First South Korea, next the world?
Semi-professional team ESC EVER capped off their miracle run through the KeSPA Cup tournament with their best performance of the entire competition, blanking CJ Entus in three straight games to win their organization's first championship, ₩ 40,000,000 (roughly $35,000), and a spot at IEM Cologne this coming December.
The second team to book their tickets to the event, EVER will meet China's EDward Gaming, the spring champions of the LPL and the winners of the Mid-Season Invitational. EVER and EDward Gaming are also the only two teams that will have the distinction of eliminating SK Telecom T1 from a tournament this year, the reigning world champions winning every event other than MSI and the KeSPA Cup.
So, you must be asking yourself — unless you follow the Korean Challenger scene extremely close — who exactly are these five kids who came out of nowhere to topple four of Korea's best teams, including the world champions? Are they a net cafe team? Are they cyborgs created by China to overtake Korea? Before you jump to conclusions, let me give you a little insight into the team that has taken the League scene by storm this past week.
Kim "Crazy" Jae-hee is the starting top lane for EVER. Formerly known as Crazyplay, he is one of the true rookies on the team. He finished the 2015 year outside of the Challenger ladder in Korea, ending up in the Masters as the 300th best player in his region's solo queue. A constant Hecarim and Lissandra player on ladder, his proficiency with the Ice Witch showed in the grand finals against CJ and the entirety of the tournament.
Kim "Ares" Min-kwon, the jungler, also happens to be the most vetted player at the team. Having played in Champions Korea before, he was a part of the hapless Incredible Miracle team that floundered in the 2015 spring season. He ended his run on IM with an embarrassing 1-14 record in pro play. Since joining EVER, he's taken a leadership role as the experienced player on the team, becoming the main shot-caller on the squad.
As with his top lane partner Crazy, Ares also failed to finish in Challenger this season, concluding his climb up the ladder at the 304th position. After the success that Reignover, Kuro, and most especially Smeb saw this year with their maturation outside then IM organization, Ares could be the next player to evolve into a topflight player following his departure from the disjointed IM franchise.
Kang "Athena" Ha-woon has been a consistent force in the Korean Challenger scene for the past year, always hovering around the upper half of players in the ladder as one of the most promising amateur players. The KeSPA tournament turned out to be his breakout performance, Athena's rookie debut ending up as a massive success against Korea's best in the mid lane.
He beat Crown, Samsung's lauded young mid lane that finished the year in the 5th spot of Korea's solo queue; in the quarterfinals, he was able to topple Mickey, another one of his country's rising stars at the position. The semifinals he started off by beating Scout, SKT's prized rookie that ended S5 as the top player in Korea solo queue, and then finished the series by beating Faker, the game's all-time best player. To end his road of slaying Korea's greatest mids, he swept Coco in the finals, largely considered the #2 mid in South Korea behind Faker in 2015.
Lee "LokeN" Dong-wook was one of the two new recruits for EVER heading into this tournament (Ares being the other; TML also changed his ID to KeY) and a rookie playing in his first professional games as a previous amateur player. LokeN with KeY formed the best bottom lane in the tournament, towering over opponents in-lane and teamfighting.
Primarily the main carry for the team throughout the tournament, LokeN made his presence known in almost every game of the campaign, even ending Bang's historic undefeated streak on Kalista in the semifinals to sweep the world champions.
Kim "KeY" Han-gi was awarded the MVP award for the KeSPA due to his marvelous play throughout, especially on his Bard that guided EVER over SKT T1 in the semifinals. When his Bard was taken away in the grand finals, he was still the star of the team on champions like Tahm Kench and Alistar, proving that he wasn't a one-trick pony that can be banned out so simply.
Formerly known as TML on the Xenics Storm team that failed to qualify for the summer season of Champions Korea in 2015, he played in China's secondary league before returning to Korea before the KeSPA Cup and joining his new EVER teammates. Addition to all of that, he also finished the year as the top player from his squad in solo queue, landing in the 36th spot with teammates LokeN and Athena also joining him in the Challenger division.
Other than finding out the newly put together ESC EVER team have the potential for greatness if they stick together — which, sadly, is unlikely to happen — we didn't really learn anything during the KeSPA Cup. The three teams that went to the World Championships (SKT, Tigers, KT) were all thrown into a tournament that they had zero time to prepare for on a patch that was different from the one they tirelessly practiced on for two months.
CJ Entus, the team that made the finals, should have probably lost in the first round, but had lady luck shine down on them in series against amateur team Winners, beating them due to a bugged ward that allowed them to win a climactic fight in the Baron pit during the third set of that series. Jin Air didn't even use their best player in Chaser, showcasing how some of the upper echelon teams viewed this tournament.
All in all, the only thing we should take from this tournament is how impressive EVER are. We can talk about how some squads disregarded this tournament, but you can't deny how well EVER played as a team. On the eye test alone, they passed with flying colors, their teamfighting look up to par with the best in the world, and their rotations not looking out of place with the World Championship teams from Korea.
KeY made it known he's a player to watch out for in 2016, and the rest of the squad all had great performances that should be a sign for things to come like the former Xenics Storm teams that had little money but a wide array of talent.
The issue is, with KeSPA Cup's close, that also signals the beginning of the offseason in South Korea. Contracts for a lot of players are up in a week or two, and that is going to be mean a lot of shuffling for a majority of the teams in the region. Longzhu IM, a team that fell on their face this tournament, has already expressed their desire to spend money for the best players possible this offseason to change their narrative from downtrodden to heroes; rumors are already swirling they might be in process of constructing a super team with possibly a few returning players from last year's Great Korean Exodus to China.
For the teams that want to improve but not break the bank with big name talent, EVER have put themselves in the position where Champions Korea teams will be looking at the likes of Athena and KeY, wondering if they could be the new superstars in the upcoming year.
For now, though, before the talks of big money contracts cloud their thoughts, we can appreciate the present: ESC EVER, awkwardly giving their first real interviews on a stage in front of thousands, laughing as they raise the KeSPA Cup in front of a thousand Korean fans as streamers rain down on them.
Tomorrow reality might hit, but tonight is for fairy tales.
Tyler "Fionn" Erzberger is a staff writer for theScore eSports who covers the North American LCS and Korea's Champions. You can follow him on Twitter.