Editor's note: Part 2 will be published on Thursday, Jan. 10.
Goodbye, 2018. The new year has finally arrived.
Goodbye, lackluster SK Telecom T1, China's golden year and the ascension of Invictus Gaming's mid laner Song "Rookie" Eui-jin to the top of the "best player in the world" discussion mountain.
Welcome to all the craziness that is about to begin across the multiple regions throughout the world. The 2019 campaign is upon us. It's a whole new playing field. South Korea is no longer the undisputed No. 1 region, North America sent a team to the world semifinals, and we saw a merger between the Latin America regions to create a new super-powered league, the Liga Latinoamérica, emanating from Chile.
To commemorate the beginning of the new year, here are 10 players I'm most interested in, heading into the 2019 season. This is not a ranking of the best players in the world, but the ones that I believe have the most intrigue surrounding them as the curtains of the new year open.
10. Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok (SK Telecom T1)
Everything begins with the best player of all time, and if all things go according to plan for SKT T1 this year, everything will end at the League of Legends World Championship final in Paris. Last year was not a good one for Faker, but it's difficult to stick him with a majority of the blame. No, he wasn't particularly great, but when your jungle battery is one of the worst in the league and the entire roster feels like a roulette wheel for most of the season, there is little time to work yourself into form.
There will be no excuses for Faker in 2019. If SKT fails, the roster around him won't be the issue. Faker still firmly believes he is the best player in the world, and after signing a new contract with SKT, the organization put what the South Korean press and fans are dubbing a "dream team" around him. Former world champion and worlds MVP Cho "Mata" Se-hyeong will be stabilizing the team in the bottom lane as starting support, and with new starting jungler Kim "Clid" Tae-min, the jungle woes should be a thing of the past for Faker and SK Telecom T1.
9. Kang "TheShy" Seung-lok (Invictus Gaming)
At the news conference following the world championship final in Incheon, South Korea, TheShy proclaimed that he didn't believe he had any rival when it came to the laning phase. Then during the final, the lanky South Korean affirmed his position as the world's best top laner. In 2019, the bullseye on TheShy will be as large as his confidence in himself, as he goes from up-and-coming prodigy to established superstar.
The Chinese domestic league has expanded to 16 franchises, and the top laners of the other 15 teams will be gunning for TheShy each night in an attempt to take his title away. Most notably, JD Gaming's Zhang "Zoom" Xing-Ran is primed for a breakout 2019 along with mid lane teammate Zeng "YaGao" Qi. Bai "369" Jia-Hao (17, TOP), Xie "XiaoAL" Zhen-Ying (21, Suning) and others are part of the new generation of Chinese top laners, and to them, TheShy is the obstacle they must surpass to become the best.
The scary thing is, even with all this emerging talent, TheShy's boast of being untouchable in lane feels more like a confirmation than shortsighted arrogance.
8. Clutch Gaming (LCS)
OK, I'm cheating here. Clutch Gaming is not a singular player, but the combination of the starting lineup for this team has the potential to be a contender for a domestic title alongside Team Liquid and 100 Thieves ... or we could see half the lineup benched by Week 3.
After faltering from a strong fourth place in the spring split last year, the team went out and caught a big fish free agent in the form of Heo "Huni" Seung-hoon. Huni didn't have a strong end to the 2018 season and is still having the issues that plagued him while on Immortals in 2016, when he first came to North America. But Huni's form, when at its peak, is undeniable. Chae "Piglet" Gwang-jin is finally a North American resident, per Riot rules, after four years in the region and wants to prove that the rumors of his demise are greatly exaggerated. Nam "LirA" Tae-yoo went from the undisputed best jungler in North America to the worst by the end of last year. Tanner "Damonte" Damonte and Philippe "Vulcan" Laflamme are a pair of the best prospects the region have produced in recent memory, but with more than half the starting five being South Korean, will they thrive when it comes to communication?
Clutch Gaming might not be the best team on paper heading into 2019 for North America, but they are the most interesting.
7. Jian "Uzi" Zi-Hao (Royal Never Give Up)
The most prolific League of Legends player in China's history is reeling. Last year was Uzi's. Throughout the campaign, be it domestic or international, Uzi was the man. Faker was nowhere in sight to stop him, and Uzi won his first major international tournament, the Mid-Season Invitational, in magical fashion over South Korea's KING-ZONE DragonX. It was a coronation of Uzi becoming the best player in the world. His team, RNG, won both Chinese domestic splits. They entered the world championship with a swagger like no Chinese team before them.
Uzi was expected to lift the Summoner's Cup. China was expecting Uzi to lift the Summoner's Cup. In the quarterfinals, Uzi and RNG fell to pieces, losing in the biggest upset in the game's history, a 3-2 loss to Europe's No.-3 seed in G2 Esports. It was embarrassing. Chinese fans who flew to South Korea to watch RNG and Uzi win the tournament stood outside the venue for hours following the team's defeat, openly crying as they waited for their heroes to give an apologetic wave before getting on the bus back to the hotel.
RNG's starting top laner Yan "LetMe" Jun-Zue is taking a sabbatical following the stressful end of the year. His backup, Liu "Zz1tai" Zhi-Hao, retired. Uzi's supposed heir apparent, Dai "Able" Zhi-Chu, has been moved down to RNG's developmental squad, with Shek "AmazingJ" Wai Ho picking up the slack in the top lane.
Uzi, looking around at his current team, was three best-of-fives from making history. Instead, the team made a different kind of history, and with no domestic title or Rift Rivals trophy big enough to numb the pain of 2018's demise, a world championship is the only thing that can erase the disappointment of last year's collapse.
6. Tim "Nemesis" Lipovšek (Fnatic)
Talk about pressure. Having never played in a major region before, 19-year-old Slovenian rookie Nemesis will be asked to take over the starting mid lane role on the best League of Legends team the western region has ever produced. Fnatic made the final of the 2018 League of Legends World Championship, and with former superstar mid laner Rasmus "Caps" Winther signing with rival G2 Esports in the offseason, the keys to the castle have been given to Nemesis.
Fnatic are no strangers to rookie talent. Before Caps become the household name he is today, he was a solo queue trash talker who was trying to take the place of Fnatic's former young gun mid laner, Fabian "Febiven" Diepstraten.
Febiven became a superstar and made a world semifinal. Caps became a superstar and did one better by making the world semifinals. Nemesis, before he plays his first professional game, is already expected to do one better: not only become a superstar but win the Summoner's Cup. The roster around him is ready for another deep run on the international stage, and he'll be tasked to help them get there.
If he can follow in the footsteps of fellow 19-year-old countrymate Luka Dončić and what he's doing in the world of basketball, Fnatic fans should be getting excited about their new shining prospect.