As it is every year, October marks the time where all LoL Esports fans come together for the biggest tournament of the year; the World championships. With Worlds just being two weeks away, representatives from each region will compete for the highest honor: To be called the best team in the world.
To recap and reflect on the very heated Summer split in the LCK, as well as to get more insight on how LCK will do at Worlds, Inven Global had a chance to catch up with two of the LCK Global caster line-up, Brendan Valdes and Wolf Schröder to talk about the four LCK representatives, as well as their predictions on how the LCK will fare against the rest of the world.
I feel that while both of you were on the same schedule for the LCK finals, you’d each reflect differently, mainly because you (Valdes) casted a lot of the finals in the Summer split, while for you (Wolf), is your first.
Valdes: I’d say that it was a very different season overall in a good way, because if every season was the same, things would be very stale. I felt like a lot of things are in flux; a lot of things are changing. There was a lot of outside speculation on LCK’s power level, which put a lot of focus on the LCK teams’ actual strengths. This trend also spread to other regions, which created more discussions in the community.
Generally in the past, especially when I started casting, it was at the tail end of Korea’s undisputed dominance in LoL Esports; I’m talking like 2017. At the time, the answer to “Which team’s the strongest at Worlds” also meant “Which team’s going to win Worlds?” and it was something that we took for granted.
It’s cool to see that there’s now more competition. Especially this year, because the focus was on who's going to really step up. Nongshim RedForce and Liiv SANDBOX fell out of favor once the pressure got really high; it makes sense though, because they lack experience compared to other veteran teams. It was a really interesting season for me. Even though there were times where I got annoyed by baseless speculations of ‘LCK sucks now’, I had a lot of fun.
Wolf: For me, it was really interesting because in the later end of LCK history, we’ve always had one team that seemed omnipotent in the league; teams like SKT T1, Griffin, and DWG KIA. It was really interesting for me to see the six teams neck to neck in this split, because you never see that in competitive regions with any dominant team.
Going into the split, I feared that we were going to potentially have another season where DWG KIA’s going to beat everybody and have it be a pretty boring split. But I also knew that DWG KIA was feeling a little burnt out, which was evident from ShowMaker’s interviews, where he said that they were feeling demotivated.
It was one of the most regular seasons of esports I’ve ever commentated. Towards the second half, you never knew who was going to hold the number one spot. DWG KIA started to come back after a really disappointing start; it was like all the characters of the TV show that is the LCK started to reemerge. Like you thought all the characters were gone, but then they returned in the form of DWG KIA.
T1 as well; they took a huge risk by sacking their coaching staff, but then they became very successful and made it all the way to the finals. Like Valdes mentioned, LSB had this meteoric rise, but cracked under the pressure. This split had a little bit of everything, and if you had a script for the LCK, it would look like this. What we got this split is so incredibly rare in esports, especially in the recent days of the LCK, so it was one of the best splits I could’ve hoped for my first split.
Do you think that the regular split standings being so neck to neck will be a one-time thing, or do you think that the mid-tier LCK teams, especially the ones that stepped up this split, have learned the right lessons to continue to compete on a higher level?
Valdes: I think the summer split meta being so interesting played a factor in these mid-tier LCK teams stepping up, because they were finding unique and interesting ways to win. In a way, you could argue that they were also using and abusing the meta; I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with that, because that’s what made this split so interesting.
Unfortunately, I think that we will see things returning to ‘normalcy’, because like Wolf said, it’s incredibly rare to see the standings be so neck to neck until the very end. At the end of the day, the teams with the best players and coaches will win and dominate.
Before we get any further into our conversations, how did it feel when the live audience, although not at full capacity, returned to LoL Park?
Wolf: It was really great for me, because when I first started LCK, I wasn’t even at the studio. It was during the period of online competition due to COVID cases rising, so for me, it felt unfair at first. To see all the fans, even if the doors only opened to a handful of them with their fan signs and some of them even saying hello felt awesome. It reminded me of what we can look forward to in the future, but on a much more massive scale; potentially like 10 times bigger, when we see all the fans return.
Faker’s shotcalling was either fantastic at times or… honestly just really bad. There’s no other way to put it. It was all based on relentless aggression, which was exactly what T1 found success with during the regular split.
Did this split’s LCK finals play out the way you guys imagined it in your head? How did you initially see the matchup, and how do you reflect on the series itself?
Wolf: I was impressed with T1, because they did slightly better than expected. My expectations were rising throughout the series, but it crashed down to the ground in that last game, because there were clear overextensions and bad decisions.
I was really impressed with Oner in particular, especially in the first few games, because while he did make big mistakes from aggressive plays, he didn’t lose his calm and was able to recover. Even with no audience, it’s rare to see a rookie player keep up with some of the top players in the world like DWG KIA. One of the big questions I had about T1 was “Will Oner crack under the pressure? Or will he live up to the hype?” My answer to that question is that he did live up to a certain extent.
Faker’s shotcalling was either fantastic at times or… honestly just really bad. There’s no other way to put it. It was all based on relentless aggression, which was exactly what T1 found success with during the regular split. Overall, T1 did better than I thought. I predicted a 3-0 from DWG KIA, and even though they didn’t manage to go to game 5, I was impressed by them, and made the finals more interesting.
Valdes: A lot of us were predicting a 3-0/3-1 win for DWG KIA, but I think that T1 did show promise in that series. You can argue that DWG KIA’s draft was greedy, because ShowMaker picked Kassadin for the 2nd time, and I felt, “Do you really need to do this? Is this really a good idea?” But they’re so good to the point where it feels like they’re fooling around even in the finals. It was nice to see T1 have a moment, but this series just showcased how strong DWG KIA is.
There were a lot of records to be held in the finals, which were naturally followed by narratives. Narratives like Faker vs kkOma getting their 10th LCK split win. What do you think makes LCK’s narratives that much more appealing to the global audience?
Wolf: I won’t name any regions, but I feel like there’s a lot of forced narratives in other regions. [Valdes: *COUGH_LEC_COUGH*] (Laughter) Part of the reason why other regions force these narratives is because the LCK has seen so much success with these. OGN and Riot Korea have done an incredible job making these players look like superstars. Only Korea was highlighting the players’ stats successfully, to the point where fans were bringing stat-related signs, whereas no one really cared if Rekkles got his 500th kill or whatever.
With the great opening videos we’ve had over the years, great milestone tracking, and Korea’s international dominance over the years, it stimulates a great deal of curiosity about that storyline, even to those that don’t follow the LCK. There’s also something mystical about the teams, in that the companies part of the LCK are big names in Korea. Alongside that, LCK has the most successful players and the best coaches. The accumulation of everything creates storylines like Faker vs kkOma for their v10, and it’s just not possible to force narratives like this.
Valdes: By the way, on that LEC thing (laughter)... I just wanted to clarify that while I do think that they do force a lot of narratives, but they do also have a long history of their own. Forcing narratives may not be the way, but it’s still important to realize that these narratives are there. There’s a lot of value in them recognizing that and highlighting their importance.
As a team that’s been together for two years, Gen.G fell off hard towards the end of their split. From your observation, what are they struggling with?
Valdes: They tried to mix things up by subbing in Burdol for Rascal, but they’re the most stagnant team in the LCK. Very little change in the way they play, practically no change in their roster, and when things continue to stay like this for a long time, it becomes hard for the organization. Gen.G’s still a consistent top team in the LCK, but the question that both the org and the players should ask is, “Are you okay with being a top team in the LCK, but not the best team?” Maybe the answer to that involves blowing up the roster and keeping some of the good pieces.
I feel like we get to this point every year with Gen.G, where they look very strong throughout the split, but end up getting 3-0’d by DWG KIA, or 3-0’d by T1, or 3-0’d by someone else. They’re good, but they’re never quite the best in the typical Gen.G fashion. They’re a world-class team, but they’re never going to be recognized as the best unless they find their answers to that question.
Wolf: In Korea, I think they’re overrated by Korean analysts and fans. For example, Bdd was discussed in the question of “Who’s the best mid laner in Korea?”, whereas in the West, they rate him very highly, but they don’t think he’s the best. The West actually underrates Gen.G, because they believe that they won’t win anything; I can already see the comments saying something like “It’s Gen.G. They’ll never win anything.”
There’s real truth to what Brendan was saying earlier. Personally, my theory is that we’re going to see this roster blow up, in the fact that we saw Burdol and even Flawless play on the LCK stage. Especially with their huge player salaries, I think the pressure is building on the players on whether or not they can keep playing for the team in the future. It doesn’t take much to realize that this roster is on the verge of breaking up, and it’ll be one of the biggest roster blow ups that we’ll see. If the team does play at their best during Worlds, however, teams better watch out because they’re not a free win.
Hanwha Life Esports made the miracle run in the regional qualifiers. From your perspective, what were some of the things that HLE improved on to be able to knock out the opponents that they struggled against throughout the split?
Valdes: Deft… [laughter]. I feel that this was a combination of HLE overperforming and other teams underperforming. The veteran players stepped up when things really mattered, and they were in their best form at the perfect time. I think HLE’s bot lane is really underrated, so they were dominating the other bot lanes. Chovy was playing consistently good as well, but a lot of the execution came from having the strategy that wasn’t punished by other teams, which is on them for flopping when things mattered. It’s that classic situation of everything lining up for them, and having the perfect formula for their gauntlet run.
Wolf: I think Chovy playing champions with global pressure, champions like Ryze and Twisted Fate, contributed a lot to HLE’s success. This really powered Morgan, who likes to sit on the strong top side of the equation if he can. Although he played Camille, a champion that’s known to have a relatively weak laning phase, was able to play out the side lane macro really well. HLE did struggle a little bit with T1 banning out Camille, they evolved as a roster leading into that series against T1. They figured out how to play around Morgan and Willer, but it’s very one-dimensional because of how vulnerable the strategy is, so the real question for them is, “How many tricks do they have left in the bag?”
I think everyone’s excited to see Chovy dunk on people, especially during the play-in stages. I’m not worried about them making it out of play-ins, but I’m worried about how much of their strategy they’ll have to reveal before they start groups. Right now, I don’t see them making it out of groups. I think they’re going to struggle. Unless they can change the one-dimensional aspects of the team.
I know it’s too early to tell, but how far do you expect the other three LCK teams to go?
Wolf: T1 will do very well in groups. They might drop out if they play against DWG KIA or some other top Chinese team in the semifinals, but it'll depend on how the LPL teams perform. T1’s at the level where they can beat any LEC and LCS team pretty easily, and I can confidently say this about DWG KIA as well.
If you’re a Gen.G fan, make sure you keep your blood pressure at a good level before you go into this year’s Worlds [laughter]. Gen.G has the most inconsistent times; they have really high highs, and really low lows. There will be some tragedy, and it’s very likely that their run will end in a very tragic manner. I’d even say that it’s very likely.
Valdes: For Gen.G, you never really know what you’re going to get. They’re consistently inconsistent… Which makes them inconsistent, I guess [laughter]? For T1, they have the right pieces to win it all, but I’m not sure if this year’s their year. Although they’ve been playing better since then, there was a massive change to their coaching staff, and whether or not they can beat the top LPL teams is questionable.
I actually have a lot of faith in DWG KIA. I don’t know if they can win Worlds again, but I’d say that they’re at least top 4. Depending on their semi final opponents, I’d say that they’re probably going to make it to the finals. My answer to this question would be very different if you asked me this same question right after MSI; I probably would’ve predicted a China vs China finals at Worlds.
Touching back on the topic of narratives, there are a lot of storylines like Faker’s 4th Worlds title. Is there a storyline that you’re looking forward to the most?
Valdes: Definitely not NA making it to the finals [laughter].
Wolf: I’m definitely looking forward to seeing some of the best LCK talent perform against the best from the rest of the world. It’d be great to see LCK make it to the finals and lift the trophy again, but when you have players like Viper, Tarzan, and Nuguri return to the international stage, the standards are very high.
In terms of narratives, I’m looking forward to the ones built around some of the old Griffin players reuniting on the Worlds stage. My focus is obviously more centered around the competition, and unlike MSI, you have multiple representatives from the LPL that will prove to be the biggest obstacles for LCK teams. This year might be the most competitive Worlds it has ever been. It’s really difficult to predict how things will be right now, so I’ll hold onto my predictions until after group stages.
What are some of your dream matchups that you want to see at Worlds?
Wolf: I’d really like to see EDG vs DWG KIA, or EDG vs T1 in the finals. EDG’s been good for a long time, but Western fans don’t really focus on them as much. I think this is partially because Nuguri’s a world champion and he’s currently on FPX and FPX winning Worlds in recent years
I’d say that Viper being part of EDG plays a huge part in how excited I am to see them play. I spoke about this in the last interview; I think everything that happened around Griffin is one of the biggest tragedies in professional League of Legends, and that if they didn’t split up, they could’ve been one of the most legendary teams in LoL esports history. Viper barely hanging on in a weaker LCK team to find success on a championship level LPL team is a very good redemption story.
You could also say the same about Tarzan though, no?
Wolf: Definitely. I just like Viper more [laughter].
What about you, Brendan?
Valdes: For me it’s Tarzan vs Canyon. It’s probably the best jungle matchup at Worlds. If not, I just want to see Nuguri play against his former team. I think my expectations align with what most people want.
Would you say that Khan was an upgrade from Nuguri? Or would you say that it was a ‘sidegrade’?
Valdes: Definitely a sidegrade. Nuguri has more of that ‘X Factor’ in him, while Khan offers more stability through veteran status and experience. They’re obviously both great players, but what Khan offers to the team is less obvious because of the subtlety of it.
Wolf: I’ve said this since the start of my tenure in the LCK; I think there’s a huge chance that Khan’s actually an upgrade from Nuguri. It was one of the first things I’ve said as an LCK caster, and people still bring that up to me. Khan vs Nuguri matchup will help determine whether I was right or wrong. While it’s hard to quantify things like that, especially due to this year probably being his last year because of conscription, the matchup will be interesting.
How would you compare DWG KIA’s current form compared to their undisputed run in 2020?
Wolf: This year, the big question for DWG KIA is, “Will they be dominant against teams, especially LPL teams, who have a very different playstyle than that of the LCK?” We know that DWG KIA has the potential to beat everyone, but will they be able to do that against international competition?
Valdes: A lot of people on the outside will look at DWG KIA and say, “Well they lost Nuguri and Ghost is a bad ADC, so surely they won’t be as strong as back then, right?” Ghost is an adc that won’t necessarily carry his team all the time, but will still play safe and do the things necessary for his team, so he's less flashy.
Last year, the meta was perfect for BeryL because he was able to develop his hyper-aggressive roaming style support game with Pantheon. Same thing can be said with Canyon, where he was the Worlds finals MVP, but was not as dominant throughout the season. However, I think that Canyon was able to prove that he’s back in form and ready for Worlds, so for us at least, the big question to DWG KIA’s success comes from BeryL’s performance. BeryL enables Ghost to be able to play the game, and give the freedom that the team’s top side needs, so it’ll be up to him to step up.
Looking ahead into the future of the LCK, are there any promising future talents from CK that will shake things up in the LCK? I know that Chronicler co-streams CK on a regular basis; I’m curious to hear your opinions.
Wolf: I don’t follow CK as much as Chronicler, but one player I’m excited for is the top laner for Afreeca Freecs Challenger, Illlima. He’s exciting to me because he has a very unique playstyle and has a very wide champion pool.
I remember him playing Tryndamere in a match.
Wolf: Yes, I was going to mention that. A lot of people are saying Tryndamere will be meta at Worlds, but we’ll see. Illima plays a lot of split push champions, and his teamfighting + laning’s really good as well.
He’s the kind of player that I feel will develop really well under the right conditions. I hope that he doesn’t just go to AF’s main roster, because he’ll just end up competing with Kiin. Personally, I want to see another LCK team acquire him, end up debuting and perform really well on…
Valdes: Hanwha Life [laughter].
Wolf: Hanwha Life. They’re the first team that comes to mind [laughter].
Valdes: I think a lot of people, even those that don’t really follow CK, are starting to talk about Illima, and some of the credit goes to Chronicler for putting the highlight on him during his CK co-streams. Co-streams are something that we’ve all wanted to do for a long time, but Chronicler’s the one that’s taking the initiative, so props to him.
I know that a lot of teams are scouting Vietnamese players, but I also do know that there is at least one trainee from EU that is with Gen.G. As a region that was traditionally closed off to foreign talent that is now looking into the potential of foreign talent, how do you foresee the impact that it'll have on the league in the future?
Wolf: I don’t think it’ll be a normal thing. It hasn’t really happened in Korean esports, unless you’re talking about foreign teams like EnVyUs winning APEX [Overwatch] or CLG back in the OG days of Korean LoL.
To have one foreign player in a Korean team will mean that either that foreign talent needs to be fluent enough in Korean to have no communication issues, or the other four players need to learn English. There are too many layers of problems that arise from the language barrier to realistically see more foreign talent join the league.
There was a column recently, where LCK-related personnel called the players out for lacking the ‘brains’. Do you agree with the sentiment that LCK players lack in-game decision making skills, especially the younger generation of LCK players?
Wolf: I feel that this is the product of, ‘In order to get noticed by LCK organizations, you have to do well in solo queue.’ Being successful in solo queue is actually counter-intuitive to becoming a top player in the pro scene; I think we have a bit of a problem when it comes to scouting talent for the LCK, because it feels like they’re only for talent at the academy teams.
Mechanics are the best way to get noticed by organizations due to its flashy nature, and it’s much harder to find a player’s value in their decision making, unless you’re listening to comms. That’s why things like tryouts and transition periods are really important, and while Korea is slowly improving on their scouting method, it’s still solo-based, not team-based.
Lastly, is there anything that you’d like to all our readers at home, as well as the fans that are cheering for the LCK?
Valdes: [After thinking for 3 minutes] Hmm… Not really [laughter]. I will say that there are probably some hardcore fans out there that might watch Korea and think, “Oh, the LCK isn’t as strong this year; DWG KIA is their last hope.” However, if you’ve been watching the LCK closely, we have four strong teams heading into Worlds. All the crazy upsets happen during Worlds, so no one will know what’ll happen. Keep your hopes high, don’t be sucked into the whole ‘LCK sucks this year’ narrative, and just enjoy the highest level of competition at Worlds this year.
Wolf: I want to say thanks for your understanding of my first year of casting the LCK. Expectations were high, and I had some really big shoes to fill. It was my first year of casting a very old competitive title, and I’m going to work hard to improve to be the best product for you guys. I want to keep getting better for next year.
Striving for perfection to achieve excellence in esports