South Korea’s performance at the 2018 League of Legends World Championship was the worst in the region’s history. The vision-centric, controlled style of Korean League of Legends is no longer the optimal style of play. Changes in the meta throughout the year have continued to put emphasis on aggression and individual snowballing. If the meta continues to stay snowball focused, there’s only one player can be trusted with returning South Korea to its former glory.
Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok did not qualify for the 2018 World Championship as SK Telecom T1 was eliminated by Gen.G Esports in the regional gauntlet. However, he is still widely considered to be one of, if not the best League of Legends player in the world. South Korea doesn’t just need its best team to reclaim its dominance, it will need its best player.
Afreeca Freecs and Gen.G were in the upper table of teams in the LCK for the entirety of 2018. While each team had a few talented individual players, both teams won games off of being more than the sum of their parts. Afreeca and Gen.G’s game plan was always backed up by sound execution - taking teams to the late game and beating them with composure and experience.
In an interview with Inven Global during the 2018 NA LCS Summer Split, Clutch Gaming Academy AD Carry and former World Champion Chae “Piglet” Gwang-jin gave his thoughts on Korea’s lack of individual focus:
“In my opinion, there are no players that have good laning anymore. I heard that in Korea, they teach the players not to fight if they don’t have their jungler nearby. I think otherwise. Even if the opponent jungler comes, playing aggressively just as much as I can avoid the jungler is good. That’s how a good player should look like.”
Piglet was onto something - the LCK’s laning and early game was a huge liability at the World Championship. Gen.G Esports’ 1-5, 4th place finish in Group B is the worst international performance by a South Korean team in the history of League of Legends. Afreeca Freecs nearly imploded after a poor first half of the group stage but pulled it together only to get swept out of Quarterfinals by Cloud9.
KT Rolster looked to fare much better. Armed a wealth of individual talent and a penchant for early game aggression, KT looked like the Worlds favorite of the tournament as it dominated Group C and qualified for Quarterfinals as a 1st seed.
South Korea has never had a problem developing talent, but the primary factor in the gap between the Korean teams and the rest of the world was the region’s team play. Snowballing an individual lane and playing aggressively is now the most optimal playstyle, and the gap between regions has been slammed shut.
This is shown in examples at the World Championship, even outside of the LCK. Royal Never Give Up dominated the year by rallying behind the monster carry potential of Jian “Uzi” Zi-hao. However, RNG was eliminated in quarterfinals by #3 EU seed G2 Esports off of the back of incredible individual performances by Luka “Perkz” Perkovic in the final two matches of the series.
G2 put a brick wall in the middle of RNG’s royal road, and also, ended even the slightest chances at Uzi’s bid at challenging Faker for the greatest player of all time. After Invictus Gaming won the World Championship undoubtedly the better Mid Laner at the time of this article, paid his respects to Faker’s legacy in IG’s post-game press conference:
“I’m very thankful that people compare me to Faker, but I think I still have a long way to go to get close to Faker. I don’t even think that I’m a mid laner that can lane against him yet. Although I became the world champion today, I still don’t think that I’m the world’s best mid laner although fans may think otherwise. I want to tell Faker that I’m always watching his games, his solo queues. I hope he continues to perform well with awesome plays.”
It’s telling that Rookie, after winning the highest honor any League of Legends player can achieve, still feels like “Faker Jr” from his days on KT Arrows. Rookie is undoubtedly the best Mid Laner in the world currently, which speaks volumes to the weight Faker’s name carries - his lack of presence at the World Championship is significant enough for even the most talented of players to re-evaluate their abilities.
Worlds was a huge wake-up call for South Korea as a region. The LCK will be a firestorm in 2019. The teams eliminated in disgrace will certainly be hungry for redemption, and young upstarts Griffin might be the crown jewel of the LCK if the meta is to continue to trend towards early game aggression.
However, the region’s true hopes rest on the shoulders of Faker. The last time an individual player could carry a game this hard, Faker was leading a team of five rookies to the Season 3 World Championship.
Gen.G Esports returned to defend its championship before being ground into dust. Afreeca Freecs became the first Korean team to lose to a North American team in a best of five. KT Rolster, arguably the greatest on-paper team in League of Legends history, could not get the job done. If the LCK is to return to dominance and bring the World Championship back to Korea, it will be a result of Faker’s return to power as the best League of Legends player in the world.
Photo Credit: LoL Esports Flickr
Nick Geracie is a freelance esports journalist in Los Angeles, CA. You can follow him on twitter here.