In the League of Legends scene, the general consensus is that Jian ‘Uzi’ Zi-Hao is the greatest player never to win Worlds.
Uzi was the player that teams were built around. His career began when he was plucked straight from solo queue by Royal Club at only 15 years old. He’s been the star of multiple rosters, and the standard to which almost all AD Carries across the world are compared. And yet, he holds no World Championship ring.
He’s come close — three times, in fact. In 2013 and 2014, he was one final away from being crowned the greatest AD Carry in the world. He came close again in 2018, when he won every tournament he attended alongside his teammates on Royal Never Give Up.
The elusive Grand Slam
He claimed his first-ever international title that year, winning the 2018 Mid-Season Invitational. Now all he had to do was take home the Worlds trophy, and all those years of not-quite-making-it would be forgotten.
He was then unceremoniously eliminated by G2 Esports in the quarterfinals.
What followed was one of the darkest periods in Uzi’s career. His League-obsessed lifestyle had finally started to catch up with him — he went long periods on the bench for RNG as his severe shoulder pain and type 2 diabetes left him unable to compete.
Finally, after almost two years of intermittent play, Uzi retired at the beginning of 2020. His departure was unceremonious.
He had helped shape this esport on the global stage, was one of the founding components of its success, and now he was gone. With only a single MSI trophy to his name.
Suffering from success
Uzi’s retirement marked a wider issue in the world of League. In its infancy, competitive League of Legends was as simple as five teammates, sat at their computers, practicing 24/7. Especially in China and Korea, regions famed for their incredibly strict practice regimens, the idea of a holistic approach to the game was unthinkable.
Why would you work out, or take time to stretch and recuperate, when that would mean wasting valuable practice time?
Many teams practice for 12 hours straight, every day. This leaves very little time for considerations of personal health — things as simple as taking a walk or stretching between scrim blocks. Coupled with streaming obligations, players will often spend all of their waking hours in front of computers.
Esports athletes are at high risk of health concerns due to the sedentary nature of gaming, according to a study in the Journal of Osteopathic Medicine. These health concerns can go from skeletomuscular conditions from poor posture and repeated tendon strain to obesity and mental health issues from a sedentary lifestyle and constant internet presence.
Yet at the beginning of esports’ surge in popularity, very few organizations were willing to make the necessary efforts to help prevent serious health issues for players. This was the case with Uzi.
His incredible drive for improvement, to constantly be at the top of his game, led to him developing diabetes, which he himself attributed to “chronic stress, irregular diet, and poor sleep”. He broke himself in search of success that never quite came.
— Ran (@ran_lpl) June 3, 2020
There have been some steps towards improving the pro player lifestyle in recent years. North American and European organizations have begun to actively hire performance coaches, physiotherapists, nutritionists, and chefs to keep their players operating at peak physical condition.
Much less is known about the team environment in non-English speaking regions, though.
Are BLG ready for a superteam?
Throughout his absence from the professional scene, Uzi has been healing the damage his professional career caused. He’s been streaming during his time out of the pro spotlight, but to nowhere near the kind of intense schedule he had to keep to participate in LPL scrim blocks.
And now he’s back, as the starting AD Carry for the LPL’s Bilibili Gaming. After a two-year absence, he’ll be returning on a supposed ‘LPL superteam’ that has clearly been designed with Worlds in mind, alongside some of the region’s brightest stars.
In a promotional interview shot by BLG, he talked about picking up football as a way to destress and keep fit, saying that he feels “strong and filled with energy”.
— Bilibili Gaming (@BilibiliGaming) December 15, 2021
BLG have also signed a substitute AD Carry to allow him the possibility to take time away from competitive play. Not just any run-of-the-mill AD Carry, but PCS superstar rookie Chiu ‘Doggo’ Tzu-Chan, a breakout star who made his name at MSI 2021.
This return won’t just be a test for Uzi. BLG have catapulted themselves and their roster into the spotlight overnight, and now they will have to make sure they’re ready to face the pressure that creating a superteam brings.
They’ve ensured they can substitute Uzi out to take time to rest if necessary, but can they keep him on the bench if the team’s hopes of making Worlds start to be jeopardized?
A first time for everything
Doggo is an excellent AD Carry, but this will be his first split competing in a major region. He too will be under an immense amount of pressure to perform, knowing that he is somewhat responsible for the success or failure of this superteam despite not having been given a starting spot.
On top of this, the organization has never qualified for a World Championship before, or any international event for that matter. They’ve assembled a strong coaching roster, with both head coach Li ‘Dian’ Guo-peng and supervisor Shih ‘Chashao’ Yi-Hao having both guided teams to the World Championship in their careers.
But coaches alone will not bring the team to a World Championship if they do not have the correct tools at their disposal.
Warmly welcome supervisor Chashao and coach Dian join team BLG.We will work together and seek the higher honor in 2022! pic.twitter.com/8Sd35GdYFX
— Bilibili Gaming (@BilibiliGaming) December 3, 2021
There’s also the question of the players on this team that aren’t named Uzi. Uzi was notorious for being a resource-heavy player, especially back in his days on RNG. Mid laner Li ‘Xiaohu’ Lian-Yao was typically drafted on to supportive mid lane picks like Galio and Lulu, while the role of primary carry was left to Uzi.
But will the solo laners of BLG be willing to do the same? League is a game of finite resources, and a superteam made up of the best players in each role will have much greater difficulty deciding where to use those resources.
There’s a certain amount of selflessness required to maximize Uzi’s potential, but that is not the kind of behavior you expect from players who make up a superteam.
Uzi’s mental and physical health
Uzi’s situation is also far from perfect. Type 2 diabetes is a debilitating disease that has to be managed with medication for the rest of a person’s life. His shoulder injuries will also likely require constant physiotherapy. And quite aside from any physical conditions, there is the incredible pressure he faces to continue striving for that elusive Worlds title.
Uzi responds to his haters during his streaming today.
"Not winning the title doesn't mean the player lacks practice or the player is not good enough."
— HUPU Esports (@HupuEsports) December 16, 2021
In a recent livestream, he expressed his frustrations with the negative comments in his chat calling him the ‘god of the void’— making fun of his lack of a Worlds title. “Not winning the title does not mean the player lacks practice or is not good enough. Worlds isn’t something you get just because you want it.”
He went on to address comments on his health condition, saying “diabetes is painful, I have to take pills every day […] this isn’t easy.” He’s still not 100% of the way back to fighting fitness, and said that his mental health is still “not that stable.”
Even a player as beloved as Uzi isn’t exempt from the scathing criticisms of the online community, and dealing with that kind of mental pressure on top of the constant need to monitor his health has already taken a toll.
And it will continue to take a toll. For someone like Uzi, who has won everything available to him except that one final title, it’s Worlds or nothing. His illnesses have put him on a timer to achieve that goal regardless of how well they are managed.
Only time will tell
Uzi’s return will be a litmus test for how League esport has evolved since his debut. The LPL is famous for having some of the strictest player schedules of any region in the world.
If a region this strict is able to support a player without pushing him to the breaking point once again, that itself is a clear indication that League is moving towards a previously unseen level of sustainability for players.
We’re already seeing slow steps being made towards that level of sustainability. In September 2019, the LPL signed a five-year sponsorship deal with Nike. The fitness giant became the official apparel sponsor of the LPL, providing shoes and jerseys for every team.
The partnership also included “customized physical training programs” for LPL players to help “build a stronger physique and more stamina” to cope with the intense demands of professional gaming.
However, there has been very little publicity surrounding the specifics of these ‘customized training programs’. The LPL posted a Q&A video with players describing their daily routines on its official Youtube channel — not once do any of the players mention any kind of exercise, or even stretching, as part of their routines.
Of the 17 teams competing in the LPL in 2022, none of them have an official performance coach listed on their roster.
The LPL recently hosted a training seminar for all team employees that culminated in a written test. The seminar included, amongst other things, education on sports injuries — but a two-day seminar is not nearly enough to train coaches in the management of the kinds of injuries and long-term health conditions a pro gaming career can cause.
China, and the wider world of League, is beginning to come around to the idea of player health and player longevity. But they’re not quite there yet. Taking time away from competing allowed Uzi to heal and return, but the systems that allowed him to break his body in the first place have not yet been eradicated.
The 2022 season will be a test — for Uzi, for BLG, for the LPL, and for League of Legends as a whole.