SEOUL, South Korea -- The KeSPA Cup, as offseason tournaments go, has always floated in limbo.
The annual League of Legends tournament organized by the Korea e-Sports Organization would traditionally be held in late November before the year's offseason kicked off. As a result, the tournament always felt halfhearted from a viewer's and the participating organizations' point of view, with a knowledge that most contending teams would not have the same roster by the time the League Champions Korea Spring Split began.
The 2018 KeSPA Cup felt a little different than previous years, however. The tournament was held in late December after roster changes were finalized. People around the world tuned in expectantly to watch the South Korean teams debut their 2019 rosters, from the freshly minted SK Telecom T1 dream team to superstars such as Han "Peanut" Wang-ho and Gwak "Bdd" Bo-seong playing for the first time in their respective new teams.
The tournament culminated with the victory of Griffin, a team with a lane-focused, proactive playstyle that South Korean seemed to lack throughout 2018. Griffin lifting up the KeSPA Cup on New Year's Eve almost felt like a closing of an arc for 2018 South Korean League of Legends.
But the KeSPA Cup served a similar role to previous years, too. The tournament is still a celebration of upcoming talents and organizations entering the scene. Here are four upcoming players who caught ESPN's eye during the 2018 KeSPA Cup.
Jang "Nuguri" Ha-kwon | Top laner, DAMWON Gaming
Freshly promoted from Challengers Korea and set to play in League Challengers Korea from 2019 Spring Split, DAMWON Gaming is a team consisting of up-and-coming, mechanically gifted players. The team built clout during 2018 League of Legends World Championship when stories of DAMWON scrimmaging against international teams bootcamping in South Korea began to circulate. Not only was DAMWON holding scrims against RNG, G2 and Fnatic, the rumors held, but was also winning them.
When the KeSPA Cup was announced, people looked forward to seeing DAMWON Gaming play as well as the team's solo queue stars, Nuguri and Heo "ShowMaker" Soo.
Throughout the KeSPA Cup, the top laner was always DAMWON's biggest carry threat and most consistent performer. Nuguri affected the games from the laning phase to teamfights, be it on tank champions such as Sion, bruisers such as Aatrox or mage champions such as Ryze and Viktor. Nuguri's stellar performance on the pocket pick Vladimir on Game 3 against SKT enabled DAMWON to win several important teamfights and eventually win the game and the series against SKT.
In an interview with ESPN, Nuguri said he looked up to Song "Smeb" Kyung-ho and Kim "Khan" Dong-ha and that he is prepared to beat both players in 2019 LCK. If Nuguri does keep his promise, he might just crown himself the latest successor in the lineage of South Korean top lane kings, among the likes of Lee "Flame" Ho-jong, Jang "MaRin" Gyeong-hwan and his idols.
Kim "Canyon" Geon-bu | Jungler, DAMWON Gaming
In October 2018, a mysterious League account "JUGKING" climbed to first place on the South Korean ladder, recording over 60 percent win rate on Taliyah and Camille in its way. Many speculated JUGKING to be yet another identity of Lee "Tarzan" Seung-yong, the jungler of Griffin who is famous for having up to three accounts on the top 10 on the South Korean ladder at a time. Later, the man behind JUGKING was revealed to be Kim Geon-bu, DAMWON Gaming's trainee jungler who had only just turned 17 and was about to make a professional debut at the 2018 KeSPA Cup.
Canyon was the team's double-edged sword throughout the tournament. On one hand, Canyon brought his highly aggressive solo queue plays to the KeSPA stages; on the other, Canyon's consistency and ability to play around objectives left a lot to be desired. In DAMWON's best-of-three series against Griffin, Tarzan read Canyon's jungle pathing like a book. As a result, Canyon was unable to affect the lanes or the game, which ultimately cost DAMWON the match. However, as a rookie player who has only just made his debut, Canyon still has time to grow.
If Canyon gains stage experience and is able to pick up macro skills to back up the mechanical prowess he made the name JUGKING famous for, he will be a fearful addition to the LCK.
Kim "Life" Jeong-min | Support, Gen.G Esports
One of the hottest roster changes in 2018 offseason was Jo "CoreJJ" Yong-in's transfer from Gen.G to the North American squad Team Liquid. Instead of signing an established name such as Cho "Mata" Se-hyeong or Kang "GorillA" Beom-hyeon, Gen.G decided to promote its existing support player, Life, to the team's starting lineup. The 18-year-old rookie had been listed on Gen.G's roster from mid-2018 but had never played a professional game until the KeSPA Cup.
Life debuted on the quarterfinal match against SANDBOX Gaming and immediately proved he was capable of filling the shoes of his successor. Throughout the KeSPA Cup, Life was consistently the playmaker in Gen.G's new-found proactive engages and skirmishes, and the support player styled on opponents with Gragas and Rakan. In Gen.G's quarterfinal match against Kingzone DragonX, Life's performance on Alistar drew comparisons between him and the legendary support player Hong "MadLife" Min-gi from the South Korean casters, both for his impactful zoning plays and his namesake.
The offseason saw many veteran supports such as CoreJJ, GorillA and Lee "Wolf" Jae-wan leave LCK to play in other regions. However, fans of the region have to be encouraged by the fresh support talents like Life and KT Rolster's Choi "Mia" Sang-in, who have now earned a chance to play and gain experience on the big stage.
Sebastian "Malice" Edholm | Jungler, bbq OLIVERS
Last year was a humbling experience for the South Korean League of Legends scene. South Korean teams did not win a single international tournament throughout the year, and at the 2018 world championship, all LCK teams were eliminated by semifinals. Inevitably, drastic changes took place across the league ahead of the 2019 season. One of these changes was the introduction of Malice, the jungler for bbq OLIVERS and the first-ever import player in South Korean League of Legends.
The 21-year-old Swedish jungler had been a Challenger player in the South Korean ladder throughout 2018 and made headlines when he was picked up by bbq OLIVERS, a Challengers Korea team. In his debut series against ES Sharks, Malice immediately made his presence known by locking an off-meta Karthus jungle. His skirmish-oriented plays were perfectly suited for the recent early-game aggressive playstyle LCK teams have been in a hurry to adopt after the region's results at worlds. Malice made a case for himself as bbq OLIVERS' strongest player with a standout performance on Kha'Zix in his team's match against SKT, too, even though bbq eventually lost 2-0.
Despite the fact that Malice is a Challenger Korea player, he deserves a spot on this list of players to watch. Malice represents the winds of change that are blowing through the South Korean League scene: His presence indicates the region is ready to experiment both in rosters and playstyles, to invest in upcoming talent and even to seek inspiration from outside South Korea.