As a longtime KT Rolster fan, it took a while to steel myself as the team took the stage for the League of Legends Champions Korea promotion tournament on Thursday.
In my mind, losing KT would be equivalent to losing an organization like SK Telecom T1, never mind the discrepancy in titles and international success. There was too much history. If franchising is indeed on the horizon for the LCK, then KT would be a shoe-in for a spot -- at least, that's what I said to myself as I tried to calm my nerves.
Then again, CJ Entus was a historic franchise relegated in 2016 that never returned. Like when I watched all three South Korean League teams fail to make it past quarterfinals during the League of Legends World Championship in November in Busan, my mind was scrambling for reasons to explain how KT, or South Korean League of Legends as a whole, could be struggling this much.
My fears for KT were quickly allayed. KT stomped VSG 2-0 and the Jin Air Green Wings 3-0 to reclaim their spot in the LCK proper. Three days later, Jin Air also muscled their way back into the league, beating ES Sharks 3-1. After a split's worth of talk about how Challenger teams may be better than half of the teams in the LCK, there would be no new organizations in the LCK for the summer split.
"This split, we're going to make it to two wins," Jin Air jungler Kim "Sieze" Chan-hee said with a laugh after his team avoided relegation. Beside him, Jin Air mid laner Lee "Grace" Chan-ju laughed and covered his face. A team with just one victory in the LCK this spring had crushed Challenger competition to make it back to the main stage in Seoul.
Grace unintentionally became the face of Jin Air after the team won their first -- and as it turned out, only -- LCK match of the split. In the post-match broadcast interview, he looked defeated as he talked about how their first loss, a closer-than-expected 2-0 to SKT in the season opener, had affected team morale. After losing to KT in their first promotion qualifying match, the players of Jin Air looked emotionally destroyed.
Similarly, fans and media remarked at how gaunt and defeated the members of KT were before they stepped onstage for their own promotion matches. Unlike Jin Air, a team of young solo queue players and others with limited amounts of competitive experience, KT have the likes of top laner Song "Smeb" Kyung-ho, jungler Go "Score" Dong-bin and mid laner Gwak "Bdd" Bo-seong, the latter of whom had already experienced relegations through the darkest days of CJ Entus.
Jin Air and KT in turn became emblems of a rising narrative in South Korean League of Legends: the bottom teams in the LCK were not as good as the up-and-coming teams in Challengers Korea. This was supported by the success of Griffin in the summer of 2018 and their near-perfect run through the spring split. The initial success of both SANDBOX Gaming and DAMWON Gaming, who had relegated existing LCK organizations MVP and bbq Olivers to qualify for their current spots in the LCK, also backed up the notion that there was better talent outside the top-tier league.
But despite strong starts to LCK play, both DAMWON and SANDBOX failed to breach the top three of the league.
Both teams have a few young talents that should easily become remarkable players in the not-so-distant future, but this doesn't stop the siphoning of South Korean talent from domestic shores, and it certainly hasn't restored the LCK to its former glory. Neither team has the same coordination or direction that Griffin had when they entered the LCK.
The South Korean field is the weakest it has been since the Korean Exodus of 2014-15, when OGN's champions tournament was restructured into a then-eight team league. Veteran organizations outside of SKT -- including KT, who are supposedly one of the stronger LCK brands -- have still had difficulties coming up with winning lineups or contending for talented young players. KT in particular settled for two subpar AD carry options when they couldn't sign the veteran players that they wanted.
While Jin Air and KT were awful in the 2019 LCK spring split, they each beat their Challengers Korea opponents fairly easily in the promotion tournament. Griffin failed once again to beat an existing legacy LCK organization in an LCK finals series. There's a lot of nuance in how Griffin lost that should, and will, be discussed, yet that 3-0 loss to SKT shows that Griffin still has a bit more to learn before they truly ascend as the region's best team.
There is no quick fix for the fall of the LCK in 2018 in Busan -- no legions of strong Challenger teams waiting in the wings to return South Korea to its former glory, and nothing ahead but hard work, even if SKT do manage to win at MSI. Just like the gameplay and factors leading up to the worlds losses themselves, regrouping and recovering as a region will take time, and we may never see the same separation of strength that we did in prior competitive LoL seasons.
Either way, I'll still be here, cheering on KT, no matter how awful they are.