The South Korean League of Legends team Afreeca Freecs of 2016 were plucky crows, picking away at the favorites above them with no real player standing out in front of the others. They won through team effort, usually led by Son "Mickey" Young-min playing as an uncontrollable wildfire as the rest of the Freecs used his antics to secure other parts of the map. The team's Trojan horse tactics with its mixed bag mid laner led the team to unexpected back-to-back postseason appearances in League Champions Korea.
This upcoming year, however, the Afreeca Freecs will not be allowed to be crows, unexpected in the night. The team's roster has been ripped to shreds with no remaining players, including substitutes, from the 2016 squad. In their place stands a team littered with World Championship experience, including a former champion and MVP.
Question is, are the Freecs truly a better team than last year, ready to contend with the giants SK Telecom T1 and the "dream team" KT Rolster puzzled together, or will they be all flash and no substance?
The MVP is back
There is nowhere else you can start with the 2017 Freecs other than its new top laner and former Worlds MVP Jang "MaRin" Gyeong-hwan. After captaining SK Telecom T1 to a 15-1 record and an almost flawless Summoner's Cup win in 2015, MaRin decided to move abroad to China for a year, signing with LGD Gaming for a sizably larger contract than the one he had in South Korea. His performance in China, though, was a far cry from his rampage of the top lane in the latter half of 2015, playing the role as a punching bag for various League Pro League teams to grab the first ounces of blood from in the laning phase.
LGD as a whole was a tumbling mess throughout 2016, with starters taking time off to heal and starting fives changing every other week. There was no semblance of stability for MaRin in China, and he struggled, eventually returning to the LCK not as a conquering hero but as a limping veteran, hoping to rekindle the fire that propelled him to superstardom in 2015.
For MaRin to succeed, or at least return to his form in 2015, he'll need to be one of the main threats on his team. He is at his best when he has a jungler that can keep tabs on him, helping him secure an early advantage, and then rocket to a lead around 10 minutes when he can truly put his mind to use. Be it on Rumble or even Renekton back in the day, MaRin's roams were one of SKT's greatest weapons, as the captain would slide down into the mid lane to lay down an Equalizer for Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok and win the mid lane in one decisive maneuver.
The issue for MaRin is when he can't get ahead. During his prime in the summer and fall of 2015, he was the top laner which was given the most resources by his team, allowing him to get a foothold into the game and spring forward into SKT T1's immaculate mid-game. That was no issue on SKT T1 at the time, as the jungler battery of Bae "Bengi" Seong-woong and Im "T0M" Jae-hyeon were two of the most gold-starved junglers in the league; they were generally employed to get their laners, most importantly MaRin, ahead in the laning phase.
That might not work out so well in 2017 with the jungler Afreeca signed to pair with him in the topside of the map...
Lee "Spirit" Da-yoon, 20, for all his critics, was one of the better junglers in all of the League Championship Series (NA or Europe) last summer split. When compared to Europe's back-to-back reigning MVP Kim "Trick" Gang-yun, he was only marginally worse version than the G2 ace jungler, trailing only a few behind in kills and keeping up in other important categories such as DPM (damage per minute). Spirit was the best jungler at pulling ahead in CS during the laning phase, leading all other junglers by almost five CS on average at the 10-minute mark.
The return of Spirit to South Korea shouldn't be overlooked. He might not be at the peak he was when he first left his home region in 2014 and joined Team WE, but his play, at least abroad, was good enough to be an MVP candidate in another region. Back home, however, we'll see, as his pairing with MaRin, while explosive on paper, might be troublesome for both.
Throughout his career, Spirit has never really played with a hard carry top. Former teammate Choi "Acorn" Cheon-ju will go down as one of the best top laners of all time when he retires, but he was always an enabler over a centerpiece for the team. He allowed other players, such as Spirit himself, to succeed rather than being the one leading the charge.
Fast forward to Spirit's time on Team WE and his top laner Peng "Aluka" Zhen-Ming, who was famous for his Sion...and that's about it. Then, when Spirit went off to Europe and joined Fnatic, he was welcomed by Noh "Gamsu" Yeong-jin, a tank player, and then by Mateusz "Kikis" Szkudlarek -- wow, who would have guessed -- another primary tank player. While Spirit enjoyed getting the highest percentage of gold in the jungle along with Trick, his top laners were the most starved in the league.
Now Spirit goes from playing with utility top laners and teleport bots to becoming the core of a team with MaRin, a player that loves getting gold soaked into his pores just as much as Spirit does. Which of the two veterans will take the step backwards and gives up the gold for the other? Does Spirit suddenly become MaRin's new Bengi, floating around the topside of the jungle awaiting an opportunity to pass over first blood honors to the former Worlds MVP? Or does MaRin revert back to when he was a rookie in 2014 on SK Telecom T1 S, where he was expected to be the "Top Lane Faker" coming out of solo queue and was primarily used to play Renekton and be a hefty meat shield for the defensive-minded club?
Oh, and did I forget to mention their AD carry was second in gold percentage of all LCK players last summer split?
This will be fun.
Certainty and uncertainty
The bad news for Afreeca: its AD carry, Ha "Kramer" Jong-hun, might be the most gold-hungry player in the entire LCK. In the 2015 summer season of Taiwan's League Master Series, he led all players by getting 29 percent of his team's gold. When he joined CJ Entus in the LCK, he also took that honor in the spring of 2016, absorbing 27.2 percent of the pie.
Kramer was at his best last year when he was given all the gold, CJ Entus survived into the late-game, and the well-resourced AD carry could carry the club in large team fights. When Kramer wasn't given gold or was used in a background role, he was nowhere near as effective, and was a detriment for the team. When it comes to laning, he was arguably one of the worst in LCK all last year, averaging negative numbers in CS compared to his lane opponent at 10 minutes. Even in Taiwan, where you would expect him to be a lane bully, he was dreadful, on average losing the laning phase by 5.5 CS in the games he started.
His new bottom lane partner, support Park "TusiN" Jong-ik, also will be interesting to watch. After losing a younger sibling at the end of 2015, he didn't play professionally at all in 2016, deciding to make his return with Afreeca for 2017. Mechanically, TusiN has what it takes to be one of the best supports in South Korea, and thus the world. Results-wise, however, we don't have much to go on except for impressive solo queue numbers, as TusiN switched his role to support shortly before taking his sabbatical from pro play.
"[On] the Tigers, Kuro's numbers were some of the best in the world, sitting in the middle as the perfect calming force for the crazed members around him."
Although there is uncertainty about how the top side and bottom side of the team are going to work together or perform in general, Afreeca do have one player that they can count on to at least be an above average player at his position. Lee "Kuro" Seo-haeng, regardless of the team he's been on in South Korea, has always performed at a high level. When he was on a poor Incredible Miracle team, he still put up good numbers and could go even with the best mids in the league. Next, when he was on a middling NaJin Black Sword team, his stats stayed similar and his performance in the laning phase didn't dip. And then when he finally was put on an elite team, the Tigers, Kuro's numbers were some of the best in the world, sitting in the middle as the perfect calming force for the crazed members around him.
Thankfully for Afreeca, Kuro doesn't harvest gold like the other players on the team. Out of all mid lane starters last summer in the LCK, Kuro was the second-lowest-economy mid laner outside of KT's oddball Song "Fly" Yong-jun. For Kuro, he is no stranger to being on a team where the top, jungle, and AD carry are all offensive-minded players; issue is, can you really compare the Tigers, one of the best teams in the history of League of Legends, to this iteration of the Freecs?
The beauty of success, or the beauty of failure
If this Freecs lineup comes together correctly, and some players can adapt their playing style, then this team has the talent to go far. Coach Choi "iloveoov" Yun-sung, although new to League, is a legend in South Korean esports for his success in the 2000's as SK Telecom T1's ace Terran player in StarCraft: Brood War. There are a lot of interesting parts in this Afreeca lineup, and it's easy to see why someone could get excited about the Freecs' chances.
On the downside, however, this team eerily resembles the Longzhu "superteam" of last year. You have an LGD top laner making his return to South Korea, a hard carry jungler that loves to farm, a well-respected mid laner that generally plays mages, and a bottom lane that has a lot of promise but is the shakiest part of the foundation. You even have a former legend coaching the team strategically; Longzhu had former CJ Entus support Ham "Lustboy" Jang-sik, and now Afreeca has iloveoov making his League coaching debut.
Oh man, this is Longzhu 2.0.
Everyone run. We're all screwe--
OK, maybe not, or at least not yet. The one major difference between Longzhu of last year and the 2017 Freecs is shotcalling and having a leader. MaRin is a leader, and he was a large voice in the SKT T1 team that won it all in 2015. Longzhu had Kang "Cpt Jack" Hyung-woo, and the team actually did quite well when he played and lent his shotcalling prowess; it wasn't until he retired to be a professional commentator that the bottom fell out from under the Longzhu hype train express.
So maybe, maybe, if MaRin or Kuro or the entire team calls the map well and can function in the mid-to-late-game, something which Longzhu never did, then maybe this team of five individuals can become something great.
If not, at least the implosion will be a sight to behold.