With veterans like KT Rolster and Afreeca Freecs are struggling to find their feet in the LCK, youngsters like Sandbox Gaming and DAMWON are surging.
When Korea’s last hope, Afreeca Freecs lost 0-3 to North American team, Cloud 9, it concluded their participation at the 2018 League of Legends World Championship. With KT Rolster and Gen. G already knocked out of the tournament, the prospect of a Korean team lifting the Summoner’s Cup vanished.
This was the first time since their inclusion on the international stage that a Korean team failed to make it to the quarterfinals at Worlds. Plus, a Korean team had won five consecutive World Championships, so this sent shockwaves throughout the competitive scene and the host region.
With the disappointment of an unsuccessful Worlds run looming, the pressure was on for all teams to make some off-season changes. Afreeca Freecs brought in promising mid-laner Son “Ucal” Woo-Hyeon from KT Rolster, who then, in turn, recruited Gwak “Bdd” Bo-seong from Kingzone DragonX to replace him. Gen.G picked up sought-after jungler, Han “Peanut” Wangho, who was rumored to have received numerous high-valued offers for multiple regions before committing to the team.
With one of the worst competitive years since their creation, SKT let go of the majority of their roster. Building their team around superstar mid-laner Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok, they picked up rising talents in Park “Teddy” Jin-seong, Kim “Clid” Tae-min and Kim “Khan” Dong-ha. They rounded off their team with season three World Champion, Cho “Mata” Se-hyeong.
The only team to make no offseason changes was Griffin, who instead shared a picture on social media of a team bonding trip to Thailand. Griffin had an impressive entry into LCK by securing second place in the Summer Split. The team missed out on attending the World Championship in a very close back and forth series with Gen.G.
The region saw the loss of some of their most infamous and veteran players. After leaving Gen.G, jungler Kang “Ambition” Chan-yong announced that he would be retiring and focusing on streaming. Fellow Gen.G player, Lee “Crown” Min-ho made his move to North America and joined OpTic Gaming. The move was seen as a new challenge for Crown who struggled to find his form after his win at the World Championship.
Kingzone DragonX’s bot lane players Kang “GorillA” Beom-hyeon and Kim “Pray” Jong-in, who had played together since 2014, parted ways. GorillA made the move to EU and joined Misfits Gaming whereas PraY announced he was taking some off to reflect and shared with fans on his stream. Similarly, two-time World Champions duo Lee “Wolf” Jae-wan and Bae “Bang” Jun-sik ended their partnership. Bang landed a spot on North American team 100 Thieves and Wolf headed to Turkey to play for Supermassive.
With a substantial exodus of veteran players and a focus on securing rising talent, who would be the team to help bring the region back to the top?
Just before the start of the World Championships, the LCK Spring Promotion tournament kicked off, and it was set that two new teams would be competing for 2019. First up was DAMWON who amassed an impressive 13-1 record in Challengers Korea, which entitled them to automatic qualification for the tournament. DAMWON stormed through the first round without losing a single game.
Their biggest threat in the tournament was Team BattleComics, who have since been acquired and renamed Sandbox Gaming. While Sandbox Gaming managed to take one game in the qualifying round, it was ultimately DAMWON who came out victorious. All was not lost for Sandbox Gaming as they headed to the loser bracket to meet MVP. While MVP had found some success with a Rift Rivals participation in 2017, the team had struggled since to make their mark in LCK. Facing Sandbox Gaming was their final stand, but it wasn’t meant to be with a 0-3 loss.
With all teams set, viewers didn’t have long to wait as the KeSPA Cup, an annual tournament organized by the Korea Esports Association, took place in December. A total of nineteen teams participated, including the LCK 2018 summer teams, CK 2018 summer teams and the winner from the 2018 KeG championship.
One of the most anticipated teams was the revamped SKT. The team had a promising start to the tournament, convincingly beating APK Prince and bbq Olivers to reach the playoffs. However, it was newbie team DAMWON who stopped them in their tracks with a 1-2 defeat. The team’s heavy-based fighting comps and clutch Baron plays by jungler Kim “Canyon” Geon-bu saw the end of SKT’s run. DAMWON went on to face Griffin in the semi-finals. The series dubbed the ‘old rookies’ vs the ‘new rookies’ was a must-watch. Ultimately, it showed that DAMWON still had a lot to learn as Griffin served the team an impressive 0-3 loss with games averaging 30 minutes.
On the other side of the bracket, it was Worlds representatives KT and Gen.G vying for a spot in the final. Both teams hadn’t dropped a game in the previous stage and with poor performances at Worlds, there was much to prove. It was Gen.G who secured the final spot, with ADC Park “Ruler” Jae-hyuk stepping up and leading the team to victory.
Going into the final, Griffin provided creativity and coordination throughout the series. At a time when many teams were getting to grips on a new meta, it was Griffin who embraced it. Taking advantage of power picking Cassiopeia and flexing lane champions, they left Gen.G battling for control. Griffin closed out the series with a 3-0 victory leaving viewers wondering where the fight of Gen.G from the previous stage had gone. Having secured their revenge against the team that knocked them out of World Championship contention, Griffin earned their first major domestic title and breezed into the 2019 spring season as front favorites.
Not surprisingly, Griffin’s domination didn’t stop with their win at the KeSPa Cup. The team is comfortably sitting undefeated with a 6-0 score at the end of LCK week three. Their latest win came in a victory over second-place Sandbox Gaming, who also hadn’t dropped a series. Griffin showed authority with a convincing victory in Game 1. Mid-laner Jeong “Chovy” Ji-hoon, who at the time was sitting on an impressive 104 KDA, put on a flawless performance on Akali with a 7/0/4 KDA. However, Game 2 saw Sandbox Gaming crawl back with an equally impressive and speedy win. This was the first game that Griffin had lost since the beginning of the Split. But they were not ready to give up their reign that quickly as Game Three saw a strong and calculated performance. With winning lanes and jungler Lee “Tarzan” Seung-yong taking full control of the jungle, it took Griffin 35 minutes to pull Sandbox Gaming apart.
Despite their losses, Sandbox Gaming have had an impressive start in the LCK. In their debut match against Gen G, we saw Jang “Ghost” Yong-jun show his versatility in a flex-heavy meta by playing Viktor in the bot lane. Ghost went on to help secure his team a 2-0 victory in which he didn’t die once. Since setting their pace, they have gone on to secure victories against Kingzone DragonX, DAMWON and SKT.
Only having dropped games to the top two rookies, SKT are sitting jointly with Kingzone DragonX at third in the table. The highly anticipated roster has excited fans with strong wins over Jin Air Green Wings and Gen.G. In the recent series against Hanwha Life Esports, Park “Teddy” Jin-seong proved that he deserved that starting spot with a strong performance on power pick Ezreal. He went 12/2/11 over two games.
Elsewhere in the league, the veterans of KT Rolster and Afreeca Freecs are struggling to find their feet. Both teams have been part of the LCK for over three years, and the influx of new generation teams this season seems to be having an effect. For years, LCK has been known for games that are slow, methodiocal and vision-heavy. With several patch changes and the introduction of teams like Griffin and SANDBOX who favor a heavy team fight style, the average time for a game has been at 30 minutes.
With LCK taking a week-long break to celebrate Lunar New Year, this is a time for reflection for many teams. It’s clear that a new era of LCK has arrived. Tempo is the key and it’s clear that the old generation teams need to catch up before it is too late.