The winners and losers of the Summer split of the LCK
League of Legends Champions Korea (LCK) has provided many of the game’s greatest teams and players over the years, including 5 World Championship titles won by Koren sides as well as countless players earning big money moves to other leagues. Historically the greatest region, LCK sides have failed to reach these standards for the last year and a half as the game moved away from a controlled, vision-based meta to a bloody, skirmish-based one (that greatly favoured playstyles from China and Europe). For a team hoping to resurrect Korea’s legacy at Worlds this time around, they would first need to qualify by conquering their own region in the LCK Summer 2019 split.
Who else to lead Korea’s redemption than the most successful organisation that League of Legends has ever seen?
The 3-time World Champions and now 8-time LCK winners, SKT looked anything but a 1st placed team in the opening few weeks of the split. When 3 weeks into the 9 week regular season, SK Telecom had only managed to take one victory and this was over the eventual last place Jin Air Green Wings (who would fail to pick up a single win over the whole split).
Their fortunes took a turn for the better from the 4th week after subbing out veteren support Mata for Effort, with whom they were able to win 9 consecutive series to go from 9th to 1st by week 7. Though they weren’t able to maintain quite this level of performance for the final 2 weeks, they did enough to earn a placement of 4th and qualify for the playoff gauntlet.
The remaining top 5 teams who qualified for playoffs were Griffin (13-5), DAMWON Gaming (13-5), SANDBOX Gaming (13-5) and Afreeca Freecs (11-7). Gen.G (10-8) narrowly missed out, early playoff contenders Kingzone DragonX (10-8) failed to qualify after dropping off later in the split and Summer 2018 winners KT Rolster (6-12) could only manage to climb their way out of the relegation places.
Just below KT were Hanwha Life Esports (5-13) in 9th and winless Jin Air (0-18) beat their own record of 1-17 to finish rock-bottom with the worst record any team has even had in an LCK split. Both Hanwha Life and Jin Air will now need to compete against the top teams from Challengers Korea (the Korean 2nd division) in order to stay in the league.
The LCK playoff structure differs considerably to those used in other major regions, with a gauntlet format seeing 3 rounds for teams to climb before reaching the final. For a chance to go to Worlds as Korea’s number 1 seed, SK Telecom had the seemingly impossible task of winning 4 series in a row against the top 4 teams from the regular season.
A best-of-3 1st round victory (2-1) over Afreeca was the first step for SKT and would be followed by consecutive 3-0 best-of-5 wins against SANDBOX and DAMWON to set up a repeat of the Spring final against Griffin.
Griffin qualified for the LCK final for the 3rd time in a row this split, having lost consecutive finals against KT Rolster in Summer 2018 and SK Telecom in Spring 2019. Unfortunately for Griffin, their finals curse reared its ugly head once again as SKT were worthy winners in a swift 3-1 victory.
No matchup this split brought along with it quite as much hype as the Spring final rematch. Both teams even came into the game on similar paths as they did ahead of last split’s final; Griffin looking dominant throughout the split while SKT had been improving on a stuttering start.
Much like in the last final matchup, many expected a fiercely competed series with either team likely edging it 3-2. However, much like in the last final matchup, SKT blew away all expectations by thwarting Griffin in what looked more like a scrim block than a split final.
While both teams had already qualified for Worlds, favourable seeding was still to play for and losing the series now means that Griffin may find themselves in a group with a 1st seed team from China, Europe or North America.
This also now means that at LCK level Griffin have only managed to win 1 of the 4 best-of-5 series they have competed in, having beaten Afreeca Freecs in the Summer 2019 semi-final and then consecutively losing 3 finals following this.
As Griffin finished 1st in the regular season, the final vs SKT was the only matchup they needed to play to take the championship and, as a result, they had not had a competitive match for almost 2 weeks as they waited for this series. Some have called for a change to the playoff format used in Korea, arguing that 1st seed teams can easily become rusty during this break while opponents reaching the final through the gauntlet come with the benefit of momentum. This argument does appear a strong one when looking at Griffin’s performances this year, having looked dominant throughout the regular season in both splits only to fall at the final hurdle. However, having kept together the majority of the rookie squad that helped them qualify to the LCK back in Spring 2018, this could just as likely be down to nerves/inexperience.
As for SKT, star mid-laner Faker, who is regularly considered as the best player of all time, will once again return to the World stage and will be as determined as ever to regain the title having failed to qualify with SKT in 2018 and having losing to Samsung Galaxy in 2017’s final.
This win also made SK Telecom the first team to win an LCK split after starting in round 1 of the playoff gauntlet.
Having made a name for himself playing in China’s LPL, jungler Clid joined a new look SK Telecom roster for the 2019 season and has been a huge asset for the team that had struggled to find a permanent replacement for SKT legend Bengi for a number of years.
His consistent performances since joining have kept fellow jungler Haru (who joined SKT with the greater LCK experience of the 2) out of the side for all but 4 games this split and his influence in the final against Griffin was enough to see him named as the series MVP.
Having developed his game in China, Clid’s presence has been instrumental in SKT’s renaissance and only ADC Teddy could have any argument at being their best player this split.
SKT to win the split
Thought it may have seemed easy to predict the the Spring winners to be the eventual champions once again this time around, the opening weeks seemed to be showing the polar opposite and many had doubts as to whether or not SKT could turn it around.
However, thanks to kkOma’s crack of the whip, the fan-favourite team were able to change their fortunes for the better and secure their 2nd title this season, becoming the first team to win both Spring and Summer splits in the same season twice having done so for the 1st time in 2015.