Lessons from Samsung: Sticking to the script

Samsung Galaxy pulled off a historic victory over SK Telecom T1 to win the 2017 World Championship final. Riot Games

For three years, SK Telecom T1 has kept its core of Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok, Bae "Bang" Jun-sik and Lee "Wolf" Jae-wan, rotating players in and out of the jungle and top lane positions depending on meta and team needs. In those three years, SKT has been to three League of Legends World Championship finals and won two of them, largely thanks to the organization's ability to retain Faker and the SK Telecom T1 S bot lane duo of Bang and Wolf.

When you are the undisputed best team in the world, expectations remain set at the highest level. Nothing but another World Championship will do. This year, SKT fell below those expectations. Bang and Wolf played poorly, the team never fully integrated jungler Han "Peanut" Wang-ho or top laner Heo "Huni" Seung-hoon; SKT made it to the World Championship finals courtesy of Faker's peerless performances, at times transcending his previous highs as the best player in the world. When SKT was not only defeated by Samsung Galaxy, but swept 3-0, roster changes seemed inevitable. The bar had been set and SKT hadn't cleared it this time around. Something had to change.

Then, the roster announcements began in South Korea.

In a world where free agency in the NA LCS ushered in a massive player shuffle, one might expect a movement of Korean players in the LCK offseason. Yet, SKT and most of its South Korean brethren are holding onto the majority of their players.

Samsung Galaxy held onto its lineup, which is unsurprising as the current title holder with two finals appearances of its own. MVP stuck to the same starting five players that qualified the team for LoL Champions Korea during the 2016 summer split. The Afreeca Freecs announced that it would retain most of its players, save for top laner Jang "MaRin" Gyeong-hwan. Longzhu Gaming, an organization that had been in financial jeopardy for most of the 2017 competitive season, not only managed to hold onto all of their 2017 LCK Summer championship roster but later added Peanut in the jungle, who was already familiar with the bot lane duo of Kim "PraY" Jong-in and Kang "GorillA" Beom-hyeon. KT Rolster announced that the super team -- or super-marketing team, depending on the level of bitterness at its overall lack of success -- built around jungler Go "Score" Dong-bin would be sticking around for another season, giving its starting five a chance to redeem themselves after failing to make it to the LCK finals and Worlds.

This isn't necessarily a recent phenomenon, with SKT showing loyalty to players like jungler Kang "Blank" Sun-gu, and now-SKT coach, Bae "Bengi" Seong-woong even with meta problems and poor performances, where other teams may have made a change. Sinking a bit more time and resources into certain players has further proven successful with notable triumphs like Song "Smeb" Kyung-ho and, more recently, Samsung's all-star top laner Lee "CuVee" Seong-jin. It's a lesson now cemented in South Korean League of Legends thanks to Samsung's decision during last year's offseason to stubbornly stick with its roster amidst derision. That same lineup now has a Summoner's Cup under its belt.

More than most other regions, South Korean teams have been willing to give struggling members on a team a chance, betting on their coaching staff or experience to help mold players from high-elo solo queue superstars to performers on a professional lineup. This also applies if the player is moving from one organization to another, like jungler Kang "Haru" Min-seung when he moved from CJ Entus to Samsung in the 2016-17 offseason. Gwak "Bdd" Bo-seong is another former CJ success story, and spent a split on the Longzhu Gaming bench before his breakout season this past summer led to an LCK title for Longzhu.

Now, South Korean organizations are not only retaining specific players, but most are trending to hold onto the majority of their respective lineups following the current offseason.

Even teams that didn't keep all of their players focused on retaining the core of their rosters, like the Jin Air Green Wings. Although Jin Air didn't hold onto mid laner Lee "Kuzan" Seong-hyeok or support No "SnowFlower" Hoi-jong, it kept the younger three in the lineup: top laner Kim "SoHwan" Jun-yeong, jungler Eom "UmTi" Seong-hyeon, and AD carry Park "Teddy" Jin-seong. In past offseasons, a few of these players would have ended up on different teams, or Jin Air may have chosen one to develop specifically, but the team kept all three and has supplemented them with solo queue rookie Lee "Yaharong" Chan-ju in mid and veteran support Kwon "Wraith" Ji-min in a possible attempt to replicate Samsung's success with fresher players and one stable veteran.

As for SKT, the once-best team in the world released Peanut, but re-signed its most successful lineup permutation of this past summer: top laner Park "Untara" Ui-jin, jungler Blank, mid laner Faker, AD carry Bang and support Wolf. Although they failed to win a championship last year, SKT did not immediately react by razing its roster, but committed to the same players that made up much of their regular starting lineup last split. Success is difficult to argue with, and when South Korean teams continue to win championships by sticking with existing rosters, others now scramble to replicate that success by signing players for another split and relying on their growth as a team.