Damwon Gaming- Beneath the Griffin’s wings

Mush 2019-12-29 03:27:35

The LoL World Championship ended some time ago. The teams, players, experts and most members of the community are completely embroiled in the madness of off-season roster moves and pre-season alterations to the game itself. The LCK is no exception. With the likes of SK Telecom T1 and KT Rolster dropping most of their players, along with Gen.G putting together a fearsome team, the region is undergoing another massive change. Amidst this craze, some of the post-Worlds narratives have dissipated, but I’d like to highlight one that seemed overshadowed throughout the entire tournament: DAMWON Gaming, the LCK’s youngest powerhouse.

Humble Beginnings

 They first came into the scene in 2017 by joining the Challenger’s Korea with MiraGe Gaming’s roster: Lee "Parang" Sang-won, Kim "Crush" Jun-Seo, Kim "Try" Yeong-hoon, Cho "BeryL" Geon-hee (playing ADC) and Ryu "Hoit" Ho-seong. Only two players remain in Damwon (Beryl and Hoit, now both Support players), but it didn’t take long for the team to start building towards today’s impressive roster. After a decent first split in CK —  they finished 5th place with a 7–7 record — the now superstars were signed in Jang "Nuguri" Ha-gwon and Heo "Showmaker" Su. This new line-up attended Kespa Cup 2017, which they lost quite early to JAG, earning them the first taste of what the LCK was like.

 As CK 2018 Spring kicked off, Damwon had a much better showing than in the previous Split, with Jungler Son "Punch" Min-huyk being the sole change to the team. Their impressive 11–3 series record was only eclipsed by Griffin’s historic 14–0 record (and 28–2 in individual games). It was all building up to these two teams being promoted to the LCK together, but Damwon faltered and were convincingly beat by Ever8 Winners.

If you’ve never heard of this team, it just shows that history does not reward isolated victories. Ever8 were relegated in the same split they joined the LCK, and Damwon went on to take their spot along with Sandbox Gaming (who beat MVP).

 Fighting Back

After Sin "Nuclear" Jeong-hyeon joined the squad, they achieved this in dominant fashion, winning CK 2018 Summer with a fantastic 13–2 series record (26–3 in individual games), comically close to Griffin’s numbers in the previous split. It seemed like they couldn’t step out of the shadow of those red wings, but no one could challenge them in the Challengers scene, not even Sandbox (then named Team BattleComics). Damwon’s long awaited rise to the LCK had finally arrived.

 If being hailed as the second Griffin wasn’t enough hype for a newly promoted team, Damwon made sure they would be noticed with an impressive performance in the 2018 Kespa Cup, the first tournament they played with Canyon (completing the current 5 men roster). They made it to top 4, beating SKT’s new superteam in the process and losing only to Griffin, their old arch nemesis who took the entire Cup without dropping a single game. Damwon’s style was the cherry on top of the cake, it felt like a new exciting blood was being pumped into the LCK’s veins. Fantastic individual players, mind-blowing teamfights and a star Top laner that brought the region back a few years to when the likes of Lee "Flame" Ho-jong and Song "Smeb" Kyung-ho left the World in awe. What part of this team wasn’t a pleasure to behold?

Unattainable goals

 LCK Spring 2019 came along and DAMWON Gaming had what was now — due to their hype and Griffin’s previous LCK split — an underwhelming showing. The newly promoted team finished the regular season with an 11–7 record (25–17 in individual games), behind Griffin, SKT, Kingzone and even their old CK partner, SANDBOX. They qualified for playoffs nonetheless and, after getting back at Sandbox with a 2–1 win, lost convincingly to a red-hot Kingzone team. Damwon have already shown us that they only get better with time, and they weren’t going to stop here.

 LCK Summer 2019 began with a lot of uncertainty in the region. SKT, who had dominated the domestic opposition convincingly in the playoffs were taken down by G2 at MSI. It was time to look forward, to watch the new blood rise and overtake the reigning titans, and so it was. As we were reaching the middle of the split, the teams leading the LCK were all the new ones: Sandbox, Griffin and Damwon. Rift Rivals was about to kick off around that time and, despite Sandbox not being able to attend, it was the first opportunity for Nuguri and company to show what they were worth in a (slightly) international stage, giving them a chance to face off against the feared LPL region.

Fearless Rookies

 The tournament was a boost of confidence for the region and a first test that Damwon passed with flying colours. They appeared completely immune to nerves, playing their confident style throughout their games.

The finals against JD Gaming was the quintessential representation of the squad. A draft surrounding two flex picks between the solo lanes, which ended up giving Nuguri a winning match-up; they had a weak early game that was nullified by fantastic skirmishes around Beryl’s Alistar; and the suffocating mid game was capped off by an unanswerable splitpush that gave Damwon an uncontested Baron Nashor. They won the game and took the LCK to a 3–1 win in the finals over LPL, earning them the title of Rift Rivals Champions.

This was the team sending everyone a message: the exciting rookies will play their game, no matter the stage. 

 The LCK resumed it’s usual schedule less than a week after Rift Rivals ended. Damwon had a great showing, but they wanted more. The following two weeks were some of the toughest for the team, which had to face first place Sandbox Gaming and arch-enemy Griffin. The Trials of Fire just kept coming, and Damwon looked unfazed. It took more than a month for them to drop a game and, despite losing two series in week 8, they fought right back and finished the season tied for first place with a 13–5 series record (28–16 in games) — which left them slightly bellow Griffin who had a 29–13 game record.

The first true trial

The team was looking stronger than ever. Nuguri was being the streaky Klepto enthusiast he is, Showmaker was performing to a scary level and Canyon still managed to take the MVP of the whole League with some insane performances. This was a top half of the map that should be feared throughout the globe.

 LCK 2019 Playoffs were here, and with them came another chance for Damwon to prove they weren’t just a weaker rookie squad hiding under Griffin’s shadow. If the stakes weren’t high enough, this was their first shot to reach the World Championship in their first ever LCK season. This was their opportunity to show that they didn’t falter when all was on the line. Alas, the redemption arcs don’t go as smoothly as we would’ve written them, but maybe that’s what makes these narratives so enticing. The rookies — all three of them, actually — got completely crushed by the gigantic boulder of consistency and legacy that is SKT T1. A clean 3–0 that sent Damwon Gaming into the Regional Qualifiers, giving them a third and final chance to prove their worth.

 Their championship points placed them in the final, which doesn’t actually feel like a good sign in the LCK — the last team to qualify from this spot in the bracket was KT Rolster in 2015. Kingzone Dragon X were their intimidating opponent, and they were on their way to complete the classic South Korean sweep of the regional qualifiers that Samsung(now Gen.G) are famous for. If the pressure wasn’t high enough for our enthusiastic rookies, this was historically a poor matchup. They had played each other 5 times before: 4 series wins for Kingzone, 1 for Damwon and a total record of 9–2 in games.

All the signs were pointing to a return to the international stage for Deft, but it was the time for the new blood to show itself, and Damwon wasn’t about to let Griffin shine in front of the entire world without them. After a hard fought war that took both teams to their limits in a 5 game series, Nuguri and company left the stage victorious and headed to the highest peak of League of Legends competition: the World Championship.

 Surpassing expectations

 The season wasn’t about to get any easier for Damwon Gaming so, having to attend the Play-in stage actually felt like a blessing in disguise. They looked shaky and much less threatening against the weaker opposition, but started to get better as each day went by. Despite the plethora of mistakes and poor games, they aced the Play in group stage without dropping a single game and beat LowKey decently enough 3–1.

They had finally ironed their blueprint and, when it worked, it looked absolutely terrifying. The fourth and last game in this Knockout Series was exactly that kind of representation: a couple of early game mistakes immediately nullified by constant skirmishes around mid lane that just make Damwon’s talent shine. Canyon and ShowMaker had officially become one of the scariest mid-jungle duos in the tournament.

 They were drawn into one of the hardest groups in the tournament, having to spar against Team Liquid and 2018 World Champions Invictus Gaming. Nothing seems to come easy for Damwon, but they were true to their nature and looked focused on playing their game, despite what name tags the opposing champions might have above their heads. Liquid did manage to take a game off of the Korean 3rd seed, but they looked absolutely unstoppable against Invictus Gaming. The games were shaky and sloppy — especially in the later stages— but that was part of the Damwon package. It was never perfect, but it sure was exciting to watch.

 The cascade of ever-harder challenges didn’t stop here and, after taking first place in a group of death, Damwon Gaming were drawn against G2 Esports, the favorites to take the entire Championship — funnily enough, Damwon only drew this matchup because Griffin pushed G2 into second place after a tiebreaker. Makes you think, uh?

Reality hits

G2 Esports had their eyes on the prize and put on an amazingly dominant performance. Caps was all over the map and the punishes on Nuclear, Beryl and Nuguri were constant. Even though Damwon took a game off of them, this proved to be an unbeatable challenge, for now. The clash of styles worked too well in G2’s favour and showed the cracks in the Korean team’s armour. It was a close 3–1 loss that got more dominant the longer it went on. The European powerhouse kept dodging Damwon’s strengths, punishing the side lanes’ flaws and avoiding the mid game skirmishes. Even when those happened, the LCK rookies looked unsure and nervous as the games dragged into later stages — this was completely obvious in Game 2, a one sided affair that still took Damwon 40+ minutes to close out.

 They might have been eliminated in the first stage of Worlds Playoffs, but they lost to the favorite to win it all (even though G2 ended up being runner-ups) and were, not only in their first World Championship, but also in their first ever LCK Season.

An even brighter future 

2019 was the year for DAMWON Gaming to rise up and overtake Griffin as the most impressive rookie team to come out of LCK, and I think they at least matched them. The regional domination wasn't nearly as impressive, but they were really good and didn’t look frail in series play, especially in the international stage.

Heading into next year, with Griffin disbanding and the new LCK team (APK Prince) being a mix of experienced and newer players, Damwon Gaming is still the most exciting squad of the new-age of South Korean talent around, so, now more than ever, overlooking them would be a mistake. The team’s only changes were dropping their subs and coach Kim to bring in Zefa (SKT’s former coach). What will this team do with a whole year of experience under their belt and a veteran coach leading them?

2020 is the year for Damwon Gaming to rise up and do what Griffin couldn’t: challenge the old guard for the most prestigious titles and bring the LCK back to the top of the world.

The sky is the limit.

If you enjoyed this piece, follow the author on Twitter at @Kaaaosh. Images courtesy of Riot Games/Lolesports Flickr, Inven.

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