The conclusion of 2014 marked the height of Samsung as a League of Legends powerhouse.
Not only did Samsung White convincingly win the World Championship, but they took down sister team Samsung Blue, a team that had kept them from a Korean Champions final twice, in a tight 3-0. Since then, we’ve viewed the ten players who topped the world through rose-colored glasses, and despite their journey to China’s LPL and LSPL and two-year stint abroad, many have high expectations for the return of four of their ranks to Champions Korea.
For a player from a top Korean team, time spent in a foreign league often serves to emphasize or exaggerate existing playstyle quirks. The players who perform best do so because they adapt well to environments in which team owners have acquired them for pure reputation rather than stylistic fit.
This makes existing playstyle weaknesses stand out more until a squad learns to accommodate them. Spectators may decide their favorite players perform much worse when they go abroad, but in many cases, a new, less tailored team environment just gives fans a new perspective on their qualities.
Misconceptions have been conjured about Heo “pawN” Wonseok, Kim “Deft” Hyukkyu, Cho “Mata” Sehyeong, and Lee “ Spirit” Dayoon since they’ve joined foreign teams. It’s important to sift through the narrative for the real warning signs their new Korean teams will have to confront in order for Samsung’s prodigal sons to become LCK stars.
pawN: The injured sleight of hand
pawN’s most memorable moment in the past two years was told by ex-EDward Gaming manager and co-founder, Huang “San Shao” Cheng.
He wrote an emotional account of pawN, confined to the hospital on an IV drip and receiving care for his back injury, ripping the trappings from his body and declaring “EDG need me!” before demanding to be taken to the stadium in the 2015 Spring quarterfinal against Team WE.
Though San Shao most likely exaggerated his account, EDward Gaming won their first two games against WE with Ceng “U” Long before a loss in Game 3. When EDG lost a second game, pawN was substituted in for U, despite earlier reports of injury. San Shao claimed pawN rushed from the hospital following the first loss.
This story, as well as pawN’s Morgana pick opposite Lee “Faker” Sanghyeok at the 2015 Mid-Season Invitational final, have slightly altered perceptions of pawN’s role on the team. Far from being the main carry or driving force of EDG, pawN played more of a distracting role that pulled pressure to the mid lane early on. Whether he went 7-0 or 0-7, as long as the enemy jungler went to the mid lane, his performance freed up Ming “clearlove” Kai to camp bottom.
That doesn’t discount the importance of pawN’s role. Arguably, the decline in form of both pawN and Tong “Koro1” Yang were fundamental in EDG’s downfall from their peak at MSI. The way EDG played relied upon self-sufficient solo lanes so more attention could be brought to Deft from clearlove. Kang “Baeme” Yanghun, Kang “Athena” Hawoon, and Lee “Scout” Yechan all failed to replicate pawN’s more free-spirited behavior in solo invades, wild split-pushing, or apparent games of tag that distracted the opponent from the rest of the team.
Perhaps the most significant impact of pawN’s inconsistencies and later absences came through in clearlove’s performances. Known to play much more confidently with pawN on the team, clearlove became more subdued and less proactive with other mid laners. Failing to account for the enemy jungler going mid destabilized clearlove’s ability to pressure the map and ripped open a significant flaw in EDG’s play.
On KT Rolster, pawN will most likely be shifted to a more distraction-oriented role once again. Upon assessing this roster, all three laners have a tendency to play far forward in lane. The reason this is significant is that if no lanes can adapt when the jungler plays on the opposite side of the map, they will become easy to target in the early game. If pawN can invade the jungle or pull pressure as he did on EDG, he might be the lynch-pin in making KT’s aggressive lane strategy work.
The real problem, however, is the persistence of pawN’s injuries. pawN made several mistakes at the World Championship, and his weak form at the 2016 Spring LPL final made him exploitable for Royal Never Give Up. Teammates on KT have already commented that pawN’s injury makes it difficult for him to stay seated for extended periods of time, corroborating accounts by his teammates on EDward Gaming. His form seems unlikely to return, which could cause KT’s entire experiment to unravel.
Deft: Learning a trade
Based on Deft’s performances at the World Championship and 2015 MSI, one may begin to believe that the greatest lie ever told was that Deft couldn’t lane. In 2014 on Samsung Blue, Deft had a tendency to start a trade and back out halfway through. With the addition of Tian “Meiko” Ye to EDward Gaming’s bottom lane and persistent pressure from jungler clearlove, Deft seemingly gave up his qualms for an all-in approach.
“Ever since Deft has come to LPL,” Chinese rival Jian “Uzi” Zihao said before the 2015 Mid Season Invitational, “he’s really improved his skill. He plays very well.” Deft had already started to gain attention for his more aggressive play, though at that point his laning with Meiko was less refined. Meiko still engaged almost every time his skillshots were up, and Deft followed him without question.
This philosophy continued into 2016. Deft and Meiko played with an almost do-or-die mentality in laning phase. They couldn’t afford to not get a lead since Deft presented the only carry lane of the three in the 2016 Summer split. In addition, EDward Gaming played as if they were the only team that understood lane control. Rather than try to aggressively trade with opponents early, Meiko took charge in shoving the lane, giving Deft a minion buffer for his exchanges effortlessly.
The method of keeping easy, uncontested minion control in LPL compensated for some of Deft’s flaws. By following Meiko’s lead, he didn’t appear to question trades, but the pair often made mistakes that they could get away with because of minion cover or a lack of synergy in their opponent bottom lanes.
Deft’s dive first, ask questions later playstyle in the LPL could merely be a temporary band-aid. If he has to share the carry role with other lanes, there will be less pressure on him to get a lead every game as well as less presence from the enemy jungler.
When EDward Gaming rotated their solo lanes in 2015 LPL Summer, Deft exhibited perhaps his worst form in the last three years. His over-aggression allowed him to get caught more often in team fights, and he fumbled more laning phase trades. He looked less comfortable, which means that Deft may not adjust well to different environments or playstyles. It’s possible Deft hasn’t really fixed his laning, and KT will have to apply their own band-aid to keep Deft’s early game afloat in 2017.
Mata: Madness to the method
Though Mata spent 2016 playing for a Top 2 League of Legends Pro League team, earning the title “Godfather” by taking younger players under his wing, his 2015 earned him an entirely different reputation.
On Vici Gaming, many regarded Mata as picky. He made demands and complaints regarding his Chinese teammates that Lee “Vasilii” Weijun claimed lead to his eventual benching. Vasilii also claimed that, no matter what the mistake was, the coach and management would only regard it as his fault, not Mata’s.
Whether or not Mata really was difficult to play with behind the scenes, he exhibited his discontent several times in game. In the 2015 Spring Demacia Cup, Mata famously locked in Jayce support and fed or sat AFK in base for most of the game. He was subsequently fined by his team. This wasn’t his only incident, however, as he also occasionally purchased multiple pairs of boots, appeared to feed by engaging into five opponents solo, or over-tunneled on Baron calls.
Despite this, he ended the season with strong performances that helped wedge Vici Gaming into the playoffs and overcome Oh My God in Round 1.
Even before coming to the LPL, Mata had a reputation for tilting. His temper, allegedly, kept him from rubbing shoulders with Faker in League of Legends history. 2016 gave rise to an apparently more patient, fatherly Mata who not only helped his teammates learn, but also taught them to make calls in the game and set up plays without him.
That’s when some of Mata’s other flaws became more obvious. Mata and RNG continued to make Baron calls an obsession in 2016 Spring, costing RNG several games, but then in 2016 Summer, when Jian “Uzi” Zihao joined, RNG’s style became even more one-dimensional. Rather than roam with Liu “Mlxg” Shiyu or xiaohu, Mata remained steadfast in lane.
Mata and Uzi lacked some synergy, and they preferred to go all-in on their opponents. Some of his World Championship opponents described Mata’s behavior as reckless or over-confident. He would attempt positioning in lane that many other supports wouldn’t, perhaps because he felt he could dodge, but that didn’t always prove true. As a result, RNG’s bottom lane either snowballed out of control with a lead or continued to play recklessly with a deficit and fell drastically behind.
The combination of Mata and Deft seems like a very all-or-nothing duo. Add in Mata’s reputation for tilt and Deft’s emotional sensitivity (Mata himself referred to Deft as “crybaby” in 2014), and the combination could be explosive on KT. It seems likely that top laner Song “Semb” Kyungho’s lane will have to be the one to adapt and play more conservatively while Deft and Mata receive the lion’s share of jungle pressure.
Spirit: Farm-focused carry jungler
Spirit’s journey was less conventional than those of the ex-Samsung players who joined KT Rolster. Rather than stay in the LPL for two years, Spirit left Team WE at the end of 2015 to join EU LCS team Fnatic. As a result, perceptions of Spirit have perhaps been the most twisted.
In 2015, Spirit started to play more heavy carry picks like Riven or Rengar. When this met with initial failure, he waited for the meta to shift to favor champions like Nidalee and Rek’Sai that could both farm efficiently and cover a large area of the map. He temporarily became a much more aggressive ganker, snowballing himself and his lanes.
Over time, this style became less favorable, and Spirit instead focused much more on farming himself. Fans began to criticize Spirit for failing to build vision-oriented jungle items like Sightstone. Some of his smurf accounts saw heavy spam of champions like Fizz that didn’t have practical competitive application (he even played the champion in two LPL matches).
In the end, Spirit left WE criticizing the team’s practice ethic and claiming he got more out of streaming. But when he joined EU LCS, despite praising the team environment publicly on Fnatic, a lot of Spirit’s selfish behavior continued.
Despite high wards per minute on Fnatic, Spirit often purchased Tracker’s Knife or other vision items later than other junglers in the LCS. This contributed to less vision control and pressure in the early game from Fnatic’s lanes. There were also instances where Martin “Rekkles” Larsson and Bora “YellOwStaR” Kim left lane mid-laning phase to start a camp for Spirit and increase the efficiency of his farming.
Spirit often seemed to prioritize farming over pressure, leading to extremely high percentage of jungle camp control and deceptively strong statistics overall. Yet as a unit, Fnatic had trouble building themselves up for late game team fights. This became even more of a struggle with the abolition of the lane swaps that allowed Spirit to farm for a longer period of time in the early game without being contested by the opponent jungler.
In response, many began to believe Spirit had become a more selfish jungler in China. While there is evidence to support this, especially concerning his attitude, Spirit has always been regarded as a heavy farming jungler. Stylistic echoes of Spirit’s 2016 were present in 2014 when it was rare for Samsung Blue to acquire an early game lead. While much of this was blamed on the poor laning phases of Deft and Bae “Dade” Eojin, Spirit spent most of his pathing on Blue farming himself to supplement Blue’s late game team fighting.
Especially as standard lanes have been emphasized, it’s hard for a lose lane-farm for team fight strategy to work effectively on a consistent basis, especially one that sometimes saw Blue falling as much as 10,000 gold behind. The combination of weak lanes and a farming jungler wasn’t effective on Fnatic and won’t be effective for Afreeca Freecs.
Luckily, Afreeca doesn’t have a lot of weak laners, but it does have laners who are used to a lot of jungle pressure. Jang “MaRin” Gyeonghwan and Ha “Kramer” Jonghun are both used to receiving a lot of pressure from their junglers. MaRin often received counterpick priority on both SKT and LGD Gaming. When LGD’s junglers would prioritize other lanes, MaRin would easily fall behind or become a target of the opponent jungler.
Having any players reliant on jungle pressure on a single roster can lead to disaster when the jungler prioritizes his own farming or another lane. Kramer and MaRin represent a conflict that Spirit will have to balance with his own natural style.
It’s not a puzzle that’s easily solved without either player adapting, especially given that the timing of Lee “Kuro” Seohaeng’s roams at the recent World Championship left a lot to be desired. If the mid laner’s pressure cannot compensate for Spirit’s farming tunnel-vision, Afreeca will have a lot of adjustments to make, and it isn’t immediately obvious this will become a strong team in LCK.
What separates a top team from an average team is the ability for players to synergize well, to downplay individual flaws with smart team play. A lot of the flaws of pawN, Deft, Mata, and Spirit were present even in 2014 when they played for the now-romanticized Samsung teams. When players went to LPL (or EU LCS), they weren’t added to teams that might compensate for their weaknesses, and many of these flaws became more apparent.
It’s possible KT Rolster and Afreeca have the resources to construct a well-worked team dynamic to account for these players’ flaws or that they’ll be more adaptable with seamless communication. But ignoring the time Spirit, pawN, Deft, and Mata spent on foreign teams won’t do their new rosters any favors, especially since some of their playstyles are consistent all the way back in 2014. Samsung’s prodigal sons return to Korea, and the question is only the level of magnificence we can expect from their re-debut.
You can follow Kelsey Moser on Twitter @karonmoser.