IGN Pro League 5, the 2015 Mid-Season Invitational, 2014 LPL Spring, 2014 LPL Summer, 2015 LPL Spring, 2016 LPL Summer, Enter the Dragon and four Demacia Cup events. The list of Ming “Clearlove” Kai’s victories is long — but because of the nature of League of Legends, the only one that matters is the one he hasn't claimed: The World Championship. It's there he has fallen at the quarterfinals, not once, but four times.
It may be time to acknowledge that, even if Clearlove didn’t choke at Worlds in the past, this time the pressure got to him. He’s at least started to buy into the idea that he’ll never win, or isn’t good enough, and it's finally hurting his performance.
Clearlove has flaws and peculiarities, but he has value as well. He has longevity, creativity, and a persisting sense for teamfights that forever makes it feel as though he hasn't peaked just yet, despite his monstrous career. He's never been the greatest jungler in the world, and he’s had some of his worst games at Worlds — but he is still one of the greatest players to touch the game, and we can at least do him the courtesy of discussing his flaws rationally.
Despite the stature he's achieved, for most of his professional career Clearlove was not very good at jungling. EDG was an organization founded around Clearlove’s intangibles: his work ethic and leadership. This work ethic didn’t make him a great at what he did until 2015.
On his first successful team, he had a unique relationship with mid laner Yu “Misaya” Jingxi, known for Twisted Fate play and vast map pressure. Misaya didn’t have as much skill in the laning phase, but he had the ability to win the rest of the map while Clearlove power-farmed. That’s when his synergy with Gao "WeiXiao" Xuecheng in teamfights made WE the greatest team in the world. Most of his movement consisted of finding the right side of the map on which to farm and less with getting his laners ahead.
In 2013, however, the dynamic between Clearlove and Misaya stretched thin. Laning became more of a necessity, especially with the rise of assassins, and the scale tilted. Internal conflict aggravated Clearlove's problems; WE's split and Clearlove's move to EDward Gaming for the 2014 LPL season marked a new era of inconsistency for him. But within that inconsistency, there were flashes of his emerging understanding of how to create pressure and make plays on the map.
Even then, though I didn’t consider Clearlove a great jungler, I thought of him as a great player. He could flank on both tank and assassin champions, and he showed strong synergy with another AD carry. When EDward Gaming fell behind, a symbiosis developed between Clearlove and Tong “Koro1” Yang to create openings for Ceng “U” Long and Zhu “NaMei” Jiawen. Yet Clearlove's jungling itself was still poor and unreliable, especially when paired with the less pressure-driven laning phase of U, and though both players performed their roles well, they didn’t have much map control in the early game.
Clearlove has often talked about how he believes Chinese junglers could be as creative as their Korean counterparts, and that creativity has become the defining quality of his play. Even if he doesn't vary his gank pathing consistently and still vastly prefers the bottom side of the map, he has always made decisions that made his movements unique to each game — something that has been recognized by his peers. Zeng "Zzr" Zhanran, a Snake Esports sub and part of China's plentiful crop of new jungle talent, earlier this year lauded Clearlove for being a jungler that “used his brain” to come up with creative pathing. Splyce’s Jonas “Trashy” Anderson has listed Clearlove as a jungler he admires, recently recalling a situation in the LPL Summer Final that stood out to him: “EDG was playing a full AD composition that really needed to snowball. [Clearlove] did a full clear top side and red side into path bot and fast-gank mid, and then he got two kills out of it. They had a Zed mid that snowballed out of it. In my mind, that is him understanding that he can’t just play it safe and farm it out with the picks he had.”
Even within EDG's group at Worlds, Brazilian jungler Gabriel "Revolta" Henud has listed Clearlove as a player he studies to learn pathing. Clearlove's creativity was on display even in his worst game of the event, Game 4 against the ROX Tigers. While Han “Peanut” Wangho moved to EDG’s open blue buff, Clearlove swept his wolves and gromp camp on red side, slowing down Peanut’s power-farming route, then stalling Peanut when he attempted to invade and target Clearlove at his own gromp.
Naturally, this mind-gaming died when Clearlove camped the bottom lane too long and didn’t anticipate Peanut’s counter-gank, leading to a 1-for-3 trade for Tigers. This kind of counter-gank bait style was something not uncharacteristic of Clearlove himself in the LPL, and the fact that he transparently forced his own gank was surprising, though not shocking, given how desperate EDG were.
Most of what I've written about EDG this year has been critical. EDward Gaming aren’t a team that have developed fundamentally since their formation in 2014. Some of Clearlove’s most effective gank paths are worn into the Rift through repetition, and it’s practiced execution that has made them both effective and predictable.
His most damning quality, however, is his pickiness. He doesn’t take initiative if he lacks synergy with his mid laner. He doesn’t take initiative if he lacks information. Perhaps he focuses too much on being clever, and not enough on being effective. This is a quality truly worthy of admonishment, and it certainly keeps him from being the best.
Clearlove's creativity means that he works well with information, and without that information, his proactivity is limited. This has been a big factor in EDG's preference for blue side. The team prefers to win the bottom lane, then push out the wave and invade the enemy jungle for vision. That style made Tian “meiko” Ye their most valuable player this year, so long as he could secure roaming support picks. But in situations where EDG can't get the push in the bottom half of the map, and meiko can't roam, a lot of EDG’s mid-game cross-map plays or Clearlove’s early invades and ganks don't materialize.
This was never more evident than in their Worlds quarterfinal. Rather than identifying Clearlove's need for information as a vulnerability, and looking to secure some minimal jungle vision before controlling the lane, EDG seemed to panic and tunnel in on winning the 2v2. That made Clearlove even more predictable. Add to that that he apparently forgot the actual mechanics of his champions, and his quarterfinal performance was nothing short of pathetic.
Likewise, Clearlove's proactivity has been held back by his wavering trust in his mid laner. His primary facilitator this year has been meiko, his support, but last year it was Heo “PawN” Wonseok, EDG's then-starting mid. Like Misaya, PawN had a way of generating pressure. He didn’t gank in place of Clearlove, but he pulled the enemy jungler to his lane. This is something EDG's current starting mid, Lee "Scout" Yechan, couldn’t replicate; at best, he held the lane. Over time, he started to develop more of a tendency to roam to the top lane, but by then it was too late. Clearlove didn’t seem to have faith in Scout, especially after the Team WE series when Xiang “Condi” Renjie and Su “xiye” Hanwei targeted Scout specifically.
But of course no one is to blame for Clearlove's flaws — for his inability to perform well at the one event he’s claimed has kept him competing even after his WE ex-teammates retired — but Clearlove.
At the start of this year, Clearlove said he believed he could compete for at least two more years, as long as he didn’t hold his team back. Given the severe backlash he’s faced for his Worlds flop, he may decide that he is indeed limiting EDward Gaming. But his retirement would mean the loss of the intangibles that have made him valuable to the organization, and domestically speaking, Clearlove is still King.
So let him have one more year, one more attempt. If he makes the World Championship again in 2017, let him play within his parameters. Tracking Clearlove’s Korean solo queue account, he has a fondness for duoing with WE’s xiye. If Clearlove has only one year remaining, this is a duo I would like to see — Clearlove with a mid laner of his choosing, who has finally developed into a jewel of the LPL in his own right. xiye is another proficient Twisted Fate player, who has finally learned the skill of creating map pressure in side lanes. There would be no excuses left.
Clearlove isn’t overrated, at least not catastrophically. He’s had impressive showings at home and internationally, just not at Worlds. He has narrow parameters for success that aren’t always met, and he has no one to fault for that but himself. When it comes to Clearlove, modify your expectations. Don't dismiss his greatness.
Kelsey Moser is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.