Something this year lent itself to the rise of unconquerable whales in Europe, China, and Korea, as Fnatic, SK Telecom T1 and Edward Gaming all systematically dismantled the teams in their region throughout the regular season.
The only difference is that, in the end, Edward Gaming fell.
What started out as an experiment to allow players on the team to garner more experience pointed to the delicate balance within Edward Gaming’s roster and turned into serial rotations spurred by player illness. When they’re together, EDG's synergy functions like a sixth man, but their playoff losses to LGD Gaming and Invictus Gaming looked like an endemic failure to draft and communicate.
Edward Gaming’s perfectly balanced dynamic won them the Mid-Season Invitational, but attempts to alter that dynamic this summer backfired. A brand new patch for the World Championship is all about radical change, and China’s second seed might not feel up to it.
The Road so Far
Edward Gaming’s beginnings were not motivated by some notion of forming a team of superstars. The story that lead to EDG’s formation has much heavier implications. Coach Ji “Aaron” Xing, jungler Ming “Clearlove” Kai, and support Feng “Fzzf” Zhuojun made a difficult choice to separate from China’s darling, WE.
While the resentments that broke WE apart have now cooled — the entirety of WE’s classic lineup attended Edward Gaming’s second year anniversary to celebrate the team's successes — the initial backlash from WE's fanbase was tremendous. Some fans saw it as a betrayal.
Edward Gaming’s management initially cautioned Clearlove and Fzzf, as well as top laner Tong “Koro1” Yang, mid laner Ceng “U” Long, and AD Carry Zhu “NaMei” Jiawen from speaking on stream or responding to outrage from the largest fanbase in competitive League of Legends. The team’s motto became “fight back with results.”
That’s exactly what they did.
In 2014, Edward Gaming only failed to appear in the finals of Chinese tournaments to which they were not invited and only placed second in two of them. All told, EDG took home nine first place tournament titles in China that year, but failed to perform on the stage that mattered most to jungler Clearlove: the World Championship.
Following their failure, EDG looked to rebuild. Like LGD Gaming, Edward Gaming managed to attract star carries through the reputation of their core player. Clearlove, long known in Korean solo queue as “free win,” because you had to be especially bad to lose a game with him on your team, was a selling point for both Samsung’s Kim “Deft” Hyukkyu and Heo “pawN” Wonseok. Fzzf’s retirement also brought about the addition of Tian “meiko” Ye, though only two weeks after the Spring season began.
This new Edward Gaming squad became even more about an AD Carry focal point than the 2014 rendition ever was. Though perhaps the largest changes came from the team’s solo lanes and jungler.
Koro1 spent a good part of 2014 fumbling with his opposition, engaging in poor duels and finding himself trying to impact a game from behind. By the end of the year, he grew into a veritable lane torpedo to supplement his already strong team fighting.
pawN provided a point of aggression for Edward Gaming. His initial ability to team fight made for an awkward late game, but it made Edward Gaming a much stronger early game bully that were capable of gold leads upwards of 10,000 at 20 minutes. Both solo laners’ self-sufficiency freed up jungle attention to the bottom lane.
Deft’s increased laning confidence has been attributed in part to Clearlove growing into his own as a jungler. Even when Edward Gaming suffered this year, Clearlove commanded the jungle with an impressive KDA and snowballed early leads. Most of his jungle focus went to Deft and meiko, allowing them to win matchups they wouldn't on their own.
The dynamic of their jungle and bottom lane carry with self-sufficient solo laners that were able to have large impacts with fewer gold resources made Edward Gaming nearly unbeatable going into MSI. They only lost six games during the regular season, and though they had a close series against LGD Gaming, superior drafting ruled the day.
Edward Gaming’s iconic defeat of SK Telecom T1, in which they handed Lee “Faker” Sanghyeok his first loss playing Leblanc, also relaunched the popularity of Evelynn, Clearlove’s signature champion. Edward Gaming were expected to return to the LPL Summer Season and rinse and repeat their dominant split.
That’s when the two best teams in the world switched their approaches. While SKT had spent most of spring swapping out mid laners, Summer saw them commit more to using Faker in as many games as possible and sticking with a core lineup. Edward Gaming took the opportunity to, as manager Huang “San Shao” Cheng referred to it, give experience to newer players.
Top laner Shek “AmazingJ” Wai Ho played in 14 of Edward Gaming’s regular season games. Kang “BaeMe” Yanghyun played in 17. Top laner Jeon “Ray” Jiwon and AD carry Xie “JinJiao” Jinshan also played in two games. Illnesses plaguing both pawN and Koro1 increased the number of games in which AmazingJ and BaeMe played.
What started out as an experiment to give newer players more experience eventually seemed to drag on the team’s synergy. Edward Gaming fell 0-2 to Unlimited Potential, in one game using their MidSeason Invitational roster, signaling the first sign that there was a problem.
A large difficulty for Edward Gaming came in appropriating jungle pressure. Koro1 and pawN had enough self-sufficiency to allow Clearlove to focus mostly on vision control and keeping Deft ahead. AmazingJ came to the team accustomed to his own jungler camping his lane on Energy Pacemaker, and BaeMe didn’t exert the amount of lane pressure pawN did. This lead to less reliable jungle pressure for Deft and inconsistencies in his performances.
The team redoubled around Clearlove who began playing more aggressively and even picked up Nidalee on an occasion, when, by his own admission, he usually fills the tank role on the team. EDG struggled to make their dynamic work, and the roster lost some coordination.
When Koro1 and pawN returned to the roster full time, EDG went on a 21 game win streak in Demacia Cup and LPL. This came to an abrupt crash in their first playoff set against LGD Gaming.
Edward Gaming got early leads in all three games, but splattered in team phase due to questionable all-ins and apparent miscommunication. The disorganization that seemed to plague EDG during LPL hampered them from advancing to the finals, and they lost the first World Championship seed to LGD.
Miscommunication and poor drafting continued to plague EDG against iG. Increased jungle bans and group invades from iG also clipped the backbone EDG fell on to carry them during difficulties. The team drafted losing lanes in most games in the third place matched and lost 1-3 to Invictus.
Edward Gaming rebounded at Regionals. Surprisingly, with AmazingJ straddling top lane, Edward Gaming showed improved adaptability to a patch change and grabbed the second seed to Worlds. Some of their team fighting still suffered, but they fell back on strong lanes and coordination between Clearlove and a rejuvenated—though ill—Deft to close out.
The current state of the team
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As one of the biggest struggles for Edward Gaming came with a shift in dynamic and pulling jungle pressure away from bottom lane, the top lane focus of the patch change could be a cause for concern. Some have already speculated that the team might opt to put AmazingJ on the roster since his approach to getting an early lead with help from his jungler suits the patch more.
The question becomes whether Edward Gaming can. When the team has struggled to regain its delicate fit, Clearlove has stood out as the core. When Edward Gaming moved its roster around, and Deft fumbled with the meta AD carry champions, Clearlove worked to become more proactive. All told, he stopped EDG from bleeding games, and the team only lost four more than they did in Spring regular season.
Clearlove has also made himself a target. Unlimited Potential defeated EDG's MSI lineup with a duel-pronged attack on Clearlove's Evelynn. iG went for aggressive invades and banning out several of Clearlove's team fighting pool.
Every time a team has picked at Clearlove in a new way, EDG has rebounded around him. Following the UP set, meiko began roaming with Clearlove more often, and vision has been a big asset for EDG. EDG often have more vision when they're down gold than otherwise because of the resources they funnel into meiko.
Edward Gaming became an early game snowball team. They managed an average gold lead at 20 minutes of nearly 2,000 with an average lead of 3,300 in wins and the smallest average deficit at 20 minutes in losses of 1,100. Despite monstrous early leads and minimizing adverse trades, Edward Gaming had the longest average game time in LPL by nearly a minute at 37:29.
Ironically following their 5v5 successes in Spring split, Edward Gaming have looked intermittently confused in team fights. Deft over-extends. Clearlove goes in too early. Dives staggered instead of EDG attacking in unison as they have in the past.
In Regionals and part of the regular season, Edward Gaming relied on snowballing lanes to get ahead. They have the highest first blood rate at 66.67% and a remarkable 73% win rate on acquisition of first blood, but only a 57% win rate on acquisition of first tower. EDG seem to do better the longer they can extend a laning phase and use Clearlove to amass a lead.
SK Telecom T1 and Edward Gaming have become remarkably similar, and a matchup between the two may just come down to whose jungler goes to the right lane and gets the snowball rolling faster.
In cases where Edward Gaming fall behind and make miraculous comebacks, it usually comes down to vision. As already mentioned, EDG's vision is sometimes at its strongest when they're behind. They will occasionally even give meiko extra farm to help lay out wards. A pick from behind or prepped vision can bolster their recently less consistent team fighting and be the difference between a loss to SKT or a win.
Outlook for Worlds
At the Regional Qualifier, Edward Gaming found a way to compensate for their missteps in coordination, and even parts of their team fighting looked better. Stronger drafts that picked up winning lanes and manipulated AmazingJ's and Clearlove's ability to play the new over powered champions made them look prepared for Patch 5.16, the patch that initiated the changes we'll see at Worlds.
Edward Gaming remain one of the three favorites to win the World Championship. Clearlove has made it clear that taking the title is the only thing he's cared about throughout his long career.
The biggest factor is the delicate balance between top, jungle, and bottom lane. If Edward Gaming decide to play Koro1, he may become a frequent target of top lane ganking junglers or not use as much initiative in key matchups. If they play AmazingJ, he'll need more pressure to find leads.
Either way, Clearlove is going to have to focus more attention on the top lane. Perhaps a possible solution is to have pawN roam bottom more often or put Deft on champions like Lucian that can perform well in laning phase without being an obvious target.
Even if EDG solve their pressure allocation problem, they'll need to improve the consistency of their draft and in-game team fight execution. These used to be EDG's strongest points. They can be again. Frequent illnesses and roster rotations have just made it harder.
Kelsey Moser is a staff writer for theScore eSports. You can follow her on Twitter.