What is the LCK? Elite level League of Legends

The Americans created League of Legends, the Koreans perfected it. That phrase is usually used for Brazilians and soccer, but may apply even more so for League of Legends in Korea. Since the game’s Korean launch, LoL has become a national pastime. Their league, the League of Champions Korea or LCK, is thought of as the best league in LoL history. Teams from the LCK (and its previous names) have won 6 of the 9 world championships. Their players are national icons with Nike sponsorships. So, what is it about the LCK that makes it so uniquely great? 

History of the league

Despite having a rich history with strategy games and esports, when Riot Games launched LoL in 2009 the game was not available in Korea. When it became clear League of Legends was a huge success in North America, Riot began to look for places to expand. Korea was a natural answer. Korea already had a massive infrastructure seemingly built for spreading esports in something called PC bangs– cafes where gamers can pay for time to play on custom computers preloaded with popular games. They also already had cultural respect for gamers from Starcraft’s immense popularity in the country. Finally, Korea had a dedicated television network, On Gaming Network or OGN, for the budding esport to grow on.

OGN Champions

After the game’s launch in Korea in 2011, it quickly became the most popular game played in PC bangs. The country’s gaming network saw the immediate potential for a professional league and developed OGN Champions. The OGN was played in three separate tournament series in Winter, Spring, and Summer. Each tournament consisted of a group stage followed by a playoff series. This mimicked the structure of the Starcraft leagues of the time. Following the success of the 2013 LoL World Championship, Riot wanted to standardize their leagues across countries and shift towards something more familiar to traditional sports viewers. Thus, was born the League of Champions Korea or LCK.

LCK

The birth of LCK marked a shift towards the structure already used in the LCS and LEC. A calendar consisting of two splits made up of a regular season and playoffs rather than a tournament series. It also meant that companies could no longer own multiple teams. In the OGN days, Korean giants Samsung and Azubu would own multiple teams as their farm system like minor league baseball. The rule change led to a power shift in Korean LoL as Samsung and Azubu were weakened by the rule changes and T1 rose as the greatest team in history.


Comparison to other leagues 

Although not the singularly dominant league it once was because of the growth from the LEC and LPL, the LCK is still thought of as a top two league currently, and easily the best league in history. Since its founding, the LCK has stood alone in the level of gameplay, production, and cultural status.

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National Relevance

No one loves professional League of Legends quite like Korea. They have a dedicated television channel for the LCK that comes with standard cable packages. They had 2.8 million people watch their finals in 2019 across all platforms. Their players sign apparel deals with Nike and appear on late-night talk shows and nationally broadcast commercials. They even have an esports-specific stadium in the center of the country’s capital called LoL Park. LoL in Korea is not the niche, growing sport it is in North America, it is a mainstream success.

Promotion/Relegation

Another way the LCK has maintained its unique identity is through promotion and relegation. Instead of using the franchising system of all the other major leagues, where a place in the league is applied for by ownership groups and then can not be taken away unless through sale, the LCK still requires teams to fight  to stay in their top league. If a team finishes in the bottom two places of the LCK, they have to play in a promotion tournament against the top two teams from the lower league, the CK. The winners in the promotion tournament are then awarded places in the LCK for the following season regardless of the team’s history. This has led to some shocking falls from grace. Griffin after winning back-to-back LCK championships in 2019 found themselves relegated in 2020. 

The league announced that they will be moving to a franchising system in 2020. Although this makes teams a more stable investment, LCK’s commitment to competition at every level was an admirable trait that will go away with this change. Without the constant threat of relegation, one has to wonder if LCK teams will be as motivated to compete in every split.

Korean-style LoL

Nothing defines the LCK quite as well as the unique way that Koreans have found the most efficient ways to play the game. Their focus on executing the macro concepts  like the in-game economy, item builds, and objective focus is unrivaled throughout the world. Simply put, Korea understands the game better than anyone else.

As other leagues catch up and invent new, more aggressive ways to play and win at LoL, Korea has garnered the reputation as a “boring” league with its low kill totals, slower gameplay, and propensity to hinge on one or two teamfights. LCK fans will tell you this is the way LoL is meant to be played, with control all over the field. Watching a great LCK team like  T1 is like watching great pitching in baseball, a possession team in soccer, or a good defensive boxer. They may never explode off the screen, but you can tell that they are in complete control of every aspect of their sport. The death by a thousand body blows over one knockout punch can be absolutely mesmerizing to watch.

Learn what separates the top of the sport in the LCK and the rest in our LCS guide.


Teams

T1

  • Abbreviation: T1
  • Current Roster: 
    • Top-Canna or Zeus
    • Mid-Faker Faker or Clozer
    • Jungle-Cuzz or Ellim
    • ADC-Teddy or Gumayusi
    • Support-Keria
  • LCK Championships: 6
  • Best international finish: 3-time World Champions, 2-time MSI champions 
  • Notable investors- Comcast, SK Telecom

T1 (and their previous forms, SKT, SKT T1) is the greatest team in LoL history. They are the only team with multiple World championships. They have the undisputed best player of all time in Mid Laner, Faker. They have produced multiple other players recognized as top 10 talents. Their dominance in the LCK is only rivaled by TSM’s dominance of the LCS. Their run from 2015-2017 where they won back-to-back world championships and then back-to-back MSIs may never be replicated. I think you get the picture. They are the gold standard in League of Legends. Every other team in the world is trying to replicate what T1 has built.

Present-day T1 is still a perennial contender in the LCK and at international competitions, if not the standalone favorite they once were. T1’s fall from total dominance has more to do with other teams catching up to their infrastructure and style than any decline from T1. T1 is still a team defined by their smart, methodical,  macro-game focused play style led by Faker. Although not the mechanical god he once was, Faker is still the smartest player in the world and can turn it on when called upon like Lebron James with a keyboard and mouse.

In 2021, T1 will start their season having missed the World Championship for the first time since 2018. Although not a disaster season, 2020 was clearly not good enough for T1 as they added a substitute at every position to quickly replace any underperformers. The bench of T1 would probably be the 4th best team in the LCK. The one position they do not currently have a substitute for is their one new addition, Keria. Keria was the best support in the LCK last year and a large part of what brought the DRX squad to the LCK Finals and the World Championship quarterfinals. T1 is in championship mode again and will expect to return to the World Championship.


Gen. G

  • Abbreviation: GenG
  • Current Roster: 
    • Top-Rascal
    • Mid-BDD
    • Jungle-Clid
    • ADC-Ruler
    • Support-Life
  • LCK Championships: 0
  • Best international finish: 3rd at the 2020 Mid Season Cup
  • Notable investors- Los Angeles Clippers owner Dennis Wong, Will Smith

When Gen.G entered the league in 2018, they showed a commitment to spending and winning with a buy out of the the most recent World Championship roster of Samsung Galaxy. Although that roster never reached their lofty goals, the ownership group’s intent was clear: to buy the best players in the world and win a World Championship.

That model has carried on to today where Gen.G is one of the top teams in the LCK made up of purchased stars from other teams: Rascal from DRX, BDD from KT Rolster, Clid from T1, Ruler from Samsung Galaxy, and Life, the team’s first homegrown.This iteration is the first team with a real chance to take them to the heights they so clearly desire with a second place finish in Spring 2020 and a Quarterfinal finish at the World Championship. Gen. G has run it back with the exact same roster for 2021 and will hope that the growth and continuity of their players can bring them their first LCK championship.


DRX

  • Abbreviation: DRX
  • Current Roster: 
    • Top-Kingen
    • Mid-SOLKA
    • Jungle- Pyosik
    • ADC-BAO
    • Support-Becca
  • LCK Championships: 1
  • Best international finish: 5th at Worlds 2017, 2nd at MSI 2018
  • Notable investors- McLaren Automotives

DRX (and all of their previous forms) have been the most successful of all the Korean teams at replicating the homegrown success of T1. They have introduced and fostered some of the most exciting young players in recent Korean League of Legends in Keria and Chovy. It unfortunately has always ended just short of international glory.

Current day DRX has sold off nearly the entirety of their Worlds Quarterfinalist roster for 2020, and opted for a full scale rebuild around their jungler Pyosik. LCK fans were confused by the “blow it up” approach with a team that looked a few tweaks short of winning a World Championship. Pyosik is certainly a good foundational piece of an LCK-winning squad, but the players around him will have a lot to prove to make themselves contenders again.


KT Rolster

  • Abbreviation: KT
  • Current Roster: 
    • Top-Doran
    • Mid-Dove/Ucal
    • Jungle-Blank/Bonnie
    • ADC-HyBriD
    • Support-Zzus
  • LCK Championships: 2
  • Best international finish: 5th at Worlds 2015 and  Worlds 2018
  • Notable investors- N/A

KT Rolster is like the small market team in baseball that consistently signs and grows great players only to have them move on to a New York or LA team. Except in KT’s case, the New York and LA roles are filled by T1 and whoever is the flavor of the month to compete with T1. Twice KT has seen themselves lifting an LCK trophy and then immediately lost the star player that brought them their trophy to bigger and better things. The pain of being a KT fan was perfectly summarized by esports journalist, Emily Rand, in this oral history for ESPN. 

The same story was written again for KT in 2020. After finishing on the edge of the LCK playoffs, their star ADC, Aiming, left them for greener pastures in the LPL. Without him in 2021, KT will look to take a team of talented youngsters from all over the league to new heights. HyBrid comes in as the lone bright spot from  SeolHae One Prince, Dove from Sandbox Gaming, Zzus will get his first shot after a long stint in the Korean second division, and their headlining signing, Doran, will come over from DRX. KT will try to make this combination finally unlock their mid laner, Ucal, who was once thought of as the best prospect in all of Korean LoL.


DWG KIA

  • Abbreviation: DWG
  • Current Roster: 
    • Top-Nuguri
    • Mid-Showmaker
    • Jungle-Canyon
    • ADC-Ghost
    • Support-Beryl
  • LCK Championships: 1
  • Best international finish: 2020 World Champions, 5th at Worlds 2019
  • Notable investors- N/A

Damwon is one of the most exciting teams to enter the league in LCK history. The team won its place through the promotion and then kept all the players that brought them into the league. This team of relative unknowns from Korean solo queue fought their way into household name status and all the way to their first LCK title and dominant World Championship in 2020. 

DWG is particularly exciting because of their willingness to buck the playstyle trends of the LCK. Their early game focus and proactive fighting style is unlike any other team. Their top laner, Nuguri, is cut from the same cloth of the dominant top lane players of old. He’s the kind of player who wants to smash every opponent put in front of him rather than just tank for his teammates like the other top laners of the LCK. With an average age of 20 on Damwon, it was impressive how significantly they seemed to outmatch every team in the world. 

There are a few “greatest of all time” whispers gathering around this Damwon Gaming squad. In 2021, they will have a chance to stake their claim with the same roster looking to run it back.


Afreeca Freecs

  • Abbreviation: AF
  • Current Roster: 
    • Top-Kiin
    • Mid- Fly or Keine
    • Jungle-Dread
    • ADC-Bang
    • Support-Lehends
  • LCK Championships: 0
  • Best international finish: 5th at Worlds 2018
  • Notable investors- AfreecaTV

The Freecs are “the always a bridesmaid, never a bride” team of the LCK. You can count on them to be competing for  a playoff spot, but never truly contending for a championship. They are the kind of benchmark team that exists often in sports. Bad teams lose to AF, good teams beat them. They consistently have above average players at every position, but never the kind of transcendent star that the best teams in LCK have.

If one player could become that needed star for Freecs in the present day, its top laner, Kiin. He’s another player that plays more like the carry tops of old, rather  than the tank and support style that has dominated pro play in the current era. Freecs desperately need someone to game-break for them when they are faced with the top teams and he’s shown that kind of potential. If a shift in the meta brings in more carry tops, Afreeca could be well set up to make a real LCK run.


Hanwha Life Esports

  • Abbreviation: HLE
  • Current Roster: 
    • Top-Morgan
    • Mid-Chovy
    • Jungle-Arthur/Yohan
    • ADC-Deft
    • Support-Vsta
  • LCK Championships: 1
  • Best international finish: 3rd at Worlds 2016
  • Notable investors- Hanwha Life Insurance

Hanwa has seen both the height of the LCK (although under the name ROX Tigers), and the absolute bottom with the current iteration of the team. When they were the Tigers in the 2015-2016 seasons, this was a team constantly competing with T1 for Korean dominance. They have since failed to win in any significant way as they tried to rebuild from that aging roster. 

HLE today is a team that has shown a willingness to spend to get top talent in buying Mid Laner, Chovy. Chovy is the kind of singular talent that only comes along once in a generation. He wins his lane against every player he comes up against and instantly moves any team he’s on into contender status. The question will be how the players around him turn out. He will be joined by solid veterans Morgan and Deft at top and ADC, but the team will start relative unknowns in the jungle and at support. If those players turn out to be quality players, HLE could challenge for an LCK championship again.


Nongshim RedForce

  • Abbreviation: NS
  • Current Roster: 
    • Top-Rich
    • Mid-Bay
    • Jungle-Peanut
    • ADC-deokdam or Wayne
    • Support-Kellin
  • LCK Championships: 0
  • Best international finish: N/A
  • Notable investors- None

The latest team to join the LCK is Nongshim Redforce. (Formerly Team Dynamics) They have surprised teams so far with their solid macro play and team fighting in spite of not having the most individually talented players. Their top laner, Rich, is one of the only players in LoL history to successfully make the jump as a pro player from another game. He was largely thought of as the GOAT in Heroes of the Storm, but when the competitive scene for that game died out he successfully transitioned into a solid LoL top laner.

They outperformed expectations in 2020 and have decided to make a playoff push in 2021. By signing Jungler Peanut and Support Kellin, NS has made significant upgrades to their roster. Peanut, in particular, was the best jungler in the LPL at times in 2020. He could bring the sort of direction and carry potential that pushes Nongshim over the playoff line.


Liv Sandbox

  • Abbreviation: SB
  • Current Roster: 
    • Top-Summit
    • Mid- Fate
    • Jungle- OnFleek or Croco
    • ADC-Route or Leo
    • Support-Effort
  • LCK Championships: 0
  • Best international finish: N/A
  • Notable investors- None

Sandbox is another recently promoted team in the LCK that has punched above their weight. Despite not having the kind of roster that jumps off the page, Sandbox has consistently found ways to stay in the LCK since joining. Part of what has given them their “live dog”status is their commitment to trying new things.

In 2021, Sandbox will maintain their underdog status with a collection of players who have hovered between the first tier and second tier of Korean play. So far, it has been clear that Sandbox can not compete with the spending or development of the top teams in the LCK and will need to find undervalued assets from throughout the league to put together a competitive team. 


Fredit Brion

  • Abbreviation: FB
  • Current Roster: 
    • Top-Hoya
    • Mid-Lava
    • Jungle-Chieftain or Umti
    • ADC-Hena
    • Support-Delight
  • LCK Championships: 0
  • Best international finish: N/A
  • Notable investors- None

Fredit Brion will join the league in 2021 as the only new team following the move to franchising. WInning the bid to enter the league will probably be the highlight of Fredit Brion’s season as they try to establish themselves in the league. They are at a significant talent disadvantage against most teams and  are projected by most experts to finish last place.   


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