For the first time since 2012, South Korea’s spring champions will not represent the region at the League of Legends World Championship
With a 2-0 sweep of the Jin Air Green WIngs and a 2-1 victory over KSV (soon to be Gen.G) Esports, Kingzone DragonX finished the 2018 LoL Champions Korea Spring split with a 16-2 series record. Firmly at the top of the table, qualified for the spring finals, Kingzone had an 89 percent series win rate, and an 83 percent overall win rate. It was not simply an impressive split, but a historically-notable one. No one could touch Kingzone, who had grown their 2017 summer success as “Surprise Longzhu” into a dominant spring season that erased all thoughts of the team’s 2017 Worlds quarterfinals defeat to Samsung Galaxy.
In a neat bookending of this Longzhu Gaming/Kingzone roster’s 2017 Worlds demise, the former Samsung Galaxy lineup, now Gen.G, eliminated Kingzone from Worlds contention in the 2018 Korean Regional Qualifier with a 3-0 sweep.
If Gen.G is to be praised above all other South Korean teams for something other than their repeated gauntlet prowess over the past three years it’s that they know how they want to play. It might not be the best strategy for the meta at the time, and each individual player on Gen.G always seems to be stymied at some point by a shift in champion pool for their role, but they stick to what they know. This was particularly commendable during the bot lane meta shift that overwhelmed teams around the world at the beginning of the 2018 summer split. Gen.G stuck to traditional AD carry compositions that showed off the team’s strong 5v5 teamfighting skills and you were going to have to pry traditional AD carries out of Park “Ruler” Jae-hyuk’s cold, dead hands (or simply try to ban them).
By contrast, Kingzone never found that same confidence in a particular style of play this past summer and this roster has arguably not been comfortable on the Rift since before the 2018 LCK Spring finals against the Afreeca Freecs. Although Kingzone won that series 3-1, topping power rankings as a pre-tournament favorite to win the 2018 Mid-Season Invitational, the spring finals also give insight into Kingzone’s demise, especially when placed side-by-side with Kingzone’s MSI performances. Yet, Kingzone’s story truly begins with last year’s Longzhu at the 2017 World Championship.
The core of this roster — top laner Kim “Khan” Dong-ha, mid laner Gwak “Bdd” Bo-seong, bot laner Kim “PraY” Jong-in, and support Kang “GorillA” Beom-hyeon — turned heads in 2017 LCK Summer as Longzhu, winning with an organization that seemed fated to hover towards the bottom of the standings in danger of relegation. PraY and GorillA were part of the seventh-place 2017 spring lineup, but also formed the foundation of the 2017 summer lineup with Bdd in for Song “Fly” Yong-jun, Moon “Cuzz” Woo-chan in for Lee “Crash” Dong-woo, and most importantly, Khan in for top laner Koo “Expession” Bon-taek.
Khan and Bdd skyrocketed to the top of must-watch players in South Korea as Longzhu finished in first place with an automatic qualification to the 2017 LCK Finals. Bdd was finally living up to his pre-debut hype and Khan was the focal point for Longzhu’s 4-1 split-push style. It didn’t matter that Cuzz’s jungle pathing was a bit shaky, relying on Bdd’s strong mid lane control, as long as the team made sure that Khan was ahead early in lane on the likes of Jayce or Jax.
While Khan and Bdd stole the show, PraY and GorillA became the rock — or in their words, the “foot” — of the team. They were always stable in lane, never ceding large advantages to their opponents. Longzhu didn’t play a bot-lane focused style, but their bottom lane was a large reason as to why attention to Khan in the top lane worked so well. When opponents tried to camp top, PraY and GorillA would inevitably exit lane even or ahead and draw pressure elsewhere to facilitate Khan. Their engage sense in skirmishes was peerless and led to advantageous fights where Longzhu could get Khan further ahead, especially if he had been set behind early by opposing jungle pressure. Once Khan was ahead, he was set loose in the side lanes, forcing Longzhu’s opponents to split their attention. This split-push style and superior drafting led Longzhu to a first-ever LCK title, unexpectedly defeating SK Telecom T1 in 2017 LCK Summer to earn South Korea’s first seed at Worlds.
Due to this finals performance, Longzhu was a favorite — if not the favorite depending on how highly you rated Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok’s ability to carry SKT — to win Worlds. The hype behind Longzhu only intensified after an undefeated group stage performance. Samsung’s 3-0 quarterfinals sweep was a shock at the time, but makes complete sense in hindsight due to Samsung’s own progression through the group stage and how they dismantled Longzhu. It also sheds an early light on problems that would become paramount to this roster’s eventual 2018 elimination from Worlds contention.
After a middling performance in groups, Samsung Galaxy specifically gave credit to China’s Royal Never Give Up and their bot lane of Jian “Uzi” Zi-Hao and Shi “Ming” Sen-Ming for helping them improve in scrims before facing Longzhu in quarterfinals. Thanks to RNG, Samsung learned how to destabilize Longzhu’s bottom lane, the foundation of the team, rather than focusing on Khan’s flashier top lane antics.
At the time, it was seen as a simple stumbling block, especially when Longzhu acquired jungler Han “Peanut” Wang-ho in the 2017-18 offseason and became Kingzone DragonX. Peanut’s aggression would mean more flexibility for Bdd, who all-too-often had to be a consistently stable pushing presence to cover up for Cuzz’s pathing errors. This would allow the entire team to become more flexible in turn. Yet, even with Kingzone’s incredible regular season run this spring, this never came to fruition. Peanut initially struggled to synergize with his mid laner and Bdd appeared far more comfortable during Cuzz’s few returns to the starting lineup than he did with Peanut’s aggressive style. Despite this, Bdd was a consistent performer throughout the entirety of 2018, even with the team’s ups and downs. Khan’s performances became more inconsistent, and PraY and GorillA’s stability wavered towards the end of spring.
During Kingzone’s 2018 LCK Spring series against the Afreeca Freecs, many questioned Afreeca’s decision to give PraY the recently released Kai’sa, allowing him to completely control teamfights and separate them into smaller skirmishes. Now, it seems that Kingzone needed PraY on Kai’sa, and had Afreeca banned it, we may have seen a different LCK champion at 2018 MSI.
Of all teams Kingzone faced at MSI, it was Taiwan’s Flash Wolves who further highlighted existing flaws in Kingzone’s gameplan. Like Samsung, the Flash Wolves bottom lane of Hu “SwordArt” Shuo-Chieh and Lu “Betty” Yu-Hung minimized PraY and GorillA’s impact with peerless vision control, playing through the bot side of the map. Although Kingzone did beat Flash Wolves 3-1 in the MSI semifinals, including two group stage games, the teams went an even 3-3, with the Flash Wolves having superior bot side river control, especially in the early game.
Kingzone took these early game flaws to the MSI finals where, without an ability to split pressure 4-1 with Khan, they lost to RNG. RNG hadn’t been early-game focused themselves, but they showcased superior mid-to-late game teamfighting skills to Kingzone with both teams playing more late-game focused compositions. Peanut again looked out-of-sync with the team at times, especially Bdd and Khan, and this revealed another issue with Kingzone that Griffin would later reiterate: the team was often stuck against scaling late-game teams as well if they couldn’t coordinate better teamfights.
These trends continued when the team returned to home soil for 2018 LCK Summer. As rookie team Griffin razed through the regular season, inadvertently exposing early game flaws of most LCK teams — even if Griffin didn’t take advantage of those flaws themselves — Kingzone was no exception. Furthermore, Kingzone appeared a bit lost in the vastness of available bottom lane champions. While Gen.G stubbornly stuck to AD carries for Ruler, KT Rolster’s Kim “Deft” Hyuk-kyu practiced his Mordekaiser dragon micro, and Griffin’s Park “Viper” Do-hyeon mastered Vladimir, PraY and Kingzone didn’t seem settled on one specific style. Sometimes this led to clever compositions like an Aurelion Sol and Nocturne composition against KT. At other times, Kingzone fell completely flat. Kingzone never looked bad during the summer split, but were outshone by other teams and never fixed their early-game problems. By the playoff gauntlet, the Afreeca Freecs were able to prepare for, outdraft, and outplay Kingzone for a 3-1 victory.
After ample time to prepare themselves for the Regional Qualifier, Kingzone were completely outclassed by gauntlet monsters Gen.G. It’s surprising that Kingzone, monsters in their own right of 2018 LCK Spring and near-MSI champions, won’t be representing South Korea at Worlds. This is the first time that the South Korean spring winner has not represented their country at the World Championship since Maximum Impact Gaming Blaze (later Azubu, then CJ Blaze) in 2012. Kingzone’s season is over. Following three splits with the same roster core, and similar issues throughout, even during the team’s success, perhaps changes should be on the horizon.