DAMWON usher in next generation of South Korean League of Legends

DAMWON Gaming's victory at the League of Legends World Championship is the first for a South Korean team since 2017. Riot Games

Riot Games Korea's LoL Park is simple to travel to from anywhere in Seoul. It's within walking distance of the financial district, the historic Gyeongbokgung Palace and City Hall, and easily accessible by subway. Although it's not at the heart of the city geographically, it's somewhat at the heart of it culturally. Exit 1 at Jonggak Station places you at the feet of the Gran Seoul building, and LoL Park is on the third floor: the home of South Korea's League of Legends Champions Korea as of the 2018 League of Legends World Championship.

Now it is also the home of the 2020 League of Legends world champions: DAMWON Gaming.

At the end of worlds 2018, with games taking place throughout the country from the bustle of Seoul to the beaches of Busan to the autumn leaves in Gwangju, the worlds finals media day was held in LoL Park. At this time, the members of DAMWON Gaming were already making their presence known in scrims against foreign teams visiting South Korea for the tournament. An upstart Challengers Korea team at the time, DAMWON were the future, after all three South Korean teams -- Afreeca Freecs, Gen.G (Samsung Galaxy) and KT Rolster -- at that world championship had been eliminated by the quarterfinals.

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I remember the dejected slump of various LCK players' shoulders as they slouched around the designated smoking area outside of the media tent in Busan during groups and quarterfinals. I remember sitting with Korean KT Rolster fans and fan sites as we watched our team lose in five games to the eventual champion, Invictus Gaming. I remember chatting with an Inven reporter in an empty LoL Park that November, wondering what the future of the LCK would look like. We were both still shocked that, for the first time since 2012, a South Korean team would not be lifting the Summoner's Cup.

Alongside Griffin, who had razed through the 2018 LCK summer split and had just barely failed to qualify for worlds that year, DAMWON were thought of as LCK's future. In order to guarantee LCK dominance going forward, teams would have to turn to their up-and-coming rookies, entice them to stay in South Korea instead of going to China's League of Legends Pro League or the North American League of Legends Championship Series, and play more aggressively like DAMWON or Griffin. Although DAMWON were praised by Western teams at the time, had just qualified for the LCK through the promotion series and were heralded as a sign of hope, many players' livelihoods were still undecided.

"The most memorable time [outside of winning worlds] was 2018 when I was playing in Challengers Korea," DWG mid laner Heo "ShowMaker" Su said in DWG's post-finals news conference. "We couldn't make it to the playoffs in spring split so I was so depressed and I was like, 'What am I going to do with my life?'"

Today, DAMWON Gaming lifted the Summoner's Cup in Shanghai. It will now return to LoL Park and South Korea.

"For a message over to the players who are having a tough time I want to tell them, they can just look up to me and think that, 'Oh, this kind of guy can also win worlds,'" DWG bot laner Jang "Ghost" Yong-jun said of his own arduous journey from LCK relegation to world champion. "So I hope they can cheer up and never give up and accomplish the goal they have."

What feels like such a lengthy drought for South Korea has been only three years, since Samsung Galaxy also won a championship on Chinese soil in 2017. It feels much longer due to how dominant South Korean teams were from 2012 to 2017. There was a time when all you had to do was identify the best or the most meta-suitable South Korean team and pick them to win any international event. There was a time when the eighth-best South Korean team could win a tournament undefeated.

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The largest question around a 2020 worlds DAMWON Gaming win was always, and has been since the start of the tournament, what it would mean both to and for South Korea. While the level of domination over LoL esports that South Korean teams had in 2014 is not likely to return, DAMWON Gaming is a success story that makes it clear that South Korean teams are certainly not finished winning in League of Legends.

"I believe the LCK will keep growing stronger as time goes by," DWG coach Lee "Zefa" Jae-min said after their victory. A few questions later, he told his players that they were now the best in the world.

LoL Park has been empty for the majority of 2020. COVID-19 has kept audiences and staff at home, with the broadcast occasionally moving online rather than a skeleton crew at LoL Park with just players, staff and broadcast team members. I wonder if the broadcast team felt odd, like we did returning to LoL Park at worlds two years ago, wandering around a mostly empty building and wondering if and how South Korea would reclaim a trophy that they had won for five straight years.

When DAMWON Gaming lifted the Summoner's Cup, legendary South Korean esports caster Jeon Yong-jun, fondly and simply known by international audiences as Caster Jun, was seated with the rest of the LCK broadcast in LoL Park. He knocked back a cup of makgeolli and screamed, "This. Is. L. C. K!" The rest of the broadcast stood up and danced.

Welcome back, LCK.