LOS ANGELES -- During the 2018 League of Legends Championship held in South Korea, gossip circulated through the streets of Busan. While Western teams such as Fnatic, Cloud9 and G2 Esports were charging through the field and making their way to the semifinals, one team was rumored to be smashing its way through a majority of the field at the biggest event of the year.
And that team in question didn't even qualify for the tournament.
"In scrims, Griffin were insane," C9's Eric "Licorice" Ritchie said at the LCS Arena in Santa Monica, California, following his team's third match of the season. "They would not lose. I think we were talking to them, they didn't lose a scrim in like however many weeks or something. It was like, 'OK, that's great.' They've just been a really strong team.
"During worlds, we practiced against them a little bit, and they were really strong then, and they look really strong now."
The members of Griffin were the rookie phenoms who took South Korea by storm last summer. In its first season in League Champions Korea, the team finished second in the regular season before coming up one game short in the final to the experienced side of KT Rolster, made up of some of the country's greatest League of Legends icons.
Reeling from that loss, Griffin would fail to qualify for worlds by losing to another veteran team in a thrilling five-game series, this time in the form of defending champion Gen.G Esports.
At a time when South Korea needed new blood representing the country the most, Griffin was practicing in the shadows. While many of the teams around the world closed shop for the offseason when eliminated from world title contention, Griffin went right back to the grind, working to make sure it would never feel the embarrassment of missing an international tournament again.
In the offseason, the team's starting five from the previous season all signed contract extensions with Griffin. The fledgling esports organization had been bought by Still8 (formerly KongDoo), and the influx of cash into the team created an opportunity to lock down the starters for years to come.
In an unprecedented event in South Korea, the starters for Griffin, along with their head coach, Kim "cvMax" Dae-ho, signed with the team until the end of the 2021 season.
While other organizations generally had one- or two-year contracts with their players, some having option years, Still8 put its foot down. Before North American and Chinese teams came calling in a year, it made sure to keep its players happy and pushing toward the ultimate goal -- not just a single world championship, but the possibility of a dynasty only, a three-peat, something not even SK Telecom T1 was capable of accomplishing.
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In an interview over the first weekend of the LCS regular season, Clutch Gaming's AD carry, Chae "Piglet" Gwang-jin, agreed that Griffin stands above the competition in South Korea. A former SKT member himself and part of the org's first Summoner's Cup in 2013, Piglet couldn't deny that even with the retooled SKT roster dubbed "the dream team," Griffin is still head and shoulders above the pack in South Korea.
Since losing to Gen.G in the world championship qualification tournament, Griffin has not dropped a match. In the 2018 KeSPA Cup, a designated preview for the upcoming domestic year with the top major, minor and amateur teams competing against each other, Griffin won every single map. It blanked each team it faced along the way, and it finished things off with a quick trouncing of Gen. G, the team that kept Griffin from playing at worlds in 2018.
Not satisfied with small-scale revenge, Griffin has gone on to decimate the LCK in the early weeks of the regular season, only dropping a single map, that being to newly promoted organization Sandbox Gaming in a series that Griffin ultimately won in a deciding set blowout. The team's mid laner, Jeong "Chovy" Ji-hoon, at one point amassed a KDA (kills/deaths/assists) ratio over 110 before finally having it cut down against Sandbox. Chovy's KDA now sits at a humdrum 47.2 ratio, only 28 points ahead of the player in second place, his own teammate, Park "Viper" Do-hyeon.
The two players have already combined for 115 kills in Griffin's first 13 games of the season.
Griffin is performing at an all-time level in South Korea in every metric. The only apt comparison is the 2015 SK Telecom T1 summer split squad that only dropped a single series and went on to only lose one map at the world championships en route to a Summoner's Cup. Griffin wants to do one better. The team wants to go through the entirety of 2019 -- spring, the Mid-Season Invitational, the summer split and worlds -- without suffering a defeat.
No match losses. The perfect year.
Although unlikely, especially as the pressure of the streak grows from match to match, right now, there are no rivals for Griffin in South Korea. SKT, the chosen team that could battle Griffin for superiority, was dispatched by its rival in a match in which Griffin toyed with a team made up of ace players from across South Korea.
And though the LCK looks weaker than it has been in previous years, Licorice, having bootcamped in South Korea before the regular season began, thinks otherwise.
"I think all of the teams are really strong," he said of the LCK. "I think Griffin is just probably the best team in the world right now. You can't really know for sure, but the teams we were scrimming were pretty good at the time -- we were coming off of a break, and I also wasn't playing very well, personally -- but I don't think it's like everyone in Korea sucks and Griffin is the only OK team."
It's not Griffin being a big fish in a small pond. The team is just too big to fit into its own ocean.