Longzhu Gaming’s western fanbase spent 2016 clamoring for the team to start acclaimed top laner Lee “Flame” Hojong over Koo “Expession” Bontaek. Expession’s steady but unspectacular performances didn’t compensate for the mythos of Flame, one of the most lauded top laners to ever play the game.
With Flame heading to North American LCS team Immortals and Longzhu emphasizing what looks like a more stable core starting roster, the unrest should have settled. Yet as Longzhu continue to put up erratic performances, a new quiet rumbling has started around the mid lane role.
Following the departures of Shin “Coco” Jinyeong and Kim “Frozen” Taeil, Longzhu signed ex-KT Rolster Song “Fly” Yongjun and ex-CJ Entus Gwak “Bdd” Boseong. So far, Fly has started for every game Longzhu have played, but he has failed in a key tenet of mid laners in the 2017 season: holding a lead and pushing the lane to facilitate jungle invades.
Fly averages the second lowest Gold lead at 10 minutes and lowest CS differential at 10 minutes of any mid laner in League Champions Korea. Meanwhile, alleged mid lane prodigy Bdd sits on the bench as a promising alternative who might hold the lane better.
Though nowhere near as strong as the calls for Flame to start last year, the appeals of Bdd supporters have increased in volume. The problem is that one player rotation often won’t fix a more systemic flaw in team cohesion. To get a better grasp of this concept, it’s helpful to compare Longzhu Gaming to a team that arguably has their largest raw talent asset in the mid lane: the EU LCS’ Fnatic.
Both Longzhu and Fnatic have had teetering, but conservatively promising, starts. Longzhu’s signing of bottom lane duo Kim “PraY” Jongin and Kang “GorillA” Beomhyeon makes single game losses to teams like Jin Air Greenwings appear inexcusable. Fnatic also had a three-game series against Giants Gaming that felt less clean than fans hopeful for a renaissance would have expected.
Otherwise, these teams have had somewhat front-loaded schedules with Longzhu facing Samsung Galaxy and KT Rolster and Fnatic duking it out with G2 Esports, the top EU LCS team of 2016. This isn’t the only commonality. The construction of the rosters within a regional context also bears similarities. PraY and GorillA, though with a great deal more clout, are used to being strong performers supporting a star top laner, similar to Martin “Rekkles” Larsson’s role in Fnatic in 2015 when the roster was at its peak. Yet both teams now feature less explosive veteran top laners in Expession and Paul “sOAZ” Boyer.
The greatest divergence comes in how the mid lane role operates. Rasmus “Caps” Winther has crushed his slightly more experienced lane opponents Luka “PerkZ” Perković and Na “NighT” Gunwoo, averaging the highest gold lead at 10 minutes in EU LCS at 368 gold over his opponents. This puts him in stark contrast to Longzhu’s Fly, who has almost always played a more supportive role on his Korean teams.
Even this season, Fly seems happiest on Taliyah, a champion he has played in two of Longzhu’s three wins. With Taliyah, Fly can leave the mid lane entirely and exert pressure on his side lanes. Indeed, despite Fly’s poor ability to gain a gold lead of his own, his side lane carries, PraY and Expession, are within the top four of their roles in LCK for gold leads at 10 minutes.
Not all of this is directly attributable to Fly, as PraY and GorillA are known for their self-sufficiency in lane, and Expession has played several picks designed to perform well in laning phase, including Kennen and Singed. Outside his Taliyah games, Fly has not roamed as much as he did on his former team, KT Rolster. He has drawn criticism in particular for not accumulating large leads on champions chosen almost explicitly to do well in the laning phase, like Jayce or Corki.
In Fnatic’s six games, Caps has performed well in the 1v1 regardless of whether his matchup is designed to be strong in the early game (he has played Ryze into Taliyah well twice, for example). Caps is almost always pushed forward in lane, reflected by the fact that he has the highest wards placed per minute of any EU LCS mid laner (mid laners who often get push advantage will have more opportunities to place side lane control wards or trinkets at jungle entrances).
This opens direct paths into the jungle for Maurice “Amazing” Stückenschneider to invade and farm enemy camps as well as lay a large amount of deep vision. Amazing is tied for the highest percentage of counterjungling in the EU LCS at 10% despite a relatively low gold lead of his own at ten minutes. His pathing can be relatively inefficient, and he benefits a lot from Caps’ presence. In the Giants series, after an unsuccessful invade by Amazing, Jonas “Memento” Elmarghichi took advantage of a lack of entrance wards and Caps backing to kill Amazing early.
Surprisingly, these characteristics don’t distinguish Amazing considerably from Longzhu’s Lee “Crash” Dongwoo. Crash also boasts an above average counterjungling rate for the LCK at 8%, sitting him second, below KT Rolster’s Go “Score” Dongbin. This is surprising, as Crash spends much of the game conservatively farming on his side of the jungle. One expects that he cannot find many opportunities to invade with his mid lane constantly pushed against him.
With a closer look at Longzhu’s early game, however, despite often falling behind in CS by ten minutes and losing mid lane turret first in all but one of their eight games played, Fly often starts the match by pushing out the mid lane. Fly has poor trading in the 1v1, but that seems to come in part from his willingness to position in the enemy minion wave and attempt to clear quickly. Perhaps because Crash often receives a stronger jungle champion matchup, he has used this advantage early on in the game to invade and contest enemy camps, but farms more conservatively as the game progresses.
The most startling difference between Crash and Amazing, then, isn’t in how they farm the jungle or the efficiency of their pathing, but in how often they interact with laners. Fnatic, who average gold leads in all three of their lanes, have an above average jungle proximity rate (the amount of time the jungler spends within 2,000 range of a laner between three and 15 minutes of a game) in the EU LCS. In particular, Amazing divides his time between the mid and bottom lanes with the third highest mid lane and jungle proximity rate in the league at 24%.
These statistics support observations of Amazing’s play. Amazing will often gank mid or bot lane and use the advantage in an invade to roam with Caps or support Jesse “Jesiz” Le to secure river vision.
Crash is tied for the lowest mid lane jungle proximity rate in the LCK at 18%. Seldom does Crash gank mid or play around pressure generated by Fly. This is obviously a two-way street. A strong mid laner will generally be able to apply more pressure with ganks, and successful ganks facilitate pushing lanes that allow for invades. Crash spends an average amount of time within 2,000 range of his top and bottom lane, which reflects his greater presence in the side lanes.
Fly and Crash rarely coordinate plays together. When either of them gank a side lane, they do so independently. When Crash invades, Fly usually remains in the mid lane. This either reflects a sense of distrust between jungle and mid or a general lack of synergy. As the mid lane is the most important point in the map, and taking the first turret allows for the most control of the enemy jungle and neutral objectives, this proves extremely problematic for Longzhu against teams with stronger duos.
This illustrates why Bdd supporters may currently be calling to give the less experienced young mid laner a chance. His solo queue play in particular is well-praised, and he may be able to provide a better control point for Crash.
It’s not a given that this will work. Despite his modest reputation for laning prowess, Bdd served a very similar function to Fly on the ailing team, CJ Entus. With the second highest percentage of team gold in 2016 LCK Summer, CJ’s AD carry Ha “Kramer” Jonghun required a more supportive mid laner willing to roam bottom or simply go even in lane. Bdd averaged only a modest gold lead of 16 at ten minutes and often fell behind in CS. CJ were primed for relegation, and Bdd hasn’t indicated that he is anything close to a powerful mid lane prodigy that might give Longzhu a control point.
A closer look at Fnatic proves that a powerful mid laner doesn’t guarantee success. Within the EU LCS, Fnatic average an early gold lead, but struggle to make mid game trades. In their first game against Giants, an error in lane assignments cost Fnatic their mid inhibitor turret when the team sent Amazing bottom for a gank rather than leaving sOAZ to split self-sufficiently on Illaoi against Maokai.
These kinds of muddled mid game lane assignments also characterized last year’s Longzhu Gaming. Despite boasting the second highest gold lead at 15 minutes in 2016 LCK Summer, Longzhu lost the majority of their games due to an inability to coordinate lane assignments in the mid game.
Some of these same errors in judgment reared their heads in Longzhu’s series against KT Rolster this year. In multiple instances, Longzhu failed to split properly or focus the right objectives, giving KT control of the mid game. Every once in a while, Fly stood out as a faint glimmer of rationale, prioritizing mid lane push when the rest of his team fixated on dragon, or venturing top to push the wave, getting caught when the rest of his team didn’t back him.
Similar mistakes still plague Longzhu, but Fly’s roaming map play on KT and the fact that he doesn’t receive heavy backup on his new team indicate that his calls may be his own. This is something a player like Caps or Bdd wouldn’t necessarily bring to the table. Fnatic benefit from the experience of several seasoned players, which might eventually help them improve their poor mid game trades. Indeed, despite a poor Game 1 against Giants, Fnatic made better moves in Games 2 and 3.
Though Longzhu’s PraY and GorillA also have several seasons on successful teams under their belt, and it’s hard to determine who calls Fly’s lane assignments, there’s no guarantee that Bdd will facelift Longzhu’s early game. It seems a shame to remove one of the cogs that might give Longzhu direction. In fact, rather than assume Fly is given picks like Corki and Jayce to win lane, it might make more sense that these champions line up with Taliyah’s ability to push side lanes and control the map in the mid and late game.
Last year’s Longzhu Gaming wasn’t just characterized by a call to bench Expession by diehard Flame fans, but a complete lack of direction, frequent roster rotations, and an utter absence of synergy. Rather than repeat some of 2016’s mistakes by swapping out a player immediately, I’d prefer to acknowledge Fly’s strengths and the fact that he’s scrambling to succeed with low jungle presence in his lane. Fly isn’t a mid lane battering ram, but Fnatic’s Caps has demonstrated that that isn’t the key to winning every game.
Both Fnatic and Lonzhu might need a few more weeks to find their footing. It’s better to agree to actually give them that.
Counterjungling percentages and jungle proximity data provided by Daniel “Riot Spellsy” Biery. All other data from OraclesElixir.com.
You can follow Kelsey Moser on Twitter @karonmoser.