On Thursday, theScore eSports confirmed that, after unexpectedly dropping all three of their Week 1 Group Stage games, LGD Gaming would be sending their starting top laner Choi "Acorn" Cheon-ju to the bench in favor of Lee "Flame" Ho-Jong for their opening game against KT Rolster on Saturday. Acorn, who played all but a few games down the stretch during LGD's run for a domestic title, struggled along with the rest of his team at the World Championships.
Voted by the Korean media as the country's best top laner in 2013, Flame has sat on the bench for most of the past few months, splitting time with Acorn in the summer season before being sidelined in the playoffs. After being heralded as one of the best top laners in the game's history, Flame will finally make his debut on the world-stage Saturday, matching up with the current Champions MVP, KT's Ssumday.
Before the former CJ Entus Blaze ace makes his formal debut at Worlds, there are two prevailing questions that need to be addressed:
- Wait, is he even still good? Why was he effectively benched for the entire season if he was any good?
- Can he be the savior LGD needs to go 3-0 on Saturday and, with some help from other teams, have a chance of advancing to the quarterfinals following their embarrassing first week performance?
True: Flame is still an elite top laner in today's game
One of the biggest misconceptions from a lot of western fans is that Flame is some washed up, over the hill player that took the highest offer from a Chinese team and proceeded to relax in a foreign country for a year while sipping martinis on the bench.
That couldn't be further from the case. After a final season in Korea during the 2014 Champions Summer season that saw his attention wander and his performance drop as his entire team crumbled around him, Flame went to China following the rumored decision that CJ Entus was most likely going to stick with Shy as their primary top laner. He was offered a higher salary from Qiao Gu — at the time a team in the second division of Chinese League — and eventually wound up signing with an LGD Gaming squad that had already signed Imp and Acorn from the Samsung organization.
The common belief when Flame signed was that he would be the carry player that LGD used when the meta or matchup favored an offensive top laner, and Acorn would be used when they wanted to play more of a utility and/or defensive style that helped GODV and Imp become late-game titans. That was completely thrown out the window when the two players started in the spring LPL season, splitting games with Acorn starting off the best-of-two matches and Flame coming in for the second map.
Acorn was given champions that you'd expect Flame to play — Kennen, Ryze, and Irelia, while Flame was put on the defensive meat shields and teleport-centric champions that Acorn excelled at. It was like LGD were forcing their two star top laners to add a new dimension to their games and champion pools. As their record would represent by the end of the season, the spring split was essentially a wash for both players, LGD finishing on the fringe of the playoffs. Outside of a few well-executed Rumble games, Flame was fed a heavy diet of Gnar and Maokai for the spring season, as he was placed in a position to set-up team fights for his carries and protect them if need be.
When the spring postseason came around, that's when LGD truly started to favor Acorn over Flame. Acorn and LGD were firing on all cylinders in the playoffs and went up 2-0 in both the quarterfinals and semifinals. Flame was put in the role of the designated closer, getting the repetition as a 'BM pick' coming into a series where LGD already already had a huge lead. Flame did his job and closed out both the OMG and Snake series (both Gnar games) before getting left on the bench in the finals against EDward Gaming, Acorn playing in all five games. LGD lost the spring finals in a close series, and it set the tone for what was to come in the summer: Flame was still a good player, but the team was simply more comfortable with Acorn in the postseason.
Summer was the same as the spring. Flame and Acorn split most of the matches, and Flame continued on his path of spamming Gnar and Maokai. In the single game he was allowed to play Ryze, the champion he revolutionized alongside CJ Entus Frost's Shy, Flame did what he always did when he was given the resources to carry: he dominated. Although it was against a weaker opponent in Unlimited Potential (Samsung Blue's Heart's newest team), Flame did everything he could to prove that, while he could do well on tanks and utility champions, he could be an even bigger asset with offensive champions, especially with the upcoming meta changes that allowed top laners to be central carries.
Flame's last match was in August during the summer playoffs where he was put in for a single game against Vici Gaming on Hecarim. He lost to DanDy's Ryze on a map that swung back and forth before VG finally closed the game out. From that point on, Flame sat on the bench as Acorn played the rest of the games in the playoffs, this time not even using him as the 'closer' when they got ahead in a series. With the offensive top laner meta in full swing, Acorn was given chances to play champions like Fiora and other split-pushing characters that Flame was renowned for.
Here is the mystery behind the LGD situation: both Flame and Acorn are great top laners. The added bonus for Acorn is that he moonlighted as a head coach during times where LGD's coaching situation was unclear, and he, quite frankly, just fit the starting five dynamic better than Flame did. When you want Flame at his absolute peak, you want him on a team where he can get a majority of the resources and play the game at his tempo. For Acorn, he is at his best when he plays at the tempo that his teammates have set.
Flame showed that he could play champions like Maokai, Gnar, and Rumble, setting up beautiful Equalizers that single-handedly won LGD games, but on a team that has Imp and GODV, he is the odd man out. When Flame plays, it will force those two players to play around him instead. Acorn's flexibility in his champion selection and ability to play with extremely low gold resources is something that Flame won't shine as brightly on.
When Flame is the focus of the team and given resources, he is a better player than Acorn.
When GODV and/or Imp are the focus of the team, Acorn is the better player and allows LGD to play a more comfortable style of play.
Flame can make a difference in games similar to last week's Group D matches where GODV was insignificant and Acorn's usually reliable teleports and engages were nowhere to be found. Acorn, while a great player in his own right and possibly the greatest Rumble player of all-time, is not the man you call on when your star mid laner is seemingly broken and your AD Carry is trying everything possible to save his team.
In a meta with champions like Fiora, Darius, Gangplank, and other split-pushing champions running rampant, you call on Flame.
Not the Flame that plays Maokai or even the Flame that plays Gnar repeatedly.
If you're bringing Flame into the lineup in this meta and under these circumstances, you're asking for the man that who routinely farmed over 100 more CS than his opponent by the mid-game and has the ability to take over games as the ace when given the necessary resources to do so.
LGD need to rekindle the Flame that has been contained for the past year if they want any chance of utilizing him correctly over Acorn.
False: Savior Flame will single-handedly pilot LGD to a perfect 3-0 record on Saturday
Is Flame still good? Yes.
If LGD play around Flame and Imp can they win some games? Sure.
Is Flame going to ride in on a horse, destroy everyone in Group D by himself, and then ride into the sunset with the Summoner's Cup? No, because Acorn, while a detriment and a problem, was nowhere near the sole reason why LGD went 0-3 last week.
LGD's play was uninspired and lazy — outside of Imp who was trying his best to make something happen, even if it cost him his life. From the head-scratching drafts to needless in-game mistakes from objective control to team fighting, LGD was a mess. You can insert Flame, Ssumday, whomever you like in the top lane position and give him whichever high priority pick you want, and it's not going to mean much when you have players funneling into the Drake pit while a Mordekaiser is on the map.
The move to Flame is one that makes sense when you look at the meta. Players like Ssumday, MaRin, and Smeb are dominating with their split-pushing, high damage champions that can take over games with multi-kills and gold resources. Flame — the real Flame — is a player in the same vein, enjoying early turret deaths, manipulating minion waves to his favor, and getting priority when it comes to gold. As like Ssumday who can take a small advantage and widen it into a Pacific Ocean-like victory, Flame is the same type of carry.
But, even before Flame picks his first champion at Worlds on Saturday, LGD need to fix everything from the management down. They came into their matches unprepared and appeared to be sleepwalking through their games, not realizing that they actually had to win games to make it into the quarterfinals.
Is there a chance Flame comes in rusty, gets dived immediately trying to farm way too forward in lane, and LGD get crushed by KT Rolster? Absolutely. I'm not saying Flame is at the current level of Ssumday or MaRin. We haven't really seen Flame play in this offensive top laner meta since the LPL season ended, and for LGD to do anything in a difficult Group D, they're going to need GodV, TBQ, and Pyl to play at the levels that won them the domestic championship.
At the moment, the fire is barely lit and flickering in a storm of uncertainty and turbulence.
Saturday, LGD are hoping with a week of preparation, scrimmages, and tinkering, a blazing wildfire will overtake the World Championships.
Tyler "Fionn" Erzberger is a staff writer for theScore eSports. You can follow him on Twitter