By Winter 2014, Korea's dominance over international competition had been firmly established. That dominance more often relied on the team as a whole than gathering five star players on the same roster. While players on these teams became stars during their race to the top — all 10 starting Samsung Galaxy players from 2014 were paid handsomely and scattered among various Chinese teams come 2015 — they didn't begin as stars. They weren't always successful. They weren't always champions. Assembling a cohesive roster was, and still is, an art.
Until recently, Korea generally eschewed the idea of a superteam — gathering big-name and high-performing players on one roster — for focusing on developing hand-picked players first. Organizations in OnGameNet’s Champions didn’t need to stockpile every proven talent within their region when they had a two-team system and the concurrent NLB tournament.
Two, or more, competitive teams gave organizations a chance to test out new talent and develop separate rosters based on communication and team synergy in addition to raw mechanics. Meanwhile, the existence of the NLB gave amateur talent a chance to prove themselves against the best in Korea — a far greater representation of how solo queue players plucked from the ladder would actually perform in a competitive environment. Teams that were eliminated from the premier OGN Champions tournament dropped down into the NLB and duked it out with qualifying amateur teams or the lesser sister teams of top-tier organizations that had failed to make it into Champions that season.
The cream rose to the top. Even if a more well-known organization didn’t expressly develop the amateur talent they wanted on their own sister teams, they had a myriad of players and rosters from NLB-level teams from which to scout new players. By the end of 2014, this system was a well-oiled machine, churning out winning lineups that were not only composed of talented players, but also focused on how those players fit together as a unit — from solo queue ladder, to amateur organization or lesser sister team, to the big-name organizations with non-endemic sponsors.
Elsewhere, the idea of a superteam was born with 2014 Europe’s Alliance roster being the first lineup to earn the title of “superteam” within the Western community. The idea was to gather as much rising, proven, or experienced talent on one team and make a run for international recognition. Korean teams’ continued dominance at international events — partially in thanks to their aforementioned talent development system — played a large role in birthing the idea of a superteam. If teams from other regions couldn’t best Korean teams at international events organically, they could simply collect big names from within their own region, and later import big names from other regions, to hopefully garner international success.
The first recognized superteam, Alliance, built their roster around the core of former Counter Logic Gaming.EU/Evil Geniuses mid laner Henrik “Froggen” Hansen and top laner Mike “Wickd” Petersen. Alliance are still known for their complete dominance of the 2014 European League Championship Series Summer split with a 21-7 regular season record and 3-1 victories over SK Gaming and Fnatic en route to the championship title. They’re also known for failing to make it out of groups at the 2014 World Championship.
With the acquisition of star AD carry Jian “Uzi” Zhihao, Oh My God fully committed to a superstar all-Chinese roster while nearly every other organization was betting their respective farm on Korean imports. OMG finished third in the 2015 LPL Spring regular season, the team’s highest finish they would earn that year. Unlike previous OMG lineups, this much-lauded one failed to even make it to the World Championship.
Last year, Team SoloMid signed a roster that had fans salivating in anticipation of their performance in the 2016 NA LCS Spring including former Counter Logic Gaming legacy AD carry Yiliang “Doublelift” Peng, former SK Gaming jungler Dennis “Svenskeren” Johnsen, and veteran Fnatic support Bora “YellOwStaR” Kim to complement superstar mid laner Søren “Bjergsen” Bjerg. They finished sixth in the 2016 NA LCS Spring regular season, the lowest finish of any lineup in TSM history. Although they ended up making it to the finals and barely lost to CLG, this iteration of TSM is not remembered fondly, with visible synergy issues between Doublelift and YellOwStaR.
When evaluating the failure of superteams, two main factors come into play — a lack of synergy between the star players acquired, and lofty performance expectations. Korea’s first superteam — 2016's Longzhu Gaming — had both.
In early 2015 — immediately post-Korean Exodus — most Korean organizations struggled to curate their rosters without the former two-team system and NLB tournament in place. The new LCK and Challengers Korea system eliminated the chance for amateur teams and players to cut their teeth on the heavy hitters of the Champions tournament, further separating amateur from professional. Fuller rosters with up to 10 players were allowed, but only five could start at a time — no more sister teams. This meant less competition for those who didn’t start and the larger risk of fracturing the oft-delicate balance of a strong starting five.
Initially the then-GE Tigers exploded onto the scene with superior coordination and team unity. Eventually, across both LCK splits, SK Telecom T1 rose to power, dominating the Korean landscape in 2015 summer and blazing through the 2015 World Championship nearly untouched. This increasing lack of parity within Korea itself helped spawn the idea of a Korean superteam roster.
The 2015-16 League of Legends offseason was greeted with apathy compared to what had come before. Another year of Korean talent — including proven champions and names on the ladder — flooded the international market. This is what interregional movement would look like for the foreseeable future. What began in 2014-15 as the “Korean Exodus” was now simply “the offseason.” The only difference a year made was of what region players were shuttled off to.
SK Telecom T1 was the known anomaly, whose financial investment into their LoL team, coupled with a winning environment and a second World Championship, kept players like superstar Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok happy enough to stay in Korea. Alongside mentions of SKT, and Faker’s salary, rumors of a Korean “superteam” arose.
Touted as a team of Korean stars backed with Chinese money, Longzhu Gaming had a full ten-man roster with star players like the legendary Lee “Flame” Ho-jong, Jin Air Green Wings’ 2015 star jungler Lee “Chaser” Sang-hyun, and mid laner Shin “CoCo” Jin-yeong, the lone bright spot on CJ Entus by the end of 2015.
Longzhu the superteam started off shakily. It was immediately apparent that the team hadn’t synergized as much as they had hoped during their offseason practice time. This wasn’t an immediate indictment of the roster, and didn’t necessarily point to failure — Alliance went 0-4 in their first week as a team and were at the bottom of the EU LCS — just that Longzhu would have a slower start than other teams. The high expectations of the roster did the team no favors. Longzhu had a mediocre 3-3 record across the first three weeks of LCK Spring 2016 but were regarded by many as an already sinking ship.
To counter the risk of lessening coordination while balancing such a large roster, Longzhu implemented a two-line strategy. Separating the team into two lines — similar to professional hockey — in top, jungle and mid while keeping the static bot lane of AD carry Kang “Cpt Jack” Hyung-woo and support Kim “Pure” Jin-sun allowed Longzhu to develop stronger synergy in two separate units while still juggling all ten players.
This all changed when Longzhu’s second AD carry Lee “Fury” Jin-yong became eligible for a starting position mid-spring. The idea of developing two lines with their own strengths, weaknesses, and synergy was abandoned, and Longzhu grasped at straws for the remainder of the season, scrambling their roster in various permutations hoping that one of these lineups would stick. None of them did. Last-place Kongdoo Monster, who lacked LCK-level talent in multiple positions, were far more coordinated than Longzhu. The superteam finished in seventh place, behind Samsung Galaxy and the surprising upstart Afreeca Freecs.
Longzhu only fared worse in LCK Summer 2016, finishing in eighth place, barely out of relegations. They continued to experiment with their ten-man roster, eventually settling on the lineup of Koo “Expession” Bon-taek, Lee “Crash” Dong-woo, Kim “Frozen” Tae-il, Fury and Pure.
Regardless of who they trotted out onto the Rift, Longzhu lacked not only coordination but a brain. Silent comms and despondent faces prevailed in the Longzhu booth. Longzhu’s players were still visibly talented. Even in their worst, hour-long slugfests, Frozen would have a solo kill here, or Pure would have a fantastic initiation there, but none of it mattered when the team couldn’t coordinate as a unit. Another League of Legends superteam down the drain.
Across League of Legends history, most rosters dubbed superteams have been doomed to mediocrity or far worse, complete and utter failure. Part of this is due to expectations of the roster in question on paper before they ever play a competitive match. A superteam is expected to not only be successful in their own region, but perform well internationally. Longzhu failed to perform well within Korea, never once making the playoffs while less impressive rosters on paper like the Afreeca Freecs rose through the LCK standings. The one international tournament Longzhu attended, IEM Oakland in late 2016, was an embarrassment.
On paper, the new Longzhu look a bit like the old Longzhu — too many players — but have made noticeable improvements that demonstrate a desire to learn from their previous mistakes. Signing three mid laners to a roster is extraneous, although having two isn’t as much of an indictment of the organization as it could be given the mid laners in question. Song “Fly” Yong-jun has an odd champion pool, and swapping him out for talented youngster Gwak “Bdd” Bo-seong could depend on the meta, and what exactly they want from their mid laner at a given time.
The acquisition of Kang “GorillA” Beom-hyeon and Kim “PraY” Jong-in show that Longzhu will emphasize synergy over on-paper talent after an entire year of little to no unity or communication. GorillA is one of the best supports in the world, and is well-recognized for his leadership qualities in addition to his impeccable initiation and disengage timing for teamfights. The former ROX Tigers bottom lane made it a point to stay together, keeping their strong teamwork in tact.
Their veteran experience along with that of top laner Expession should provide a strong core to help steady their two mid-laners and presumed starting jungler Crash, who never developed beyond being a strong power-farmer during his time with the team last year. The roster has core veterans in at least three of their five positions, which should provide in-game leadership for Bdd and Crash, both of whom languished in 2016 with little guidance.
In the 2016-2017 offseason, the landscape has shifted again from the year preceding it. Korean teams on the whole are shelling out more money for players. Longzhu isn’t one of the monetary heavy hitters. That distinction belongs to KT Rolster — dubbed 2017 Spring’s superteam — and SK Telecom T1.
The initial Longzhu experiment was a complete misadventure in frustration, another example for the League of Legends world to learn from and avoid. This year’s iteration has a stronger focus on pre-existing synergy while developing the young talents of Bdd and Crash, a more traditional Korean roster, banking on striking that elusive and delicate balance. For Longzhu to succeed in the long tradition of Korean teams, they do not need to be a superteam, they just need to communicate.
Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.