South Korea is the strongest region in professional League of Legends. There have been countless debates about who is second, if North America is better than Europe, and so on, but the one statement that can't be countered is the fact Korea rules over all the other leagues across the globe.
Three straight Summoner's Cup victories.
The last World Championship finals was supposed to be the end of Korea's dominance. Following an offseason heading into the 2015 year when some of the best players in the country, including all five of the starters of the previous world championship team, left to play for bigger money in China, the once all-powerful fortress of Korea was looked upon as fractured, broken by their rivals' greater funds.
By the end of the 2015 World Championships, two teams, SK Telecom T1 and the KOO Tigers, were in the grand finals, and all of the Chinese teams who spent millions of dollars in the offseason didn't even make it past the quarterfinals. All who tried to rival Korea's machine-like infrastructure, tireless work ethic, and wealth of amateur talent were slapped down, leaving us to see while you can buy and copy the blueprints, the original will win out in the end.
A few months removed from the all-Korean Summoner's Cup Final, the rumors of a crumbling kingdom are no more. In fact, Champions, Korea's premiere league for the spring and summer splits, might be at the strongest point it's ever been. Last year it was a question in which depleted teams would step up to the plate and contend with the intact SK Telecom T1. This time around, with former rookies coming into their own and new amateurs transitioning into the pro scene, it's not if there is two or three elites teams in Korea -- but which of the eight is the best in the world?
ROX Tigers (15-2): The Run and Gun Cats
In a year when the Golden State Warriors are making history with an all-time great offense, the ROX Tigers are doing the same in the LCK. The top team in South Korea, the Tigers came off their runner-up position at last year's World Championships to rivals SK Telecom T1 with a massive chip on their shoulder. Although players on their team were allegedly offered more to go abroad and play for foreign teams, the core of the squad stuck together for one more chance at defeating the seemingly unbreakable kings of T1 and becoming world champions.
The change which turned the Tigers into the offensive juggernaut they are today is at the jungler position. With captain and starting jungler Lee "Lee" Ho-jin retiring in the offseason, the Tigers brought in the boisterous and offensive-minded Yoon "Peanut" Wang-ho to take his place. His overwhelming, in-your-face style of play has changed the tempo of the Tigers team, and the revamped ROX have turned from a primarily mid-game focused team to being the strongest early-game unit in the world. Due to being the only team not to be completely swallowed up by the parity of the league, the Tigers have already locked up the first place spot in the league and a date at the grand finals. Although the Tigers' lack of warding has been exploited in the past few weeks and dropped matches to the likes of Samsung and KT Rolster, it only takes one small misstep in the first 5-to-10 minutes of the game for the Tigers to pounce and completely take over the flow of the game.
Fast-paced. Aggressive. In sync. ROX Tigers.
KT Rolster (11-5): The Dragon Tamers
Alright, so we finished with the ROX Tigers, and now, from this point forward, it gets messy. We can safely call the Tigers the best team of the 2016 Korean spring regular season, but the second best team? Almost every single of the seven teams behind ROX and in front of the hapless Kongdoo Monster and SBENU Sonicboom can make some sort of argument about being the second best squad in South Korea.
For KT Rolster, they're the team, maybe alongside Longzhu, with the widest range of performances this season. One game they can look absolutely flawless. The team works to perfection, they safely control all objectives, and the late-game is a simple plow through the enemy base with no fightback. And then, sometimes in the very next game, they can appear completely clueless -- picking an awkward team composition, not working together properly, and getting stomped by a team they embarrassed only an hour prior.
KT is all about control. This season when they get the first dragon, they've won 95% of their games. It allows them to start the process of rolling into the mid-game, and it permits their leader and conductor, Go "Score" Dong-bin, to start pacing the tempo of the game. When Rolster lose the first dragon, they've been a mess, only winning around 30% of their games. Also, if their enigmatic mid laner, Song "Fly" Young-jun, is able to be a factor in the early parts of the game and influence the late-game, KT Rolster put on one of the best displays of teamwork in the world.
SK Telecom T1 (11-5): The King of Kings
Sure, the ROX Tigers are the best team right now in South Korea as of the regular season, but you can't truly call the them the best in South Korea until they win a domestic championship. SK Telecom T1, who won both Korean championships last year and the Summoner's Cup, admittedly haven't had the best season. They struggled early and were even out of the playoff picture at the end of the first half of the season. Unlike ROX who became even better with the switching of starting junglers, T1 were struggling with rookie Kang "Blank" Sun-gu coming in as a starter and new starting top laner, Lee "Duke" Ho-seong, joining the team from NaJin in the wake of their captain and Worlds MVP, Jang "MaRin" Gyeong-Hwan, moving over to China.
But since their trip over to Poland for the IEM World Championships where they won without dropping a map, the kings have returned to their former glory. Duke is starting to work in tandem better with his teammates, and more importantly, Blank has started to come into his own as a professional player. The amateur turned pro-jungler has been a constant in the top half of Korea's solo queue, yet, like many others before him, it's taken time for him to develop the necessary skills to survive in the taxing LCK. As long as longtime starter and two-time Summoner's Cup winner Bae "bengi" Seong-woong is out nursing injuries, it'll be up to Blank to facilitate for his all-star teammates.
Oh, and T1 still have Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok. He is kind of the best player in the world and the greatest to ever download the game onto a computer. So while even SKT would have to admit ROX have one-upped this regular season, nothing will change until the Tigers can defeat Faker and the rest of T1 in a possible Summoner's Cup Final rematch.
Jin Air Green Wings (10-6): The Iron Wall
Do you like extremely long games that make you rethink why you watch esports?
Do you love low kill games where there have been more Barons taken than champion deaths?
Do you absolutely adore rotational player and stingy, ironclad defense?
Well, even if you don't, these are your Jin Air Green Wings, the bulletproof turtles of Champions Korea. A team made up primarily of players who've been around for a few years but have never made it to the upper echelon of talent, Jin Air weren't expected to do much this season. They were awful in the preseason at IEM San Jose, being the first Korean team to lose a Bo3 against a North American team when they got trounced by Counter Logic Gaming. Frankly put, they performed like you'd expect from a squad who lost their star players in the offseason and were on the road for a possible relegation spot.
Yet, surprisingly, they've persevered (so far, at least). Jin Air are a squad that is far greater than the sum of their parts. While occupying one of the top three spots in the league for a majority of the season, you'd be hard-pressed to call any of their starters one of the top three at their position in the league. They've been overachievers -- experienced players expected to fail who've banded together through scrappy, drawn out play to silence their critics.
Lately, though, the team has found themselves in a familiar late season rut. Jin Air, traditionally, have been a defense first, play intelligently style of team that garners success in the first half of the season and then comes down to earth as the playoffs loom closer. Now losers of three in their last four, these turtles might be getting past by the quicker and proactive teams in the league.
Samsung Galaxy (9-8): The Battalion
Speaking of overachievers, Samsung Galaxy are another team expected to possibly finish last this season who've done far better than predicted. The 2014 world champion organization's revival can be linked to one man: Kang "Ambition" Chan-yong. Formerly the best mid laner in Korea back in 2013 before Faker debuted, Ambition has one of the greatest (and strangest) careers in the game's history. After moving to the jungle from mid last year, he found little success like he did in his early years. It ultimately ended with him leaving his longtime team CJ Entus to pursue a different avenue in his lengthy career.
Instead of retiring like countless players from his generation, he decided to join the upstart Samsung team. It seemed laughable at first. A player past his prime who was woeful in the jungle role partnering up with a team that was flimsy and weak on paper. It had all the makings of a throwaway split for the Galaxy. Ambition tries to captain them, they fail, and eventually the team realizes they need to bring in fresh talent to have any chance of competing in the LCK.
The only person laughing currently is Ambition.
He's been the clear MVP of his team this season, and his leadership has commanded a seemingly outgunned Samsung to a possible playoff spot. Unlike his days on CJ Entus as a jungler, Ambition has been able to shape games through his play, and his teammates are at his beck and call whenever he needs them. Samsung Galaxy have turned into Ambition's obedient army -- ready to charge into battle behind their legendary captain.
Afreeca Freecs (8-8): The Crows
Two months ago, the Afreeca Freecs were dead. I don't mean like dead in terms of being a weak team on paper and not doing well in the first week of the season. The Freecs were almost halfway through the season and only had a measly single victory to their name. Even though they were one of the better early-game teams in the league, gaining gold advantages regularly in the first 15 minutes, the rebellious team didn't know how to hold a lead in the late-game. They were putrid when it came to closing out games.
"Playoffs are no longer a pipedream. They're an expectation with two games left and destiny in their own hands."
The Freecs. Kongdoo Monster. SBENU Sonicboom. The three cannon fodder of the league for the seven impressive teams above them.
Then, like some after school special you were forced to watch in school, the Freecs started to put things together. They stopped throwing games in the late-game. Afreeca began to play like a singular team instead of five talented individuals. The coaching infrastructure on the team finally started to kick in for the formerly unsponsored team and the victories came shortly thereafter.
Afreeca are the crowds of the league. They haven't dismantled teams in the 7-2 run during their last nine games, yet they've picked away and eventually won. They've dropped silly games here and there, however, when everything has been on the table in the climactic third set, the Freecs have been able to deliver. Their only losses are to SK Telecom in a close 1-2 afair and a sweep to the ROX Tigers, and they've beaten SKT T1 already in their stunning nine-game stretch.
Playoffs are no longer a pipe dream. They're an expectation with two games left and destiny in their own hands.
CJ Entus (8-9): The Fighters
Giving a breakdown of CJ Entus really isn't difficult. They like to fight. That's their entire strategy right there. CJ are at their best when they can survive the first 30 minutes of the game, allow their ace AD carry Jong-Hoon "Kramer" Ha to get into a comfortable position item-wise, and then group of as five and fight.
Then fight some more.
Then, if the whole fighting thing doesn't work, wait a few more minutes for Kramer to free farm minions in an empty lane, go buy another item, and then group up and five for the thousandth time in the game.
Complexity hasn't made its way inside the CJ Entus playbook for this season. In spite of their lack of variety, they've managed to be .500 with two matches left in the season and an outside shot of the postseason if they can sweep them. It hasn't been pretty at times -- well, unless they're team fighting, which then they are impressive -- but they've made it work. It's easy to call them out on being a one-trick fighting pony, however, it's been the carrying talent of Kramer which has allowed his squad to succeed with their tunnel-vision.
If Entus somehow had made the playoffs (they were eliminated last week), it wouldn't have been Hall of Fame-caliber support Hong "MadLife" Min-gi or rookie prodigy Kwak "BDD" Bo-seong who received the credit, it would be Kramer. He's been nothing but superb in his first season as CJ's starter at AD carry, and he's already become the most talented AD Madlife has ever played alongside. Although they're not going to make the postseason this split, a seasoned CJ Entus team in the summer with an experienced BDD and a deeper pool of strategies could contend for a top three spot in the league behind their world-class bottom lane.
Oh, and their world-class teamfighting. Can't forget the fighting.
Longzhu Gaming (7-9): The Chained Beasts
And finally, the last of our eight teams, is the one which might just be one of the strongest when the 2016 year comes to an end. A 10-man roster, Longzhu Gaming don't lack talent. All of their players on the roster could start for at least an average LCK team. The issue has come when finding the best starting five for the 10 players. They've tried mixing and matching all season long, and Longzhu have found small bursts of success before hitting a wall and then changing everything up again.
Like KT Rolster, Longzhu have performed at incredibly high levels and then nosedived. When Longzhu Gaming can function as a team throughout an entire game, they play beautiful League. They are a team that should be feared. All the talent on the team shines brightly on Summoner's Rift and takes over the map in unison. Shin "CoCo" Jin-yeong, Lee "Chaser" Sang-hyun, Lee "Flame" Ho-jong, Lee "Fury" Jin-yong. These are players who on the right team can all be true aces, players who carry teams to the top of the standings.
Longzhu's gambit is finding the perfect lineup that can unlock the chains that bind them. Their most lineup with Coco, Chaser, Fury and Koo "Expession" Bon-taek in the top lane with Kim "Pure" Jin-sun at support performed at the level you'd expect from a team challenging for a spot at Worlds in a recent blowout against Samsung Galaxy. They synced well together, Expession doesn't need as much gold as his counterpart Flame, and the other elite carries on the team were able to put in work on their respective champions.
...Then, in a seemingly gimme match against the luckless Sonicboom, everything fell apart for the umpteeth time. The five players didn't play well together, and the team was shellacked by a squad who had only two match wins in their last thirty plus in the LCK. Longzhu went from one of their marquee wins of the season and burned it all in their next series.
Presently, Longzhu sit at the bottom of the great eight teams in South Korea.
If, and this is a big if, they truly figure out the puzzle to unlock their shackles, the rest of the upper echelon teams should stop worrying about what is front of them and focus more on the eyes coming up from below them. But until then, they'll sit here -- leashed to the bottom of the competitive teams in South Korea. All the talent in the world individually without any of the coordination that transforms a good or great team to a championship team.