No time wasted: Ambition's jungle journey

by theScore Staff Jun 30 2016
Thumbnail image courtesy of KeSPA / LCK Summer 2016

The ROX Tigers appeared unstoppable throughout LoL Champions Korea Spring 2016, with even their riskier plays rewarded thanks to their team's coordination and synergy. Once again, similar to their initial rise during LCK Spring 2015, it seemed like no one could stop the Tigers. Of the expected teams to end the Tigers’ undefeated start, Samsung Galaxy were not high on the list. They lacked a star playmaker and had role-swapped veteran mid laner Kang “Ambition” Chan-yong to the jungle.

Following the 2015 season, Ambition appeared to be a likely candidate for retirement rather than continuing on as a jungler. Outspoken about his desire to win a domestic title with CJ, Ambition’s career was presumed over upon leaving CJ Entus in November 2015, and his subsequent move to Samsung was met with general apathy. As a final career destination, Samsung wasn’t a bad choice for Ambition — a new team with some promising talent that needed veteran leadership — but it didn’t inspire confidence or even interest.

Then Samsung Galaxy became the first team to defeat the then 11-0 Tigers in an LCK Spring 2016 series.

That Tigers-Samsung series highlighted Ambition’s growing prowess in the jungle, and confirmed that his previous flashes of brilliance could not be chalked up to luck. In that series, Ambition had a monstrous Game 3 performance on Kindred in which he targeted Tigers top laner Song “Smeb” Kyung-ho and repeatedly punished him for his aggressive positioning and Teleport usage.

No longer was he a smart mid laner playing as a jungler — in Samsung’s 2-1 victory over the Tigers, Ambition became a jungler.

Before Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok was Korea’s premier mid laner, there was Ambition. A member of the original Maximum Impact Gaming Blaze, Ambition was Korea’s best mid laner in 2012 and 2013. By late 2014, Ambition was overshadowed not only by Faker, but Samsung’s Heo “PawN” Won-seok and Bae “dade” Eo-jin while Samsung rose and CJ Entus Blaze fell, missing playoffs in Champions Summer 2014.

“I used to do well as a mid laner,” Ambition told Inven. “Then I was considered as a losing/weaker player compared to the other mid laners. I think Blaze was a team where there was a lot more importance on the mid lane compared to other teams. And that added up to a lot of pressure. But even when all that pressure was put on my shoulders, I had the confidence that I could overcome and succeed.”

The now famous 1v1 mid lane Nidalee outplay that heralded Faker's arrival in his competitive debut was against none other than Ambition. Looking back, it's clear that that solo kill became a sign that the torch had been passed, regardless of Ambition's strong performances throughout 2013 and into 2014. Today, very few remember Ambition’s mid lane dominance in light of his more recent shortcomings and successes as a jungler.

The inaugural LoL Champions Korea season was fraught with uncertainty. Sister teams had been abolished in favor of a one-sponsor league system. The field was cut from 16 teams — 14 of which had been sisters of each other — to eight for the LCK Spring 2015. This was accompanied by a mass talent exodus, which inspired Ambition and fellow Champions veteran Go “Score” Dong-bin to step into the jungle role for CJ Entus and KT Rolster respectively. These role-swaps underscored the depth of the talent loss, especially at the jungle position. With a lack of available jungle talent, veteran players like Score and Ambition were forced to heed the call of duty.

Score took to his new position with an easygoing attitude and generally optimistic outlook. He had always wanted to try being a jungler, and his natural jungling style was completely different from the safe positioning that earned him the nickname of “The Immortal Score” as an AD carry. On his first outing as Rengar, Score forgot to buy Bonetooth Necklace, joking after the series that he didn’t even notice or remember. Unlike Score, Ambition was pressed into service rather than a willing volunteer.

“At first, I had no interest whatsoever in playing jungle,” Ambition told Inven. “It’s a long story for me to go over every single detail but to summarize, our head coach came up with the idea. We didn’t have a jungler on the team, and we weren’t in a situation where we could bring in a decent jungler. It was a very complicated situation.”

Matching the studious and somber expressions that characterized Ambition, his words during the LCK preseason reflected the volatile nature of the Korean LoL landscape at that time rather than Score’s more affable approach.

“When I arrived at the stadium today I felt a little lonely because the color of my uniform was different from what I was always used to,” Ambition told Inven during the preseason. “I don’t know how much I can synergize with the rest of my teammates. I’ll have to concentrate harder on practice to know for sure.” CJ Entus finished fifth in the LCK Spring 2015 Preseason, dropping three of their five series. It was a lackluster start that placed CJ behind favorite SK Telecom T1, NaJin e-mFire, KT Rolster, and the then-HUYA Tigers.

“I have my own personal framework that I use to achieve victory in games” Ambition told Inven. “There is definitely a part between me and the original CJ Frost players that don’t blend very well. That’s why there are some conflicts within our communication as well. But it’s definitely a conflict that leads to positive improvement, so I can see things getting much better.”

If Ambition’s dour outlook was an indication of internal strife on the new CJ Entus, it wasn’t apparent in their play during LCK Spring 2015. CJ rose through the first round robin alongside the Tigers — two lineups of veteran players in an uncertain landscape. Ambition’s jungle style was full of predictable pathing routes but retained his strong dueling and farming skills from being a top-tier mid in multiple OGN seasons. Throughout the regular season, Ambition was first in CS per minute (3.4) and second in damage per minute (229) of all LCK junglers. He focused primarily on farming with some counter-jungling, even on more aggressive gankers like Jarvan IV and Lee Sin.

Another facet of Ambition’s play that carried over from his mid lane days was his knack for giving up First Blood to his opponents — something that reflected his opponents’ desire to shut him down quickly during — and his focus on counter-jungling while acclimating himself to his new position. Despite the shift in required teamfight positioning, Ambition adapted well to his new role as a supplier of utility and crowd control in teamfights rather than a burst or utility mage. CJ finished third in the regular season, although their rise was not without a few hiccups. At the IEM Season IX World Championship in Katowice, CJ were knocked out of Group B by North America’s Team SoloMid and China’s Team WE. More surprising was the demise of Korea’s other IEM challenger, the Tigers, who fell 2-1 to WE in the semifinals.

“Before, [CJ] honestly didn’t feel the need to keep up with the foreign leagues,” Ambition told Inven. “We thought it was better to use that time to watch a good player stream, or play solo queue. But after IEM, all the team members became much more open to accepting new things.”

He added that they previously had written off champions after merely discussing them, rather than actually putting them to the test in practice themselves. CJ and the Tigers’ IEM demise drew international audiences’ attention with perceived warning klaxons that Korea was not the powerhouse it once was, and possibly no longer the best region in the world. The Tigers’ loss reeked of arrogance, while CJ’s fall showed that Korea’s second-best team was unable to dominate international opponents like their predecessors — 2014 KT Rolster Bullets at IEM, 2014 SK Telecom T1 K at All-Stars — had done in previous years.

Ambition and CJ contributed to this changing public atmosphere, often discussed as a team of aging or washed-up stars that hadn’t been good enough to receive lucrative contracts from China or other regions. Their third-place LCK Spring 2015 overall finish now signified the perceived weakness of Korea post-exodus. Korea’s other team with a role-swapped jungler, KT Rolster, had failed to even make the playoffs, with Score struggling through perpetually losing lanes and his own inability to identify where to apply pressure early, in order to stem the bleeding before it spiraled beyond his control.

Unlike KT and Score, CJ and Ambition found their team identity quickly, neatly molding around mid laner Shin “CoCo” Jin-young and much-maligned AD carry Seon “Space” Ho-san. Space had a small career renaissance thanks to the return of Sivir and Urgot as viable AD carries, but was rarely regarded as a good AD carry. His laning partner, Hong “MadLife” Min-gi was a revered veteran, yet still seen as being well past his prime. Ambition was still more of a mid laner in practice and style than a jungler. Once farmed up, he used his innate teamfighting ability to help his carries.

Both CJ and the Tigers were eventually outclassed by SKT come playoff time, but it was CJ, not the Tigers, who gave SKT the most trouble. Were it not for timely SKT substitutions — replacing Im “T0M” Jae-hyeon with Bae “bengi” Seong-woong and Lee “Easyhoon” Ji-hoon with Faker — and a phenomenal Game 4 Lucian performance from SKT’s Bae “Bang” Jun-sik, Ambition and CJ would have been the likely victors and LCK finalists. Their playoff bout was the best LCK series that spring, and a glimmer of hope that the region was finally on its way to recovery after the tumultuous 2014-15 offseason

Yet, that loss hit Ambition harder than his teammates.

“Honestly, I couldn’t get my head together after I lost the SKT T1 match,” he told Inven. “Whenever I get to set five I lose, so I think I developed a trauma of sorts and was mentally damaged even further than the other players.”

Despite a close loss to Edward Gaming at the 2015 Mid-Season Invitational, SKT returned home as Korea’s premier team. As the region improved and recovered that summer, CJ Entus rose with it — their last chance to prove themselves as a five-man unit. In Week 10 of LCK Summer 2015, CJ Entus became the only team to beat SKT all season with a surprising 2-1 victory. Throughout Summer 2015, Ambition’s job became easier — get CoCo ahead.

“I can scratch any itch that our mid laner has, and I know a great deal on how to make life annoying for the enemy mid laner,” Ambition told Inven. “CoCo is a player that wants a lot of things, but I think that’s much better than not wanting anything. I think a key to improving is being able to make assertive requests over this and that.”

Yet, when the playoffs came around, CJ once again found themselves unable to play to the level of their opponents. Of all teams that season, CJ tied Rebels Anarchy for the most games played at 46. For Anarchy, this meant that they could take a game off of opponents but didn’t have the tools to close out a series. For CJ, it meant that teams were able to take games off of them, but their collective experience won out in the end, earning them many 2-1 wins rather than 2-0 sweeps. They could occasionally play like the best team in the world, but the vast majority of the time, they were wholly average. The Tigers swept them 3-0 in the playoffs, but CJ were still seen as a likely World Championship contender from the Regional Finals bracket, especially due to KT Rolster’s inconsistencies.

There’s little doubt that Ambition’s veteran presence and leadership was a large part of CJ’s successes in 2015. Yet, these successes didn’t required him to be a particularly strong or inventive jungler. His pathing was still average, and his destinations were easily made obvious by the fact that CJ identified a clear-cut team dynamic quickly — get CoCo or Space ahead and wait to fight until late game, allowing their superior experience to take over. Against the likes of SKT’s bengi or Jin Air Green Wings Lee “Chaser” Sang-hyun, Ambition was outclassed more often than not.

While CJ enjoyed third place in both 2015 regular seasons, KT Rolster and Score struggled in spring, only finding themselves in the waning matches of the season thanks in large part to a substitution in the support position. Former KT Rolster Arrows support Ha “Hachani” Seung-chan suffered from his own tendencies to die during vision rotations, and as a jungler new to the position Score, like Ambition, had to learn an entirely different skillset.

It wasn’t until Jung “Fixer” Jae-woo took over in the support position towards the end of LCK Spring 2015 that Score began to look anywhere near competent as a jungler. While his pathing had always arguably been more creative than Ambition’s, it rarely mattered when all of his lanes were losing, and Hachani consistently died during routine vision rotations. Fixer aided Score simply by staying alive and placing a stronger vision net, allowing him to move more freely and target the lanes that needed help. Score’s jungle prowess improved exponentially upon the arrival of Lee “Piccaboo” Jong-beom in LCK Summer 2015, propelling KT Rolster to the LCK Summer Finals and the 2015 World Championship Quarterfinals, where they were ousted by fellow Korean team the then-KOO Tigers.

KT’s supports made a large difference for Score, as the former AD carry has now fully acclimated to the jungle position become one of Korea’s more fearsome and, at times, aggressive junglers. A much-improved Hachani has returned to the team, and even his occasional deaths during vision placement don’t hurt Score like they did in 2015, since Score now knows his routes through the jungle, and KT has a more clear-cut identity.

By contrast, Ambition had MadLife — one of the initial supports, and League of Legends players, to garner international fame. However, MadLife was always a support that acquiesced to his laning partner or his team’s pace rather than dictating it himself. Ambition developed separately from MadLife, and while MadLife certainly didn’t hold back Ambition’s maturation as a jungler, he didn’t aid it in the same way that Fixer and later Piccaboo helped Score. Ambition came to Samsung as a strong player, intelligent leader, and mediocre jungler.

On Samsung, Ambition found a new home with four charges to guide through the game. More importantly, he now has a support that has helped him improve in the jungle position, much like Piccaboo did for Score on KT: Kwon “Wraith” Ji-min.

Wraith has taken his own time finding a comfortable home. Initially a part of PSW Ares and then ahq e-Sports Club Korea, Wraith was known as “Loray” and later “Icebear” after the former ahq Korea roster was picked up by the Jin Air Green Wings. Wraith joined SK Telecom T1 K as “Casper,” filling in for the veteran Lee “PoohManDu” Jeong-hyeon in Champions Spring 2014. This is where SKT T1 K’s struggles began, although they were no fault of Wraith. Bengi found himself baffled by the new meta, unable to place wards and path as he wished, Wraith stuck to AD carry Chae “Piglet” Gwang-jin in lane but failed to provide the map pressure and leadership that had characterized PoohManDu’s role on the team.

Partnered with Ambition on Samsung, Wraith provides a strong bot lane and teamfight presence. Together, the two of them steadily steer Samsung to victory, minimizing team mistakes. “Since Wraith and I have some career experience… you need to keep [teammates] focused when there’s someone whose mind starts wandering, or else the game falls out of your reach,” Ambition said in a postmatch interview with OGN. “ [Wraith] seems to think that he has a bigger responsibility than compared to the Spring season, at least from what I could tell, so he himself tries to do more, and you can’t help but improve when you’re like that. So I think that’s why he’s doing well.”

Samsung’s results with Wraith make their recent decisions to swap in Jo “CoreJJ” Yong-in all the more confusing. While it’s not CoreJJ’s fault individually, both Samsung and Ambition look disorganized without Wraith in the bot lane. In a possible effort to help CoreJJ and rookie AD carry Park “Ruler” Jae-hyuk, Ambition is found with his bot lane duo more often with CoreJJ in game, making his pathing more predictable to opponents. As a jungler who loves to farm and get early advantages through farming, this visibly disrupts his rhythm.

“My goal is to not waste any time, even 1 second,” Ambition told OGN in a broadcast interview. “Unless I’m ganking more than the opponent, there’s no way I fall behind. I’m just trying to use that to snowball as much as I can.” This farm-heavy style built on his foundation as a mid-laner ceases to be effective if Ambition is required to continuously revisit a lane, showing the limitations of his jungling patterns. Ambition and Samsung are at their best with Wraith because of Wraith’s own early presence and ability to guide Ruler into the mid game.

Ambition’s journey this year on Samsung isn’t necessarily a heartwarming tale of rebirth, but rather a story of determination and diligence. He rose as a mid laner when Korea rose to prominence, provided a steady hand in a new position post-2015 exodus, and now aims to guide a different team to a possible world championship berth, something that has eluded him despite his accomplished career.

Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.