Tuesday, February 4, 2020

LCK Spring 2020 Pre-Season Tier List

League of Legends Champions Korea
Spring 2020 Pre-Season Tier List

Some people find the exercise of doing power rankings before a season starts a bit cliché but as a handicapper I've found it to be one of the best things you can do to prepare yourself for an upcoming season. As we gear up for the 2020 competitive League of Legends season it's crucial to have perspective on the competing teams. By putting the work in now we can find a lot of value on teams that are inaccurately priced by the books. Over the years I've had much more success at the beginning of the season before the lines can adjust to sample size.
On this list I attempt to organize the teams in LOL Champions Korea by relative strength. This is done using a tier grading system rather than traditional individual ranks (which I'll also provide for more granularity). Before the season it's less about exact finishes than it is comparing the teams to each other to potentially find value.

Tier Definitions:

F Tier
 - I'm not sure I'll give any of these out but it's mostly reserved for uniquely bad situations like an expansion team or team from a smaller, weaker region at a large tournament.

D Tier - Non-playoff teams that have next to no shot without a miracle developing to have a chance at playoffs. Not all regions will have these. Often rebuilding teams, teams with large rosters and constant swaps of subpar players, or generally weak teams.

C Tier - Non-playoff teams that need a lot of things to go well to have a shot at competing domestically. Often these teams are competing but lack the players and skill to really compete with the stronger teams. Sometimes will beat middle of the table teams but will also drop some games to worse teams.

B Tier - Teams that might make the playoffs or might just miss. Most of the "middle of the table" teams fall into this category. Often they either do one thing well but have weaknesses or they're a pretty solid team that just doesn't have the skill and ability to be much better than they are.

A Tier - Likely playoff teams that could contend for a title if a few things go their way. Usually solid teams with a single weakness or high upside teams with a few question marks.

S Tier - World Championship caliber teams and/or teams that are substantially ahead of their region. S+ rating indicates teams that I feel have a strong chance at winning the World Championship.


D Tier:

10) APK Prince
Projected Starters: Ikssu, Kuma, Cover, Hybrid, Secret
Substitutes: Alphamong (top), Flawless (jungle), Keine (mid),  HaeSeong (mid), Trigger (ADC), Mia (sup)
Coaches: Sickness (head coach), Winged (assistant), CooN (assistant)
Odds to win Spring Split: +10,000
The past few seasons in Challengers Korea have brought us the likes of Griffin, Sandbox, and DAMWON but I don't have nearly the same hope for APK Prince for a number of reasons. First, this isn't the roster that won this spot via the promotion tournament. Former world champion KaKao left for another challenger level team in Seorabeol and promising top laner Paladin is currently a free agent. Both were huge parts of APK's success in their run. That said, I think people see an old familiar name like KaKao and just assume that a huge downgrade happens. APK Prince aren't a bunch of new players at all.

We've seen Flawless with JDG, Rogue Warriors, and iMay in the LPL and before that Sbenu for a short time. For a 21 year old he's extremely well traveled and you could honestly call him a journeyman already. While not flawless (heh...), Flawless has actually been a decent performer whenver he's had starting time wherever he's gone so don't sleep on him. Ikssu is also another familiar face. The servicable veteran has been around since 2015 where he started for new LCK team at the time Rebels Anarchy. From there he had stints with Afreeca and Jin Air before a six month hiatus to become a full time bitcoin investor (wild right?), before returning to play for Hong Kong Attitude in the LMS and eventually back to the Korean Challenger scene. Hybrid and Secret have been around in and out of the LCK and CK for awhile. Secret has actually been pretty solid in his career from what we've seen. Mia, the supposed substitute support has played with KT Rolster, Kongdoo Monster, and even had a brief stint in the Japanese LJL. The unknowns are Kuma, Keine, Alphamong, and the one we know least about which is Cover who hasn't even played in Challenger.

A lot of people are automatically writing this roster off as a bunch of washed up has-beens and while I agree to some degree I actually think this team has some players that have been underrated in their careers. I think APK Prince should be better than Jin Air. A few of these players like Secret, Mia, and Flawless have actually been pretty good in their careers and Ikssu has been a savvy veteran and must be doing something right to still be around. If any of the unknown quantities present well then I think this team will be better than last years Jin Air team. Now it's not like that bar is very high but I wouldn't count APK as an auto-fade until we learn otherwise. Unfortunately I think the rest of the LCK look very good this split so it's tough to have much hope for APK. 


C Tier:

9) Hanwha Life eSports
Projected Starters: CuVee, Haru, Tempt, Zenit, Lehends
Substitutes: Lava (mid/top/bot), Vsta (support)
CoachesKezman (head coach), NoFe (assistant), Sake (assistant), Max (former MVP)(trainee)
Odds to win Spring Split: +1600

The middle of the table in Korea is going to be fascinating. All of these teams are so close together in quality on paper that it should be an extremely competitive year. On paper I absolutely love this team. All of these players besides Zenit are proven veterans with an excellent track record including a few with outstanding performances. Lehends was one of the best supports in the world last year, CuVee can elevate when it matters most (more on this later), Lava and Tempt have both had standout performances on mediocre teams. Zenit is a bit of a question. He was quite bad last year. KT Rolster were a lot like JDG in the LPL, a team that would have been a definite playoff team and possibly a title contender but their ADCs were such a detriment that they simply couldn't overcome it in a competitive league. Maybe Zenit needs a fresh start but I was not impressed with him. CuVee also famously struggles until later in the year where he seemingly always elevates to superhero levels (the "Gauntlet Qualifier Buff"). This team looks like they'd be a playoff contender in most other seasons of the LCK but they just have more questions than some of these other rosters.. The talent is there for sure I'm just not sure how quickly they can pull it together and how consistent they'll be.


B Tier:

8) KT Rolster
Projected StartersSoHwan, Malrang, Kuro, Aiming, TusiN
Substitutes: Ray (top), BonO (jungle)
CoachesHirai (head coach), Supreme (assistant), Cheonju (former world Champion Acorn renamed)(assistant), Mental (assistant)
Odds to win Spring Split: +3000

This lineup is a prime example to me of why people might sleep on the LCK this year. Kuro was an absolute monster all last year in the LPL, Aiming and Tusin not only have experience playing together but have both been outstanding in their careers and specifically last year. Don't assume all veterans are washed up these guys are world class level players. The top side is what I'm more worried about. SoHwan is a journeyman top laner but has been stuck on some pretty bad teams over the course of his career. At worst he'll be servicable. Malrang and Bono have been very inconsistent in their time as professionals albeit on some very weak teams. Ray has been all over the place in his career as well, some good some bad. The top and jungle position bring a lot of questions to me which is unfortunate because this bottom trio is outstanding. Another angle to discuss with KT is that coach Hirai worked a lot of magic with Kingzone last year. They were one of the most well-coached teams on the planet and bringing this talent together with him could lead to this team vastly exceeding this rating. KT Rolster are the kind of team that would probably dominate most Western teams but in a competitive LCK with a lot of parity will probably fall short of the mark but by no means is this a bad team. They'll certainly be competitive.

A- Tier:

 7) Griffin
Projected Starters: Untara, Tarzan, UCal, Viper, Irove (formerly Kabbie)
Substitutes: Sword (top), Naehyun (mid/top)
CoachesH Dragon (head coach), Chaos (assistant), GBM (former pro)(assistant), Rather (former pro)(assistant,  Jaceyoung (analyst)
Odds to win Spring Split: +3000

I look at this roster and it's frankly ridiculous to me that I have this team here. People were extremely down on the Untara pick up after Sword's poor performance at the World Championship but when you look at the rest of this lineup the level of talent is absolutely insane. Tarzan was the best jungler on the planet for a lot of the last year and a half, Viper in the conversation for best ADC, UCal and Naehyun both are on that world class level in the mid lane in the most competitive mid lane talent region, and Kabbie, who we didn't get to see last year, was a player Griffin retained and only didn't see play because Lehends is also one of the best supports in the world. I think people either have a bad taste left in their mouths from the Worlds fiasco, don't know who Irove/Kabbie is, and think Untara is "just a guy." Untara is versatile and in the few chances he's had in his career has been a tremendous carry player. This team is stacked. This region is stacked. How much of a luxury is it to have UCal AND Naehyun. Either would be the best mid laner in the West outside of maybe Perkz/Caps. That's insane! Hell they'd probably be in the top few in the LPL as well. 

The biggest question mark with Griffin to me, isn't any of their players, it's their coaching staff. Obviously there was a lot that happened with this whole cvMax situation in the offseason and while we could argue about the moral implications let's keep this strictly to the League of Legends. cvMax is a hell of a coach, maybe the best. Griffin were the single most disciplined team I've ever seen in my near decade of watching professional play. Griffin was a machine. The closest thing to high level AI playing exactly as you're supposed to at all times. This broke down at times against creative or weird teams but I can count on a single hand the amount of leads that were punted on one hand for three seasons and a Worlds tournament. That's ridiculous. Griffin did old school SKT better than SKT did it and it's a damn shame that we didn't get to see a World Championship out of that lineup because they're going to go forever underappreciated.... *steps off soapbox*

H Dragon wasn't able to coach up the huge roster of somewhat talented players at his disposal on Jin Air. There was enough talent between the younger players AND the veterans that there was simply no excuse for Jin Air to be as bad as they were, at least to me. H Dragon gets a lot of respect but I'm skeptical. This feels like the coaching equivalent of going from Loken to Imp. A +10 to -10 feeling move. The level of talent on this roster is absolutely absurd and there's a chance that's enough to get it done. Maybe the carryover players will mostly be coaching themselves and sticking to their style from before. If they can stay disciplined without cvMax there then this team could win the LCK and I wouldn't be surprised at all. Of course there's also the potential that H Dragon "opens up" this team and the players respond well to a looser, more aggressive style. Who knows? Griffin simply comes down to coaching because all the talent is there.

6) Sandbox Gaming
Projected Starters: Summit, OnFleek, Dove, Leo, Gorilla
Substitutes: Lonely (top), Punch (jungle), FATE (mid), Route (ADC), Joker (support)
Coaches: Laden (head coach), Morning (assistant), Coco (former CJ, Longzhu player)(assistant), Fan Tasy (assistant)
Odds to win Spring Split: +1500

Another team with another rock solid lineup. Summit, OnFleek, and Dove look to continue making sweet sweet music on the rift while the four bottom laners will battle for the two spots or perhaps fill different roles. Leo and Route are both promising young ADCs with at least some experience on the pro stage and the old man supports of future hall of famer Gorilla and Joker will look to guide the young marksmen. I love the way this team is constructed. Consider the overall construction the Sandbox had last year and almost nothing has changed except bringing in more strong players and retaining the best ones you had. My only reservation about this team is that they get a little to cute roster swapping too much and never get into a rhythm. I also think the loss of coach Dragon is a bigger one than people will give credit for but they did retain Laden from that previous regime. With a ton of veteran players, the electric top trio of young studs, and a roster full of depth and great leadership, I would not be surprised to see Sandbox finish significantly better than this and am willing to say they'll likely be the team I have ranked too low by season's end.


A+/S- Tier:

5) Afreeca Freecs
Projected Starters: Kiin, Dread, Fly, Mystic, Ben
Substitutes: Hoon (top), Spirit (jungle), All In (mid), SS (ADC), Jelly (support)
Coaches: iloveoov (head coach), VinylCat (assistant), Actscene (assistant)
Odds to win Spring Split: +2500

Huge fan of this roster! Kiin looks like a man on a mission and utterly smashed the KeSPA Cup picking up right where he left off last year as arguably the second best top laner on the planet. Retaining both junglers in Dread and Spirit is a smart move as Dread inparticular was outstanding in his debut starting split. Fly moves in from Gen.G, a versatile veteran with a specialization in playing the map from the middle lane. Ben was outstanding on the elite TOP eSports squad in the LPL aiding stud marksman Loken well the entire year. Then the big acquistion, Mystic from Team WE in the LPL. Mystic was more or less the Teddy on Jin Air of the LPL. Stuck on a middling to bad WE team for YEARS he was still an absolute monster. Considering the team only knew on strategy, how to play around him, and every single other team saw it coming and he was still able to outperform expectations I think the sky is potentially the limit for Mystic. I also think the LCK is the perfect landing spot for him. The LCK is a lot less aggressive and if he's able to abuse that then this could potentially feel like going from training in increased gravity to floating through space. The bottom lane talent in the LCK is also quite strong but the LPL were no slouches in that department and this is a significantly better team than any of the Team WE iterations. 

Perhaps the most interesting part of Afreeca is whether or not they'll maintain their uptempo style from last year. Afreeca were one of the best teams in any region at playing with pace and priority. It's why I had such high expectations of them in the second half of the year. That kind of strategy can be extremely potent when applied well but with this new lineup and changes to staff it will be interesting to see if they choose to stay the same philosophically. I'll add that Fly is a great fit for that style as well.

Afreeca are good and much like the entire top seven and especially top five teams in the LCK have a very real shot at winning the Spring Split. They are one of my favorite futures market teams and I've already invested in them.

4) T1
Projected Starters: Canna, Cuzz, Faker, Teddy, Effort
Substitutes: Roach (top), Ellim (jungle), Gori (mid), Gumayusi (ADC), Kuri (support)
Coaches: Coach Kim (head coach), Comet (assistant), Moment (assistant)
Odds to win Spring Split: +780

It's so weird seeing SKT without Kkoma at the helm. It feels a bit like the Patriots without Bill Belichek. The thing is Coach Kim is also a tremendous coach and Kkoma has showed some liability in understanding modern League of Legends. He's still a better coach than most, probably still the best of all time, but this isn't about him. The point I want to make is that I don't think there's a huge drop off, if any, here. T1 were excellent last year not on the backs of elite players but on exceptional understanding of the game, teamwork, AND elite talent. For such a storied organization I feel as though they might not need the "winning culture" style of coaching anymore and might just need an elite X's and O's type and Kim can bring that.

In terms of players we still have the ridiculous carry pairing of Faker and Teddy as well as returning support Effort who really made a case for being one of the better supports in the world last year against a lot of public expectations. Clid moves to Gen.G and Cuzz joins T1. This is a definite downgrade but perhaps not as big of one as people might think. Cuzz was a super prospect not a few years ago and while he struggled to adapt once teams adapted to him he's been steadily improving since then as he's settled into his professional career.  Losing Khan to the LPL was huge. I don't want to understate that. Khan is one of the top five or maybe better top laners on the planet and his versatility and dominance will be tough to replace. Enter Canna and Roach who will attempt to fill at least some of that void. Roach got a bit of a bad reputation but was the standout player on some absolutely terrible teams over the course of his career and Canna is very much an unknown quantity that showed pretty well during KeSPA Cup.

I don't sound like I'm rating T1 highly. After all how could I after they made definite downgrades at two positions? There's a few reasons. First is continuity. The bottom trio are all studs and experienced veterans. Second is my immense respect for Coach Kim with the caveat that it's going to be interesting to see how he manages not having a stud top laner. Third, how bad can a team with Faker and Teddy as the carries be? Honestly. I could see this team having a rough start but they'll be there in the playoff conversation by seasons end.

3) Gen.G eSports
Projected Starters: Rascal, Clid, Bdd, Ruler, Life
Substitutes: Kellin (support)
Coaches: Edgar (head coach), oDin (assistant), TrAce (assistant), Tom (assistant)
Odds to win Spring Split: +225

Gen.G are the odds on favorite to win the Split at +225 and that's totally reasonable with this absolute murderer's row of a lineup. four of the five players on this team can make a reasonable case for being the best or second best player at their position in Korea and I'd say three of those have a case for best in the world at their position. The "weak link" in Rascal improved leaps and bounds last year to build an impressive resume in his first full time starting gig. The talent on this team is not in doubt. 

To me, Gen.G's biggest question is their coaching staff. Over the years this staff has time and time again taken great players and pushed them into an overly passive style that, for lack of better terms, is simply suboptimal. Does it work for Gen.G sometimes? Yes but it's by no means correct. This coaching staff doesn't utilize the talent it has well at all and that's been the case for a number of years now. That's the only reason I'm skeptical.

2) DAMWON Gaming
Projected Starters: Nuguri, Canyon, ShowMaker, Nuclear, BeryL

Substitutes: Flame (top), Hoit (support)
Coaches: Micro (head coach), Travel (assistant), Zefa (assistant), Daeny (assistant)
Odds to win Spring Split: +225

DAMWON probably have the fewest question marks of all the teams in the LCK. They return the exact starting roster and add Zefa to the coaching staff. DAMWON are immensely talented but are very raw and often stubborn. This was the only thing really holding them back from challenging the elite teams at worlds this year. DAMWON SHOULD start off strong since they have the most continuity from last season of any team in Korea. If DAMWON can become just a little bit more measured and calculated in their play but still retain the confidence and swagger they play with then they'll be one of, if not, the best team in the region and one of the best in the world. A lot of these players are going to be yet another year improved and if they actually come through on that then the sky is the limit. Barring a worlds hangover situation DAMWON are almost certainly going to be in the conversation for a title.

1) DragonX
Projected Starters: Doran, Pyosik, Chovy, Deft, Keria
Substitutes: Quad (mid)
Coaches: cvMax (head coach), Bubbling (assistant), Expession (trainee), Ace (trainee)
Odds to win Spring Split: +710

For my pre-season tier lists I tend to weigh more favorably toward known quantities until the unknowns prove themselves but when a team immediately starts answering some of the questions you have before the season even starts and those were your only reservation I'm willing to bend the rules a little. I won't go into all of the drama surrounding cvMax here but strictly looking at him as a coach he's absolutely brilliant and lead a brand new team of rookies in Griffin from the challenger league to one of the most dominating three split records ever in one of the most competitive regions. It wasn't just that they did it either it was how they did it. Griffin operated with surgical precision. Strategically they were the most fundamentally sound team I've ever seen in my near decade of watching League. They were as close to a machine as you could get. Obviously the ridiculously talented players get a lot of credit but Griffin were one of, if not the most well-coached and disciplined teams ever and that's coaching.

 DragonX looked like they were in mid-season form at KeSPA Cup. Doran and Chovy were with cvMax in Griffin and can help the new players acclimate. Deft is, in my opinion, the best ADC to ever play the game and he's still playing at that level which is impressive on it's own. Keria and Pyosik were the unknowns and both, especially Pyosik looked outstanding in their debut at KeSPA Cup. Jungling in solo queue is much different than in professional play and is arguably the most difficult role to transition from solo queue to professional at. Look, I don't want to put too much weight on an offseason tournament but the fact Pyosik stepped in as a raw solo queue jungler and looked as refined and comfortable as he did really impressed me. Sure teams are going to get some tape on him as we get a sample size but if you consider that he was the biggest question mark on this roster and he's already putting up these kinds of performances gives me a lot of confidence in DragonX.

Chovy and Deft have the ability to be the best carry pair to ever be assembled. cvMax is, in my opinion, the best coach on earth. You have some continuity from Doran and Chovy to acclimate new players to previous system. Your two new players are already answering questions and quashing doubts. And this team looks to have that instant chemistry and are apparently bonding off the rift very quickly. I don't think it's outrageous to say DragonX could be the new hotness so I will:

 DragonX are going to win Spring 2020.


Final Tier List:
D: 10) APK Prince
C: 9) Hanwha Life eSports
B: 8) KT Rolster
A-: 7) Griffin, 6) Sandbox
S-/A+: 5) Afreeca, 4) T1, 3) Gen.G, 2) DAMWON, 1) DragonX

I mentioned it a bit but to me Korea breaks down into two big groups; the top seven and bottom three. There is only one team I'm confident won't make playoffs and that's APK Prince. I don't expect APK to be a bad team just that the region looks to have so much competition that it's difficult to see them making any sort of run. KT Rolster and Hanwha are a step ahead of them but still have big questions and potential liabilities. For the top seven I can honestly see a world where any one of these teams wins the Spring Split. I don't know if I've ever said that before. While the LCK may not have upgraded it's overall individual talent, I do think it's less top loaded this year and that there are seven legitimate contenders instead of the four or five we saw last year. There is no middle of the table anymore all of these teams are outstanding. When seven out of ten teams fall in the A- to S- range you're going to have a strong, competitive, and compelling region to watch in the LCK.

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