When it comes to deciding the strongest region in Asia, Korea’s LCK has always come out on top, until last year. Did Korea have what it takes to bring the crown back home?
When it comes to deciding the strongest region in Asia, Korea’s LCK has always come out on top - that was until last year. 2018 saw the rise of China’s LPL, as the region took down Korea for top spot and won all international competitions in the process. Rift Rivals was the chance for the LCK to take back this crown, as well as an opportunity for Taiwan’s LMS and Vietnam’s VCS to show that they can go toe-to-toe with the giants next door.
Over 4 days in Seoul’s Jangchung Arena, Korea’s top teams took their first step in cementing the region as the greatest in the world once again, ending China’s reign and setting up for a compelling battle at the World Championship later this year.
The action started in the group stage, whereby each team would play 1 match against the equally seeded teams of the opposing regions. This lasted for 2 days and could hardly have gone any better for Korea. With 7 wins and 1 loss as a whole, only 1st seed SK Telecom dropped a match, and this was to LPL Spring winners and Worlds holders Invictus Gaming.
LPL finished 2nd with a 5W 3L record and LMS/VCS 3rd without a single victory. Finishing the group on top stop earned the LCK a bye to the final on day 4, while China and Taiwan/Vietnam would battle in a ‘Blind Relay Race’ semi-final on day 3 for the chance to progress.
The Blind Relay Race format was used for both the semi-final and final and decided a winner over a best-of-5 series between each region. Before each match, each region’s coaches decided on which of their teams would play, while no team was allowed to play more than once unless the series reached a game 5.
LMS/VCS continued their struggle into the semi-final, continuing to lose every match as they crashed out in a 3-0 loss without picking up a single win in the tournament. This set up the final everybody was waiting for, China vs Korea, where eager fans would get confirmation of which region is stronger and which will need to go back to the drawing board before Worlds rolls around.
The series kicked off with Kingzone DragonX (LCK 3rd seed) against Invictus Gaming (LPL 1st seed), and an inspired Ezreal performance from Deft secured the best possible start for Korea. Next up was Korea 1st seed SKT against LPL 4th seed Top Esports. Faker’s Neeko ultimates and Teddy’s Kalista DPS tore TES to shreds as SKT did their part in setting up match point for Korea.
Up stepped China’s 3rd seed FunPlus Phoenix who were tasked with halting LCK 2nd seed Griffin to prevent the tournament from ending. The spectacle started in champ select as FPX’s Doinb brought out a mid-lane Pantheon pick to counter Chovy’s Irelia, and a 6 kill performance helped to earn a win back for the LPL as the series went to game 4.
Only 2 teams were left to play in the 4th match; DAMWON Gaming to represent Korea and JingDong Gaming to represent China. While most regions were no longer prioritising jungle Karthus, Korean teams had shown it in a number of matches leading up to Canyon’s Karthus masterclass. The jungler picked up 7 kills and 11 assists, ending the game with a fully stacked Mejai’s and all but stopping JD from playing the game whatsoever. The 27-minute win concluded the series and took bragging rights back to Korea once again.
No matchup was more hyped by fans than that between Korea and China’s number 1 teams; 3-time Worlds winners SK Telecom and current Worlds holders Invictus Gaming. When the 2 finally faced off they gave fans exactly what they wanted.
This match pitted the greatest player of all time, Faker, against one of his greatest competitors for that crown, Rookie. Rookie helped IG to earn an early advantage, with the team executing a clean turret dive on Khan in the top lane and Rookie himself finding a jungle flank to kill Faker’s Azir in the mid lane. Faker was out for revenge and returned the favour, finding a pick on Rookie as he tried to push the bot lane outer turret. By 25 minutes Invictus found themselves with a 5k gold lead, the type of lead which their fearless, bloody playstyle usually takes full advantage of.
10 minutes later, and with a baron in their pockets, IG had now stretched the lead to 10k. That didn’t stop Faker in the slightest as he burned his teleport to get a perfect flank on the LPL Spring champions, setting himself up for a devastating ultimate which gained SKT an ace and a triple kill for Faker.
Despite spending most the game behind, SKT jungler Clid had managed to maintain dragon control as the Koreans secured an ocean, cloud and 2 mountain drakes. Therefore, when the elder dragon spawned late in the match, Invictus used this to their advantage perfectly to entice SKT out of their crumbling base. As the ensuing teamfight kicked off, SKT’s inability to get onto IG ADC JackeyLove proved to be their undoing, as the Kai’Sa phenom tore apart the LCK champions using his own signature skin.
With teams only playing 3 games each, it may be difficult for any certain player to assert their dominance on the tournament and stand out above the rest. One player that didn’t have this issue was Kingzone DragonX’s veteran ADC Deft.
Deft’s first match, against LPL 3rd seed FPX, proved to fans that he is still as skilled as ever. His Lucian play earned him 10 kills, double the amount FunPlus Phoenix were able to gather as a team, and his quadra kill was the largest multi kill of the whole tournament.
Further strong performances with Varus and Ezreal, the latter of which was used to outshine JackeyLove in a win against the World champions, meant that KZ ended the tournament unbeaten, while Deft himself earned a score of 18/4/13 across his 3 matches.
LCK to win Rift Rivals
The tournament’s best bet, albeit not the easiest to predict, was for the LCK to take the Rift Rivals crown for the first time. Their LPL rivals had looked stronger since the beginning of 2018, winning all but 1 international event since then. Only now does Korea look to be back on track and ready to show it on the biggest stage once the World Championship rolls around in October.