The Return Of Legends: How 2017 could be Korea’s most dominating year

With many top players returning to Korea, how will this affect international League of Legends?

To this day, Samsung White’s performance at the season four League of Legends World Championship has been the most dominant performance out of any championship team, past or present. During this tournament, Samsung White lost a total of two games, and even those two games were the result of the world champions, for lack of a better word, “trolling” mid series.

After easily winning their first world championship, the members of Samsung White decided to split up. Chinese organizations were offering exorbitant amounts of money for these players to join their teams, so much so that it was almost foolhardy for them to refuse. These offers were not exclusive to the members of Samsung White, though. Every member of their sister team, Samsung Blue was also offered one of these insane contracts, as well as other high profile Korean players such as KT Rolster Arrows’ jungler Lee “KaKAO” Byung-kwon, and mid laner Song “RooKie” Eui-jin.

By the time the season started, Korea was devoid of almost all of its talent, as most of the top Korean players signed contracts with either LPL or LSPL teams in China. Many people refer to this era as the Great Korean Exodus. At this point, Korean teams were scrambling to fill out their teams as best they could. It also helped that KeSPA changed the LCK, making teams merge their two rosters, allowing teams to make the “super teams” of their organizations, though many of the teams’ stars from the previous season were now in China. This chang caused the emergence of a new generation of teams. Alongside organizations like SK Telecom T1, who merged their rosters, new teams like the Huya Tigers, who showed strong promise with unproven talent, started to join the league.

At this point in history, with no way of knowing how some of these players would grow, it was impossible to say that any of season five’s LCK rosters had a shred of talent, especially when compared to their predecessors of a year’s past. This new SKT roster was basically SK Telecom T1 S, but now with Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok in the mid lane and Bae “Bengi” Seong-woong in the jungle. KT Rolster and CJ Entus now had Go “Score” Dong-bin and Kang “Ambition” Chan-yong, respecitvely, who were famous for their other roles, lane swap to jungle. And the Huya Tigers, a roster filled with notoriously bad players (except for their duo lane), were doing quite well in the league. For several months, LCK looked like a shadow of its former self.

The Gap Closing?

The first major international tournament after the Korean exodus was the IEM Season IX World Championship. In terms of talent, the set of teams at this non-Riot sanctioned event was pretty decent. From North America, Team SoloMid and Cloud9 were in attendance, Europe sent SK Gaming and Gambit Gaming, and the Flash Wolves, who at the time were known as yoe Flash Wolves were also representing Taiwan as part of this tournament. The only team that people thought was likely weak at this tournament was China’s Team WE (formerly known as World Elite), who were in 10th place in the LPL at the time. Korea looked to be the clear favourite coming into this tournament, with the GE Tigers and CJ Entus participating in this tournament as the first and second place teams from the LCK. Going off of Korea’s historical dominance, it was assumed that they would easily sweep this tournament.

But history would not repeat itself this time. CJ Entus was knocked out by TSM in the group stage, and the GE Tigers were knocked out by Team WE (China’s 10-seed at the time) in bracket play. TSM would eventually win the whole tournament, becoming the first non-Korean team to win an international tournament with Koreans participating in a very long time. Comparing Korea’s past international performance to their performance at the IEM Season IX World Championship, and there was a clear drop off, and this drop off would continue to persist for quite a while.

At the Mid-Season Invitational, Korea’s performance was extremely disappointing, especially considering the dominance they held over the world for the previous two years. At MSI 2015, it took SKT all five games in the semifinals to get past Europe’s Fnatic, only to lose to China’s EDward Gaming in the finals. Then, the team barely made it out of groups at MSI 2016, losing to the likes of Counter Logic Gaming and Royal Never Give Up. SKT looked like a shadow of their former selves.

A hint of Korea’s dominance of yesteryear was shown at the season five world championships, where SKT had a dominant showing. But this dominance was quickly ended once Jang “MaRin” Gyeong-Hwan, SKT’s top laner at the time, moved over to China to play for LGD Gaming.

These international performances by Korea caused many in the West to believe that the performance gap between the West and Korea was shrinking. While this was slightly true, it wasn’t because the other regions were catching up to Korea’s skill level, it was actually the reverse. Since top level Korean teams kept having to make major roster changes at the beginning of each season, due to at least one of their star players moving over to China, this meant that these Korean teams had to continuously keep relearning how to play with their lineup, which was now devoid of an integral member.

This is clearly evident if you look at Korean international results over the past two years. Midway through the competitive season of these two years, Koreans did not look as dominant as the players were still learning how to play with one another, allowing other regions to take games off them. But come world championship time, at least one Korean team ended up being far and away better than any other non-Korean team in the world. What those in the West misinterpreted as the gap closing, was in actuality just new Korean rosters needing time to mesh together.

The Legends Return

Fast forward now back to present day. Following the 2016 World Championship, many legendary players from season four, such as Kim “Deft” Hyuk-kyu and Cho “Mata” Se-hyeong, have announced their return to Korea. These announcements sent waves throughout the community, and rightfully so. Most of these players are either still one of the best in the world for their position, or have the ability to return to that status.

The current top teams in the LCK would also be the biggest benefactors from these players returning. The 2016 iterations of SKT and KT were both one to two players short of potentially being as dominant as Samsung White.

SKT’s biggest problem this year was its jungle position. While being a very cerebral player on more tank/supportive champions, Bengi has historically struggled to play the more carry-oriented junglers such as Graves and Nidalee. Since most of the past two seasons centered on the latter, SKT had to use their rookie substitute junglers instead of Bengi, since almost every other great Korean jungler was in China. Despite their mechanical ability to play the meta carry champions, these substitutes were far from spectacular. Kang “Blank” Sun-gu had a multitude of problems, holding SKT back from true dominance.

Now imagine SKT recruits Choi “DanDy” In-kyu since he is now a free agent. Historically, most analysts would consider DanDy to be the best jungler to ever play League of Legends competitively. Thorin, in a recent article about the Korean legend, explained DanDy’s strengths perfectly. DanDy, at his peak, had a far deeper champion pool than any other jungler (except maybe KaKAO) and could play any of these champions at a higher levle than his opponent could. While DanDy’s career in China was not the most illustrious, it is important to note that the skill level of his Chinese teammates over the past two years has been quite low.

For the most successful organization in League of Legends history, it wouldn’t be that hard a task for SKT to revert DanDy back to his former glory, and this current iteration of SKT with a powered up DanDy would be unstoppable. One of DanDy’s core strengths as a jungler was his ability to enable his laners to gain significant advantages. Implementing this talent for Faker and Bae “Bang” Jun-sik, who are both considered the best players in their position, and you almost certainly have a SSG White-esque level team created.

Han “Peanut” Wang-ho, who is almost guaranteed to leave the ROX Tigers given the team’s current situation, would also be on SKT’s radar. Blank, throughout 2016, played like a poor man’s Peanut. The two shared a champion pool, but Peanut’s early game pressure was far superior to Blank’s. If SKT decided to pick up Peanut instead of DanDy, the results would not be much different. SKT would still end up with an all-star jungler who could enable his lanes to succeed.

Similarly, take KT Rolster. Throughout 2016, KT’s major problems stemmed from its lackluster duo lane. In almost every game in the latter part of the season, KT’s bot lane would constantly be pushed into its turret. This forced the team’s star top laner Kim “Ssumday” Chan-ho to move and create pressure on the map, allowing the rest of KT to have have more freedom. The downside to Ssumday’s pressure is that he had to relinquish his ability to carry that game, as he would end up being the focus of the enemy team.

With the return of Deft and Mata, as well as the departure of KT’s duo lane, it would be a perfect fit for these two to join KT. After both of their performances at the most recent world championship, it is clear that Deft and Mata are still at least top three in the world at their respective positions. These two joining KT would finally give the team multiple threats across the map.

Score, who many consider to currently be the best jungler in the world, would also flourish with an all-star bot lane like this. Since Song “Fly” Yong-jun plays a more supportive role on the team, the only lane Score could actually play towards this year was Ssumday’s. Having another lane to play towards would allow Score to further diversify his early jungle pathing, making him even better. Just like SKT with DanDy or Peanut, If KT were to secure Deft and Mata, this team would surely have a skill ceiling similar to that of SSG White.

The Impending Future

https://do8lg3dthpu1x.cloudfront.net/article/d3a17a36-aa94-46a9-bb06-916fcc815c11.jpgAs the 2017 competitive season edges closer, these aforementioned scenarios become more and more of a reality. Unlike like the West, many of the top level Korean teams like SKT and KT are owned by multibillion dollar organizations, meaning that these teams can easily afford expensive acquisitions. And with KT dropping its whole starting lineup except for Score, a Korean super team seems quite likely.

What does this mean for the West? Well, the raw talent of the top Korean teams is going to dramatically increase with the influx of these veteran players. Korean teams will also not have the Blank’s and Hachani’s of their teams, destroying any flaws they once had that the rest of the world could exploit. We might return to the days of years past, when player-for-player the top Korean teams’ rosters would be more skilled than their Western counterparts. It’s also hard to imagine an event like the 2016 Mid-Season Invitational occurring again, where almost every other region took a game off of Korea’s representative.

2017 will be the final chance for the West to prove that the gap between them and Korea is actually closing. Korean teams come into the upcoming season seeking nothing less than complete domination over international League of Legends.

How do you think Korean teams will do in 2017? Can the West survive? Let us know by commenting below or tweeting us @GAMURScom.

Article by Malcolm Abbas. Follow him on Twitter @SmashhLoL.

Photos courtesy of Fomos/Yong Woo ‘Kenzi’ Kim, ESL, and LoL Esports