Griffin- The tragic story of the uncrowned kings
This is the first of two articles on Griffin's history.
No greater story
“I would say there is no greater story than six players — all of them competitive rookies at the highest scene — in 2018 LCK coming in and just running through the competition like they are nobody.”
Little more than a month into 2018 Summer Split, LCK Caster Papasmithy couldn’t believe what was unfolding before his own eyes as Griffin, in their first season at the highest level of South Korean League of Legends play, took down Kingzone Dragon X, the then reigning LCK champions with one of the most stacked veteran rosters the region had ever witnessed (Khan, Peanut, BDD, Pray and Gorilla). Alas, a lot of the greatest stories ever written have believably sad endings, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Back in 2017, the now legendary team was still known as NOT BAD.
Related: PapaSmithy: “You look at iG; they have a real shot to take down the top 2-3 LCK teams”
Griffin is born
A few months after its creation, NOT BAD renamed to Griffin. Their first attempt at climbing the mountain that is the South Korean professional scene was in early 2017, with Sword and Rather as the only players that were to stick with the organisation for the next few seasons.
Not long after, Griffin started writing the first lines of what might be the greatest story to ever come out of League of Legends. Those lines had two crucial names mentioned: Tarzan and CvMax. The team added the general-like coach after week 5 and went on to win 5 of the last 6 series in Challengers Korea 2017 Summer. Great things take time to build, so this wasn’t Griffin’s time yet.
A few months went by and Griffin looked much closer to the roster people now know them for. They took down APK Prince and Afreeca Freecs in a quick 2-0 series to qualify for the Kespa Cup 2017 Playoffs with Sword, Tarzan, Rather and the most recent additions Viper and Lehends. Their first shot at leaving a mark in the South Korean community came as they had to face SK Telecom T1, less than a month after Faker and the team returned from Worlds 2017 Finals.
Led by Tarzan’s early game presence, Griffin took the 3 time World Champions to the brink in one of the most exciting series to take place in the tournament. A close Game 1 loss led to a crazy Game 2 win (which took 63 mins) and a crushing 48 min loss in the third and final game— a loss that, in retrospect, is even more painful due to SKT winning the game by out-teamfighting Griffin in the later stages, a quality that later became one of the team’s most iconic traits.
Despite the Kespa Cup 2017 not being broadcast in English, this performance attracted international attention and the team started being hyped up, but no amount of hype could bring you to expect what Griffin was about to do.
The true beginning
2018 was the year of the Griffin and the teams participating in Challenger Korea in Spring couldn’t have foreseen what was about to unfold in front of their own eyes. Griffin, without changing a single player on their roster, crushed their competition incessantly. The team finished the split 14-0 in series and 28-2 in games, a record that has not and might never be broken. The two games they lost were in week 9 and 11 respectively, which means they spent the first 8 weeks of the Split without a single loss.
Challengers Korea began in 2015 Spring and had always felt like a threat to the lowest teams in the main League but not that big of an opportunity to the teams that got promoted. More often than not, those teams got demoted back in the next split. The first and only time a newly promoted team had a good showing in the main League was in LCK 2016 when Jin Air Green Wings managed to finish the split in 4th place. Griffin wanted to remind everyone that Challengers Korea mattered and that new talent didn’t only come in individual players being bought by the biggest organisations.
They joined the LCK in 2018 Spring with a small legacy already build. Their unmatched Challengers Korea split earned them the aura of being team fight gods and they had even gotten a combo named after them by the English Casters, the “Griffin Special” — which consisted of ulting someone as Skarner and then being taxi’d back with a Thresh lantern.
Their first LCK series was against Hanwha Life and the fans were basically divided in half between those who wanted Griffin to succeed and the sceptics who, as Valdes so wonderfully puts it, ask: “Hey this is the LCK, can you really hang with the big boys?”.
The first game was a convincing victory to HLE, but CvMax immediately brought the star rookie Chovy in for the second game. He made his debut playing Yasuo against Lava (who had just played it against Rather) and the team looked much more confident with a more aggressive comp, but the game started as badly as the first one did.
By 23 minutes in, HLE were 6-3 in kills, ahead in gold and had a scary Vladimir scaling alongside Gangplank. When they were knocking at Griffin’s inhibitors, their now famed teamfighting synergy came to fruition in a miracle fight win while being 6K gold behind. The tables turned in the blink of an eye as the red winged rookies made a perfectly coordinated engage that became an Ace, then a Baron, and eventually their first game win in the LCK.
A lot of the mystique surrounding the team came from Headcoach CvMax, who gave a very interesting interview back in September 2018, in which he mentions a lot of his philosophy for the game. The most interesting insight he gives is regarding Griffin’s communication around teamfights: “All five players need to be in sync in relation to looking for opportunities. If you fight to only respond to a shotcall, you will make clouded judgments and make unnecessary movements. Even if it was the correct decision, you'll lose.” The team’s unrivalled late-game teamfighting prowess was the product of a unique recipe, akin to the instinctive synergy more present in a game like Counter Strike, a recipe based on the impressive wordless communication. Truth is, it worked.
Griffin felt like a unit made of 5 harmonious pieces that pounced and retreated in near perfect sync.
A first crack in the armor
Playoffs came around and Griffin looked onward to their next objective: reaching the World’s stage in their first split as an LCK team, but this would only be possible if they could beat both Afreeca Freecs and KT Rolster.
Things were looking bright when they took down an AFs team that looked ready to run through the whole bracket but, despite showing more poise than could ever be expected from a rookie squad, Griffin were taken down by KT’s squad of legendary veterans in a hard-fought 5 game series. This was the first of 4 big series losses that would make the new contenders seem like a team that chokes in the most crucial moments.
Worlds 2018 shook the entire South Korean region to its core. For the first time since 2012, the Summoner’s Cup wasn’t lifted by an LCK team. IG’s dominant win made people ask a question that hadn’t even been considered for years: Was South Korea still the strongest region? Would the LPL take over?
In this time of uncertainty, the LCK needed a new general at the helm. All eyes looked up in search of the Griffin, but its red wings couldn’t hold the weight of the entire region.
In the second and final part of this article we’ll look through Griffin’s highest peak and unavoidable demise.
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Images courtesy of Kenzi's Flickr.