For two years Korea watched.
They still won World Championships. They remained the strongest region.
Yet, Korea watched as the League of Legends landscape changed around them. Their best players were siphoned from the region at every level — amateur solo queue whiz kids to World Champions — and scattered all over the globe. Chinese organizations, and later North American organizations, opened their wallets, offering lucrative contracts to high-profile Korean talent.
For two years, Korea made the most of who remained.
During those two years, SK Telecom T1 won two World Championships, three LoL Champions Korea titles, one Mid-Season Invitational, and an IEM World Championship. Of the available international LoL competitions in that timeframe, only two were not claimed by SKT — the IEM Season IX World Championship won by Team SoloMid and the 2015 Mid-Season Invitational where SKT lost to Edward Gaming.
Despite the steady loss of domestic talent to other regions Korea remained on top.
Now, for the first time in two years, Korea is retaining more of their talent, including returning players who left in the 2014-15 offseason.
Walking more than a block on the streets of Seoul, South Korea, without spotting a telecom retailer advertising either KT or SKT is impossible. It’s similarly impossible to talk about the rise of esports as a whole in Korea without mentioning KT Rolster or SK Telecom T1’s contributions.
These two Korean conglomerates have helped shape the country’s esports landscape, dating back to KT’s initial foray into Starcraft in 1999 with the KTF n016 Progame Team (later the KTF MagicNs). SKT later created their Starcraft division in April 2004 with the signing of iconic Terran Lim “BoxeR” Yo-hwan and his team Orion/4 Union. SKT and KT enjoyed a healthy rivalry throughout Starcraft: Brood War which continued into Starcraft II until just this year when both organizations disbanded their Proleague teams.
On Oct. 10, 2012, KT formed two League of Legends teams — KT Rolster A and KT Rolster B. SKT soon followed suit, signing Bok “Reapered” Han-gyu’s Eat, Sleep, Game roster in December 2012 for SK Telecom T1 #1, and creating an entirely new team for SK Telecom T1 #2.
In League of Legends, SKT reigns supreme. Where the two teams traded blows across years of competition in Starcraft, both experiencing their respective highs and lows, their LoL encounters are heavily SKT-favored. Their five-game clash in the OnGameNet Champions Summer 2013 is widely regarded as one of the greatest series in LoL history, and set the tone for their rivalry for years to come.
The Telecom War has become even more laughably one-sided over the past two years.
In the same time it’s taken for SKT to earn three LCK titles and two World Championships, KT has made it to the LCK finals twice, walking away the loser both times. They made it to the 2015 World Championship, but fell to the Tigers in the quarterfinals. This year, the members of KT watched from Korea while Samsung Galaxy attended the 2016 World Championship as the region’s third and final seed, having beat KT in the qualifying gauntlet.
‘A Strong Will’
Of their 2016 lineup, KT kept only jungler Go “Score” Dong-bin, a legacy player for the organization since his AD carry days on the KT Rolster Bullets.
With high-profile acquisitions Cho “Mata” Se-hyoung, Kim “Deft” Hyuk-kyu, Heo “PawN” Won-seok, and Song “Smeb” Kyung-ho, KT is the most talked-about roster this offseason, preemptively hailed as one of Korea’s best with their new squad yet to play a game.
Their goal is to win a 2017 championship at all costs.
“We are looking to make a team that can win the 2017 World Championship,” he told OSEN in an interview translated by Slingshot Esports’ Andrew Kim. “We’ve currently recruited players like Pawn and Smeb who have a strong will to make that happen. Score was in the center of the rebuilding. His decision to stay with the team has also impacted the signing of both Pawn and Smeb.”
Winning the 2017 World Championship also means knocking SKT off of their current pedestal. The only team to take LoL’s highest honor over the past two years, SKT inevitably rises to the top thanks to their organization, staff and commitment to keeping the best player in the game's competitive history — mid laner Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok — happy.
Now, as the Korean LoL landscape shifts once more, KT looks to upset the current balance, sinking larger amounts of money into proven top-tier talent in order to topple SKT’s stranglehold on domestic and international titles.
Their labor and their leisure too
The overall rise in salaries offered by Korean teams this offseason, especially to retain world-class performers like Smeb, come after the stunning news that KeSPA’s Starcraft ProLeague was to shut down.
On October 17, 2016, over a decade since it began in 2003, KeSPA Chairman Jun Byung-hun announced the news. He cited a drop in teams and players along with trouble securing sponsors for the ProLeague itself. Days later, both SKT and KT disbanded their StarCraft teams.
After the first few whispers of higher domestic offers for premium and proven Korean LoL players, the jokes began, each with this small grain of truth. Pulling out of StarCraft II team sponsorship led to more available money with which Korean organizations could entice their Korean players in China’s LoL Pro League to return. PawN, Mata and Deft are all returning after two years.
ProLeague died for this, fans said.
A Reverse Exodus?
In the 2014-15 offseason, a myriad of factors contributed to the mass exodus of Korean players for more lucrative offers elsewhere.
The average salary in Korea was dwarfed by what was offered by Chinese — and later in 2016, North American — organizations. At the same time, Korea underwent a massive structural overhaul thanks to a new rule that forbade organizations from having two or more sister teams under the same brand. Suddenly there was a massive amount of available, high-quality talent and far fewer starting spots on domestic rosters.
Now, in the 2016-17 offseason, another series of small but additive changes have guided them on their way back home to Korea. Proleague’s closure is only one of many.
Just as China’s massive streaming culture was a part of the 2014-15 Korean Exodus, it also plays a part in why so many popular Korean players are now leaving China. Spanning a massive audience, League of Legends is still a large draw for Chinese streaming platforms. These platforms drove the perceived value of Korean imports in China up by giving teams money in exchange for those same organizations pursuing specific players and later, having them stream on their platform. The draw for some of these players was exceptionally large.
Stricter streaming rules are on the horizon for the entirety of China, not just the online gaming community. Once an escape from regulations imposed on Chinese television — which range from the expected (porn) to the odd (time travel) — streaming platforms will soon have to monitor their previously unregulated content. This includes a variety of new rules including name authentication.
This impending government crackdown coincides with the realization that the streaming companies’ return on investment for Korean players isn’t nearly what they had hoped.
Due to their practice schedules, the imported players don’t have the same amount of time to stream as a native full-time streamer. Former Chinese pro players like Yu “Misaya” Jingxi have proved to be far more popular and lucrative streamers in the long term.
Korean imports are no longer worth the monetary amounts that Chinese streaming platforms once offered.
Welcome to the New Age
Coupled with rising domestic salaries in Korea, it’s easy to see why players would consider returning from abroad or, in the case of young talent, staying in Korea. Korea was already the most competitive region in the world, even through their darkest hours in early 2015, and now has fairly comparable salaries along with the irresistible taste of victory.
Korean teams are willing to spend a bit more in 2017, partially thanks to Riot’s recent efforts towards increasing the Worlds prize pool and percentage revenue sharing from in-game icons.
Increasing interest from not only Chinese streaming companies but teams in nearly every region has also led to Korean players demanding more money from domestic suitors. In an Inven report by Kim Hong-jae, translated by Slingshot's Andrew Kim, three sources from Korean teams expressed frustration at rising demands from potential players who overestimate their worth. "Professionals have their worth calculated based on how they do, but in the current free agent market, it doesn’t matter what kind of career a certain player had made or how they have performed," one of the sources said.
There's also the matter of Faker's recent contract renewal with SKT, which is rumored to be one of the most expensive offers in League of Legends history.
Individually, none of these factors are solely responsible for more lucrative domestic salaries in Korea, but together, they are just enough to finally tip the scales.
Korea will never match the exorbitant offers of Chinese streaming platforms or North American venture capitalist endeavors, but the combination of winning and a bit more money makes Korea the most attractive option for many more Korean pro players.
For the first time since Season 4, Korea has the pick of their homegrown talent, including solo queue prodigies or proven veterans like Deft and PawN. Korean players will still become imports in other regions at the same rate, but domestic organizations should now be able to formulate their rosters first.
The new KT Rolster is a microcosm of a new Korea. The organization picked up three of the most sought-after players in Mata, Deft and Smeb along with retaining the talent they wanted in Score.
Welcome to the new age.
Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.