With South Korea's League Champions Korea and China's League of Legends Pro League returning from Lunar New Year celebrations, there is no better time to take a look at a few of the lesser-known teams in each region that are rising through their respective ranks.
Here are four teams -- two from the LPL and two from the LCK -- to look out for.
There were many reservations about this particular Freecs team during its inception in 2016 that persisted throughout 2017's competitive season; most of them revolved around team resources and the strain on Lee "KurO" Seo-haeng as a supportive, efficient mid laner. Although Lee "Spirit" Da-yoon was known for his carry potential in China, his success, more often than not, involved farming into relevancy without communication with his lanes.
Jang "MaRin" Gyeong-hwan, even during his peak on SK Telecom T1 in 2015, was known as a resource hog who called Bae "Bengi" Seong-woong topside frequently. Ha "Kramer" Jong-hun became a liability when he wasn't given resources. By the end of 2017, Afreeca was the team with a good game plan, thanks to former StarCraft pro and coach, Choi "iloveoov" Yeon-sung. Unfortunately, this plan only lasted for one game, and Afreeca could not adapt within a series at the same pace as its opponents.
Then, in the 2017-18 offseason, the Freecs lost MaRin.
MaRin's replacement on the Freecs, former Ever8 Winners top laner Kim "Kiin" Gi-in did not create the same amount of pressure. Few top laners could.
Yet, despite the loss of MaRin and a definite on-paper downgrade in the top lane position, this Freecs team already looks better than it did last year -- further proof that roster swaps in League of Legends aren't as cut-and-dry as names on paper. Kiin spent most of his time playing carries on Ever8 like Camille, Renekton and Jax, but was still overshadowed by the mid-jungle duo of Kim "Malrang" Geun-seong and Park "Cepted" Wi-rim. On Afreeca, Kiin diversified his playstyle and champion picks without demanding as much attention on the top side of the map as MaRin.
"It's hard to silently do what you need to do for the team onstage, but Kiin does exactly that," Spirit said after a recent victory over MVP. "I think he's good at making sacrifices for the good of his team."
This has given the Freecs newfound flexibility to execute iloveoov and the coaching staff's game plans. The Freecs have found a sweet spot, planning for opponents while adapting game-to-game over a series. Now, with only one substitution in the 2017-18 offseason in Kiin, this 2018 Afreeca team is one of the best in South Korea.
Freecs' former AD carry Gwon "Sangyoon" Sang-yun, top laner Heo "Lindarang" Man-heung and Yoon "Seonghwan" Seong-hwan are a collection of cast-offs that now make up the ROX Tigers. Lindarang and Seonghwan weren't considered close to best in their positions while mid laner Kim "Lava" Tae-hoon was one of the worst players in his position in 2017. Support Kim "Key" Han-gi presumably reached his peak as a standout Bard player on ESC Ever, and had yet to reach anything close to his IEM apex. Lee "Kuzan" Seong-hyeok, the Tigers' offseason acquisition, only played a single game this split.
This team is true to Tigers tradition: an assembly of players who aren't considered anywhere near the best in their roles. It's difficult to believe now, but the original ROX Tigers were also a collection of leftovers or were perceived as mid-to-lower tier washed-up talent, save for Kang "GorillA" Beom-hyeon. Although these Tigers won't reach the heights of the original Tigers, they are currently fifth place in the LCK standings and have been a fun team to watch this split.
The Tigers know who they are, and what they want to do: secure a waveclear, a pushing mid champion for Lava, and set up a two-pronged attack with Lindarang and Sangyoon. It hasn't always worked -- and the Tigers have had trouble balancing between running one style of composition and playing to a completely different win condition. With each game, the team has improved in both planning and in execution.
These game plans would not be possible without the increase of performances from both Lindarang and Seonghwan. Without some semblance of pressure on the top side of the map, the Tigers would falter more frequently and the team would look similar to what it was at the end of 2017 -- hope that Sangyoon could outperform his opponents on a scaling carry -- and lose a lot more games due to its singular playstyle. Now with multiple carry threats in the sidelanes, the Tigers have also pioneered a few mid lane picks like Galio and Corki that have spread throughout the league.
Many thought that this team would struggle without mid laner Kim "doinb" Tae-sang -- but the core of jungler Kim "Clid" Tae-min, AD carry Lee "Loken" Dong-wook and support Zuo "LvMao" Ming-Hao has performed well with new additions Zeng "YaGao" Qi and Zhang "Zoom" Xing-Ran. JD Gaming has more flexibility with its new roster than it ever did with doinb, who took the majority of the team's resources and became the team's primary win condition in the 2017 LPL Summer Split.
Although the acquisition of Zoom from the LSPL for top laner Kan "Kabe" Ho Man was the focus of JDG's offseason, YaGao -- affectionately known to his international fans as "toothpaste," a translation of his gamer tag -- has emerged as the rising talent on this JDG lineup. Even in the team's losses, YaGao has posted good numbers and had individually strong performances. Clid has remained an aggressive jungler but often finds himself taking advantage of his opponents' overly-aggressive invades rather than making them himself. Much of this is due to the surprising amount of pushing power that has come from YaGao's control over mid lane.
With the strong jungle-mid duo of Clid and YaGao, JDG has entered games with strong compositions that allow the two to control the middle of the map while also affecting side lanes. Alongside fellow e-commerce giant Suning Gaming, JDG has risen to be a contender for the East Region right behind Invictus Gaming.
Rogue Warriors assembled the exact team it wanted this past offseason, piecing together a roster of players from various LPL teams. Despite being hailed as a super team, none of these players have had lasting LPL success aside from former EDward Gaming top laner Chen "Mouse" Yu-Hao, who won two LPL titles with EDG.
Mouse is a special case, since he also received the brunt of the blame for some of EDG's failings internationally, and was considered one of the worst in his position. Jungler Sung "Flawless" Yeon-jun was a SBENU Korea survivor who spent most of his time benched on I May last year. AD carry Han "Smlz" Jin was known as a prodigious player since 2013, but only saw real success last year with OMG. Support Liu "Killua" Dan-Yang was on the Young Miracles team that once again failed to qualify for the LPL. And finally, there was the excitable doinb, known for his odd mid lane playstyle and wacky build patterns.
With players like doinb, Mouse and Flawless, Rogue Warriors seemed locked into a somewhat specific playstyle. Teams kept giving Flawless Lee Sin and Mouse Gangplank, which in turn led Rogue Warriors to early season victories. However, in their recent series, Rogue Warriors have shown a bit more flexibility in draft that's still in tune with the individuals on team. After all, who but doinb would play Lulu mid in 2018?