For South Korea, Worlds 2018 has been nothing short of disastrous. Not only did the reigning champions Gen.G get knocked out of their group in last place, but neither of the remaining LCK teams even made it through the semifinals. And considering how South Korea dominated the League of Legends landscape for the past five years, such a steep fall from grace quickly became one of the main Worlds storylines.
Many fans tried to find the reasoning behind this narrative, and the answer they arrived at was the meta changes. It’s true that League of Legends went through a lot of patches in 2018, and many of them chipped away at South Korea’s strengths. Casual players will probably remember the Scuttle Crab rework and sweeping AD carry nerfs, but in pro play, the most important change was the removal of Tracker’s Knife. Without it, competitive teams had a much harder time lighting up the map and suffocating their opponents through superior vision control—something LCK lineups historically excelled at.
The introduction of increased bounties and powerful playmakers like Akali and Irelia presented another issue. Suddenly, the game put a strong emphasis on early skirmishes, and League of Legends matches went from a chess-like battle of wits into an all-out brawl. And as exciting as that is for the viewers, it became a nightmare for the LCK teams that relied on macro and rotations to outmaneuver their opponents around the map.
But is that really all there is to South Korea’s downfall?
It’s common to view Korean teams as League of Legends machines that take things slowly in the laning phase and grind you down in the later stages of the game. However, that’s only a part of the picture. The truth is that LCK lineups never shied away from aggression. At Worlds 2014, Samsung White overwhelmed their opponents in the early game, producing a monumental +3,125 average gold difference at the 15-minute mark (or [email protected]) over the course of the tournament. A year later, SK Telecom T1 also had an impressive +1,375 [email protected], and KT Rolster were close behind with a +1,056 [email protected] of their own.
Worlds 2016 had one of the most exciting Korean teams—ROX Tigers—dominating the competition with an explosive mixture of top lane carries and aggressive jungle invades. And while Longzhu Gaming didn’t live up to the hype at the 2017 World Championship, they made a name for themselves as one of the most aggressive teams in their region. No matter the era, there’s always at least one LCK lineup that’s willing to take the fight to its opponents in the early game, so saying that Korean teams have no idea how to navigate an aggressive meta is disingenuous.
The balance shake-up shouldn't have blindsided them either. Whether it’s devising creative counter picks, using substitute players to bolster their rosters, or even inventing a completely different playstyle, LCK teams have always pushed the boundaries of what it means to play professional League of Legends. And they have proven time and time again that they can—and will—adapt to the most unpredictable meta changes.
Weirdly enough, these strengths turned into a double-edged sword in 2018.
There’s a certain sense of pride in carrying the flag of the strongest region in the world. You aren’t just ahead of the curve; you are the curve, and the way you approach the game instantly becomes the golden standard for other regions to follow. It’s easy to get overconfident. After all, you’ve already been a trailblazer for five years in a row, so why should things be any different now?
Yet, somehow, they were.
For the first time in a while, Korea fell behind, and its macro-oriented playstyle was no longer the optimal League of Legends strategy. Instead, the game came down to pulling the trigger in teamfights and outmuscling your opponents in the laning phase. The changes didn't come out of the blue either. The entirety of 2018 saw the LCK teams lagging behind their Chinese counterparts at events like the MSI, Rift Rivals, and Asian Games. But Korean teams didn't get the message. They wrote off their losses as flukes and individual underperformances, failing to realize that the rest of the world was inching ahead of them.
If you look at the fall of South Korea from this angle, suddenly everything makes sense. The LCK teams had the talent and the mental capacity to adapt to the meta changes, but they lacked the self-awareness to recognize there was a need to alter their playstyle in the first place.
In the end, everyone had the same patch notes and the ability to draw conclusions from them. This time, Korea’s conclusions were wrong.
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