A blinding Ray: A look at Ray's history as he transitions to Apex Gaming

by theScore Staff Jun 6 2016
Thumbnail image courtesy of NA LCS / NA LCS Screengrab

Last summer, fans of the North American League of Legends Championship Series asked, “Why didn’t Kang “Move” Minsu start for League of Legends Secondary Pro League Team, AD Gaming?” Move’s new wave vision control surprised spectators, earning him “Rookie of the Split” for 2015 LCS Summer. Yet he’d only played a handful of games for his former team, China’s AD Gaming.

As a result of the foreign player limit, Move’s appearances were limited by two Korean teammates on AD Gaming. One, Kang “BaeMe” Yanghyun, has finally made it into the League of Legends Pro League with the remnants of Move’s former team, and the other, Jeon “Ray” Jiwon garnered Apex Gaming new fans in two series wins in the first week of the 2016 LCS Spring.

Ray’s history is both another testament to EDward Gaming’s ability to scout rookie talent as an organization and a riddle they were unable to solve. One of the most obviously gifted players to grace the League of Legends Secondary Pro League since its inception, Ray also had glaring limitations and a unique style of play that has yet to be fully developed or channeled.

AD Gaming and the failed experiment

Known as a high-ranked Riven player in Korean solo queue, Ray joined his first team in the winter of 2014. EDward Gaming Future qualified for the 2015 LSPL Spring in a near perfect sweep, failing to drop a game the entire Tencent Games Arena event. Move’s Lee Sin turned the most heads, smashing other LSPL hopefuls, but Ray was mesmerizing, despite Riven ban after Riven ban. For their exceptional performance, EDward Gaming Future were invited to the International e-Culture Festival where a tournament plagued by technical glitches and poor organization nearly saw EDward Gaming Future defeat the then-HUYA Tigers.

Following the conclusion of the 2014 to 2015 offseason, EDward Gaming had a difficult decision to make. The organization had firmly settled on BaeMe, a player their manager and co-founder Huang "San Shao" Cheng, insisted could become as strong as their main mid laner, Heo "pawN" Wonseok. So, EDG picked up Chinese jungler Wang “qixiaoyin” Jaiochao from former MD E-sports Club and retained Ray as their starting top laner.

Ray's 2015 LSPL Spring and LPL Promotion Champion picks

Champion Games Played  W-L Average KDA
Jarvan IV 7 5-2 5.03
Hecarim 5 2-3 7.77
Lulu 2 2-0 11
Kayle 2 2-0 6.5
Riven 2 2-0 4.17
Ryze 2 1-1 2.4
Nidalee 1 1-0 7
Maokai 1 1-0 5.25
Lissandra 1 1-0 3
Gnar 1 0-1 2.25
Rumble 1 0-1 1.33
Irelia 1 0-1 1.17

In 12 group stage games of the League of Legends Secondary Pro League, AD Gaming only lost one unfortunate match to Legend Dragon on the final day. 2015 Spring was the split of QG Reapers and Vici Gaming Potential, and given the influx of Koreans gambling on the possibility of qualifying for 2015 LPL Summer, this sounds initially impressive. Yet as a result of the group system, AD Gaming’s regular season opponents were mostly weak teams. Snake Honor Esports and Team DK, two of AD Gaming’s three group opponents were both relegated in the LSPL at the end of the season.

Ray's profile photo from his first match in LSPL

The lack of steep competition and the obvious level of talent on the AD Gaming roster meant that they never had to work on the development of specific strategies. The team was commonly able to brute force games, and they developed more and more around using Ray as the primary cudgel. No, Jarvan IV wasn’t meta at the time, but Ray built a purely AD Jarvan IV and split-pushed across the map to split and confuse the opposition. If a teamfight arose, he would dive after the enemy team’s AD carry and eliminate him with AD Jarvan IV’s burst damage. Regardless of what happened to Ray after that, his team would win the fight off the play.

Flagship team, EDward Gaming, borrowed the strategy. Tong “koro1” Yang played one glass cannon Jarvan IV game that spring and did his sister team’s top laner justice on the LPL stage before he ever made his debut.

BaeMe’s love of Katarina also came out in full force. Comboing Jarvan IV’s and Katarina’s ultimates cut a thick layer of health from enemy teams too stunned to stop it from happening.

The reality, however, was that AD Gaming’s ability to play whatever they wanted and still win was more a gimmick than a demonstration of superiority. When playoffs arrived, AD Gaming started to bleed. They scraped past initial rounds against Young Glory and KxHappy with close 2-1s, but collided against the top two LSPL teams, Qiao Gu and Vici Gaming Potential, losing to both 0-2. More well-rounded teams exposed weaknesses in AD Gaming’s bottom lane, and limitations in both Ray’s and BaeMe’s practiced champion pools as teams kited Ray and sliced through his glass canon builds.

Things only got worse for AD Gaming. Despite receiving the top seed in the 2015 LPL Summer Promotion, AD Gaming lost their first set to lowest ranked LPL team Energy Pacemaker 2-3. AD Gaming were only able to win matches when Ray played Kayle, another off-meta pick that fit cleanly into his wheelhouse, but AD Gaming crumbled when he was forced onto Gnar, Rumble and Jarvan IV.

Despite a high level of production and competition overall in the LSPL that split, AD Gaming as an experiment resulted in initial failure for the organization. A lack of investment into support structure in the LSPL persists, and instead of giving a team of extremely talented rookie players a guiding hand, they were permitted to play whatever they wanted and weren’t punished for it until they faced more experienced players in the playoffs.

Ray, BaeMe, and AD carry Xie "jinjiao" JinShan spent the Spring developing in a very narrow dimension as players. EDward Gaming, riding high after a victory at the Mid-Season Invitational, made a bold play to promote most of the starting AD Gaming roster to the main team as substitutes where they’d be given more attention from coaching staff.

Ray and the EDward Gaming that could have been

On the surface, this sounds extremely appealing for a team of promising rookies. The problem is that, if a starting roster looks like the best in the world the way that EDward Gaming’s did at the close of 2015 Spring, little opportunity exists for retooling. Some of the move was at least instigated by persistent health problems experienced by mid laner pawN, but due to a desire to develop BaeMe in particular, EDG made the decision to release Chinese mid laner Ceng “U” Long to Snake eSports.

This move, as well as the signing of Energy Pacemaker top laner, Shek “AmazingJ” Wai Ho, made it obvious Ray would see almost no play time in the LPL. With only Korean mid laners and Kim “deft” Hyukkyu being heralded as one of the best AD carries in the world, jinjiao and Ray seemed doomed to the bench, despite Shan Shao insisting otherwise.

Ultimately, Ray and jinjiao were permitted to play one series in the 2015 LPL Summer regular season. EDward Gaming devised a quirky strategy reminiscent of AD Gaming’s 2015 LSPL Spring run. Ray played both Jarvan IV and Riven, ending the two games with a combined KDA of 16.5. jinjiao pulled out Draven, and EDward Gaming added their own flair with lane swaps, allowing jinjiao to farm the Draven passive and cash in with a sufficient amount of stacks. Game 1 barely lasted 20 minutes.

Despite a dominating performance, Ray’s appearance in the LPL, as with his appearances in in the LSPL, felt more like a gimmick than a display of sustainable skill. Ray once again flaunted the meta, and the team bent quickly to play around him rather than the other way around.

With Ray, the question always seemed to be — how much of his fixation with solo queue crushers was a refusal to develop as a player, and how much of it was neglect? Faced with more and more adversity in competitive matches, perhaps Ray, as with Immortals’ Heo "Huni" Seunghoon, would eventually accept the value of playing champions specifically strong on the patch, both in and out of the tank meta.

U’s absence has been notable on Snake eSports recently, as the team has seemed less unified without him. Seldom a lane-focused mid laner, U’s value was always in tying together loose ends and winning late game teamfights from a disadvantage by knowing when to use his ultimate. On EDward Gaming, he complemented Zhu “NaMei” Jiawen well, but on Snake, he showed his real value was in playing with aggressive top laners and providing a fail-safe for overzealous engages.

Especially given EDward Gaming’s internal struggles around the top lane position and observing the team now, one has to wonder what a roster with Ray, Ming “clearlove” Kai, U, deft, and Tian “meiko” Ye would have looked like. The reality is that EDward Gaming as an organization don’t seem capable of properly integrating a carry top laner.

The team’s ability to adapt to a carry top meta at the 2015 World Championship, even considering internal problems, was underwhelming. clearlove's jungle pathing stuttered in an attempt to get top lane ahead and during the regular season — when EDward Gaming would play with both AmazingJ and deft — one of the two lanes, both used to heavy jungle pressure, would fall heavily behind. Much of EDG's struggles in the regular season resulted from deft's seeming incompatibility with carry top laners.

In all likelihood, EDward Gaming just didn’t know what to do with Ray. He was a lucky acquisition who gained competitive experience playing on the roster and was able to work with the team more closely in 2015 LPL Summer, but EDG wasn’t the team for him; this isn’t his fault or EDG’s, it’s just a reality that both parties eventually accepted.

Lingering questions

It was fun to watch Apex Gaming best not just NRG Esports but Mid-Season Invitational finalists, Counter-Logic Gaming, in the first week of the League of Legends Championship Series. Ray still has hints of the delights that made AD Gaming a guilty pleasure. His masterful Fizz play had commentators questioning just how good the champion was given Ray’s ability to fully utilize and abuse Fizz's kit.

Despite impressive teamfight plays and all-ins, Ray's average 13 CS deficit at 10 minutes and 27 percent death share in six games played means that Apex are doing a considerable amount of work to give Ray catch-up farm in side lanes and to play around extremely aggressive tendencies. Sticking to this strategy alone may make it easy to abuse.

Apollo "Apollo" Price’s assessment of Ray is eerily reminiscent of my own a year ago when Ray and AD Gaming failed to qualify for the LPL.

“He’s actually really good, like I mean, it’s insane how good he is… His mechanical level is obviously really high," Apollo said. "He just has to learn about team play stuff, just kind of like any Challenger player, but I mean, he’s just really good. And it shows he can carry games. If he gets the lead, he’ll carry.”

As with spectators of the LSPL and LPL, Ray has now mesmerized the NA LCS audience. Carry tanks like Fizz are strong champions in the meta, and will pick up even more on the new patch, but when the meta does shift, it’s more important than ever that he shift with it. “He just has to learn about team play stuff” seems like an easy ask when it's stated simply, but adding more dimensions and varying strategies with Ray is something the EDward Gaming organization struggled with.

There are many reasons this could be the case. Perhaps developing a carry top laner isn’t something EDward Gaming have the capacity to do with the way their dynamic works. Perhaps Ray was never given enough attention on EDward Gaming to truly benefit from the team’s environment because of how fundamental the team’s Korean mid laner and AD carry were.

But perhaps Ray was stubborn and unable to bend when the team required a change. Though AmazingJ’s talent level is far from Ray’s, I May, EDG's rebranded sister team, seemed more unified with him at the helm, and they were finally able to qualify for the League of Legends Pro League without Ray.

Whatever the reason for Ray’s lack of development with EDward Gaming, however, it’s important that Apex avoid being blinded by the sheer amount of talent he brings to the table. As a player, Ray is desperately in need of refinement. Top lane is one of the hardest roles in which to achieve multiple dimensions, and Ray's past creates questions.

But it would be a shame for someone of Ray's demonstrated level of talent to fail to adapt. He needs to, or eventually the blinding flash will dim, and we’ll all be left wondering about the Apex that could have been.

Kelsey Moser is a staff writer for theScore esports. She is excited for the opportunity to see more of Ray on Apex this season. You can follow her on Twitter.