For those who have watched OnGameNet's League of Legends Champions Korea for years, patterns emerge regarding the major players and organizations. Winning teams earn certain monikers and reputations while disappointments like CJ Entus or the Jin Air Green Wings earned the ire of even their most dedicated fans.
There are the upstarts, KT Rolster, who always put together an intelligent and creative team that's more likely to fail than to win a Champions title. The kings, SK Telecom T1, have reigned over the region, capturing four domestic championships and two world championships in addition to being the only team to go through a Champions season undefeated. There was even once a farm team, Xenics, who until recently had continuously scouted rising talent but failed to retain their players as the received more lucrative offers from larger organizations.
Then, there are the gatekeepers, Incredible Miracle.
Regardless of how much individual talent was on any Incredible Miracle team, or how many of their former players went on to later reach then-unforeseen heights – Song "Smeb" Kyung-ho and Kim "Reignover" Yeu-jin immediately come to mind – IM always failed to accomplish anything in Champions. They routinely entered each season looking far superior to their qualifier counterparts, but were stymied by superior opposition from the likes of SK Telecom T1, Samsung Galaxy, KT Rolster, even the aforementioned disappointments in Jin Air and CJ.
This year, Incredible Miracle – rebranded to reflect only their sponsor's name, Longzhu – entered the 2016 season with a plan: offer top-tier Korean players competitive wages, thereby enticing them to join their team. A myriad of potential player names floated around in the preseason ether. This included the enigmatic and unparalleled support Cho "Mata" Se-hyeong who was perceived to be fed up with his situation in China, and jungler Lee “Spirit” Da-yoon among others.
At the end of a decidedly less volatile offseason than the previous year, Longzhu had found their team. Notable players filled nearly every role, with equally-talented players on the Longzhu bench for a full, 10-man roster. They were designated Korea's "super team," a title that seems to bring relative disaster to all those who hold it regardless of region. Longzhu hasn't been a disaster, but they certainly haven't been a dominant force in Champions. Solidly in the middle of the standings with a 3-3 series record, Longzhu often looks uncoordinated or lost as they struggle to piece together an optimal lineup from their large amount of talent.
Alongside the rumors of Mata's return to Korea was the near-guaranteed return of top laner Lee "Flame" Ho-jong. Flame was another player to whom China had not been kind, and he had spent the majority of his 2015 season as Choi "Acorn" Cheon-ju's backup on LGD Gaming. Following an unprecedented collapse at the 2015 League of Legends World Championship, LGD and Flame went their separate ways. In spite of his perceived malcontent, Flame was hardly useless. The team continuously forced him onto utility and tank meta champions, like Maokai, Gnar, and Rumble. Flame learned how to play a more team-oriented style as opposed to his carry days on CJ Entus Blaze.
Prior to the start of the season, it was thought that Flame would start for Longzhu, with Koo "Expession" Bon-taek waiting in the wings, but the team fared far better with Expession in the top lane until recently. Expession’s positioning in team fights has been stronger than Flame’s. and his performance thus far has reminded old NaJin fans why he was so highly regarded among his top lane peers before he left the competitive scene for much of 2014-15. Expession has an impressive 285 gold difference at 10 minutes, along with the best CS difference at 10 minutes, and highest CS per minute, the best of all Korean top laners.
In the wake of a mass exodus of jungle talent from the region, Lee "Chaser" Sang-hyun shed his lackluster-to-abysmal performances as “RealFoxy” once and for all and blossomed into one of Korea’s premier junglers. Together, he and the Jin Air Green Wings looked like Korea’s best and brightest for a time in Champions Spring 2015 until Cinderhulk hit the jungle in late spring, accompanying Jin Air’s downfall. It took until the summer season for Chaser to truly recover from patch 5.5 and the Cinderhulk meta. He made up for it by almost (and improbably) leading Jin Air to the 2015 World Championship. Jin Air fell to KT Rolster in the Korean Regional Finals, and Chaser became one of the most sought-after offseason acquisitions in Korea before finally landing on Longzhu.
Chaser boasted a 77.9 percent kill participation, the highest of all starting junglers, across 38 games in Champions Summer 2015. He looks to repeat this same level of inclusion on Longzhu, and currently sits at an 80.6 percent, again the best of all junglers, in Champions Spring 2016.
Meanwhile, Lee “Crash” Dong-woo had little fanfare coming into the season, especially with Chaser presumed as Longzhu’s starter. Crash spent most of last year in China’s LoL Secondary Pro League, first as the jungler for ShowTime in an offseason tournament, and then for T.Bear Gaming under the name “goeat.” TBG not only failed to make the playoffs that summer, but also did not qualify for 2016 LSPL Spring Season following losses to his former team, ShowTime, and AD Gaming.
Crash’s Korean debut was a strong Game 1 performance against the Afreeca before Chaser replaced him in Longzhu’s Week 3 sweep of the Freecs. However, his true coming out party took place against CJ Entus. In spite of an overall series loss, Crash put up massive numbers on Nidalee and Graves. Of all junglers in Korea, Crash currently sits at a whopping 14.5 CS differential at 10 minutes, and has an 80 percent win rate across his five starts for Longzhu. When Chaser plays, everything must go through him whereas Crash tends to focus more on powerfarming – four of his five games have been on either Nidalee or Graves – and showing up to the mid-game with incredible amounts of damage and burst. Five games is an admittedly small sample size with which to judge Crash, but he currently looks like Korea’s foremost young jungle talent, unlike preseason hopefuls CJ Entus Park “Bubbling” Jun-hyeong – whom Crash destroyed in their matchup – and SBENU Sung “Flaw” Yeon-jun.
Widely regarded as one of the best mid laners in the world, Shin “CoCo” Jin-yeong spent the majority of 2015 dragging the four corpses of his CJ Entus teammates to surprisingly high Champions finishes. It was only fitting that CoCo’s arrival to Longzhu accompanied Chaser’s, as both were incredibly high-profile Korean players whom many had expected to go to China. In addition to his knack for flashy outplays, CoCo knows how to hold the mid lane and hold it well. He also brings a vast champion pool with a seemingly ability to play anything and everything. In Champions Spring 2015, CoCo played a total of 13 different champions. This was outdone in Champions Summer 2015 with a sum of 15 unique champions throughout the season. Thus far, in Champions Spring 2016, he’s already played seven different champions in 10 games for Longzhu, and his damage per minute is second only to SK Telecom T1’s Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok at 626.
However, the mid laner who does the highest percentage of Longzhu’s damage, is CoCo’s presumed backup, Kim “Frozen” Tae-il, thanks in large part to his fantastic Week 4 performance on Lux against e-mFire. Week 4 marked Frozen’s 2016 debut, along with Longzhu’s general setup and swapping between the trio of Expession/Chaser/CoCo trio and Flame/Crash/Frozen.
AD Carry and Support: Cpt Jack/Fury and Pure
Veteran AD carry Kang “Cpt Jack” Hyung-woo has been shoring up the bottom lane for Longzhu without competition from Lee “Fury” Jin-yong as the latter was banned from competitive play. However, Fury’s ban is lifted as of Feb. 11, giving Longzhu another choice for their AD carry position.
There’s little doubt that Cpt Jack not only still has an immense amount of skill, but the desire to play. Unfortunately for Jack, there’s also the sense that Longzhu already knows exactly what they can get from Jack, while Fury has more untapped potential. While on Samsung last year, Fury was often the primary reason for a Samsung victory, particularly last spring when the team was less coordinated. With Longzhu seemingly shifting into using specific sets of players in Week 4, it remains to be seen as to what they’ll do with their two AD carries – assigning them to a fixed, already established trio, or simply deciding on one over the other.
The only Longzhu member presumably without a talented teammate eagerly waiting in the wings – although Longzhu does have rookie support Jang "Zzus" Joon-soo – former NaJin e-mFire support Kim “Pure” Jin-sun has been a mainstay with Cpt Jack in the Longzhu bottom lane. Impressive performances on Trundle and Bard likely ensure that Pure’s starting position is the most safe of all Longzhu players.
Piecing the puzzle together
Longzhu’s current setup allows them to have two lines – similar to hockey – for top, jungle, and mid. The first is that of Expession top, Chaser jungle, and CoCo mid. While Longzhu’s team fighting is mediocre at best, Expession gives them their strongest team fight. Chaser orchestrates their early-to-mid game, and CoCo is able to best opponents in lane, joining up for the mid game with significant advantages. As previously mentioned, Expession has been very lane-dominant as well, so this specific line is far more focused on accruing advantages through laning while every move goes through Chaser. In contrast, Crash powerfarms in the jungle, occasionally making his presence known to his jungle opponent, smothering them out of their own territory.
Fury is eligible to return this week, and it’s likely that Longzhu will continue to test this two-line setup by placing Fury with one trio and Cpt Jack with the other. Based on their respective playstyles, Cpt Jack would fit in better with the Expession/Chaser/CoCo trio where Fury would likely do better with Flame/Crash/Frozen.
Possessing so many talented players who all want gold and resources, distributing said resources becomes a tricky task for Longzhu. As the AD carry who received the highest percentage of his team’s gold in Summer 2015 (27.5 percent) Cpt Jack has surprisingly taken a backseat to his teammates, taking only 23.8 percent this season. Chaser has held steady from 2015 to 2016 at around 19 percent, but Crash takes a massive 21.1 percent, the highest of all Korean junglers. CoCo has also taken fewer resources this year, although the small amount could be due to the fact that junglers generally receive more gold in 2016 than 2015 thereby shifting percentages away from carry players. Additionally, CoCo was his team’s primary carry, and it made sense for CJ to give him the majority of their gold. Expession and Flame also take up the same amount of relative gold, 21.9 percent and 21.2 percent respectively.
If Longzhu’s troubles aren’t from resource distribution, then it further points to significant breakdowns in communication mid-game, especially when one considers their team fighting, or lack thereof. To make up for their their bad team fighting, Longzhu has taken to poke compositions that require little to no 5v5 engagements, particularly with the Expession/Chaser/CoCo group. This has led to a few victories, but has also led opponents to exploit Longzhu's weaknesses by engaging them directly.
With the vast amount of expertise that Longzhu’s players have, the team’s middling start is concerning. This is a team that had lofty aspirations, and spent the money to back up said aspirations with top-tier talent. A .500 record and series losses to Samsung and CJ Entus are hardly successful in light of their preseason goals. The major criticism of Longzhu this year is that they lack coordination, something that the two-line system could help or exacerbate, depending on who the team chooses to put together and how much practice they receive.
Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore eSports. She would love to see Longzhu get it together. You can follow her on Twitter.