With a more competitive field than Spring 2015 and ample time to recover from the massive infrastructural changes and talent loss of the 2014-15 offseason, LCK Spring 2016 was to be the season that SK Telecom T1 would be ousted from their throne for the first time since 2014. Unlike in Spring 2015, when the then-GE Tigers stormed through the regular season only to be swept by a rising SKT squad in the finals, the ROX Tigers were without a doubt the best team in Korea for the entirety of the split and constantly set the standard for other teams — both international and domestic — to follow.
Sadly for the Tigers, their time was not yet to be.
Like all great teams, SKT pulled through a few rough playoff appearances to once again defeat the Tigers in a final that was much closer than the previous spring’s.
With that said, SKT also had a now famously mediocre Mid-Season Invitational group stages, but it’s easy to forget their MSI groups performances or their rough playoff series against the Jin Air Green Wings, with another international trophy in Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok’s hands. Last year, SKT almost lost to CJ Entus in the playoff gauntlet — were it not for the Herculean effort from AD carry Bae “Bang” Jun-sik, they probably would have. Yet this struggle has also been mostly lost to time, only mentioned when highlights of Bang’s career are discussed.
Their dominance not only reiterates the strength of the organization, their support staff, and ability to develop talent, but also retroactively rewrites their history and struggles. At this point, it seems inevitable that SKT will take home whatever trophy gleams in the distance, the only question the team must ask themselves is how they’ll manage it this time.
Meanwhile, a different question is again posed to the nine other teams in the world’s most competitive and strongest region: can anyone beat SK Telecom T1?
SK Telecom T1
Reigning world champions, reigning IEM champions, reigning LCK champions, reigning MSI champions — SK Telecom T1 are owners of every title that competitive League of Legends has to offer. These accolades make the unpleasant taste of their spring playoff series against the Jin Air Green Wings and MSI group stage matches go down easy.
Like most Korean teams in the offseason, SKT made no changes to their roster, and will presumably start with Kang “Blank” Sun-gu in the jungle over Bae “bengi” Seong-woong for the foreseeable future. SKT’s dedication to Blank has been impressive, especially considering his visible struggles during the MSI and his previous mental hang-ups that were reportedly a problem for the jungler in his first few appearances. Any development shown by Blank in the LCK Spring 2016 Finals was quickly erased from recent memory due to his poor decision-making and mechanical misplays at MSI. Even in light of SKT’s eventual victory, Blank remains an oddity — inconsistent and too often reliant on Faker’s mid lane control. Despite his overwhelming lane dominance, top laner Lee “Duke” Ho-seong is another weak point with continued poor communication that results in mistimed flanks and Teleport usage.
There’s no doubt that SKT are the team to beat in Korea, but it’s also important to remember that this arrangement of players still have a lot of room for improvement as a team. While other teams aim for the target on their backs and try to improve themselves in order to beat SKT, SKT will be growing alongside them, making for an even stronger region.
Not much has been said about the Tigers in the wake of SKT’s MSI run. Unpacking the Tigers’ finals loss to SKT first shines the spotlight on jungler Han “Peanut” Wang-ho and subsequently on mid laner Lee “KurO” Seo-haeng. While it’s easy to point to KurO and say that he underperformed throughout the series, Peanut had a distinct lack of jungle pressure in the finals when compared to his stifling presence throughout the regular season. Even when he was able to garner early leads against SKT, he and the Tigers were mostly unable to turn them into team victories.
Where Faker holds the mid lane for Blank, allowing the SKT jungler to farm freely or apply lane pressure, Peanut does a similar thing for KurO with the positions reversed. Peanut’s control of the ROX Tigers’ and enemy jungle makes KurO’s job easier. Never the flashiest mid laner, KurO was still good at holding his own against most adversaries — Faker excluded — prior to Peanut’s arrival this past spring. Having such a strong ally in the jungle turned KurO into one of the most statistically-impressive mids this past season.
The KurO-Peanut union is augmented by one of the best supports in the world: Kang “GorillA” Beom-hyeon. Veteran AD carry Kim “PraY” Jong-in is perfectly fine when left to his own devices in lane, and GorillA’s roams often make up for Peanut’s lack of vision — of all starting junglers in LCK Spring he had the lowest wards per minute at 0.58 — and apply additional pressure. Last, but certainly not least, the Tigers have top laner Song “Smeb” Kyung-ho, who was one of the best players in the region during LCK Spring 2016.
Even with SKT attending MSI under the banner of Korea, the Tigers were certainly the better team in the regular season and are arguably still a better, more complete team than SKT. Just as SKT at times have been one series or game away from losing and have managed to pull out a victory, the Tigers have been on the opposite side of this equation — always one or two series away from winning, validating their regular season dominance.
Much like their rollercoaster namesake, KT Rolster have high highs, low lows, and inevitably return to their own starting point without making any actual headway. Even the organization’s best, and most accomplished teams of previous years won little in the way of actual LoL titles, with only the Arrows’ Champions Summer 2014 win over Samsung Galaxy Blue for a domestic trophy, and the Bullets’ undefeated run at IEM Katowice 2014 for notable achievements. In recent years, KT have seen the most success when adapting to a new patch.
This was again the case this past spring. Always willing to take risks with their drafts, KT came out of some games looking unbeatable, and others with spectators quizzically scratching their heads as to why this presumably top team suddenly looked so bad in game. Much of this stems from their aforementioned patch adjustment abilities, placing them well ahead of their first few opponents before the rest of the region catches up. Then KT’s other problems once again rear their ugly heads.
KT have yet to find a suitable primary carry other than top laner Kim “Ssumday” Chan-ho, which is obviously a weakness in certain metas that don’t favor carry tops. While AD carry No “Arrow” Dong-hyeon has greatly improved, he is still more of a secondary or tertiary carry, as is mid laner Song “Fly” Yong-jun. This not only puts a large amount of pressure on Ssumday, but jungler Go “Score” Dong-bin as well. Score is coming off of his best season in the jungle position, yet still sometimes fails to provide an early presence and can be stymied by losing matchups in his lanes. Another notable weakness is support Ha “Hachani” Seung-chan. Much improved from his days on the Arrows as well as his LCK Spring 2015 performances, Hachani still has his moments of ill-advised positioning, often resulting in his death. Initially a substitute, Hachani was called upon as the team’s starter for the majority of the season when KT had trouble integrating Lee “IgNar” Dong-guen into the lineup.
Now without the option of IgNar, these five are KT’s starting lineup for the time being, meaning that their inherent strengths and weaknesses of the past split are still present.
Jin Air Green Wings
Sponsored by an airline, it’s oddly fitting that Jin Air suffers from a piloting problem. AD carry Na “Pilot” Woo-hyung was once cited as a bright spot on Jin Air, an efficient caster-style option to Kang “Cpt Jack” Hyung-woo’s more auto-attack-based champion pool. Last year, the team rotated between the two in an effort to provide different options for supplementing mid laner Lee “GBM” Chang-seok’s playstyle. Both GBM and Cpt Jack left the team in the 2015-16 offseason, leaving Pilot as the team’s sole AD carry.
Pilot is an adequate secondary damage threat for Jin Air provided that they have another hard carry on the team. At the start of LCK Spring 2016, this carry was Yeo “TrAce” Chang-dong on top lane Graves and later Gangplank. As the season wore on, TrAce shifted back to Nautilus and Poppy and the Green Wings struggled to find another damage source. Pilot has known stage fright, and presumably places a lot of pressure on himself when called upon to carry. His overly safe playstyle both in lane and during teamfights doesn’t allow for maximum damage output as he is usually unwilling to take risks. His caution does not match up well with his support, Choi “Chei” Sun-ho, who is naturally more of an aggressive playmaker, which makes their partnership seem uncoordinated at times. Mid laner Lee “Kuzan” Seong-hyeok was another carry option for Jin Air during the spring season, but was also tasked with waveclear and lane control — like most mids — allowing jungler Park “Winged” Tae-jin to farm safely.
As they are, Jin Air are a good team, not a great one. This lineup should once again get them into playoffs but, barring a favorable meta shift, not much further than that.
Korea’s Spring Cinderella story, the Freecs climbed from eighth place to fifth, and qualified for a playoff spot on the back of a 7-2 series record in the second round robin. It was a shaky ascent — often dropping a game to supposedly inferior opponents like SBENU Sonicboom or Kongdoo Monster while the team ironed out their macro issues — yet at the end of the season, the Freecs wrested the final playoff spot from Samsung Galaxy.
Going into their first postseason series against the Jin Air Green Wings, the Freecs were a favorite due to their momentum and coordination. They had finally weaned themselves off of strategies that focused solely on mid laner Son “Mickey” Young-min, giving more attention to AD carry Gwon “Sangyoon” Sang-yun while Nam “LirA” Tae-yoo had quietly become one of the best junglers in the region. The Freecs subsequent playoff collapse was painful to watch, as the team appeared to have forgotten everything that they had learned throughout the split.
It’s somewhat surprising that the Freecs are still intact from LCK Spring 2016. With foreign teams looking to add Korean talent to their own lineups, Afreeca appeared to be ripe for the picking, particularly Mickey and LirA. The Freecs have been through a great deal together, including struggling to find a sponsor in the 2015-16 offseason when they were still Rebels Anarchy and now prepare to take on another LCK split as a unit.
One of the few Korean teams to make roster moves in between splits, Samsung Galaxy’s recent shuffle is somewhat confusing. Narrowly missing the LCK Spring 2016 playoffs likely inspired the changes, yet they risk unintentionally destroying one of the team’s greatest strengths this past season: synergy between jungler Kang “Ambition” Chan-yong and support Kwon “Wraith” Ji-min. Together, the two set up the map for Samsung in a meta that heavily-favored Ambition, who quickly became one of Korea’s most efficient farming junglers — he was tied for the highest CS per minute (4.9) and second in CS differential at 10 minutes (4.0) of all junglers in the region during LCK Spring 2016.
Samsung recently announced the acquisition of AD carry Park “Ruler” Jae-hyuk (formerly known as “Bung”) from challenger team Stardust to split duties with Lee “Stitch” Seung-ju. Jo “CoreJJ” Yong-in moved to the support position to compete with Wraith.
Unfortunately, swapping back and forth between Wraith and CoreJJ will likely fracture the aforementioned core of Ambition and Wraith. Stitch only started three games in the spring second round robin, with CoreJJ becoming the team’s primary ADC. If there’s one thing that the Longzhu Gaming experiment reiterated once and for all, it’s that rotating roster setups are incredibly difficult to be successful with, due to the coordination required from a five-man unit in League of Legends. If Samsung is able to make it work, they would already become one of the more successful examples of a rotating roster in Korean LoL history, simply due to precedents set in the past year and a half.
Initially an interesting example of how a 10-man roster could be, Longzhu used specific lines of players in top/jungle/mid with a static bot lane for most of the LCK Spring 2016 first round robin. After AD carry Lee “Fury” Jin-yong’s suspension was lifted, the team shifted gears, trying out any and every permutation possible in order to find a perfect fit.
They never found one.
Once one of the most highly-anticipated teams prior to LCK Spring 2016 due to the wealth of talent on their lineup, Longzhu currently serves as an example of what not to do with said talent. Unable to find any sort of synergy with their various pieces, the team became far worse than the sum of its parts — individual standouts like rising jungle talent Lee “Crash” Dong-woo and legacy players like Kang “Cpt Jack” Hyung-woo and Lee “Flame” Ho-jong. Crash’s rise through LCK Spring 2016 was particularly of note, but his innate prowess failed to translate into Longzhu victories much like every other Longzhu player’s impressive solo outings, a few Shin “CoCo” Jin-yeong mid lane carry performances aside.
Now, Cpt Jack has moved on to broadcasting while Flame, mid laner Kim “Frozen” Tae-il, and support Jang “Zzus” Joon-soo have been benched for the first round robin and have been placed on the Longzhu practice squad. Longzhu’s obvious struggles point to problems inherent with larger lineups. As the game has evolved, League of Legends has become increasingly more communication and coordination-based, with fewer opportunities for a phenomenal talent to single-handedly carry their team to victory. The eradication of sister teams has allowed for 10-man rosters, but no practical means of giving said talent equal shares of playing time without needlessly fracturing pre-existing synergy or committing to one lineup over the other, using the non-starting squad as a practice unit.
There are no easy answers, but for the current Longzhu, the organization has settled on a roster of seven: top laner Koo “Expession” Bon-taek, junglers Crash and Lee “Chaser” Sang-hyun, mid laner CoCo, AD carries Fury and recent acquisition Kim “Emperor” Jin-hyun, and support Kim “Pure” Jin-sun.
Fresh off of a career split, support Hong “MadLife” Min-gi did his best to keep CJ Entus afloat while the team waited for mid laner Gwak “Bdd” Bo-seong to turn 17. CJ had a surprisingly successful setup in context, with top laner Park “Untara” Ui-jin holding his own and responding immediately to MadLife with Teleport, reiterating the team’s bot lane focus. MadLife controlled CJ’s plan of attack through AD carry Ha “Kkramer” Jong-hun, who came into his own mid-season. Kkramer usually rewarded CJ’s singular focus on getting him ahead and giving him almost all of their empty lane farm by carrying them in late-game teamfights.
Bdd replaced mid laner Kim “Sky” Ha-neul as soon as possible, yet the team’s overall strategy didn’t change much. While Bdd was infinitely better for CJ’s teamfights and controlled mid for jungler Park “Bubbling” Jun-hyeong — making Bubbling appear improved in the second round robin — Kkramer remained the team’s focus. Of all players in LCK Spring 2016, Kkramer received the highest percentage of his team’s gold at 27.2 percent. As Afreeca rose in the back half of the season, CJ fell, unable to execute their “feed Kkramer” strategy once other teams caught wind of it.
Bubbling became a sore spot for CJ, although the team stuck with him until the end without playing substitute jungler Kang “DayDream” Kyung-min. CJ’s one off-season signing immediately addressed this obvious weakness, with the team picking up jungler Kang “Haru” Min-seung. Hopefully, the addition of a different jungler will allow for a more diversified strategies from CJ Entus, since another season of feeding Kkramer all of the team’s resources is not a sustainable approach.
The little challenger team that could, ESC Ever gained popularity thanks to an unexpected KeSPA Cup win that turned into an IEM Cologne victory. Their appearance at IEM Katowice left much to be desired, with the team visibly outclassed by their opponents and only one opportune group stage win against Team SoloMid to show for it.
Even after their 3-2 win over MVP in the Challengers Korea Spring Finals, Ever was considered the weaker of the two challenger teams and selected by SBENU Sonicboom in the LCK Summer 2016 Promotion Series in the hopes that SBENU could once again knock off Ever and requalify for the upcoming LCK season. To SBENU’s shock, Ever swept the LCK bottom-feeder, finally earning their place in Korea’s highest league.
While jungler Kim “Ares” Min-kwon was previously lauded by his Ever teammates for bringing much-needed macro strategy to the team, swapping him out for Choi “Bless” Hyeon-woong turned out to be just what Ever needed after their end-of-season slump. Bless pays more attention to the top half of the map and Kim “Crazy” Jae-hee, relying on AD carry Lee “LokeN” Dong-wook and support Kim “KeY” Han-gi to take care of themselves. LokeN was particularly impressive in their promotional series, and looks to be the standout player on ESC Ever.
Returning to League of Legends after a two year absence, MVP inarguably had the strongest team throughout the Challengers Korea Spring 2016 season, even with ESC Ever garnering international acclaim. They finished first in the regular season without dropping a single set, and looked to be shoo-ins for both the Challengers Korea title and an LCK Summer spot, widely considered stronger than both Kongdoo Monster and SBENU Sonicboom.
Surprisingly, MVP lost to Ever in the spring finals, and looked far shakier in their 3-1 victory over Kongdoo Monster than Ever did against SBENU. Often losing early objectives, MVP relied on clutch smite steals from jungler Kim “Beyond” Kyu-seok and grinding out until late game. Beyond and support Jeong “Max” Jong-bin will likely be the players to watch for on MVP, as they set up MVP’s early game.
Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.