The Thorin Treatment: The Empire Ended
Today's relegation of CJ Entus marks the seemingly definitive end to Korea's first League of Legends empire. When the CJ organisation acquired the Blaze and Frost squads, from Azubu, they seemed practically assured more championships. While there would be victories in competitions like IEM, WCG and NLB, the CJ organisation would witness only a single OGN/LCK finals appearance from one of their highly touted squads.
Still, many years of play-off appearances, including some deep runs and exciting matches, saw the success of the squads manifest in their longevity and consistently good level. As Blaze made the semi-final of OGN Spring 2014, the mighty SK Telecom of 2013 had already begun its fall. For CJ, remaining on the brink of success was their point of pride by now.
A burning fire
As if to mirror the theme of the names designating each team, the squads could not have been more different. The one similarity they shared, particularly over the first year and a half, was of being teams who excelled at late-game team-fighting and thus understood early on the value of picking scaling champions against specific opponents. Beyond that, they were polar opposites and their successes followed the different temperatures at which they operated.
Blaze line-ups were centered around the power of individual brilliance, particularly in the solo lanes, as the likes of Reapered, Shy and Ambition transferred advantages gained alone into powerful team-fighting. The most extreme varient of this approach was the "sixth man" philosophy of the CJ Blaze team which finished runners-up at MVP Ozone in OGN Spring 2013. Giving up early dragons to freeze lanes and funnel gold into their solo lanes, particularly Top laner Flame, made that late-game Blaze team-fight near unstoppable, as attested to by a 13 game winning streak which finished only in the final itself.
Blaze teams lived up to their name of getting very hot and tearing through competitions or fading when they could not meet the required boiling point to break down the opponent. Despite being a top four level team in Korea for the first seven OGN seasons, they would win only a single OGN title and reach the finals but twice. Their hot and cold nature is seen in their infamous poor record in blind pick games, where players can select any champion but with no knowledge of what the opponent has selected. Blaze squads won only one out of eight such games, seeing so many crucial series taken from them as a result.
Frost were also aptly named, as the squad employed its stars in a much more cool and collected manner. Shy and MadLife were arguably the best players in the world at their positions in late 2012, yet they used their incredible skill-sets to facilitate their team-mates. Shy was the first Top lane monster to pack the arsenal of a hard carry Top laner and yet seemingly dedicate his entire approach to masterful team-fighting. The young prodigy was the best player on the team in a traditional carry role and yet played within his squad's system to marvelous effect.
MadLife was one of the best play-makers in all of League of Legends, despite hailing from the role least suited to such theatrics at the time. While so many other Supports were low gold ward-bots, whose job was to play Sona or Lulu, MadLife commanded fear from opponents for his otherworldly aptitude at landing Blitzcrank grabs and Thresh hooks. Most intimidating of all concerning these champions was the Korean Support's eerie ability to land such skill-shots blind and once he had created such an opening, the knowledge that all of his team-mates would swarm upon it and secure an advantage for the team.
Frost was a team about knowing when and how you could win the game. Minds like CloudTemplar and Woong understood the pick and ban phase in a far more reflective manner than so many professionals at the time. So often, they could select the champions and compositions which would give Frost a chance to work victories out of nowhere over a long match or overcome some early advantage or strength from the enemy. Frost's calm nature under pressure and this special understanding of champion select saw them wildly successful in blind pick games, notably in contrast to their sister team. They won their first six of such matches, with their streak ending with the Frost line-up being fielded by the CJ organisation in the semi-final of 2013's OGN Masters competition, against an underdog Xenics-OP.
While Blaze burned so hot and then flamed out on other occasions, Frost were a kingdom of ice early on and then saw a gradual climate change slowly melt away their domain over the years. They played in the final of their first four offline competitions, reached the final in six of the first seven and finish at least top four nine straight times. They played in the first three OGN Champions finals and reached at least the semi-final of the first six OGN competitions, including the early 2012 invitational. Startling, in light of such excellence tournament in and tournament out, was the lack of trophies secured by the Koreans, though.
Despite those four straight finals appearances, Frost only took two of those titles, winning the OGN Invitational and OGN Champions Summer 2012. The World Championship eluded them and NaJin Sword denied them a repeat OGN championship. As the years went on, Frost continued to make deep runs, even as their recruitment process failed them and their strength as a team faded. It wasn't until the final season of OGN Champions that Frost and Blaze would finally fail to feature in an OGN play-offs.
The dissolution of the sister team approach in Korea came to CJ at the lowest point, having missed the play-offs with both squads already. Choosing Shy over Flame as their Top laner and putting Ambition into the Jungle position, giving up players like Daydream and Swift, eased the concerns of few fans. Lacking star level players, but not names, the new CJ would manage one last hurrah with their run in the first LCK play-offs, bringing the MaRin-infused SKT to their knees in the semi-final, but being unable to close the deal.
Beyond that first split, there would never again be a moment in which CJ would legitimately look to threaten the elite teams for the crown. In the Summer they managed a very solid third place in the split, but failed to go deep in the play-offs. In 2016, there has not even been a play-off berth earned by CJ.
Ambition was a troubled Jungler throughout his time, only to be cast off to Samsung and find a rebirth of minor success there. Shy could not even retain his starting spot at all times, far from the reliable laner of old, and MadLife overcame a year which saw him seem close to retirement to again seem like a quality Support player, but without the flashy and awe-inspiring style of old, now a Braum, Alistar and Bard main.
Father time is unbeaten by any competitor in any discipline, as eventually all see their powers fade, their accomplishments less impressive and their careers come to a close. Yet the excellence of the brightest moments continues to shine out across the ages, a beacon by which new champions are guided and future feats are measured. Every moment is eternal and memory transports one back to that present. MadLife is still the player furthered ahead of all others at his respective role and dazzling all onlookers with his superlative skills and intuitive creativity. Shy comes into team-fights with a masculine vigor which ensures Frost always have a chance to secure victory.
Flame beats out another opponent by 100 minions killed and looks to power home a win for Blaze with an MVP performance. Ambition, old reliable, still finds his handful of champions on which he can compete with any Mid laner anywhere in the world and Blaze will still be in the game 25 minutes later.
The empire has ended, but its story endures.
Photo credit: Azubu, OnGameNet