It’s clear that there’s something different in the way Korea approaches its substitutes. While other regions have dabbled with the concept, their stand-ins spend most of their time sitting on the bench. But LCK substitutes are weapons in teams’ arsenals, precious resources that can be used to turn the tide of a series.
So what is the worth of a substitute player and why does it vary across regions? We take a look at League’s most overlooked role.
A Gap in Mindsets
When it comes to playing League, Korea has always been in the lead. There’s just something about LCK teams that makes them continuously stay miles ahead of other regions. Sure, you could attribute this to things like infrastructure or competitive Solo Queue, but a lot of it has to do with mindsets.
There’s a huge difference in how Korea approaches the game compared to the rest of the world, and it’s especially noticeable when you look at the substitute position. In the West, if you’re an established player and find yourself sitting on the bench, then your career is either on a downswing or coming to an end. You can see this with players like Liquid’s Goldenglue, Echo Fox’s Pirean, or Fnatic’s Wickd. Even prominent players like GBM or Alex Ich are substitutes in name only and—barring emergency scenarios—have no chance to play in a real game.
In Korea, being a substitute is a learning experience. It’s not uncommon to see young and promising players take up this position in the hopes of soaking up knowledge from their veteran teammates. And the teams repay in kind by actively using said players in-game. Being replaced over the course of a series is not seen as shameful—and even Faker, the best League of Legends player of all time, has been subbed out at times.
Being a substitute is a lot like waging an invisible war. Behind the scenes, you practice as hard as everyone else but few get to see the fruits of your labor. That is until your coach calls you in and—for a single moment—it’s now your time to shine. Then it’s back to the drawing board, back to practicing, sitting on a bench and waiting for that one opportunity.
It might seem unforgiving and—indeed—it is. In fact, it’s this unforgiving nature that makes most Western pros consider the position to be beneath them. But in Korea, it isn’t seen as such. In LCK, substitutes are a part of the team much like everyone else, and their presence is often the deciding factor behind most teams’ success.
SKT’s Peanut expresses gratitude for his substitute, Blank, for being there to close out games at key moments. When you compare this to Goldenglue’s comments on Link who he’d seen solely as a competitor for the starting spot, it’s easy to see the difference. Koreans place the team’s victories above their pride and personal gain—and that’s what makes them successful.
Many stand-ins play alongside starters just because of how different their playstyles are. Samsung’s Stitch and Wraith are famous for their unorthodox bot lane picks. SKT’s Easyhoon saw play due to his reserved and controlled approach to the game—which was a stark contrast to the team’s starting mid laner, Faker. And Blank (also from SKT) has become one of the biggest clutch players on his team. These substitutes complement their teammates to such an extent that they can single-handedly alter the flow of an entire series.
Such specialists might not have been that important in the past when teams only played BO1s, but they are almost paramount in League’s current days. A well-timed substitution can transform a known and studied lineup into an entirely different beast. As the game develops, high-level substitutes will become must-have weapons in teams’ arsenals.
A Mental Shift
The good news is that these developments haven’t been exclusive to Korea. We’ve already seen how well Western teams can do when they adopt LCK’s methods. Cloud9’s top laners, Ray and Impact, see each other as a sword and a shield that can both be useful in different scenarios. And although it wasn’t exactly by choice, Phoenix1 has had great success switching between an aggressive playmaker in Inori and a more controlled jungler in Meteos. With Doublelift stating that he’s looking forward to trying out for TSM’s 6-man roster, it seems that League is about to enter a new era.
An era where most teams will field multiple substitutes in the hopes of achieving success. After all, having more options also creates more paths to victory.
What do you think of substitutes in League of Legends? Let us know in the comments!