The coming of spring for most is signified by the snow starting to melt and the flowers starting to bloom, but for us League of Legends fans, it means that the long, painful wait is over; competitive League of Legends is back. The 2019 LCK Spring Split is here and things are already heating up. 2018 culminated with an embarrassing collapse at Worlds from Korea as a region. But, much like the flowers, Korea has a chance to grow anew and come back stronger than ever.
These 10 players are here for different reasons. Some are well established superstars. Others, are players with a chip on their shoulder and a lot to prove. Regardless, the stakes are higher than ever for the LCK to redeem themselves and reclaim the title of strongest region. For the first half of South Korea’s redemption arc, keep your eyes open for these players.
Afreeca Freecs: Son “Ucal” Woo-hyeon (Mid)
It’s very rare to see a young, rookie player come right out of the gate with tons of confidence. Usually, players that are debuting have the raw skill, but need some time to develop confidence playing on stage. However, when Ucal stepped in to replace Heo “PawN” Won-seok as KT’s mid laner, it was immediately clear that he was a natural. Originally known for being an aggressive solo queue Taliyah mid one trick, Ucal went far and beyond what KT needed from him. KT needed a mid laner that wasn’t a liability, but what they got instead was one of the best control mid laners in the world.
Many may be surprised to see Ucal depart from KT. However, being on Afreeca could be exactly what he needs to transition from a super rookie into a future legend. At first glance, the switch is a good fit for both parties. The Freecs are known for their long practice hours, creative drafts, and guidance from StarCraft legend/ Afreeca head coach Choi “iloveoov” Yun Sung. Ucal’s mastery of mid priority should free up Spirit to be creative with his pathing, giving a flexible team even more flexibility.
Afreeca is a big test for Ucal. On KT last year, his teammates happened to be some of the greatest players of all time. While the Freecs have amazing players in their own right, they don’t have the same firepower as some of the other teams in this year’s LCK spring split. Will Ucal fall victim to the sophomore slump, or will he continue his rise to super-stardom? Afreeca’s playoff chances may just bank on the latter.
Damwon Gaming: Jang “Nuguri” Ha-gwon (Top)
About a year ago, the legendary solo queue Mid laner Jeong “Dopa” Sang-gil (formerly known as Apdo) was asked a question in one of his videos about other good solo queue players in Korea. He responded with an account named 슬라임 Lv8. Translated into English, it means Slime level 8, a Maplestory reference. This was the smurf account for Nuguri, who now finds himself in the LCK for the first time at the age of 19. Nuguri, alongside his mid laner Heo “ShowMaker” Su, represents the next generation of top tier solo laners in Korea.
Nuguri is one of the few top laners who consistently does the largest damage share for his team. While the solo queue phenom is particularly well rounded, he truly shines on damage carries where he can utilize his sublime laning phase to get himself leads. He is also quite innovative in solo queue, popularizing the ignite/teleport Akali top, Kleptomancy Jayce against tanks, and the E max Viktor top lane with Summon Aery into squishy champions. Korea has always been known for its exceptional top laners. Nuguri is not only the future of the LCK, he wants to prove that he is the present. If Damwon borrows Griffin’s Cinderella Story from last year, expect Nuguri to be the big reason why.
Gen.G: Kim “Life” Jeong-min (Support)
Coming into the 2018 KeSPA Cup, Gen.G’s roster for many left much to be desired. Despite the high profile signing of Han “Peanut” Wang-ho as their jungler, the bad taste left from Gen.G’s 2018 Worlds flop was still fresh. While analysts were underwhelmed by this roster, Gen.G managed to be a pleasant surprise, making it all the way to the Finals where they were swept by Griffin. As for the team itself, Gen.G’s pleasant surprise was the debut of support player Life.
It’s incredibly difficult to fill the shoes of former World Champion Jo “CoreJJ” Yong-in, let alone keeping up with Park “Ruler” Jae-hyuk, one of the best ADC’s in the world. Life managed to do that, and then some. The 18 year old rookie showcased exceptional engages both in and out of lane with Alistar, while also showing his peeling prowess on the likes of Tahm Kench. As a Gragas support main in solo queue, Life’s playstyle is extremely aggressive. Gen.G’s main win condition is in Ruler, and luckily, Ruler is also an aggressive player in and out of lane. If Life is able to keep improving his synergy with Ruler and set him up for god carry status, Gen.G will be a sleeper to represent Korea at Worlds. Coming from a team that looked dead at Worlds in 2018, can Life give this team his namesake?
Griffin: Lee “Tarzan” Seung-yong (Jungle)
The King of the Jungle himself. There is not a more accurate name in League of Legends to describe a player. Don’t believe it? Go back and rewatch the VOD’s of Tarzan’s Aatrox jungle in Game 2 of their set vs. Afreeca and his Sejuani play in Game 3 of the Finals vs. Gen.G. The rank 1 jungler who had 3 accounts in the top 10 of Korean challenger has taken competitive League by storm. A year ago, he was the best kept secret in Korea, a hyped solo queue jungler who hadn’t yet proven his worth on the LCK stage. Fast forward to today, Tarzan’s jungle VOD’s are viewed as a treatise on the art of jungling by analysts and professional junglers alike.
The expectations for this team are uncharted territory for Griffin. They haven’t had the chance to play the role of the conqueror. They have always been the underdogs. And truth be told, we haven’t ever seen a team like Griffin before. A super team of rookies that communicate as if they are a hive mind. An aggressive team that plays textbook Korean macro with their own unique twists. A team that challenges the way that League has been played for nearly a decade. As fans of competitive League of Legends, we are in uncharted territory as well. When all is said and done, will we look back at Griffin as a what-if? One of the many teams with glimmers of transcending how we play League, only to narrowly come up short and be lost to time? Or will Griffin find themselves in the same breath as SKT?
Every player on this team is outstanding, including Choi “Sword” Sung-won who is often singled out as the weak link. But Tarzan is the glue that holds this team together. The whole team plays around Tarzan’s penchant for making things happen while committing as few mistakes as possible. The expectations for Tarzan and Griffin are a lot to shoulder, especially for a team that hasn’t even been in the LCK for a whole year. Only the King of the Jungle could shoulder that.
Hanwha Life: Gwon “Sangyoon” Sang-yun (ADC)
In a region with past and current legends like PraY, Deft, and Bang, Sangyoon’s name is often overlooked, especially in the West. In Korea, Sangyoon is actually a very popular streaming presence, but even still his name doesn’t hold the same weight as the aforementioned players. A huge reason why is the lack of success that Sangyoon’s teams have had in the past. The most successful roster Sangyoon has been a part of, the Afreeca Freecs in 2016, lost in the first round of the playoffs and the second round of the regional qualifiers. Despite all of this, Sangyoon has quietly been putting up PraY-like numbers for his teams. While Sangyoon isn’t an Uzi-caliber laner, he has one of the largest champion pools for his position outside of Griffin’s Park “Viper” Do-hyeon and routinely pops off in teamfights.
This LCK offseason marked the split of many fan favorite bot lane duos. Deft and Mata. Bang and Wolf. Even PraY and GorillA. Key and Sangyoon are going on their third year of playing with each other, something they can use to their advantage against the newly formed duos this split. Hanwha Life’s squad has a lot of solid players, but in 2019 that’s not enough to make it to playoffs. Hanwha in a lot of ways represents an “island of misfit toys” kind of team. If this team wants to make it to the playoffs, Sangyoon needs to step up as a veteran leader in and out of game. This split offers an opportunity for Sangyoon to play the role of the big star. Will he be able to make his name heard while breaking his playoff curse?
To watch League of Legends tournaments, visit watch.na.lolesports.com. For more information on the Split, teams, standings, and players, visit www.lolesports.com. Recaps of former weeks and other LoL content can be found at https://thegamehaus.com/league-of-legends/. Stay posted for Part 2 of this article with players from the remaining teams later this week.
Featured image courtesy of Korizon
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