Making their second appearance at the League of Legends World Championship, DAMWON Gaming looks stronger than ever. They had a record-breaking season in the 2019 LCK Summer Split, losing only twice and tying the legendary 2015 SK Telecom T1’s points score of +29. DAMWON Gaming also became the first and only team to win the LCK championship as a team that came from Challengers Korea.
In the spotlight of DAMWON Gaming’s improvement over the few years has been top laner Jang “Nuguri” Ha-gwon. Long known as one of the most aggressive top laners in the game, Nuguri's playstyle also made him unstable and inconsistent in his play. It wouldn’t have been easy for Nuguri to cover his weakness while maintaining his strengths as these two are diametrically opposite, but somehow, he made it happen and is still improving.
DAMWON Gaming wasn’t always the team they are now. Their history is quite short, and it all began as a typical, small-time League of Legends clan. The clan evolved into a real team once it met its head coach, Kim “Micro” Mok-kyoung, who sponsored the clan with his own money until DAMWON monitors ultimately became its main sponsor and namesake.
Now having a proper budget, Micro moved on to sign two players new players, who'd become the emblems of modern-day DAMWON Gaming: he dug out one Heo "ShowMaker" Su from the underbelly of solo queue and acquired promising top laner Jang "Nuguri" Ha-gwon from I Gaming Star, a bottom-level team struggling in Challengers Korea.
Among Korean LoL players, Nuguri was already gaining praise as a mechanical prodigy, a fine-tuned instrument that never malfunctioned. Yet, when put to fieldwork, the results were staggeringly different. Nuguri's stats did not meet the hype -- low KDAs and a large number of individual deaths defined him as a potentially unreliable top laner.
“Nuguri was a player with really lousy stats on paper," Micro told Inven about his top lane discovery. "He was the top laner of the bottom team in CK, with the most deaths [Laughs]. But the players that faced him said he was actually a great player with spectacular mechanics… When I saw VODs of him playing, I saw that he just lacked in-game knowledge. I was sure that he had potential and that he’ll do well.”
This type of discord would also define the rest of the DAMWON Gaming squad, leading up to and including their Worlds 2019 in particular — a team with raw talent that needed to be taught how to convert it into wins. DAMWON Gaming needed more time. Nuguri needed more time.
Even with the lacking reliability, DAMWON Gaming stomped Challengers Korea, being promoted to the LCK at the end of the year. The only teams that beat DAMWON Gaming were Griffin, Ever 8 Winners, and Team Battlecomics (Current SANDBOX Gaming). After their promotion, DAMWON Gaming achieved better first-year-results than any other teams that were ever promoted by reaching the World Championship.
Nuguri, Worlds, and Kleptomancy
DAMWON Gaming went to Worlds 2019 as the third seed from the LCK, starting from the play-ins. Nuguri put on a top-notch performance there, but what really caught everyone's attention was his love affair with Kleptomancy. Nuguri would draft The rune even on champions that would usually avoid it, such as Vladimir, Jayce, and Kennen.
“To shake up your opponent’s mentality, you need to be able to pick Kleptomancy.”
Kleptomancy was not a popular choice outside top laners like Illaoi and Gangplank, but Nuguri would actually use it on any champion. He even included Cull in their match against Team Liquid. Liquid's top laner, Jung "Impact" Eon-yeong later recalled this situation, admitting that what seemed like just a ploy to get richer had actually more strategy behind it:
“Nuguri played with Kleptomancy and Cull… At first, I simply thought he just wanted to make a lot of gold, but seeing him kiting with auto attacks, I realized that everything was calculated and that he’s an extremely smart player.”
The moment DAMWON Gaming were drawn into the same group with reigning champions Invictus Gaming bloated the hype to new highs. The best known aggressive top laners were about to clash: Nuguri and Kang “TheShy” Seung-rok. The two players were often compared with each other as aggressive carry machines at the heart of their respective teams. But while Nuguri would often express his respect to TheShy, iG's top laner would not return the favor. In an interview with Ashley Kang, TheShy expressed dislike for both the comparison and Nuguri's playstyle.
"To be honest, Nuguri is a type of player I really dislike. He gets ganked too often and he doesn't seem to think about the risks around being ganked. He takes Klepto... Honestly, I really dislike Kleptomancy. It's a rune that you can expect a fixed amount of risk and return, even before you start the game. I rather completely think over and perfectly execute my match-ups.
I actually think that Nuguri is a completely opposite player to me. We have the aggression in common, but... [...] I'm not super looking forward to dealing with him."
In the first match between the two teams, DAMWON Gaming came out strong. Technically, TheShy won the lane over Nuguri, but the game was won by DAMWON Gaming. One of the biggest highlights of the whole competition happened here: TheShy checking how much Nuguri earned from Kleptomancy. This led to TheShy drafting Kleptomancy on Jayce himself in the second clash between the two teams.
Arguably the best top laner in the world admitted that Nuguri, whose playstyle he didn’t like, actually had a great strategy, and even used that strategy to play against him in their next match. DAMWON Gaming ended up defeating Invictus Gaming and TheShy in both games of the group stage and advanced to the knockout stage.
“When I play solo queue against Nuguri or when I watch him in competitions, it seems that he always gets about 300 more gold. Since Jayce is less affected by runes, I tried it out. It does hurt my pride a bit, but I'd have to admit that Klepto is a good choice,” TheShy said.
The reigning world champions fell defeated, but when DAMWON Gaming met MSI 2019 champions G2 Esports in the quarterfinals, it ended their Worlds run. Despite reportedly having an amazing scrim record against G2 — with G2 said to have won just two of nearly 20 games — things didn't click for DWG that day. They lost 1-3 and their Worlds 2019 was finished.
Improvement and dominance
DAMWON Gaming was always called “winners of the Scrim d’Or” due to their dominance in scrims, but at the end of the day, scrims matter little: it's the stage that counts. By reaching no further than the Worlds 2019 quarterfinals, it was clear that DAMWON gravely needed experience.
Consistency was also lacking. In the spring split of 2020, DAMWON Gaming didn’t have a good start. Nuguri was still the most powerful top lane carry machine in the league, but that was a double-edged sword for the team. All opposing teams had to do was to stop Nuguri.
That season, Nuguri was strong, yet he had the most isolated deaths in the league with 18 — five more than the 2nd in this category. The signing of bot laner Jang “Ghost” Yong-joon helped the team, but the biggest riddle to solve was still how to unleash Nuguri’s strength while keeping him safe. So between the two splits, it was a time for Nuguri to think and reflect on himself as a player.
“I don’t know my identity. There was a time when I felt that I wasn’t any help to the team… It seems that my stats are mostly similar to that of last year, but there were many mistakes and poor decisions. The number of isolated deaths is a very good example. I’m still trying to improve in these parts.”
The immeasurable amount of time and effort Nuguri put in to improve appeared to be quite effective going into the 2020 Summer Split. DAMWON Gaming completely dominated the league, winning most of their matches 2-0, and in less than 30 minutes at that. Every member of the team performed well, but the biggest difference was Nuguri himself. The number of isolated deaths dropped down to 11, while he also recorded the best KDA and highest DPM among the top laners as well. Nuguri was still killing everyone, but he wasn't giving away unnecessary deaths to ganks.
With their dominance in the LCK, DAMWON Gaming is one of the favorites at the upcoming world championship. The players, especially Nuguri, have become stronger than they were in the past World Championship when they first made a splash. Kleptomancy may not exist anymore, but the wave DAMWON and Nuguri bringing to Worlds is more towering than ever before.