Worlds 2018 was a huge disappointment for teams from South Korea. After five straight years of LCK teams winning the tournament, a Chinese squad took the Summoner’s Cup.
But it was worse than that. The other finalist was a squad from Europe. In fact, only two LCK teams even made the quarterfinals since Gen.G—the defending world champions—crashed out of the tournament in the group stage. This wasn’t just one team screwing up. This was a systematic failure on the part of the whole region.
The bad news is, a year later, it doesn’t seem like Korea has fully caught up. The three representatives at Worlds this year—SK Telecom T1, Griffin, and DAMWON Gaming—are expected to do better, but if the goal is to win the tournament, Korean teams need to speed up in a hurry.
Echoes of 2018
One of the biggest meta changes to League of Legends happened last year when Riot removed the green enchantment to jungle items that gave junglers additional wards. Immediately, the map opened up while typical vision lines fell to darkness. It led to faster, more chaotic games that perfectly suited the Europeans and Chinese.
But it flies in the face of the careful objective control that was typical of the Korean style. Korea’s control-oriented junglers struggled, while young, carry-oriented upstarts like Lee “Tarzan” Seung-yong found a ton of success. At Worlds, Korean teams were out-paced by those from other regions. Even kt Rolster, the LCK champions and the best-laning team from the region, couldn’t stand up to Invictus Gaming’s intense pressure and playmaking in the quarterfinals.
Fast forward to 2019, and not much has changed. SKT are 2-0 in the standings, but their win over RNG was extremely unconvincing. They drafted losing lanes, let RNG run over the mid game through grouped teamfights, and won by sending Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok to backdoor the RNG Nexus.
Their compatriots haven’t fared so well, either. Griffin, the best early-game team in the region and led by Tarzan, fell flat against G2’s early game pressure in their first match. If there was doubt over who the best jungler in the world was, G2’s Marcin “Jankos” Jankowski submitted strong evidence that it’s him, not Tarzan.
Damwon recovered from their opening-game loss to Team Liquid to beat AHQ and IG to achieve a 2-1 record. In that game against IG, they still lost mid and bot in the lane phase. But this time, they were the ones getting bailed out by the jungler.
None of the three Korean teams are in danger of getting eliminated in the group stage. But what we’ve seen still doesn’t bode well for their chances at taking back the Summoner’s Cup.
How they can fix it
So what can LCK teams do about this? After all, if they’re still behind after 12 months, what are the chances they can change things in a few weeks?
One thing they need to learn is to play stronger top sides. Right now, bot lane, and support in particular, is a point of weakness that won’t be resolved quickly. To adapt, LCK teams need to pressure the other side of the map.
And no, that doesn’t mean picking Renekton, who’s a bait pick right now. If they do pick Renekton, they need to actually give him resources and make him a threat. Griffin picked Renekton against Ornn and watched as Jankos executed two consecutive kills that made Griffin’s Choi “Sword” Sung-won completely irrelevant.
Speaking of Sword, we still don’t know exactly why Griffin had their second string top laner on stage against G2, perhaps the best team in the world. We don’t know why Choi “Doran” Hyeon-joon, who’s been starting in the latter half of the summer, wasn’t the choice. But we do know that LCK teams can’t play with any sort of overconfidence.
Damwon fell victim to that against Liquid. Their top laner, Jang “Nuguri” Ha-gwon, whom we consider the third best at Worlds, took Kleptomancy on Vladimir and bought Cull as his first item. That’s a recipe to making him irrelevant for the first 20 minutes of the match, which is exactly what happened. By the time he started to do damage, the game was almost over in favor of Liquid.
This late in the League season, there are things that LCK teams won’t be able to fix. But there’s still enough talent on all three of these teams to make a charge toward the Summoner’s Cup. If they can figure out how to pressure the solo lanes earlier, there’s still time for a Korean redemption story.