The elimination of the Jin Air Green Wings — while somewhat predictable based on their results since LoL Champions Korea was established — firmly marks the death of the overly cautious Korean team.
Prior to this year, Korea had the reputation of a methodical, careful region. Korean teams, especially the top teams in the region, were loathe to commit to new or reworked champions, preferring to stick to what they knew and loved. This isn’t to say that Korean teams refused to give new things a try, but that experimentation was limited to certain organizations; KT Rolster in particular has been known for their more whimsical compositions.
One of the first notable shifts towards a more adventurous Korea was Kindred’s appearance in the 2015 KeSPA Cup this past December. Since then, Korean teams have been more willing to try new champions and item builds than they have in previous years. Along with this, they've developed a willingness to fight and take risks in service of claiming map objectives.
Gone are the days when a team could wait until 40 or 50 minutes in and teamfight their way to victory. Teams can still win the late game through 5v5 teamfighting, but it’s no longer a consistently reliable strategy. Korea's teams have learned that erring on the side of caution opens them up to equal or greater punishment than they would receive for being overly aggressive early on.
The difference between true proactivity and recklessness is still something that even the strongest Korean teams still struggle with from time to time, but the Jin Air Green Wings were the last of a dying breed: a team that is so risk-averse that they flat-out refuse to fight their opponents.
The average combined kills per minute across all teams in LCK Summer 2016 is 0.57. Sitting atop those standings, at 0.71 kpm, are the ROX Tigers, a team known for their aggression and for repeatedly diving past turrets to get to their opponents. Languishing in 10th place are Jin Air Green Wings, at 0.44 kpm, a full 0.13 below the Korean average. Jin Air prioritize objectives, but they also avoid fighting over those objectives at all costs, which cedes momentum to their opponents.
Other teams like Samsung Galaxy and MVP have learned to take risks, testing the proverbial waters in order to strengthen their play. These teams have easily surpassed Jin Air, who now face a possible trip to the Promotion Tournament, depending on their results in Week 11 (as well as the results of Longzhu Gaming and ESC Ever).
Already locked in for the Promotion Tournament is veteran Korean organization CJ Entus, who employed a similar risk-averse style throughout the LCK Spring Split and the beginning of the Summer. CJ’s form was different — they poured all of their resources into AD carry Ha "Kkramer" Jong-hun — but CJ’s similar focus on slow, methodical play and avoiding skirmishes until late in the game has contributed to their absymal 2-14 record, good enough for last place.
CJ have struggled for a myriad of other reasons, but like Jin Air they have shown poor judgment in the games where they have tried to expand their horizons past their trademark “feed Kkramer and rely on late game” strategy. Jin Air have recently begun exploring more proactive map movements with understandable growing pains — their messy series against the Afreeca Freecs this past week stands as a readily available example.
Jin Air aren’t a bad team, per se, but their preferred method of play is less successful than it ever was, which has led to their demise. Their results this split, as well as the playstyles of the teams that passed them on their way up, are strong indicators that Korea is slowly leaving teams like Jin Air and CJ behind.
MVP, the Afreeca Freecs, and Samsung Galaxy
Piggybacking on this tug of war between caution and fear, knowing when to fight is something that the two teams vying for the fifth and final playoff spot have yet to grasp on a consistent basis. Rather than solely relying on their opponents to make mistakes, both the Afreeca Freecs and MVP are more than willing to fight. To reiterate, this is why they’re higher in the standings than Jin Air, but they are sometimes held back by poor decision-making, team coordination or individual mechanical errors.
Since their win over SK Telecom T1, the Afreeca Freecs have lost three straight series — two this past week and their first series against Samsung Galaxy in the final week of the regular season. Against SKT, the Freecs employed intelligent compositions around AD carry Gwon "Sangyoon" Sang-yun’s on-hit Kog’Maw, which they’ve tried to shoehorn into other compositions with significantly worse results.
Like last split, the Freecs are one or two steps away from being a consistently good team. They do a lot of things right, including punishing opponents for recklessness while employing the same level of aggression themselves. The Freecs seem poised to reach the precipice of greatness, only to stumble and fall backward due to poor communication, overly aggressive invades or individual misplays. They’ve taken a game in every series they've lost since the SKT 2-0 sweep, and can be a completely different team within the scope of a single series — diligent and crisp at one moment, impossibly messy the next.
MVP could be this season’s Cinderella story — like the Freecs were last split — if they can manage to knock off the ROX Tigers this week. MVP have seen growing pains similar to those of the Freecs, with one weakness standing out: AD carry Oh "MaHa" Hyun-sik.
Jungler Kim "Beyond" Kyu-seok has established himself as one of the region’s best, and currently stands second place in the MVP standings, tied with SKT’s Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok among others. Top laner Kang "ADD" Geon-mo has improved steadily throughout the split along with mid laner An "Ian" Jun-hyeong. Both entered the season one-note players and have worked to improve their teamfighting as well as expand their champion pools, transforming into well-rounded, reliable teammates.
By contrast, MaHa’s mechanical misplays stand out, especially given his team’s improvements. In fact, MaHa is made to look better than he actually is, even with his egregious positioning errors, thanks to excellent play from his laning partner, Jeong "Max" Jong-bin, who keeps him safe in and out of lane. While MaHa put up a strong Jhin performance against Samsung Galaxy, he’ll have to play at or above this level if MVP are to have a chance at even making the playoffs. They still have to knock off the ROX Tigers, never mind making it through the gauntlet.
Samsung will play KT Rolster in the last match of LCK Summer, which will determine third place, should all go according to plan and KT beat CJ Entus this Thursday. Regardless of which team ends up sneaking into the playoffs, Samsung will be their likely opponent. MVP suffered a crushing defeat to Samsung this past week, and the Freecs kicked off their final week of regular season play with a similar, albeit less heartbreaking, 2-1 loss. Both have had trouble beating Samsung, their series coming down to a few too many mistakes that Samsung was able to capitalize on. Afreeca or MVP will have to revisit the drawing board prior to their gauntlet appearance next week.
Series to Watch
MVP vs. Samsung Galaxy
If you like drama, teamfighting and heartbreak, last week's series between MVP and Samsung Galaxy had it all. MVP came within a few teamfights of knocking out their stronger opponents and grasping their playoff hopes more firmly. MaHa, of all MVP players, finally had an exceptional game with a 5/0/15 KDA on Jhin, though it ended in an agonizing loss.
MVP vs. Jin Air Green Wings
MVP looked strong and coordinated as they dismantled Jin Air, showcasing how the latter's preferred playstyle is outdated by overwhelming them and forcing them to fight.
KT Rolster vs. ESC Ever
While this was a relatively long series, it showed off KT Rolster’s strengths and what they need to work on prior to the playoff gauntlet. The question of how far to press your early game advantages came into play in Game 2, where KT squandered their lead, allowing Kim "Crazy" Jae-hee’s Gangplank to scale despite being crushed by Kim "Ssumday" Chan-ho in lane. Like many other Korean teams, KT still has trouble recognizing how far they can pressure their opponents. In this case, erring on the side of caution leads to a Game 3.
For their part, ESC Ever played well, demonstrating the depth of the region as a whole. Unlike their fellow former Challengers Korea opponent MVP, Ever are probably bound for the Promotion Tournament — but they shouldn’t have too much trouble making it back into the LCK for Spring 2017.
Player of the Week
Kim "Ssumday" Chan-ho
It’s difficult to imagine KT Rolster as high in the standings as they are without Ssumday. Replace Ssumday with any other LCK top laner (other than Song “Smeb” Kyung-ho), and KT would drop off significantly.
KT is a well-oiled machine that knows how to play around their players' strengths and weaknesses for the most part. Yet, when their best-laid plans fall apart, they can rely on Ssumday’s monstrous top lane performances to carry them to victory. While jungler Go "Score" Dong-bin has had a career season, and mid laner Song "Fly" Yong-jun has settled into the team’s rhythm, it’s Ssumday who is their most consistent standout, and he had a phenomenal showing in Week 10.
Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.