“They’ve caught Faker! They’ve got the CC! The mid laner is down, the Unkillable Demon King is dead!”
Exactly one minute later, SK Telecom T1’s nexus would crumble as the members of Samsung Galaxy hugged each other in delight. They had defeated Goliath. They had defeated nearly three years of international dominance by SK Telecom T1 and the best player in the world, Faker. They were the winners of the 2017 World Championship and the first non-SKT players to win it since 2014.
It was also the last international trophy the Korean region would win to this day.
In 2018, the former world champions - now rebranded to Generation Gaming - would drop in the group stages of the Season 8 World Championship, while the deepest run a Korean would make in the tournament was to the quarter-finals. Most teams would consider finishing in the top 8 teams in the world a resounding victory. But for Korea, a region that had dominated League of Legends since League of Legends had dominated esports, it was the sign of diminishing power in the game.
(Picture: Riot Games)
A more chaotic meta disfavored the controlled, macro-based play that the LCK had relied on for so long. As China’s Invictus Gaming slaughtered Europe’s Fnatic in the finals, Korea was seemingly finished and public sentiment saw the region as obsolete. A year later, the three-time world champions SKT T1 were knocked out in the semi-finals by Europe’s G2, consolidating that opinion for the world to see. In the Mid-Season Cup 2020, the representative teams of China humiliated Korea, with the only Korean team to get out of the group stage being Gen. G. They’d get demolished in the first knockout round.
The meaning of franchising
The move holds both financial and symbolic implications. On the financial side, “teams will be able to free themselves from their biggest impediment to fundraising and revenue generation: the possibility of relegation,” announced Riot Korea. But the symbolism is perhaps what will linger in the minds of fans. As the LCK moves to a franchise, no longer will it have the narratives of new teams rising against competitors to take the league by storm. It marks an end to the possibility of teams like SKT T1 K, who would win the World Championship in their first year with the legendary Faker and Bengi, and it marks an end to stories like that of Team Griffin, which won the regular split three times in a row immediately upon entering the LCK. These narratives of the super-rookie teams coming out of nowhere and smashing their veteran counterparts will cease to exist.
(Picture: Riot Games)
It’s the end of an era. In September, when the franchised teams are announced, all those storylines and more will vanish. It’ll join the LCS, the LEC, and the LPL as the last major region to franchise. The Challengers Korea scene, the “minor league” version of the LCK where teams duke it out and the best get a chance at promotion to the LCK, will be gone. In its place will come the LCK Academy League, much like the one found in the LCS or the LPL. Already players like Lee “Wolf” Jae-wan have organized academy tournaments.
.@LoL_Wooolf's update regarding his plans for LCK Academy League:— Kevin Kim 🦆 (@KevinKimLoL) May 24, 2020
- It'll take place between the Mid-Season Cup and the LCK Summer Split, sometime in June.
- Close to confirming date and time, still under discussion with other teams.
- Will give another update on June after MSC. pic.twitter.com/LV0CyQx6hd
The explosive storylines are gone. What - and who - do we get in return?
For starters, franchising means teams are no longer relegated. They’ll stay in the LCK and so the multiple plans needed to account for the possibility of relegation from the LCK are no longer needed. Now teams can plan ahead for long-term competitive and financial success, and it’s not just the teams. “We will also be mandating a minimum salary higher than any other professional sports league in Korea - 60 million KR - to ensure that our players enjoy greater financial stability during their careers.” And fans of teams no longer need to feel anguish when their teams are relegated as many did with Jin Air Green Wings.
Who will be becoming an LCK franchise team?
T1, DRX, and Gen. G will most certainly be part of the franchised LCK. All three are well-known around the world, bring in viewers, and have a massive fanbase. Damwon Gaming is certainly a possibility as their star player Jang “Nuguri” Ha-gwon is one of the most popular LCK top laners despite only having played in the LCK for three splits. KT Rolster is also certain to get in, having had many “telecom wars” with T1 over the past few years and a history of the LCK’s most storied names, like Go “Score” Dong-bin. Aside from these teams, it’s hard to say.
There’s a lot of unknowns now for Korea. They’re in unknown territory as to their teams, their playstyle, and the strength of their region. This year will be the last time we see an unfranchised League of Legends scene represented at the World Championship and where we answer the doubts started in 2018. After that, the region will enter a new era. Whether that will bring new success into the region or whether it’ll stagnate the region’s strength is yet to be seen.