Altered EGO: How a rookie changed his style to become an MVP in his debut split – a retrospective

All humans are born with a primordial side: Present from the beginning, this impetuous and primitive force is untouched from logic and reality, an amorphous condensate of intuition and instinct which we can look to restrain but not suppress, ever persisting as an agent of desires and urges. Sigmund Freud called it the id. Over the years, we learn to direct it. The self develops a new part: Conscious and cognitive, it uses the means of perception and deduction to regulate and organize our impulses like a rider controls his horse. This component is not born but nurtured, growing with experience and memory. We may call it reason or judgment; in psychoanalysis, it is known as the ego.

Just as there is the formation of man, there is also the formation of a player: No League of Legends athlete is created perfect, and nowadays, even the best of the best need to learn the hard way that in order to develop from one of the very gifted into one of the very great, innate mechanical strength must be guided by sharp game sense and decision making. Dazzlingly combative yet frustratingly unrefined, no league exemplifies this is more than the notoriously belligerent VCS, producing highly skilled prospects en masse but also struggling to reconcile its chaotic nature with the principles of control and calculation that distinguish major from minor regions.

In a place where the tale of greatness cannot be told without a lineage of legendary junglers, it is especially SofM and Levi who managed to overcome the frantic temperament of their home turf and combine Vietnam’s unquenchable penchant for incessant fighting with a cerebral approach to the game. However, this rise to radiant stardom did not happen overnight: One had to hone his skills on native soil for years until departing towards China to become an LPL legend, whereas the other was an average mid laner at first before immortalizing himself as a titan of the jungle with spectacular performances at MSI and Worlds 2017.

Levi continues to reign supreme, but the next heir in the line of succession within the Vietnamese jungle kingdom is still undetermined. In 2020, a challenger to the throne appeared out of nowhere: Just like his idols, this newcomer was not more than a promise at first, foreshadowing his auspicious future with every forceful outplay but also highlighting his lack of polish with every costly blunder – yet unlike a regular rookie who may require years of stage experience to develop the necessary smarts and mature into a well-rounded centrepiece of his team, this precocious neophyte merely needed a few weeks to overcome initial growing pains and become one of the best players in the league, crowning his ascent to the top by winning a regional trophy in the first split of his career as Finals MVP.

But looking back at the most successful debut split in the history of VCS, this speedrun to domestic superiority should be no surprise: After all, he was EGO right from the start.


Style of Jesh: A prodigy enters the league

Before everything started, there was Nguyễn Khánh Hòa, born October 18, 2002, and before EGO, there was also Jesh, picked up by Team Flash as a trainee in February 2020 after spending some time in the academy roster of Mr Buffalo. Moves like this are no rarity in Vietnam, but while some teams had reportedly fielded a crowded roster of trainees in the past and silently developed them in the background, the percentage of those who actually saw the light of VCS was miniscule.

In contrast, Jesh received an official announcement – a first sign that EGO was not just a sparring partner but part of FL’s long-term plan. This was later confirmed by Terence Ting (CEO of Team Flash) in an exclusive interview with VCS English in April:

We just brought in some young players, e.g. a really talented jungler by the name of Jesh. He has a lot of potential long-term. He is not quite ready for the big stage yet, to play in VCS. But the team has been working with him a lot behind the scenes. We always believe in promoting new talent.

The role model of Jesh: None other than SofM himself. Indeed quite a high bar to match, he proved in May that his talent matches his ambition by reaching Challenger on the Korean ladder – far from a trivial feat as playing on the best server in the world from Vietnam is only possible with high ping. If there was any doubt whom Jesh was idolizing, his SoloQ name was evidence enough.

Admiration can often result in mimesis, and Jesh was not different in that regard. When Flash announced their roster for Summer 2020, he was included to the astonishment of many, but his name had changed and now alluded to SofM’s IGN on the Korean server: 10k EGO, a Dota 2 reference. More than a formality, this also signaled the dawn of a new stage in his career. Once Jesh, now EGO: Traineeship was over.


The Id Factor: All beginnings are difficult

The first step was done, but one could have assumed that there are better places for a rookie jungler than Team Flash – after all, this team had just won Spring Split and possessed one of the best VCS junglers in YiJin, also known to the international audience after attending MSI 2018 with EVOS Esports. Expectations were low, and only the most optimistic fans could have hoped for EGO to see significant game time.

As it turned out, Team Flash’s vows to foster new talent were truthful: When the team participated in the Mid-Season Showdown against the Pacific Championship Series (PCS), an impromptu surrogate for MSI which had been canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, EGO promptly made a surprise appearance in the first match of a semifinal series against Machi Esports but was subbed out immediately after a depressing loss which was largely related to an underwhelming performance by the debutant.

With the adaptive and experienced yet tilt-prone YiJin back in the line-up, Team Flash managed to turn the tides and advance to the final where they however found themselves at a 1-2 deficit against Talon Esports with none other than YiJin himself anti-carrying in Game 3 with a tremendously awful 0/10/6 showing. Finding their starting jungler unable to compete after falling victim to the infamous indisposition of mental boom, FL was forced to rely on the help of its apprentice – if there was a time for EGO to prove that he was good, it was now. Did they come back? Of course not. 1-3.

Throwing their rookie in at the deep end against the best teams of PCS may have seemed odd, but given that Flash had used this ultimately meaningless tournament to experiment with their roster as evidenced by them randomly rotating between different mid laners, those two games could have been dismissed as nothing but a field study. Striving to defend their domestic crown and book their ticket to China to compete at the World Championship, Flash was expected to field the best possible roster permutation and dominate the region, especially after upgrading the support position with a strong playmaking and shotcalling presence in Palette.

A reasonable assumption on paper, the touted title favourite however suddenly found themselves winless after Week 1, going 0-2 in both their matches. EGO was brought in to save the day in Game 2 both times but only managed to extend his personal losing streak.

Amassing a sizable individual lead in both games, EGO did not go down without showing some small glimpses of brilliance but ultimately contributed heavily to the demise of his team with rampant overaggression and puzzling late-game decision making. Suddenly part of a wannabe contender which looked irreparably dysfunctional from the outside, EGO had not only lost the first four matches of his career but was also averaging 5.5 deaths per game. The start to his career could have not gone worse.


The emergence of ego

The supposed FL behemoth was facing a major identity crisis: Characterized by a bot-centric style built around a scaling hard-carry marksman in Slayder, a roaming utility mid laner in Kati and a self-sustaining top laner in Yoshino or Stark which was adhesively held together by the flexibility of YiJin, Team Flash had bested their archnemesis GAM Esports in Spring Finals mostly due to superior macro and teamfight coordination. This approach worked well but was also somewhat reliant on Slayder to reach its full potential, and the addition of support Palette not only eradicated pre-existent team cohesion but also held back Flash’s star ADC with the newly formed bot duo still in search of synergy. Even if those cracks were to be fixed, a consistent carry void beyond Slayder was potentially jeopardizing FL’s long-term growth.

One central piece to fill the puzzle and reverse the trend was supposed to be YiJin, but although Flash indeed managed to save the sinking ship and went on to win nine series in a row after their disastrous start, this did not happen on the back of their initial starting jungler: In a series of events which could only happen in a meme league such as VCS, Yijin was permanently benched after supposedly slapping Slayder for accidentally stepping onto Watermelon who is not a watermelon but his cat. Yijin would not play a single game after Week 1.

Instead, it was none other than a 17-year old rookie with the overall experience of four career games who was suddenly given a permanent starting spot and repaid this trust by becoming the driving force behind FL’s turnaround: A mechanically brilliant Solo Queue prodigy, EGO initially tried his hand at explosive albeit somewhat selfish and volatile champions such as Lee Sin and Graves but failed miserably. Adapting in blistering pace, Flash completely overhauled their pick-ban philosophy, spearheaded by EGO’s willingness to drastically modify his approach to the game, now executing an enabling, utility-based jungling style with great competence.

EGO’s first 15 career games

Relying on tanky frontline champions with reliable gank set-up such as Trundle, Volibear and Sett as well as his pocket Nidalee, this radical change in EGO’s champion pool not only served to dial down his recklessness and prevent momentous deaths but also came along with a more active role in the early game: Not a team to roll over the enemy from the get-go and ranking only fourth in GD@15, Flash often opted to draft around a passive botside with Aphelios, Kai’sa or FL’s bread-and-butter duo of Ezreal and Yuumi. EGO was paramount in transitioning those compositions safely through the laning phase until they could hit their power spikes, enabling his team to defeat the enemy with superior teamfighting later on. In those stages of the game, EGO was mostly assigned a peeling role at first but gradually began to showcase an astute engage sense.

Despite their poor start, Flash finished the Regular Season in second place with a strong 11-3 series record, going 11-1 with EGO as their sole starter and only narrowly losing once to perennial frontrunner GAM Esports. Much of this can be credited to EGO’s willingness to take a step back and cater towards his teammates: Where other rookies may have insisted on playing montage champions, EGO was not only selfless enough to deprioritize his own camps (-6 CSD@15) and play for his carries, but also showcased the necessary skill to make this gank-heavy style work. Leading the league with a whopping first-blood participation rate of 46.9%, rookie jungler EGO had transformed from just another cog in the machine into the engine of his team within weeks.


Super-carry Super-EGO

Never fight a Vietnamese in the jungle, they say – fairly sound advice when you take into account who is populating the VCS forest. But no matter how maniacal (DNK), crafty (Sorn) or reliable (Xuhao) his opponents, EGO was bested by none and made a legitimate case for himself as the best jungler in the league alongside Levi. Not given the luxury of dominant solo lanes as his GAM counterpart, he still ran circles around most of his enemies in Summer 2020 thanks to creative pathing and well-tempered aggression.

Primarily resorting to high-tempo utility champions which can chase down overextended enemies in their lane, it was Trundle in particular who attracted EGO’s liking. Equipped with potent fighting capabilities but a relatively slow clear speed, a carnivorous approach is needed for the Troll King to make an impact in the early game. EGO mastered this task flawlessly, routinely outpacing his opponents and snowballing his sidelanes in cooperation with his roam-eager mid laner Kati.

Counterintuitively, his most played champion was none other than the cougar queen herself. Without any crowd control tools in Nidalee’s kit, EGO made his pocket pick work by seeking favorable 2v2 or 3v3 skirmishes, smothering out the enemy jungler and using this map control to pair up with his support Palette – a strategy which was especially effective when combined with Pantheon. The burst-heavy duo transformed the moderately paced Flash line-up into an early-game menace (+2.3k GD@15) whereas FL struggled to find the same oomph for Nidalee comps without a Spartan warrior on her side (+0.2k GD@15).

But as successful as the Regular Season may have been, for an ambitious organization as Team Flash only a triumphant playoff run mattered. Going into post-season, they were however forced to make adaptations to their modus operandi with the jungle meta clearly shifting towards carry champions. In their first playoff series against a supposedly inferior enemy, FL indeed beat Team Secret with a flattering 3-1 match score but did not exactly set the world on fire with their messy performance. It was especially the meta-adhering EGO who severely struggled to find his footing, unable to influence the early game (-556 GD@15) while playing Graves and Nidalee only. Ultimately, Team Flash was fortunate to be on the receiving end of some classic VCS throws from TS’s side.

Now facing GAM Esports in a semi-final match within a double elimination bracket which would not decide the split champion yet but reward the winner with a guaranteed ticket to the World Championship, it was blatantly obvious that some clear improvements were needed. The match-up did not start well for Flash after they let Game 1 slip through their fingers in a dramatic late-game scramble, and Game 2 swiftly turned into a serious spanking thanks to a vintage Lee Sin performance by Levi who solokilled EGO early and finished the game with a 12/0/5 scoreline.

Things were looking dire for both Team Flash and their jungler who was once again put onto Graves exclusively but failed to replicate his performances from the regular season. A radical shift in P/B priorities was needed – and miraculously, a cervine saviour stepped into the spotlight to turn the tides. Playing Lillia on stage for the first time in his career, EGO finally hit his groove and put on his carry shoes, prancing through the enemy team and lulling them into a grey-screen sleep.

EGO’s 7/3/14 show muscled his team into Game 4, but it was not him who would ultimately decide the series in Flash’s favour. Sentenced to tank duty in the first two games, it was Yoshino’s time to shine, and using three consecutive first-picks to put him on Camille turned out to be the momentum-shifting adjustment. Fortunately, Yoshino was not a solo mission but could rely on a rock-solid pillar in the jungle position: For the final two games, EGO resorted back to Trundle, crucially pulling off a courageous buff-buff invade-gank route at the start of Game 5 to start the snowball in the top lane.

With this reverse sweep against the Marines, EGO and his team had booked a first-time trip to Worlds, but before testing themselves against international competition, one final task awaited them: The Grand Final for the VCS Summer Championship 2020, unsurprisingly duked out in yet another FL-GAM battle against their eternal fiend who had comfortably breezed through Loser’s Bracket.

Remembering what had happened in their previous encounter, EGO prompty locked in hoofed Neeko for Game 1 and utterly decimated his opponents in a 8/3/11 masterclass. Although GAM narrowly escaped with a dub in Game 2, allowing EGO to pilot Lillia once more would have nearly put them at a 0-2 deficit. They had seen enough: Lillia was banned for the rest of the series.

After exchanging blows in Game 3 and 4, the epic rivalry between Team Flash and GAM Esports was now coming to its ultimate conclusion. All four Bo3s and now three Bo5s in 2020 between these two giants had astoundingly gone the distance, and a third silvery scrap would decide who should own the domestic bragging rights. Finding themselves on Red Side, FL astonishingly reserved their final counterpick for their rookie jungler and chose wisely: It was Trundle. You know what happened next.

After activating his autowin cheat, EGO had now achieved more in his first split than most Vietnamese junglers will in their entire career: Worlds participation. VCS champion. Finals MVP.


One year later: The comeback

In a perfect world, EGO and Team Flash would have gone to China in 2020 and introduced themselves to the international audience. In a pandemic world, they instead avoided the possibility of winning Airport Any% by simply staying at home. After EGO was denied what may turn out to be a once-in-a-lifetime chance by the rigidity of local lockdown measures, he set his eyes on the next VCS split. Confident in his own abilities and seeking for a hefty payday matching his market value, he left Team Flash and joined CERBERUS Esports, a mid-table team which however was committed to build a championship-level squad.

How does the story of EGO continue? There is no answer, only a cliffhanger. With misfortune striking once again, EGO was forced to sit out nearly the entirety of Spring 2021 due to a lengthy illness. Following the cancellation of Summer Split, we will have waited more than a year for a healthy version of EGO when he finally returns to the rift for Winter 2021.

The stage is set: Will we see him rejuvenated in his full power, a perfect blend of brawn and brain, of finesse and pizzazz? Or will we see him as a shadow of his former self, a flickering flash in the pan, a one-hit wonder? If it is the latter, he still gave us one hell of a song.

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