The battle for the first seed of Group C wasn’t just about support roams, jungle pathing, top-side pressure, deft rushing an Iceborn Gauntlet or mid-lane counterganks. It was about talent and practice, an argument that recently rushed to the forefront of the community, and two players who have had very different approaches to practice throughout their careers.
Ming “Clearlove” Kai has been playing League of Legends since 2011. He’s been part of the two greatest rosters in Chinese League of Legends history, and he's won major international events against celebrated opponents, including the IGN Pro League 5 and the 2015 Mid-Season Invitational. This is no less than his fourth appearance at the World Championship — but he has yet to make it past the quarterfinals.
Clearlove cites the World Championship as one of the primary reasons he continues playing, but the title remains elusive for one of the most accomplished non-Korean players in the game’s history. Ahead of this year's Worlds, he joked that all he wants to do is “break the quarterfinal curse.” But with EDG going up against the ROX Tigers on Saturday, their odds of success are much slimmer than they could be.
Clearlove's personal performance has improved each year that he has attended Worlds, as he has practiced hard and slowly adapted his play. Prior to 2015, he wasn’t considered an especially impressive player beyond his zoning control and the flanking sense he has in teamfights. Despite high praise from his teammates and the devastating abilities he's demonstrated in solo queue, Clearlove’s low jungle pressure, combined with teammates who preferred to stall out the laning phase, made teams like WE and EDward Gaming much more effective in the late game.
In 2015, Clearlove expressed much more creativity in his pathing and was able to convert his personal leads into lane pressure. In 2016, EDward Gaming unified much more around Clearlove to control invades and place deep vision. This was the best domestic summer season Clearlove has had individually, taking EDG through an undefeated run and only disappointing when they lost control of mid lane in the semifinal against WE. 2016’s World Championship is the first Worlds in three years where EDG weren’t placed in the same group as the tournament favorite to win.
But it happened again anyway. EDward Gaming slid into second place in Group C, and are now on a collision course with the most difficult opponent they have yet to face in the Worlds quarterfinals.
Clearlove’s career is easily juxtaposed to that of H2K-Gaming’s AD carry, Konstantinos "FORG1VEN" Tzortziou-Napoleon. Though known for his exceptional skill and good individual performances, FORG1VEN has struggled to find domestic results, in part because his style has remained somewhat fixed. He has clashed with his teammates and found himself drifting from team to team, battling his own conflicts outside the game.
Since he first entered the LCS in 2014, FORG1VEN's lane-focused playstyle has been well documented. He’s developed a wider champion pool and been able to modulate his aggression in lane over time, but he has been essentially the same player throughout. This is something to be proud of, since it speaks to the consistency of his performance. On the other hand, he has been often criticized for his stubbornness and inflexibility.
Extreme circumstances brought FORG1VEN back to H2K-Gaming after a teamless split at the conclusion of the 2016 LCS Summer Split. H2K didn’t win the EU LCS like EDward Gaming won the LPL — in fact, they only qualified for the World Championship by way of points after a grueling loss to Splyce, thanks to G2 Esports’ first place finish. An unreliable collection of European superstar talent, H2K scraped into Group C with China’s undefeated team, and they came out first.
FORG1VEN criticized EDG after their matches against H2K. In his view, they funneled too much of their resources to their bottom lane duo, Kim “deft” Hyukkyu and Tian “meiko” Ye, and left top laner Chen "Mouse" Yuhao out in the cold. He went after Clearlove as well, referring to the “deft-meiko-Clearlove” bottom lane, alluding to Clearlove's long-standing history of playing to the duo lane.
“EDG['s duo lane] were good, but how they were playing the game is really unhealthy, not only for them," FORG1VEN said in an interview after Group C concluded. "While I could understand because their top laner is not ... the greatest player, but if he is not the greatest player, sure, don't you have to help him?"
Analysis of EDG and H2K's games does not support this assessment. FORG1VEN averaged a higher percentage of team gold in the group stage overall than deft, at 26.4 percent to deft’s 24.2 percent.
As for Clearlove, he spent less time below the mid lane than H2K jungler Marcin “Jankos” Jankowski in two out of the three matches EDG and H2K played in their group. In their second game, Clearlove spent 42.4 percent of the first ten minutes of the game on the bottom half of the map (not including time spent in the mid lane itself, or in base), compared to Jankos’ 56.1 percent; in the tie-breaker, Clearlove spent a startlingly low 22.1 percent of his first ten minutes below the mid lane, relative to Jankos’ 51.1 percent. Even in the one game where Clearlove did focus bottom more than Jankos, he still spent the majority of his time away from the bottom half of the map — only 36.1 percent of his first ten minutes were spent below mid, compared to Jankos' 31.1 percent.
Clearlove did adapt to spend more of his time on the top side of the map, especially in the last game, but in several instances, EDward Gaming top laner Chen "Mouse" Yuhao used the pressure to play overly aggressive, losing health needlessly. In some cases, even with Clearlove in the area, Mouse misjudged his positioning and fell drastically behind, or died solo to H2K’s Andrei “Odoamne” Pascu.
Teams that target mid lane have also been a sore point for EDG, as cutting mid lane advantages impedes Clearlove's ability to invade the enemy jungle. Jankos heavily targeted the mid lane in the first ten minutes of the three games, and Clearlove responded with counterganks 50 percent of the times it happened. Both Lee "Scout" Yechan and Heo "PawN" Wonseok buckled under pressure from Yoo "Ryu" Sangook, as they did against other mid lane opponents in the group, averaging -6 CS at 10 minutes and -4 CS at 10 minutes, respectively, across their group stage games.
Especially in the tiebreaker match, Clearlove moved to gank top with unimpressive results, while Jankos and Ryu had more success mid. Clearlove adjusted his pathing to respond to mid-lane gank pressure, and Mouse fell behind on his own. On Summoning Insight, Caster Aiden "Zirene" Moon suggested that part of the problem in Clearlove’s performances was being spread too thin with a struggling top laner, and it might even be better for him to revert to the bottom lane camp habit FORG1VEN accused him of committing to.
EDG have struggled with mid lane control all year, allegedly because of Scout's inexperience and PawN’s back injuries. Clearlove has taken partial responsibility. “Due to some injuries to PawN,” he said after the team’s spring LPL final loss to Royal Never Give Up, “the champions he's chosen are more team-oriented rather than assassin-oriented champions. So, in that sense, in the 2v2 lane and mid it causes some disadvantages for us, because we don't have a lot of proactive moves that we can make.” He added that EDG would improve as he did.
Following their five-game series against WE in the LPL Summer semifinals, Clearlove said WE’s mid and jungle duo was “better than ours.” He has played much less proactively without mid lane control — which made H2K’s dual-pronged strategy of targeting mid lane and limiting meiko’s ability to lay wards in the enemy jungle by banning mobile supports extremely effective.
If we really want to lay a damning criticism at Clearlove’s doorstep, it should concern his aversion to proactive plays without information. Even in games where he has a strong jungle matchup, he seems to rely on knowing the location of the enemy jungler before making a move. His inability to impact the top lane, even considering Mouse’s individual weaknesses, reflects a long career of awkward gank timings around top lane and an obvious preference for ganking for his AD carry.
That highlights the real difference between Clearlove and FORG1VEN. Clearlove has spent his career working to evolve from an underwhelming first several years of play. FORG1VEN rarely considers changing his playstyle, but his sheer skill has been enough to force others to adapt to him.
When Clearlove first joined WE, he wasn’t Coach Ji “Aaron” Xing’s first choice as a jungler. Aaron had been eyeing Liu “Lucky” Junjie, who eventually joined Royal Club Huang Zu instead. Clearlove’s work ethic and attentiveness to improvement got him the position, even though initially he seemed like the less talented player.
Clearlove has been described as the type of player who doesn’t just have an exemplary dedication to practice and self-improvement, but as someone who will push his teammates to do so as well, making him a valuable team core and captain. “I have to remember that no one is perfect,” Clearlove said in a fall 2015 interview. “You have to focus on your strengths because you will develop if you keep working, and sometimes you will fix your problems with dedication and time.”
Focusing on his strengths has been a common theme of Clearlove’s career, as he developed a focus on teamfighting first, followed by his attention to playing on the bottom side of the map. Eventually, he identified more ganking opportunities and became aggressive, but at times he’s predictable in his movements. Many teams in LPL could expect Clearlove to show up on the bottom side of the map, but he had a smart way of approaching it that at times forced them to make the first move while he waited for a countergank.
That doesn’t always work, and though Clearlove has adapted, the process has been slow. Before this year, Clearlove struggled to have an impact as Elise or Nidalee. In the post-game press conference after the 2016 LPL Summer final, he admitted that learning champions like Elise was part of the reason his solo queue ranking fell.
This sluggishness is also why Clearlove may never make it as far as he wants to at Worlds. Two years in a row, he’s been forced abruptly out of his comfort zone to play around the top side of the map. Last year, because the meta demanded it, and this year, because Mouse isn’t the same self-sufficient top laner Koro1 was — or will likely to be after he replaces Mouse in the quarterfinal.
Clearlove has definite habits. He’s demanding of his teammates and himself, and when he focuses on his strengths, he gets tunnel vision. When he’s forced to adapt too quickly, he doesn’t make it work.
By contrast, FORG1VEN doesn’t focus as much on adapting, and this has at times created conflict with himself and his teammates. Over the years, FORG1VEN has developed a distinct view of how the game should be played — not without reason — and he adamantly sticks to his convictions. He comes into each team as a known quantity.
“When we started playing with FORG1VEN [again],” Odoamne said before the World Championship, “even for these playoffs, we all knew what his tendencies are, so we all worked a lot more to try to go around that and not force him to do something he's not really willing to do.”
So far, H2K haven’t. They draft a strong matchup for FORG1VEN, and they set up an opportunity for him to lane in the 2v2, either by pulling jungle pressure elsewhere or relying on him to understand how to play his lane with more attention from the enemy jungler. FORG1VEN perhaps felt that Clearlove was always on the bottom side of the map in H2K’s game against EDward Gaming, because that’s part of his confidence.
FORG1VEN will frequently say that he’s facing a 2v3 (at least) in the bottom lane. This is only partly an illusion. He often does get focused by the enemy jungler, and he takes it in stride. In cases where he and Oskar "VandeR" Bogdan get the isolated 2v2, FORG1VEN might still say he’s 2v3, just because he knows he actually can 2v3.
That kind of confidence, and an unrelated willingness to place blame on his teammates instead of himself, actually says a lot about why FORG1VEN is successful, at least individually. He isn’t someone who doubts his own abilities, no matter how many times he's been shirked and shuffled to new teams, and with good reason — he’s intensely talented.
Clearlove believes that he can improve himself by dedicating more time to the game, but FORG1VEN sees only minimal benefit from a grueling individual practice schedule. He doesn't endlessly grind solo queue. He doesn't agonize over replays. He looks back on the times he has come back to LoL from an extended period with another game, and sees no apparent falloff. “All the effort you're going to put as an individual in terms of solo queue, in terms of mechanics, in terms of understanding the concept of the game, the meta, the picks — whatever — it's going to give you like 10 percent maximum, maybe a bit more, advantage,” he said following H2K's Group Stage run.
Clearlove is a talented player. His demonstrated skill in solo queue drew both deft and PawN to the team. FORG1VEN works hard when the situation calls for it, and he especially seems concerned with finding the right rhythm with his teammates, even while he remains committed to his personal convictions.
It's just that FORG1VEN's natural ceiling is higher.
In three games, H2K came out ahead. I can add caveats — I can point out the high blue-side win rate in group stage, especially concerning bottom-lane focused teams. I can point to the discrepancy in solo laners and the strength of H2K’s strategy. But that won't change that H2K was the better team on the second day of group stage, and FORG1VEN the better player.
It’s possible that no matter how many hours and how many years Clearlove practices, he’ll never get past the quarterfinal at the World Championship. He’ll hit the barrier of habit he’s created through repetition, unable to deviate from the core strengths he's trained.
“Clearlove,” ex-teammate Yu "Misaya" Jingxi said at the MidSeason Invitational in 2015, “to be able to progress the way he did, and be such a relevant jungler for all this time is mainly because of his persistence and because he put in a lot a lot of hard work first hand …
“I want to congratulate Clearlove on all his success and wish him the best of luck in … proving to the world that he is best in the world.”
A year and a half later, Clearlove still hasn’t proven himself the best in the world at the event he considers most important.
“…my goal is to win the World Championship,” Clearlove told Riot Games. “But if I really can’t get it, at the very least I fought and worked for it. As long as there’s no regrets, it’s okay.”
Someone like FORG1VEN is an obstacle Clearlove may never overcome. “No regrets” may have to cut it.
Kelsey Moser is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.