Is the Korean Gap Closing

November 4, 2016 - Esports

In League of Legends, a game played worldwide, teams and players from South Korea have been kings for years now. Whenever a Western team was to go up against the Koreans, Western fans felt like the rest of the world, when their National basketball team had to play against Team USA. With the World Championship 2016 over and done with, crowning SK Telecom T1, a Korean team, as the third time World Champions, the matter of Korean dominance seems to be settled. Especially when all three Korean teams, which qualified for the tournament, made it into the Top 4. But is it a moot discussion? We don’t think so.

Since the Season 3 World Championship, where the SK Telecom’s dominant run started, the whole world understood how good the Koreans are at playing League of Legends. They outclassed the competition in all things. Laning mechanics, macro play, understanding of the game, pick and ban. It seemed as if the West has no chance to catch up. SKT had the best players in the world in every role, with Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok standing above the rest as the undisputed Legend of League.

In Season 4, the field seemed wide open when the defending World Champions didn’t even make it into the tournament. Exciting! Who won the tournament? Samsung Galaxy White, Korean team. Their sister team, Samsung Galaxy Blue, actually ended the tournament in 3rd-4th place. The other two Semifinalist teams were Chinese. No chance for the West, it seemed.

Season 5 World Championship came. Prior to that season, an incredible number of Korea’s best left the region to go and play in China. It was known as the Korean Exodus. Now, the West stood a chance for sure, right?! Well, sort of. Two European teams, Fnatic and Origen, managed to haul themselves to the Semifinals. There, they met two Korean teams, KOO Tigers and SK Telecom T1. Guess what happened. Yes, the Europeans got smashed and we had one more Korea vs. Korea Final. Koreans won. And by Koreans, we mean SK Telecom, of course.

Season 6 came, the West teased fans by getting to the Final of the Mid Season Invitational, where they got smashed by SK Telecom. Team SoloMid got their shit together in the Summer Split and dominated in their region, entering the World Championship in high spirits. They were expected to get to the Semifinals by analysts and fans alike. What happened? TSM didn’t get past the Group Stage. Instead, the only team from the West in the Semifinal of this World Championship was the surprising H2K, which wasn’t expected to do well at all prior to the tournament. Met by the might of Samsung Galaxy, H2K got smashed. The Final featured two Korean teams once again, SKT won. Once again. It was harder than before, however. During the course of this tournament, the Koreans bled. ROX lost against the Wildcard Albus NoX Luna and Counter Logic Gaming, Samsung lost against Team SoloMid, SKT fell to Flash Wolves.

So, is the gap closing? Yes, however, it’s way too slow so far. At the pace we’re going, the West will have a chance… in 10 years. We’re using hyperbole, of course. Let’s talk about the matter point by point. What makes a team or player good? Mechanics (micro play) certainly play a big part, however, you can’t forget game knowledge, strategy (macro play), coordination and discipline.

There used to be a huge gap in mechanics, which is narrowing. Players like Soren “Bjergsen” Bjerg can compete on an even keel against most Korean Mid Laners. Konstantinos “FORG1VEN” Tzortziou is mechanically good enough to do the same. The problem is that where Koreans have numerous mechanically superb players in each position, the West can put forward one or two for each position. The gap is still there in terms of mechanics, however, it’s smaller compared to how huge it used to be.

Next is macro and game knowledge. Here, the West is trailing by a lot. Even when the Western pro scene starts catching up to the Korean level, it can often be traced to something taught to them by one Korean player or another. For example, when Kim "Reignover" Ui-jin started smashing every Jungler in the NA LCS, the poor sods had to either figure out why they are getting smashed and shape up, or lose their teams the game. It’s practically never the case that a great strategy is developed in the West and then adopted by Koreans, it’s always the other way around. As a result, the best chance for non-Koreans to win is to have a stable state of the game where they have time to catch up to what Koreans figured out to be the best ages ago.

The trophy for better communication goes to Korea as well. To have enough world-class players to have a chance at competing, the Western teams have to sign players from all over the world, including Korea itself. As a result, it’s not surprising to have several players for whom English is not their native language, trying to play against a Korean team, which speaks… Korean. This is especially apparent in European teams. There, every player on the team could be from a different country. At least the players usually are at least decent at English.

Finally, there’s discipline and it’s wider cousin, coaching. There’s a prevalent belief in the West that Korean teams have ginormous staffs of coaches and analysts. They do not. In fact, the coaching infrastructure might even be more developed in NA, according to Choi “Locodoco” Yoon-sup. The problem is that when a Korean is given an order by the coach, he follows it, while a Westerner can disregard it. That is just different cultural upbringing. Korean people, as well as, many other nations from the Far East, have a strict hierarchy, a hive mentality of sorts, where Westerners are individualistic. Where the Koreans go in one direction, coaching a Western team is a battle on multiple fronts unless you just happen to have the absolute trust of your players.

This also works similarly in training. Where the Koreans have the discipline to put their all into training, Western players often slack off a little bit. When Team SoloMid decided to practice Korea-style for a split, putting themselves through a, frankly, inhuman grinder, they smashed the region so badly that it was sad to watch.

All in all, the skill gap is getting smaller towards the end of the split. By analysing VODs from Korea, Westerners catch up little by little, however, when a new season starts or Riot drops a big patch, the game changes. Due to their discipline and greater basis of game knowledge to fall back upon, Koreans are quicker to figure out the new best thing to do and they take off once again. Someday, this might change, however, it’s not going to be easy. Let’s hope we don’t turn grey before it does.