Jan 21 2015 - 10:49 pm

The Journey To The West: What Past Players Suggest About Fnatic's Future In Top Lane

Four Is Death Fnatic had a long offseason. Its wonderkid AD Carry, Martin “Rekkles" Larssson, left the team after a disappointing group stage exit at the Season 4 World championships.
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Four Is Death

Fnatic had a long offseason.

Its wonderkid AD Carry, Martin “Rekkles" Larssson, left the team after a disappointing group stage exit at the Season 4 World championships. Their longtime mid lane king of the backdoor Enrique "xPeke" Cedeño Martínez left to create the new team Origen along with Paul "soAz" Boyer, and its jungler, Lauri "Cyanide" Happonen retired from professional League of Legends after four years of service with the organization. The only remaining player from its squad from the previous season was the support, Bora "YellOwStaR" Kim. Fans of the organization were upset by seeing the roster they cheered on for so long breaking apart, but many believed that a new roster would be announced quickly. Rumours began to spread of high level solo queue players and young promising competitive talents negotiating with Fnatic’s management. It’d be a tough season, fans began to reason, but Fnatic had a tremendous eye for talent and would surely find the best possible players to replace their former stars.

 

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This general assumption resulted in a great and terrible gnashing of teeth when Fnatic’s signings to complete their new roster for Season 5 included two Korean players—Kim “ReignOver" Yeu-jin, formerly of Incredible Miracle, and Heo "Huni" Seung-hoon, a complete newcomer to competitive League of Legends.

Fans were shocked. They understood that the team, especially so late in the off season, would be hard pressed to find big name free agents to join their team in a limited amount of time. The additions of Fabian “Febiven" Diepstraten and Pierre "Steeelback" Medjaldi were accepted—Febiven was already considered one of the more promising new additions to the LCS, but the additions of ReignOver and Huni came out of left field.

 

Although initial reaction among fans have been one of surprise and anger, looking back on the days leading up to the roster change unveils a litany of hints towards one or more Korean signings. Their search for a coach lists the ability to speak Korean as a highly valued bonus. Nick “LS" DeCesare, one of the most most well known support staff members in the western scene, declared on twitter that he’d applied for the opening, but was rejected because of his American nationality (presumably, his not being a European citizen resulted in some difficulties regarding the future acquiescence of a visa or work permit).

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DeCesare is also one of the few western coaches that speaks Korean fluently without need for translation and has spent years in South Korea—a quality that would serve him well as a coach, dealing with the possible culture shock a Korean player might experience when uprooting and moving to a foreign nation. It’s certainly clear that teams courting Korean players around the world have seen the rough transition that Chae “Piglet" Gwang-Jin has had since joining Team Liquid (then Curse Gaming), or the disastrous marriage and aftermath of Shin "Seraph" Wu-Yeong and Counter Logic Gaming during its tumultuous and bizarre 2014 Summer Split. Further botches include Team Coast’s decision to remove its solo laners right before their monumental LCS Promotion tournament playoff for two Korean solo queue stars, along with recent upstarts Team Fusion calling on the talents of Yoon “Maknoon" Ha-Woon and Choi "Huhi" Jae-Hyun, only to receive mostly pedestrian efforts from both en route to fizzling out of the NA LCS Expansion Tournament.

Among the blunders, a clear message had been sent: you could not just sign a Korean for the sake of being Korean and expect miracles.

So Fnatic’s search for a Hangul speaker was not simply searching for an added benefit—it was a calculated move, one that in hindsight pretty much tipped the organization’s hand in terms of their next personnel moves.

 

A Brief History Of The Import

 

But importing players from a different region is far from a recent or Korea-centric trend — European players take up only 6 less spots on North American LCS rosters than Korean players with experience from other regions — and Fnatic was hardly the first LCS team to make moves to converge on Seoul for new players. Team Liquid replaced their long-beloved but fatally inconsistent mid lane stalwart Joe “Voyboy" Esfahani, with Kim "Fenix" Jae-Hun, a Korean player with brief stints in OGN with the Jin Air Green Wings organization. Evil Geniuses rebranded to Winterfox and added Shin "Avalon" Dong-Hyeon and Jang "Imagine" Hyeon-Su, two Korean players with solely amateur experience in competitive LoL. The newly christened Team Impulse, meanwhile, has acquired the services of both Lee "Rush" Yoon-Jae and former World Champion Jung "Impact" Eon-Yeong.

In Europe, Millennium’s bold moves ended only in disappointment, as their additions of Ryu “Ryu" Sang-ook and Cho "H0r0" Jae-Hwon resulted in a failed bid to reclaim a spot in the European LCS. H0r0 eventually landed with MeetYourMakers, while Ryu’s future in Europe is up in the air as the team he stood in for (ROCCAT) plans to move forward as an organization with the services of Erlend "Nukeduck" Holm.*

Despite the precedent of a great deal of inter regional movement during the Season 4 off season/Season 5 preseason period, the addition of two Korean players—one, a compete amateur and the other spending much of his career jungling for one of the more unsuccessful pro organizations in the region—proved inflammatory, setting off a large backlash from longtime fans on a far greater scale than the normal post-roster shuffle grumbling that has become common in the League of Legends transfer market. It wasn’t just that they signed Koreans, fans reasoned. Fnatic had settled on two unproven, unsuccessful Korean imports when EU had perfectly good free agents in solo queue for both roles? What justification was there to go for ReignOver and Huni when there were the Kev1ns and Jwaows and k0us of the world, right in their backyard, ready to go?

The signing of Huni and ReignOver suggested that Fnatic had made their judgment—and the judgment was one of no confidence in their domestic peers.

At first glance, this is a terrible decision and a relatively hubristic one to suggest that Huni—a solely amateur player who was highly rated in Korean solo queue and was briefly linked to Samsung’s LoL team—is a better find than a known quantity like any of the unemployed or teamless top laners that have LCS experience. Fans could reason with themselves why a team would want ReignOver—he was not impressive in OGN, but he was a long time player on Incredible Miracle. He has the experience—but what does Huni have?

What does Huni have to offer that domestic players don’t?

What does Fnatic know that the crowds do not?

 

A Contrast In Value

 

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The most direct explanation suggests that Fnatic, and teams like it, just don’t view EU top laners as highly as the public does.

The pool for top lane talent in Europe is perilously shallower than at first glance. In the west, the lane in general is an unbalanced affair. Making the jump from playing the lane in solo queue to one in a competitive setting is a massive shock, as many elements of the pub mindset must be removed or inverted to successfully play as a professional. For every Jang “Looper" Hyeong-seok that hits the ground running at the highest levels of play, there’s a Lee "Flame" Ho-Jong who struggled heavily before coming into his own in Season 3. It’s becoming increasingly rare to see top lane only players reach the highest levels of solo queue in the west. Being able to play both solo lanes is becoming a desired trait as lane swapping becomes a popular trend in the NA and EU Challenger scenes because of the constant player movement. In the LCS, lane swapping has become more than just an in-game tactic—players like Voyboy made successful jumps from top lane to mid lane when it was decided that his aggressive play style would benefit greater from the array of assassins that were in vogue during much of Seasons 3 and 4. As a result, more teams seem to be more receptive to adding mid laners and just sending them to the top lane over top lane players that were already available.

Much has already been said about the dearth of talent in the west. It’s an incredibly top heavy (pun unintended) position—the Dyruses, Wickds, Quases and Ballses rule, with a significant drop off past those who are on tier 1 teams. There has been a large push of young talent joining the LCS (Cabochard, CaliTrlolz, Vizicsacsi and Odoamne all look like excellent prospects for the future), but LCS teams in search of a top laner tend to search elsewhere before going with the domestic option. Gamsu, Impact (of SK Telecom T1 fame), and Avalon—another player with primarily amateur experience—were all imported from Korea to compete in the LCS from other regions.

The question still stands in the eyes of observers, though—why go with Huni? Even if Fnatic insisted on signing a player from outside of Europe, what made him the best player available?

 

The Precedent Set Before Huni

 

Huni sits in a strange position in terms of how he is viewed—he arrives in Europe with a conflict of perception. He comes into the LCS with mostly derision and skepticism from Europe yet his Korean peers absolutely gush over him and believe he’ll do great.

He is a player that was considered to be a shoe-in for an eventual contract offer from an OGN level team once be became old enough, and was linked with the proposed ‘Samsung Red’ LCS team that the organization mulled over before Riot Games’ e-sport division updated its residency rules. We can now confidently say that the Samsung Galaxy organization remains a top identifier and developer of talent—dating back to their days under the MVP banner. To be considered worthy of such praise as a solo queue player in among the notoriously ill-tempered Korean netizens is one thing, but being so heavily scouted and sought after by Samsung even though they already had two highly rated top laners in Looper and Choi “Acorn” Cheon-ju is a recommendation in itself.

On the other hand, there is still the very real possibility that Huni doesn’t live up to the expectations put upon him by Fnatic and Korean fans. Being a top solo queue player is still just that—and there are plenty of ladder gods that flopped in a competitive setting. Critics will point to the similarity of Huni’s situation to the one concerning Jang “Marin" Gyeong-Hwan, who joined SK Telecom T1’s second team as a hyped top laner. Marin had dominated Korea’s solo queue ladder, reaching the top of Challenger on multiple accounts, and joined the organization among platitudes saying he could become the ‘Faker’ of top lane. Nearly two years later, the supposed heir to Reapered’s throne has struggled and lost much of the hype surrounding him. The player once feared as a potential addition to the pantheon of Korean gods in the top lane turned out to be just a passable but frustratingly inconsistent player.

Huni will not face the murderer’s row of top laners that Marin was forced to suffer through in his rookie season, which should help his development. It is still up in the air whether or not Huni’s addition will be a boon or bust for Fnatic, but he comes to the European circuit with a more detailed pedigree than the oft-repeated statement that he was a total unknown. Moreover, he joins with an understated statistical advantage on his side: historically, first-season top laners do much better than first believed.

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A WORD ON KDA: Judging player quality by KDA alone is near impossible—because of the many different situations that result in different KDA totals, along with how KDA is calculated, plus context. A player may play in a team which emphasizes “playing on an island”, or a player’s rookie season may have taken place during a period during patches where the top lane is primarily filled with either high health, low-kill potential tanks (Mundo, Alistar, etc.) or during periods of time where a particular strategy is in vogue (lane-swapping). It’s also important to keep in mind the trend of statistically awful top laners that are still incredibly valuable to their teams (see Freddy122, pre-“Weedwick” Darien, or snowball-reliant players such as Angush during much of Season 2 and preseason 3). As a rule of thumb, KDA is a good way to “ballpark” a player’s talent, but not to shoehorn it.

It’s important to quantify top laners though more in depth methods such as GPM, XPM, DPM or KDA isolated among just lane opponents, but many of these statistics are limited or just plain don’t exist.

In Korea, which enjoyed a time period of having the strongest league by far in competitive LoL in OGN The Champions, we can point out the emergence of rookie top laners in the post-Azubu era, or a “modern OGN” era defined as the first tournament that took place completely in 2013 at the beginning of the Season 3 League of Legends Championship Series. That tournament, Spring 2013, had only three new faces, but all three have showed incredible development from their first years to the current day.

Here’s a brief breakdown of the first season of the rookie trio:

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Smeb has long suffered in Korea (being the runner up the ignoble Longpanda award at the conclusion of OGN Summer 2013) but has experienced a resurgence as a key part of the GE Tigers. After leaving ahq Korea amidst its match-fixing controversy, TrAce briefly played for Hoon Good Day before they were picked up by Jin Air Green Wings in the summer of 2013, where he has played since. ssumday jumped to KT A in the fall of 2013 where he enjoyed his greatest success in winning the 2014 OGN Champions Summer.

The “rookie class” of what stands as the beginning of the modern OGN era are all still involved in the top lane in some way. Moving on to later iterations of Champions:

Hot6iX Champions Summer 2013

Rookie Toplaners: Miso (Jin Air Green Wings Falcons), NonameD (Chunnam Techno University), PLL (LG-IM #2), Apple (MiG Blitz), Stark (Xenics Blast), Save (Najin White Shield)), inSeC* (KT Rolster B).

inSec is technically cheating—he had been a longtime veteran of the jungler role, but for clarity’s sake we will mention that this was his first tournament as a top laner for KT Rolster.

Nearly everyone on this list sans inSec sucked in their first year. Save, however, showed many flashes of brilliance en route to his team’s playoff appearance before losing to CJ Frost. Since then, he blossomed into a stalwart top laner for the Najin e-mfire organization before landing a spot on Invictus Gaming in Season 5. Apple had a stint on the ill fated “broken dreams and crushed hopes” Quantic Gaming bid to get into the LCS and Miso (nowFenix) stands as the third best player from this rookie class, recently joining Team Liquid to replace Voyboy.

PANDORA.TV Champions Winter 2013-2014

Rookie Toplaners: MaRin, GimGoon, Gamsu, Chop, Looper

MaRin's ups and downs have already been quite detailed in this article, but it's also important to mention that MaRin faced two out of the top five in KDA top laners in this split—Impact, just coming off a Season 3 World Championship victory, and Shy, who enjoyed a 6.10 KDA during the tournament before running into the Samsung Galaxy Ozone buzz saw.

Looper played in what was technically his second tournament (as he had subbed in for Homme at the World Championships), but had possibly one of the best rookie seasons any top laner has had in any league (LCS, LPL, GPL, etc.) with a 10.40 KDA and first place in the KDA standings for his position.

Gamsu's first appearance before becoming a member of the Samsung Galaxy practice squad (and later Dignitas) came on Alienware Arena, who remain only as a footnote in a group known better for the disqualification of Team Dark (featuring Chop) than anything else.

GimGoon replaced Ragan in Xenics Storm and didn’t have any greater of a task than “survive while Swift, Coco, and Arrow carry” and certainly benefited for it. GimGoon actually had a decent KDA of 3.32 over 11 games.

His play in Champions Summer 2014 worsened considerably with a score of 0/6/6 over two games with Kayle and now he finds himself on Energy Pacemaker.Academy in China after a brief stint on KT Rolster’s bench.

Hot6iX Champions Spring 2014

Rookie Toplaners: Limit (Najin Black Sword), Ren (Xenics Storm), Hanlabong (Prime Optimus), Expect (Midas FIO), Leopard (KT Rolster Bullets)

To save bandwidth: the only top laners to have any sort of positive impact for their teams were Leopard (now Duke) and Limit. Limit had a KDA of 2.87 in his rookie season before jumping up to a 5.00 KDA with KT Rolster for Champions Summer 2014. He’s not playing for DK. Leopard had substituted in for 4 blowouts during Champions Winter and had enjoyed a bloated 37.00 total KDA. In his first full season he had a good but much more realistic KDA of 3.69. In Champions Summer he bumped this total up to a 4.53 KDA and seems to be primed as Najin e-mfire’s next “go-to guy” in the top lane, furthering their legacy of strong players in the role.

Hot6iX Champions Summer 2014

Rookie Toplaners: Rock (Jin Air Green Wings Falcons), SuDai (Bigfile Miracle)

Neither player is still with their organization after single tournaments. Neither lookedparticularly good, either. Bigfile Miracle tore through the offline qualifiers but ended up in a group with Samsung White, SK Telecom T1 S, and CJ Frost, and the amateur team suffered for it. SuDai managed to pull off the impressive effort of dying six times on v4.x Dr. Mundo en route to a 0.85 KDA. Rock did somewhat better, amassing a 2.17 KDA over 4 games with one standout match on Gragas, but he retired after the tournament—so it’s impossible to say if that game was a glimpse of future talent or an exception to the rule.

SBENU Champions Spring 2015

Rookie Toplaner(s): CuVee (Samsung Galaxy)

Lee “CuVee" Seong-jin remains the sole rookie top laner in this season after Riot Games decided to downsize the tournament after a mass exodus of players to Chinese and western teams. CuVee joins Samsung Galaxy after its teams walked and was guaranteed to be one of the rookies as a result—if Champions had stayed in its 16 team format or even a 12 team tournament, however, he would have most likely been joined by Prime Clan’s Zest and Xenics’ Sky in the rookie class here. It’s too early to call anything on CuVee’s career—he’s listed here for mostly completion’s sake.

Rookie Toplaners since the first Olympus-sponsored Champions season: 23

Number of those players who have had a decent career: (Smeb, Trace, ssumday, Miso/Fenix, Save, inSec, Marin, GimGoon, Looper, Limit, Leopard/Duke) 11 

11 rookies having a strong career after starting off in the toughest league in the world compared to 12 busts. That’s a pretty decent rate. Now consider that Huni will play in the European LCS, which had these new faces pop up in top lane after the inaugural Season 3 spring split:

Season 3 European LCS Summer Season

Rookie Toplaners: Zorozero (Lemondogs), Kubon (MeetYourMakers), extinkt (Ninjas In Pyjamas)*, Mimer (Ninjas In Pyjamas)*, Kerp (Alternate)

Much has been already said about Zorozero's rise to the top of the European top lane pantheon in his short run on LemonDogs and Ninjas in Pyjamas. Before he took a hiatus from competitive League of Legends, he amassed a 61% winrate over 28 games with a 3.66 KDA. Zorozero impressed a great deal of pundits with his play on the way to making the World Championships in S3, and many would have pegged him to become the next big European star if not for Lemondogs and Ninjas in Pyjamas dancing dirty with the transfer market.

Kubon had a 2.71 KDA in his first appearance. Despite the trend of top laners improving their KDA in their second or third seasons, Kubon regressed with a 2.41 KDA and a winrate of 30% in 10 games in the 2014 Summer Season.

Ninjas In Pyjamas went through three top laners over the course of this split; for clarity’s sake we’ll give credit to extinkt as he played the most weeks for the squad after replacing NeeGodBro, with a 4.33 KDA along the way. Mimer's first full season came in Season 4 with Supa Hot Crew where he struggled with 2.14 KDA in 28 games (though he improved exponentially in the S4 Summer Split).

Season 4 European LCS Spring Season

Rookie Toplaners: Xaxus (Team ROCCAT), Mimer (SUPA HOT CREW), YoungBuck (Copenhagen Wolves)

Xaxus threw the world for a loop as he and the rest of ROCCAT used many off-the-wall picks to jump into contendership in their first season. Xaxus sported a 3.72 KDA in his first season, but regressed in his second, slumping to a 2.29 KDA and 40% winrate before the team replaced him with Overpow to make room for Nukeduck.

The other top laner we haven’t already mentioned would be Youngbuck, who had a 2.69 KDA in the Spring Split, and a disappointing 1.81 in the next as Copenhagen Wolves struggled.

Season 4 European LCS Summer Season

Rookie Toplaners: No rosters changed, though Cabochard (Gambit Gaming) had a brief stint as a substitute during Week 5 before becoming the starter in Season 5.

It’s clear that top laners in their first season in the EU LCS had mostly comparable (but in some cases worse) statistics to those in their first seasons in Korea. If going by statistics alone, Huni should be fine. But on top of the fact that he’s making the jump to pro play from an amateur background, there’s the inevitable juxtaposition of Huni’s situation to one of Counter Logic Gaming’s acquisition of Seraph.

 

The most direct comparison

 

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It’s impossible not to notice the similarities between the addition of Huni to Fnatic and Seraph to CLG. Both had little to no competitive experience at the OGN level (Huni was an amateur, Seraph was a trainee that played for the Najin e-mfire organization in one real match), and both transferred to western teams as total unknowns with only word-of-mouth hype and Korean solo queue anecdotes to their name. It’s also very obvious that the relative failure of Seraph to successfully integrate into CLG and perform at a high level against LCS top laners is still heavy on the mind of fans skeptical of what Huni would have to offer Fnatic.

Many of the pitfalls that initially plagued Seraph are still issues that can strike the Fnatic roster – Seraph joined CLG with no knowledge of English, along with a champion pool that clashed heavily with the strategic style that Christopher “MonteCristo” Mykles attempted to implement during his tenure as CLG’s coach. Seraph was forced to build chemistry with his jungler on the fly during the LCS season, along with the rest of his roster in a team environment best described as irascible. Seraph – now Kina – has found a new team on Team Dragon Knights, but his stint in the LCS serves as both a “what-if” and a cautionary tale against simply signing a Korean player (or any foreign player) and assuming they will transition easily to a new nation, scene, playstyle and environment.

So while statistics suggest that Huni’s transition to the LCS should be a smoother one than people think, it’s still ultimately going to be a transition reliant on many variables that may end up being out of the player’s hands.

 

*As of this writing (1/10), Ryu has signed to join H2K Gaming to replace Fabian “Febiven” Diepstraten.

 

Cameron Bamba writes for The Digital Throne Journal, which was launched at the start of 2015. He spends most of his time either feeding in ranked matches, or yelling about things under the name @kopfmeinesvater on Twitter.

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