The greatest North American competitive League of Legends player in history plays the only position in the game to never truly be capable of carrying in the traditional sense. Despite operating within such inherent limitations, Alex "Xpecial" Chu's high skill level, penchant for performing under pressure, longevity spanning years at a time, legacy of domestic success and synergy with numerous team-mates, has put him in an near-unassailable position as the best ever player from his region.
An extra special Support
The Support role is not only known as a position which exists to faciliate the play of the other roles, from directly aiding the AD Carry to roaming to provide vision, but it now stands as the only role left in competitive League of Legends from which a player cannot carry a game in the traditional sense. Previously, there were times when Junglers fell into a similar category, but the era of the carry Jungler arrived fully in Season 3 and since then we have seen star Junglers lead their teams to titles in many regions.
For the Support, his role still revolves around making his team-mates' lives easier and play better, by creating vision for them, synergising with them directly and being the, at times, unseen hand healing, shielding or following up for them. The best Support player plays his role much like a well-suited movie soundtrack, existing almost entirely in the background, near-invisible save for the enhanced effect and impact brought to the primary elements of focus in the venture.
Thus, when a great Support player is performing at his peak, the attention will often naturally be drawn to the players and roles his efforts are aiding to succeed beyond their ordinary means and to a better-than-expected degree. As such, when Samsung White's Mata painted his masterpieces in OGN and the S4 World Championships, often it would be his lane partner imp who reaped the benefits in terms of highlight plays and the spotlight.
When MadLife's Thresh demanded a sense of awe in its play-making potential, it would be his team-mates who finished those plays and helped bolster their own reputations. The greatest Supports do stand out, but only once one follows the trail back from their team-mates to the nuances of what created the circumstances from which the carries could get their kills and force the action.
Playing from such a position, it could have been easy both for Xpecial to exist entirely out of the view of the most casual fan's focus and also to fall away in the competitive scene, to some degree at the whim of his team-mates in the carry roles. Instead, Xpecial has been the vital and regenerative force in ensuring his teams have repeatedly been contenders for domestic titles and his trophy cabinet is filled with the spoils of war.
The best from North America
Playing in a region with names which can boast names like Doublelift, Meteos, bigfatlp, Dyrus and Voyboy, few would have placed their wager on Xpecial being top of the pile when the tallies were counted up after four seasons of competitive play. Xpecial is the only name on the list who can boast all of the qualities required of the best competitive player.
Doublelift's peak play in late Season 2 was something above and beyond anything seen before or since in the region, legitimately a true contender for the absolute best player at his position and capable of carrying his team with a frightening and mercurial force. Yet, Doublelift's trophy cabinet lays barren, no first place cheque, medal or trophy contained within. Likewise, Doublelift's individual play has been erratic over the past two seasons and his peaks and valleys have coincided with his ability to adapt to the evolving AD Carry meta of play and champions, or not, as the case may be.
Meteos' monsterous Jungle play dominated the first two LCS splits of his career, impressively showcasing almost diametrically opposite Jungling styles over those splits, yet his last split saw his impact decidedly lower and it was only with the recent IEM IX San Jose performance that he was able to truly establish the same kind of dominant game impact on an international level. The Cloud9 Jungler also lacks enough years of longevity to go along with his LCS titles and impressive statistical basis for greatness.
bigfatlp and Voyboy's peaks were very much a product of their time, both in terms of key line-ups of players and meta concepts. Neither can truly lay claim to the level of consistent performance, longevity and success that Xpecial has delivered in spades. The one name on the list who comes closest is Dyrus, the former team-mate of Xpecial's from the Top lane.
In terms of consistency, longevity, success and defying the meta, Dyrus is in the conversation and carves out his own place as a truly great North American player, yet his international performances have famously left a lot to be desired and he has shown more than occasional lapses in ability to perform under pressure in that exhalted realm of competition.
Xpecial has the skill level, the consistency of performance, the track record of high level play under pressure, the trophies to back up his claims, a history of defying mere meta trends which make and break other players and finally, he has accomplished all that he has in his career while playing from a position which requires an overwhelmingly strict degree of synergy with key team-mates and ability to read the flow of a game.
The Skilled Utility Carry
While Supports rarely will ever be said to carry the game in any respect, Xpecial shares a quality with some of the great Eastern Support legends in that he possesses some of the best mechanics in his region and one of the highest raw skill levels. Reddit legends that Xpecial's off-role play suggests he could have become a laner instead and still been an elite player may be a little exaggerated, but one can see the basis for such bold speculations when one examines the skill level of Xpecial's play.
From a purely mechanical and skill-based level, Xpecial has delivered a consistent level of performance, across his career, that cannot be matched almost any other player in NA history, regardless of their role. Incredible at landing skillshots, patient and yet play-making with his ultimates, Xpecial has allowed his bottom lanes to always exert a large amount of impact on the outcome of a game and his contribution to team-fights has always been monstrous.
Xpecial's performances under pressure are the stuff of legend, with each TSM title campaign or deep tournament run seemingly anchored around a few key Xpecial individual highlights. From a flawless aggressive Sona Crescendo to secure kills in the bot-lane or break open a winning team-fight through to the Thresh hooks and flays which have decided many a game and into more recent times with the impeccable Ziliean play which stifled and neutralised all of CLG's efforts in the Summer season's quarter-final play-off match-up, the Xpecial highlight reel is lengthy and littered with plays which had significant impact on his teams' successes.
Asked to select a player on whose play one's life could rely, one could do no better than to choose Xpecial, such is the clutch nature he has been able to display time and time again.
It's lonely at the top
Xpecial has spent so long at elite status at his position that one must imagine it a little lonely up there, with other players coming and going. A hallmark of the truly great League of Legends players is that while they may be remembered for specific excellence on certain signature champions, they were able to perform to a high level on at least a handful no matter the era or meta in which they found themselves. Xpecial fits the bill in this respect moreso than any other North American player.
There is no era or meta of Support play or champions which has seen Xpecial fall off in terms of individual play or game impact for his team. From the Season 1 and Season 2 time of Supports being ward bots and working with barely any gold through to the tanky defensive mastery boosted item collectors of Season 4, Xpecial has been at the top of his position and game on a domestic level throughout.
Where a champion like Sona was such an embodiment of the Season 2 Support player, Xpecial has shown mastery of Thresh in Season 3 and beyond that few Westerners could even dare compare their own play to. In Season 4, Xpecial was able to be effective on champions such as Annie, in her post-Worlds OP state, Leona and Ziliean, along with his now patented Thresh. There is seemingly no era of Support champions that Xpecial cannot find a way to work to his ends.
The numerous partners of Xpecial
Xpecial has been tasked with synergising his play and role with that of four different AD Carries across his career. In each and every instance, the former TSM Support player has been able to develop a working relationship with his carry, play the champions needed to produce successful lanes and increase the effectiveness of the ADC sharing his lane. Every single AD Carry Xpecial has partnered with saw their peak in form coincide with their time playing alongside the Support legend.
In the early days with Chaox, winning lane domestically was a possibility, with Chaox's steady play and innovations giving TSM a leg up. Even so, much of Season 2 was spent battling the might of the Chauster-Doublelift botlane, which was legitimately in contention for the best in the entire world. Facing such a botlane would have seen lesser players buckle and get run over. Instead, Xpecial and his partner were able to find ways to manage and deal with the pressure and strength of such a dangerous opposing laning entity.
One could compare their impressive results, within that context, to the efforts of San and LoveLin, who likewise took a star Support and a less-than-elite AD Carry and were able to hold their own against China's fearsome botlane monsters. Such players have to learn how to neutralise or limit the strength of laning opponents who typically roll over and bully out anyone who cannot rise to their level. That OMG botlanes ability to play against mechanically superior opponents can be contrasted against the C9 botlanes repeated success within North America.
After Chaox, came WildTurtle. In contrast to Chaox, WildTurtle was an almost feral creature, prone to bouts of impulsive aggression and seemingly unaware of any records for depth in diving into opponents. Xpecial was able to partner with the young Canadian carry to produce a lane which held its own and even bested some of the best botlanes from all regions. In an aging TSM line-up, it was the play of the new AD Carry which helped spur TSM back to a domestic title and Worlds qualification, so one can very easily carve out credit for Xpecial, as WildTurtle since the departure of that Support has never been quite the same force again.
"Every time I play against TSM as well, I have trouble laning against Xpecial, but against other botlanes I don't feel the [same] pressure"
-Doublelift on Xpecial, from 'Grilled' Episode 85 (Team Acer, 2013)
Finally, Xpecial found himself placed alongside Cop when he arrived at Curse. Cop was the epitome of the average LCS level AD Carry, known for posting similar numbers, going for the plays you'd expect and generally being a middle of the pack player. Xpecial's arrival seemingly came as a shot in the arm for Cop, seeing him more assertive and aggressive than he had ever been. The Curse ADC was still far from an elite player, but his impact on games and effectiveness and dealing damage was noticably increased.
Team-work boiled down to the essence
Most successful botlane players can be seen to take on an almost superstitious nature, assigning the effectiveness of their synergy to chemistry with or time spent playing alongside a specific team-mate. For Xpecial, his AD Carries have come and gone and each has required a different adaptation from him, a puzzle which has been able to find an effective solution for, that his perspective on the much vaunted synergy required by a good botlane is different to those of most of his peers.
"I under-rate synergy a lot, especially for botlane. For me it's that I feel like two good players that know exactly how to win a lane and are on the same page will do fine. You don't have to say too many things but cooldowns. When I play with Piglet I can't talk to him too much, cos he doesn't understand too many words, but I just say give him numbers, 'Shield in 2', 'Shield up', 'Fight!', 'Go! Go! Go!"
When I played with Doublelift it was an instant synergy cos he's good, I'm good and we talk a lot."
-Xpecial speaking on his perspective on botlane synergy, in Episode 30 of 'Summoning Insight' (InsightOnEsports, 2014)
Where other botlanes often stress the need for personal chemistry between the players, Xpecial relies on simple and to-the-point communication, paired with his own unique intuitive understanding of what must be done. The latter is a quality which has not only allowed Xpecial to be successful with all of the AD Carries he has partnered with, but was duly noted by Doublelift during their brief time together at All-Stars.
"I did feel like Xpecial was amazing, because I did switch from Aphromoo to Xpecial. [...] When I first went to the Curse bootcamp [for All-Stars]and I was playing with Xpecial, the first thing that [stood] out was that 'I don't have to say anything to this guy'. After playing with Loco and Aphromoo for months and months and months, I played with Xpecial for one game and I was about to open my mouth to tell him to do something and he just did it, before I could say anything, so I was like 'Woah!'.
He knows exactly what to do in like 90% of situations and in the 10% it's just a stylistic difference of he's used to playing with Chaox and I'm used to playing with my Supports and we choose different ways to approach the situation. So we just talked it out and he was really understanding,and I was like 'Wow! This is like the perfect Support, because he knows what to do, he's independent, I can focus on myself for once.' That's one of the biggest reasons I made big plays at All-Stars and was really clutch, because I didn't have to micro-manage my Support, I can trust my Support to do what he needs to do and I can focus on my own game instead. I felt really liberated in that way."
-Doublelift on playing with Xpecial at All-Stars 2013, from 'Grilled' Episode 85 (Team Acer, 2013)
It has long been a theory of mine, based on experience watching and talking to elite level performers, that communication and a set hierarchy of how one will play is a form of lubrication or coping strategy for less naturally suited team-mates. Team-mates who are excellent players and naturally fit together, will be capable of performing coordinated and intricate plays on the basis of intuitive understanding of what is required and trust in their team-mates being on the same page. Xpecial and his lengthy career of success seems to bear a fine example of such an approach.
What could have been and still may yet
The dream botlane combination that fans have wondered about, lusted for and dreamed over was a pairing of Doublelift and Xpecial, the two best players of all time from their region at their respective positions. That fans were teased with such a duo at the S3 All-Stars event, where they played up to the lofty expectations, seemingly only increased the agony of the two never properly partnering in a competitive team.
The Chauster-Doublelift and Xpecial-WildTurtle botlanes had their times where they were able to compete with the best in the world, but one could only wonder if an Xpecial-Doublelift botlane could have been the best in the world and dominated all comers. Now, Xpecial finds himself unusually gifted with an opportunity to create something special to close out his legacy as a competitive League player, moreso than merely lifting Curse from gatekeepers to Worlds qualifiers.
Piglet, the Season 3 champion and former elite Korean AD Carry, now sits alongside Xpecial in the bottom lane. Piglet did suffer his own fluctuations of form during 2014, but had a number of resurgences and flashes of excellence to suggest he was not entirely done as an international performer. The primary problem for the ex-SKT man was his lane partner, as PoohManDu could never recover the kind of brilliant and yet fragile versatility he had showcased in 2013. An AD Carry with a flagging Support can never realise his true potential.
In Xpecial, Piglet finds himself with a new chance to establish himself as one of the world's best at his position. In Piglet, Xpecial is given the vehicle by which he can again return to the World Championship and may yet be able to be a part of the best botlane in the entire League of Legends world. Last split it was impressive enough to take Cop and Curse to one game from qualifying for Worlds, now Xpecial finds himself in a position that may exceed even the abundance of riches he had at his disposal in TSM.
A legacy like few others
With North America, Xpecial is one of the most decorated players of all time. The Support star has won eight offline tournaments, including an LCS split. He has finished in the top four of 16 offline tournaments in total, including all four of the LCS splits, the latter piece of trivia being shared only by Dyrus. Finally, Xpecial has been an elite level player at his position and in his region for more than three straight years of competitive play.
There have been many great players from the North American region and some are still building their legends as we speak, but none can match Xpecial in his excellence across seemingly all categories. History would have been very different for the region, had it not been for the appearance of that extra special Support.
Photo credit: lolesports, Riot
Special Artwork: Junes (@hyuugaclan on twitter)
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