The opening of OGN's intro video features top laner Song "Smeb" Kyung-ho in a KT Rolster jacket. A Newton's Cradle appears. Then, ticking clocks. A piece of paper burns in reverse. The words "rewind, reboot" appear. This is an alternate timeline, a different momentum, a do-over.
All five starting members of the former ROX Tigers are shown. They disappear into a starry backdrop. Later, six figures stand against a white backdrop, all of them returning South Korean players who left their domestic region for larger overseas contracts. Three of them, Cho "Mata" Se-hyeong, Heo "PawN" Won-seok and Kim "Deft" Hyuk-kyu, are all on the same team: KT.
The message is clear. There are two storylines worth following: the results of the ROX Tigers' breakup and return of former world champions and star players.
With Samsung Galaxy the newest successors to the title, and with the offseason rapidly approaching, it's time to revisit the LCK's reboot. How successful were these high-profile acquisitions? How well did the returning champions fare?
What was the end result of the "reverse-exodus"?
In terms of publicity, most accounts point to a banner year for South Korean League of Legends. Returning superstars mean marketing star power. The familiar faces of Mata, Deft and Jang "MaRin" Gyeong-hwan enticed fans who lost interest once they left for China in 2015 and 2016 to return to the LCK. They flocked to the OGN e-Stadium and Nexon Arena, homemade fansigns in hand.
In terms of in-game performance, it's a mixed bag.
Apprehension permeated the start of the LCK's inaugural split. This was only exacerbated when the last-place Team WE beat the GE Tigers -- the best team in South Korea at the time -- with a thrown-together roster at the 2015 IEM World Championship. Months later, EDward Gaming beat SK Telecom T1 at the 2015 Mid-Season Invitational. A massive amount of top-tier talent had left South Korea. Among assurances that the region would indubitably recover, these losses stood out to the contrary. The promised recovery appeared to be far further on the horizon than many had initially thought.
It wasn't. The hybrid rosters of EDward Gaming, LGD Gaming and Invictus Gaming crumbled at 2015 Worlds. No team could touch SKT. The only team that managed to take a single game from SKT was the South Korean KOO Tigers. From 2015 through 2017, not a single South Korean team lost to an international team at the World Championship. All Worlds finals during this time have been between two South Korean teams.
This past offseason, Chinese streaming companies, who played a major part in bankrolling the meteoric rise in LoL Pro League salaries for South Korean players, realized that they weren't receiving the return on investment that they had initially expected. Stricter rules for streaming platforms were put in place. Strong numbers for Chinese current and ex-pros deflated salaries offered to South Korean imports. KeSPA's StarCraft Proleague shuttered its doors and -- while the demise of Starcraft II is often laughably exaggerated, especially when used as a measuring stick -- the excess capital gave organizations more money to offer their LoL pros.
These factors, coupled with an increase in funding from Riot Games through specific in-game microtransactions, enticed some South Korean players who had left before the 2015 season to return to domestic shores. South Korea remained the only region where a player could win a World Championship and now, they would be paid a higher price for doing so.
No other team dominated this year's preseason headlines like 2017 KT. With a star-powered lineup formed around the experienced AD-carry-turned-jungler Go "Score" Dong-bin, KT captured audiences' and analysts' attentions with each roster announcement. Coach Lee Ji-hoon promised this would be the team to dethrone SKT, breaking its stranglehold on domestic and international titles. This KT team would win Worlds.
The team that actually did this was Samsung Galaxy. The team that watched from the the audience was KT Rolster.
I've tackled KT's in-game issues before, but to summarize: they continuously suffered from in-game miscommunication. The later the game wore on, the fewer chances KT had to win. This was not only due to the team's composition choices -- which were early game focused for the most part -- but also because of certain members' inability to recognize where to apply map pressure.
As for the returning champions, they performed similarly to how they had played in China. PawN showed a lack of map awareness and lane presence that forced KT to pick specific pushing champions for him and later send him to side lanes. Mata and Coach Lee admitted in broadcast interviews that Mata's micromanaging style of shotcalling was outdated, especially on a team with so many veteran voices. This meant instead of heading up a younger, less-experienced squad like he did with the 2016 spring iteration of Royal Never Give Up, his input clashed with other experienced players on the roster.
Smeb was one of the louder voices on the Tigers. Score was the leader of KT since he swapped to the jungle position. And Deft was known for mentality and laning issues that had plagued him since 2014 Samsung Galaxy Blue. Despite a strong understanding of the early game, good lane assignments, and usually drafting to their strengths, the KT superteam found themselves on the verge of making Worlds two separate times (three, if you count qualifying by default had SKT won summer finals) and failed each time.
Another returning hero was former SKT top laner Jang "MaRin" Gyeong-hwan, who joined the new Afreeca Freecs lineup with fellow returnee, jungler Lee "Spirit" Da-yoon. With resource-heavy AD carry Ha "Kramer" Jong-hun, this roster initially struggled. There were too many players who needed attention -- be that in the form of gold, jungle help, vision -- and too much pressure on Lee "KurO" Seo-haeng to hold the mid lane with little to no resources.
Come summer, the team adjusted. Afreeca became a quirky and intelligent group that created team-specific strategies for peerless Game 1 performances against any team in South Korea. KurO became the 2017 LCK summer co-MVP. Spirit played jungle Lulu with surprising success. It was the Freecs that introduced the Relic Shield bottom lane Ardent Censer rush that was later seen at Worlds. Above all else, MaRin and Kramer both became more efficient players. Neither will ever be as self-sacrificing as a player like KurO, but they each showed more flexibility this past split than either ever had in their respective careers. The KT superteam may have been a bust, but I wouldn't mind seeing the Freecs give it one more try with this roster, given how much they grew over the past year.
Finally, there's former Samsung trainee Heo "Huni" Seung-hoon. Huni was barely a blip on anyone's radar when he left as part of the Korean Exodus. But he made a name for himself on 2015 Fnatic and 2016 Immortals before receiving the call that no Korean player would turn down: an offer from SKT. Along with former ROX Tigers jungler Han "Peanut" Wang-ho, his acquisition was a sign that SKT were moving in a different, more aggressive, direction. Yet, rather than Peanut rubbing off on SKT, SKT rubbed off on Peanut, wiping out his aggressive jungle style. Huni was replaced for the safer option of Park "Untara" Ui-jin during summer, and faltered along with the rest of SKT on the Worlds stage.
So what does this all mean? Are returning South Korean players doomed to failure?
Not necessarily, but adaptability is key. A player who is stuck in their ways and placed on a roster with other veterans can be a recipe for disaster. Samsung has two returning players on their championship lineup, Lee "Crown" Min-ho and Jo "CoreJJ" Yong-in, but both were malleable upon returning -- CoreJJ even swapped positions.
At the end of the opening video, SKT's Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok looks back at the field of other South Korean pros, including the returning superstars. Again, the message is obvious: catch me, if you can. Samsung, the team that stuck with their roster despite available upgrades, did. As it was promised in 2015 after the exodus, South Korea produced talent to fill in the spaces left behind, like Lee "CuVee" Seong-jin and Park "Ruler" Jae-hyuk. The trick now is to integrate the old and new, to use some of these veterans in the best way possible.