Come the 2016 North American League Championship Series Summer playoffs, two top laners dominated the region. Both Korean imports, Immortals Heo “Huni” Seung-hoon and Cloud9’s Jung “Impact” Eon-yeong faced each other in the playoff semifinals and again in the Regional Finals, with Impact and C9 emerging the clear winners. Although Impact had already been in NA for nearly two years — he spent the entire 2015 season on Team Impulse and 2016 on NRG eSports and Cloud9 — this playoff surge was the first time Impact appeared to trust and work harmoniously with his entire team.
Sometimes import players instantly click — Huni and Kim “Reignover” Yeu-jin had a large amount of success with their strong in-game synergy while on 2015 Fnatic, and took this to the 2016 Immortals. Sometimes, for whatever reason, they never find their stride away from home.
Now in 2017, three well-known and decorated Korean top laners have entered the North American scene. Here is a primer on their histories and how they might fit on their new NA organizations.
The most famous, and highly-anticipated, Korean top laner to grace the 2017 NA LCS is former CJ Entus Blaze stud Lee “Flame” Ho-jong. Flame was the 2013 Top Laner of the Year, his name synonymous with the rise of Blaze as one of the best teams in the world.
Under the name “Goldtec” Flame was scouted by then-Azubu Blaze in late 2012 and made his professional debut with the team at IPL 5. His first OGN tournament with Blaze was Champions Winter 2012-13, where Blaze placed fourth behind the KT Rolster Bullets, their sister team Frost and NaJin Black Sword. Throughout 2013, Blaze developed a split-push style built around Flame’s large laning leads and team minion wave control.
Blaze became one of the pioneers of wave manipulation in League of Legends, using a slow-push style that became common practice in LoL. As the team, and Flame’s, strengths earned worldwide recognition, Flame also became known specifically for his personal minion control and freezing the lane. A 100-minion laning lead became known as the Flame Horizon, so often did Flame garner massive advantages over his laning opponents. Flame’s overwhelming pressure allowed the rest of Blaze to spread their adversaries on the map, taking objectives while keeping opponents guessing as to where they would strike next.
This strategy could not work forever. Although they helped pioneer slow-pushing and were the best team at putting it into practice, other teams caught up to and overwhelmed Blaze’s strategy. Flame and Blaze lost to the KT Rolster Bullets in the quarterfinals of Champions Summer 2013, again in the 2013 Korea Regional Finals, and once more in the Champions Winter 2013-14 quarterfinals. Blaze devolved during 2014, with rumors of internal conflict and passive-aggressive comms. Come Champions Summer 2014, Blaze failed to make it into playoffs for the first time in their history.
At this time Flame was rumored to be difficult to work with and arrogant despite his many obvious strengths on the Rift. He was picked up by China’s LGD Gaming in 2015, but split time with former Samsung Galaxy Blue top laner Choi “Acorn” Cheon-ju. Acorn became the team’s starting top, with Flame playing occasionally. Flame never gelled with his LGD teammates, although he did diversify his playstyle, strengthening his tank play, a fact often overlooked when criticizing Flame for only having one mode as a split-pushing carry.
Flame’s 2016 return to Korea on Longzhu Gaming was less than stellar. Longzhu’s games often self-destructed into messy mid-games where even a monstrous lane lead on Flame mattered little when the team couldn’t coordinate together.
On Immortals, expect Flame to return to his natural style of play, building early lane advantages that translate into becoming a strong split-pushing threat. Whether these leads will turn into Immortals victories will depend on how much the rest of Immortals will be willing to support him alongside having strong wave control themselves. Jungler Joshua “Dardoch” Hartnett is known for his early pressure, and in standard lanes this could be a great boon for Flame, allowing him to control the top lane as he sees fit.
Team Dignitas' Ssumday
Although Ssumday is only 20 years old, he’s been a League of Legends player since he was 16 on amateur team PSW Ares. KT Rolster picked him up in February 2013 as the starting top laner for their spring Bullets squad. At the time, Ssumday was known as a Renekton one-trick who lacked the depth or style of other Korean top laners. The KT Rolster Bullets finished second in their group to CJ Entus Frost and made it into the Champions Spring 2013 playoffs but lost 3-1 in the quarterfinals to MVP Ozone.
Returning to the drawing board, Ssumday was shuttled to KTB’s sister team, the KT Rolster Arrows, in order for the then Bullets jungler Choi “inSec” In-seok to role-swap to top lane making way for jungler Lee “KaKAO” Byung-kwon. This Champions Summer 2013 iteration is likely the KTB’s strongest lineup, and certainly their most well-known. Meanwhile, Ssumday, along with the rest of KTA, failed to make it into Champions Summer 2013, falling in the qualifier to GOL.
Even during his time on the beloved 2014 KT Rolster Arrows, Ssumday was not as much of a standout as fellow teammates KaKAO and Song “RooKie” Eui-jin. He indulged in their more aggressive antics, once diving past an inhibitor turret into his opponent’s base just to secure a kill while on Jax, but wasn’t the carry top laner that people now know him to be. He had strong tank play and teamfight targeting, occasionally controlling KTA’s teamfights entirely. Ssumday had improved from his 2013 Renekton days, but was unreliable and inconsistent in lane. His willingness to be on the exact same aggressive page as the rest of his teammates made him the perfect top laner for KTA, but not a name that was recognized as one of the best.
Ssumday’s awakening began in 2015. The newly-combined KT Rolster had a historically bad start to LoL Champions Korea 2015. Former KTB AD carry Go “Score” Dong-bin was adjusting to the jungle and all-too-often found himself tasked with stemming the bleeding from perpetually losing lanes. KT didn’t find their stride until the end of the spring season with the addition of support Jeong “Fixer” Jae-woo.
With Fixer, KT began pulling out more creative in-game packages and Ssumday began to show his true carry prowess, an extension of what he had developed as a strong tank player while on KTA. Ssumday still had excellent targeting in teamfights and added to this was a newfound ability to Teleport thanks to improved communication on his team and the addition of Cinderhulk as a top lane item on the likes of Hecarim. LCK Summer 2015 was Ssumday’s coming out party as one of the region’s best top laners. Again, his tank play shone above the rest, even over the undisputed best top laner in Korea, Song “Smeb” Kyung-ho. On Maokai and Shen, Ssumday cemented his legacy.
This past year, Ssumday continued to play his role as KT’s carry top — a phenomenal tank player who could also lead KT to victory provided he received the slightest of laning advantages or early jungle help from Score. Yet, Ssumday faltered in the LCK Summer 2016 playoffs and again in the regional qualifier for the 2016 World Championship. By his own admission, in an interview with Inven, he had fallen into bad habits from being with the same organization for four years.
Ssumday will likely play a similar role for Dignitas as he did while on KT over the past two years. His tank play is still phenomenal, and with their lineup somewhat similar in style to 2016 KT, Ssumday should perform well, provided he can communicate with his teammates. Now paired with former Longzhu Gaming and Jin Air Green Wings jungler Lee “Chaser” Sang-hyun, Ssumday will likely look for jungle help early, but doesn’t need constant jungle pressure in order to succeed. One gank in his favor is all it usually takes for Ssumday to overwhelm his opponents.
Echo Fox's Looper
Samsung Galaxy Ozone’s lackluster at the Season 3 World Championship has somewhat been forgotten, thanks to their redemption in the 2014 World Championship and China’s far more embarrassing collective collapse at the 2015 World Championship. Ozone entered Season 3 Worlds as one of the favorites and failed to make it out of groups following a tiebreaker loss to Gambit Gaming. Accompanying this inauspicious debut under the Samsung banner was the introduction of new top laner Jang “Looper” Hyeong-seok, who was starting in place of the team’s original top, Yoon “Homme” Sung-young.
Unlike the rest of his team, Looper individually impressed on the Worlds stage in 2013, cementing Singed as his signature champion in the eyes of international audiences, and giving hope for Ozone’s future. Throughout Champions Winter 2013-14, Looper grew to be one of Champions' most notable top laners thanks to his impeccable Teleport play. This ability to read the map and be exactly where his team needed him to be only improved throughout the year, culminating in Samsung Galaxy White’s eventual Worlds victory in 2014. Looper’s name became synonymous with strong Teleport usage in an age of the game when Teleport became a required spell for a top laner.
Both Samsung teams were picked apart after the 2014 World Championship and distributed among a myriad of Chinese organizations. Looper, along with former Samsung Galaxy mid laner Bae “dade” Eo-jin, landed on Masters3, an offshoot of the beloved World Elite organization. Masters3 were a disappointment. Disjointed and uncoordinated, the team’s wins all too often relied on dade outplays, with dade himself as inconsistent as the rest of his teammates. Looper’s Teleport prowess plummeted without the direction of former teammate Cho “Mata” Se-hyeong and the strong lanes of Samsung White.
After an unsuccessful 2015, Looper thought of retiring before China’s Royal Never Give Up offered him a contract. Not only did RNG give Looper a chance to once again prove himself, they also were the home of Looper’s Samsung White shotcaller, Mata. Together, the two formed the backbone of the new RNG. Mata helped his younger teammates like laning partner Wang “wuxx” Cheng develop while Looper was a consistent, reliable presence in top, always Teleporting in when the team needed him. Their team dynamic changed a bit when star AD carry Jian “Uzi” Zihao joined in 2016 LPL Summer, but Looper remained a steadfast presence, even breaking out his old favorite Singed for a stylish Game 1 victory over IMAY in the playoffs.
For Echo Fox, Looper should be a good laning asset. However, if the organization is relying on him to be a large voice on the team or Teleport perfectly without assistance, they may have signed him for the wrong reasons. Looper himself expressed a bit of awe that Echo Fox wanted him badly enough to pay his transfer fee from RNG. In an interview with FOMOS’ Park Sang-jin (translated by Andrew Kim of Slingshot), Looper said that Echo Fox’s dedication in signing him would serve as inspiration for improving his English skills and communication within the team. Communication will be crucial in determining whether Looper’s Teleports stay on point — richly rewarding Echo Fox’s faith in him — or whether he returns to his 2015 LPL form.
Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.