He became a top laner because he loved the challenge of one-on-one fights. Of all top laners at worlds so far, Bin has the highest average experience difference at 10 minutes (plus-306) and the highest damage per minute (590).

The top lane, Bin said, lets him display his talent in League of Legends over and over again. The idea that he won't be able to outplay his opponent, as he has on Irelia, Camille or Gangplank performances at worlds this year, never crosses his mind.

"I think I just need to have the confidence to make perfect solo kills," Bin said. "When I'm solo-killing someone, I don't really talk to my teammates. I just do it by myself, and when my teammates realize it, they shout out 'Nice!' to me."

Though he's often silent in those moments, Bin stresses communication and improvement outside of them. Since moving up from Suning's LoL Development League team on Dec. 8, 2019 to the main LPL lineup, he's worked to gel with the roster. This took a bit longer than expected this past spring due to the fact that he was separated with the team during Lunar New Year and the subsequent shuttering of the LPL due to COVID-19. His quarantine lasted a bit longer than that of other team members, and he wasn't able to rejoin the team until the end of March.

Bin might not show it with his cool demeanor in-game, but he's grateful to be surrounded by so many strong players who, now more than ever, look like a team.

"I just think I'm very lucky," he said. "I think the biggest help from our veterans has been improvements on my mental condition inside the game. Previously, when junglers would gank me, I would always get killed, but now I think I've become better because of their help."

The support from the rest of Suning is part of what has allowed Bin to perform so well at worlds, In Suning's second game against G2 Esports, Bin even risked taking Ignite with his Teleport summoner spell rather than the usual Flash on Camille for solo lane kills against Renekton. If he had fallen behind, it would have spelled disaster for Suning.

Bin's Camille took over that game.

"If I take Flash I don't think I can win that lane, and that's why I chose Ignite," he said. "I wasn't thinking about whether I would be at a disadvantage. I just did my best in the laning phase."

After one teamfight, SwordArt yelled, "Me and Bin, we can hard-carry. Bin is invincible!" With SwordArt's Bard setting up plays and SofM and SwordArt organizing communication, Suning cruised to a 23-minute victory against G2, forcing a tiebreaker with them for the first seed in their group.

"As the top laner for Suning they always encourage me to become the main carry for the entire game," Bin said. He smiled and added, "Also, we are quite aggressive."