James "Panda" Ding is the Jungler for Echo Fox Academy. He made his LCS debut in the 2019 Spring Split in weeks 6 and 7, substituting for Lee "Rush" Yoon-jae in an effort to improve the team's early game communication and turn around a mid-split slump. Panda showed a surprising amount of poise for a mid-split LCS debut, but despite his efforts, Echo Fox was unable to close a game of the four that Panda started.
It wasn't until Rush returned to the main roster that FOX would turn around the split and qualify for playoffs. However, Panda brought his experience back to Echo Fox Academy, leading the team past 100 Thieves Academy into the 2019 NA Academy League Semifinals before losing to TSM ACademy.
This will not be the last of Panda's appearances in the LCS. Formerly known as "An Obese Panda" the Jungler played collegiate LoL at University of California San Diego before testing his mettle in the 2018 NA Scouting Grounds. Panda's performance was enough to earn him a starting spot in the NA Academy League after signing with Echo Fox.
Panda sat down with Inven Global to talk about his stint in LCS, his dynamic with Rush, and his competitive experience.
I'm here with Echo Fox Jungler Panda. What has it been like to be on stage for the first time since your time with the main roster?
I was on the LCS stage during 2018 NA Scouting Grounds, but it was definitely a totally new experience. At Scouting Grounds, everything was quite a shock, but by the time I was poised for my LCS debut, I was just really excited to play.
Did you expect your LCS debut to go the way it did? How did you find out you were going to play LCS?
At the start of the split when I was first picked up by Echo Fox Academy, I thought there was at best a 1% changc that I would get any LCS play time. However, before the season, Rush was figuring out VISA issues, so I ended up subbing in with the main team in scrims for a few weeks. That may have contributed to the team wanting to try me as the starter again.
I wouldn't say things were great when the team first played with me, but it was decent. Still, starting in the LCS was really unexpected. I didn't find out I was playing in the LCS until about two days before my debut. Rush and I were splitting scrim time, but I figured that was just a test or a matter of feeling things out. I played about three or four scrim blocks this past week.
What do you think you can bring to the team that's different from how Rush wants to play the game?
I wouldn't say our playstyles are different, because I think we both have a penchant for calculated aggression. The difference is that the team wanted to bring me in as the main communicator of the early game to make specific plans and execute upon them by getting everyone involved. I still need to work on my mid and late game shotcalling, so as of now, Solo and Apollo are handling that primarily.
Did knowing the reasons the team wanted to bring you in as a starter change the way you approached your LCS debut?
The reasons were in the back of my head, but I just got repeated assurance to play normally from my coaching staff. They were sure that if I played normal, I would do great. I just tried to play my own game and didn't focus on overcommunicating. I just tried to play normally.
Were you able to learn anything from watching Rush play with the team before your debut?
I ask Rush questions a decent amount of the time. Mostly it's me asking him for help; it will rarely be him asking me why I did something. Rush has much more experience than me, so anytime I have a question on a Korean jungle path or something, he knows everything about it. It's really nice having him around.
In regards to his games with the main roster, I feel like I can't learn too much unless I have the games with the communications from my team included. Because of this, I have learned from watching his scrims and matches while he's been on Echo Fox Academy. I'll ask him questions about why he did something a certain way and we'll talk about that after the game.
What have you learned so far this split on Echo Fox Academy, and has it helped you in the LCS?
Playing in both Academy and LCS in the same split made me realize that the level difference doesn't affect me too much. All of the stuff I learned in Academy is translatable to the LCS stage. You're held accountable for your mistakes and you have to know why you're doing the things you are doing in game.
It sounds like you didn't have trouble adjusting to the stage at all.
Yeah, obviously make-up and all of that stuff is really different, but gameplay is pretty similar.
It's common for players to have nerves on the day of their LCS debut. To what do you attribute your easy transition?
I think it's mainly due to playing sports. I played high school and college tennis, and I also played collegiate League of Legends. The whole university experience of having a lot of pressure on you to do well academically and balancing that with other activities made me realize that I'm really lucky to be here and play professionally. I don't take it for granted.
How does the pro lifestyle compare to playing in collegiate LoL?
It went from two hours of time commitment per day to ten. The biggest difference though is that in collegiate and amateur play players weren't really held accountable. Some people would try very hard, and some people would kind of just go with the flow and do things normally and prioritize their studies first. I didn't blame them for that, because that's the main goal of college.
I feel like now I can fully focus on League of Legends, and that's why I've been able to improve so much.
While things haven't translated fully on stage, the team seems to be improving. What will it take for you to get our first win on stage with Echo Fox?
Right now, our early game is pretty solid in terms of planning and execution. It's not just because of me; everyone is contributing. If I'm asking for information, they're happy to give me as much information as I need.
Right now, I need to figure out what my role is during the mid game. It's always changing, and there's so many different scenarios. Jungle is the role with the highest variance as far as positioning on the map goes, so I have to figure out where I need to be and when, and then we'll be able to get a win.
Were you intimidated to step into Rush's shoes?
Maybe I should have been, but I really wasn't. I was used to seeing him scrim and seeing him play. Rush definitely has a ton of knowledge, but I feel like I can learn from him. I don't feel too intimidated.
Has pro gaming been a thing you have considered as a potential career for yourself for a long time?
In my senior year of high school, I was considering taking a gap year to try and go pro. However, my parents said I had to wait at least until I got my undergraduate degree. That was fine with me, because I could still play collegiate League and improve as a teammate and a player. Now that I'm done with school, or at least my undergrad, my parents are okay with me trying this career path.
Are there any junglers that you look up to in LCS?
I really look up to Santorin and Xmithie, they've been the two best performing junglers in LCS. Becoming as consistent as them is my main goal.
If Echo Fox was to qualify for an international event, are there any junglers that you would want to play against?
It would be Peanut and Score. Everyone thinks Score is the best jungler, so I want to know what it feels like to playing against him.
He's got about a decade of age and experience on you; that'd be pretty interesting! Thanks for the interview Panda, I appreciate your time. Is there anything you'd like to say to the Echo Fox fans?
Thanks for supporting me in Academy and LCS.