During the 2018 League of Legends World Championship in Busan, South Korea, I sat down for a dinner interview with Fnatic's Gabriël "Bwipo" Rau to discuss his upcoming semifinal matchup against North America's Cloud9. Over hefty helpings of brisket and bulgogi, I probed him about Fnatic's tournament thus far, the teams they had faced and how he would deal personally with C9's top laner Eric "Licorice" Ritchie. Licorice, a rookie playing his first full season as a professional player, had made a quick name for himself through the group stages and an impressive sweep victory over the last remaining South Korean team left in the event, the Afreeca Freecs, in the quarterfinals.
While Bwipo respected Licorice -- Fnatic went go on to sweep the rookie and C9 in a one-sided semifinal -- there were only a few players at his position, the top lane, that impressed him. The first, Song "Smeb" Kyung-ho, was a legend of the position, having played in back-to-back world championship semifinals and was the quintessential all-around top laner in his prime. His next choice, Kang "TheShy" Seung-lok, was, for lack of a better word, a monster; a South Korean wunderkind who moved to China as a teenager before turning pro at 17 and overpowering everyone he came across in the top lane like a shark always sensing blood in the water.
The other top laner that impressed him, though, was someone with no real professional track record to speak of.
"Nuguri," Bwipo said.
Jang "Nuguri" Ha-gwon and his amateur side DAMWON Gaming had recently qualified for promotion in the premier division of South Korean League of Legends. Although he was hyped as the team's star player heading into the qualifying tournament, his performance overall was up-and-down, showing promise but far cry from a player that should be in the same conversation as Smeb or TheShy.
I didn't see the real Nuguri in that qualifying tournament, however, Bwipo pushed. Nuguri wasn't like almost any top laner that the Belgian had ever faced. Where other top laners he practiced against would try to lose gracefully as possible if they lost an edge early, Nuguri didn't understand what the words "graceful" or "lose" meant. Similarly, to TheShy, he was a monster, but one still in his early stages, learning how to transition from playing by himself on the online ladder to the world of professionals.
"I love [playing against] that guy," Bwipo said. I [own] him. He [owns] me. That's the type of player I want in my competition: a guy I know that if he [destroys] me, I'm going to come back stronger and give him something back later."
But how did Bwipo encounter a player and a team that just only qualified as pros a month prior?
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At that point in the world championship, only four teams remained in South Korea vying for the Summoner's Cup, the rest of the world championship clubs already on vacation or on their way home. This left the teams still playing for the championship in quite the predicament, a lack of practice partners available to play against in preparation for the semifinals. Though a slew of the premier South Korean teams were already vacationing, a few were still active, one of them being DAMWON Gaming that were already practicing for the upcoming 2019 season three months before it began.
As the days in Busan and Seoul went on, the names Nuguri, DAMWON and the team's mid laner Heo "ShowMaker" Su were becoming commonplace. It wasn't that they were just going toe-to-toe with the best teams in the world and giving them good practice -- they were beating a lot of them. Like Bwipo had mentioned during our dinner, Nuguri, along with other players on the team, were wild. They were mechanically brilliant and incredibly raw, but when everything fell in the right place in-game, they were unstoppable.
Invictus Gaming won the world championship and their rookie monster TheShy had become an international superstar overnight. At the same time, TheShy was raising the Summoner's Cup, though, Nuguri was back at the DAMWON Gaming house, practicing, awaiting his and his team's turn to take the stage. The rumors of this monstrous amateur-turned-pro South Korean team had begun to swirl, and as I headed back on my flight to the United States at the end of the 2018 world championship, I wondered if the landscape of League of Legends was about to experience a paradigm shift.
"No one can touch them," a manager of a team told me a few days following my landing in Berlin, Germany for the 2019 League of Legends World Championship. The team they were talking about? DAMWON Gaming.
The team's first year as a professional club went as well as one could expect from a newcomer organization. Nuguri and Showmaker blossomed throughout the 2019 season and were aided by the signing of another skillful but incredibly green player, Kim "Canyon" Geon-bu, that bridged the two solo laners in the jungle. DAMWON failed to make a domestic final in their first year in the pros but gathered enough points between the two seasonal campaigns to qualify for the South Korea Regionals, where they eclipsed rival DragonX in the finals to book their ticket to the world championship.
Unlike in 2018, they wouldn't be scrimmaging teams to help them prepare for the world championship. They were in it for real this time, their exuberant and explosive playstyle the antithesis of the South Korean League of Legends playstyle, normally centered around counter-attacking and meticulous vision control, making them a true wild card at the event.
But as I made myself welcome in Berlin with the tournament only a few days out, those same murmurs from the previous year kept reaching my ear, except this time even stronger and more plentiful. If DAMWON Gaming of 2018 was a street fighter with enough raw skill to knockout the best teams in the world, then 2019's version was a refined, even scarier version, with the young and hungry players on DAMWON learning how to play properly together under the guidance of legendary coach Kim Jeong-soo.
For even teams that were doing well in scrimmages and blitzing most of the competition in Germany, DAMWON was one or two steps ahead, their combination of Nuguri and Showmaker winning matches from the laning phase alone. They were making teams take long breaks after their scrimmage blocks due to the extremes they were blowing teams out.
That level of play carried mostly over to the group stage of worlds, with the team dropping their first game to Team Liquid in an upset but then reeling off five-straight wins to clear themselves into the knockout rounds as the No. 1 seed. In the quarterfinals they were matched up with G2 Esports, another of the teams that they had an exceptional winning record against in practice, overrunning them in all but a few of their games.
Yet, once the two squared off in Madrid, Spain and DAMWON were introduced to a raucous sold-out crowd all screaming for the hometown opposition to dispatch them, their confidence made of steel turned into jelly. That aggressive style they brought out in scrimmages was nowhere to be found, and after G2 beat them in four games to eliminate from the tournament, they expressed in the post-match interview that the DAMWON they saw on the stage compared to the one they faced in practice were two completely different teams.
In a recent conversation with C9's starting jungler Robert "Blaber" Huang, he confirmed how dominant DAMWON was in the early stages of their stay in Europe. Through the first few weeks, no one could even get close to them in practice; however, as the event went along and they continued playing on stage in the group and knockout stages, their play started to shrink, C9 going from a team that couldn't steal a game off of them to being capable of beating them by the time they made their exit from the tournament at the end of the group stages.
It was another year where the mythos of "Scrimmage DAMWON" grew, but it was also another year with an unfinished product. Like many young adults, the South Korean rookies backpacked across Europe for a month and learned about what it would take to become world champions. Next year, I thought, on my long plane ride back home, that a myth could turn into a legend.
As I write this DAMWON Gaming are No. 1 in South Korea with a 15-2 record, wrecking everyone in their way en route to a first domestic finals appearance in the organization's short history. Although I've never been privy to watching DAMWON's practice at the world championship, I'd presume their current play comes close to how they looked against the world-class teams they smashed in the past.
They're swift, decisive in their decision making and always looking to be proactive. Instead of letting a game drag until the 30-minute mark to wait for the perfect play to end the game, they continue nudging forward even if it's not always the cleanest decision, the only team in South Korea to hold an average game time under 30. Their new starting AD carry Jang "Ghost" Yong-jun has given the team another dimension to their play, his late-game shot-calling propelling them to continue pushing and never stop.
DAMWON resembles a team from China more so than they do a South Korean juggernaut. Since the game became a phenomenon in South Korea, the country's playstyle has revolved around playing smarter instead of playing harder, outside of a few exceptions like the early days of NaJin Sword and their maverick leader Yoon "MakNooN" Ha-woon. SK Telecom T1's counter-punching way of playing the game and Samsung White's masterful vision control by choking opponents out became the calling cards of South Korea League of Legends. They wouldn't be the first to react and would often find themselves down early in international competition to faster-paced teams, but all it took was one slip up and it was over, the best South Korean teams taking a small advantage and expanding it into a victory.
Year after year the patterned South Korean way of playing the game -- the mastering of the game -- resulted in international champions and champagne baths. That was until 2018, the year where the rumors of DAMWON began, where the script was flipped on its head, the game enabling the team with the faster trigger finger, the teams who could push the pace the best and teamfight the ones rewarded with deep runs in the tournament. The heavy roaming, unorthodox-style of playing the game would extend into 2019, where the two teams who enjoyed moving around the map of Summoner's Rift the most, FunPlus Phoenix and G2 Esports, made the worlds final while all three South Korean teams watched from home.
DAMWON aren't masters of the game. They're uneven, sometimes sloppy when winning. Nuguri, two years removed from when Bwipo first talked to me about him, can still devolve into that rookie he was back then, fighting first and thinking about it later. But as South Korea moves into its third year of not sending a team to the world championship final, their last success in the fall of 2017, maybe DAMWON is just the team needed to take South Korea into the next generation.
For once, South Korea can't try to be perfect. In 2020, at the world championship in Shanghai, they need a team imperfect, one unafraid of losing, to lead them.
In 2018, there were whispers.
In 2019, there were rumors.
In 2020, possibly entering as South Korea's best chance at regaining international glory, there might be screams of victory.