The offseason has been a turbulent time for every region, but Korea in particular has been ravaged by roster changes. With entire teams getting ripped apart and stitched back together, it’s hard to predict which team will come out on top. The LCK power rankings are all over the place.
Afreeca Freecs are a team that’s taking a different approach. Rather than bidding on top tier players, they kept their star and built a promising team to face the bidding war the rest of the LCK is immersed in. Afreeca’s smart team building gives them a seeming edge over the other organizations, and they’re looking like a top team going into the new year. What makes 2022 Afreeca worth rooting for?
It’s all about Kiin
Almost four years later, AF have yet to see international success. They’ve had a few high LCK finishes, but they’ve only had one somewhat disappointing Worlds performance from all the way back in 2018.
Kim “Kiin” Gi-in has a long tenure on AF. In fact, it’s the only LCK team that he’s ever been on, and packaged with AF’s mixed results, in a way this makes him LCK’s worst kept secret. He may not be known internationally, but anyone who’s seen him play in the regular season knows just how good he is.
This clip displays both why AF had a sudden resurgence in the Summer Split, and why they were never able to be the best team in the LCK. Simply put, Kiin carries the entire map. He knows where he should be at any given time and his pressure often creates opportunities for the rest of his team at no cost to him.
Looking at the scoreboard just before this dragon fight, Kiin had a massive +47 CS advantage, as well as much more map pressure than Lee "Rich" Jae-won, his opponent. Kiin has his big moments, but the most impressive thing about his playstyle is his heavy emphasis on pressuring the map and outfarming his opponent. But Kiin does more than just get himself a lead: he uses it.
Not only did Kiin’s topside pressure help Lee “Dread” Jin-hyeok get both Rift Heralds, but he managed to keep three Nongshim members at bay. Kiin was where he needed to be, but the rest of his team (aside from Dread) were extremely late to the fight. It feels like the rest of AF should have either dropped Herald mid and left, or should have just fully committed to taking the mid inhibitor. Instead, they half-assed both and gained nothing.
It’d be fair to say no Afreeca roster has been able to keep up with Kiin. So what makes the 2022 roster different?
T1 need no introduction. While Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok is the face of the org, many of the world’s best players have been put through T1 in some capacity. Players like Kim “Khan” Dong-ha, Kim “Gori” Tae-woo, and freshly crowned world champion Lee “Scout” Ye-chan all went through T1 in some capacity. Moon “Oner” Hyeon-joon started his pro career on T1 Academy in March 2020, and he became a world-class jungler in less than two years. T1’s talent scouting is second to none. Considering most of Afreecas’ new pickups come from T1’s rigorous training and coaching, it’s hard to doubt this new team is destined for greatness.
Teddy is the seasoned veteran of the bunch, and his playstyle matches that reputation. He’s a very consistent player. He knows his limits, and he plays within them. T1 seemed to prefer Gumayusi’s aggressive and flashy playstyle going into Worlds 2021, so Teddy’s been warming the bench for a while. Fortunately, Afreeca Freecs is the perfect fit for Teddy’s skillset.
Whether it be a hard carry Ezreal or a 1/1/11 Ashe, Teddy knows how to optimize his champion and use every tool he has. This is why Teddy can have such hard carry performances in one game and a support role in the next. He’s humble enough to be a team player and fill the role he needs to, yet skilled enough to excel at whatever role that may be.
Ryu “Hoit” Ho-seong is a support player that’s always been just outside the spotlight. He started on DWG’s original LCK roster all the way back when Cho “BeryL” Geon-hee was an ADC player, but, as time went on, Hoit got overshadowed by BeryL as he transitioned out of being the ADC.
In a clip from DWG’s set against KT back in February 2020, Hoit showed his greatest strength: patience. Most players would immediately use Leona ult on the Miss Fortune to cancel her ult and keep her from doing damage, but Hoit identified that none of his teammates were actively getting damaged by the ultimate. Hoit waited for the perfect opportunity and landed a four-man ult instead of just hitting one person.
Hoit embodies the stereotypical LCK playstyle, and he tends to wait for the perfect initiation rather than fighting whenever possible. If AF can carve out an identity for themselves as a macro-oriented, objective focused team, then Hoit will be the perfect fit.
Choi “Ellim” El-lim is the definition of a team player. He tends not to worry about how he can get himself ahead and what he can do to put the game on his back. Rather, Ellim worries about how he can put his team ahead. Early ganks, heavy priority on objectives, and low priority on farm is just how Ellim plays.
For the few sets Ellim got to play with T1 in 2021, he dictated the pace. If there was an objective up, the rest of T1 were already there. He knew how to set up big teamfights, and he knew how to create a lead for his team. However, Ellim lacks the independence and flexibility of a jungler like Lee “Tarzan” Seung-yong or Zhao “Jiejie” Li-Jie, and he could be a potential weak point for the 2022 Afreeca roster if the enemy jungler focuses him down before he gets the chance to force teamfights and set up ganks.
Yoo “FATE” Su-hyeok may feel a bit out of place on this roster at first. Kiin is the face and soul of Afreeca and has been since the organization’s LCK debut. The other three members all have similar roots in T1, and they’ve all had some level of success within the LCK. Up until the 2020 Summer Split, FATE seemed like a bottom tier mid laner. His brief stint in Turkey made him look like the sort of player that wasn’t good enough to play in his home region, but two years in Challengers Korea molded him into a player worth bringing into the LCK.
FATE is at his best when he has a team willing to fight early and follow up on his rotations. He doesn’t have the strongest lane stats, but his overall kill participation hovered between 75-85% through his entire time as Liiv Sandbox’s mid laner. However, that doesn’t mean FATE always wants a kill. He rotates with a goal. Whether it’s a small objective like Scuttle Crab, or an early Herald, he rarely fights without a goal in mind.
In an interview from 2020, FATE was asked how he felt about accruing some POG (Player of the Game) votes for Sandbox’s wins. He replied, “I really don’t think about the whole POG thing. I just play with the intent of our team winning.” In many ways, FATE still plays that way today. Even after some mixed success in the year and a half since that interview, his gameplay reflects the mentality of prioritizing the team over himself.
More than the sum of its parts
Afreeca Freecs took their roster selection in a smart direction for 2022. While there are obvious standouts like Teddy and Kiin, every single member of this team plays in the same way. Where other organizations were in a mad dash to snatch up star players and hold onto their best, Afreeca have almost entirely reformed their roster and signed players that have inherent synergy.
The LCK has been characterized for slow, calculated macro play for years. Afreeca seem like a team that’s been custom-built to maintain and uphold that classic Korean playstyle. They may not have the same starpower as other teams in the LCK, but AF have the most cohesive and promising roster going into 2022. All of these players are hungry for their big break, and 2022 will likely be the year we see them achieve some much-deserved success.
Carver is an esports journalist and analyst who specializes in Eastern League of Legends.