One thing has always been a constant in esports: no dominance is everlasting and every dynasty has its periods of vulnerability. Whether due to a string of bad luck, or a change in generations that leaves a weak buffer year, or just the enemy rallying, there always comes a moment where a hegemony is shaken or straight up dethroned.
This is true in professional League of Legends too. Even though South Korea has remained the dominant force for most of the game’s history, it too had its bad years during which it missed champions and left questions about the region’s position on the world map.
There haven’t been many of those, though. The first one was in 2012 when both Azubu Frost and Najin Sword missed the world championship and surrendered it to Taipei Assassins — the first and last non-Korean world champion before Invictus Gaming wrestled the title back in 2018.
2014-2015 was another rough period for South Korea, when more than 20 pro players left to compete abroad in China, lured by lucrative contracts and promises for big paydays — a massive outflow known today as the “Great Korean Exodus”. That year, China broke Korea for the first time and triumphed at MSI 2015 when EDward Gaming, led by Korean exiles Kim “Deft” Hyuk-kyu and Heo “PawN” Won-seok, took down prime form Lee “Faker” Seong-hyeok and his SK Telecom.
As crucial it is to acknowledge these momentary slumps, it’s just as important to understand the context behind them and the implications they had on the region’s future. Korea’s 2012 Worlds loss was somewhat unexpected, but definitely not a major-league upset. These were the wild west years of LoL. South Korea was still growing and the proverbial gap was nowhere near as big as it became later. In 2015, albeit losing MSI, South Korea recovered by year’s end. It qualified three of its teams to Worlds playoffs, set up an all-Korean grand final between SKT and KOO Tigers, and proved that local talent ran deeper than the reach of the Exodus.
This brings us to 2018 — by far the worst year for Korean League of Legends and the first time fans would really worry about the region’s prospects.
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“Korea is fundamentally a country with a strong mindset, where only the first place is acknowledged,” League of Legends caster and former pro player Lee “CloudTemplar” Hyun-woo once explained. “Every field is the same. Because of that […] Korea also has a lot of pride. With this in mind, there is a need to win, no matter what. The “no matter what” winning atmosphere is emphasized. There is nothing besides doing well. It’s like putting your life on the line for the game. Everybody has the need to perform well no matter what; I need to become number one no matter what.”
This mindset has always been a part of Korean esports, which is why Korea has always been so dominant in the scenes it had chosen to court. In the olden days, it was a point of pride for Korean BroodWar players to win the World Cyber Games for their country, even if the tournament itself was less stacked than the domestic leagues.
Korea is fundamentally a country with a strong mindset, where only the first place is acknowledged.
The same fire that made South Korea the definitive force in BroodWar burns in the present-day athletes. The only thing that’s different is the mechanics of the battlefield and the shape of the trophy — nothing else. Winning is everything, so they give it everything.
Korea’s discipline and “no matter what” approach is also what onset the five-year-long domination in League of Legends. Between 2013 and 2017, Korea won every single World Championship. Between 2015 and 2017, it secured all-Korean grand finals. In all five of these World Championships, it qualified at least two teams to the semis and 2016 even had all three in the top 4.
Winning Worlds has been a constant for Korea. Even when the region didn’t win MSI (only once since it started in 2015), it bounced back with the Worlds title and was once again the league to beat next year.
But in 2018, Korea was finally brought to its knees. Not just in one tournament, not just in one split, but on every battlefield, all year long. A defeat at MSI saw Kingzone lose the grand finals to Royal Never Give Up 3-1. Two months later Korea also failed to defend its Rift Rivals title and China took that one too.
But Worlds? Worlds was the worst of all.
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It’s not just that LCK lost Worlds, which was already a heavy blow to the region; it’s how they lost and to whom. On their own home turf, #3 seed Gen.G not only did not give RNG a respectable opposition but finished last behind western challengers Cloud9 and Team Vitality, becoming only the second Korean team in history to not make Worlds playoffs. In the quarterfinals, Afreeca Freecs played one of their worst League of Legends series and got swept by a Cloud9 line-up who had finished sixth in the weakest of the major leagues in the spring split and were now fielding a rookie support.
Even LCK’s Summer champions couldn’t make the semifinals. KT Rolster’s super team ended up losing in five games to Invictus Gaming who although would win Worlds a few weeks later were seen as the cupbearers to Royal Never Give Up thus far in 2018.
It didn’t matter that the series was close or that KT fell to a worthy opponent; the end result was a disaster. For the first time in the entire history of Worlds, there were zero Korean teams in the semis, making for a defeat like never before.
If LCK had made it to the finals and lost, then at least the rest of the world would look at it as a fearsome competitor and ever the perennial favorite. But as soon as it came down to an iG versus Fnatic showdown, an old saying resurfaced:
“If you can make God bleed, people will cease to believe in Him.”
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The ramifications of LCK’s loss in Busan were only exacerbated by an unimpressive spring split for the region. For the most part, Korea kept its macro-oriented, reserved playstyle which — for all the titles it had won LCK in the past — no longer seemed as the best way to play the game. While some LPL tendencies did bleed in, like proactively seeking engagements to secure advantages, it was obvious that LCK’s teamfight executions were inferior to LPL’s 5v5, including in teams who love brawling like Kingzone DragonX.
Even upcoming teams like Griffin who boasted to be the “next generation of LCK” proved they have much to learn and easily break under pressure. Griffin’s grand final showing against SKT left a lot of fans disappointed and not only because they didn’t get to lift the trophy after a phenomenal season. The 0-3 sweep confirmed the concerns that Griffin, while outstanding in a vacuum, lacked the mental composure to survive a best-of-5 on such high level.
The off-season reshuffle didn’t inspire much confidence either. Several veterans left the region, including Lee “Kuro” Seo-haeng (BLG), Kang “ADD” Geon-mo (BLG), Kang “Gorilla” Beom-hyun (Misfits), Bae “Bang” Jun-sik (100T), and Jo “CoreJJ” Yong-in (Liquid). The new talent coming from Challengers did have moderate success (partially by mixing LCK playstyle traditions with hints of LPL proactivity) but never on the level where it could realistically challenge the world’s best — SANDBOX and DAMWON Gaming are far from Worlds level still. The old franchises which compromised by signing rookies when they couldn’t get the “best in slot” players on all positions also flopped and you don’t have to look farther than KT’s recent first-hand encounter with relegation.
Even if there’s a new generation of LCK super players in the making, Korea will not reap the results of it for at least a year more. It’s unlikely that youth will win Worlds 2019 for the LCK.
This puts that much more pressure on SK Telecom and enhances the need for a win at MSI. As it stands, SKT are the sole super-team of LCK. Every position is performing on championship-winning levels. Free from the year-long JAG incarceration, Park “Teddy” Jin-seong is reaping heads alongside former world champion Cho “Mata” Se-hyeong, while Faker has resurged back to his old form.
On paper, SKT are the best LCK has assembled in years — proven talent behind a proven captain, wearing the colors of an org synonymous with winning when it matters the most. Like so many times in the past, everyone in Korea is looking at SKT.
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The latter is the final reason why Korea can’t really afford to take a loss at MSI. SKT’s spring championship not only signalized that old franchises still know how to win, but was a proof of concept that the LCK can evolve by looking at the better regions, without losing their original identity.
“What you see in the LPL has started to bleed into other regions, especially the LCK,” LPL caster Barento “Raz” Mohammed told me in a recent interview. “SKT had to evolve into a team that literally had to pick up that LPL jungler so they can really pick up on these fights they’ve been missing out on. And even in some of the games I’ve seen from SKT, they’ve been a little bit slower than the better LPL teams; I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, but it’s more so a mix of both, a mix of patience, pushing side waves and waiting for your time to shine and then really going for those fights when you see these opportunities.”
Now more than ever, Korea needs a win at MSI because the alternative can be devastating.
Now more than ever, Korea needs a win at MSI because it solves so many of the issues they faced in 2018. It will be a partial redemption from the flop at Worlds. It will bring hope back to the region and fire it for a stronger summer. A win from SKT — who long have been the single-most inspirational entity in Korean LoL — could be the tipping point for the young talents and former challengers to work harder yet and get to the next level. It could also convince that change in moderation is good and nothing to fear and lead to a true evolution for the region and finding the next most correct way to play League of Legends.
Now more than ever, Korea needs a win at MSI because the alternative can be devastating. A third international defeat in a row might knock a string of unfortunate domino pieces of untimely roster moves or drastic playstyle changes that lead to yet another horrible year for the LCK.