In 2015, the weakest position in the North American LCS was in the jungle. While Lee "Rush" Yoon-jae won the regular-season MVP for the summer split, a majority of the jungler class was underwhelming in their roles. The role has seen an upgrade as the calendar turned, with the arrival of Worlds semifinalist, Kim "Reignover" Yeu-jin, of Fnatic, joining the league-leading Immortals (13-1) and a crop of rookies coming up from the minor leagues.
The supernova of those rookie junglers has been Joshua "Dardoch" Hartnett, the starting jungler for Team Liquid (7-7). After bouncing between minor league teams and Team Liquid's Academy squad, the straightforward 17-year-old has made the most of his call-up to the majors. A playmaking, dynamic-style of player, Dardoch has slid in beautifully alongside Liquid's ace AD carry and former world champion, Chae "Piglet" Gwang-jin.
Following his team's victory over a team it's chasing in the standings, Team SoloMid (8-6), I was able to talk to Liquid's electric newcomer.
"How was the game today?" I asked.
"We played TSM, and it was pretty one-sided," he answered, blunt and direct. "I think their shot-calling is a bit off. They aren't at the right places at the right time, and their draft was pretty bad today."
TSM's jungler, Dennis "Svenskeren" Johnsen, entered the scene as one of the new jungle signings that was supposed to turn around the position in the NA LCS. The ace player of the regular season winning SK Gaming back in spring 2015, Svenskeren was expected to make the rebuilt TSM a faster, better early game-focused group. Dardoch, though, thinks his play so far has been underwhelming.
"I don't think he's necessarily super good like he was before," Dardoch said, when asked what he thought how his opponent has done in his debut season in North America. "I'm not sure if he degraded in skill or if others got better, because I wasn't playing at LCS-level back then. But to me, he's pretty good. I think he's a little below me in skill. Mechanically, I'm better than him for sure, but I think he has experience over me."
One player Dardoch believes is better than himself is the reigning league MVP and Cloud9's jungler, Rush. The two played in back-to-back games on Sunday with Lee Sin, with Rush first busting out an amazing performance that ended in a losing effort against Counter Logic Gaming (10-4). Dardoch went into the next game and put on an equally dazzling show on a champion that's quickly becoming synonymous with both aggressive junglers.
TL, even though it's in the thick of things for a top-four playoff spot, is still a team built for the future. Its oldest player, Piglet, is only 22, and no one else on the team is over 20. The three rookies who have made their debut this split -- Dardoch, Samson "Lourlo" Jackson and Matthew "Matt" Elento -- are all 18 years old or younger. While Liquid could surprise people in a run for the championship come LCS's trip to Las Vegas for the finals, this team's ceiling realistically might not even be until 2017 rolls around.
"In terms of age, we're definitely built for the future," he said. "But we're all hard-working individuals, so we progress way faster than other teams."
The last topic broached with TL's jungler was the other jungler rookies who are currently trying to keep up with him for rookie of the split honors: Anthony "Hard" Barkhovtsev from Echo Fox (5-9); Galen "Moon" Holgate from NRG Esports (7-7); and Dignitas' (4-10) Thomas "Kirei" Yuen.
"I don't know much about Kirei," he said. "I just know him as the [European] one-trick Elise, more or less. I don't think too highly of him, but I definitely play with respect especially when he gets champions like Kindred or Elise."
NRG's jungler scored higher points on Dardoch's evaluation. "I thought Moon was really good because I played him a lot in Challenger series. I'm not sure what happened to him, but I still think he's a really good player. [I] don't think he's showing as good as he really is on the stage."
He also rated Hard highly. "I think Hard is really good. He hasn't had an opportunity to show how good he is because [Echo Fox] hadn't been playing with their main roster."
Dardoch will continue to lead the rookie jungler quartet in two weeks when Liquid tries to lock up a playoff spot against Counter Logic Gaming and Moon's NRG Esports.