League of Legends Champions Korea's hopes of regaining its past dominance through winning the 2019 League of Legends World Championship ended with SK Telecom T1's loss to G2 Esports last November in Madrid, Spain. It was time for another offseason in which LCK teams would regroup and attempt to find a winning combination that would return the world championship title to South Korea after two straight years of China's League of Legends Pro League taking the Summoner's Cup home.
Historically, the LCK has been one of the slowest regions come the offseason. Teams take their time signing players and frequently stick with large portions of their preexisting lineups. It takes a lot to shake up an LCK offseason, but two straight seasons of lackluster international results did just that. Gen.G became the poster child of the LCK's revamping for 2020.
"For us, we always want to put together a winning roster, but we're also cognizant of the fact that sometimes there's not that many free agents available," Gen.G COO Arnold Hur said. "Of course, everyone talks about the list that Riot has, but that's not the truth. It could be technically correct but not truthfully correct. We want to build a winning roster. It's about windows."
During the 2018 free-agency period, Gen.G's largest hurdle was the retirement of jungler Kang "Ambition" Chan-yong, who had led their team to a world championship title in 2017. Gen.G was not in a position to make sweeping roster changes at that time. Instead, they signed Han "Peanut" Wang-ho as their starting jungler and retained top laner Lee "CuVee" Seong-jin and bot laner Park "Ruler" Jae-hyeok from their world championship-winning lineup.
After failing to make worlds in 2019, it was time for some big roster moves.
"This year, we felt like we were in that window where we could really create a compelling, competitive team," Hur said. "For us, we wanted to prepare as if we had that window available. Obviously, the free-agency market was changing basically every week as we headed into worlds and before, but I feel like we made some certain moves, like the Ruler re-signing, that was a trigger point where we wanted to announce to the world that we were gunning for it and this was our window."
The team dropped eight players, including CuVee and Peanut, sparing only Ruler and Gen.G support Kim "Life" Jeong-min from the roster turmoil. Though the transition was shocking at the start, it set up Hur and his team for sweeping improvements going into 2020. The window was open; it was time to make the most of it.
Here's how Gen.G made the move from offseason observer to dismantling a whole roster -- and then becoming the best team in the world as a result.
Setting a foundation
Gen.G's first signing was made well before the 2019 League of Legends World Championship took place: bot laner Ruler's three-year contract inked on Sept. 22, 2019.
"I want to win LCK and make it to all the international tournaments with the goal of winning it all," he said of his decision to stick with Gen.G through 2022. "I want to become the most renowned ADC in Korea."
"Before we did that Ruler deal, no one did these three-year contracts," other than teams such as T1 with legends like Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok, Hur said. "We really changed the market there because we said we really want to build around our stars. And for Ruler it was like, 'We believe that you're the star.'"
But even something as seemingly simple as offering a player a contract extension has some different steps in South Korea, in large part because of the country's culture. You can't just go to a player or agent with a number like most teams do in North America. In South Korea, contract negotiations are often a family affair.
The first order of business was to contact Ruler's parents and involve them as much as possible through the meeting-and-signing process. Family is a key part of most players' decision-making in South Korea. Ruler's contract extension with Gen.G was not only a chance to involve Ruler's parents in their son's future, but it also allowed Ruler an opportunity to give back to his parents, specifically his father, with Gen.G's help.
Ruler asked Gen.G to throw a surprise thank-you event for his father, and the team did just that through its sponsorship with Cass beer.
Side favors like this seem out of the ordinary but are part of business as usual in South Korea.
"My parents come to the games often, so whenever I see them, I get a boost of extra energy and motivation," Ruler said. "My parents also often bring food for my teammates and me before matches. Honestly, I thank them so much for caring not only me but also my teammates throughout my entire career. I think I've only been able to come this far because of them."
Gen.G had found the player they wanted to build the franchise around, and now it was about finding him a winning team.
An unexpected opportunity
T1 jungler Kim "Clid" Tae-min wasn't expected to be on the market this offseason. Most assumed he would stay with T1 after a successful year and two LCK titles and run it back with Faker for another shot at a world championship.
Instead, he became the most highly sought-after free agent in the South Korean offseason.
"We definitely had great results this year," Clid said of his time on T1 in an interview with Korizon's Ashley Kang at the 2019 League of Legends All-Star event. "However, when I saw other teams win -- of course, each and every member of the team is important, but unity among the players is also important. I wanted to play in a team that's like a group of friends."
Hur began to hear rumors that Clid would be available as the world championship was winding down but didn't know that Clid was a possibility for Gen.G until hours before the opening day of free agency.
"He wasn't even on our draft board of realistic possibilities," Hur said with a laugh. "When we talked to Ruler, he was like, 'Everyone wants to play with Clid. He's one of the best in-game leaders ever on the market. He's very direct. He's a good teammate. He tells you what he's thinking. And he's incredibly smart.' It was a crazy scramble. We were trying to create every scenario possible to see what we could do."
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Gen.G adjusted their entire offseason strategy, drawing up a plan to sign Clid as their top priority. The next morning, Hur knew, likely would decide Gen.G's hopes in 2020.
"As soon as 9 o'clock hit, we're going full force," Hur said. "We're making Ruler wake up early as well. The floodgates were open: How were we going to go and now get this thing done?"
The dawn of the first day
The League of Legends free-agency window opened at 9 a.m. in South Korea. Later that day, Hur, Ruler and other members of Gen.G staff met with Clid and his family. They drew up six different contracts, all with varying options, and laid out the exact lineup that they wanted to have, including Clid in the jungle position.
"Since every player wants to play with Clid," Ruler told Hur, "you get him -- you're going to get everyone you want as a free agent."
"We felt like there were enough free agents that we could make a compelling pitch," Hur said. "So we told Clid, 'I don't know what happened on SKT, but we're trying to do this.'"
At the end of the meeting, Clid thanked Gen.G for their time and told them that he was going to take a look at his other available options in free agency. Hur thought that they had failed.
"For us, we said, 'OK, well, our Plan Zero didn't work. Time to start working on Plan B,'" Hur said. "I assumed that we had our chance, and for whatever reason, it didn't work."
Other players that Gen.G were negotiating with to join their 2020 lineup were waiting to see where Clid ended up before making their own signing decisions, too. He was the star that would start the South Korean offseason, for better or worse for Gen.G.
Hur paraphrased most of the responses he received from players as, "We love Ruler, we love you guys, but what's Clid going to do?"
A few days later, Ruler received a phone call from Clid.
"Normally, it goes to the coaches or the GM or even me, but Ruler gets a phone call that says, 'Hey, let's go win next year,'" Hur said. "And then he's asking stuff like, 'How's the dorm? What kind of food do you eat?' We talked to Ruler after, and he was like, 'Man, I'm going to be so pissed if he doesn't sign with us.'
"We hadn't even discussed terms or salaries or stuff like this. We invited all of the players to show up on the same day ... and they really wanted the chance to play with Ruler, play together. Everything worked out."
Once the Clid domino fell, Gen.G had the exact 2020 lineup that they wanted: Kim "Rascal" Kwang-hee in the top lane, Clid in the jungle, Gwak "Bdd" Bo-seong in the mid lane, Ruler as AD carry and Life at support. Later, Gen.G also picked up support Kim "Kellin" Hyeong-gyu from the Jin Air Green Wings.
The best in South Korea
Gen.G's decision to release eight players and go with an entirely new roster around their bot laner has paid off so far.
At the end of the first round-robin in the LCK, they were in sole possession of first place at 8-1 and were the No. 1 team in ESPN's most recent global power rankings. Their only loss was a close 2-1 series against rival T1 in Week 2.
Gen.G's bread and butter still appears to be 5-on-5 teamfighting, but this team plays more fast and loose than Gen.G teams of the past, especially the inherited Samsung Galaxy roster in 2018. Clid has brought a new energy to this younger lineup, Bdd is having a career split with the best mid/jungle synergy he's ever had on any team and Ruler is further acclimating himself as one of the team's leaders -- perhaps not in the traditional sense of default comms leader, but both in and out of game.
"Honestly, I haven't thought or considered myself to have great leadership, but the head coach and assistant coaches have said that I have the leadership skills," Ruler said. "I always help my teammates practice harder and encourage them when things do not go as smooth during matches or scrims. I think this helps us to believe in each other and become a stronger team."