Analyzing the LCK playoff race

The playoff structure in League of Legends Champions Korea is unique compared to other regions.

Instead of a traditional bracket with two sides, it is a gauntlet where the lowest-seeded qualifying teams play to advance to face higher seeds. The fifth and fourth seed play a series, and whoever wins advances to face the third seed, and so-on. This rewards the best team with an automatic spot in the final, while lower  teams must win successive series in order to get there.

This format heightens the competition in the regular season. Throwing series for a favorable bracket is not possible. Higher placings are coveted for an easier path to the final. Most importantly, there are only five — not six, as in the European and North American League Championship Series — spots in the playoffs.

The top seed — what some refer to as the “Final Boss” — was secured by ROX Tigers last week. Even if ROX were to lose its remaining three matches, it would not slip. The four remaining seeds, however, are in heavy contention among seven teams: Jin Air Green Wings, KT Rolster, SK Telecom T1, Samsung Galaxy, CJ Entus, Afreeca Freecs, and Longzhu Gaming.

To complicate the matter, most of them play each other in the final two weeks, which kick off Wednesday with ROX playing KT Rolster and Longzhu playing Samsung.

Looking at the schedules of Jin Air currently second, and eighth-place Longzhu illustrates how close the race for playoffs is. Losses to Afreeca, ROX, and Longzhu would drop Jin Air to 10-8; if Longzhu were to also win against Samsung, SBENU Sonicboom, Afreeca, and Jin Air, it would tie with Jin Air but be seeded higher because of winning the head-to-head.

Which four teams have the best chance of making it?

SKT, for starters, has the easiest schedule of the field. While it must take on Samsung, which recently upset Jin Air, and KT Rolster, it also faces Kongdoo Monster and SBENU, the two weakest teams with only a single win each. SKT’s form since IEM Katowice is markedly improved, with Kang “Blank” Sun-gu comfortably taking over for Bae “Bengi” Seong-woong. SKT shouldn’t have the same struggles against E-mFire (now Kongdoo) as in Week 3 and could repeat its victorious Week 5 performance against KT. SKT’s likely worst record is 11-7, but it will probably finish the last two weeks without a loss.

KT Rolster anticipates competitive rematches with ROX, CJ, and SKT, while Kongdoo offers a buffer. Unless ROX uses its remaining games to experiment wildly — like it did last week with Kongdoo — KT’s path is difficult. Even when SKT was struggling, KT failed to take a single game from the defending world champions in Week 5. A close loss to Afreeca in their previous meeting also bodes poorly, though neither SKT nor CJ’s early game compares to what Afreeca usually accomplishes.

KT’s glaring weak point is its mid laner Song “Fly” Yong-jun, who has to face the impressive rookie Gwak “Bdd” Bo-seong and Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok. KT will have to dig deep to secure second place, but each loss will lessen control over its fate.

Jin Air’s final three games offer no reprieve. Afreeca, ROX, and Longzhu are its remaining opponents, all of them more than capable of defeating Jin Air. Afreeca has achieved several upsets through the season, while Longzhu remains a fickle team, bouncing between highs and lows. Yeon “TrAce” Chang-dong’s performance is imperative to Jin Air’s success, and the team might have to shift him from his recent tank duties back to his carry role used at the start of the season for an extra edge. Jin Air’s participation in playoffs seem certain, but it could lose second place.

Samsung’s situation is precarious. It hangs in fifth, but it has one more loss than the three higher seeds, meaning its best possible record isn’t as high. Its last match is against Kongdoo, but this week’s schedule is concerning: Longzhu and SKT. Samsung will have to rely on its cohesion in the late game under Kang “Ambition” Chan-yong’s leadership against the fumbling Longzhu, but SKT offers a difficult challenge. Ambition’s champion pool has been targeted as of late, and it’s clear that the veteran’s performance on tank junglers pales to his carry junglers, which are simple to ban out. Whether SKT and Longzhu, which also possesses carry junglers, will leave those junglers unbanned is an unknown, but it is a fail-safe.

CJ and Longzhu’s chances are slim because of their weak records. CJ’s Bdd has been great, along with the duo lane, but Park “Bubbling” Jun-hyeong remains a glaring weak point. Longzhu’s 10-man roster experiment has failed, with the numerous lineup swaps holding it back rather than circumventing the enemy strategies. Even if Longzhu were to win the remainder of its games, top teams need to go on losing streaks.

Afreeca Freecs stand as the only team outside of the top five with a decent chance to clinch a playoff spot. It has accomplished many upsets throughout the season by taking series from SKT, KT, and Samsung. Afreeca’s early game remains its greatest strength; averaging a gold lead of 398 at 15 minutes, Afreeca is third in the league for early leads. If Afreeca gets staple champions like Twisted Fate, it has no problem creating advantages, but its decision making suffers as games drag on. It will have to end quickly against Jin Air and CJ, somehow upset ROX, and overwhelm Longzhu in the early game to be guaranteed playoffs as Korea’s dark horse.

The one factor outside of Afreeca’s control is Samsung: Samsung has to win only two of its three games to match Afreeca’s best possible record, and Samsung owns the tiebreaker over Afreeca because of the head-to-head record. Samsung therefore must lose two games while Afreeca wins four to make it to playoffs. It’s not impossible, but Afreeca lacks control over its destiny.

LCK’s final weeks will be intense. Every match has staggering implications, and being in top form is critical for everyone. It’s a preview of what is to come from League of Legends’ most competitive league in the world.

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