SK Telecom T1 and the Afreeca Freecs are opposites in nearly every respect. The former is a veteran esports institution — not exclusive to League of Legends — that has the distinct honor of being called a dynasty. The latter is a group of streamers formerly known as Rebels Anarchy that didn’t have a proper sponsor until Afreeca.TV picked them up in the 2015-16 offseason.
While SKT were basking in the glow of their second Summoner’s Cup, Anarchy mid laner Son "Mickey" Young-min was streaming under the name "Anarchy sponsorship plz" and jungler Nam "LirA" Tae-yoo was desperately trying to keep the team from disbanding.
SKT have proven time and time again, both domestically and internationally, that they have superior staff, the finest organization and boundless ambition. It seems preposterous that a team of their caliber could be taken out by a group of ragtag streamers even once, never mind in multiple series. Yet SKT have a bit of an Afreeca problem. Since Mickey and company were picked up by Afreeca, they are the proud owners of a 3-1 series record and 70 percent overall win rate against Korea’s top team. No other Korean team — including established organizations like Samsung Galaxy, KT Rolster or even the up-and-coming ROX Tigers — have been able to overwhelm SKT quite like the Freecs.
Now, on July 23, 2016, Afreeca have become the first team to sweep SKT in an LoL Champions Korea season, with another well-earned 2-0 victory over the reigning World Champions.
Afreeca’s dominion over SKT during the regular season this past year isn’t just a traditional David and Goliath narrative, the tale of a bunch of weirdos unexpectedly toppling a giant. There is more to unpack in these teams’ histories with each other, and the story begins in the mid lane.
Afreeca Freecs' most iconic moment comes from their Anarchy days, when they upset NaJin e-mFire in their first-ever LCK series. The team piled into the front row of fold-out chairs in OnGameNet’s old stadium, a group of rambunctious young men in starched white shirts holding up signs for their beaming mid laner, who was about to be interviewed as the series’ MVP.
Not only does this vignette show off Anarchy’s state of disarray — no coach, no sponsorship, no gaming house — but it clearly identifies Anarchy’s one win condition at that time: Mickey.
Comparing Mickey to SKT’s legendary mid laner, Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok, will never be flattering. Nearly every criticism levied at Mickey — his disrespect for vision, lack of map awareness, poor Teleport usage, miscalculation of damage output — are the very same qualities that make Faker the best LoL player in the world.
Yet Mickey and Faker have one crucial playstyle trait in common. They both err on the side of aggression.
Most Korean mid laners in the LCK ascribe to a more defensive-minded school of thought, which makes sense in a meta context. League of Legends has evolved into a team game. It’s incredibly difficult to simply put your strongest mechanical player on their best champion, tell them to run rampant over an opponent and have this be your only strategy. Even if this is a team’s primary gameplan, they have to properly manage their vision, jungle coverage and neutral objectives. Kills are not a comparably valuable objective en route to a victory for a team. Those kills have to lead to something — usually stifling map pressure, which begets the aforementioned jungle and neutral objective control.
Control over the mid lane has become increasingly important across the past few splits, which has led to a different kind of mid laner: a mid focused on wave clear and caution, so their jungler and team can apply more map pressure. The ROX Tigers’ Lee "KurO" Seo-haeng is the epitome of the new Korean mid (his Azir issues in competitive play aside). He holds his own in lane and ensures that jungler Han "Peanut" Wang-ho can have his way with their adversaries’ jungle. Despite his negative average CS (-4.2) and gold differentials (-85) in lane at 10 minutes this past split, KurO deals massive amounts of damage in ROX’s teamfights. Currently he does the second-highest amount of damage to champions per minute of any Korean mid, at 698, on the likes of Viktor, Varus and more recently Malzahar.
A glance around the LCK reveals that most of the region’s up-and-coming mid laners are of this controlled wave clear variety. Samsung Galaxy’s Lee "Crown" Min-ho is a phenomenal Viktor player, like KurO. ESC Ever’s Kang "Tempt" Myung-gu came up through Challengers Korea relying on Varus. MVP’s An "Ian" Jun-hyeong has also relied on Varus throughout LCK Summer 2016. The last hot-shot assassin player to come up from the ladder and play on an LCK team was CJ Entus’ Gwak "Bdd" Bo-seong, who has since been replaced by the less mechanically impressive Kim "Sky" Ha-neul in the latter half of the LCK Summer Split.
Defensiveness isn’t a bad quality to have. An aura of self-preservation, awareness and respect for your adversary is crucial, especially in a team environment. KurO, Crown, Ian and even Tempt have had impressive performances on wave clear, high-DPS mid laners. This also isn’t to say that these players are incapable of playing assassins — one of KurO’s best champions is LeBlanc — but it’s not optimal the vast majority of the time, because the risk is too high.
Yet, in order to overcome SKT, teams need a mid who is willing to be as aggressive as Faker, often to the point of inadvisable risk-taking and recklessness. Mickey is that type of mid laner. During the same game where he dove SKT’s Tier 2 turret to kick off a successful teamfight, Mickey also used Protobelt to jump onto Bae "Bang" Jun-sik with no vision and the rest of SKT was easily able to collapse and kill him.
In Afreeca’s second sweep of SKT this split, AD carry Gwon "Sangyoon" Sang-yun’s Kog’Maw took center stage. It was an unorthodox and risky pick that the Freecs had obviously prepared. Sangyoon offered little explanation of why they chose Kog’Maw in these specific games, and simply said that he was "feeling it" in his post-match MVP broadcast interview. The pick neutralized potential pressure from Lee "Wolf" Jae-wan’s Tahm Kench pickup, and the Freecs also showcased incredible patience around SKT top laner Lee "Duke" Ho-seong’s Gnar. Sangyoon's damage was supplemented — and in the case of the first game, outdone — by Mickey's Varus and Vladimir.
This was a team effort by the Freecs, and not a callback to the days where having Mickey hard-carry was their only chance at winning a series. However, it does remind fans, audiences and adversaries alike that Mickey retains the same traditional, aggressive, assassin-style mindset that makes Faker such a strong player. Mickey is not afraid of taking risks, and he’s not afraid of the best player in the world either.
Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.