Edward Gaming came into the Worlds 2021 final as the underdog. But from China’s perspective, their fans made them look like the favorite. EDG have been the most popular franchise in the history of the League of Legends Pro League. They are the most decorated team in the region, but outside of the LPL, not so much.
Even though legendary jungler Ming “Clearlove” Kai championed EDG’s LPL reign for so long, the team has not been able to put together any deep run at their last five trips to the League of Legends World Championship. Meanwhile, other LPL franchises like Invictus Gaming and FunPlus Phoenix were able to break through and bring back the Summoner’s Cup for the LPL.
But with Clearlove just a shell of his former self, EDG’s new era began in 2021. And that era began in earnest Saturday, as EDG beat reigning world champion DWG KIA to take the Worlds 2021 title, with a rookie jungler making all the difference for China’s No. 1 team.
Clearlove had planned on making a return to the main roster after coaching in 2020. However, a young jungler without a full year of starting experience contested his spot. That player was Zhao “Jiejie” Li-Jie, who wound up earning first dibs on playtime, then arguably becoming the most important player in Edward Gaming’s win over DWG KIA in Reykjavík, Iceland.
With Jiejie at the helm, EDG tore through most of the LPL; they finished second in the league in the spring and summer regular seasons, behind Royal Never Give Up and FunPlus Phoenix, respectively. However, in both splits, the 20-year-old rookie often looked like the weakest member of the team. Jiejie showed his bad side in the 2021 LPL summer playoffs against Team WE, too; in that series, Jiejie single handedly cost Edward Gaming a trip to the winners finals. Missing Smites against stray Ezreal Q’s and poor objective management caused EDG to bench the untested teenager in the middle of the series. EDG lost that series as WE kicked them to the losers bracket.
— LPL (@lplenglish) August 23, 2021
Down but not out, EDG gave Jiejie a second chance in the losers bracket, which turned out to be the best decision EDG could have made. The perennial contenders went on to win the LPL summer finals, and just two months after his benching, Jiejie emerged as not only a player that can walk alongside the rest of the stacked EDG roster but past every jungler he faced at Worlds 2021, including DWG KIA’s Kim “Canyon” Geon-bu, who is in contention for the spot of best jungler of all time. Jiejie did not receive the Worlds 2021 finals MVP award – that honor went to EDG mid laner Lee “Scout” Ye-chan – but even Scout argued the jungler deserved it. After a wild two months, Jiejie captured his first-ever Worlds title not only for himself but for Clearlove too.
“Starting from when I joined in EDG, Clearlove was my goal and my aim. He was the one I was looking to,” Jiejie said. “I feel like today … I somehow achieved his dream as well and helped him achieve the dream he’d like to achieve.”
Jiejie the Fourth
Jiejie’s Worlds 2021 performance might go a little under-appreciated, which is par the course for him at this point. With others getting more attention on his team, Jiejie is still overshadowed.
For a majority of Worlds, Jiejie has been stuck playing Jarvan IV. In nine of the 21 games Jiejie played at Worlds, he was playing J4, a champion that is expected to do the big things right, lock down targets and be the one to engage in team fights. But Jiejie pushed the limits of what Jarvan can do. Some of the most iconic moments in the entire tournament came from Jiejie, but not necessarily because he was playing J4.
— LoL Esports (@lolesports) October 23, 2021
The jungle position can be like a cold sprint across a tightrope. Not only do you have to engage at the right times to initiate fights, you have to be quicker to the buzzer when it comes to Smiting objectives. Take it slow, calculate, then go – fast. Jiejie struggled with that in the summer playoffs, but something clicked. When EDG needed him to win Smite fights to secure objectives that could be the difference between winning or losing games, EDG had a weighted coin at their disposal. Time and time again, Jiejie ran across that rope. He was unbelievably clutch.
— LoL Esports (@lolesports) November 6, 2021
Whether it is stealing back-to-back Barons against RNG in the quarterfinals or securing dragon souls against Gen.G in semis, Jiejie quickly erased the reputation he had of being a choker.
Just being clutch in objectives only gets you so far, but it did lead Jiejie to the Worlds 2021 finals, where he faced his biggest test: Canyon, a player known as much for his mechanical prowess as for that same clutch gene. Canyon, the heir apparent to former SK Telecom T1 jungler Bae “Bengi” Seong-woong as the greatest to ever play the position, was known for not just gapping his foes on the Rift but creating an insurmountable chasm that matched his name.
But Jiejie leveled up once again. In the finals, he continuously clutched out Smite fights. On top of that, he was actually outplaying Canyon.
In Game 1 of the Worlds 2021 finals, the rookie earned Player of the Game honors for his 100% kill participation. DK had enough of Jiejie’s Jarvan IV after that loss and banned it away from him for the rest of the series. After having so-so performances on Xin Zhao in Games 2 and 3, EDG decided to turn Jiejie loose in Game 4, putting him on a carry jungler, Viego – a champion Jiejie hasn’t played professionally in months.
With Canyon picking a carry of his own in Game 4, Talon, the two junglers went to war. But Jiejie who outclassed Canyon with another 100% kill participation game and another crucial objective steal. He carried a must-win Game 4 giving EDG a shot to win Worlds 2021 in Game 5.
Jiejie steals AGAIN. What is that, third smite steal today?
— EDG fan account (@redbullgaming) November 6, 2021
With just one more game separating EDG and their first Worlds win, Jiejie drew two jungle bans. DK banned away Jarvan IV and Viego in Game 5. With the jungle pool spread thin, Jiejie went back on Xin Zhao. And even then, Jiejie managed to out-gap the player who was known for doing just that to anyone he faced; a rookie, competing in his first Worlds, let alone Worlds final, did the unthinkable: He outplayed, out-Smited, and outshined the best jungler in the world.
Taking down the DWG KIA Nexus in Game 5 took all of EDG’s best, but Jiejie shined, even if that luster was lost in the brightness of Scout’s play in Game 5.
Jiejie, an arbiter of EDG’s first-ever world championship, is just 20 years old, and his contract doesn’t expire until the end of 2023. He has a long career ahead of him and two more years to build on not just his legacy but that of Edward Gaming. Two more years to do just what Canyon did: Explode onto the scene on an international stage, outclass the best and then earn the mantle of greatest in the world.
The remarkable thing is, just as Jiejie’s improvement from the summer until he hoisted the Summoner’s Cup on Saturday showed, he can get even better.