The jungle role is one of the more difficult roles to develop in professional League of Legends. The jungle is played very differently between solo queue and the professional stage, and team styles vary drastically in the type of jungler they require to succeed. Though public perception often values carry junglers who score first blood in the first five minutes and build high damage items, teams like SK Telecom T1 have benefited from a vision-oriented jungler over their flashy counterparts.
These, and other factors, make the jungle role both extremely difficult to learn and to rate in observing a player's shift from solo queue, to the Challenger Series, and finally to the League of Legends Championship Series. Sometimes the only way to rate a jungler is to focus on his ability to satisfy whatever his team needs of him under a variety of circumstances. If that's warding, that's warding. If that's ganking every 30 seconds and taking all of the kills, then a jungler in that scenario must be rated by that criteria.
It's very difficult to justify pulling rookie jungle talent into a top of the table LCS team. Unicorns of Love’s announcement that they would replace Rudy “Rudy” Beltran with ex-H2K jungler Victor "loulex" Burgevin came as less of a surprise after the team struggled against Giants Gaming and lost to Team Vitality in Week 6.
Unicorns will likely never reveal the specific events that lead them to make this decision, but it once again raises the question of the risks that are involved when developing talent over taking known quantities with experience, even when they've proven they have lower skill ceilings. On H2K-Gaming, loulex functioned as something of a one-trick Lee Sin player and met frequent criticism for awkward engages that many pointed to when discussing H2K’s losses.
During the regular season, H2K picked up rookie jungler Joachim "BetongJocke" Rasmussen, though he only played one game in the EU LCS playoffs. The move suggested that H2K had lost faith in loulex or that the pickup was required to motivate him again.
Most would refer to loulex as a known quantity. While it is possible for him to find his way back into the LCS with renewed vigor and discover that the Unicorns of Love is an environment that best allows him to demonstrate his strengths, loulex’s expected ceiling is relatively low. The main reason for the pickup likely lies in the fact that loulex has experience as an LCS jungler, something Rudy lacks.
Rudy’s struggles came out in early game decision making. H2K’s jungler, Marcin “Jankos” Jankowski told theScore eSports, “I don’t think [Rudy's] decision-making is LCS material yet,” meaning that, in his current form, Rudy’s decision-making was easy to predict. Rudy hasn’t advanced to the level of LCS creativity and understanding vision that is required for success, but Jankos clarified that this may develop with time.
Yet just as with Unicorns’ other jungle prospects this year, including Danil “Diamondprox” Reshetnikov and Charly “Djoko” Guillard, Rudy falls into line in lane swap scenarios after Zdravets “Hylissang” Iliev Galabov begins to roam. Vitality’s support, Raymond “kaSing” Tsang, credited Hylissang with Unicorns of Love’s ability to transition from one jungler to another smoothly during an LCS broadcast, and many have suggested that Hylissang has the capacity to micro manage or teach junglers while in-game.
Most would consider a player like Hylissang, if this speculation is rooted in fact, a player that minimizes some of the struggles of raising a new jungle talent. If he has the ability to micromanage a player at a certain point in the game, then learning the competitive jungle role on Unicorns of Love should be an easier feat than it usually is. Yet the Unicorns have still opted to go for a known quantity in loulex.
While Unicorns probably had good reasoning for parting ways with Rudy, it’s hard not to criticize them for not taking advantage of this nearly unique opportunity to raise jungle talent, if not with Rudy, at least with another rookie. A player like loulex, in all likelihood, will not advance beyond the ceiling he has demonstrated, and an environment with strong leadership can turn unpolished talent into a star in less time. If the rookie player the Unicorns select, either from solo queue or the EUCS, proves to not be the rare star they crave, his ceiling will still likely at least be on par with what loulex has demonstrated.
Natural counterarguments to this stance exist. Even if Hylissang can micromanage players, having his focus shifted to the jungle limits his abilities in other areas. As a strong initiator and support for rising AD carry, Pierre "Steeelback" Medjaldi, adding a jungler like loulex with experience can allow Hylissang to exhaust other aspects of his prodigious skillset.
Investing in a new player takes time. Even if Unicorns can theoretically squash the jungler learning curve, only three weeks remain in the EU LCS regular season. Competition for a bye in the playoffs remains tight, even if the competition for a playoff berth isn’t. If UoL are vying for a spot in the semifinals, then focusing on short-term improvements by giving Hylissang flexibility with a more self-sufficient jungler would be a strong strategy.
This would be an excellent argument if engagement decision-making wasn’t one of the biggest flaws that loulex has demonstrated in the past. Beyond just their jungler, Unicorns’ limited strategy of letting Steeelback and Kiss “Vizicsacsi” Tamás go to work and look for a good Baron play doesn’t put them on par with G2, H2K, and Vitality who have all utilized more advanced vision and map movement, either in the side lanes or in mid and jungle control.
Unicorns most likely won't be a Top 3 team this spring, but they have the potential to be one next split if they find and raise the right jungler. loulex, or at least what we have most recently seen from him, puts a cap on what they can achieve in the longrun, which is more pressing than any realistic short-term goals.
A parallel can be drawn between Unicorns of Love’s current situation and that of NRG eSports in North America. NRG not only picked up a rookie in the jungle role, but also started with rookie support, Koo Hyuk "KonKwon" Kwon. Both roles are very team-oriented, and neither player seems to have extensive experience engaging in a team play setting, limiting Jung "Impact" Eonyeong’s carry potential when he is forced into an engage role.
Speculation has suggested that NRG considered replacing jungler Galen “Moon” Holgate with Christian "IWillDominate" Rivera. So far, Moon has remained on NRG’s starting roster, suggesting that the organization has chosen to value the player Moon can become over IWillDominate’s experience. Despite IWD having performed as a leading jungler in NA in the past, his recent showings and retirement have suggested that he won’t bring a high ceiling to the NRG team, and the gamble on Moon is a risk, but one that is more likely to payoff in the long run. Both Moon and KonKwon have shown subtle improvement, but the verdict is still out on whether or not NRG’s decision will bear fruit this summer.
I wish Unicorns of Love had made a similar decision rather than pick up loulex, but there’s still something to be said for the importance of team dynamic to the jungle role. While loulex looked like one of H2K's weaknesses last year and didn’t seem to synergize with the team in skirmishes, Unicorns may be the setting that allows him to excel. At the World Championship, the last event loulex attended with H2K, the veteran jungler told theScore eSports that he felt like he still had a lot to prove and that he lost confidence during the period in which H2K picked up BetongJocke. In the past, there have been instances where apparently mediocre junglers in one environment begin to excel in another.
Maurice “Amazing” Stuckenschneider, for example, has changed drastically in his style since his time on Copenhagen Wolves. As a jungler with the Copenhagen Wolves, Amazing seemed the full depiction of a carry jungler, but when he shifted to Team SoloMid, his champion pool appeared restricted and his decision-making muddled. In 2015, Amazing became a more vision-oriented jungler with a preoccupation with starting bottom river fights as well as a hat in the ring for “Best jungler in Europe.” Now he looks lost again, just as suggestions that Origen have been struggling in the communication department have begun to surface.
EDward Gaming's Ming “clearlove” Kai was characterized by low pressure farming for most of his career, but his 2015 LPL Spring performance featured highly aggressive Lee Sin play and transformed EDward Gaming into a team known for skirmishes rather than losing lanes and team fighting in the late game. A change in environment and more experience can theoretically heavily influence a jungler's performance.
These cases are rare. Finding the right circumstances that could make loulex excel would be the story of the year in the EU LCS. If it happens, I’ll make sure I write about it. Until then, I remain a skeptic.
Kelsey Moser is a staff writer for theScore eSports. You can follow her on Twitter.