The SofM effect: An investigation into the new style of Snake eSports

by theScore Staff Jun 15 2016
Thumbnail image courtesy of LPL / Snake weibo

Lê "SofM" Quang Duy has captivated audiences in the past two weeks starting as the main jungler for Snake eSports. In three series since SofM took over as Snake’s starting jungler, they ended with a record of 6-0 and fans sang SofM’s praises. Back stage after each match win, SofM and the rest of Snake eSports accept questions from the media. SofM, reserved in his answers, has both a Vietnamese to Mandarin Chinese and English to Mandarin Chinese translator to help him communicate with press. Team Captain Li “Flandre” Xuanjun and Manager Cao “Zuowu” Yu often interject to extrapolate on SofM’s responses with information he’s told them earlier; it's clear they want him to succeed not just in game, but with the fans.

“I feel very good,” SofM told one reporter after the team's win against Saint Gaming. “I think our team can take the championship.”

“He wants to take first,” Flandre affirmed, grinning.

Between Week 1 and Week 2 of the League of Legends Pro League, Snake eSports made two key roster changes; they added SofM, and Tan “Martin” Qi returned to the starting roster as AD carry. Snake transformed radically into an aggressive team with a purposeful, heavy ganking jungler. Snake in Week 1 got their first kill on average at around seven and a half minutes. Snake in weeks 2 and 3 got first blood more often and got their first kill at around four and a half minutes. Their average game time went down from 40 minutes to 34 minutes and 20 seconds.

This changing identity put SofM at center stage. During the first ten minutes of his two games against Saint Gaming, SofM hovered around lanes for gank opportunities a total of 14 times, apparently exerting a heavy amount of pressure around top and mid lane. SofM also invaded aggressively, taking advantage of his opponent's farm in the top side of the jungle. In the first ten minutes, SofM has averaged 8 creeps over the enemy jungler in his games.

Of all the junglers in the LPL, SofM receives the highest percentage of team gold at 21 percent. He receives a higher share of team gold than Snake’s star top laner, Flandre, who sits at 20.9 percent of team gold for weeks 2 and 3. This rapid reallocation of resources likely motivated the AD carry position change. Martin traditionally plays a lower resource role than Yang “kRYST4L” Fan, and roughly two percent less of the team’s gold has been allocated to the AD carry role since SofM’s addition.

The above chart represents the difference in percentage of team gold allocated to each role on Snake eSports from the LPL average before they added SofM in Week 1 and after they added him in Weeks 2 and 3.

SofM is Snake’s new star, but the rest of the team plays better as well. Park “TANK” Danwon, after receiving praise in the press room for his Lissandra play, said he believes Snake’s new aggressive style suits him better as a player. Martin ended the two weeks with only a single death and a monolithic KDA of 63. Reducing Snake’s improvements to “now we have a hard carry jungler” doesn’t quite capture the change.

Breaking down Snake’s early movements, one first notices improved decisiveness. When SofM makes a play, Snake readily backs him up. In order to execute this, Snake relies on strong laning phase picks. In what many call SofM’s most noteworthy performance against Saint Gaming, Snake drafted all winning matchups, despite Saint having the counterpick option on red side.

In this particular game, all of Snake eSports’ lanes had begun winning in CS and pushing their opponents to their turrets before SofM conducted his first invade at four minutes in for the enemy’s krugs camp. From there, SofM paused at the raptor camp to look for a gank attempt mid before backing off, buying, taking red buff, then going for a gank mid from the bottom side river bush, resulting in a kill.

Saint Gaming’s Xerath mid lane pick not only had a poor mid lane matchup against TANK’s Azir, but his low mobility made him an obvious gank target against SofM’s Rek’Sai. Saint Gaming could have easily predicted the mid lane gank as an obvious target, but following that, SofM continued the same pattern to the letter. He went to clear the enemy’s krugs, cleared their raptor camp, hovered briefly for another possible mid gank, then pathed around for another bottom side river, mid lane bush gank and secured another kill.

SofM followed the same clear pattern one more time before backing in the raptor camp and farming his blue side jungle. Eventually, he would gank mid lane from the top side river bush to close the first ten minutes of the game with another kill on Saint Gaming's Yang "Snoopy" Yomyong.

Though SofM’s strategy was effective against Saint Gaming, a lot of this results from them making crucial errors in the draft. Their weak lane matchups could not contest SofM's pathing and the decisiveness with which Flandre and TANK backed up his invade attempts on the top side of the map. Yet SofM repeated the same jungle path at least three times and wasn’t punished for it.

In Game 2, SofM showed a similar fixation for camping a single lane, yet Saint Gaming reacted better. He attempted to gank top lane from the blue side top tri bush area three times consecutively before finally changing his point of approach to the red side krugs bush and getting a kill on Choi “acorn” Cheonju. Prior to changing his tactic, his tenacity was almost disastrous, as he was forced to flash to escape on one attempt and died on another.

Ultimately, Snake managed to get away with SofM’s fixated camp strategy against Saint Gaming because Saint Gaming didn’t react well. They couldn’t get advantages in lanes SofM didn’t camp, and they didn’t appropriately predict his repeated gank attempts in Game 1.

Examining Snake’s other series against Newbee Gaming and Invictus Gaming, one can see similar patterns. SofM always invades the top side jungle and almost never attempts an invade on the bottom side jungle. When he initiates ganks for mid or top lane, he does so most often from the bushes surrounding the river, the top lane river bush, or the top lane blue side tri bush.

SofM's gank approach locations against NB, SAT, and iG

The number in each bush represents the number of times SofM has attempted a gank from that location into a lane.

The one instance where SofM exerted any pressure in the bottom lane came when SofM happened to be farming red buff on blue side when Newbee jungler Baek "Swift" Dahoon ganked bottom. SofM finished clearing red buff, then went bottom to countergank. This also represents the only time SofM counterganked a lane in his six games.

Invictus Gaming already began to counter some of SofM’s tendencies. In the second game they played against Snake, Invictus Gaming’s Ge “Kid” Yan and Pak Kan “Tabe” Wong invaded SofM when he went to farm his bottom side jungle. Snake revealed that they did not react as quickly to protect SofM on the bottom side of the map, and SofM gave up an early kill. With more confidence, Invictus Gaming then invaded on the top side of the map and killed SofM again, but this time Flandre responded with a kill on Kid.

Regardless, Invictus Gaming managed to pressure these advantages in predicting SofM’s pathing to pick up a 2,000 gold lead against Snake at 15 minutes. Also during the Invictus Gaming series, SofM only attempted to gank mid lane once, not resulting in a burnt summoner or a kill, over the course of the entire two games. If a team like Invictus Gaming, much less focused on their jungler (Kid receives the lowest percentage of team gold of any jungler in the LPL) could see through Snake’s strategy and predict SofM’s pathing, it’s possible for more formidable teams in the league as well.

When asked why he didn’t gank as often during the iG series, SofM said it was his first priority as a jungler to make sure that his own champion could become stronger, then to help his teammates in lanes. As a result, when iG invaded on him, he focused on more defensively farming for late game.

Ultimately, this strategy paid off. Though Invictus Gaming managed to extend their gold lead to 4,000 by 20 minutes against Snake eSports, they still lost the game. When Invictus Gaming went for objectives like dragons, Snake eSports revealed that their real improvements as a result of the roster change came from warding and team coordination.

After spending a split with sloppy teamfights and an obvious lack of trust and follow up between Flandre and the rest of the team, Snake’s style of team fighting changed. With very strong flanking wards in place, mid laner TANK could always get in position to engage instead of Flandre, who then followed up for additional lockdown and damage with Flandre while Martin cleaned up.

Support Xia “Jiezou” Heng’s ward placement accompanying his farmed jungler always seemed on point setting up the dragon area for a team fight. Jiezou is new to Snake this split, and he’s provided more options for Snake in the mid and late game than former peel-oriented support Kwak “Ella” Nahoon through better vision control.

In 2016 Spring, a scattered Snake eSports coming back from a 20 minute 4,000 gold deficit would seem unheard of. The real SofM factor is less that he’s somehow revolutionized LPL jungling and more that Snake eSports haven’t looked this in sync since the departure of Ceng “U” Long. Snake are taking less of a lead from Flandre alone and working more around their imports, TANK and SofM, to guide them and navigate the early game and team fights.

Obvious warning signs exist. SofM’s complete lack of lane presence on the bottom side and his revealed weakness against bottom side invades can be easily abused. So far, SofM’s Snake have played weak or low pressure bottom lane teams in Newbee, Saint and Invictus Gaming. Jiezou has easily left Martin in lane to roam with no repercussions, and Saint’s bottom lane has cultivated a lead on their own.

“We play based on overall coach and tactical arrangements,” Martin said in the post-game press conference. “If they determine that SofM should come to the bottom lane, then let him come to the bottom lane, and we’ll need not play conservatively.” Yet Snake still need to prove this is a strategy they can apply. While most teams win off bottom lane advantage against Invictus Gaming, Snake didn’t even attempt to abuse it.

Stronger bottom lanes like those of Team WE, EDward Gaming or Royal Never Give Up will challenge Snake’s apparent weakness more to see if SofM will vary his pathing. More creative junglers with teams that play around them like Ming “clearlove” Kai, Liu “Mlxg” Shiyu, or Choi “DanDy” Inkyu can put more pressure on SofM’s one-dimensional lane camping strategy.

A great deal of risk goes into SofM's repeated ganking strategies as well. In 15 total ganks in the first ten minutes of six games, Snake only got a kill or summoner burn in seven of them. SofM also hovered and looked for a gank he decided not to pursue a total of seven times. A lot of time goes into forcing these ganks, and if Snake ultimately don't get kills, that's time wasted.

SofM’s focus on getting himself ahead first also appears to be a remnant of his time playing in the Garena Premiere League, where he often swapped roles on Full Louis with minimal advance notice to whatever he felt could carry the hardest with in a given game. He'll need to vary his playstyle for Snake to rally and win the LPL.

Snake and their new jungler are obviously talented. Switching out kRYST4L for Martin shows that Snake have transitioned back to their team dynamic focus that made them a unit whose pieces worked together so well in 2015. SofM has looked like a talent worth investing in from his time on Full Louis. Despite the team’s lack of success, he’s always stood out as a talent capable of competing with Taiwanese competition before the League of Legends Masters Series split off from the GPL. Players in the LPL have grown accustomed to playing against him on the Korean ladder.

But he and the rest of Snake will have to learn. Despite his reserved demeanor in the press room, SofM’s ambitions are clear. One reporter asked SofM if he felt worried that other teams would study him and learn how to play against his strategy.

“I’ll come up with my own way to play,” SofM said. “Don’t worry.”

It’s only been two weeks since Snake began playing in the LPL with their new roster, and there are definite causes for concern, but the amount of trust SofM’s team has put into his play is obvious. Their willingness to follow him on the map without hesitation and the decisiveness with which they execute their strategies, no matter their flaws, is the real SofM effect.

If SofM really wants to win the LPL, he’s on the right track.

Kelsey Moser is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter for more rants about jungling and wards.