Here’s your dumb LCS statistic of the week: Golden Guardians played four games in the past two weeks in the fifth timeslot, the “graveyard slot” or the slot reserved for teams no one cares about. Viewership is typically lower, interest and hype into the matches is typically minimal. Two teams in the LCS will not have a single game in the fifth slot this split– Team Liquid and Cloud 9.
Yet, watching matches closely, magic is happening in the fifth slot. Golden Guardians are playing good League of Legends.
Golden Guardians are currently on a five-game winning streak – the longest in the organization’s history. Despite optimism with the team even with their 0-4 start, the recent turn of events still feels like a surprise. Albeit a lighter portion of their schedule, they’ve secured wins over the surging TSM, the feisty Counter Logic Gaming and fan favorites 100 Thieves. And for the first time since week 6 of the 2021 summer split, a member of Golden Guardians received recognition of “Player of the Week.”
At the start of the season, the roster seemed relatively uninspiring. While Kim “Gori” Tae-woo’s name turned heads, the members surrounding him appeared to be in the later stages of their respective careers. It was the first roster from new general manager Nick Smith, moving into the front office role. And while one of the best minds in North American League of Legends, it scratched heads.
Eric “Licorice” Ritchie arguably had one of the worst splits of his entire career in the summer of 2022. His 22 deaths before fifteen minutes were the most among top laners and his performance in laning phases felt uncharacteristic, Russel Westbrook-ian with his recklessness and mistakes. The mid-split acquisition of Kim “River” Dong-woo hadn’t reaped the rewards expected, struggling to influence games as he once did on Dignitas and PSG Talon. And Trevor “Stixxay” Hayes continued to be a wildcard – was he retired, was he coaching, what was his future? The additions of Gori and the return of Choi “huhi” Jae-Hyun completed a roster that felt like a budget decision – one meant to be presentable yet unsure of its competitive caliber.
And then it started working.
With Gori in the lineup, Golden Guardians are averaging a 1.79 kill-to-death ratio (2nd), +845 gold lead at fifteen minutes (3rd), a 71% first turret secure rate (2nd), 5.1 plates per game (2nd), a 64% herald secure rate (T-1st), a 71% first dragon secure rate (T-1st) and a 61% dragon secure rate (T-3rd). In a way, it hasn’t necessarily felt like an individual effort, rather the whole of the team being greater than the sum of its individual parts.
Statistically, not one individual member is breaking the game compared to their counterparts. Stixxay’s 13.6 KDA since week 2 is the best among marksmen yet is fourth among marksmen in damage per minute, third in average damage per team fight and third in average gold difference at ten minutes. Gori is similar – third in damage per minute and second in damage per team fight amongst mid laners. While still impressive, it’s not the best.
This has been a common theme for successful Nick Smith lineups. Dating to the Echo Fox days when they were one of the best when it came to “funnel compositions” and even the 2020 iteration of Golden Guardians, it was all about the execution of a good strategy. In 2023, it has been the execution of great teamfighting, specifically their ability to focus and space. They aren’t dying. And credit to the in-game shot-calling and the drafting from coaches, Golden Guardians have been executing at such a high level, having a great understanding of what it takes to win the game.
Against 100 Thieves, their intentional spacing from their opponents made it so difficult for the team to fight their way back in. And when the enemy would slip up, they would be there to punish. Against TSM, they would continue to beat them to the punch. Every time, it felt like TSM caught them out, the reality would slowly set in that GGS were outnumbering them.
They’re arguably the most disciplined team in the LCS, something that isn’t often said about a team in North America. They don’t make mistakes and rarely slip up. They represent the ideal image of a team of mostly veterans.
But where is their next level?
In their match-up against FlyQuest, the first week with Gori on stage, Lee “Prince” Chae-hwan could not be halted. The individual level of his play is what every team dreams of – a single figure that can easily just turn the switch and dominate a match.
In the NBA, there is often the conversation around the “good regular season team” that simply is no match for a team with an unstoppable, singular force – a LeBron James, a Giannis Antetokounmpo. How teams in the eastern conference could have better regular season record but when the playoffs came around, we all know it was going to be LeBron James would be in the finals representing the eastern conference.
Something does feel oddly different about this Golden Guardians line-up. How Gori feels like a potentially great player, how Stixxay feels like he is back in his Counter Logic Gaming peak form (although he was doing much of the same under similar circumstances during his time in academy). Or how River and Huhi both feel like they could be once again underrated in their respective roles despite having such a critical influence on the game.
It’s turning this from a “flash in the pan” into a potentially realistic dark horse contender. It is why week 5 is such a crucial week for the team. They’ll be facing off against a Cloud9 roster — who while inconsistent and will be debuting a new mid laner — has a game-breaking marksman in Kim “Berserker” Min-cheol. They will face Evil Geniuses who matches very well against their style of play.
Moments like these are critical for middle-of-the-pack organizations. It is not only important to continue their run from an emotional perspective, it establishes their legitimacy to fanbases and the region. Golden Guardians haven’t had that moment in their history — or haven’t able to execute when that time has come. It could be the moment where they establish themselves as legitimate contenders, showcasing their brilliance on the rift. Or, it could be the return to shadows, the fifth time slot.