It just needed a funeral dirge. EDward Gaming shuffled into the press room, refusing to look at anything but the floor. They reluctantly fell into their chairs. Ming “clearlove” Kai, the team’s captain and jungler, fixated on the edge of the table. Today was the day everyone expected jokes about his new haircut, how he didn’t just run away from teamfights to protect his KDA, but to bait enemies into traps. “Their mid and jungler are stronger than ours,” clearlove intoned three times throughout the interview. His grimace betrayed the pain that should have been in his hollow response — they were supposed to be the best.
This was the first post-match press conference EDward Gaming gave after winning the 2016 LPL Summer semifinal and qualifying for the World Championship in October.
"After we go back home," clearlove said, "we will train harder."
Although the results of 2016 LPL playoff brackets had few surprises in terms of advancement, both semifinals against group powerhouses EDward Gaming and Royal Never Give Up lasted the full five games. I May and Team WE dragged out their semifinal series to force EDward Gaming and Royal Never Give Up to dig deep. Dramatic comebacks from as much as 10,000 gold down, bizarre drafting, and heroics filled the semifinal. The sense that the strongest team won followed each match, but so did dread and disappointment.
With the exception of one game in the third place match, the Top 4 finishers of the 2016 League of Legends Pro League Summer never won a single red side game. Poor Baron setup vision and red side draft responses plagued playoffs from semifinals to the third place match, tilting games in the favor of blue side. All of this was a dramatic wakeup call for both EDward Gaming and Royal Never Give Up, as well as a celebration of Team WE and I May, teams that don’t have the talent to take games off EDG and RNG but did anyway. If not for a difference in side selection, this could have been a WE vs. I May final.
By now, everyone has heard the "lose to improve" narrative, and given EDward Gaming's scant amount of losses within the LPL, it's often applied to them. It’s obvious dominating a regular season can make teams blind to inherent flaws. I spent the season bemoaning EDward Gaming’s fascination with drafting weak lane matchups and clearlove’s fixation on ganking bottom lane, leaving solo laners exposed.
Finally, Team WE’s solo laners, Ke “957” Changyu, and Su “xiye” Hanwei had a banner year for personal growth. They developed to the point where WE has become increasingly solo-lane focused (despite Jin “Mystic” Seongjun’s 33.1 percent of team’s deamage dealt, hello Sivir and Ezreal). Xiye overcame mouse on both sides of the Syndra-Taliyah matchup, and once he picked up a free kill after Lee “scout” Yechan all-inned, assuming top laner Chen “mouse” Yuhao wouldn’t fail his wall leap to gank mid, exposing flaws in the play of both frequently-criticized solo laners.
WE dragging EDward Gaming to five games is a slap in the face without causing EDG to lose an advantage in World Championship seeding. In line with the "lose to improve" narrative, it should create more for fans to be optimistic about China’s chances. If WE can challenge EDG domestically and force them to adapt, they will have a better form when it counts.
But this has been EDG’s story both years before. After a less-than-ideal 2014 Summer season, EDG clean-swept their playoffs. When they played Star Horn Royal Club in the 2014 Regional final, they dropped a game when Royal played more aggressively against them, highlighting a difference between when they play proactively or more reserved. In 2015, EDward Gaming lurched to a halt after a 21 single game win streak, losing 0-3 to LGD Gaming in the semifinals and falling again in the third place match before a Regionals comeback, reflecting an adaptation to play more around top laner Shek "AmazingJ" Wai Ho.
Both seasons, before last minute developments that had fans hopeful EDward Gaming would evolve to cover their flaws, they still finished in the quarterfinal of the World Championship, below expectations. Both times, flaws fans thought EDG could fix in time went unaltered.
Drafting weak lane matchups and ignoring solo lanes are both factors that have persisted for EDward Gaming since their formation. Like SK Telecom T1, quirks of the squad will be retained as the core player remains the same. Both appear to value playing to a specific style, which is hard to fault them for when both teams have remained dominant in their respective regions for years and come away with important international titles. It just means there will be metas, there will be times, when things they try to do won’t work.
For SKT Telecom T1, this is a year about jungling, and they're on the backfoot, the same as they were in 2014. EDward Gaming struggle more in top-centric metas, and 2015's World Championship made that incredibly clear.
While this meta is a thorn in SKT's side, it shouldn’t be a time of struggle for EDG. They have a skilled jungler who can play a variety of metas as long as you don't demand he gank top — but they have that pesky habit of drafting scaling picks, which hurts their laning phase in a low lane swap landscape.
EDward Gaming don’t always draft weak lane matchups, they just do so more often than one expects from a top team. Theoretically, one can make an argument that they prefer being able to snowball scaling champions, believing surprise aggression from weak early game picks can roll a game into their favor so an opposing team can’t make a comeback.
Then, if early aggression doesn't work, they have an insurance policy for the late game in teamfights. At the Mid-Season Invitational, EDward Gaming at least gave some indication that the latter was part of their thought process when Coach Ji "Aaron" Xing told broadcast interviewers that the Koreans on the team, Kim "deft" Hyukkyu and Heo "pawN" Wonseok, had wanted to play a safe, scaling late game composition as insurance the first time they played SKT. To EDG's credit, it works a surprisingly high frequency, but from a Western perspective (which isn't necessarily always right), this is too risky — even if your core players are near the top, if not the best, in their positions.
Historically, EDward Gaming have been most successful when clearlove is most proactive on the map, and that came out in their series against WE. EDward Gaming’s most decisive games featured Rek’Sai and Gragas, while farming Hecarim — a champion with only a 33.3 percent win rate in the LPL playoffs (thank you, Liu “Mlxg” Shiyu, for deciding that any jungler most of the rest of the world thinks can’t gank at level 2 actually can) — picks resulted in EDG’s most desperate matches.
Any theory that EDward Gaming like to choose weaker lane matchups and still play aggressive would be supported by EDG performing better with strong jungle picks. If EDG pick a weaker bottom lane matchup like Kog’Maw paired with Braum at level three, they can rely on still forcing fights early with help from a strong jungle matchup. In 2015 Summer playoffs, Invictus Gaming targeted clearlove’s more aggressive jungle picks in ban phase, which allowed them to then take advantage of weaker laning matchups and run over EDG without his interference.
Within this spectrum, one can at least expect EDG to react enough to realize that, if they’re going to choose a weak bottom, mid, or top lane matchup, a strong jungle pick is necessary. In their final game against WE, they had already abandoned the Hecarim for a first pick Gragas. EDG also abused the fact that WE first rotated their solo lane picks, which allowed EDG to meet WE where they were winning. They can’t expect most teams to first rotation draft their solo lane picks going forward, however.
The rest of EDG’s quirks may as well be here to stay. They won’t suddenly decide that, some games, they need to support mouse more. They won’t move toward ganking mid lane more proactively to prevent all-ins. They won’t move away from scaling bottom lane picks. While EDG are not the same team they were in 2014, they’re still EDG, and whatever narrative you build about them learning from their mistakes this time around — if they were going to change, they already would have.
What EDG said in the press conference wasn’t, “Our way of looking at this patch was wrong,” it was, “Their mid and jungle are stronger.” This, in and of itself, speaks volumes about EDG’s approach. They think that, no matter what, no matter how they choose to play, the best players can control the game.
For the most part, what you see is what you get. Fans should hope that the risks they take snowball the way they want because EDG don't appear to be budging. It might punish them again, they may not advance past quarterfinals.
Or commitment to one approach may finally pay off for EDG like it has for SK Telecom T1 so many times, and this will be the year they prove us all wrong.
Photo credit: 刘一村
Kelsey Moser is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.