The jungle position used to be a roster spot that most North American LCS teams looked to import from other regions.
But if there's one thing that the 2017 NA LCS Spring Split has shown us so far, it's that North America is ripe with young jungle talent as junglers like Cloud9 rookie Juan "Contractz" Arturo Garcia, Echo Fox's Matthew "Akaadian" Higginbotham and Phoenix1's Rami "Inori" Charagh are just a few domestic junglers that have put together impressive starts to the season.
theScore esports spoke with Akaadian ahead of this weekend's matches to talk about his time with Echo Fox and the overall strength of North America's jungle talent.
The jungle is something that infamously changed prior to the start of the season and you've been outspoken about the status of the jungle. How do you feel about the current state of the jungle?
I think right now the jungle is pretty simple. Your job is to impact the game as much as possible in the early game and then play teamfights well later. Junglers aren't exactly carries except a namely few (i.e. Kha'zix/Rengar), so most junglers have very specific jobs they need to execute in the mid-late game. If you do that well, fantastic.
How do you feel like you've adjusted to recent jungle changes thus far?
I think I've adjusted very well to the recent jungle changes simply because I focused on the early game a lot, and spoke with Gate about what was best even since back in Korea in early December, constantly refining it. I'd say my early game pathing is one of the best in the LCS right now.
Other NA junglers have spoken about the struggles with becoming more DPS carries than tanky initiators, but some of your best games have been more DPS-oriented with low death counts. How difficult has the adjustment been for you if at all?
There was no transition to carries for me. I've always been an extremely adept carry player and love playing those types of champions. On the flip side I love playing tanks that can initiate well so I think I'll be fine. But yeah, champions like Kha'zix and Graves come naturally to me because I've been an assassin/carry player for so long.
How would you rate your performance thus far?
I think my performance has been pretty good, If I had to rank myself I would say I have been performing like a Top 5 jungler thus far.
You currently hold the highest First Blood rate of any jungler in NA. How does your team set up those early plays? How do you keep getting a jump on your opponents?
I think I just track the enemy jungler well in the early game so I can help prevent my team from dying in the early game. It also helps that they know how to lane to not die and are good laners in the first place. I think the most important factor in my First Bloods has been my communication. I communicate clearly about what I'm going to do, where I'm going to go and how my laners should play to best facilitate what I'm going to do in the early game at the start of every game.
Echo Fox is one of many new hybrid rosters this split. How is your team coming together?
My team is coming together pretty well, I would say we have devised a good win condition for our team that we play off of now.
You recently became the first team to beat FlyQuest. How do you feel like your team performed?
My team performed extremely well against FlyQuest, particularly Froggen and Keith they did great!! As for myself, not so much.
How do you go about integrating your success in the jungle with the rest of your team?
It's just about having the best synergy possible with my team. If I am having great individual performances but my team is struggling to win, then there's obviously a disconnect. Just some things we have to figure out I guess.
Where does Echo Fox go from here? What is the team environment like?
Team environment is generally good. Sometimes it gets rough when we lose a lot in scrims, but I think that's been every team I have been on so far. It's just a work in progress. Everyone has respect for each other so it's easy to improve as a team for us.
This split, we've seen the rise of NA junglers including yourself, Contractz, Inori, and Moon. Previously, many thought that jungle was a position to be imported. Why do you think homegrown talent has done so well this split?
I think the jungle role particularly serves to make everyone better. Great North American players have trained others just by playing against them and winning. I would definitely say junglers are the strongest role in NA by far right now.
Of all junglers in NA, who are you looking forward to facing the most?
I'm equally excited to play against Reignover and Contractz, the former because he's been SO good in the past and he has such a good reputation, and the latter because he's my competition for rookie of the split. I want to win.
Of all junglers in the world, are there any that you look up to and try to emulate their playstyle? How would you describe your own playstyle?
Not really. I used to have very clear players I looked up to but not anymore. I just think you should watch people who are having success that do things differently from you and see if there is anything you can take from their play and apply it to your own. Everything for me is about being my own type of player. I want to be the type of player that doesn't just copy the good players, I want to have my own style and my own way I play that's distinct from everyone else.
*This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.