Waiting patiently at the top is something that Kingzone DragonX learned to do last year in the 2017 LoL Champions Korea Summer. With the slightly less ridiculous moniker of Longzhu Gaming, the team topped the regular-season standings for the first time in the history of Longzhu-Incredible Miracle, beating out teams such as KT Rolster, SK Telecom T1 and Samsung Galaxy. The team then waited 20 days to face its finals opponent in SKT.
Shedding the stench of failure that had previously followed its brand name, Longzhu defeated SKT in the 2017 LCK Summer finals. Due to team history, limited amount of time together as a lineup, and near-rookie status of mid laner Gwak "Bdd" Bo-seong (alongside the actual rookie status of jungler Moon "Cuzz" Woo-chan), Longzhu was not favored to win this series. Yet, four games and four drafts later, Longzhu's preparation over those 20 days was rewarded with the Champions trophy.
Now, after a phenomenal regular season, Kingzone (the team formerly known as Longzhu) is a heavy favorite. The last time Kingzone was in this position, the team unexpectedly lost to Samsung Galaxy in the 2017 League of Legends World Championship quarterfinals.
"I'm not sure if the other players are on the same page as I am," AD carry Kim "PraY" Jong-in said at the 2017 All-Stars event. "But I personally thought that we had a great result this year. Even though we grouped up right before the summer split, we ended up winning the entire split and we went to the World Championship. I just thought that -- since we had this performance with only practicing a certain amount of time -- if we had one more year, we could do so much more."
True to PraY's words, with more time and practice, no team has been more dominant in South Korea this past spring than Kingzone DragonX. The addition of jungler Han "Peanut" Wang-ho shored up one of this roster's primary weaknesses: Cuzz's predictable pathing. Peanut enters this finals matchup not only on a team that has stayed at the top of South Korean LoL for the entire split across multiple metas, but in a perfect meta for his aggressive, invade-heavy playstyle. Kingzone still have the ever-reliable bottom lane duo of PraY and Kang "GorillA" Beom-hyeon, steadfast mid priority from Bdd, and the ever-impressive carry top laner Kim "Khan" Dong-ha.
It's not facetious to say that Kingzone look unbeatable going into this finals match.
The task of beating Kingzone now falls not to an established lineup or organization like KT, SKT or KSV Esports (formerly Samsung Galaxy), but to the Afreeca Freecs. And no organization has prepared for its opponents quite like the Freecs and their coach, Choi "iloveoov" Yeon-sung.
This iteration of the Freecs burst into the 2018 LCK Spring spotlight with an effervescent quality that was missing from the team's 2017 lineup. The Freecs' play last year was an exercise in how far one team's resources could be stretched, especially for Lee "Kuro" Seo-haeng in the mid lane, who was tasked with becoming the most efficient in his position while team gold and attention was diverted to top laner Jang "MaRin" Gyeong-hwan, jungler Lee "Spirit" Da-yoon and AD carry Ha "Kramer" Jong-hun. Losing a carry player like MaRin in the 2017-18 offseason for former Ever8 Winners top laner Kim "Kiin" Gi-in was an on-paper downgrade.
Fortunately for the Freecs, the strongest League of Legends teams are rarely drawn up on paper. Kiin lacks MaRin's ability to draw pressure and take over an entire game, but his willingness to play what the team needs and flex into slightly off-meta picks like top Ryze has further unlocked his teammates, who are now able to carry out the carefully prepared drafts that made the Freecs a Game 1 powerhouse last year.
Buoyed by Kiin's flexibility, the entire team has been lighter and more malleable. Less pressure on Kuro to sacrifice resources so that MaRin received more jungle attention or Spirit and Kramer could catch all of the team's minion waves has meant more carry opportunities alongside tanky initiators like Galio. Support Park "TusiN" Jong-ik has had a career split, initiating in tandem with Kuro, now able to leave Kramer alone more frequently in lane if need be.
And yet, despite the breath of fresh air that is the 2018 Afreeca Freecs, their arrival at the LCK finals has been a long time in the making for the organization. In 2016, another buoyant version of the team led by mid laner Son "Mickey" Young-min snuck into playoffs ahead of Samsung Galaxy thanks to an impressive back half of the 2016 LCK Spring split. This iteration of the Freecs never managed to make it past the first round of the LCK playoff gauntlet, a trend that stuck with the organization even after the original Freecs lineup was replaced. The Freecs' recent 3-1 victory over KT not only marked the organization's first playoff series win, but first playoff game win.
While Kingzone's appearance in these finals was expected, there were lingering doubts about the Freecs even after they finished second overall in the regular season, given the organization's history and a rising KT lineup that recently had integrated Lee "Rush" Yoon-jae and Son "Ucal" Woo-hyeon into the fold. The Freecs delivered thrilling oddball picks like Kuro's Yasuo or Kiin's Malphite, but the most important takeaways from the Freecs' win against KT were true of the team all split: flexibility and preparation.
These qualities, and a dedicated focus on practice, is the vision of iloveoov, who laid the groundwork for the Freecs' finals appearance last year upon arriving to the team. It was his idea to sign an entire second lineup to ensure that his team practiced more than any other, a move that was panned by his peers who said that it wouldn't work with the large amount of players continuing to leave South Korea for other regions.
"The most difficult thing was persuading the players to practice," iloveoov said in a follow-up interview with Inven. "I tried to have them understand the need of practice continuously; after they saw prowess and results getting better with practice, they understood and agreed. I was going to resign if I don't get good results within this year."
iloveoov will have to wait another split at least to resign now that the Freecs are in the finals.
Kingzone is waiting in Busan.