Individual Play and the Great Uzi-NaMei Debate

Since Zhu “NaMei” Jiawen failed to perform to standards expected by desk analysts at Worlds, and Jian “Uzi” Zihao lead his team to a second consecutive Finals appearance, debate has been in full swing regarding which AD carry is better. Almost every argument focuses on the caliber of tournaments each player has performed at and the results of their teams, but few engage in subjective assessments based on their individual performances and styles.

Based on game results, NaMei wins domestically as the only player to have been present in all four LPL finals and to have performed in 10 domestic finals in total this year, winning eight of them. Uzi wins internationally as the only player in the world to have taken part in two League of Legends World Championship finals. Weighing which player performs better in game is a much richer debate, and that’s where most of the argument lies without it ever being explicitly stated. Is Uzi's all-or-nothing style more valuable than NaMei's adaptability?

In this respect, there’s a very legitimate argument to be made for either Uzi or NaMei being the better AD carry based on individual performance. I would go so far as to argue that it comes down to whichever style you argue is superior. This is a debate of preference, but ultimately it doesn’t matter what you prefer so much as how you argue your case.

The Great Uzi vs NaMei Debate

It’s gotten to the point where it’s nearly impossible to discuss one without the other. Their styles are considered polar opposites, but that analysis is rather simplistic. I’d say the primary difference in how they play is based upon their apparent decision-making. I say “apparent” as I’ve had very limited interactions with either player, and it’s impossible to know their thought processes without asking.

The makeup of the teams of both players in 2013 differed drastically from 2014, which highlighted the primary difference between Uzi’s and NaMei’s play. NaMei adapted to a different environment as an AD carry, while Uzi did not.

Uzi’s Peaks and Troughs

Initially, this seems like a heavy criticism to levy against Uzi, but it doesn’t have to be interpreted that way. Uzi is the type of player who forces teams to play around him because of his own skill and confidence. I like to say that Uzi is a 20% player. He will choose to enter a fight in situations where an average, or even a “good” player might have a 20% chance of success. For example, if his team is halfway down the lane from him, or he knows certain key cooldowns are up on the enemy team that he’ll have to perfectly dodge to avoid, he’ll still decide to go for it. Because of his own execution, he can turn this 20% chance into a success at least 60% of the time.

In this regard, Uzi relies a lot on his own teammates. Lei “corn” Wen, SHRC’s mid laner, played Orianna in 26 games of LPL, Worlds, and Demacia Cup. His next most commonly picked champion was Fizz; he only played 9 Fizz games. Uzi’s support, Yoon “Zero” Kyungsup, had a more diverse champion pool, but of all his most-played picks—Nami, Thresh, Braum, and Janna—came with heavy peel or protection as a backup for when engagements would go sour. If corn or Zero failed to protect Uzi in precarious situations, the fight would be a disaster.

Uzi’s attitude toward the game appears very all-or-nothing. During the 2014 LPL Spring, he would choose the same engagements despite an overall lower caliber of teammates. Lulu tended to be Feng “nct” Zhonghao’s permanent mid lane pick, but when nct mistimed his ultimates, Uzi would find himself instantly exploding when he tumbled into a fight. Uzi plays as if he expects a certain high level of performance out of both himself and those around him, and his strengths are in that he doesn’t lower these standards until they're met.

As a result, Uzi looked ridiculous for a lot of 2014 LPL Spring, choosing engagements when he couldn’t personally navigate them, and his teammates couldn’t back him up. A lot of this carried forward with Star Horn Royal Club for the Summer Split. Uzi or Choi “inSec” Inseok would choose engagements that shouldn’t normally be navigable, and the team would at times find impressive success and others astronomical failure.

Within the parameters of Uzi’s style, he is never a consistent player. He’ll either completely excel and exceed expectations at a level almost no one else in League of Legends is able to reach, or he’ll flop. A great example of this is his Vayne record. We’ve seen him play incredibly well on this champion, securing a 3v5 pentakill in LPL this year against Invictus Gaming and crushing OMG with it last year at Worlds. He’s said in multiple interviews that it’s his favorite hard carry champion, yet it has his worst W-L record by far of 11-18. The thing is, though, that Uzi's highs are so extreme that it's easy to forgive him his lows in the moment. It's the kind of excellence one can't find anywhere else.

NaMei’s Calculation

The NaMei of 2014 played drastically different to the NaMei of 2013 on Positive Energy, and this largely came down to the structure of his team. Positive Energy had very similar strengths and weaknesses to this year’s Star Horn Royal Club. The jungler PE played with most of the year, Rao “Jing” Jing, is considered one of the all-time greatest Chinese junglers, and NaMei’s support, Li “Sicca” Haoyu, one of the greatest supports. Their solo laners left potentially even more to be desired than corn and Jang “Cola” Na from SHRC in terms of carry potential and individual skill.

NaMei and Sicca had a reputation similar to Uzi’s and Zero’s in 2014. Their very aggressive style was a trademark, and the team succeeded best when they had opportunities for early bottom lane dives. In team fights, NaMei relied a little less on the rest of his team than Uzi did this year and last. The mid lane assassin meta was in full-swing, so Kan "JoJo" Yiutou often dove the back line with Zed, and Jing favored diving alongside him with Jarvan or Lee Sin. That left NaMei with only Sicca as a reliable source of peel. In this context, he used his escapes in a calculated manner and was capable of a lot of nearly self-reliant play.

This year, on Edward Gaming, NaMei was often less flashy and more patient. He played a conservative laning phase with Feng “Fzzf” Zhojun, and when they did play aggressively, they had inconsistent results due to jungle intervention or enemy roaming.

In a team fight setting, Edward Gaming excelled. NaMei focused much less on timing escapes and finding the right entry to the fight and much more on optimizing cooldowns aggressively because of the peel provided by Tong “Koro1” Yang. He could flash more often for finishing autoattacks and use area of effect ultimates for initiation or maximizing damage rather than cleanup. Securing kills became less of a priority with Ming “Clearlove” Kai favoring assassin junglers. 

In general, the key difference in NaMei and Uzi's strengths is that, while Uzi finds success through forcing teams to adapt to him, NaMei prefers to adapt to his team. His approach to the game seems information-driven, and much of that might be ingrained as a result of his deep synergy with Sicca. Sicca and NaMei developed as a bottom lane on WE i-rocks before it became Positive Energy, and Sicca’s playstyle tended to revolve around vision and deep warding. Sicca kept the information flow by warding the bottom side of the map heavily, so as a duo they had a good idea of when they could play more aggressively or coordinate invades.

As a result, NaMei’s ability to have a sense for an enemy jungler's location without wards seemed quite poor this year, leading him and Fzzf to either play overly cautious or give up first bloods to predictable ganks. In an orchestrated 5v5 where all enemies are visible, NaMei can predict cooldowns, assess the best use of his abilities, etc., but in a situation where EDG engaged on four enemies and failed to predict a flank, he would use an escape too liberally and get caught out for it.

NaMei’s information processing and adaptability makes him capable of playing multiple styles well if his map is lit. As a result, he seems more consistent than Uzi—with the troubling exception of the 2014 World Championship. Since his return to China, NaMei played much more like his old self on EDG in multiple third party tournaments, so Worlds could well be a fluke, albeit a massive one. The only way to come to a conclusion is to gauge his performance in LPL in 2015 and at the next international event, should his team make it.

The True Test of Greatness

With NaMei’s poor performance at Worlds, and Uzi’s constant failure to appear in a LoL Pro League final, this Chinese AD carry rivalry has reached a tipping point. Talented Korean AD carries, Gu “imp” Seungbin and Kim “Deft” Hyukkyu have joined the LPL to increase the stakes, but with the retirement of Gao “WeiXiao” Xuecheng, NaMei and Uzi have prior claim and a score to settle.

NaMei is most likely stepping into Uzi’s shoes as the AD carry of Star Horn Royal Club, and Uzi is joining OMG, the team that has traditionally barred Royal Club from LPL finals. Beyond that, both of their new teams are composed in such a way that they’ll test each carry's weaknesses.

Uzi’s wild playstyle has always forced teams to adapt to him, but with OMG’s reputation for variety and their own reportedly strict sense of how a game should be played, this might be a situation where Uzi is forced to change his ways or fail. In the mid lane role, Uzi transitioned from hard-winning lane to roaming heavily to support his team, so if he can translate this versatility into the AD carry role, we could see Uzi unlock a wider array of performances.

As mentioned before, SHRC’s strengths and weaknesses make them very similar to NaMei’s old team, PE. Ideally he could revert to his roots and adapt to the stronger peel and support provided by corn—except that vision has always been a problem for SHRC. They had some of the worst ward control in 2014 Worlds Group Stage. In order for SHRC’s bottom lane to continue to get the early snowball they rely on to succeed with NaMei, they will have to come up with a system as a team to compensate.

NaMei and Uzi's clashes on the rift in LPL will stand out as one of the most exciting rivalries of 2015. Time will tell if NaMei can take Uzi's old team to the domestic heights his rival craves or if Uzi can finally flesh out his Worlds highs with an LPL win. Photo Credit: lolesports via Flickr

Kelsey Moser is an avid follower of Chinese League of Legends esports. She has worked on the LPLen project in the past and has written editorials for lolesports and onGamers. You can follow her on Twitter via @karonmoser

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