State of Korea: Emily Rand's LCK Mid-Season Review

by theScore Staff Jul 2 2016
Thumbnail image courtesy of KeSPA / LCK Summer 2016

Following what is dubbed “The Korean Exodus,” the dissolution of the sister team system, and a complete overhaul of OnGameNet’s Champions tournament into a league format called LoL Champions Korea, the Korean League of Legends landscape was irrevocably changed. Gone were the Samsung Galaxy sister teams — both the teams and all ten of their starting players — that had pushed the region to greater heights throughout 2014. Gone were other Champions stars like Lee “KaKAO” Byung-kwon, and rising talent like Song “RooKie” Eui-jin. Gone was talent from all levels of the Korean professional scene — top tier teams, NLB teams, and even the solo queue ladder were all mined by other regions, beating out domestic offers with more lucrative overseas contracts.

LCK Summer 2016 is the first truly strong season that Korea has had post-exodus with the toughest field of teams since 2014. While CJ Entus and Longzhu Gaming both languish at the bottom of the standings, if they were to take a game or a series off of a top Korean team, it would be surprising, but not shocking. Gone are the SBENU Sonicbooms and Kongdoo Monsters that dwelled in the lower tiers of the LCK standings only to provide wins for the middle and top tier teams.

Korea isn’t as strong or as far ahead of other major regions as they were in 2014 and likely never will be, but they’re as strong as they’ve ever been since the restructuring and massive talent loss. Teams with up-and-coming talent like MVP and ESC Ever are finally rising up from the challenger scene, impressing at the professional level rather than following the path of former LCK promotional victors by sinking immediately to the bottom of the standings. The international field’s greatest chance to topple Korea was last year. Producing a world champion that is not a Korean team only grows more difficult from this point onward.

That being said, the true test for Korea lies ahead, not with producing a world champion but whether the region can produce another team anywhere close to the strength of SKT. Despite SKT’s recent struggles, it seems inevitable that they’ll rise to the top of Korea once more, representing the region again at the 2016 World Championship. In the post-OGN Champions era, Korea has not had another team close to the level of SKT come finals time. Last split’s ROX Tigers were the largest challenge that SKT has faced since merging their two teams, and they still lost to the reigning world champions 3-1 in the LCK Spring 2016 Finals.

The Big Three: KT Rolster, ROX Tigers, SK Telecom T1

There’s no other team quite like KT Rolster. If you’re looking for a smart, plucky, and fun team to watch only to inevitably disappoint you come playoffs or LCK finals, look no further than KT. KT’s true opponents are themselves. Occasionally their quirky drafts forget to provide a strong damage dealer — or a tank to soak damage, or any early waveclear — and they still are prone to significant lapses in judgment come mid-game, but KT are always a fun and creative watch.

Led by jungler Go “Score” Dong-bin and top laner Kim “Ssumday” Chan-ho, KT have already found a comfortable home in the current metagame using Score’s proactive pathing to get his lanes ahead while placing Ssumday on the likes of Irelia — on which he is currently undefeated. Ssumday seems to be able to make the most of any matchup, regardless of whether he receives jungle help or not. Similar to other teams where the mid laner holds control, allowing the jungler to roam around the map, helping lanes and counterjungling, Ssumday does this in the top lane for Score. Although Ssumday doesn’t provide the same amount of map pressure that a mid laner would simply due to map location, he frees up Score by being such a reliable force in lane.

This also allows KT to make their much-maligned mid laner Song “Fly” Yong-jun as comfortable as possible on his rather bizarre champion pool. Fly is not your standard waveclear control mid laner, his Viktor aside, that exemplifies the current state of the position. Instead, he’s brilliant on Zilean — and often draws Zilean bans against KT — and has made the most of Aurelion Sol to shore up KT’s mid lane control while allowing him to roam alongside Score.

KT will have a difficult time maintaining their first-place standing going into the second round robin. With a rising ROX Tigers and SKT always lurking in the background alongside Samsung Galaxy, the Jin Air Green Wings, and even MVP, KT will have to be consistent — something has eluded them for years. Their primary issue is that, outside of Ssumday and occasionally Score, KT lack another primary carry threat. No “Arrow” Dong-hyeon is at his best when on utility and damage options like Ashe or Jhin. Arrow has strong teamfight positioning but lacks the ability to take over a game like Ssumday. With his odd champion choices and lack of mid lane control, Fly is also not a great option to fill the gap. KT are certainly intelligent about covering up these weaknesses with their strengths, but they have yet to be able to do this consistently enough to earn a domestic title post-Exodus.

Earlier in the LCK Spring 2016 split, the Tigers donned the booth with signs that read “We are No. 2 so we try harder.” After a strong regular season, Spring 2016 finally looked like the Tigers’ big break — they would defeat SKT in the LCK Spring 2016 Finals and go on to the 2016 Mid-Season Invitational as Korea’s champion.

Unfortunately for the Tigers, this script was thrown out. Of the two junglers, Han “Peanut” Wang-ho was expected to dominate the finals with his particularly aggressive brand of jungling that had embodied the Tigers’ spring split, but it was SKT’s Kang “Blank” Sun-gu who stepped up. The Tigers' mid laner Lee “KurO” Seo-haeng once again had a poor showing against Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok, and they lost to SKT 3-1, their dreams of another international appearance dashed once more. Where KT Rolster often stymie themselves through poor mid game decision-making, the Tigers’ problems appear to be wholly mental, especially when it comes to their 2015 rival, SKT. Regardless of how strong the Tigers look at any given time, SKT looms over their accomplishments like a stormcloud.

No player embodies this quite like KurO, whose record against Faker is abysmal at best. Throughout last year and this past spring, KurO’s other glaring weakness was his inability to play Azir at a professional level, with his performances on the Emperor of the Sands mirroring Kim “PraY” Jong-in’s infamous Draven. Along with their acquisition of mid laner Hae “Cry” Sung-min, the Tigers have worked to find a solution, substituting Cry in for KurO when they want to run an Azir composition. This does hurt their in-game synergy somewhat — the Tigers’ trust in each other and coordination has always been their greatest strength — but at least gives the Tigers a few more options and opens up their draft a bit more.

Tigers top laner Song “Smeb” Kyung-ho continues to be the best top in Korea and the current meta suits him perfectly. Also rising to the occasion recently has been PraY, who has had exceptional performances on Jhin, Ashe and his old standby of Ezreal. Still finding their places are Peanut and support Kang “GorillA” Beom-hyeon, the latter of whom has had an oddly lackluster season, frequently underestimating his own tankiness in teamfights or getting caught out in routine vision rotations. Going forward, there’s little doubt that the Tigers will represent Korea again at this year’s World Championship. Of all teams, the Tigers seem the most poised to take down SKT as Korea’s top team — if they can manage to push past their mental block, allowing their teamwork, coordination, and Smeb’s overwhelming carry prowess to guide them.

The question of what exactly is wrong with SKT permeates every corner of the discussion on top teams in Korea. Due to their pedigree — all domestic titles post-OGN Champions, an IEM title, a World Championship title, and most recently a Mid-Season Invitational title — it’s not only impossible to count SKT out, it’s nearly impossible to still not imagine them pulling through and winning the LCK Summer 2016 title. The same SKT that recently lost to ESC Ever in their final match of the first round robin is the very team that destroyed MVP with a perfect game only two weeks prior.

Of all teams in Korea, SKT still have the highest average gold lead at 15 minutes (745), the highest first dragon rate (80 percent), best dragon control (67 percent), best baron control (73 percent) and best jungle control (54.1 percent). Statistically, SKT are still on top, yet teams have taken advantage of their patented aggressive, borderline arrogant style, causing SKT to end the first round robin with only one victory and three losses in their last four series.

SKT’s problems stem from Blank and Bae “bengi” Seong-woong’s inability to provide strong early and mid game jungle pressure combined with SKT’s naturally aggressive style. This is a team that still wishes to rely on translating early laning advantages into strong, 5v5 teamfights. Other Korean teams have begun picking apart SKT during the laning phase, as the lack of jungle pressure has lead to overextensions in lane from Faker and top laner Lee “Duke” Ho-seong — with stronger jungle and vision coverage, they would have transformed these presumed overextensions into SKT victories with either bengi, Blank, or Faker popping out of the fog of war to annihilate opponents.

SKT simply can’t play the way that they’re used to, and this has thrown them off a bit, leading them to not only be punished for routine aggression but also mis-identify their own win conditions. In their first loss of the season to Jin Air, the team placed Duke on Fiora but refused to give him the necessary early pressure to snowball his way to victory. Faker dying in mid lane meant that Jin Air’s Lee “Kuzan” Seong-hyeok was essentially able to camp top, killing Duke multiple times.

It’s rarely panic time for SKT, who have shown time and again that they have a strong support staff and are always hungry for more wins. Last split, SKT ended the first round robin in sixth place with a 5-4 series record and a recent loss to the Afreeca Freecs. They ended the split champions and overcame a messy MSI group stage to win that tournament as well. Despite their recent struggles, it’s still on the rest of the field to prove that they can finally take down Korea’s champion.

The Messy Middle: Samsung Galaxy, Jin Air Green Wings, MVP, Afreeca Freecs, ESC Ever

Looming over this section of the standings are many questions of skill ceilings and rising talent. Samsung Galaxy sprinted ahead of the competition alongside SKT in the first few weeks, only to fall from first place to fourth. The Jin Air Green Wings have settled comfortably into their role of overcoming top-tier teams before disappointing fans with inexplicable losses, while the Afreeca Freecs, MVP, and ESC Ever all have obvious and exploitable weaknesses.

That being said, these are the most interesting teams to watch, especially MVP and ESC, who both rose up from Challengers Korea to oust Kongdoo Monster and SBENU Sonicboom respectively. This is where the true strength of the field lies, and it will be fascinating to see which of these teams end up in the LCK Summer 2016 playoffs.

Samsung seem a likely contender. Their pickup of former Stardust AD carry Park “Ruler” Jae-hyuk was a breath of fresh air for this team, who last split found themselves outside of playoff contention looking in as the Freecs slid into fifth place in LCK Spring 2016. Guided by support Kwon “Wraith” Ji-min, Ruler has established himself as an eager AD carry, willing to immediately follow the lead of his team. Additionally, Ruler stands as another example of Korea’s growth, a former challenger AD carry now making a strong impression on Korea’s largest stage.

Without Wraith in the support position Samsung struggled in the latter series of the first round robin. This doesn’t fall solely on the shoulders of his substitute, role-swapped former AD carry Jo “CoreJJ” Yong-in, but hints that Wraith is integral to Samsung’s early game plan. Ruler’s positioning, jungler Kang “Ambition” Chan-yong’s jungle pathing, and even top laner Lee “CuVee” Seong-jin’s Teleport timings and flanks look exponentially improved when Wraith is in the booth. In order to earn a playoff spot, Samsung will need to stick to their initial lineup with Wraith.

Alongside Samsung are the Jin Air Green Wings. The first team to beat SKT this split, ending the reigning champions’ previously undefeated streak, Jin Air have once again stagnated back towards their plodding, non-confrontational style. Of all teams in Korea, Jin Air have the lowest combined kills per minute at 0.37, and the third-highest average game time at 41.8 minutes.

Jin Air aren’t without their own odd strategies and picks, but more often than not, stick with comfortable choices. Most recently, Jin Air attempted a top lane Malzahar for veteran Yeo “TrAce” Chan-dong, which appears odd until you realize that TrAce is going to play Malzahar exactly like he plays his top lane Morgana and Graves — push and pressure turrets as quickly as possible, rather than focusing on bursting down opponents. Jungler Park “Winged” Tae-jin has had strong start to the season, showcasing the strength of Thunderlords Graves, but will rarely be a dominating, high-pressure threat.

Of all players on Jin Air that threaten to break through the team’s obvious skill ceiling it’s their mid laner Kuzan, who has shown a few outstanding performances against top-tier opponents like SKT. However, with Jin Air’s resolute dedication to turret pushing and playing the long game, it’s difficult to see them doing any better than fourth place without a change in their playstyle.

Below Samsung and Jin Air are MVP, Afreeca, and ESC Ever, the latter of which snuck into the mid-tier thanks to their 2-1 victory over SKT to close out the first round robin. Last split’s Cinderella darlings, Afreeca, have not had a similar impact thus far in LCK Summer 2016, and will have to go on a near-identical second-round robin run to make playoffs.

Currently, MVP appear to be the most likely candidate to usurp either Jin Air or Samsung’s spot in the standings. Jungler Kim “Beyond” Kyu-seok is one of the best junglers in Korea, and has carried MVP to a sixth place spot, despite a dismal 0-3 start to the season. MVP always looked just on the cusp of overcoming superior opponents — their series against KT Rolster remains an egregious example of this — but seemingly lacked the coordination and poise to make the proper in-game decisions that would result in a victory.

After a perfect game loss against SKT, MVP returned wholly humbled and used that mortifying defeat to their advantage. Since that series, MVP has won three of their last four series with a 7-2 overall game record. Mid laner An “Ian” Jun-hyeong has found a happy home controlling the mid lane on Varus, Azir and Anivia, along with a few strong LeBlanc performances, while top laner Kang “ADD” Geon-mo has also looked more comfortable and coordinated with his team by the series.

Yet, MVP also have obvious weaknesses. AD carry Oh “MaHa” Hyun-sik’s positioning is suspect at best, and he’s often made to look stronger than he actually is thanks to quick thinking and brilliant play from his support Jeong “Max” Jong-bin. They still sometimes don’t recognize when to fight or when to back off — something that will come with further LCK experience. Despite MaHa’s positioning mistakes, MVP have yet to reach their skill ceiling, unlike a team like Afreeca. ESC Ever are in a similar situation to MVP, but are just now starting to show the same level of coordination and team unity that so characterized their run through the 2015 KeSPA Cup and IEM Cologne last year.

How the Mighty Have Fallen: Longzhu Gaming, CJ Entus

Shin “CoCo” Jin-yeong, Lee “Chaser” Sang-hyun, Lee “Fury” Jin-yong — these were some of the more sought-after players following their performances on CJ Entus, Jin Air, and Samsung throughout 2015. Collected in the 2015-16 offseason by Longzhu Gaming, they joined fellow high-profile acquisitions like top laner Lee “Flame” Ho-jong and Incredible Miracle mainstay Kim “Frozen” Tae-il as Korea’s new “super team” — promising proof that Korea could maintain some of their top-tier talent and perform well as a result.

At first, Longzhu had trouble adjusting, but seemed to come together as they focused on having two set lines of top/jungle/mid players while AD carry Kang “Cpt Jack” Hyung-woo and Kim “Pure” Jin-sun held the bot lane. Longzhu began to mix and match players once Fury was eligible to play following a suspension, and no permutation of Longzhu seemed to work, with the team finishing seventh and well out of playoff contention by the end of LCK Spring 2016. In the offseason prior to LCK Summer 2016, Cpt Jack became a broadcaster for SPOTV while Flame and Frozen were taken off of Longzhu’s official roster. Longzhu also signed former G2 Esports AD carry Kim “Emperor” Jin-hyun who was wholly underwhelming in his summer appearances for the team.

The main issue for Longzhu is that all of their players seem scattered, content to do their own thing without working together as a team. One of their best performers this summer has been support Pure, who has set up strong teamfight engages and crowd control only to have the rest of his team not follow up, eventually resulting in another Longzhu loss. Going forward, Longzhu have re-added Flame and Frozen to the starting lineup, and will make yet another attempt to find a team identity or any semblance of cohesion.

CJ Entus is a different story. Gwak “Bdd” Bo-seong was the hope of CJ last split as the team employed a bot-centric teamfight strategy that made up for weaknesses in the jungle and mid positions with Park “Bubbling” Jun-hyeong and Kim “Sky” Ha-neul prior to Bdd's arrival. The vast majority of CJ’s resources — gold, jungle attention, and Teleport plays — were given to AD carry Ha “Kkramer” Jong-hun with veteran support Hong “MadLife” Min-gi presumably calling the shots.

After Bdd’s debut mid-LCK Spring 2016, CJ looked improved thanks to Bdd’s mid lane control, but they still relied on their Kkramer-focused strategy and failed to find success. Between seasons, CJ acquired a new jungler, Kang “Haru” Min-seung, who has yet to look impressive but doesn’t suffer from the same positioning or egregious pathing mistakes that characterized Bubbling’s jungling. This split, CJ have remained faithful to their late-game, feed Kkramer game plan, which has allowed more proactive teams to easily take advantage of them come mid game. Of all players in Korea, Kkramer receives the largest share of his team’s gold (25.3 percent) while dealing a middling amount of damage for a Korean ADC (537, good enough for fifth), and still does two percent less damage than CJ’s highest damage dealer, Bdd.

Part of the problem for both CJ and Longzhu is that Korea has improved. With teams full of new talent like MVP and ESC able to give top tier opponents some trouble, they provide a far stronger field against which CJ and Longzhu also must contend. These two teams have strong fanbases due to their array of players (Longzhu) or presence since the creation of OGN Champions in 2012 (CJ Entus, by way of Maximum Impact Gaming and Azubu) who are indubitably disappointed in their performances. Yet, this is the end result of a stronger Korea. CJ and Longzhu have been outclassed by their talented and rising counterparts.

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