With their series against Team Liquid tied at one game apiece, Cloud9 decide to make a switch in the top lane by swapping Jeon “Ray” Ji-won for Jung “Impact” Eon-yeong.
While Ray's split-pushing Jayce helped C9 take Game 1, Game 2 was a different story as his Renekton failed to do much of anything and finished the game with a 1/6/1 scoreline. Although there are a few similarities between Impact and Ray — they draw pressure in similar fashion when in a side lane — it doesn't take an analyst to see that C9 play a different game when their veteran top laner loads onto the rift. For starters, Game 3 made it clear that C9 are more eager to fight when Impact's the one leading the charge.
Not only did his Maokai become the team's initiator, but his play guided C9 to a 40-minute win in which he posted a 5/0/9 scoreline to go along with a 73.6 percent kill participation.
Dating back to his time in China, Ray has grown accustomed to being his team's sole carry, but that strategy stops working once opponents know who to target. Given time and coaching, the hope is that the young Korean top laner will become a more well-rounded player, who can play a number of roles, included that of a carry.
But intentionally or not, C9 look like a completely different team with Ray than they do with Impact, which highlights just how important Impact is to this iteration of C9's success.
Since SK Telecom T1’s successful mid lane experiment — in 2015 they rotated between Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok and Lee “Easyhoon” Ji-hoon on a game-by-game basis — teams have struggled to replicate that same magic. Ten-man rosters have been far less successful than a strong, steady unit of five, and SKT remain an exception, not a rule. Their insistence on playing Easyhoon over their star player for specific champion choices like Azir or in an attempt to relieve pressure from jungler Bae “bengi” Seong-woong was both lauded and panned, even when Easyhoon performed well. Simply put, no other team has been able to manage the same amount of success or implement a similar strategy.
While it may appear that C9 are attempting to replicate the SKT model with Ray and Impact, they’re not. Ray's acquisition is a sign of forward thinking more so than roster experimentation, as one of C9’s commitments this season is to develop Ray and allow him to follow in Impact’s footsteps should he retire or decide to leave the team. Working alongside Impact and the rest of C9 will give Ray the chance to rid himself of some of his worst habits — playing too aggressively to get to the backline and dying — while learning to effectively communicate and coordinate with his team.
Before joining Cloud9, Ray was known as a gifted carry top laner with a pocket Jarvan IV and little direction. While with the Edward Gaming organization — primarily on their LoL Secondary Pro League team AD Gaming — he garnered attention as his transition from a Riven one-trick to a split-pushing dynamo was fascinating to watch. His raw talent could not be questioned.
Over a year later, Ray arrived in North America as Apex Gaming's top laner and turned a lot of heads in his first couple of weeks. Bursting onto the NA scene with his Ekko, Fizz and pocket Jarvan IV play, the the young solo laner was on the fast track towards becoming North America's next top lane darling.
But unfortunately for Ray, he became his team’s primary win condition. When Apex were successful, it was because of his carry prowess and the setup he received from his team. Ray had a 73.3 percent kill participation in the 2016 NA LCS Summer Split, the highest of any top laner in the region by a significant margin. He also had the highest First Blood rate (30 percent), largest team CS percentage after 15 minutes (29.2 percent), and received the highest team gold percentage of any NA top that split. If Apex were winning, Ray was at the center of it and the team donated a massive portion of their resources to ensure that he succeeded.
That method had obvious limits, and Ray’s lack of versatility visibly hindered Apex. He also lacked a strong supporting cast, outside of the occasional strong game from mid laner Jang “Keane” Lae-young. Without facilitating Ray and getting him ahead, Apex faltered and were unable to leverage much else on the map.
The fact that Impact initially struggled to synergize with his C9 teammates when he first joined the team have been somewhat forgotten, mostly due to his impressive playoff and gauntlet runs. When Impact first signed on to C9 ahead of the 2016 NA LCS Summer Split, the team looked the same way it does with Ray — they rely heavily on individual outplays and set up Impact to draw pressure as a split-pusher.
When Impact did join up with his team on the the rift, his mistimed Teleports saw him either arrive too early or too late. While he had the power to turn teamfights in C9's favor, it wasn’t always coordinated which led to his premature death, or the death of his teammates. At 63.9 percent he had the lowest regular season kill participation on his team, and was only ranked sixth of NA tops behind Ray, Phoenix1 top laners Derek "zig" Shao and Brandon "Brandini" Chen, Team EnVyUs' Shin "Seraph" Woo-yeong, and Immortals' Heo "Huni" Seung-hoon.
That changed throughout C9’s playoff run and in their 2016 NA LCS Summer Finals appearance against Team SoloMid. Not only did Impact assert his laning dominance, but his communication with the rest of his team had visibly improved. He drew massive amounts of top-side pressure, solo-killed opponents in lane, and improved the timing on his Teleports, smashing teamfights on Gnar, Ekko, and a pocket Yasuo pick that put up a 10/4/8 scoreline against nV. When Impact coordinated with the rest of his team, C9 could put more of his competitive experience to use and both his current and former C9 teammates have spoken highly of his in-game attitude and of how he brings a strong, veteran voice to the team.
Through the years, the phrase “top lane is an island” has frequently been used. A top laner that can draw pressure away from the rest of his team, which allows them to move around the map more, and split-push is important. A top laner that can do all of those things and join up with the team via Teleport for teamfights is invaluable. Impact became the latter for C9, despite starting with the team as more of a split-pushing threat. Lacking the communication that Impact now has, Ray bares a striking resemblance to 2016 NA LCS Summer Split Impact.
Following their Week 3 NA LCS series against Team Liquid, Ray has the lowest kill participation of any top laner at a meager 40.8 percent — more than 30 percent less than his total kill participation in 2016 NA LCS Summer Split with Apex Gaming. Not everything on C9 goes through Ray, and where he received the highest percentage of his team’s total gold of any starting NA top with Apex (23.7 percent), he now receives approximately three percent less with C9 (20.5 percent, seventh of all NA top laners).
C9 also have rookie Juan “Contractz” Arturo Garcia, who has proved to be a formidable and aggressive carry jungler, but is still integrating into the team. Starting Contractz and Ray together has C9 naturally trending towards split-pushing since their teamfight coordination isn’t as strong. He has strong laners in Jensen and the bottom duo of Zachary “Sneaky” Scuderi and Andy “Smoothie” Ta, so they naturally try to spread pressure in multiple lanes, albeit with Ray taking fewer of his team’s resources than he has on his previous teams.
Ray still draws pressure across the map, and Team Liquid’s confusion around how to stop his split-pushing led to Cloud9’s victory in Game 1 of their series. What's missing is a stronger teamfighting sense and overall coordination with the team.
Left to his own devices while on ADG and Apex, Ray became a monstrous split-pusher who still doesn't understand a lot of teamfight nuances and lacks the communication necessary to compete at the game's highest level. It's now up to C9 to help Ray learn, and who better to show him the ropes than a top laner that made the same transformation last year.
Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.