Memories of Invictus Gaming’s quick 3-0 sweep over Fnatic have already begun to fade into sepia-tinged snapshots, most of which are characterized by iG’s victory lap on the Munhak Stadium stage. Song “Rookie” Eui-jin unable to hold back his tears. Yu “JackeyLove” Wen-Bo struggling under the weight of the Summoners’ Cup, refusing to let it go even in post-match interviews. Gold and silver confetti drifting over jungler and Most Valuable Player Award-winner Gao “Ning” Zhen-Ning’s $6,000 sneakers. These moments were cathartic for anyone who had watched the LoL Pro League for years and followed its myriad ups and downs. Finally, the LPL had its first League of Legends World Championship title.
Yet, this world championship, and subsequently, the entire competitive year, was not only defined by the rise of China’s LoL Pro League as a legitimate LoL powerhouse, but by the slow decay that appeared to rot the South Korean scene from the inside out. Now in the offseason, accusations continue to fly as the scene tries to unearth the source of their poor performance as a region, with all three teams at this year’s world championship exiting the tournament in quarterfinals at the latest.
In 2015, a similar phenomenon occurred. Then, it was the three hybrid LPL lineups of EDward Gaming, LGD Gaming, and Invictus Gaming, all of which faltered on the big stage so spectacularly, it has haunted public perception of Chinese League of Legends ever since. Even earlier this year, when Royal Never Give Up won the 2018 Mid-Season Invitational and Team China won the 2018 Asian Games demonstration, there were whispers that the Chinese teams would still inevitably collapse at the world championship. RNG collapsed alongside the three South Korean teams, but EDG performed better than expected, overtaking Team Liquid in Group C, and iG took home the trophy.
Time has allowed proper introspection and space to re-evaluate why the 2015 Chinese teams all struggled. Although the same time has not passed for Gen.G, KT Rolster, and Afreeca Freecs, it’s interesting to compare the six teams and point out potential similarities and differences. All teams lost for specific reasons, rather than generic regional strength, or lack thereof.
2015 EDward Gaming and 2018 Gen.G Esports
Easily forgotten to time due to the team’s failure to make it past quarterfinals — a reliable constant in EDG Worlds history — EDG won the 2015 Mid-Season Invitational in a nail-biting five-game finals series against SK Telecom T1. This was supposedly the first step in China’s presumed rise after bringing over a large wave of South Korean players in the 2014-15 offseason.
Yet EDG looked shaky in the 2015 group stage, largely thanks to a roster substitution and significant meta shift. Riot Games released the juggernaut patch shortly before Worlds competition, upending the meta and necessitating certain picks and bans (Gangplank, Mordekaiser, Darius, and Fiora). Teams scrambled to adapt and EDG was no exception. They had made their name in the LPL through Ming “ClearLove” Kai’s steady jungling and the dominating bottom-lane duo of Kim “Deft’ Hyuk-kyu and Tian “Meiko” Ye. Mid laner Heo “PawN” Won-seok was largely an annoying distraction on the map while Tong “Koro1” Yang was left to his own devices in the top lane. With the juggernaut shift, EDG substituted in Shek “AmazingJ” Wai Ho, a Darius main, to play his signature champion. EDG’s modus operandi then (and to some extent, now) was to leave Koro1 on an island with Gnar or Maokai while paying attention to the bottom side of the map almost entirely. Unused to these champions and a more top-focused meta, EDG fell to SKT twice in group stages before losing to Fnatic in the quarterfinals.
Like 2015 EDG and their MSI victory, Gen.G’s 2017 World Championship title was relatively forgotten come mid-spring. Despite being defending world champions, little attention was paid to Gen.G as the majority of fans and analysts focused on the rise of Kingzone DragonX and the continuing downfall of SKT.
Gen.G were able to perform well and eventually win the 2017 Worlds title due to small adjustments the team made during and after the group stage courtesy of RNG. After beating Longzhu Gaming in a 3-0 quarterfinals upset, Gen.G were liberal with their praise of RNG, claiming that RNG’s bottom lane of Jian “Uzi” Zi-Hao and Shi “Ming” Sen-Ming taught Park “Ruler” Jae-hyuk and Jo “CoreJJ” Yong-in how to better approach the bot side of the map.
Throughout this past year, Gen.G stuck to slower-paced 5v5 teamfighting, playing through Ruler on scaling carries. While every other team tried out mages or bruisers in the bot lane during 2018 LoL Champions Korea Summer, Gen.G stuck to their style as Ruler stubbornly continued to play traditional AD Carries. Eventually, sticking to this earned them yet another gauntlet victory and appearance as South Korea’s third seed at the world championship. There, placed in a group with RNG for the third year in a row, Gen.G were expected to easily make it out of the group alongside China’s first seed in the so-called “group of death.”
Instead, Gen.G looked utterly lost. As the Worlds meta shifted away from a more bot-focused style to solo lane carries, Gen.G were unable to adapt. Mid laner Lee “Crown” Min-ho in particular, struggled onstage with champion pool and laning issues. While jungler Kang “Ambition” Chan-yong had been able to cover up Crown’s deficiencies in lane at 2017 Worlds, Kang “Haru” Min-seung was unable to do the same this year. The deficit was too large.
Similar to 2015 EDG and suddenly having to play with carries in the top lane, and a different top laner, for most of their tournament, Gen.G couldn’t adjust quickly enough to prioritizing their solo laners, a style that the team has not played for the past year and a half, if ever. The meta wholly shifted out of their favor, despite their playstyle being a boon to the team for the majority of summer.
2015 LGD Gaming and 2018 Afreeca Freecs
The LGD of 2015 and Afreeca Freecs of this year are opposite sides of the same coaching coin with a similar end result: complete mental collapse.
LGD bombed out of groups after being heralded as a tournament favorite going into Worlds while Afreeca, a dark horse to take the Summoners’ Cup this year, nearly lost in the group stage and fell to Cloud9 in quarterfinals without winning a single knockout stage game. Where LGD had little-to-no structure and was run by players on the roster, Afreeca famously — perhaps infamously, now — practiced around the clock on coach Choi “iloveoov” Yeon-sung’s spartan schedule. When it came time for either of these teams to perform onstage, they faltered and looked miserable while doing so. Then-LGD AD carry Gu “Imp” Seung-bin’s “Leave it to the heavens” statement was replaced by 2018 Afreeca mid laner Lee “Kuro” Seo-haeng saying, “Honestly, I feel despair.”
Unfortunately, unpacking what happened to both of these teams requires a lot of speculation and internal, insider information that we don’t really have. Both teams had mentality issues going into their respective worlds appearances for vastly different reasons, beginning with coaching styles.
2015 Invictus Gaming and 2018 KT Rolster
This is the most shaky comparison of the group since these two teams are nothing like each other and nothing like their respective domestic brethren save one key factor: they both performed about as expected, with the caveat that KT faced the eventual world champions in the quarterfinals rather than the finals.
They may be current world champions, but iG took the slow path towards that title. Their 2015 year in particular was inconsistent and impossible to predict. The arrival of former KT Rolster Arrows players Rookie and Lee “KaKAO” Byung-kwon was supposed to push iG to an LPL victory, but instead it precipitated another unstable iG environment. Even in 2015, Rookie made an effort to adapt to his new home and his 1v1 duels with premier Chinese mid laners of the time — such as LGD’s Wei “GodV” Zhen — were must-see matches. This effort was not shared by KaKAO, who often appeared to farm without paying attention to his lanes at all.
The 2015 Worlds Chinese qualifier was one of the first competitive series played on the new juggernaut patch, which changed the fabric of competition entirely. iG emerged victorious as China’s third seed over Qiao Gu Reapers and Snake Esports alongside EDG as the region’s second seed. Qiao Gu were just cementing their particular style around mid laner Kim “Doinb” Tae-sang. While certain players on Snake suffered from champion pool issues, the team had stabilized more since mid laner Zeng “U” Long joined the team. iG was the most volatile option to emerge from a similarly volatile gauntlet. Upon arriving at Worlds, iG was expected to either perform miraculously well or spectacularly poorly. They did not end up playing well, their games spawning a few unfortunate jokes at KaKAO and AD carry Ge “Kid” Yan’s expense.
This year’s KT Rolster was similarly known for their inconsistencies throughout the year. When interviewed, most KT members laughed this off before seriously saying that their greatest opponent was themselves. KT earned the moniker of being “surgical” in their dismantling of the likes of Team Liquid in their group, but this was not reflective of their performance during the year and even in these matches, KT had gaps in vision and back timings that were exploitable.
The shift to solo lanes should have favored top laner Song “Smeb” Kyung-ho and Son “Ucal” Woo-hyeon, but KT once again was their own worst enemy on the Rift. Against iG in the quarterfinals, KT fought iG early and without item advantages, despite picking stronger mid-to-late game compositions. As it often was with this KT lineup through the past two years, the problems were in execution and decision-making, not in draft or internal team strife.
When discussing the collapse of their regions at Worlds, 2015 iG and 2018 KT are both looped into regional performance when their respective failures are a lot more team-specific.
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