Editor's note: Part 1 was published on Wednesday here.
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.
This is the continuation of my top 10 most interesting players heading into the 2019 League of Legends season.
5. Jang "Nuguri" Ha-gwon, Kim "Canyon" Geon-bu and Heo "ShowMaker" Su (DAMWON Gaming)
All right, I'm cheating, but it's impossible to pick just one rookie on DAMWON. Nuguri has a chance to become the next legendary South Korean top laner, ShowMaker (like his name suggests) has a bunch of flash and Canyon, known as "JUGKING" on the South Korean ladder, has been terrorizing the online circles for more than a year now with his mechanical prowess. These three, coupled with a solid bottom lane and the hiring of world champion head coach Kim Jeong-soo from Invictus Gaming, make DAMWON Gaming a force to be reckoned with. Although ShowMaker feels like he still needs a lot of seasoning and stage time to bring out his full potential -- his performance at the KeSPA Cup leaving a lot to be desired outside of his ho-hum Galio play -- the other two super rookies, Nuguri and Canyon, seem ready to make a splash at the start of the season.
While it would still take a lot of things to break right for DAMWON to make the world championships in their inaugural season in the majors, having been promoted last season from the South Korean secondary league, don't be surprised if they beat anyone in South Korea. Nuguri, Canyon, and ShowMaker are names you'll be talking about for years to come, and this spring will be the start of their legacies.
4. Bae "Bang" Jun-sik (100 Thieves)
The most decorated AD carry to ever play the game has come to North America and 100 Thieves. In their first year as a franchise, the Thieves established themselves as a force to be reckoned with, making a domestic final in their first season and qualifying for the world championship. While the trip to South Korea for worlds didn't end the greatest, even making the pinnacle event of the game was statement enough to tell the rest of the world that they had arrived.
Coming in 2019, 100 Thieves went out and squashed questions about their marksman position immediately, picking up Bang of SK Telecom T1 fame and two world titles under his belt. For Bang, who put up above-average numbers last year during a disappointing season for the normally dominant SKT, this is his chance to be the face of a team for the first time in his career. Since winning his first world title in 2015, he always has been the Robin to Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok's Batman. On 100 Thieves, he will be the Batman; the team built around him, especially roaming mid laner Choi "Huhi" Jae-hyun.
This isn't the first time a superstar South Korean has come to the LCS and it won't be the last, but it'll be up to Bang if he wants to treat this as a paid vacation or the next step in building his case as the best AD carry of all-time. SK Telecom T1 has built a dubbed "dream team" in Bang's absence, and nothing would be sweeter for Bang than to meet his old teammate Faker on the grandest of stages to see who really carried SKT all those golden years.
3. Jeong "Chovy" Ji-hoon (Griffin)
The craziest thing about Griffin's starting mid laner is that he's only 17. Chovy, who has already put his name in the ring as South Korea's top mid laner, doesn't even turn 18 until March. One of the youngest pros is also one of the fastest rising stars, and it's safe to say after an electric first domestic season with Griffin, he's in the upper echelon of mid laners in the LCK. He's an exciting talent who has been outshone by his more experienced teammates Park "Viper" Do-hyeon and Lee "Tarzan" Seung-yong. Tarzan might already be the best jungler in the world and is the talisman of the team, and Viper is right there with him at the AD carry position.
Chovy, while putting up big numbers, didn't get his team over the line in 2018 when they lost the domestic summer final to KT Rolster and failed to qualify for the world championship.
Chovy to me is the most intriguing player on Griffin, who just might have the highest ceiling of all his superhuman teammates. He already showed clear improvement in his play at the most recent KeSPA Cup that saw Griffin winning without dropping a single map, and Chovy was named MVP following his masterful performance over the same Gen.G that denied them the chance of performing at worlds.
Just remember: He's still 17. This kid -- and I do mean kid in every sense of the word -- is improving at a ridiculous pace, and with the right coach and teammates already set in place, the next step in Chovy's career feels like a red carpet welcoming him. He's not the best mid laner in the world or maybe even the best mage player currently on his team (Viper says hi), but make no mistake, by this time next year, we could be talking about worlds MVP Chovy and the world champions Griffin.
2. Luka "Perkz" Perković (G2 Esports)
When I first heard about the possibility of Perkz moving to AD carry and Fnatic lynchpin Rasmus "Caps" Winther moving to G2, I burst out laughing. I didn't think it could be real. Then someone else I trusted told me it was happening. Then another. When it was finally announced that it was really happening and that the two best European mids were joining forces, with the more established of the two, Perkz, transitioning to the bottom lane, I burst out laughing once more.
What in the world is going on?
There is no more interesting situation than this. How are Perkz and Caps going to interact? Is Perkz going to seamlessly transition to his new role? Is he going to pick traditional champions in the bottom lane or will he be flexing mages alongside Caps to give his team an edge in the drafting phase? Who knows, really.
Perkz could become the best AD carry in the world, or we could be sitting here in a few months when it all goes down the gutter and G2 is trading one of their world-class mid laners. Perkz has shown on the ladder that he can play the position, but everything is different when you're onstage against teams who practice every single day together. Lee "Wolf" Jae-wan was confident in his jungling skills from scrims and online play, but when SKT attempted to translate that success to onstage versus synchronized lineups and junglers who have played the position for years, he failed.
Regardless of the outcome, G2 is Europe's most interesting team entering the 2019 campaign.
1. Zhuo "Knight" Ding (TOP)
Is there a cooler nickname right now in League of Legends than "Golden Left Hand?" That nickname alone already puts Knight as one of the most interesting players in 2019 alone. But besides the flashy nickname and the whispers of how good he is behind closed doors, there is actual game play to show you how the world's next top player might not be South Korean but Chinese.
Every week or so last year, I would look at the South Korean online ladder. You'd see players like Tarzan, Faker and others near the top. But at No. 1 for most of the year sat Knight. After putting up big numbers in his rookie season for Suning Gaming, he was absent in summer, winning everything that could be had on the South Korean server, taking the top spot for what felt like months.
At the Demacia Cup a few weeks ago, the first real test for Chinese's elite teams before beginning their domestic year, Knight stepped out from the shadows for the first time in half a year on a new team, Topsports Gaming. The tournament would become Knight's playground, as every game felt like a new highlight reel for his collection. Although TOP would eventually lose to reigning world champion Invictus Gaming in the final, Knight didn't go quietly, putting up a ridiculous stat-line of 14/6/8 in a losing effort to Song "Rookie" Eui-jin.
Only 18, Knight isn't the perfect player, but he's the one with the most potential going into 2019. What I said earlier about Chovy, maybe even double that with Knight. Chovy has a better team around him, especially in the bottom lane, but Knight, ready to show what he's worth in the LPL, is on the verge of superstardom.
I haven't been this excited about a Chinese player since Yu "Cool" Jia-Jun's emergence on OMG years ago when he won league MVP and entered the world championships to battle some hotshot rookie from South Korea called Faker. Six years later, Faker is still standing there, on the same team which won the world championship that year.
The schedule makers in China know what's going on. The first game of the Chinese domestic season is on Monday between iG and TOP, a rematch of the Demacia Cup final, and a meeting between Rookie, the current best mid laner in the world, and Knight, the boy primed to possibly take that title away.
If you haven't heard of Knight before now, that's all right. Tune in on Monday on Twitch. I promise you won't be disappointed.