Last year, armchair League of Legends pundits declared that there were no good Chinese junglers, and that "if Dandy or KaKAO came to LPL, they would walk all over their opponents."
A year ago, it seemed unlikely that Dandy, KaKAO, or Spirit — often considered the best junglers in Korea's The Champions — would come to the Chinese LoL Pro League. Since they did eventually make the trip, it might seem surprising that none of their teams currently sit in the top four of the league. It's easy to blame their Chinese teammates, and in Spirit's case especially, the teammate factor is relevant. There's an additional factor beyond communication or team quality; the Chinese jungle meta has evolved around the bottom lane. With a less than stellar AD carry, LPL junglers are set up to fail.
As a jungler in China, it doesn’t matter how well you perform, but how good your AD carry makes you look.
It’s not a coincidence that the names on the list of best junglers in the LoL Pro League have accompanied the best or the safest AD carries. Clearlove and WeiXiao during his time with WE, or NaMei on EDward Gaming. Invictus’ illuSion and Kid. Positive Energy’s Jing and NaMei. Royal Club’s inSec and Uzi. Even OMG’s San, never considered one of the greatest Chinese AD carries, has been remarked for his safe lane play and general versatility. He’s notable enough such that the trend of greatest junglers accompanying the best AD carries holds true for San and Loveling.
The reverse isn’t also true; having a great AD carry doesn’t mean you’ll be praised as a jungler. Royal Club’s Lucky comes to mind. Still, a good AD carry seems to be the minimum requirement for receiving accolades.
The LPL jungle meta has been preoccupied with the bottom lane for at least the past two years. Once the first jungle rotation has been made, each jungler can expect his opponent to make his way to the bottom lane. There, the best junglers out-3v3 their opponents and get their AD carries kills.
Chinese junglers have received criticism for simplified pathing, but historically poor vision has made it somewhat difficult for bottom laners to remain completely safe without intervention. Do you gamble on fragile champions surviving a tower dive from fog of war, or do you show up?
On top of all of that, LPL junglers are expected to tower dive at level three at an alarming frequency during the course of their careers; there’s no way that could ever make them look bad. InSec didn’t excel after switching to the LPL because he revolutionized the jungle, but because he fit in. Bottom lane was his domain, and diving onto his opponents at first impulse was his bread and butter.
Two things have improved conditions for Chinese junglers. The increased use of Teleport means ganking top is a viable option. Any advantage a jungler gets for his top laner can translate directly into a bottom lane altercation. If your top laner has a kill, he’ll out-itemize the enemy top laner and jungler to turn a 3v3 in his jungler’s stead.
Vision conditions have also improved. A ward in tribush will let an AD carry know to forfeit his tower to save his life, and more jungle pathing diversity has been encouraged. Loveling and Clearlove are no longer the only junglers to forsake their early bottom lane ganks in favor of invading, farming, or picking a different lane. It’s still a gamble; if an AD carry gets ganked, and his jungler isn’t there, it doesn’t look good.
Enter Dandy, KaKAO, and Spirit. They emerge as seasoned junglers from Korea’s Champions prepared to dominate, only they don’t. They don’t know how to play the game. In Champions, there’s no language barrier. It’s easier to communicate to teammates how to set up vision for invades or to protect bottom lane.
The one positive for Spirit is that he does have a competent AD carry on Team WE. Styz excels on at least two champions, Ezreal and Caitlyn, and can be a worthy ally when he isn’t solo pushing bottom because his team is behind.
Team WE’s most recent success against Vici Gaming and near-win against OMG the week before came as a result of him playing the Chinese jungle meta game: a more supportive, counter-ganking jungle style designed to babysit weaker lanes was his calling card on Samsung Blue. In previous weeks, Spirit crumbled under the pressure to carry his team with picks like Rengar and Riven when Jarvan IV should best suit his style.
Ultimately, Spirit looks good when Styz shines on his signature champions. In both WE’s Demacia Cup wins and their recent LPL victory, it’s been down to Spirit creating a zone with Jarvan’s Cataclysm and Styz finding his way around the fight. On a team low in individual talent like WE, Spirit can’t make waves; he can just fit in.
Dandy’s AD carry on Vici Gaming, Vasilii, is likely the weakest of the three, so he doesn’t have the best options when it comes to fitting in. He and his support, Mata, can prop up Vasilii and give him the tools to succeed, but that severely hinders what they like to do.
In tandem, Dandy and Mata roam the map, setting down vision to create opportunities. The problem is that vision isn’t free, and if they struggle to communicate how to make plays around vision with their teammates, wards become a sunk cost that only serve to set Vici Gaming behind. Arguably, this cost them their games against bottom-tier teams WE and Gamtee.
Dandy has started resorting to playing more of a team fighting style; when lanes have fallen behind, he’s isolated priority targets on the enemy team to exclude them from brawls. Against OMG and Edward Gaming, this almost proved effective, as VG managed to minimize gold deficits.
VG’s most successful series has been their recent triumph over King, where Dandy and Mata laid down vision in the enemy jungle that allowed them to out-maneuver Mlxg. King has historically also been a vision-based team, so they played into a game to which Dandy and Mata are accustomed. Starving out King’s vision to set up their own paid dividends, and VG managed their second 2-0 of LPL.
In time, Dandy could actually buck the trend of the LPL jungle, but for now, VG remains in the bottom half of the standings.
KaKAO’s case is simple: he doesn’t gank bottom, so he doesn’t give his AD carry kills.
This seems like an over-simplification, but KaKAO, traditionally the strongest early pressure jungler in the world, has not been able to find his legs against any team above bottom three in the standings.
On paper, KaKAO should easily assimilate. KT Arrows, KaKAO’s previous team, wasn’t known for vision control or patience, so KaKAO came hard and fast into lanes and took no prisoners. Invictus Gaming isn’t significantly lacking in talent outside the jungle like WE, either. Kid, Kitties, and Zzitai may have a reputation for an off-the-wall playstyle, but that should just help KaKAO fit in.
But somehow, KaKAO doesn’t. In the set against Snake, his opponent jungler, Beast, ganked top lane twice, resulting in two kills by the 15 minute mark. KaKAO didn’t poke his head out of his jungle once during that time.
It’s hard to assess KaKAO simply because he hasn’t been KaKAO. For now, Invictus Gaming might be tied in the standings with Star Horn Royal Club, but SHRC also hasn’t faced bottom of the table teams, Energy Pacemaker and WE: teams off which iG got two of their three 2-0 victories.
In theory, KaKAO, like inSec, could excel by fitting into the Chinese jungle meta, but so far he hasn’t, and it’s unclear whether he will by the end of the split.
So far, we’ve avoided mentioning Snake’s Beast except in passing. Of all the junglers who came to China in Spring of 2015, Beast from Bigfile Miracle stood out the least, but bar none he has looked the best.
Beast has, like inSec, succeeded by playing the pre-established game. His Nunu invades without apology, and he ganks top often. Flandre can either carry on his own, or he can use his teleports to amplify his bottom lane’s effectiveness. Since Snake’s AD carry, kRYST4L, is best known for his Draven, it all snowballs ahead quite well.
If one studies Beast’s jungle pathing, it appears one-dimensional. He hangs out around the top lane and relies on ella to keep the bottom lane well-warded. He’ll take his opponent’s buffs if they’re left for him, and he’ll flash on the enemy top laner to get Flandre ahead. Then in team fights, his use of Nunu ultimates keep zone control to allow kRYST4L to get away with his overzealous positioning.
Beast looks good because he makes his AD carry look good.
With the tools they’re given, KaKAO should thrive as if he’s come home to roost, but so far he’s been unable to have an impact. It’s likely down to the team’s communication gap compounded by solo laners rotating. Spirit isn’t given much to work with, but he can bootleg an impact if Styz has a good day and a good pick and ban phase. Dandy has the best chance of making waves, but only time will tell if vision is the answer to China’s historically scripted jungle pathing.
So far, only inSec and Beast make the cut, and the cycle remains unbroken.
Kelsey Moser's middle name is Aron. She is a staff writer for theScore eSports. Follow her on Twitter.