Mateusz "Kikis" Szkudlarek’s discomfort with a six man roster has cost him his position as starting top laner of G2 Esports. Narratives will read Kikis lacked the confidence to stick it out and prove his worth, that his decision to deliver an ultimatum motivated, at least in part, by his own pride means he spends the remainder of the summer on the bench. Korean top laner Ki "Expect" Daehan will start for G2 until the conclusion of the 2016 season.
G2 reacted by honoring their agreement with Expect, as any organization should. No matter the motivation, Kikis’ ultimatum suggested that he partly valued his own individual development as a player more than a potentially viable alternative for G2 as a team. In this case, G2 made the right decision, especially since Kikis, Expect, and G2 had agreed upon the top lane rotation beforehand. Kikis did what he felt he had to, and so did G2.
Yet passing judgment on Kikis or G2 provides less interesting discussion than realizing that, whether consciously or not, Kikis’ situation is symptomatic of the changing climate of the European League of Legends Championship Series and its new appetite for Korean imports. The situation has much more nuance than "Korean pros are better" or "they took our jobs," that has yet to be sufficiently unpacked.
The best player should always play
Prior to the 2016 Summer EU LCS split, two of five major regions had the majority of their teams inclusive of imported talent. With seven of ten teams having signed Korean starters in Europe, the EU LCS has become the third. Some of the more questionable signings like Son "S0NSTAR" Seungik and Kim "Veritas" Kyoungmin resulted in a skeptical response from the community, listing suitable replacements either on EU Challenger Series teams or concurrently benched EU LCS options.
The best option, the best player in a position should always play. That assumption has traditionally guided what many people think about roster decisions in both traditional and electronic sports. A mass importing of Korean talent in Europe, some of which has already appeared underwhelming on North American Challenger Series teams, has put this assumption to the test.
Ask any member of Chinese League of Legends Pro League or North American League of Legends Championship Series support staff why Korean pros are so attractive as imports, and they’ll tell you that the players are not necessarily better than their local talent, but that their approach to the game is, on average, more rigorous.
In an episode of his talk show, Huang “San Shao” Cheng, ex-Manager and co-founder of EDward Gaming, said he once invited an unnamed Korean player to join EDward Gaming, but that player declined. “In Korea,” the player said, “if you want to win worlds, you have to practice until you want to die in front of your computer screen. But we keep practicing. Because only this way do you even have the chance to win worlds.”
Specifically, Korean players have received praise for retaining information they know while learning more information; comparatively, Chinese or western pros have received criticism for forgetting old behavior while learning others. A Korean pro goes into every solo queue game with an objective for his own improvement outside of just winning the game and knows how to focus on specific skillsets prescribed by his coach without needing excessive justification.
These generalizations seem very common, but one cannot apply them to every Korean or western pro. Cons to this mentality also exist, as if players don’t challenge staff, discussion might not uncover new approaches to the game. Vici Gaming’s CEO Lu “HunteR” Wenjun lamented that, because of their different ages, Choi “DanDy” Inkyu has hesitated to challenge Lee “Easyhoon” Jihoon in game, stunting some of their communication.
Yet if one readily accepts this generalization, then the fact that teams like Fnatic and G2 Esports, having imported Korean pros with limited to no competitive experience, could win the EU LCS in their first splits with a new roster seems believable. Heo "Huni" Seunghoon, Kim "Reignover" Yeujin, and Kim "Trick" Gangyun not only performed above their initial expectations, but continued to consistently improve and evolve as players throughout their time in Europe at an incredible rate relative to many of their counterparts.
Given G2 and Fnatic’s success, it’s unsurprising that the most common import roles in the EU LCS this summer are jungle, top lane, and AD carry. Organizations, whether subconsciously or otherwise, strive to replicate Fnatic and G2’s results. They make the assumption that, though these players may not be the best options now, they’re Korean, and like the Korean pros before them, their work ethic could rapidly transform them into the best players in their respective roles.
Chinese and North American pros have expressed that they’ve felt more motivated to put in extra work after seeing their Korean teammates stay up late and play solo queue. Though this seems to somewhat decay over time as the Korean players become more acclimated to their environment and some of their own practice commitment declines when they find other interests and learn to speak more English or Chinese, it may initially hold true and give teams a boost at the start of the season.
Laying the argument to import Korean players out like this makes it seem ridiculous, and I’ll address that, but though support staff will most commonly cite Korean work ethic as motivation to import players, other factors also come into play. Coming into a new environment as a single Korean player brings even more challenges, and one can easily attribute some of Yoo “Ryu” Sangook’s initial struggles on H2k-Gaming — at least in part — to him acclimating to a new team on his own when he didn’t speak the language and previously had a very close relationship with many of his KT teammates.
If a team can sign a gem like Trick, they may become willing to add a player like Kim "Emperor" Jinhyun to their roster, at least initially, to make him feel less isolated. As a result, players like Na “NighT” Gunwoo come with head-scratchers like S0NSTAR. Many times, Korean pros will also have a say in who they want to play with, and while he won’t always be the best player available, he’s generally a player with whom he already has a good relationship, so an organization may decide that the positives outweigh the negatives.
Perhaps the most often glossed over reason to import a Korean pro presents itself in the form of cost efficiency. Relative to regions like China and North America, Europe has traditionally struggled with financing. Organizations didn’t find it feasible to import because they lacked the funding to find strong Korean players and bring them to Germany.
That has changed.
European organizations didn’t suddenly stumble upon lucrative sponsorships and truckloads of cash. While some organizations did pick up more investors over the break, Korean imports have become more cost-efficient.
Signing bonuses and salaries for players like Gu “imp” Seungbin will easily break a European team’s bank, but it isn’t unreasonable to assume that the salary of the average high elo Korean solo queue player will be lower than that of a European alternative in which an organization finds themselves willing to invest. With multiple organizations around the world continuing to scavenge from the Korean ladder, it still constantly seems to replenish. Even players without Korean Challenger Series experience like Lee “Rush” Yoonjae have found varying degrees of success in major leagues.
This rarely happens to a European, North American, or Chinese player. Though the competitive nature of the Korean solo queue ladder occasionally becomes exaggerated to the point of mythological levels, when organizations can pluck a high ranked Korean player from the ladder and immediately find success, one must reasonably believe in its competitive superiority.
Meanwhile, North American appetites for European players also drive up the cost of Europe’s domestic talent. While Europe does have vast reserves of Challenger talent, it doesn’t seem to replenish as easily, as evidenced by the disappointing level of competition coming from the Challenger Series in the Promotion Tournament. As a result, the expected value of European talent to their expected cost has become lower relative to the expected value of Korean talent to their expected cost.
Snake eSports manager Cao “Zuowu” Yu said that both famous Korean pros and Chinese players of a similar level to less famous Korean pros are “too expensive,” and so he has chosen to invest in players like Park “TANK” Danwon instead. Though salary competition in Europe doesn’t rival China’s, especially with North American teams importing European pros driving up costs, one may apply similar reasoning.
Several factors have created an exaggerated demand for Korean imports in EU LCS teams, even with the additional challenge and risk of proper documentation in Europe for foreign esport professionals. One cannot always assume that organizations import Korean players because they believe they strictly will perform the best in their position. All bets are off.
The scouting problem
I call the mass importation of Korean players to the EU LCS an exaggerated demand not because I think it’s a bad idea to import Korean pros into European teams. Many teams like Fnatic and G2 Esports have done so with intelligent scouting and talent management, creating teams that not only showcase star Korean players, but teams that combine the strengths of both their Korean and European players.
These teams have understood that you don’t just import Korean players because they’re Korean, but because you’ve actually scouted and found promising talent that will fit within your team. Perhaps that's not the best player in every role, but the best team an organization can make with available resources.
Korean imports don’t automatically translate into wins. The competitive advantage of having a Korean on your team simply because he will likely provide a stronger work ethic and bolster the environment diminishes when six other teams in the EU LCS also have Korean players.
Several import options have already begun to look like mistakes. With hard work and improved communication over time, this could change. After disappointing results in Week 1 of the EU LCS, Team Viltality benched Park “Police” Hyeonggi, one of the more puzzling acquisitions, for Victor “Reje” Etlar Eriksen and G2’s single loss this split came when they played Expect over Kikis. Though Expect can still improve, his Teleports seemed completely illogical next to his European counterpart's.
Many of the new Korean imports haven’t translated into the same immediate success as Fnatic and G2’s acquisitions. I lay part of the blame on lazy scouting. Unlike Trick, Huni, and Reignover, many of Europe’s new Korean pros come from existing pools of imports such as the North American Challenger Series. Behind the scenes, the same limited selection of names circulated as options, names like Veritas were, surprisingly, considered by multiple organizations before Unicorns of Love signed him.
As I’m one of the few people who publicly admits to watching the League of Legends Secondary Pro League, multiple organizations approached me to ask my opinion on the same selection of Korean players, including Kim “Mightybear” Minsu and other members of his previous team, Newbee Young. This leads me to believe that Newbee Young’s players weren’t the best options, but they simply were easier to get in touch with for several western organizations, especially since the LSPL is home to more talented Korean junglers than Mightybear.
Rather than go out of their way to dig into and investigate other avenues, organizations seem to have skimmed off the sides. They’ve accepted the principle that Korean players are better simply because they’re Korean, which is perhaps the worst mistake a team can make when importing new talent. It creates an imbalanced team environment and sense of doubt on both sides as well as team building without purpose or logic behind it.
A few obvious caveats exist. Organizations have much less time between the spring and summer seasons to make roster changes, so thorough scouting becomes more difficult. A lot of roster changes made during this time period look more like supportive slings designed to keep a team in the LCS than upgrades that can transform organizations into World Championship attendees.
As much as I have criticized them, Team Vitality still have time to make their roster work. While Ilyas “Shook” Hartsema and Petter “Hjärnan” Freyschuss appear superior to their current Korean counterparts, Vitality had a slow start last split as well, and issues not privy to public eye likely motivated the change. Though Hjärnan denied claims that he left the organization because he had trouble sleeping, calling the team’s initial statement into question, it’s impossible to know the full story without speaking to him and the organization.
Not all European teams have made poor import choices. Team ROCCAT's Lee “Parang” Sangwon and Oh “Raise” Jihwan didn’t come without risks, but ROCCAT used them to shore up positions they had difficulty finding consistency with during 2016 EU LCS Spring Split, and both came from less obvious channels, have played together on their previous team, and had demonstrated modest levels of talent before joining ROCCAT.
ROCCAT also pieced together a roster of promising European players, securing Pierre “Steeelback” Medjaldi after his breakout spring season with the Unicorns of Love. It’s still early, but ROCCAT looks like a team that can work well together and easily secure a playoff berth.
Importing Korean talent is still a learning process for European teams. One need only look to the North American League of Legends Championship Series to see some of the more disastrous Korean pickups — like Winterfox’s Deongyheon "Avalon" Shin — to know that scouting talent from another region is a learning process. North America has gotten better at it, and Europe will as well.
The Kikis quandary
In the meantime, the EU LCS’s Korean influx makes them look a little ridiculous. Seven weeks and the playoffs remain to prove me wrong, but many rosters will struggle more this split than they would have had they remained committed to domestic talent. That doesn’t make their decision to import talent incorrect, just poorly executed.
EU LCS teams have effectively told talented European pros they would rather sign a player like Police, who has already demonstrated near-deplorable form in the NA Challenger scene, than investigate domestic options. Though Fnatic and G2 won the EU LCS by importing less experienced Korean players, Origen placed second in both 2015 EU LCS Summer Split and EU LCS 2016 Spring Split with a star carry they signed from the ladder.
With that said, players like Jesper “Zven” Svenningsen are few and far between. European organizations shouldn’t expect to place in the Top 2 because they invest in promising European Challenger players, but importing Korean talent won’t necessarily translate into victory over EU either. Though Fnatic and G2 had success with Korean imports, Giants Gaming didn’t. H2K-Gaming have struggled with similar pitfalls every split despite their obviously impressive Korean mid laner.
European teams seem to value Korean talent on a very surface level basis. Even if a European option seems more individually skilled, Korean is better. Many of the roster decisions that took place this split are illogical, and we cannot just give organizations the benefit of the doubt because they know more about their situation than we do.
It’s possible to sympathize with Kikis’ ultimatum. Of course an organization should make the decision G2 did when a player puts himself before the health of the team and says him or me. Of course G2 made the right choice in choosing to finish the split with Expect.
In Kikis' own statement, he claimed that, as a proud player, he wanted to ensure he could have the starting position if he made the improvements asked of him by the organization. One may wonder why he didn't have the confidence to practice alongside Expect and allow the starting spot to go to the player that ultimately worked best with the team.
Kikis may have felt that he couldn’t rely on G2 to choose him for their starting position even if he made the necessary improvements. If Kikis, as his personal statement suggested, ignored some decisions passed down by the coach and the rest of the team during the spring split, the stereotype of the Korean player — someone who works hard and abides by the coach — may appear attractive at the expense of all other qualities, even if Expect himself is not necessarily that player.
In Expect’s first match for G2, a lot of Kikis’ value came through. Kikis has strong Teleport sense and works well with the team as he’s used to operating with few resources. Though Kikis is often singled out as the worst player on his team, he’s made rapid improvements as a top laner throughout the spring split after a role swap, and I’d argue Europe is only home to two potentially superior self-sufficient top laners in Andrei “Odoamne” Pascu and, depending on the proximity of playoffs, Paul “sOAZ” Boyer. With a high resource jungler, mid laner, and bottom lane, that’s invaluable.
G2 anticipate that Expect will improve. Beyond just the reduced scrim time that troubled him, Kikis may have felt that, despite his value to the team, he’s been cast as a place-holder until then. He’s only G2’s top laner until Expect learns to work better with the other players. Even if Expect only improves slightly and doesn’t reach Kikis’ level of utility for G2, Kikis may have found himself on the bench more and more often as a result of the value many have prescribed to Korean players.
While this may not have been G2’s plan, while it's quite likely they simply wanted to create an additional option for themselves and pressure for Kikis, it’s easy for someone in Kikis’ position to look at the rapidly altering landscape of the EU LCS and feel less valued, no matter how skilled he may become.
Upon being replaced by Heo “pawN” Wonseok, Chinese ex-EDward Gaming mid laner Ceng “U” Long said that because of the way teams favored two Korean starters over one, "even if I had been better than him, I still wouldn’t have played. That was the reality.”
One can feel the same sentiment beginning to take hold in Europe as well.
Kelsey Moser is a staff writer for theScore esports and advocate for smarter import decisions for a better tomorrow. You can follow her on Twitter.