With broad smiles and infectious energy, South Korean bottom lane duo Kim "PraY" Jong-in and support Kang "GorillA" Beom-hyeon touched down in Los Angeles in early December for the League of Legends All-Star event.
Favored to win the world championship just a month prior, PraY, GorillA and the rest of Longzhu Gaming had failed on the world's largest stage. They had been overwhelmed by Samsung Galaxy, who, thanks to losing to Royal Never Give Up in the group stages, had adjusted its game plan to target Longzhu's bottom lane, sweeping the team 3-0. A few days before the All-Star event, Longzhu had also lost in an offseason tournament, the 2017 KeSPA Cup, even with the team's recent and much-touted new jungler, Han "Peanut" Wang-ho.
PraY and GorillA would have been forgiven for being subdued and focused, even at an All-Star event with nothing on the line but individual and regional pride. Yet, they were gregarious and hopeful. PraY in particular was excited, not about the All-Stars event itself, but for the future of his team: Longzhu Gaming.
"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," PraY said. "With Peanut, we just thought that, now that he has more experience and with his talent, we can take it one step further."
"Both me and PraY have never been to MSI and Peanut has been telling us all these stories about MSI, how good it is, how much money you can make off of MSI," GorillA said. "For now, our immediate goal is to practice to go to MSI."
PraY, GorillA and the League Champions Korea All-Stars lost to China's Pro League All-Stars that December. But rebranded as Kingzone DragonX, PraY and GorillA razed through another LCK season this spring, winning another domestic title. Longzhu's 2017 faults had been sanded down from rough edges that cost games, to small flaws that only the best-prepared teams with top-tier talent would be able to exploit (provided that starting top laner Kim "Khan" Dong-ha was playing). Khan's Teleport timing and teamfight flanks, two of his greatest weaknesses in 2017, had been significantly improved over another split with the team. Peanut -- although he initially struggled to coordinate with his lanes -- provided a much-needed punch to Kingzone's early game that former starting jungler, Moon "Cuzz" Woo-chan, had lacked during the previous year.
The Afreeca Freecs played a close series against Kingzone in the 2018 LCK Spring finals, closer than the 3-1 scoreline would indicate at first glance. Yet, Kingzone's victory was never in doubt. Kingzone was the best team in South Korea. By extension, Kingzone was the best team in the world. Kingzone was going to the 2018 Mid-Season Invitational in Europe to prove that the team's problems at 2017 Worlds had been fixed, much like SK Telecom T1 had gone to the 2016 MSI event to take back the title the team had lost the year before. Kingzone struggled during the MSI group stage in Berlin, but few believed that the team wouldn't win MSI.
A few days later, at the Zénith Paris-La Villette in Paris, France, Kingzone lost to China's Royal Never Give Up in the MSI finals. It was the first time that a Chinese team had beaten a South Korean team at a major tournament in more than three years, since MSI 2015.
When EDward Gaming beat SK Telecom T1 at the 2015 MSI tournament, questions of the overall strength of South Korea regionally flew furiously, especially with a recent exodus of South Korean pro players to China. EDG itself had two South Korean players, mid laner Heo "PawN" Won-seok and AD carry Kim "Deft" Hyuk-kyu. With RNG's 2018 victory, it's not the strength of the LCK that's being questioned, but the strength of the PraY/GorillA duo as well as Peanut (who struggled internationally with SKT at 2017 worlds). For now, South Korea as a region still has enough international clout based on years of dominion at the world championships.
The same courtesy has not been extended to PraY and GorillA, who have now been on multiple teams together as a duo and apart, without an international title to either of their names. Coupled with Khan's lackluster top lane performance, this MSI furthered the story of Longzhu's failure from 2017 Worlds. The team's 2017 problems -- poor flanks and Teleports from Khan, poor communication between the jungler and his lanes -- returned once Kingzone got on the MSI stage. PraY and GorillA's former Tigers teams often had an air of arrogance, first smacked down by Team WE at the 2015 IEM World Championship. The Tigers' strong 2016 performances have now been retroactively painted as further arrogance in light of Kingzone falling to RNG. It's unfair to say that PraY and GorillA choke at international events, but there's also a pattern of falling just short, calling into question their decision to stay together this year.
Going forward, South Korean teams, like any team in the world, must take all opponents seriously. This was true before Kingzone lost to RNG, but has now been put into a more glaring spotlight because of the MSI loss. For PraY and GorillA, this will mean addressing any sort of complacency or arrogance that could arise from regular-season dominance. RNG struggled at times during the split, ramping up through a lengthy LPL playoff run, and had trouble with other teams during the group stage, whereas Kingzone was dominant throughout the regular season and had to play only one best-of-five series to qualify for MSI. It's not an excuse, but a reminder for the 2018 LCK Summer champion -- whether it's PraY and GorillA's Kingzone or another organization entirely -- that its split performance might not be an accurate predictor of how the team will perform internationally.
As for PraY and GorillA, their partnership will once again be tested throughout the split.
"The position explains itself. It's called 'bot duo,'" GorillA said at All-Stars. "It's two players playing together. I think we just play better as a duo. I'm sure we could still perform well as individuals playing for different teams, but we trust in each other and we know that we can play better as a team when we're together as a duo."