Team Dragon Knights officially made their NA LCS debut five weeks ago: a ragtag group of substitutes along with starters Seraph and Kez going up against title contenders Team Liquid. The outcome wasn't a surprise — the third place team from last season, TL, dispatched the makeshift Dragon Knight squad.
This loss would be a common occurrence for TDK the next few weeks, putting up a fight in almost every game but falling in the end to better prepared, experienced teams that were playing with full rosters.
For the first nine games of the season, the Dragon Knights were in the worst spot possible as a team. Their two big Korean import signings, Ninja and Emperor, were in America and practicing with the team, but couldn't play due to visa issues not allowing them to participate. This meant while TDK would get practice with their true starting five and go through the regiment of any other LCS team, they were forced to play with subs when the weekend rolled around.
They were stuck in purgatory. If Ninja and Emperor weren't with the team and stuck in Korea, at least TDK could have tried to make the best out of an unfortunate situation. Bischu, Mancloud, and Lattman could have attempted to become integral parts of the team, knowing that they weren't the starters TDK wanted, but at least able to try and salvage some wins to keep out of the auto-relegation last place spot.
Instead, every week it became the same story: people get excited for Ninja and Emperor to play and see the real Dragon Knights, and then it's announced on the night before the games that it would be the sub squad filling in for the mid and AD carry roles.
TDK have lost nine straight to start the season, yet they weren't outwardly lost like the 1-17 Team Coast of last season. They weren't a playoff contending team by any means, but they fought and scrapped. When it came to gold differential at 10 minutes, they sat above teams like Enemy and Team 8 who were above them in the standings.
The Dragon Knights kept games close and interesting through the mid-game, pick up objectives, and even grab key Barons, but they became ineffective when the game got into the late-game. The team would fall apart at the seams, the opposition would take advantage of TDK's mistakes, and it would be another loss in the column for the stopgap Dragons squad.
When it came to battling and not getting completely embarrassed, TDK did well despite being winless with their substitutes in the lineup. They cleared wards, put down vision, and didn't get steamrolled like many of the former bottom-feeding teams in LCS' past. Their biggest problem was that they never felt like a real team — just five individuals looking at their phones to look at if it was time yet for Emperor and Ninja to come in and be the starters.
When teamwork and communication is the biggest factor to a win or a loss, the late-game, Team Dragon Knights were failures. The lack of practice with the substitutes and disjointedness in the roster was apparent when they would do decently in the laning phase and fade as the game went on longer. It also didn't help that due to hoping each week Ninja and Emperor would be able to play, the team was given penalties of not being able to make bans and fall behind from the start in the pick/ban phase.
The real Team Dragon Knights debuted yesterday against the league-topping 7-2 Team Dignitas. Following another announcement where TDK would be playing their subs, the Dragon Knights faltered in their ninth straight loss versus the struggling Cloud9 to keep their record without a victory. Before their 10th game of the season, out of nowhere, it was reported that Ninja and Emperor would finally make their debuts against the surging Dignitas.
Weeks of waiting. Weeks of wondering if Emperor and Ninja were even real people anymore and not figments of TDK's imagination they made up to feel better about their situation.
But, amazingly, there they were, the former Team WE player sitting in the mid lane seat and the ex-CJ Entus Blaze player taking his spot in the starting AD carry role. Team Dragon Knights essentially put the NA LCS on the hardest game mode possible, going through the first half of the season without their two main threats and having to endure one of the longest losing streaks in LCS history.
The difference in play between the sub-fueled Dragon Knights and the real squad was apparent; the 0-9 Dragon Knights played, by a wide margin, their best game of the season against a Dignitas team that was on a roll. Emperor and Ninja fit in perfectly with the rest of the team, showing that while the constant practicing hurt the first half of the season, it did raise their overall team strength by leaps and bounds.
The team that was already good at fundamentals and keeping things close were now given two players who played along with the rest of the team and could be the main carries when they needed to win.
The non-imaginary Korean import duo combined for a 10/2/14 scoreline for their first games of the season, picking up the all-important first win for their team and keeping them in striking distance to get out of their auto-relegation hole.
The Dragon Knights went through the first half of the season knowing what to do to get into a situation where they could win, but they never had the players who could actually convert those chances into victories. The small things TDK did well with the subs were amplified with Ninja and Emperor in the roster, the two experienced imports being the missing variables to the equation of how the Dragons were going to win.
Before we go crazy and start talking about how good TDK really are, we can't forget that the first half of the season counts just as much as the second. Now at 1-9, the finally put together team still find themselves in a gigantic hole, needing the biggest miracle in League of Legends history to make the playoffs.
To even get out of the auto-relegation spot and get a chance to defend their NA LCS membership, they'll need to surpass either Enemy, Team 8, and Cloud9 who all stand two games above the Dragons in the standings.
In terms of pure talent and how good they really are, the Dragon Knights could definitely be a playoff team. TDK, even when they were losing every single game, were keeping up with the majority of the teams in the league while not even practicing fully with the roster they were using. The addition of Emperor and Ninja is more than just adding two individually talented players. It's the unveiling of a team that has been getting to know each other and grow as a team behind the scenes.
This might have been their first game on the professional stage together, but these are the real Dragon Knights — all the good qualities of the makeshift TDK squad with the weights of not playing with their starting members finally lifted from their bodies.
While the odds are heavily against them and they're at a major disadvantage with only eight games left in the season, the time for talking and speculation is over for TDK.
Emperor and Ninja are here to play. And if all they have to do is keep winning to remain in the NA LCS next season, then, at last, they can do what they signed with the Dragon Knights to accomplish: go out on the Rift and get down to business.
Special thanks to OraclesElixir.com for the stats compiled in this article.
Tyler "Fionn" Erzberger is a staff writer for The Score eSports who covers the North American LCS and Korea's Champions. You can follow him on Twitter.