League of Legends: LCK still struggling to adapt

LCK and LPL check ups (8:26)

The LCK and LPL are on their Lunar New Year break, so we wanted to spot check the performances of a few teams. (8:26)

Halfway through Griffin's first game against Sandbox Gaming on Saturday in Seoul, the match became a kills/deaths/assists ratio counter for Jeong "Chovy" Ji-hoon.

The trio of South Korean casters gleefully called out the ever-increasing number as it continued to creep above his KDA to start the day, a record-setting 104, while the mid laner's Akali darted in and out of skirmishes onscreen. At the end of Game 1, after 11 games played in total, Chovy had died only once, a stunning feat in any era of League of Legends, but particularly now, as individual player skill has only increased through the years. Sandbox managed to strike back in Game 2, but Griffin's match victory still wasn't in doubt, even with the game loss.

Griffin sits atop the League Champions Korea leaderboard and is 6-0 in matches, with the one game loss to Sandbox the only crack in its seemingly impenetrable armor. By the end of the split, we might have a situation similar to the spring 2015 GE Tigers on our hands, but at this moment, Griffin falling off at the end to a surging SK Telecom T1 or other organization doesn't seem likely.

Unlike the Tigers, who took South Korea by storm with a veteran lineup of mostly unwanted or perceived has-beens in 2015, Griffin is the vanguard of a new generation in the League of Legends Champions Korea. It also is a reminder of an ever-increasing gap between veteran players and their younger counterparts, as KT Rolster, Gen.G, Kingzone DragonX and even SKT's star-studded lineup dubbed the "dream team" at the 2018 KeSPA Cup have faltered and fallen in the standings against fresh talent.

Meanwhile, Chovy's KDA has dropped only to a whopping 42.7, still leading all players in any region. No other team in the LCK has looked at all prepared to defeat Griffin in a series. No LCK-era team has ever gone undefeated in a split -- SKT came closest in the summer of 2015 at 17-1 -- and only 2013-14 OGN Champions Winter SKT finished a major tournament or league in South Korea undefeated in matches. Griffin's success in 2019 has led to wistful sighs from the LCK faithful.

If Griffin had gone to the League of Legends World Championship in 2018, maybe a South Korean team could have made it past the quarterfinals.

South Korea has housed the highest-caliber League teams from when the region entered the competitive scene in 2012 until this past year. The only time a South Korean team failed to win a world championship that its teams took part in prior to 2018 was the region's first year, when Azubu Frost lost to the Taipei Assassins in the finals.

Since 2013, regardless of whom South Korea sent to worlds, at least one team made the finals; from 2015 to 2017, the world final matched up two South Korean squads. Despite other regions looking competitive in the regular season, including a surprising SKT Mid-Season Invitational loss to EDward Gaming in 2015, South Korean teams would always prove their mettle at worlds.

The Afreeca Freecs, KT Rolster and then-reigning world champion Gen.G, all mostly veteran lineups, were expected to do the same. They did not.

LCK has never needed to change, until now.

Solo-lane-focused carries, flex picks, early-game jungle champions, lane pressure and a certain disregard for potential vision placement took center stage at worlds in the form of Team Vitality, Cloud9, G2 Esports and eventual world champion Invictus Gaming. LCK coaches and managers declared they were shifting gears to match other regions; "proactivity" became the 2018-19 offseason buzzword as South Korean teams realized change was necessary. SKT not only picked up strong LCK performers such as Cho "Mata" Se-hyeong, Kim "Khan" Dong-ha and Park "Teddy" Jin-seong but also known early-game playmaker Kim "Clid" Tae-min. Gen.G signed jungler Han "Peanut" Wang-ho to give a much-needed punch to its passive lineup along with promoting its aggressive substitute support Kim "Life" Jeong-min.

But so far, the LCK has not been swept up by a newfound, previously untapped aggressive streak, as veteran organizations might have hoped.

SKT have a 4-2 series record going into this week's Lunar New Year break, but its series against Griffin, and Game 1 of that match in particular, was a snoozefest in which SKT passively ceded advantages to Griffin until Griffin decided to run it over, likely giving SKT fans flashbacks to the team last year. Gen.G looked surprisingly coordinated in the 2018 KeSPA Cup but has been anything but on the Rift during LCK play. Although Kingzone DragonX is fourth in the regional standings, it's reliant on scaling to a point where bot laner Kim "Deft" Hyuk-kyu can carry in mid- or late-game teamfights.

Even Griffin, leader of the new LCK generation, has a fairly passive early game compared to top Chinese teams like Invictus Gaming, Topsports Gaming, FunPlus Phoenix and Suning Gaming.

The teams with the two best early games in the LCK are Hanwha Life Esports, who had a strong early game last year as well but also have retained a tendency to give away those early advantages in ill-advised objective trades or lost mid-game teamfights, and the surprise upstart in Sandbox. In this meta, you either need to be flexible or willing to take responsible risks, and Sandbox has met both of these criteria by picking team compositions that are fairly easy to execute and suit its players.

Sandbox still needs improvement in many other aspects of the game. Depending on how you look at it, its second-place standing could be another harbinger of sweeping change or a continuing indictment of the LCK's perceived passivity.

It's unsurprising that so many LCK teams are struggling to adapt, but there's a lingering shadow of doubt over the region, especially when Griffin, far and away South Korea's best team, still doesn't have as strong of an early game as it could have.

A cursory glance at the top of China's LoL Pro League reveals four or five teams all willing to fight for early advantages, one of which likely will be Griffin's competition come the Mid-Season Invitational in May. MSI is still months away, but as of now, the event looks like the first real chance to see how good this Griffin team and South Korea really are.