The quintessential South Korean League of Legends game is comparable to a world championship chess match.
For years, the methodical, three-steps-ahead approach to the game was the surefire way to victory for the strongest and brightest teams in South Korea. Legendary title-winning squads such as SK Telecom T1 or Samsung White would suffocate opponents through vision control and maneuvers around objectives in the late game to unmatched success.
It was the correct way to play the game. It didn't matter if a superstar on a Chinese or European team got ahead in the early parts of the game. To beat the constricting, surgical style of the best South Korean teams, their opponent had to play to perfection. One small mistake and the South Korean squad would have their opposition in a checkmate position, the tortoise always coming out on top over the hare.
That era of gameplay is over.
At the 2018 League of Legends World Championship, South Korean teams were embarrassed in their home country. All three qualified teams were eliminated before the semifinals. The defending world champion, Gen.G (formerly Samsung), was the poster child of the old-school way of playing League of Legends in South Korea, and their textbook approach to the game was ripped apart in the group stages as they bombed out of the competition with only a single victory.
The name of the game in 2019 is tempo. If your team isn't doing things early, you're most likely not doing anything at all before your Nexus explodes. With the South Korean domestic league, League Champions Korea, moving to a new studio and going under full production control from Riot Games, a new era has truly begun in the country known as the Mecca of esports.
"The existing LCK teams have been playing against other LCK teams," newly promoted Damwon Gaming mid laner Heo "ShowMaker" Su told ESPN. "They've been playing the 'LCK-style macro' against one another -- fewer kills, slow-paced -- while we who have been promoted Challengers have been playing the Challengers game. A Challenger Korea match, on average, will have lot more kills per game, so I think the new teams are more adapted to the current meta."
Here is a rundown of next generation that has taken ahold of the LCK in the first two weeks of the regular season.
Every revolution needs someone at the front of it, and Griffin are the leaders of the new blood rising in South Korea. While they entered the LCK in the summer split last year and made it all the way to the final before losing, the whispers of their evolution have become fully realized at the start of 2019. When Griffin was knocked out of worlds qualification in 2018 by Gen.G, the team went right back to work, and rumors of their destruction of the top teams at the world championship during scrimmages ran rampant through the streets of Seoul and Busan. At the most recent KeSPA Cup competition in a kickoff to the new year, the finals even taking place on New Year's Eve, Griffin swept through the tournament without dropping a single map.
Players to watch
Lee "Tarzan" Seung-yong
In this new world, Tarzan is king. The 19-year-old jungler has already been given the nickname "King of the Jungle" in South Korea and is the talisman of the Griffin team running through the very best the LCK has to offer. The scariest thing about Tarzan is that although capable of playing the speedy, aggressive style adopted many of the rookie junglers in the league, his main strength comes from being able to play a style generally reserved for players with years of experience under their belt. Be it an up-tempo style gank at Level 2 or more of an "old man" way of playing the game on safer, less mechanically intensive champions, Tarzan is unparalleled.
Park "Viper" Do-hyeon
Whatever the meta, Viper can play it. Before Tarzan emerged as the team's marquee player, Viper was the most talked-about man on Griffin. When unorthodox champion selections such as Yasuo and Vladimir began showing up in the bottom lane, it was Viper who adapted the quickest to the changes. Viper has already established himself among the elite at the AD carry position on an international level, and he is only a Mid-Season Invitational or Summoner's Cup victory from being called the best at his role on the planet.
Jeong "Chovy" Ji-hoon
The final member of Griffin's one-two(-three) punch is also the team's youngest member at only 17 years of age. Last year, barely eligible to even play in the LCK, Chovy was mostly along for the ride. He did his job in mid lane, stood up against some of the better mid players in the world and held his own. Now, with some more swagger in his game, Chovy is transforming into possibly South Korea's strongest mid laner, unafraid to pick carry champions and stand as the team's focal point of damage. He doesn't even turn 18 for two more months. When people talk about rare, possibly generational talents, Chovy is one of them.
The scary thing is the same could be said about Tarzan and Viper, as well. It's almost unfair.
Oh, and all three are under contract with Griffin until the end of 2021. Wait a minute. It actually is unfair.
Where Griffin goes, DAMWON will follow. The two fledgling organizations battled endlessly in the minor leagues before Griffin ultimately was promoted to the LCK last summer. DAMWON, left without their rival, crushed the secondary South Korean league in Griffin's absence and were promoted with little trouble at the end of the year. DAMWON had the same worlds scrimmage rumors around them, with players talking about the incredible strength of the unknown LCK team. DAMWON's roster was so appealing that the coach of the world champion team, Invictus Gaming's Kim Jeong-soo, decided to sign with them in the offseason.
Although Griffin handily have the edge in the all-time series over DAMWON, the rivalry between the two has the possible makings of the LCK's next biggest rivalry for years to come alongside SKT and KT's decade-plus Telecom War. DAMWON might be the little brother to Griffin at this point, but that doesn't mean DAMWON will stop chasing until they surpass their rival.
Players to watch
Jang "Nuguri" Ha-gwon
It wouldn't be far-fetched to call Nuguri the best top laner in the LCK. At a time when some of the all-time great South Korean top laners are in decline, retiring or playing elsewhere around the world, Nuguri has seamlessly slipped into the role as the league's premiere top lane carry. After a disappointing promotional tournament to get into the LCK, the offensive-focused top laner found his groove in the KeSPA Cup before rolling through his first few matches in the majors as his team's primary carry.
Kim "Canyon" Geon-bu
In the same vein as Chovy, Canyon is a 17-year-old wunderkind who just turned professional a few short months ago. Known as "JUGKING" on the South Korean ladder, he terrorized the online world before getting picked up by DAMWON in the offseason. If you're looking for a refined, all-around superstar jungler, that would be Tarzan. Canyon, on the other hand, still green and rough around the edges, has the mechanical skill to stand with any player in the scene but lacks the seasoning to be on the level of someone like Tarzan.
It will take time for Canyon to transition his dominance in scrimmages and playing alone online to the stage, and that's OK. DAMWON are invested in Canyon's growth and believe if he can reach his full potential, Tarzan might have a worthy rival to the nickname "King of the Jungle."
Heo "ShowMaker" Su
When DAMWON entered the LCK, Showmaker was expected to be the flashiest of its prodigal standouts. He was famously known for his Katarina on the online servers and wreaked havoc in the minor leagues with his high-damage champions. Come the first weeks of the season, though, and his primary use has been utility and tanks with a heavy dosage of Galio and Urgot. While Nuguri has soared and Canyon has had his headline-stealing games, ShowMaker is still trying to find the right footing in the majors. But, as his name suggests, he wants to put on a show, and the world is ready to tune in for showtime.
To be frank, I did not expect to be writing about SANDBOX Gaming alongside Griffin and DAMWON two weeks ago. Before the season began, I had Griffin steamrolling their way to a championship as the No. 1 seed without dropping a single match (never done before in the LCK) and DAMWON to finish an impressive third-place before bowing out in the playoffs. SANDBOX? No. 9, maybe No. 8 with some luck. So far, they've made a fool of me, bullishly taking down some of the more experienced teams in the LCK.
Griffin and DAMWON have blue-chip prospects. SANDBOX, which unexpectedly made it into the LCK with DAMWON, looked to the recycling bin for their roster. What SANDBOX lacks in refinement and brains, they make up for with pressure.
It doesn't matter if the side lanes are pushing positively or negatively for them; if there is a Baron to be had, SANDBOX will go for it. An opposing player slightly out of position? Jump on them without a second thought, even if the rest of the team is behind them in the shadows waiting. Want to shake things up? Why not swap around our mid and top laners.
SANDBOX are the complete antithesis of what people think of when they think of South Korean League of Legends, and that's why, at least in the small sample size (including a monumental victory over SKT), they're thriving.
Players to watch
Park "Summit" Woo-tae
It was a long road for Summit to finally win a starting job in the LCK. After bouncing around amateur teams and even winning a gold medal for South Korea at the IeSF world championship over Serbia in the final, he found a place on Afreeca Freecs. Unfortunately, the Freecs had their own blue-chip prospect in Kim "Kiin" Gi-in, who skyrocketed from unknown to the league's best top laner last year. Summit rarely left the bench, and with Kiin re-signing with Afreeca in the offseason, he was left with few options. SANDBOX, tinkering with their makeshift roster, scooped him up and have seen the late pickup pay dividends straight away. Summit is having his own breakthrough rookie season that could mirror Kiin's if things continue as they are.
Kim "OnFleek" Jang-gyeom
The speed of a game comes from the tempo a jungler sets, and there's a reason why all three teams mentioned also have a standout jungler. OnFleek is much more of the Canyon build, the 21-year-old rookie only beginning his professional play last year Team BattleComics before that team's roster and LCK spot were purchased by SANDBOX.
In the promotional tournament to get into the LCK, OnFleek was the player that caught the most eyes, leading his team to the LCK off the back of dominating performances on Olaf. Sandbox's jungler doesn't have the shine of Tarzan's brilliance or Canyon's heralded mechanics, but as with all of SANDBOX, he puts his head down and pushes forward into even the most brazen teamfights.
Cho "Joker" Jae-eup
No player on SANDBOX personifies the team more than its starting support. Joker is a rookie, just like Canyon, Nuguri and other of the rising rookies in the league. The only difference? Joker is not a teenager. Joker isn't even in his early 20s. Joker turned 27 in December and is the oldest player in the league, even surpassing KT Rolster's Go "Score" Dong-bin.
When SANDBOX qualified for LCK, it appeared like he might be replaced by a younger, more mechanically gifted player, but through the early stages of the season, Joker has persevered and been a driving force in SANDBOX's winning ways.
It's called the next generation. No one said anything about it being the young generation.