Without knowing a word or character of Chinese, I decided to study abroad for a semester at Peking University. At the time I foolishly expected much of the world to move to my mother tongue. My interests in Chinese economy and history ran deep, and my advisor told me that I would need to know the language to continue to pursue my interests.
The curiosity for China did not stop at figures and books. Something about the unfamiliarity of the country’s philosophy, language, and even geography created in me an idea of a wholly unfamiliar people. I suppose I wanted something to explore. Perhaps that thirst for exploration plunged me into the Chinese league servers. I knew I wanted to play League in China as soon as I submitted the application to go abroad.
For a twenty something male, the desire should not seem so out of place. In my life back home League formed a legitimate means of communication. My friends sometimes spent entire nights on the NA server. We gleefully constructed ridiculous team comps and ideas. Other times we tried to semi-seriously push our ranked 5 team up the ladder. After playing League for so long, the game started to become a type of social indicator. The way that you played League reflected on how you behaved in real life, and who you associated with. When I first began, I played with a friend who took the game more seriously and stressed about winning games. He did not rage and loathed the raging community around him. We enjoyed painting the game with this sort of heaviness.We enjoyed trying to win and get better. As time went on, we both transitioned into college. He stopped playing League.
I continued with a new group with a much goofier attitude. We like to mess around. We created two ranked 5 teams dedicated to goofing off in game. Our first team, Lock In and Wreck Face, required us to instalock a full team and try to win with whatever we got. In our second team, Off Brand Cereal, we got to pick our champs but we had to use off-builds and go into weird lanes. The time constraints of double majoring, continuing to write creatively, running an internet radio show, and going steady with a girl meant that I could not play with that same serious mentality.
I wanted to play League in China for a lot of superficial reasons. I did not want to get too rusty. I wanted to see if Asian players were truly gods amongst men. I wondered whether their meta differed and what champs they played. At the end of the day, I just enjoyed Leaguing. Above all these, two reasons pushed me into going through the odd process of creating a Chinese account. League reflected attitudes in real life and to me it seemed a window into a Chinese gaming mentality I knew nothing of. Do people rage, do people troll, do people run goofy comps? I wanted to know because the answer to each question taught me something of a reality still mysterious to me.
The biggest pull came from my absolute Chinese illiteracy. Hard fought loss or an outright stomp, even losing a game of league took effort. I tired of hearing so much bickering. I grew up in a house with three older sisters and a bit of a hot head dad. I wanted the thick sort of skin that could steel me against a household bursting full with wild emotion. Failing to keep my cool fostered this deep feeling of inadequacy. It gripped deep into my chest and pulled at this long standing desire for emotional strength. Every time I queued up and felt some fury, those talons clawed away at my self-image. In China, I could League and appreciate the game all in my lonesome. No matter what anyone said it literally could not scathe me. I felt damn sick of the other players. I wanted a chance at the silence and purity of play that NA could not give me.
I broke into the Chinese server, following the complex guidelines set out to me by a Reddit post. I needed to play bots before I entered PvP. Mulling over who to pick for my first bots game abroad, I spotted the Chinese art. The Chinese splash art looked gorgeous. Karthus went from a skeleton with silly hat and a big robe to a terrifying, no faced necromancer with burning eyes and a gilded staff. Twitch had longer arms and legs, looking like a scrawny and more humanoid anthropomorphized rat. He looked like a more PG version of the visually reworked twitch. Cho’Gath resembled a terrifying, gargantuan monstrosity ripped loose from the void. The Chinese splash art raised the bar on almost all occasions. It gave the game a polish I never realized the game could use.
Splash arts never came across my mind in America. Back home I played set roles and set champions. I had certain top laners and marksmen that I preferred, and a pool of owned champions to select from. In China, I could choose any sort of Champion. Sure, I still knew what I liked, but once you threw out the meta, the rune pages and the masteries, every champion played a lot differently.
When it came time to pick a champ, it took me longer to deliberate. During the races against the clock to secure a champ, the splash arts seriously came into play. Seeing a champion in this sheen of idealized glory made them more enticing. In those last minute decisions, the splash art conveyed a quick feeling of the full glory of a champ. As a player brought back to level 1, not knowing which champ to pick, it made all the difference.
Even old favorites like Wukong had this almost preposterously badass look about them. The whole visual styling in China felt different, but more appropriate. China focused on evoking images of intense battle and heroic power out of each splash art, as where the NA server had a more playful and light focus. I preferred China, because to me it just fit. I am a summoner controlling one of the most powerful entities in a world, even if I am just playing a game. It helped that for the most part the Chinese splash art seemed better drawn.
In the very first co-op vs. AI match I played, our Blitzcrank rallied four of us to the tribush near the bot tower. We cheesed first blood and beat the bots into the dirt. For a second I let the prospect of an inherently more talented server carry my mind away. Over the next few days the Blitzcrank free week faded along with the rose tint on my glasses. The early levels provided a lot of easy wins. It felt unkind to stomp new players. Luckily it did not take long for games to become battles between smurfs. As I climbed my match history evened out with wins and losses. At around the tenth game matchmaking placed me in with the rest of the smurfs. I started playing games at level 8 where teams took dragon and occasionally used junglers and supports.
It seemed no different than smurfing in NA. Smurfs still lacked runes and spells to play all positions. Supports and junglers did not exist. Ideal team comps did not exist. All bruiser teams duked it out against all burst mage teams. Even all smurf games looked messy and strange. It provided a pleasant reminder of the days when I loaded up a smurf to play with low level friends. That familiarity felt soothing in a place where the trees, the birds, the spiders, and the air I breathed all looked different. When arriving, the foreignness of it scared me so deeply. It felt terribly lonely without school friends to speak with. Knowing nothing of the language sometimes put me into isolation. It became tiring to function at a basic level. League provided a rejuvenating normalcy to retreat to.
Part 2 Coming next weekend.
~Austin R Ryan