Last time after we won, we had a fanmeet, and our fans were like, "We actually don't really think you can win the SKT match." I said, "Well, we'll wait and see." And I'm very thankful to the fans for cheering us on. Honestly I thought we were going to lose.
— LirA following Afreeca Freecs' Week 6 victory over SK Telecom T1
The five members of the Afreeca Freecs eagerly await their team MVP interview with Cho Eun-jung, their personalities on full display. As popular streamers for their primary sponsor, Afreeca.TV, the members of the Freecs know how to ham it up when necessary, making them fun and entertaining watch.
Top laner Jeon “ikssu” Ik-soo looks surprisingly serious, especially considering he’s so gregarious in the booth. Mid laner Son “Mickey” Young-min and AD carry Gwon “Sangyoon” Sang-yun smile, laughing at each other and clapping. Support No “Snowflower” Hoi-jong claps as well, as he stares off into the middle distance. Lastly there’s Nam “LirA” Tae-yoo, who has a lazy smile for caster Cho as he tells the story of the Afreeca fanmeet. The audience eats it up.
Much has changed since the Freecs’ first postgame MVP interview in LoL Champions Korea Summer 2015, where a confident Mickey was interviewed for two MVP performances against NaJin e-mFire. Then, the team was called Anarchy, and had just recently qualified for LCK Summer 2015 from through the Summer Promotion tournament. Mickey’s audience was small, consisting of few people beyond his own teammates in plain white shirts that bore no logos or sponsors to speak of. Anarchy were as winsome of an underdog as Korea had seen to date — a group of five players who were primarily popular streamers with outgoing and likeable personalities.
At the start of their Champions career, Anarchy had no sponsors, no coaching staff, no gaming house, and only one strategy: get Mickey ahead. Mickey and his pool of assassins became Anarchy’s ticket to the few victories they did manage throughout LCK Summer 2015. Of all starting players in Korea that summer, Mickey received the largest percentage of his team’s total gold at 32.6 percent. He also soaked up the most bans of any player on Anarchy, which only served to emphasize their one-note strategy.
If Mickey was on Zed — with a 100 percent win rate the three times the champion slipped through the ban phase — or Ahri, the scales tipped in Anarchy’s favor. Any other champion and the team was overwhelmed by superior macro play, or even individual outplays. The rest of the team didn't seem to be able to keep up with Mickey.
Back in Anarchy, Faker won the match and in the interview Faker said, "Mickey should try harder." And I actually did try really hard.
— Mickey following Afreeca Freecs' 2016 victory over SK Telecom T1
With five series wins and an overall game record of 17-29, Anarchy earned their spot in LCK Spring 2016 over bottom-feeders Incredible Miracle and SBENU Sonicboom (formerly Prime). They were able to take games, but rarely series, unless Mickey somehow got his hands on one of his best champions. Knowing that they needed to adapt and improve, the team began adjusting their overall gameplan in the offseason. The 2015 strategy of feeding Mickey became their backup plan, as the team refocused their efforts on bottom lane duo Sangyoon and Snowflower.
The offseason was not kind to Anarchy, in spite of their efforts to improve. Without a full sponsor, the team relied on their KeSPA stipend to afford a gaming house and equipment — until KeSPA announced that it was withdrawing its support over the team’s refusal to stream on the Azubu platform, where all of KeSPA's teams stream. Anarchy preferred Afreeca.TV, where several of their players were popular streamers prior to qualifying for LCK Summer 2015, and unlike most teams in Korea, streaming was a primary source of revenue for them. At one point, Mickey’s in-game name read “Anarchy sponsorship plz,” presumably to drum up interest in their plight.
Eventually, Afreeca.TV stepped up and sponsored Anarchy, who became the Afreeca Freecs for LCK Spring 2016. Yet the newly branded team didn't make the same splash they did on their initial LCK entrance several months earlier. They began the season with three losses to KT Rolster, Samsung Galaxy and Jin Air Green Wings before finally earning their first series win over last-place SBENU Sonicboom. Things didn’t start looking up for the Freecs until their shocking upset victory over SK Telecom T1 in Week 6.
Although they won’t break into the top of the LCK anytime soon, the Freecs are clearly capable of taking series off of top-tier teams. However, the further they've moved away from their Mickey-centric strategy, the more obvious it has become that Mickey isn’t the greatest team player. This isn’t to say he’s particularly selfish or greedy, but his in-game decisions don't always align with what the rest of the team is doing.
He groups when he should split-push to apply map pressure, and split-pushes when he should group with the rest of the Freecs for large-scale teamfights. His Teleports are often atrociously timed, giving immediate advantages to Afreeca’s opponents. At 69.7 percent, Mickey has one of the worst kill participation rates of any mid laner in Korea this split, while his teammates all fall in the top four for kill participation in their respective positions. The stats reflect the strategy that has worked best for Afreeca this season — sending Mickey off on his own to draw attention while the rest of the team mows down objectives or opponents.
Personally I think that our team is really continuously growing, but one person lags behind, and he is Sangyoon. And I hope he catches up to the rest of us.
— Freecs' support Snowflower joking in a broadcast interview
Sangyoon and his partner-in-crime, Snowflower, are the new focus of the Freecs. Sangyoon now receives the largest percentage of gold from his team, just above Mickey at 24.8 percent. The Freecs' AD carry also has the highest kill participation on his team at 75.1 percent, second-best of any AD carry in the region behind CJ Entus’ Ha “Kramer” Jong-hun.
Sangyoon’s excelled on Kalista in particular, making the most of her laning potential. He and Snowflower are dynamic and reckless in lane, trading even at disadvantageous times. Their aggression often catches opponents off-guard, even though they could be easily countered by patience and discipline.
In fact, much of what the Freecs bring to the table could be staved off with stronger coordination and macro play — but they nonetheless take series off of teams who slumber through draft phase or who rely too much on one win condition. Most recently, Afreeca bested third-place KT Rolster by drafting smartly and removing Kim “Ssumday” Chan-ho as a legitimate threat to their team. The Freecs followed this up with a 2-1 victory over SBENU Sonicboom to leapfrog over Longzhu Gaming into seventh place, reviving their playoff hopes.
“[Our coach] told us that we will be like the protagonists of this season if we defeat SBENU Sonicboom and make it into the postseason," LirA said in an inven interview following the win over SBENU. "He also encouraged us to accomplish that through our own efforts and not by the power of the heavens.”
At 7-7, Afreeca have already bested their 28 percent winrate from LCK Summer 2015, even if they drop all of their remaining matches. Their final four series are all tough — two of them will be against the top two teams, the ROX Tigers and Jin Air Green Wings. With their penchant for occasionally flubbing the basics, it’s doubtful that Afreeca will make the playoffs, but it’s difficult to not cheer for this scrappy band of characters. The Freecs may not yet be the protagonist of LCK, but they’re a shoo-in for plucky sidekick.
Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.