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Stepping out from behind the shadow of the Tigers, a new Longzhu rises to the top of LCK

The new Longzhu was on display in the LCK final.
The new Longzhu was on display in the LCK final.

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA — Han “Peanut” Wang-ho runs into his former teammate, Kang “GorillA” Beom-hyeon, accidentally. The main pathway that circles the interior of the Jamsil Students’ Gymnasium is narrow and branches off multiple times. They meet at one of the branching intersections, just beyond the entrance to the gymnasium floor press area.

Their chattering voices carry through the hallway, empty save for the players themselves, a few staffers, and various members of the media who are trickling into the booth. As the door to the gymnasium opens and closes, loud clanging sounds are heard from the stage itself. The door closes and Peanut’s nasal, more guttural tone is heard first, followed by the lower warmth of GorillA’s voice.

Five minutes later, approximately three hours before the 2017 League Champions Korea summer final between Longzhu Gaming and SK Telecom T1, GorillA herds two of his younger teammates through the maze of passageways.

A little over a year ago, GorillA would have been found leading Hae “Cry” Sung-min and perhaps Peanut through the motions of another LCK final. He would have run into Bae “Bengi” Seong-woong in the hallway, exchanging a courteous greeting before going their separate ways rather than chatting merrily with Peanut, now the starting jungler for SKT, GorillA’s opponent in the final.

The shadow of the ROX Tigers still hovers, presence felt, a year after the Tigers’ first domestic title.

It’s impossible not to think of the 2016 ROX Tigers when sizing up this year’s Longzhu Gaming. Not only is Longzhu centered around the former ROX bottom lane of GorillA and veteran AD Carry Kim “PraY” Jong-in, but the fracturing of the famous Tigers lineup has loomed over the entirety of the competitive League of Legends year in Korea. At the start of 2015, the then-HUYA Tigers appeared at a crucial historical juncture, breathing new life into Korean League of Legends at an uncertain time. Sister teams had been disbanded. A large amount of top talent had left the region in what was quickly dubbed “The Korean Exodus.”

And then there were the Tigers: A group of five players who tore through the 2015 LCK Spring regular season with style and flair. Their passion for the game was undeniable and their enthusiasm on and off the Rift infectious. Starting with middling community expectations — GorillA was the only star, Song “Smeb” Kyung-ho a weak top laner, and PraY non-existent in the scene since he was unceremoniously dumped by NaJin Black Sword — and next-to-nothing when it came to a popular name or branding, the Tigers took the new LCK by storm.

By the team’s breakup last year, the Tigers were a household name in Korean League of Legends: a scrappy, unexpected powerhouse that could go toe-to-toe and more often than not best longstanding organizations with non-endemic titular sponsors like Samsung Galaxy and KT Rolster.

The ex-ROX players’ popularity is visibly reflected in the Longzhu merchandise booth, where hairpieces for GorillA and his laning partner PraY have long since sold out. A mountain of Cuzz pins remains alongside a smaller pile of pins for top laner Kim “Khan” Dong-ha and the final few with mid laner Gwak “Bdd” Bo-seong.

Next to the Longzhu tent, an entire merchandise booth is dedicated to SKT mid laner Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok. The lines at Faker and SKT’s tent beside it dwarf that of Longzhu. Longzhu doesn’t have a line, but an intermittent stream of browsers, some of whom already sport SKT memorabilia.

“I was hoping for worlds, but now I’m glad I’m not relegated. I envied all of them: Kuro, Smeb, and so on. They also whined but I couldn’t understand.” – Longzhu AD carry Kim “PraY” Jong-in

Two hours before the final begins, players from both teams file into their respective booths to test their equipment and peripherals. Media immediately flock to the side of SKT, where Peanut, Park “Untara” Ui-jin, Bae “Bang” Jun-sik, and Lee “Wolf” Jae-wan are setting up. Cameramen wave and smile at Peanut. They signal to Wolf, trying to coax out his signature pose. Faker joins the group later, prompting another round of photographs.

Longzhu’s side of the stage is quieter outside of the booth but a bit louder inside of it, as players joke with each other during setup.

Before the games began, Longzhu’s full 10-player roster stands together onstage. The sickly-sweet syrupy smell of the fog machines mixes with the acrid scent of stage pyrotechnics as the booths are lowered onto the stage. A few of the Longzhu players cough. Khan points his fingers and kick-steps out when the camera pans to him. Cuzz, eyes almost impossibly wide behind his round glasses, places his hands beneath his chin in a cute pose. When the confetti cannons sound, none of them jump, though a few express mild annoyance, brushing the large gold flakes from their uniforms and hair.

The team atmosphere of Longzhu’s players is strong, though some of the players, especially the veteran duo of GorillA and PraY, play up their own confusion and bewilderment at the team’s presence in the finals. They embrace Khan as their resident trash-talker, while the rest of the players rib each other more often than their opponents.

“I don’t even remember Khan playing,” PraY jokes in Longzhu’s video introduction. The video plays in the background during team warmups.

Often mistaken for a rookie like his teammate Cuzz, Khan has been playing professionally since 2013. His first big splash was an auspicious and well-planned upset victory over SK Telecom T1 S in OGN’s 2013 Champions Spring tournament, where he completely took over the game on Jax.

Three and a half years and seven teams later, Khan has found his home on his eighth organization, Longzhu Gaming.

Longzhu opens the series against SKT with Khan’s Jax. Like that April 2014 series against SKT T1 S and many individual games in between, Khan becomes an uncontrollable force on the Grandmaster at Arms. Longzhu has come prepared for this match with strong lanes and a default split-push style that relies on Khan’s impressive dueling prowess. The team has had obvious and exploitable weaknesses all split, but this is the first time where they truly don’t seem to matter because of how Longzhu leverages team strengths of laning and individual talent in 1-v-1 or 2-v-2 matchups.

Presumably, Longzhu is aware that SKT has vastly superior team-fighting, a stronger jungler in either Peanut or Kang “Blank” Sun-gu, and the perpetual ace up its sleeve in Faker. Longzhu circumvents SKT’s strengths by doubling down on split-push and waveclear. Khan and company don’t plan to fight SKT as a group unless it’s during an aggressive early turret dive. Instead, they take advantage of a few early mistakes from SKT. Peanut fails to punish Cuzz’s Zac early, opting to hover more around the mid lane instead to help snowball Faker’s LeBlanc. This choice seems innocuous in the moment, but ends up a key factor in SKT’s Game 1 loss.

Khan draws a Jax ban in Game 2, and all subsequent games in the series. In Game 2, SKT decides to match Longzhu’s split-push with a triple-split composition with Shen, Ekko, and Twitch. Game 3 sees the substitution of top laner Heo “Huni” Seung-hoon for Untara, an aggressive 1-v-1 top laner to match Khan’s dueling, split-push style.

Initially, the substitution works. Huni benefits from Blank attacking Cuzz’s Zac like Peanut should have done in Game 1 and ends up 5/0/1, crushing Khan’s Camille. The crowd, approximately three quarters in favor of SKT, comes to life after two disappointing losses. Longzhu has a small, vocal fan base, but their voices are immediately drowned out by the sheer number of SKT supporters.

Khan roars back in the deciding Game 4 on his signature Jayce. Given Gragas, Cuzz is far less of an early game liability for his laners, and Longzhu punctuates the series victory with an impressive 25-minute Game 4 win, the shortest game time of the night.

GorillA leads the group to the Champions trophy. PraY waves his arms at the crowd while the rest of Longzhu trails behind him. As the group stands around the trophy, awkwardly shuffling their feet with beaming smiles on their faces, PraY and GorillA step forward, guiding their teammates in their first-trophy raising. Another round of confetti cannons goes off. Khan elbows Bdd, who is overwhelmed and sobbing. Relegated in his debut season and benched for all of spring split, Bdd finally steps into the spotlight promised to him, back when he was a CJ Entus trainee.

More than half of the crowd has already left the gymnasium.

Nearly an hour after the final SKT nexus falls, the starting lineup of Longzhu Gaming lounges at the head of the press room, waiting to field questions from the media. They look exhausted but happy, perusing social media on their phones and giggling to themselves, presumably at community reactions to their victory. Cuzz is still staring, wide-eyed, at his surroundings, as if he is anticipating waking up and finding out that this championship and worlds ticket as Korea’s first seed is all a dream. Khan provides the proverbial pinch by roughly picking gold confetti from Cuzz’s hair. It’s not a dream.

“I’m happy that we won the finals today, and I will work to be a player that can win in the future seasons as well,” Khan says when introductions begin. GorillA leans over, pantomiming how Khan and later Cuzz should hold the microphone while speaking. PraY laughs.

Despite outward appearances, similarities in good team atmosphere and veteran leadership from PraY and GorillA, Longzhu is not the second coming of the ROX Tigers. Longzhu’s victory showed a strong understanding of team strengths, but this starting five has nowhere near the amount of synergy, coordination, or depth that the Tigers embodied.

Camaraderie is palpable between the Longzhu players, but there is a separation, a thin but inescapable distance between the friendly warmth of the 2016 ROX Tigers and this Longzhu starting five. PraY and GorillA’s experience is more defined in relief to the mistakes made by their younger teammates, and Longzhu isn’t a unit yet.

Yet, at the end of 2016, the Tigers appeared tapped. They could have stayed together and continued as the Tigers, but beyond even monetary reasons for splitting, the Tigers seemed to have hit their peak in their series against SKT in the world semifinals. They laid everything bare at Madison Square Garden and still fell short of beating SKT. After two years with nearly the same roster — Peanut in for Lee “Hojin” Ho-jin and the occasional Cry substitution for Lee “KurO” Seo-haeng notwithstanding — it was time for the members of the Tigers to move on.

This Longzhu is a worse team, but has shown an enormous amount of improvement. These five haven’t shown signs of reaching their ceiling and will only continue to grow.

Photos courtesy of OGN/screenshot

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