The ESC Ever-ending Story of a Korean Challenger Team

by theScore Staff Mar 3 2016
Thumbnail image courtesy of KeSPA

Prior to international events, many pick and choose teams based on pre-existing regional biases or the prevailing atmosphere at that time. At the upcoming Season X IEM World Championship in Katowice, ESC Ever is confusing to many people, as very few of them watch the Korean challenger scene. Even though Korea is widely seen as the strongest region, Ever’s place against professional teams from other regions is nebulous at best. To gauge Ever’s strength, you must first examine the strength of the Korean challenger system.

From NLB to Challengers Korea

Prior to 2015, younger teams in Korea were groomed in the NLB secondary tournament that ran parallel to Champions. From there, players or whole teams were picked up by larger organizations to play in the professional OnGameNet Champions tournament, now known as League of Legends Champions Korea (LCK). In the 2014-15 offseason, Korean infrastructure was massively overhauled, dissolving sister teams and the entire tournament format. This included the NLB tournament, which was changed into Challengers Korea, retaining the same organizers in NiceGameTV but with a far smaller scope.

Starting in Winter 2012-13 NLB tournaments featured Champions teams that had lost in the primary OGN tournament and dropped down to the upper echelons of the NLB. Amateur teams that had failed to qualify for the main OGN tournament not only received a tournament of their own, but a chance to compete against better teams the further they went in the NLB, making these squads that weren’t good enough for Champions stronger teams in the process. Challengers Korea attempted something similar to this in their Summer 2015 league with the benches of professional teams currently in LCK Summer 2015, but kept the talent mostly separated.

The overall depth and strength of the Korean amateur scene shrunk in comparison to years past due to an underwhelming new league, foreign organizations plucking Korean solo queue and amateur talent for their teams, and a lack of larger non-endemic sponsors. In years past these sponsors would have picked up talent for sister teams, and likely had one of these teams in the NLB if they did not qualify for Champions. Now teams have 10-man rosters in LCK with only five players able to play at a time.

This year, the Korean challenger scene has improved slightly, especially with MVP’s re-entry into League of Legends, but for the most part, the current challenger system is sub-par to the prior NLB system due to a lack of means for developing talent.

Who are ESC Ever?

Ever has been in Challengers Korea since its inception in 2015. They placed fifth-eighth in Spring Series 1, losing 0-2 to OverWM, and fared even worse in Spring Series 2 where they were eliminated by MKZ in the first round. Little was expected of Ever going into Challengers Korea Summer where they unexpectedly finished in second place during the regular season, with an 8-2 record. In Summer playoffs, the Ever that is more well-known from later events like the 2015 KeSPA Cup and IEM Season X Cologne began to take shape with the acquisition of support Kim “KeY” Han-gi (known as TML at the time). KeY was paired with AD carry Lee “LokeN” Dong-wook over their other AD carry, Park “Police” Hyeong-gi rounding out a roster of top laner Kim “Crazy” Jae-hee (then known as “Crazyplay”), mid laner Kang “Athena” Ha-woon, and jungler Ryan.

Ever took second in the summer playoffs, earning a spot in the 2016 LCK Spring Promotion tournament. Ever’s opponents were Champions Korea bottom-feeder SBENU Sonicboom. SBENU had recently acquired a new, aggressive jungler, Sung “Flawless” Yeon-jun who at the time looked poised to push SBENU from last place into relevancy. This has yet to happen in 2016 LCK Spring, and Flawless has looked generally terrible, but it was enough to earn SBENU another spot in champions, besting Ever 3-1.

Prior to the 2015 KeSPA Cup, Ever was picked up by sponsor ESC or esportsconnected. This meant a gaming house and better equipment for the team, who bootcamped for two weeks before the tournament. More importantly, they picked up former Incredible Miracle Kim “Ares” Min-kwon. While Ares isn’t a particularly impressive jungler, he became the team’s shotcaller and their coordination improved significantly. This may have not necessarily made them significantly better than their OGN Champions opponents, but it did make them more prepared.

ESC Ever showed up to the KeSPA Cup hungry for recognition and swept Samsung Galaxy in the first round. Their next opponent was Rebels Anarchy (now known in the LCK as the Afreeca Freecs), followed by an SK Telecom T1 that had been in the country for less than a week due to their recent 2015 World Championship victory. ESC Ever stunned audiences, and themselves by beating SK Telecom T1 2-0 in a best-of-three semifinal en route to a 3-0 KeSPA Cup finals win over CJ Entus. KeY in particular had a breakout performance on Bard, earning the tournament’s MVP

This earned Ever a spot at IEM Cologne where they bested Europe’s H2K and China’s Qiao Gu Reapers, winning the Korean challenger team a spot at the upcoming IEM Season X World Championship. Since returning to Korea victorious from Cologne, the team has been competing in Challengers Korea 2016 Spring. Currently they sit in second place, behind MVP, with a 13-5 overall record (5-3-1 in best-of-twos).

ESC Ever at the IEM World Championship

The ESC Ever attending IEM Katowice isn’t exactly the same team that won Cologne. Mid laner Athena was signed by China’s Edward Gaming, and KeY was benched among rumors of elo boosting that surfaced around the time of Ever’s KeSPA Cup victory. This fractured the team’s synergy a bit, as KeY was a primary playmaker for the team – a role that substitute support Eun “Totoro” Jong-seop was unable to fill as well as KeY. The team has been consumed with maintaining their position in Challengers Korea in order to earn another chance at making it into LoL Champions Korea Summer.

“It is overwhelming for us to prepare specifically for IEM because we are currently dealing with our Challengers Korea schedule as well, unlike the other teams that have a break,” ESC Ever’s coach Kim Ga-ram admitted in a recent interview. “But the IEM World Championship is an important competition for us as much as Challengers Korea is. We’ll make the most of our remaining time so that we can prepare.”

KeY recently returned to the team from his self-imposed ban. If their most recent matches against MVP are any indicator, he remains an impressive individual playmaker, but some of his general coordination with the team has suffered. ESC Ever relies on their use of global pressure and Teleports, which is generally how they win games. New mid laner Kang “Tempt” Min-gyu fills a similar role to Athena, albeit with fewer flashy highlights, by keeping the mid lane pushed up. The majority of attention is given to Crazy so he can garner early advantages and snowball into the late game. Ever can execute the Season 6 laneswap well, but were surprisingly passive in their MVP set come mid game. They additionally had issues fighting against MVP jungler Kim “Beyond” Kyu-seok on Kindred, and at times looked completely lost as to how to deal with Lamb’s Respite.

Fortunately, ESC Ever are in the far more nebulous Group A, where any one of the four teams has a decent chance at making it out of the group. Additionally, KeY’s return means that teams do have to prepare for his Bard and playmaking support style, and some of Ever’s team coordination, a prior strength, should return in time for this tournament.

Special thanks to @bnununu for translating the original FOMOS interview with ESC Ever Coach Kim Ga-ram

Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore eSports. You can follow her on Twitter.