Shan “Chaox” Huang is waiting.
He is waiting for the fatigue of moving to San Francisco to wear off, and for the rest of his team’s gear and computers to be mailed over. He is waiting for the hangover from disappointing showings at recent tournaments to fade. He is waiting to see if Season Three will be a Renaissance for Team SoloMid, and North American League of Legends as a whole.
But mostly, Huang is waiting for people to stop attacking his Internet.
Despite moving across the United States to live in his team’s new gaming house, TSM is running into the same Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks that plagued their old place in New York. They happen randomly throughout the day, disrupting streaming, practicing and scrimmages with other teams.
“We work around the internet, and it’s not good at all,” he said.
Huang was born in Chengdu, China in 1991, and lived in the country until his family moved to Canada. When they settled in Montreal, Huang picked up some Canadian French; he says he speaks it “about as well as my Chinese”. After a few more years, when Shan was 13, he moved to Long Island, NY. He admits missing skating the most about Canada, noting that in New York and in Team SoloMid’s new west-coast home, it’s not as prevalent during the winter.
Like many other League of Legends professionals, Huang has been a gamer all his life. Starting with the Super NES console in the 1990s, he graduated to the Blizzard suite of games, tackling Diablo II, StarCraft, and WarCraft III. With that last title, Huang would embark on a journey that would lead him to League of Legends; it would all start with a custom map called Defense of the Ancients.
DotA would serve as a breeding ground for Huang’s interest in the genre, and he would play it for six years before eventually making the switch to Heroes of Newerth. During his time with the custom map, he took part in the NA-IHL, a competitive league that fostered his entry into eSports proper.
“It was such a great league before it died,” Huang said. “Everyone who was anyone played in IHL. Most of the good players in IHL went on to decent teams. I was way too young – I was like 13, back then.”
Huang’s first impression of League of Legends wasn’t a good one. He installed in during the Closed Beta, and uninstalled it after playing it twice. However, the $100,000 prize pool for Season One was enticing – Huang’s second attempt was a little more successful.
“I came back, and it was completely different… and I just really, really loved it. I got to level 30 in about a week and I just started playing solo queue,” he said.
It was during these solo queue days that he would begin streaming the game, leading him to increase his reputation. Of course, streaming requires some specific hardware, which lead to Huang having “the eSports talk” with his parents.
“It was the first time I really talked to them about streaming and eSports, and how much that mattered to me. I didn’t expect them to understand [it],” Huang said. “They didn’t understand any of the games I was playing – it was just people killing each other, and headshots – and I explained to them how important it was to me, what it meant for me to stream.”
“My dad just bought me the computer outright. That helped Reginald take notice of me.”
Andy “Reginald” Dinh was looking to assemble a team to play League of Legends competitively – Huang would join on to the first incarnation of Team SoloMid, and has been a member ever since. He would start as a support player, but eventually move over to the AD Carry role as players departed. Of the first group of players, only Huang, team founder Dinh and Brian “TheOddOne” Wyllie are currently playing for the team; Alex “Xpecial” Chu would join in the first few months after formation, and the team would also bring on Christian “The Rain Man” Kahmann in the top lane.
Chu would eventually take over the support role, and become Huang’s lane partner. Chu has drawn Huang’s attention even before Team SoloMid started, due to his strategic thinking during League of Legend’s early stages.
“I remember playing with him way back, and this was when nobody gave a hoot about strategy. People would just pick champions to pick champions. I remember he picked Kog’Maw mid, and I remember he said something,” Huang said, pausing. “I was like, ‘Oh, this guy actually thinks.’”
This incarnation of Team SoloMid would go on to relatively great success, finishing third at the Season One World Championships and winning their first LAN event – and $15,000 USD – in November 2011 at MLG Providence. They would also compete in the Intel Extreme Masters Global Challenge in Kiev, Ukraine; after progressing to the grand finals undefeated, but would lose to a dominant Moscow Five. Determined, they would practice Moscow Five’s strategies in preparation for IEM’s World Championship in Hanover, Germany. However, after losses to SK Gaming, M5 and Curse, TSM would fail to exit the group stage.
Clearly, something wasn’t working.
Kahmann would leave soon after, and be replaced by housemate Marcus “Dyrus” Hill, whose presence in the gaming house meant both a comfortable transition and a familiar face. Huang describes his relationship with the current TSM roster as one of general friendship.
“There’s really not that much ego going on. We understand that – we’re all in here trying to win. As a team, also, we just understand each other’s personalities. We know certain things that are allowed, and things that are taboo with people.”
“It’s fun about 95% of the time because we’re all pretty young – I mean, the OddOne’s, like, 24, Xpecial’s 20 – we just have a lot of fun with each other,” Huang said. “There’s time’s when the trash is too full and the dishes aren’t done… we’re actually getting much better at taking care of ourselves.”
These personal maintenance problems were fixed with the temporary addition of a team manager, and the habits forced upon them seem to have stuck. Gone are the days of the person with the lowest ELO having to take out the trash, or TheOddOne wearing a trash bag as a shirt on stream. Huang mentions that Dyrus and Xpecial have their own eccentricities, noting – jokingly, of course – that the former is “emotionally trapped. A giant-ass man with like, a boy’s mind. Maybe a toddler.”
Meeting TheOddOne for the first time was also a bit of a special case.
“He’s got Scottish blood in such a small frame. Before Season One, we thought he was some giant-ass guy with hair all over his entire body. That drinks, and smokes,” Huang said. “And then we saw him, and were like ‘What the hell, OddOne, what the hell!?’”
Continuing, he referenced the infamous outbursts of frustration from “The General” of TSM:
“When I think about OddOne I think ‘Scottish Rage.’”
He describes Reginald, SoloMid’s founder, as “the boss”. Reginald’s word is law, and ultimately, he pays the bills.
As for Huang himself, he represents an emotional balance between the extremes of personality in the gaming house. He can be serious like Xpecial, confident like Reginald, mellow like Dyrus or prone to silly outbursts like TheOddOne. When he streams, he is often business-like and serious, offering explanations for his current actions and his overall strategy. On the flip side, he has been known to rally his viewers to invade another channel, or offer (mostly) playful criticism of a team mate who is doing badly. If viewers are looking for a variety, they watch Chaox.
As time passed and the team continued to play, TSM outgrew their gaming house in suburban New York; perhaps due to the warmer climate, the team has recently moved to sunny San Francisco. They join other professional squads like Curse and Counter Logic Gaming, who both have gaming mansions in California.
Living with League
Living in a gaming house can be rough on a player. Despite having the possibility of alone time, much of Huang’s week is consumed with League of Legends. Expectations are high, and his schedule remains full in order to maintain a living through the game. Though TSM are sponsored by software companies and Riot-salaried as a result of their Season Two standings, they are constantly looking to improve on their practice methods, especially in light of recent tournament finishes.
“Leading up to Season Two was especially bad – we had no idea what an efficient way to practice was. That’s something we’re constantly working on, and my main focus this year is to just find efficient ways to practice while being able to stream and communicate effectively with the team. That’s pretty much my job – just thinking about it – finding an efficient way to think about all those things.”
Efficiency (or the lack of it) is something that North American teams have been criticized for, especially after the region was knocked out by the quarter-finals of the most recent World Championships. Though once-competitive in international play, these teams have had trouble when placed up against foreigners from Europe and Asia.
Differences in culture are apparent: it is more common to see North American players streaming for ad revenue as instead of taking part in insular, constant practice. Many are quick to criticize this supposed shift in priorities: Moscow Five’s Alex Ich infamously referred to American teams as “coming not to win, but just making a show.”
TSM seems to be magnet for these complaints, as they are one of the most popular faces of English-speaking League of Legends. Their streams top viewer charts when active, and their site, SoloMid.net, serves as a forum and a hub for guides to the game. Huang describes himself as the one who does the most coaching in TSM developing strategies, analyzing team compositions, and tutoring team mates. Most of the day-to-day operation of the team fall to Xpecial and Reginald, who work with sponsors, coordinate tournaments and make arrangements for travel.
“We’ve had a lot of success with how we’re doing [things] currently. Still, looking at the Korean model, they just do it way better because they’ve had years of practice with eSports through Starcraft. And that’s something that’s just going to take time,” Huang said. He notes that it’s not easy to copy Korean play, as top teams to do not stream their play as openly as Americans do.
“We are focused, but we have to put in time.”
Living With Losses, Dealing With Defeat
After claiming first in the North American Regionals and earning a bye to the knockout stage of the World Championships, SoloMid fell in two straight games to the eventual runner-up, Azubu Frost. Weeks later at the MLG Fall Championship, TSM was knocked out in the second round of the tournament by NaJin Sword. Currently, the team is winless against teams from Korea.
Despite these setbacks, Huang doesn’t believe the answer lies overseas. He points to two other teams, Dignitas and Counter Logic Gaming’s North American team, who travelled to Korea only to fall upon the same dire straits. He doesn’t believe the time spent acclimating to the culture or the length of the move would be worth it.
“I think the biggest thing is just efficiency. It’s just something that I’m always thinking about. If we can find an efficient way to practice, communicate and stream, and just combine it all, I think we’ll have a chance,” Huang said. “I think talent alone in the team is really high. It’s just constantly working to find a better, efficient method of incorporate everything together, and that’s what I’ll be completely thinking about.”
Huang believes in two methods of picking teams: offensive, and defensive. The offensive method involves picking a composition with the specific purpose of dominating with it, and utilizing the strategy that’s been practiced. The defensive method looks to counter picks that have already been made, and sometimes this can come at the expense of an overall synergy between champions.
“I think TSM played the reaction [strategy] for a long, long time. We had team compositions where we had our greatest successes – Ashe, Vlad, Kennen, Cassiopeia, Yorick – we had a bunch of those, but usually it’s half-half. You get your team comp, and you want to do a bit of counter-picking.”
“I would definitely say before we matured to this point, we did a lot of straight-up counter-picking with less synergy between the champions in favour of lane dominance.”
However, fans may not be as patient. With Twitter, Facebook, Reddit and IRC Chats all allowing some kind of feedback, a disappointing tournament can lead to backlash.
“After Season Two, when we lost, I don’t think we played up to ability at all. After that loss, it made me think a lot – I don’t know if I was depressed – I was frustrated at certain things that were out of my control. I needed some time, and didn’t play League at all for a week after.”
“I think just asking us to win is something that every fan is entitled to. Obviously last MLG [Dallas], where we lost miserably, the fans were just like “what the hell?”, even though through we were moving, and we didn’t have our desktops because they were in transit. I think back and… we still could have scrimmaged. We didn’t scrimmage at all.
“We kind of just sat there and thought ‘Yeah, we’re not going to do well at this tournament,’” Huang said. “Thinking back, we probably could have scrimmaged and did better as a team.”
“When fans say ‘What the hell, why didn’t you guys scrim’, there’s that little bit of truth, where even though it was really hard for us to do, we still could’ve, and done better.
“The fans push me really hard, in a good way. There’s certain times when you just straight-up suck.”
As Team SoloMid moves to improve, League of Legends as a whole will be changing right alongside them. The money that has been pumped into the eSports scene through Season Two, the allure of salaries during Season Three, and the forthcoming weekly tournaments will force teams to adapt, grow or fade away.
Like SoloMid, North America will need to develop their mindset in order to be better suited for international competition. Riot has also added the complication of new items, the re-balancing of old ones, and the introduction of new map modification and champions. Professional players will need to re-learn and cope with every shift, but Huang is confident he will be able to.
“It’s really part of our job as pro gamers in League of Legends is to be able to adapt fast. We can just pick up strategies really really quickly, and apply it ourselves, or apply it appropriately. Being able to adapt to patches – knowing what exactly is strong or weak in every patch – is part of our job.”
It will also be the job of North American teams to take a look at their place within the world and determine what changes need to be made in order to remain relevant.
“I just think it’s about how socially acceptable it is in China, Korea, Taiwan, to play games and how much they love it. Here in the US, we’re still split between console and PC, and there’s still this negative stigma about it. As soon as people can fully dedicate themselves to bettering themselves as a team, talent alone is no different between US and Korea,” Huang said.
“I think there’s very talented people in the US that can get on par once we have a good way of practicing, the dedication and the hard work necessary.”
Our friends over at Machinima posted a great video profile of Chaox as well, with some of his great plays. Check it out!
All images are the copyright of their original owners: header banner from Gunnar, second image is a stream image from Lol-Game.ru, third from Chaox’s Facebook, fourth from Neofelis-Neofelis on DeviantArt, fifth from LeaguePedia.