To start the 2017 season, teams in the League of Legends Pro League with major Korean stars like EDward Gaming and Royal Never Give Up had to redefine themselves.
A rebuilding year meant relying on more local talent and training internally, something a team like EDward Gaming, a team that had historically relied on recruiting some of the best carries available to the region, didn't have a track record of.
Despite doubters, EDward Gaming claimed its fifth LPL Championship in four years with Chen "Mouse" Yuhao, considered a weakness and a disappointment in 2016, a mid laner taken from SK Telecom T1's bench, and a 17-year-old AD carry. Tian "Meiko" Ye, brought up in EDward Gaming as a rookie in 2015, took over the reigns of Ming "Clearlove" Kai as team captain to lead the team with its worst on-paper roster ever to a reverse-sweep LPL title victory.
Since EDward Gaming swept back-to-back LPL finals in 2014, it has set the standard in the mainland Chinese region. Its initial roster included three of the biggest names in Chinese esports, with Clearlove, Feng "Fzzf" Zhuojun, and Zhu "NaMei" Jiawen of Team WE and Positive Energy.
In 2015, EDward Gaming kept its knack for bringing in star power and added Kim "Deft" Hyukkyu and Heo "pawN" Wonseok. Both joined EDG during the Chinese streaming boom (thanks in part to Clearlove's reputation on the Korean ladder) with the objective of winning the World Championship. EDward Gaming won the first annual Mid-Season Invitational and ran through LPL splits with a series of win streaks, including an undefeated run in Summer 2016.
But that team didn't even make the World Championship semifinals, and EDward Gaming's roster saw a near-gutting at the close of 2016. Deft and pawN returned to South Korea to join KT Rolster and challenge SK Telecom T1, and without other stars and Clearlove for the first time since its inception, EDG started its first season without the same sense of confidence and certainty.
"When I first came to EDG," Tian "Meiko" Ye said in a Spring episode of the team's "Fight Back" series, "we were a really strong team, and we didn't lose. This season, we're not satisfied with our own performance. ... This is the first time, with new teammates, that it might be much harder than before."
Before Hu "iBoy" Xianzhao, a young AD carry who trained with EDward Gaming as part of one of its City of Heroes TGA teams (below even the LoL Secondary Pro League), came of age and could join the starting lineup, EDward Gaming debuted with an uninspiring roster in Spring 2017. Mouse returned to the starting top lane position with Tong "Koro1" Yang. Clearlove announced a name change to Clearlove7 and that he would take a break, leaving only Zhao "Fireloli" Zhiming, a jungler who started the 2016 season under similar circumstances; he was on the bench by the second week because of his poor performance.
Lee "Scout" Yechan took over the starting mid lane role. Meiko became the team captain. Hae "Zet" Sungmin, a substitute mid laner for ROX Tigers, was chosen as the starting AD carry.
Rather than tell fans that Zet would only take over until iBoy came of age later that year, EDward Gaming patiently fielded questions about the roster. It acknowledged the difficulty of pulling a piecemeal team together but batted provocative questions away.
"When I decided to come to EDG," head coach Jeong "NoFe" Nochul said, "I already had a roster list. When I saw the players on the list, I already thought they could get good results together."
Despite a shoddy roster, EDward Gaming went 2-0 during Week One of the split. The team emphasized strong laning drafts and taking turrets quickly to snowball the game. With smart counterpicks, EDward Gaming continued to exceed expectations, but stumbling blocks were evident.
When cross-conference play began, EDward Gaming dropped series to both Royal Never Give Up and once-sister team I May. Meiko took the I May loss particularly hard, as, historically, EDG had alway defeated its little sister. He had to remind himself to encourage his new teammates rather than attack them and began feeling the pressure of his new role.
"This season," EDward Gaming coach and analyst Yang Jisong said, "Meiko's personal responsibilities are much more than before. ... Because of these circumstances, Meiko's requirements for himself became much stricter."
The turning point for EDG in Spring came in the Week Eight victory over Newbee. Fireloli was given more free reign to play his aggressive style. He said part of it came from Meiko loosening the ropes.
"I was constantly told 'Clearlove7 would do it this way,'" Fireloli said, "but we don't have the same style."
Accepting the new became key to EDward Gaming's success with its cobbled-together team. Scout took over the role as the centerpiece with Meiko creating opportunities across the map. While EDward Gaming had traditionally focused on bottom lane to a fault, getting Scout ahead and transferring this pressure to side lanes to conform to both the meta and the team's new carry unlocked a tentative wave of success.
"People outside the team would say [to Scout] 'If you don't carry, EDG can't win,'" managing director Ji "Aaron" Xing said.
EDward Gaming and lost a crushing 3-1 series to Royal Never Give Up in the Spring Split semifinal, but a familiar face returned to the starting roster. Despite a weak champion pool, Clearlove7's communication lessened the burden on Meiko, and the team's invasive jungle style came online. EDward Gaming took advantage of the pushing lane from Scout to choke out the opposing team as quickly as possible; it covered for flaws with shock value and teamwork.
EDward Gaming overcame Team WE during the Summer Split regular season to claim the first seed out of its group. With the rise of Invictus Gaming and WE and Royal Never Give Up having a rematch of the Spring Final on the opposite side of the bracket, EDward Gaming's side was considered the easier route to the final in Playoffs.
Starting with the semifinal stage, every set lasted five games. Invictus Gaming's roster of rising talents, Royal Never Give Up's squad of strong laners and Team WE's seasoned teamwork made EDward Gaming's group look like the weakest of the top four in terms of individual skill. Nevertheless, EDG dragged itself to the Grand Final in a bloody series that ended in shambles for the young Invictus Gaming team. EDward Gaming showed its first signs of perseverance.
"When I first came to EDG, we were a really strong team, and we didn't lose. This season, we're not satisfied with our own performance. ... This is the first time, with new teammates, that it might be much harder than before."Tian "Meiko" Ye, EDward Gaming support
But Royal Never Give Up, a team that had consistently had EDG's number all year, waited for the LPL giants in the Grand Final. It seemed like it was finally time for Jian "Uzi" Zhihao to take home a championship.
"Last year," Clearlove7 said, "we were very self-confident. This year, in the second half, our state had declined, so we were worried during the final."
After EDward Gaming went down two games, however, fate's tune changed. A team known for crashing after losses internationally with a spiraling crisis of self confidence rebounded on a domestic stage.
"I heard so many fans cheering for us," top laner Mouse said, "and I thought, 'They don't want to see a 3-0; we can't let them see a 3-0.'"
EDG players credited their head coach, NoFe, with both the ability to keep the team's spirits high and the turnaround strategy. Scout didn't play Cassiopeia to his usual standard, and NoFe suggested a switch to Leblanc. In the third game, Scout's snowball in laning phase made it impossible to side lane against him as the match progressed, and EDG beat back RNG to let doubt into the heads of its opponent.
By giving Meiko an Ardent Censer support, iBoy, a young brash AD carry, became more daring and fluid on the grand stage. EDward Gaming came back to even the series, and the final Game Five was an explosion of dives and picks that lead the team to hold its fifth LPL Championship and secure Scout the MVP of the series.
The last victory dispelled doubt for those who thought this was the year EDG's empire would finally fall. Team WE and OMG had both crumbled in the face of massive roster rebuilds with star talents leaving, but EDG dug deep. It conquered Royal Never Give Up and the veteran Uzi with an ADC who had played fewer than 20 LPL games at the time the final began.
But EDward Gaming is far from home free. Since its inception, EDG has always had its sights set on Worlds, but it has always fallen in the quarterfinal, performing well below standards expected of the LPL champions. This is the first year where even EDG's most ardent supporters question whether it will escape Group Stage.
The team, however, has proven itself in the face of doubt. The LPL final was the very first reverse sweep EDward Gaming had ever claimed. For Clearlove7, it meant proving that he had improved his ability to keep his mentality stable.
In the past, fans have always said that EDward Gaming's win streak made it unprepared for the challenges of international competition. The first sign of struggle meant immediate failure.
"Now, you can't say we aren't used to losing," Meiko insisted.
Doubt and underestimation has helped EDward Gaming discover a new reserve of power. For Clearlove7 and Meiko, the real test becomes whether it will carry over to an even bigger stage in Wuhan.