Team Dragon Knights took to Twitter to announce their starting lineup Monday morning and the newly promoted LCS squad's roster featured two notable signings in the form of mid-laner Noh "Ninja" Geon-woo and AD Carry Kim "Emperor" Jin-hyun. Ninja played in China for the first half of the 2015 season, getting moved from his starting position mid-season by World Elite to make room for Su "Xiye" Han-Wei. Emperor left Korea at the end of 2014 and moved to Brazil to play for Keyd Stars, where he joined forces with former CJ Entus Blaze teammate Kang "DayDream" Kyung-min. While Emperor was not pushed out in the middle of the campaign for a different option, the end to his season wasn't the strongest, as he lost to INTZ e-Sports Club in the finals of Brazil's premiere league in a 0-3 sweep.
The first impression you get from TDK's roster is that it's filled with Korean talent, with three of the five players starting their careers out in the LCK before globetrotting across the other major regions. Similar to last season's heavily Korean focused Winterfox, the team looks strong on paper due to the big names that have competed on teams such as NaJin and CJ Entus, but there are a lot of lingering questions that will need to be answered.
As we saw with Winterfox last season, visa issues (and lack thereof) will be a key early in the season. Ninja and Emperor, both of who have played in China and Brazil respectively the past five months, will be playing in the North America region for the first time when they suit up for the Dragon Knights's Week 1 game against Team Liquid. With only 18 NA LCS games before the playoffs, one or two weeks of key players missing games due to visa issues can severely hinder a team, forcing them into roster and chemistry issues before the proposed starter suits up for his first game.
If they can get their affairs in order and Ninja, along with Emperor, can play the entire season with TDK, they'll already be off to a better start than a lot of teams from the NA LCS' 2015 spring campaign. With the addition of their two new signees, TDK now have four players on their starting roster that are fluent in Korean. The lone non-Korean speaker will be Smoothie, their rookie support, who will be most likely communicating with their jungler, Kez, to bridge the gap between languages. Three teams last season went down the same path that TDK are following. Team Impulse will be the team that the Dragons try to emulate the best, TiP finishing fourth during the spring campaign. The two other teams, Winterfox and Dignitas, didn't fare nearly as well, finishing in the bottom three and needing to play in the relegation rounds.
The biggest difference between TDK and the two teams that fell to the bottom of the table last season is experience. While Ninja and Emperor have never played in either the NA or EU LCS, they both bring in seasons of experience in various major competitions, both having started for teams who played in Champions Korea. Compare that to Dignitas or Winterfox, where only CoreJJ had any real major tournament experience, Ninja and Emperor shouldn't be ones to fold under the pressure. They've played in high stake situations, and the pair have the added bonus of playing in foreign leagues before: Ninja in China for Team WE, and Emperor last season in Brazil. Although neither of those endeavours worked out quite as planned, those months away from their home and playing in a radically different environments will be essential to their success in North America.
Emperor, who started his career on CJ Entus Blaze a year-and-a-half ago, will be the key for either TDK's rise into the playoffs or plummet into the relegation zone. A player that had moments in Korea where he showed the potential to be an ace on a top-flight team in Champions, he was usually held down on CJ Blaze due to how the team played the game. Flame and Ambition, their top and mid laner, were the focal points of the team and the main carries. Everyone else got their moments at times, but the jungler's job was primarily to help Flame during the laning phase, and the AD Carry was generally positioned in a safe, utility role while the two stars of the team took the gold from empty lanes and split pushing. When he was given the chance to play a hard carry, he typically stepped up to the plate — his few games on Draven in Champions are still renowned as some of the best solo carry performances in the league's history.
As the Korean shifted at the end of 2014 and players started exiting to LCS and China's LPL, Emperor took another path: Brazil's CBLoL with teammate DayDream. The move didn't work out as he would have probably hoped, getting ousted in the finals before even getting a chance to compete at the International Wild Card Invitational and promptly leaving the team after the loss. While given more freedom on Keyd Stars and not under the inescapable shadows of Flame and Ambition, it still wasn't a perfect situation for Emperor. He did have his friend and former Blaze member DayDream with him, but the rest of the team spoke an entirely different language, putting him in an awkward communication situation that can break even the best of players.
While Emperor still won't have a Korean speaking support on TDK, he will be in a natural habitat with three other players on his team speaking his native language. There will be growing pains with Smoothie and creating a synergy between the two, especially with TDK's support being a rookie, but the two will need to create a solid partnership if the Dragon Knights have any dreams of getting to the postseason this summer.
Seraph, although seen as one of the few top lane carries in the NA LCS, was at his best during the promotional tournament and relegation rounds against Winterfox when he wasn't the main threat on the team. He is an excellent choice if you want him to stick onto a squishy carry in a team fight or get off a primary engage. When he tries to be the ace of the team through his signature Nidalee or other heavy damage roaming champions, it's a mixed bag of results: he either gets ahead early due to his strong one-on-one dueling, or he falls flat on his face, gets behind, and tilts into simple kills for the enemy team and forced team fights that leave his team in shambles.
Ninja is the same. When he was on Prime Optimus in Champions Korea, he was never the main focus or ace of the team; that position went to Fury, who is now the starting AD on Samsung and is the highest ranking AD on the Korean Challenger ladder. That didn't change when he joined Team WE in China, his incarnation of the former world powerhouse falling to the bottom of the LPL regular season standings before he was benched in the middle season. As seen at IEM Katowice and the LPL Playoffs, World Elite bounced back after putting Ninja aside, Team WE rising through the rankings and making it all the way to the postseason before losing a nail biting 2-3 quarterfinal set to ultimate champions EDward Gaming. The potential is there for him to have a bounce back season with a team that can communicate better, but don't expect him to be the ace TDK needs to make a run at the Top 6.
It all comes back to Emperor. Overshadowed in Korea and out of his element in Brazil, Team Dragon Knights is his chance to be the ace the team builds around. Seraph will be seen as the face of the squad and have a major part in the outcome of TDK's season, but Emperor is the player that the Dragon Knights will need to lean on to see if he can make it a boom or bust in North America. Unlike Ninja, whose career has been continuous defeats and more of a background character, Emperor has shown the ability to step up when called upon and win a game on the back of his carrying talents.
All five players have something to prove this season. Seraph wants to redeem himself for his play on CLG last summer season, moving from the team after one disjointed split. Kez is looking to bounce back from getting eliminated with Complexity last year, coming back into the scene with Team Dragon Knights and helping them into the NA LCS. Ninja, a player that got criticized heavily in China for his poor performance, is now moving to NA LCS, wanting to make North America his new home for the foreseeable future. Smoothie is the inexperienced rookie on a team filled with world travelers.
As for Emperor, this is his chance to become a true ace. His high point came at the start of his professional career, winning the World Cyber Games over a makeshift OMG team that included the bottom lane of Namei and Sicca. That was supposed to be his coming out party; the start of a new and improved CJ Entus Blaze with an AD Carry who was going to compete with the likes of Deft and Imp for years to come. That didn't come to fruition, he was pushed to the side, and eventually had a six month trip to Brazil where he struggled at times to acclimate to the culture shock and communication issues.
The Dragon Knights have found their Emperor to command them into the Summer season.
Now it's his turn to see how far he can lead them.
Tyler "Fionn" Erzberger is a staff writer for The Score eSports who covers the North American LCS and Korea's Champions.