The mere existence of a team like Griffin is a feature writer’s dream: a team of rookies against all odds, with presumably less monetary investment and non-endemic sponsorship potentially royal-roading in their first split. In a world where the meta threw teams and viewers for a loop and Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok sat on the SK Telecom T1 bench behind former Phoenix1 mid laner Choi “Pirean” Jun-sik, the six members of Griffin were a breath of fresh air. There’s little to dislike about a team that has finally broken the curse of promoting teams’ past. Until Griffin, no team that had promoted into the LCK had finished above sixth in their first split (MVP in 2016 LCK Summer). Most finished in danger of returning to Challengers Korea in the ninth or tenth place spots. Griffin should be a shining example of South Korea’s depth and dominance, a final and definitive statement that the region has fully rebounded from the 2014-15 offseason talent exodus. And in many ways, the rookies of Griffin have proven just that.
Yet, the rise of Griffin has also been frustrating as LCK’s presumed best have struggled. Watching top-tier teams like Kingzone DragonX, Gen.G, and the Afreeca Freecs flounder against Griffin caused the same, slow, sinking feeling that followed Kingzone’s 3-1 Mid-Season Invitational victory over the LoL Master Series’ Flash Wolves. It was a win, but Kingzone were not going to take the 2018 Mid-Season Invitational title playing like they did in that series. Similarly, the top South Korean teams, Kingzone included, were not guaranteed a World Championship, especially against the top Chinese teams if they couldn’t manage to defeat Griffin in their own home region. Griffin’s meteoric climb to the top of the regular season standings over established teams cast the state of South Korean League of Legends into further doubt. The air of invincibility that had cloaked South Korea for years was finally been dispelled, first by RNG’s MSI title, and again at an explosive 2018 LCK-LPL-LMS Rift Rivals tournament where RNG and China emerged victorious.
The day after facing the Flash Wolves at 2018 MSI, Kingzone lost to RNG. Three weeks later, Kingzone’s former stranglehold on the LCK standings was undone by an upstart challenger team from the promotion tournament: Griffin. Kingzone did not reclaim that top spot. From Week 2 of 2018 LCK Summer, Griffin held sole possession of first place in the standings until the final week of the regular season. At the end of it all, Griffin tied in series record with Kingzone, KT Rolster, and Gen.G, but head-to-head records placed them second, behind KT, the only team that was consistently able to beat them in the regular season. The LCK playoffs automatically seed the top regular-season finisher into the finals and the second-place finisher in the game immediately before them. This means that there’s a good chance we’ll still see Griffin at the Samsan Gymnasium in Incheon for the 2018 LCK Summer Finals to face KT Rolster.
How did we arrive in a timeline where an upstart challenger team plays well enough in their first split to potentially make the finals? And what does it mean for South Korean League of Legends?
This Griffin team first appeared on the international radar at the 2017 KeSPA Cup, a familiar story for those who followed ESC Ever at the end of the 2015 competitive season. With the roster of top laner Choi “Sword” Sung-won, jungler Lee “Tarzan” Seung-yong, mid laner Shin “Rather” Hyeong-seop, bot laner Park “Viper” Do-hyeon, support Son “Lehends” Si-woo, and coach Kim “cvMax” Dae-ho, Griffin didn’t repeat the ESC Ever miracle run, but finished in the respectable 5th-8th place range. Tarzan was a well-known solo queue prodigy who, at that time, had multiple accounts in the top 20. Viper and Sword were also known as strong up-and-coming players from solo queue and performances in the Turkish Champions League on Team Turquality respectively. Lehends was also another known quantity in solo queue, immortalized for his off-meta support picks like Elise.
Together, they were a fun teamfighting team that showed a lot of promise. The core roster — plus mid laner Jeong “Chovy” Ji-hoon who joined in March — stayed together to finish the 2018 Challengers Korea Spring split undefeated and in first place with an automatic bid to the 2018 LCK Summer Promotion tournament. Griffin not only qualified for LCK Summer but came from the winner’s bracket without dropping a series. As early as their KeSPA Cup performance, many expected the players of Griffin to be sought after by other teams, domestic or international, but the only substitute jungler Song “Gankster” Yong-hoon and support Kim “Newt” Jin were picked up by China’s LGD Gaming and this happened after the team qualified for the promotion tournament.
This highlights an interesting shift in South Korea over the past few years. Where previously in OGN’s Champions, top tier teams would pick up talent from challenger squads or lower-tier Champions rosters, teams like SKT have picked players fresh from solo queue, like jungler Park “Blossom” Beom-chan, or players who had previously been abroad like top laners Park “Untara” Ui-jin, Heo “Huni” Seung-hoon, and Park “Thal” Kwon-hyuk. KT Rolster made its entire super team around veteran South Korean players recently returned from China along with LCK staples Go “Score” Dong-bin and Song “Smeb” Kyung-ho. When it came time to bench Heo “PawN” Won-seok, KT turned to their young internal trainee, Son “UcaL” Woo-hyeon rather than recruiting a challenger mid laner. The Afreeca Freecs are one of the few teams that have stuck to the old method of picking up talent from struggling challenger or LCK teams in the highly successful acquisition of former Ever8 Winners top laner Kim “Kiin” Gi-in earlier this year after his own KesPA Cup performance. The roster of Griffin was allowed to stay together, or committed to staying together, and because of this, Griffin grew significantly as a unit into a strong team.
To say that the ease of Griffin’s early 2018 LCK Summer schedule helped the team become one of the best in South Korea is an understatement. This isn’t to take away from Griffin’s talent or how the team adapted, but the chance to ease into the split by facing mid-to-bottom-tier teams like MVP, bbq Olivers, the Jin Air Green Wings, and SK Telecom T1 helped Griffin acclimate and better prepare for top teams like Kingzone. Viper, who the team had previously put on scaling hypercarries like Tristana, Xayah, and even Vayne, looked perfectly at home with mages in the new bottom lane meta. Griffin used funnel compositions to great effect, taking what they knew from their scaling teamfighting drafts and applying it to funneling gold onto Viper or Tarzan. Their teamfights were explosive, coordinated, and stymied many LCK teams with better macro understanding or vision control.
KT Rolster first laid the blueprint for beating Griffin with strong early vision control and jungle control that stifled Griffin’s early game. Griffin rely on a fairly passive early game to scale into 5v5 teamfighting. If they don’t know their way around an objective setup, they teamfight. This worked until Griffin faced KT, who not only bested Griffin early with a bot lane Mordekaiser, but also intelligently separated teamfights, ensuring that Sword’s Mundo was zoned away from his squishy teammates. As the split wore on, other teams figured out how to get the better of Griffin in other areas of the game. Afreeca Freecs relied on Lee “Spirit” Da-yoon’s Kindred to shut down Griffin’s funnel compositions while Gen.G used superior early vision control to scale better and best Griffin in 5v5 teamfights. Griffin is a good team, but a team with weaknesses like any other. The sudden success of Griffin holds important messages for the rest of the LCK.
Currently, outside of KT and some Gen.G or Hanwha Life Esports series, the LCK lacks early game aggression showcased by top teams in China like Invictus Gaming or Rogue Warriors. Despite an improved early game over the course of the split, Griffin is not an early game team either. Lehends doesn’t roam nearly as much as his LCK support counterparts like Jo “CoreJJ” Yong-in or Cho “Mata” Se-hyeong to set up a stronger vision net for Tarzan. This is exploitable — as shown by both Gen.G and KT — but Griffin were frequently allowed to scale with the team’s preferred funnel compositions or scaling 5v5 teamfight champion picks. Few teams, even ones with a stronger macro understanding, could best Griffin in a 5v5 fight. This could spell trouble for the LCK teams at the upcoming World Championship depending on which teams qualify. KT often have a strong early game but are inconsistent and Kingzone haven’t fixed a lot of their early game issues that teams like the Flash Wolves took advantage of at the 2018 MSI. Griffin helped expose a lot of these issues, in a way finishing what RNG had started with Kingzone at MSI, and it’s now up to teams to adjust and adapt.
The story of Griffin is fascinating because so few teams, especially in South Korea, are strong coming from the promotion tournament. With other LCK teams focused on picking up players returning from somewhat successful runs abroad, Griffin’s rise is organic in a way that is reminiscent of teams rising in the old OGN Champions tournaments. Griffin’s existence not only points out flaws of other teams, but proves that a young and talented team, with time, can still become one of South Korea’s best.