Disposable Heroes: Understanding The Success Of NA’s Rookie Junglers

With the recent announcement that Michael “MikeYeung” Yeung has been named the 2017 Summer NA LCS Rookie of the Split, the Phoenix1 jungler now stands alongside his positional rivals who have previously won the award.

The Rookie of the Split award goes to a player who has managed to stand out above the rest while still being a “player who has played in one or fewer series in a professional league prior to this Split”.

It is worth noting, however, that over the last three years the title has gone to a jungler, five out of six times.

Spring 2017 Juan “Contractz” Garcia – Jungle, Cloud9
Summer 2016 Vincent “Biofrost” Wang- Support, Team SoloMid
Spring 2016 Joshua “Dardoch” Hartnett- Jungle, Team Liquid
Summer 2015 Kang “Move” Min-su- Jungle, Gravity Gaming
Spring 2015 Lucas “Santorin” Tao Kilmer Larsen- Jungler, Team SoloMid

This trend begs the question as to why the jungle role, in particular, seems to get so much fresh blood and why those players perform so well in their debut splits.

Though all six previous recipients are skilled players to be sure, perhaps the reason for the success of these junglers as rookies has less to with their individual competencies and more to do with the nature of the role that they play and the current state of competitive League of Legends.

Firstly, let’s consider jungling itself. Of all five roles that make up a League of Legends team, jungling is perhaps the one that differs the most within a competitive team environment compared to the solo queue games in which most aspiring players learn the game.

In the former, vision control is much tighter, there is a much greater likelihood that your jungle pathing is anticipated, players are much less likely to overextend or be vulnerable in lane, and the enemy team is much more likely to respond if you invade their jungle.

The jungle is also the role that has historically been the most vulnerable to Riot’s pre-season changes. Each year, it seems, brings with it a new set of changes to camps (and consequently the gold and experience that they give), jungle itemization and, as a result, jungle pathing and gank times.

While in recent seasons this has meant an increase in power directed towards the jungle, with changes to gold and experience drops from jungle camps, what it means most saliently is that the game keeps changing.

To wit, while, for example, a mid laner’s job has stayed the same since the game’s release, the ways in which the jungle is played seem to evolve each year.

As such, junglers can get burnt out having to continuously learn new ways of playing the game, retiring or moving on faster and making way for new talent to take their place.

Consider for example that, in the time that he has been the starting mid laner for Team Solo-Mid, Søren “Bjergsen” Bjerg, has played with four different junglers, with all three of current jungler, Dennis “Svenskeren” Johnsen’s predecessors stepping down for either a hiatus or a permanent retirement.

Source: Riot Games Flickr

Secondly, North America as a region has shown a preference for “high value”, well-known or very experienced foreign top laners or mid laners over the last few seasons.

With the changes to the Riot ruleset, that places limits on the number of foreign players who can compete on a North American team, many organizations have shown a preference for hiring Korean imports.

Prime and recent examples include Kim “Ssumday” Chan-ho on Team Dignitas, and Lee “Flame” Ho-jong on Immortals while opting to choose domestic talent for the jungle role (Team Envy’s Nam “Lira” Tae-yoo being a noteworthy exception).

This may be a case of choosing “high value” players in more prominent roles in order to elevate a team’s brand value and then filling other roles with fresh talent discovered through the Challenger Ladder and new programs like Scouting Grounds in order to stay within Riot’s rules.

It may, however, also simply be the case that the jungle role does not showcase a player’s individual failings well enough or that we as an audience are not astute enough to see their shortcomings.

That is, we can all see a rookie mid laner struggle in lane against veteran players like C9’s Nicolaj “Jensen” Jensen as they give up solo-kills or fall behind in gold or experience, but it’s much more difficult to see a jungler losing pressure to his competition, especially if he is losing out to a supportive or control-style jungler.

Source: Riot Games Flickr

Here it is also worth reflecting that players like MikeYeung and Contractz – who were both picked up by their respective teams earlier in the year – were players who were known for maintaining a place on the region’s Challenger ladder, but being too young to compete in the LCS.

With the exception of the Rift Rivals tournament earlier this year, we have yet to see the quality of these rookies be truly tested on an international stage.

Perhaps the Rookie of the Split might simply be a dubious honour that is given to a player whose true quality we are not yet able to evaluate.