Breaking Korea: the unfounded, exaggerated demise of the Korean scene

by Tyler "Fionn" Erzberger May 11 2015
Thumbnail image courtesy of Robert Paul / theScore eSports

The one-sided Korean supremacy is over. Edward Gaming defeated SK Telecom T1 in the Grand Finals of the Mid-Season Invitational Sunday, vanquishing Faker's undefeated LeBlanc in the fifth set to win the series 3-2. It was the fifth straight Korea vs. China final at a Riot-produced major international tournament, with the South Koreans taking the last four contests by a combined map score of 11-1.

Following Samsung White's dismantling of back-to-back runners up StarHorn Royal Club in last year's Summoner's Cup Grand Finals, the Chinese scene went for radical changes in their ecosystem. Royal, the Chinese team that went the furthest at the 2014 World Championships, was also the only team to deploy a hybrid roster of three Chinese players and two Koreans. While Royal weren't able to topple the White squad that powered through the entire competition to win the Summoner's Cup, it did show that the idea of a mixed roster between Chinese players and Koreans could produce at the highest levels.

During the offseason between the 2014 and 2015 seasons, China had an overhaul in a majority of their top teams. In what would become known as "The Great Korean Exodus," more than 20 of Korea's best players decided to join teams in China's professional and secondary leagues, with rumors of salaries exceeding $1 million for topflight players. The players that transferred over consisted of the entire Samsung White and Samsung Blue squads, the team that won the world championship and their sister-team who were considered to be right behind them.

With only really SK Telecom T1 keeping their star players during the exodus of top talent, Korea went through a rebuilding stage. Although China still had to build chemistry between the players that didn't share the same first language, a large majority of Korean teams needed to adapt to their new rosters as well. The Korean domestic leagues were accustomed to having two teams playing under the same organization, that rule changing in the offseason before the 2015 circuit. Organizations were forced to fuse or disband one of their two teams, shrinking the size of Korea's Champions from 16 teams to eight for the Spring 2015 season.

With SKT T1's loss to EDG, who picked up two of the former Samsung players in PawN and Deft, MSI now marks the second major international tournament of the year that Korea didn't win. At the IEM World Championships in Katowice, neither the GE Tigers or CJ Entus could grab the title for South Korea, the former losing in the semifinals to Team WE, and the latter not even making it out of the group stages. You can say that both GE and CJ weren't at their best going into IEM, but that never fazed Korea in the past — a weakened and stagnant KT Bullets winning the 2014 IEM World Championship tournament without dropping a single map.

The question now is whether SKT T1's gut punch loss to EDG in the MSI Grand Finals, and the best player in the world losing his first game on his signature champion, means the end of the Korean domination? Not only that, but is this the beginning of a decline for the Korean region as a whole, not only losing to EDG in the finals, but being pushed to their limit by Europe's Fnatic in the semifinals and almost losing to Taiwan's AHQ in the group stages.

To answer that question, you need to realize the reason why Korea was the undisputed top region in League of Legends for over two years: it's infrastructure and competitive mentality. A lot of people will credit Korea's success to innate skills their players posses; Faker's flashy plays, Deft's micro in team fights, Dade's ability to dance around and crush opponents with his mechanics. While the top Korean players all, for the most part, influence games with their mechanical skill, their micro and individual skills have never been that different compared to China.

The key that has enabled Korea to keep China grounded for two years is their ability to find and develop talent. The mentality instilled into rookie players through the Korean eSports infrastructure and coaching is what made Korean teams great. If you went down the line of players from the top Korean and Chinese teams throughout the past two years, there have been Korean players who've outclassed their Chinese counterparts in skill, but vice versa, there have been more talented Chinese players who've lost to Korean players below them in skill. It's come down to Korea's work ethic, being able to perform better as a team and execute as a team that's kept them above Chinese teams who've housed more talent at times.

The transferring of top players to China, did hurt Korea as a region. Their league's teams were cut in half, meaning that they not only lost four teams-worth of top players, but it also limited the competition in the region. If the exodus of Korean players to China never happened, the new system put in place could have extended South Korea's dominance. Instead, it diluted the talent pool and sliced the number of teams in half, giving less time for new players to get experience and grow through the first half of the year.

In terms of strength, Champions Korea and China's LPL are still close. The edge in skill has tipped in the favor of China, already having players that could have stood up Korea mechanically last year and now adding elite players from their rival region. For Korea, their teamwork and ability to produce talent from the amateur scene has been the reason why they've been able to keep up. A lot of top stars might have been taken away from their native region, but the system that built those stars are still in place.

China hasn't only transferred in-game talent over to their region, picking up former Korean coaches and players such as Mafa, Poohmandu, and Reapeared to help their teams in terms of mentality and working together as a unit. Their hybrid nature still has some holes, the communication not as perfect at times as Korea's. but it's getting there, and that's what has produced EDG's victory over SKT in the MSI Grand Finals.

Going into the World Championships for 2015, Korea's biggest strength will be the time to develop. In the past season alone, there have been new rookies that have come into Champions and made a name for themselves: Peanut, TANK, T0M, Fixer, and other young players have contributed to their teams. GE was a brand new organization built before the season; Samsung had a complete team makeover with their top players leaving; KT had to fill in holes with the departures of Rookie and KaKAO; almost every team in the league needed to fill a hole or two from the Korean exodus to China.

Summer will be the season of renewal for Korea. There are rumblings that the teams will be bumped up from eight to 10, meaning two new teams will make it into the field and up the level of diversity in the premiere league. It will also give those newly constructed teams and rookie players to continue their growth after the makeshift feel the Spring season had. Teams like NaJin, Jin Air, KT Rolster, and even the seemingly down-and-out last place Samsung will all benefit from having another season to play together before three teams from Korea are sent off to Worlds.

The next PawN, Deft, and KaKAO will find their way into the Korean leagues. Through the system in place, coaching staffs, and organizations that have been in eSports for over a decade now, those type of players will be found with talent, brought into their respected team system, and built into the same level of stars that left to China. It's happened before and it will happen again: Korea will always rebuild itself with new star players when the last generation dissipates.

And yes, if the trend continues and China continues pumping money into League of Legends for years to come, the new Deft and the new KaKAO will also more than likely go to China after they breakout as a star in Korea. And then it will all start once again, Korean developing and polishing the talent, and the teams with more money to spend across the world taking that talent and, for better or for worse, plugging it into their own system and hoping for the best. China is going the right way about it, trying to emulate the Korean infrastructure and building teams through the same course that made the likes of SK Telecom T1 and Samsung White world champions the past two years.

The demise of the Korean region is greatly exaggerated. As long as League of Legends continues to be the most played online game in Korea — and it currently is by a wide margin — then South Korea will always be sending teams to events as favorites to win it all. With PC Bangs all across Korea and new kids picking up the game daily with their friends, diamonds in the rough will continue to appear across solo queue, and it will be up to the SKT's and KT's of the world, organizations that have been scouting talent for over a decade, to bring out their full potential.

Korea is no longer the sole king that rules over the rest of the world. But no matter how much talent the international scene poaches from Korea, there will always be the next player to develop under their tutelage. As long as the interest of the game and infrastructure that KeSPA has built over the years still stands, the next generation of great teams from South Korea will always be right around the corner.

Congratulations to China. They've built a great league, allocated the necessary amount money into getting the best players and coaches possible, and have made the hybrid team format work to their advantage. They won the Mid-Season Invitational, and no, it wasn't simply the Korean players giving them the win: Clearlove was the best jungler at the tournament, Koro1 proved he is one of the best players in the world at his position, and Meiko came up big, outplaying the veteran Wolf, as a rookie at his first major international event.

But Korea will regroup, rebuild, and come back even stronger at the World Championships, the true final battleground of the 2015 season. As it's been in StarCraft: Brood War and StarCraft 2 over the last ten plus years, there is nothing that Korean teams hate more than losing to international competition. China might have won the battle of the offseason transactions, and Edward Gaming have struck the first blow at the Mid-Season Invitational, but be it SK Telecom T1, KT Rolster, GE Tigers, or any Korean team with the chance at making Worlds — they plan to win the war this October.

Tyler "Fionn" Erzberger is a staff writer for The Score eSports. He is now tired from all of his Mid-Season Invitational writing, so he is going to go buy a giant cookie and eat it.