The LCK and LPL have been the regions to fear every year at Worlds, and after MSI they’ve become even scarier. As explained in a tweet, RNG’s win and Damwon’s second place finish gave both regions a fourth Worlds slot. It is undoubtedly a welcome change for both and one to fear for the rest of the world, but does it actually make LCK more of a contender? Given the historical developments in the region and the trajectory it seems to be going in, I’d wager that a fourth seed is actually going to highlight the true problem of LCK, the “one team league”.
A worrying trend
For years the South Korean region was dominated by SKT, a team that was head and shoulders ahead of every other team in the league and, simultaneously, the rest of the world. The Samsung sister teams had their year in 2014 but the years that followed were Faker and Kkhoma’s dynasty. When Samsung returned to the top in that 3-0 2017 finals, the dynasty ended for both the Telecom organisation and the region as a whole. Now that South Korea is back on top — for now, at least — the story is weirdly similar, but with a major downside.
As Griffin and Damwon joined the LCK, the eras changed for the region. Incredibly talented rookie players developed their skills while seeing IG and FPX win the title who had been heading to South Korea for half a decade, and they wanted to be the ones to take the region back to its pinnacle. Griffin imploded in one of the biggest “what ifs” in the history of League of Legends, but Damwon kept going strong and their efforts culminated in a World Championship win in 2020. Summer 2020 was a very familiar story to LCK fans. The number one team completely dominates the region while the 2nd to 5th place teams seem relatively close to each other. The happy ending came with the Summoner’s Cup, but this worrying trend revealed its problems at MSI 2021.
A League with many threats
LPL has an extremely impressive pool of teams in their top 5 and it feels like every year a different roster is on top of the region. Invictus Gaming won the 2018 World Championship after not even managing to win LPL Summer of the same year. FPX had a very convincing Summer 2019 which translated into a World Championship win, but were immediately replaced by two Worlds contenders the following year. Neither Suning nor Top Esports managed to win the championship, but both were dangerous teams. Damwon dominated the tournament, but the two other teams, DRX and GEN.g weren’t even close to being contenders. GEN.g, who had 3-0 Afreeca Freecs in playoffs and T1 in regional finals, in turn got swept by an underperforming G2. The South Korean region wasn’t a threat, Damwon was.
When MSI 2021 came, the story was the same, but with only one team per region, the odds were in LCK’s favour. Yet, the Damwon team that had an aura of invincibility in their home region, the roster who only dropped 2 series in the entire split and who finished their playoffs run with 2 sweeps, got convincingly beaten by RNG in the finals. Not only that, Damwon were forced to a game 5 versus MAD Lions and seemed quite shaky for the majority of the BO1 phase. RNG made it into the MSI stage by the skin of their teeth. Yes, they had a similar regular season to Damwon’s, but they got 3-0d in the playoffs by FPX and needed two back to back 3-2 wins to even make it to the finals. The region was much more competitive amongst the top contenders and RNG cruised through most MSI games. The second place finish sent Korea home with no trophy, but with a haunting question: how many LPL teams can beat Damwon?
It’s impossible to answer the question before Worlds, and maybe everything will have changed by then, but it is reasonable to assume that the regional strength between these two titans isn’t remotely close. How did Damwon’s glaring problems not get exploited in the LCK? How does a League with players like Deft, Teddy, Gumayusi, Keria and Ruler not punish Ghost and Beryl? There’s something wrong with the LCK, but player quality isn’t it. RNG doesn't have South Korean players, but EDG, FPX, IG and JDG have two imports and are all strong teams. What isn’t as prevalent is South Korean coaches.
The isolationist problem
The only team who employs South Korean coaches in the LPL’s top six is Suning. Yet, a lot of LPL coaches are imports, just not from the LCK. Every top six team with the exception of Suning has at least one Taiwanese coach. Yes, Taiwan, the home of Flash Wolves, the Korean kryptonite. This is informed speculation and impossible to ascertain without some amount of risk taking, but what if the LCK’s problem is a coach problem? LS has been saying for years that South Korea exists in a sort of bubble. They are resistant to change, their drafts sometimes feel completely alienated from the rest of the world and this has been a detriment to the region. Yet, the LCK has never tried to import anyone other than YamatoCannon who left Sandbox after a single Split. Every single player and coach in the LCK is Korean. Might it not be time for the isolationist approach to end?
The LPL has shown success with all Chinese rosters, the RNG organisation is a shining example of this, but even they have an imported Taiwanese coach. The Chinese region has risen to the top of the League of Legends world after years and years of importing players and coaches. Maybe it made sense to keep the isolationist stance when these imports were entirely South Korean, but this isn’t the case anymore. Taiwanese coaches are basically the norm in the LPL now and the region only seems to have gotten stronger since the LMS’s decline.
An attempt at importing coaches might not work as well as it did in the LPL, but what is the harm in trying? LCK resurrected from the ashes of SKT’s reign through the efforts of entirely new players. This injection of talent from the Challenger scene didn’t make the veterans worse, it just made the region better. So why don’t teams start taking a risk with their coaching staff and try to shake the foundation of the South Korean culture that has calcified at this point? Maybe Damwon can win Worlds again off of their incredible mid jungle duo, but this isn’t a sustainable plan. The LPL have a never-ending supply of talent and money, and right now they also dominate the macro and more strategic aspects of the game. The advantages South Korea had during SKT’s dynasty do not exist anymore, so something needs to change.
Take some risks LCK, you might have the best team in the World when the right moment comes, but you are not the best region in League of Legends anymore.
Images courtesy of Lol Esports' and LCK's Flickrs.
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