Outside of SK Telecom T1, no other team in all of 2018 LoL Champions Korea had as many eyes on them as Griffin. Attention to SKT should always be expected. The SKT organization has years of competitive esports experience and the best player to have ever played the game in Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok. Griffin’s most experienced player was top laner Choi “Sword” Sung-won, who played in the Turkish Champions League with Team Turquality. The rest of Griffin’s lineup consisted of all rookie players, none of whom had particularly large fanbases headed into 2018 LCK Summer.
Yet, Griffin slowly built a fanbase for the team with consistent regular season victories, unique champion picks, and a fun 5v5 teamfighting style. By the time Griffin faced the Afreeca Freecs in the summer playoff gauntlet, the crowd at the OGN e-Stadium was almost evenly split — half Griffin fans, half Afreeca fans — despite Afreeca’s time in the LCK since 2016. By the time Griffin faced KT Rolster in the summer finals, fans and analysts supported them to not only win, but represent South Korea on home soil at the World Championship as one of the region’s best teams.
There’s an old adage that you should always aim to leave the world in a better place than you found it. That even if you cannot change everything, even if you fall short of your goals, you should try to improve what you can before moving on. For a time, Griffin was not only one of the best teams in South Korea but the team to beat, with a fairly long undefeated streak and only five series losses in the regular season. In many ways, Griffin ushered in a stronger LCK, proving a depth reminiscent of the region’s 2014 heyday that South Korea had not come close to in the LCK era until this year.
Griffin first appeared as a blip on the competitive radar due to the team’s performance in the 2017 KeSPA Cup. At the time, they had just picked up what would become their starting bot lane in AD carry Park “Viper” Do-hyeon and support Son “Lehends” Si-woo. These two not only changed the team’s playstyle significantly, but also turned out to be excellent players in what became a volatile bot lane meta. Viper and Lehends were crucial pickups to what would later be a remarkably successful LCK split for Griffin, especially when paired with the team’s acquisition of former Samsung Galaxy Blue trainee and Anarchy top laner Kim “cvMax” Dae-ho as a member of the coaching staff.
According to the Griffin players, everything changed when cvMax became their coach. It was cvMax who implemented the motto “five as one” as the team’s primary strategy. In an interview with Inven, he said that his goal for the team was to have one collective brain controlling all of the champions at once. “Like one person playing an RTS game, controlling all five champions, he said. “That way, no calls are needed and there’s no need to debate. Our ultimate goal is to make plays without any calls.” His spartan coaching style left no room for doubt. When the rest of the South Korean and international LoL community didn’t believe in Griffin’s strength, cvMax made sure that his players always expected the victory.
In cvMax’s first season as a coach, Griffin razed through Challengers Korea without dropping a single series. Griffin then beat both Kongdoo Monster and MVP — two spring LCK teams — to qualify for 2018 LCK Summer.
Fans and the larger League of Legends community started to take notice. Now the question was of how well Griffin could perform against the likes of longstanding organizations and proven performers like Kingzone DragonX, the recently-rebranded Gen.G, KT Rolster, and even the struggling SK Telecom T1.”People only pretended to listen,” cvMax told Inven regarding Griffin’s preseason LCK prospects. “I felt that they lacked the eye to see real potential. The majority of people had said, ‘Kongdoo, bbq, and even MVP did well in the Challenger league. Griffin will struggle in the LCK.’ They were blinded by the numbers. 14 wins and 0 losses aren’t important. What’s important is the process of achieving that number. 14-0 could be achieved in many different ways, and not all of those ways are the correct ones.” Yet, identifying the correct ones was still a nebulous task, especially to those outside the team, who only had Griffin’s challenger performances to look at.
Similar to comparing the top team from a minor region at an international event, it’s always difficult to gauge how well a challenger team will do once they promote against stronger competition. Since the LCK’s 2015 inception, challenger teams who have come through the promotion tournament haven’t performed all that well, never mind found themselves at the top of the standings, contending with the big-name LCK organizations. Even Griffin’s hot start was written off as a weak initial schedule. It wasn’t until Griffin beat Kingzone DragonX in Week 3 that they started to become a legitimate threat for the LCK title in the eyes of most. That same week, Griffin was swept by KT, who revealed a few holes in Griffin’s gameplay that had always been there. At this point, in the few days that had passed between the Kingzone series and the KT series, Griffin hype built to a fever pitch, and didn’t die after the team’s first loss. If anything, it grew, especially after Griffin quickly rebounded to sweep the Afreeca Freecs in Week 4.
The truths of Griffin’s strengths and weaknesses lay between the rising hype and initial downplaying of their LCK achievements.
In Challengers Korea, Griffin was a team that relied on late-game 5v5 teamfighting, true to their “five as one” mantra. Viper played Xayah, Tristana, and even four, undefeated games on Vayne, among other scaling AD carries during Griffin’s challenger run. Griffin then transitioned into the LCK during one of the more volatile metagames in the game’s competitive history. Suddenly there was a large variety of champions that could be played in the bottom lane including bruisers and mages. Viper and Griffin embraced the new meta. There was no champion that Viper wouldn’t at least try out in solo queue and he became known as a player who would play anything, especially after picking Teemo in the bot lane and winning. Griffin also became the best LCK team at running gold funnel compositions until they were stymied by the Afreeca Freecs and jungler Lee “Spirit” Da-yoon’s Kindred play in Week 5. When it came time to swap back to traditional AD carries, Viper was already well-practiced from the team’s challenger days.
Griffin maintained a fairly passive early game regardless of playstyle with fewer fights over vision than many other top LCK teams. Whether they were running a gold funnel composition, bruisers bottom lane, or a standard scaling AD carry, Griffin’s early game had a few holes that were not exploited by most LCK teams, who seemed all too happy to allow Griffin to scale before losing to Griffin in teamfights. This slowly started to change through the back half of the summer split. Teams started to take advantage of Lehends’ reluctance to fight for Griffin’s vision net and found that if Griffin was pressured early, that pressure limited Griffin’s teamfighting options. Even in their final series of the season, a gauntlet best-of-five against Gen.G, Gen.G’s Jo “CoreJJ” Yong-in and Park “Ruler” Jae-hyuk bested Viper and Lehends, especially with more of a bot-side focus from Gen.G jungler Kang “Haru” Min-seung. The series against Gen.G went all five games, but in the end, Gen.G’s experience and stronger understanding of both map pressure and skirmishing came out ahead. That being said, even in their final series of the year, Griffin continued to point out flaws in top LCK teams’ Baron setups and teamfighting micro.
Although Griffin will not be representing South Korea at the 2018 World Championship, they leave this LCK season having forced the hand of some of the region’s best teams. Every South Korean team attending Worlds should review their performances against Griffin specifically to shore up the minutiae of their teamfighting and early game plans. Griffin’s time in the 2018 season may be over, but they leave the LCK in a better and more competitive place than when they arrived.