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League of Legends

From Misfits vs SKT to G2 vs SKT: The story of a gap closed

A brief history of league

League of legends was not released around the globe at the same time. In order for their game to be successful, Riot executives knew how important a South Korean launch would be. The country, after all, is home to the biggest thriving esports culture in the world. Koreans experience gaming in a completely different way from western audiences. Inside of the famous PC Bangs, which are a kind of cyber café, videogames are consumed in a social environment where communities and competition are often born.

From Misfits vs SKT to G2 vs SKT
Inside of a Korean PC Bang (Courtesy of Seoul Insiders’ Guide)

Therefore, Riot delayed the arrival of League to South Korea as they made sure to have special versions of the game installed throughout the country. These versions would include special incentives such as unlocking all of the champions momentarily to promote engagement. The result was completely successful. Filled with expectation and excitement, the Korean market ate up League of Legends and made it its number one played PC game in a very short amount of time.

The consequences at the competitive level however, could not be ignored. Koreans got to the game years after major regions NA and EU. Many expected that they would always be lagging behind the western Leagues, which already had established strategies and talent.

This preconception would soon be proven wrong.

A Korean rise to domination

As a way to scout out the competition, several NA and EU teams would travel to South Korea and partake in their leagues and tournaments during seasons 1 and 2. What they found overseas would surprise them. Not only did Koreans manage to become good at the game in a very short amount of time, they were even better than anyone else. Even their low-tier teams could bring the fight and sometimes defeat the very best of the western leagues.

From Misfits vs SKT to G2 vs SKT
Azubu blaze, at the time considered korea’s strongest team (Courtesy of Travis Gafford)

Only few organizations such as CLG EU managed to find some amount of success against their Korean rivals. Likewise, anytime a Korean representative would participate in an NA or EU event, they would usually dominate the competition.

Though Taipei Assasains delayed complete Korean conquest in season 2, 2013 would mark the beginning of an era. In the age of organized competitive leagues, in the first World Championship of its kind, winners SKT T1 would prove just how far ahead they were from the rest of the world.

Since that moment, and all the way up to 2017, Koreans would dominate any and all international events.

The Korean style

But how was one region able to stand on the peak for so long? The secret lies in the notorious Korean style of League. Heavily focused around farming and scaling, the Korean games would famously feature the least amount of fighting out of all the regions.

From Misfits vs SKT to G2 vs SKT
SKT T1 lifting the first of their 3 Worlds trophies (Courtesy of Riot Spinn and Riot Games)

Such a strategy stems not from cowardice, but instead from a mentality of low risk for extremely high reward. Korean players were good enough at the game that they could tell at any time if they could win or lose a fight in a lane and simply decided not to engage when the odds could be against them. Similarly, they would not start any unnecessary team fights that could result in a loss.

By picking scaling champions and compositions, farming intelligently and rotating and playing around strong vision control and objectives, Korean teams could basically guarantee victory without committing to any risk.

In practice, this strategy would result in the slow and painful suffocation of resources that defined teams like SKT when they were up against western teams.

The influence of Korea

Korean dominance began in the earliest years of competitive League of Legends when strategies and metas were still being discovered. Teams and coaches were constantly searching for the ideal “optimal” way to play the game, which would cause some small groups to be notoriously influential. Russian team Moscow 5 for instance, basically taught the world how to play the jungle by using lane priority. C9 also had a massive influence in the LCS. Similarly, when Korea began winning so much, the community simply assumed that they knew how to play league “correctly” and began adopting their strategies. Korea basically dictated how League “is supposed to be played”.

From Misfits vs SKT to G2 vs SKT
Samsung white, the team that famously won worlds only losing a single game (Courtesy of Riot Games)

In 2017, the strongest North American team was TSM, which imitated the Korean style. The strongest EU team was G2, which also played much like the Korean teams. Both would be eliminated in group stage of that year’s Worlds. G2 in particular lost 3 games against Korean 3rd seed Samsung Galaxy.

There was one team however, which performed surprisingly well. The received the unfortunate draw at quarterfinals against defending world champions SKT T1. That team was Misfits.

Misfits vs SKT

Misfits was a brand new organization that had recently qualified for the EU LCS and exploded in popularity and success. Perhaps, it is exactly because of this lack of history and preconceptions that the team made history. Qualifying as Europe’s third seed, nobody thought they had a chance against a perennially dominant SKT. Even though the Koreans were not looking as strong as in other years, many believed they would take the set on a quick 3-0 or perhaps a 3-1.

From Misfits vs SKT to G2 vs SKT
The Misfits team that almost did the impossible (Courtesy of Riot Games)

What followed was instead one of the most incredible and heart pumping sets in the history of League of Legends. After an underwhelming performance in game 1, which went as expected, Misfits came to life in games 2 and 3, taking victories back to back and putting the Koreans on the ropes. But what was perhaps more amazing, is the way in which they achieved it.

The set tells a beautiful story. Misfits conformed to the standard strategy of imitating the Korean style for game 1 and were stomped. But from that game onwards, true to their name, true to their identity and roots, Misfits committed to their plan and their style.

Picking aggressive bot lane duos and playing especially around proactive skirmishing and roaming, Misfits were able to completely disrupt the classic Korean plan. The Europeans did not allow their opponents to be in their comfort zone. They would force fights, make picks and aggressively rotate to keep them on their toes. The result was extremely close matches against an SKT that at some points looked utterly lost. Especially notable was the rare Blitzcrank pick in the second game from support Lee “Ignar” Dong-geun which obtained incredible success and proved the effectiveness of niche strategies.

G2 vs SKT

Misfits ended up losing the series in 2017, but mostly due to their inexperience causing some grave mistakes in crucial moments. Particularly, game 4 was arguably lost off of a single wrong tower dive. However, the impact of that series is still present today. No western team had ever gotten that close to defeating Koreans in history, and the world took notice.

It was 2018 and subsequently 2019 that marked a definitive shift of the status quo. After “the year of the underdog”, Europe assembled what is likely its strongest group of players ever in G2. They would go on to archive what Misfits couldn’t and defeat SKT at worlds, and they would do it by playing their own league of legends; the best form League of Legends. Far from trying to “beat Koreans at their own game”, every region is now trying to force the others to play their own game, to set the pace of the match, to be true to their identity.

From Misfits vs SKT to G2 vs SKT
G2 celebrate after defeating SKT (Courtesy of Riot Games)

Though in no way should it be suggested that G2’s success was thanks to Misfits, it is nonetheless fascinating to see how the flame sparked by a group of odd players could be carried throughout the years and become so bright.

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