Despite the myriad of roster changes, rising salaries, and a small wave of players returning to domestic shores after years abroad, there is one constant in Korea that has remained the same since the first LoL Champions Korea Spring Finals: everyone wants to beat SK Telecom T1. Only one LCK title has gone to another team — ROX Tigers’ recent win in LCK Summer 2016 — and SKT have held the Summoner’s Cup for two years running.
Here's a look at the rosters the LCK have put together to try and contend with the monarchs of LoL.
- Top: Song “Smeb” Kyung-ho
- Jungle: Go “Score” Dong-bin
- Mid: Heo “PawN” Won-seok
- AD Carry: Kim “Deft” Hyuk-kyu
- Support: Cho “Mata” Se-hyeong
This roster is the highlight of the 2016-17 offseason in Korea. KT Rolster is Korea’s on-paper “super team,” thoroughly trouncing 2015-16 Longzhu Gaming — the only other Korean lineup widely considered a super team in the past.
Though KT managed to beat their long-time rivals SKT en route to the LCK Summer 2016 Finals, they lost to the ROX Tigers 3-2 in that Finals series and later failed to qualify for the 2016 World Championship in the regional gauntlet. This new roster is designed to not only compete at but win a World Championship title.
The roster has stars in every position, and the firepower to win both domestic and international competitions. What will matter most is how they fit together. Whether because of physical health issues or ennui, PawN only played five games for EDward Gaming in 2016 LPL Summer and four games at the World Championship. KT will also have to juggle three in-game leaders: Smeb, Score and Mata. Their success will depend on how well these three gel, and how they learn to distribute team resources, gold or otherwise.
Grade: A This is the roster to watch for in 2017.
SK Telecom T1
- Top: Heo “Huni” Seung-hoon, Kim “Profit” Jun-hyung
- Jungle: Han “Peanut” Wang-ho, Kang “Blank” Sun-gu
- Mid: Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok, Kim “Sky” Ha-neul
- AD Carry: Bae “Bang” Jun-sik
- Support: Lee “Wolf” Jae-wan, Kim “Taehoon” Tae-hoon
Following the 2016 Longzhu disaster, SKT’s third world title and the collapse of the ROX Tigers, it's easy to forget that Peanut's move from NaJin e-mFire to the Tigers was the best pickup in all of Korea last year. Peanut transformed the Tigers, giving them near-unlimited flexibility along with an aggressive and proactive jungle style.
In 2017 Peanut will bring that style to SKT. With the team's acquisitions of Peanut and former Immortals top laner Huni, SKT seem to be transforming themselves ahead of the next season, just like the Tigers did when they brought on Peanut. They can no longer rely on stalwart jungler Bae “bengi” Seong-woong, and will not have his unflappable playoff presence going forward.
Huni's aggressive style is similar to Peanut's, and he should play along well with the jungler's proactive early game pressure. In the past, SKT have been punished for Faker’s over-aggression in mid lane, but with Huni and Peanut, Faker will have new, equally aggressive dive buddies. Meanwhile, Bang and Wolf are still one of the most formidable bot lanes in the region.
Grade: A It’s difficult not to be excited about this new SKT. Faker’s aggression should synergize nicely with both Peanut and Huni’s playstyles.
- Top: Lee “CuVee” Seong-jin
- Jungle: Kang “Ambition” Chan-yong, Kang “Haru” Min-seung
- Mid: Lee “Crown” Min-ho
- AD Carry: Park “Ruler” Jae-hyuk, Lee “Stitch” Seung-ju
- Support: Jo “CoreJJ” Yong-in, Kwon “Wraith” Ji-min
Last year before the season started, I said that Ambition was not a jungler, and I didn’t expect a lot from Samsung. Though they floundered in the spring season and much of the summer, they blossomed in the regional gauntlet and at the World Championship. Ambition isn’t the best jungler in Korea, but he is smart and experienced, and the rest of Samsung's roster credits the ex-CJ Entus legacy player for their continued improvement. He's gone from a fifth laner for CJ in 2015 to a world-class jungler, taking Samsung along with him for the ride.
Top laner CuVee went through a similar transformation in 2016, going from a relatively unaware laner to one of the stronger Korean players in his position. He decimated opponents at Worlds with impressive solo kills and well-coordinated Teleports. Ruler had the benefit of working with Wraith through most of the season, and then found his stride with CoreJJ in the regional qualifier. Crown made a name for himself as one of the best mid laners in the world and a peerless Viktor player.
Going into the next season, Samsung will keep the exact same roster, adding only former CJ Entus jungler Haru as a secondary. They've already had a few missteps at the 2016 KeSPA Cup and IEM Gyeonggi — despite winning at IEM, they sometimes returned to their 2016 spring style of waiting out their poor early game for late-game teamfights. On paper, Samsung still doesn’t stand up to the likes of KT or SKT, but they've already proven that they’re far more than the sum of their parts.
Grade: B It’s a bit of a risk to retain the exact same roster, but it’s likely they haven’t reached their competitive ceiling yet.
- Top: Kim “Roach” Kang-hui
- Jungle: Son “Punch” Min-hyuk
- Mid: Lee “Edge” Ho-seong
- AD Carry: Seo “Ssol” Jin-sol
- Support: Kim “GuGer” Do-yeop
Returning to the LCK after a season in Challengers Korea are Kongdoo Monster. They didn’t make any offseason changes, since they already made the improvements necessary to become LCK-worthy again this summer: picking up Punch in the jungle and relieving Suk “Hipo” Hyun-jun of his top lane duties.
Runners-up at both IEM Gyeonggi and KeSPA Cup, Kongdoo have found their stride this fall. They always had good coordination and team synergy, even when they were the worst team in LCK Spring 2016 — they simply lacked the talent and flexibility to keep up with stronger opponents. Strengths aside, it’s difficult to imagine this Kongdoo will be more than a middling team in the LCK, given the raw talent on other organizations’ rosters.
Grade: C- I enjoy watching Kongdoo play. They’re fairly smart and work well together, but it’s difficult to see them stacking up to the better rosters in the region.
- Top: Koo “Expression” Bon-taek
- Jungle: Lee “Crash” Dong-woo, Moon “Cuzz” Woo-chan
- Mid: Song “Fly” Yong-jun, Gwak “Bdd” Bo-seong, Yoon “Justice” Seok-joon
- AD Carry: Kim “PraY” Jong-in
- Support: Kang “GorillA” Beom-hyeon, Jang “Zzus” Joon-soo
A Korean team backed by Chinese streaming money, Longzhu Gaming were an abject failure that only grew worse as 2016 wore on. Longzhu had mechanical talent in spades, but no unifying voice or brain to bring their players together. None of their key stars — jungler Lee “Chaser” Sang-hyun, top laner Lee “Flame” Ho-jong or mid laner Shin “CoCo” Jin-yeong — managed to work together on the Rift.
This year, they have one of the best in- and out-of-game leaders, GorillA, along with his Tigers AD carry partner PraY. If anyone can lead this team, it's GorillA. On the other hand, Longzhu is still dealing with the issue of having too many players and not enough starting spots, with three mid laners and two junglers. This is where team synergy could fracture, if they pick up where they left off in 2016 substituting players seemingly at random. Fly is a valuable pickup, but has an odd champion pool, so don’t be surprised if Longzhu rotates frequently between Fly and Bdd.
Grade: B- GorillA and PraY are a fantastic pair, but the success of the team will again depend on finding strong communication in-game. It could work, but Longzhu's history doesn't give me much confidence.
- Top: Jang “MaRin” Gyeong-hwan
- Jungle: Lee “Spirit” Da-yoon, Lee “Mowgli” Jae-ha
- Mid: Lee “KurO” Seo-haeng
- AD Carry: Ha “Kramer” Jong-hun
- Support: Park “TusiN” Jong-ik
The Freecs picked up a tricky roster this offseason that leans heavily on KurO’s ability to hold his lane with fewer resources than his mid lane adversaries. MaRin, Spirit and most notoriously Kramer are resource-heavy players, whether it's in terms of gold, attention or both. It’s not about whether the Freecs’ new players are good individually, it’s about if and how they will fit together as a team.
On CJ, Kramer was a gold hog. He received the highest gold share of any player in LCK Spring 2016 at 27.2 percent and the second-highest share of his team’s gold of all players in LCK Summer 2016 at 24.7 percent. His situation was a bit of a chicken and egg setup — Kramer may have received the gold because he was the only member of his team that could carry, or he may have received that much gold because it was the only way he could carry. His time on the Freecs should answer this question one way or the other, and if he does require that many resources in order to carry a game, it will put strain on both Spirit and MaRin.
Grade: C+ I’m iffy on this roster. It could work, but it could also implode.
- Top: Kang “ADD” Geon-mo
- Jungle: Kim “Beyond” Kyu-seok
- Mid: An “Ian” Jun-hyeong
- AD Carry: Oh “MaHa” Hyun-sik
- Support: Jeong “Max” Jong-bin
Surprisingly, MVP were able to retain all of their starting five for the 2017 season, including standout jungler Beyond, who was rumored to be headed to several other teams at one point or another. They have experience together, they play well as a unit, and they have one of the better junglers in the region. In their first LCK season this summer, they narrowly missed playoffs, finishing just out of contention behind the Afreeca Freecs.
Unfortunately, MVP have a glaring weakness — AD carry MaHa — which makes them unlikely to move much further up in the Korean standings. They could certainly be a playoff team, but they're nearing their ceiling with this roster.
Grade: C- MVP held onto Beyond and their core lineup, but didn’t address any of their issues and aren’t likely to improve much further in the standings.
- Top: Heo “Lindarang” Man-heung, Park “Shy” Sang-myeon
- Jungle: Yoon “SeongHwan” Seong-hwan
- Mid: Son “Mickey” Young-min
- AD Carry: Gwan “Sangyoon” Sang-yun
- Support: Kim “KeY” Han-gi
The old ROX Tigers were a product of the times, a ragtag band who got along well and spurred each other to greater heights. When Smeb, PraY, GorillA, KurO and Peanut all left the organization they helped build this offseason, the Korean LoL fanbase mourned the loss of a truly special unit.
It’s impossible to recreate what the Tigers built, but their latest iteration is certainly interesting. The Tigers signed what remained of the Afreeca Freecs’ roster following the departure of jungler Nam “LirA” Tae-yoo, top laner Jeon “ikssu” Ik-soo and support No “Snowflower” Hoi-jong. The Freecs were as close to another Tigers that the LCK could get — a group of streamers and friends that made it into the LCK against all odds.
Now, mid laner Mickey and company followed their coach Kang Hyun-jong over from Afreeca to a new home under the Tigers’ label. They are joined by former ESC Ever support KeY — a standout for ESC at the 2015 KeSPA Cup and IEM Cologne — as well as veteran top laner Shy, formerly of CJ Entus. Though they have fewer headliners, this Tigers roster could make a some waves in the LCK, especially if Mickey continues to improve his overall map awareness. The mid laner can make or break a game; his highs are phenomenal, but his lows can be gag-reel-worthy.
Grade: C This is a better lineup than what I expected the Tigers to pull together. They have preexisting synergy, and I have a lot of faith in coach Kang. However, the old Tigers lineup is irreplaceable, and it’s unlikely that this new team will come close to the same heights.
Jin Air Green Wings
- Top: Jeon “ikssu” Ik-soo, Kim “SoHwan” Jun-yeong
- Jungle: Eom “Umti” Seong-hyeon
- Mid: Lee “Kuzan” Seong-hyeok
- AD Carry: Park “Teddy” Jin-seong
- Support: No “Snowflower” Hoi-jong, Oh “Raise” Ji-hwan
Jin Air is another team that’s entering a new era with their 2017 roster. Much of Jin Air’s signature, slow-paced style came from the direction of former top laner Yeo “TrAce” Chang-dong, who recently stepped down from competitive play to become a coach for Samsung Galaxy. Their former AD carry Na “Pilot” Woo-hyung was another overly cautious player that contributed to the team’s plodding, methodical pace.
Although Jin Air haven’t picked up a player like Peanut who will instantly revitalize and transform them into a hyper-aggressive unit, their new AD carry Teddy was far more proactive at trading and teamfighting than Pilot ever was — albeit in the limited play-time he saw at KeSPA Cup — and both ikssu and Snowflower should bring a bit more aggression to their lanes.
Kuzan is a flexible and talented mid who has shown that he can play a variety of champions and can be aggressive or play it safe, depending on what his team asks of him. Their new jungler Umti is a relative unknown, so much of their playstyle will depend on how he plays the jungle and how well he coordinates with Kuzan to control the map.
Grade: C It’s difficult to say just how good this Jin Air team will be, but they have a few good pieces and are hopefully heading away from a style that could only take them so far.
- Top: Kim “Crazy” Jae-hee, Jin “Firetrap” Jae-seung
- Jungle: Choi “Bless” Hyeon-woong
- Mid: Kang “Tempt” Myung-gu
- AD Carry: Jang “Ghost” Yong-jun
- Support: Eun “Totoro” Jong-seop
ESC might have a tough time this spring. They lost their star AD carry Lee “LokeN” Dong-wook, and while Ghost is talented, they no longer have a standout playmaker (aside from the occasional games where Crazy or Bless go off). Tempt is primarily a wave-clear mid laner, and although he usually holds his own, he hasn’t been a reliable carry for the team. Considering they're also losing KeY, both Ghost and Totoro will have to step up their laning and trading together.
The primary problem with this ESC lineup has nothing to do with the lineup itself and everything to do with how other rosters have upgraded in the offseason. Unless Ghost becomes the LCK's next up-and-coming star, ESC lacks the firepower to go up against even middle-of-the-pack lineups like the Freecs, the Tigers or MVP.
Grade: D ESC lost their playmakers in the bot lane, and what we know of Ghost and Totoro doesn’t stand up to what LokeN and Key could do. Other rosters in the region upgraded, ESC didn't.
Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.