The story of Korean League of Legends in 2015 starts with a pen on paper. More specifically, it starts with Chinese billionaires signing the top talent from the best Korean players and fielding them in their own rosters. NA and EU quickly followed suit. After all, if you couldn’t beat them, then buy them.
It was a cataclysmic move because 2015 League Champions Korea looked to be the most competitive league to have ever been made in League of Legends. With the dominating victory of Samsung White at the League of Legends World Championship to cap the 2014 season, it looked to widen the gap between Korea and the rest of the world to unreachable margins. The Korean esports machine had arrived in full. Korea was already producing the best teams and the best players, and the gap could only widen as the two Samsung teams had dominated the field in 2014. Korea is a scene run by systemic egotism, the drive to be the best, the drive to win. These were two of the greatest teams assembled in League history and their very existence in Korea would have forced every other team in the LCK to chase them or die trying. It was to be the end of all hope for any non-Korean team to win Worlds and it was to be the beginning of a Brood War type of scene in the LCK.
Instead we had the dissolution of the top teams and talent from Korea spread across the world. The Samsung teams were dissolved. The dragon balls were split. Exodia had been disassembled. Two of the greatest teams in the world vanished in a single night. Competitors around the world sighed a breath of both regret and relief. Regret at what had been lost and relief that they didn’t have to climb what seemed to be an insurmountable mountain.
The dream of a Korea that exponentially pushed the boundaries of what could be done in League was gone, and the dream lay dormant as Korea slowly rebuilt until this year. Korea’s international dominance remained intact, but with so many stars leaving the region, it felt a bit hollow.
Now, the dream of a hyper competitive Korea has been brought back to life. The Koreans are coming home. Not all of them, but this time around the LCK teams seem to have gotten first pick of their talent pool. This has already created two potential world-beating teams in SKT and KT. SKT got Han “Peanut” Wang-Ho, ROX’s former star jungler, while KT rebuilt the entire team around their star jungler Go “Score” Dong-bin. He was the draw that made Song “Smeb” Kyung-ho Kim, “Deft” Hyuk-kyu, Cho “Mata” Se-hyeong and Heo “PawN” Won-seok join KT. Few of the other LCK teams have committed to a roster, but the future looks intense as many of the Korean stars that went abroad are interested in going back.
A few things to consider about this. First, Korean pros came to realize it was almost impossible to bring their money back home without work visas from China. Subsequently, Chinese organizers are now requiring Korean players to have the work visa — which isn’t easy for a foreigner to acquire. In addition to that, Chinese streaming has become more regulated.
This hasn’t been explicitly stated anywhere, but the ROI for spending millions on Korean players can’t be that high given the region’s consecutive disappointing appearances at the League of Legends World Championship. Finally, every KeSPA team except Jin Air dissolved its StarCraft 2 squad which should give all of the teams more money and resources to funnel into other areas, of which League could be included.
The reason all of this is so fascinating is because we are one step closer to the Brood War scene in Korea. That particular esport was unique. All of the best players played in Korea. On top of that, the game hadn’t been patched since its early inception. There aren’t any competitive disciplines that I know about where all of the best players and up-and-coming players are in one region and then they are turned loose on each other for a decade to prove who was the best.
The Brood War scene was a combination of Highlander and Groundhog’s Day. By the very end of the tournament, there could only be one player left standing, but then it starts all over again. The ritual starts anew and all competitors armed with their newfound knowledge and experience fight each other to the death again. Again and again in a beautiful display as they pushed the human limits of what could be done in a singular game. Brood War was the perfect scene if you wanted to watch the very best push each other to their absolute limits of what they could do in a game.
2017 LCK isn’t quite like that. It’s more similar to the 2012-2014 years of SC2, where Korea was still the best region, but there were still top players who played outside the sphere of Korea. League is the same, as there are still Koreans and non-Koreans outside of Korea who are at the top level that are cut off from competing in the Korean circuit. There is also the fact that unlike SC2 from that time period, there are no international open tournaments where anyone could compete on a regular basis.
Despite that, this is one of the most exciting years to watch LCK. The players who have been slowly developed since 2014’s “Korean exodus” are in their prime. The exported star players are coming back. The players new and old will compete against each other. Sword will sharpen sword, and by the end of 2017 we will see the game pushed to its limits in such a way that hasn’t been seen since the dissolution of the Samsung teams in 2014.
Cover photo courtesy of Riot Games