Everyone knew that the LCK had to change in 2019. The 2018 World Championship was a massive wake-up call for the region, and Korean powerhouses seemed to have made all the right moves to ensure that a disaster like that never happened again. Afreeca Freecs strengthened their mid lane with a rising star in Ucal, KT Rolster rebuilt their lineup around the ultimate top lane carry in Smeb, and SK Telecom T1 finally moved away from their long-standing tradition of developing untested rookies towards signing established superstars. It seemed like every single one of them was set for a triumphant return in 2019, and fans were excited to see them in action.
Now, several weeks into the Spring Split, a new narrative has emerged.
Suddenly, multiple LCK newcomers stepped up to challenge the old guard on stage, and these veterans wavered. Afreeca Freecs, KT Rolster, and even SK Telecom T1 suffered one crushing defeat after another at the hand of hungry up-and-comers like SANDBOX Gaming, DAMWON Gaming, and Griffin.
Of course, this didn’t entirely come out of the left field. Griffin already made a splash in the 2018 Summer Split, and the fact that they held onto their roster in the offseason ensured they had an upper hand on teams that overhauled their lineups for 2019. And while DAMWON Gaming didn’t have any stage experience, there were murmurs about them overwhelming the likes of Cloud9 and Fnatic in practice matches.
Still, that doesn’t explain SANDBOX Gaming. And it certainly doesn’t explain why LCK juggernauts are losing so much ground to organizations that haven’t even played a full competitive season. However, that inexperience might be a weapon in and of itself.
It’s no secret that most successful South Korean teams are very set in their ways. Their infrastructure, player management, and coaching methodologies have been refined by decades of continued esports dominance to produce foolproof ways of cultivating greatness. In League of Legends, that happens to be focusing on macro and teamfighting.
Throughout the years, the best Korean teams set themselves apart with well-timed rotations, strong objective control, and remarkable teamfighting synergy, and—until recently—there was no reason to change it. Don’t fix what’s not broken is a powerful philosophy, and it’s led South Korea to five back-to-back World Championship trophies. It also set the stage for a spectacular downfall towards the end of 2018. The LCK greats have missed the breaking point when League of Legends moved away from rewarding macro and instead towards encouraging aggression and lane dominance.
With that, their 2019 form is worse than ever before. Changing old habits takes time and effort, but their competition isn’t limited by such constraints. DAMWON, SANDBOX, and Griffin are already playing the new high-tempo style of League of Legends, and the old guard is struggling to keep up.
But this isn’t the only reason behind the shifts in LCK’s balance of power.
Even if you know that you need to employ an aggressive playstyle and put pressure on your opponents, it won’t amount to much if your players aren’t good enough to execute this gameplan. You need to be able to find early leads, win jungle skirmishes, and tear down turret plates. And—for some inexplicable reason—the rookies on DAMWON, SANDBOX, and Griffin have the game sense and mechanical prowess to outmuscle LCK veterans.
Of course, South Korea has always been renowned for its limitless talent pool, but never has this been more apparent than in 2019. Griffin alone have three world-class players—Tarzan, Chovy, and Viper—on their roster. Tarzan, in particular, looks like the best jungler in the league, and there’s a solid argument to be made for SANDBOX’s OnFleek and DAMWON’s Canyon being in the top-4. None of these rookies have any right to be so good in one of the most knowledge-demanding positions in the game.
Yet, somehow, some way, they are.
The 2019 LCK season feels like the end of an era. We’ve barely reached week 3, but there’s already a sense of dread looming over Korean powerhouses.
SK Telecom T1's victory against DAMWON Gaming at the end of week 2 might delay the inevitable, but if you still think Afreeca, KT, or SKT will have an easy time staying in the LCK’s top-3, it’s time to reconsider.
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