This past offseason marked another turning point in Korean League of Legends.
Storied Korean players returned to their old stomping grounds, while the members of ROX Tigers, the team of post-Exodus Korea, went their separate ways after two strong years. SK Telecom T1 may have been Korea’s representative at most international events throughout 2015-16, but the Tigers were most representative of new Korea. A group of players that either hadn’t received the lucrative overseas offers of their counterparts, had all but retired, or were thought to be lacking talent, the Tigers called into question how teams evaluate and develop their players.
Since the advent of LoL Champions Korea in spring 2015, SK Telecom T1 have only missed one final of four. Two of those finals were against the ROX Tigers, one was against KT Rolster. Last summer, they lost to a third-place KT Rolster team that, on paper, is inferior to the one that is penciled into the exact same slot of the 2017 spring playoff gauntlet.
This is another season of questioning what the top teams do with talent — especially with so many returning players — and how organizations cultivate or ensure strong communication between their chosen units of five. At the top is SKT, still ruling over Korea, waiting for their next challenger to arrive.
Last year marked longtime Korean esports organization MVP’s return to competitive League of Legends. After razing through 2016 Challengers Korea Spring, they managed to finish middle of the pack in 2016 LCK Summer, narrowly missing playoffs. Where other organizations looked to bulk up their existing rosters, swap out a few players, or scrap them entirely, MVP stuck with the same starting five that took them from Challenger to the LCK.
MVP do well with quirky compositions and champion picks that suit their playstyle. The current meta gives support Jeong “Max” Jong-bin more freedom to pick champions that help him control the bottom side of the map and his laning partner Oh “MaHa” Hyun-sik. MaHa has improved from last season, but much of this is due to Max’s dominion over their lane. Kim “Beyond” Kyu-seok continues to establish himself as one of the best junglers in Korea and a significant damage threat, thanks in large part to his Graves.
Although they’ve been on a bit of a loss streak lately — going up against Samsung Galaxy and SKT will do that — MVP match up better against KT Rolster than Afreeca Freecs. MVP have stronger coordination than KT, and if they were to beat Afreeca, they would have the edge over KT in the next playoff round.
Against Afreeca, MVP are often punished for their early and mid game mistakes. Afreeca aren’t a consistent team by any means, but they’ve developed more of a set playstyle revolving around their top and bot lane carries than MVP, who occasionally look lost.
Last year, the Freecs were a scrappy bunch of streamers that nearly disbanded due to a lack of funds, gaming house, and sponsor. Their preferred streaming platform, Afreeca.tv, picked them up, and they unexpectedly made playoffs in both spring and summer, thanks to the deft touch of former Maximum Impact Gaming coach Kang Hyun-jong.
This year’s Freecs are completely different.
Through the split, this iteration of the Freecs have developed a two-pronged attack with top laner Jang “MaRin” Gyeong-hwan and AD carry Ha “Kramer” Jong-hun. Lee “KurO” Seo-haeng acts as the pivot point, controlling mid lane with comparatively fewer resources than his LCK counterparts. KurO receives the second-lowest percentage of his team’s gold at 23 percent.
The only player below him is his first-round playoff opponent, MVP’s An “Ian” Jun-hyeong. In fact, Ian languishes towards the bottom of many statistical categories, a reminder that MVP uses him for waveclear in the mid lane (Syndra, Orianna, and earlier in the season, Corki) and not much else. Recently he’s struggled on Ahri and Ekko.
By contrast, KurO’s control of the mid lane is incredibly important to Afreeca’s desire to funnel attention elsewhere. They leave KurO to his own devices in order to divert resources to MaRin and Kramer. This does not always work, especially if KurO has an off game.
Like MVP, the Freecs have also trotted out a few interesting compositions this split (the failed all-scaling Mundo and Lulu comp against SKT immediately comes to mind.) When most fans think of MaRin, they think of a carry top Rumble or Renekton, but he’s spent most of the season on Maokai and Nautilus, becoming an unkillable shield for Kramer and KurO.
Despite receiving less attention and gold, KurO still does the highest percentage of the Freecs’ total damage (26.3 percent). Much of this is by virtue of KurO being a mid laner, but in comparison, Kramer is third from the bottom in damage per minute of LCK starting ADCs while receiving the third-highest percentage of his team’s CS after 15 minutes of all players in Korea. This points to the Freecs propping Kramer up rather than funneling gold into a star carry.
That being said, the Freecs will have the edge in this best-of-three. Although neither team is consistent, the Freecs appear to have a stronger understanding than MVP of what they should do with the players that they have.
Many people expected that KT, not SKT, would earn the automatic bid into the LCK Finals. KT not only didn’t do that, but also failed to match their series winrate of the past two splits with presumed lesser rosters.
KT aren’t a bad team, but it’s difficult to divorce expectations of their promising lineup from their third-place reality. Mid laner Heo “PawN” Won-seok has shouldered most of the blame for their demise, and his lowlights have been obvious. However, PawN’s playstyle hasn’t changed since his time on China’s EDward Gaming or even Samsung Galaxy White. His mechanics are a bit worse, which has also contributed to his downturn, but placing all of the blame on PawN is unfair when the majority of KT’s problems are due to poor communication and coordination.
Of all teams in Korea, KT have the strongest early game. They know how to play around their lanes early and Go “Score” Dong-bin has an excellent understanding of where to apply pressure to ensure that all three lanes, at times, are pushing. KT even knows when to adjust their focus if a lane is losing early on.Just look at their response to PawN’s two early deaths on Jayce in Game 3 of their second series: KT rotated PawN to a side lane, put top laner Song “Smeb” Kyung-ho’s Talon in the mid lane, and sent the duo of Cho “Mata” Se-hyeong and Kim “Deft” Hyuk-kyu top. SKT punishing PawN for playing so far forward in lane was bad for KT, but they responded as well as they could have, stemming the bleeding enough that they could have won with a stronger mid-game.
The problems for KT come in the mid and late game. They push up without proper vision, go for objectives without setting up for them properly, and generally make proactive plays without the necessary groundwork or team unity to follow through correctly. This is where teams with superior coordination — MVP, Samsung, and even Kongdoo Monster — or teams with strong mid and late games, like SKT, can overwhelm KT.
With their talent alone, KT will likely advance to face Samsung if their first opponents are the Afreeca Freecs. MVP would be the true test to see just how much KT were able to learn in their preparation week.
With so much attention paid to the perceived failure of KT Rolster and the surging SKT, Samsung Galaxy have slid under the radar into the second-place slot of the playoff gauntlet.
At the beginning of this split, Samsung’s decision to retain their World Championship roster was met with derision in the community. In order to keep up with the firepower added by KT, SKT, or even Afreeca, it was thought that Samsung should have also powered up.
Little did they know that Samsung already had.
Kang “Ambition” Chan-yong came into his own as a jungler last year, despite his questionable early invades, and it was surprising to see Samsung turn their attention to former CJ Entus rookie Kang “Haru” Min-seung early in the 2017 LCK Spring Split instead of their veteran leader, Ambition.
On Samsung, Haru has been everything that many hoped he would be last year on CJ Entus. Under Haru, Samsung have the highest First Blood percentage of any team in 2017 LCK Spring at 71 percent, and Haru himself has the highest First Blood percentage of any player at 60 percent. Haru doesn’t have the same calculated pathing as Score, but Samsung has done well to make the most of his aggressive early maneuvers.
Integrating Haru onto last year’s Samsung, before the team had come together as they are now, would have been disastrous. This year, it has propelled Samsung into the second-place spot, just behind perennial LCK international representative, SKT.
Mid laner Lee “Crown” Min-ho is also in the middle of a career split, recently earning the regular season MVP award and holding down Samsung’s mid lane for Haru’s risky invades. Crown’s steadiness has also allowed Samsung to experiment with different bottom lane pairings from AD carries Park “Ruler” Jae-hyuk and Lee “Stitch” Seung-ju and supports Jo “CoreJJ” Yong-in and Kwon “Wraith” Ji-min, depending on scrim and in-game performance.
Of the teams in this gauntlet, Samsung have the combination of strong communication and talent that can topple SKT.
SK Telecom T1
At the top of Korea once more are SK Telecom T1, waiting for whoever rises up from the gauntlet to face them in the 2017 LCK Spring Finals.
It’s not a surprise to see SKT in this position. Their success is so overwhelming that it’s become an assumption. Regardless of who they pick up to accompany him, Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok is still the center of SKT. With him, it’s difficult to see an SKT loss.
Yet, SKT is not without their problems. Although much has been made over top laner Heo “Huni” Seung-hoon’s new penchant for tanks, he still makes the same risky Teleport decisions that made him a standout player in Europe and North America. These aren’t always coordinated well with the rest of the team, however, and his itchy trigger finger has led to SKT trying out Kim “Profit” Jun-hyung instead. Profit has a similar desire to jump into teamfights, but has sometimes looked more synchronized with the team than Huni.
SKT have also had to adjust to their new jungler Han “Peanut” Wang-ho, who had a surprisingly tough time integrating himself with the team early on in the split. His vision control was minimal for what the team needed, and the team, appeared to have difficulty deciding whether they wanted him to be a damage carry or an initiator.
This is the first season since 2013 that Faker’s team has not had veteran jungler Bae “Bengi” Seong-woong to fall back upon and that mantle has notably been taken up by Kang “Blank” Sun-gu. Maligned throughout 2016, Blank has been able to show off his strengths as a DPS threat while also providing better vision coverage for the team and, of course, facilitating Faker in the mid lane.
What SKT have over every other team — in addition to Faker himself — is the best understanding of how to punish opponents in the mid and late game. Even if they are overwhelmed early, SKT know how to be patient and pounce on opponents’ mistakes. Few teams have been able to overcome this.
All statistics from Oracle’s Elixir.
Emily Rand’s love of the 2013 KT Rolster Bullets will never die. You can follow her on Twitter @leagueofemily