Stuchiu: “How to beat Korea” in League of Legends and tales of unexpected success elsewhere

The eventual ambition of all League of Legends teams outside of Korea has always been the same: To beat Korea.

The topic was reignited when Unicorns of Love manager wrote a long post about beating the Koreans. This article isn’t about that. It isn’t even about overall strategy, compositions or potential teams that could beat the Koreans. That’s not my specialty. Instead, I’ll break down in concrete detail the problems involved in defeating Koreans, possible solutions to overcome then and examples outside of League of Legends for context.

First, let’s do away with two wrong assumptions. Toxic, immature behavior and the tendency to import Korean players are usually cited as the major hurdles for domestic scenes to overcome. These are obstacles but not impossible ones to overcome.

Toxicity is a blanket term that can range anywhere from bad teammate, bad attitude, lazy or passive aggressive. I won’t deny that having a friendly and harmonious atmosphere is better than a “toxic” environment if all other factors are equal, but there are plenty of examples that show that toxicity hardly mattered in the case of multiple championship winning teams across esports. It is an open secret that Newbee won The International 4 while screaming and punching each other at the tournament itself. In Counter-Strike, SK Gaming had massive internal issues with Lincoln “fnx” Lau throughout 2016 but still won two Majors and took top four at almost every event it attended. Some of the Dennis-era Fnatic members admitted to working in less than an optimal environment, even coming to loathe each other during their winning streak. Evil Geniuses has been one of the most consistent Western Dota 2 teams in history in spite of the contentious, often cancerous interpersonal dynamics. In Jacky “EternaLEnVy” Mao’s words, “I’ll go on the record and just say that they are the most cancerous team in the world, I have no idea how they still haven’t disbanded yet, but like when it matters they put all their bullshit aside and just do whatever’s necessary to win and trust each other fully.” In the case of Korean teams, we have no idea whether a soap opera is occurring behind their pristine image. However, professionalism and the conviction to win supersedes any of their personal beefs.

As for imported Korean players being the problem, I don’t know how that ever popped up. Based on historical data alone, two of the most successful non-Korean teams in recent memory have been the Fnatic lineup with Heo “Huni” Seung-Hoon and Kim “Reignover” Ui-Jin and the EDward Gaming lineup that beat SK Telecom T1 to win the 2015 Mid-Season Invitational. I guess you could argue that buying out Koreans is an expensive shortcut to success, but one that the West can pay for now that investment from sports teams is becoming a more regular occurrence. We can talk all day about infrastructure, team harmony and game knowledge, but at the end of the day the best players generally win, and many of the best players in the world are Korean.

With that out of the way, there’s a simple question: what is the goal? It should be a no-brainer. The ultimate goal is to win the world championship. How do you do that? A team has to qualify for worlds, get to the playoffs and then win three best-of-five series. Looking at it that way, the question isn’t whether a team can “beat the Korean scene” in the abstract sense, but whether it can beat three specific Korean teams, who also qualified for worlds, in long series. It’s likely a non-Korean team will only need to play one or two of them across that span.

If we look at it that way, then the conceit becomes a lot more plausible. We aren’t trying to make a scene that can match the Koreans on all levels. That seems implausible — the changes in infrastructure and attitude across the player base is too immense to fathom. Neither are we trying to make a team that can consistently beat a Korean team every time they play. It’s not like this hypothetical team will face a top-tier Korean team 10 times and need to win six of those encounters. At most we’re trying to upset two Korean teams in two best-of-five series. That is the real dilemma, and no Western team has been able to accomplish it.

When the problem is framed that way, the three most important considerations are team, style and timing. Team is a complicated subject as it involves multiple factors from players, chemistry and balance to champion pool and economic constraints of the organization. On this front, Kelsey Moser points out the critical importance of picking players beyond their general skill level. It’s crucial for organizations to have good talent scouts or else the entire endeavor will prove fruitless (and costly!).

There are a multitude of philosophies you can use to build a team. In the end, I’ll say a Western team needs at least two archetypes to upset a Korean team: a superstar and a leader. Nearly all world-class teams in any game have a superstar player who can take a game over with individual skill. That player is your X-factor, the one who can take you out of a ditch if shit hits the fan. The other essential ingredient is a leader who commands respect and understand what’s necessary to win. As Nick “LastShadow” de Cesare notes, the efficiency in macro is one of the biggest disparities between top Korean teams and the West. That’s a mechanical handicap across the entire team, and the only way you could make up that difference is with a world-class shot-caller.

The difference between the quality of the solo queue between regions is important. Many have expressed that Korea is far superior to North America as players take it more seriously. As you can’t force NA players to take the game seriously in that realm, it might just be better to incentivize them by giving out prize money to the top X amount of players on the ladder. Of course, that opens an entire sea of potential problems in and of itself, but there’s not necessarily a perfect answer.

Now let’s move on to style. Brood War legend Ma “sAviOr” Jae Yoon once said, “Embrace what makes you different; become the only person you can be.” I’ve watched multiple esports games over the years. I’ve seen the best players rise and fall in BW, StarCraft 2, the fighting game community, Smash, Dota 2, League of Legends and CS:GO. The majority of champions and upset champions (that is what we’re trying to create here) have one thing in common: they had a unique style that set them apart from the rest of the competition.

SK, formerly Luminosity Gaming, is a great example of a team from a minor region that become a powerhouse. In CS:GO, Brazil wasn’t on the radar in any sense; in terms of a starting point, they had much less than any Western team in League of Legends currently. There was no team, no sponsors, no local tournaments, no leaders to rally around, and no internationally known players. Gabriel “FalleN” Toledo and the Brazilian squad became legends for getting past all of these problems and then becoming the best team in the world in 2016. While the entire story is an epic in itself, the two most pertinent details are practice method and style/composition of the team.

North American CS:GO often used the excuse that regional practice wasn’t up to snuff. European teams were much better and derived from a deeper player pool. Thus when EU teams practiced against each other, they naturally improved at a faster rate, increasing the gap. The Brazilians blew that reasoning out of the water. Both SK and IMT became strong CS:GO teams while both got their primary practice on NA servers. The reason was because of a much more structured approach to practice. The level of the opponents only played a minor factor in their regime. As long as the team knew what strategies/tactics they are practicing and why they are doing it, they could glean useful feedback. This is a similar philosophy to what many of the best Brood War players did: it isn’t who you practice against, but how you practice.The second detail is that this team came into power because of FalleN’s approach to the game. He taught them a system based on positioning and proper rotations that emanated throughout the entire team. They worked together with great discipline to close out games in a systematic manner that has yet to be duplicated by any CS:GO team.

The most relevant example from Dota 2 is MVP Phoenix. For background information, the Korean Dota 2 scene is a wasteland; right now there are no players, no servers, and no local tournaments. It never took off among the public, being overshadowed in all respects by League, and only received limited support for a couple of tournaments. Despite that, MVP Phoenix rose from being the only relevant Korean team to a strong international force. After reaching the quarterfinals in TI5, they went on to exceed all expectations. They won Dota Pit Season 4 and WePlay Season 3 in the span of two months, took fourth at the Shanghai Major and finished just shy of the semifinals of TI6. They did what few teams are willing to do. They took the best possible five players they could get in the region and created their own approach, which was affectionately known as “caveman” Dota. Their entire style emphasized their aggressive, mechanically apt talent and amped it up to its highest possible level. While this style couldn’t win consistently against the best teams, that wasn’t the point. It gave them their best chance at winning against international competition. Although MVP ultimately disbanded, they proved a scene deficit of all resources can still find a way to win against an elite field.

These are only two examples of teams from inferior regions being able to upset the best teams from better regions. I could talk about Infiltration in Street Fighter, KaneBlueRiver in Marvel vs Capcom 3, Stephano in SC2, and a dozen other exceptions who overcame their environments to become the best of the best. They all have something in common and that is that they built their expertise off their unique traits. They found out what they were best at doing and then went all-in on that style. As Bruce Lee said, “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks one time each, but the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”

Finally let’s bring timing into account. The League of Legends calendar is split into four parts: spring, MSI, summer and worlds. If your plan is to beat Koreans at worlds, then it seems the only answer is use spring season as a warmup. You cannot make winning it the priority. Put in enough effort to get points to help qualify for Worlds, but otherwise don’t work 100 percent during that season.

Why? Whatever the sport, human beings have limited reserves of focus and temporary peaks in form. It’s common knowledge among athletes that one must alternate between periods of dedicated practice and periods of relaxation; similarly Jonathan “Fatal1ty” Wendel, one of the early Quake Champions, was a master at knowing how to practice and peak for an event so that he could be at top condition heading in. Too much relaxation will break motivation and concentration. Too much practice over a stretch of time can backfire and degrade a player’s form when they need to be in peak condition. You will need to be at peak condition at worlds, and if you go 100 percent from the start, you will be practicing for nearly the entire year. Keeping that level of focus without any downtime in between can be detrimental to a team. That is what teams must consider heading into Worlds. Cloud9 coach Bok “Raepered” Han-Gyu said overlooking this aspect was one of the reasons why Cloud9 lost at worlds last year: “Last season, I think our team (peaked) way too quickly, and I knew from the beginning that the team wouldn’t win worlds.”

The last relevant factor is luck. You can have the best team in the world, the best synergy, and the best compositions, but none of that matters if Riot patches you out of the game. Sometimes it doesn’t matter how much you work; a titanic change can blunt your edges and throw the entire team into disarray. Even if you do get lucky and Riot spares you from their wrath, you still have to get lucky with your players. High level tournaments almost never happen in League of Legends, so it’s almost impossible to prepare your squad through experience. You may have an incredible player, a true superstar, that flops on that vital day for reasons that can never be discerned. Was he unlucky? Does he have a legitimate choking problem? If you never reach that point again it can’t be answered and addressed.

Finally, you have to realize that there isn’t any surefire way to beat a top-tier Korean team. What I’ve outlined are ways that should increase your odds at beating the Koreans at Worlds. In the end, such a feat still involves skill, time, and a hefty dose of luck. There isn’t any guarantee it will work at all, but if you don’t try, why the hell are you here anyway?

Cover photo courtesy of Riot Games

Slingshot senior columnist. StarCraft and CS:GO expert who pushes narratives over numbers.

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