When Riot Games added support for Korean League of Legends and OnGameNet began running regular tournaments, I had to check it out. Sure enough, big pro-gaming teams like StarTale and MiG started fielding pro League teams, and most of the things I suspected were true. Korean teams have amazing coordination and incredible mechanics compared to their western counterparts.
This was put to the test last weekend during Major League Gaming's LoL Summer Arena, where Korean qualifying team Azubu Blaze utterly destroyed the other teams, losing only once to Curse Gaming. Most of the matches weren't even close. What's the secret to Azubu Blaze's dominance? Can it be reproduced in the West, or is League of Legends going to end up like StarCraft -- dominated by the Korean scene?
Korean teams, and in particular Azubu Blaze, have a very effective training regimen. Players have scheduled practice time, both for solo and team play, as well as scheduled physical workouts and a regimented diet. The Korean pros are in it to win, and they practice and prepare like traditional atheletes would. We joke a bit about playing League of Legends like a job sometimes, but these guys are playing it like it's even more than a job; it's practically a way of life.
In an interview, Team Curse's coach Liquid112 commented that kind of preparation is the only way to stay competitive. When I began following pro League matches, I found it disheartening to see the "pros" say things in interviews like "we don't really scrim that much" and "I try to put in a few hours every day practicing." It's obvious the bar has been raised; full-time practice is going to be the only way that top teams are going to have a chance against other top teams, whether they are from Asia or not.
Culturally, Korean pro-gamers put a lot of effort into practice and preparation. It's true regardless of the title. Top Sudden Attack players practice for 8-10 hours a day, 5-6 days a week. StarCraft pro-gamers often perform poorly when they are forced to juggle university time and a gaming career, and it's a very rare pro who can manage both. On their own forums, the Asian players of CLG North America were asked why they performed more consistently than their teammates of non-Asian descent, and Chauster answered, "Asians have better discipline."
It isn't an ethnic trait, though; the main thing that separates Azubu Blaze from its overseas counterparts is a strong work ethic when it comes to play and a desire to put everything into the art of winning games. It paid off for the team last weekend, but practice is something that anyone can do. It's why I emphasize practicing skills constantly; it's not some in-born talent that makes a top player better than someone else. It's practice, discipline, and dilligence. Pro players work hard to get to where they are, and suggesting their success is due to natural talent does that effort a tremendous disservice.
A lot of things can be gleaned from Blaze's victories. The group was quite good at fielding unusual team compositions and often fielded champions the enemy team favored and used its enemies' tricks against them. Blaze members' mechanical practice with many champions allowed them to play Curse's oddball Orianna/Shyvana strategy and adapt it as well as play variants of TSM's standard compositions.
However, Azubu Blaze did not go through the Summer Arena completely unscathed. Curse took a single game from the team, and it was probably one of the best League matches I have ever seen. Curse players took advantage of Azubu's aggressive play, working together and countering the Korean team's movements. Curse took an early lead going into the midgame, and while it lost the first dragon fight, it was already up several towers and quite a few kills.
Azubu Blaze was not out of the game at that point and continued to cling to every advantage it could get. In teamfights, the Shyvana/Lulu/Orianna composition run by Blaze proved to be incredibly nasty, but in smaller skirmishes or when Ori's ultimate was unavailable, Curse tended to squeeze out a lead. There were several times when Curse threw kills away recklessly, but for the most part, the team stuck together and dictated the pace of the match.
Curse took Baron but was repelled shortly afterward, losing a teamfight 3-4. In general it was really apparent to me that the Korean mechanics and execution were just dramatically better. Unfortunately for Blaze, Curse was outplaying Blaze at every turn and made a series of mindgame baits that forced Blaze to waste Orianna's ultimate. Curse was taking Baron, and Shyvana dived in with Lulu's ult in a frantic attempt to steal it. Unfortunately, it was too late, and Shyv was detonated by Curse, followed by the rest of Blaze. There was gameplay after this, but the game was over at that point. The Koreans held on for a bit longer, but it was clear that the second Baron and decisive teamfight victory had won the game for Curse.
Many of the early leads from Curse were due to a lot of strategic roaming and some amazing rocket grabs from Blitzcrank to secure early kills for Corki. In fact, Cop's amazing Corki play was most evident in this game; he played extremely well and gave up almost nothing in the early game. By comparison, even Blaze's star Captain Jack (playing Graves) was subjected to surprise death fairly often by Blitzcrank's massive fist and Corki's machineguns. Karthus was also a huge help for Curse, delivering his ultimate to clean up or deal extra damage for his allies to get kills.
What can we take from this game? Elementz said in an interview afterward, "What we'd take from them is that grouping and communication are honestly the keys to winning." It wasn't just the amazing Blitzcrank grabs or Karthus ults; it was that Curse really came together as a team and executed as a team.
I fear that the TSM players who performed poorly during the weekend, particularly Reginald and Dyrus, will get ripped on for giving the games away. While they did make mistakes, I think it's more fair to say that Azubu Blaze is just an amazing team for consistently punishing weakness.
Can the West match up to the dominance displayed in the East? I think so. CLG.eu is currently undefeated in OnGameNet's The Champions, and CLG.na also made it into the round of 8. In fact, of the teams in the round of 8, three are not Korean; the other is the Chinese team World Elite, which has had several fantastic showings at international tournaments.
In watching Azubu Blaze's victories, I realized they used the same general style for all their games. I think that the aggressive pushing and lane switching are a Korean metagame thing more than a specific style of Blaze. When pushed into bad situations by Curse and TSM, Blaze did not give up on its extremely aggressive strategy. This was the case even when Curse was actively punishing that strategy. I do feel that the Western teams are more truly adaptive and flexible. While the Koreans are fairly good at adapting tactics, the Western teams have a more adaptable strategy. Unfortunately, the Koreans -- especially Azubu Blaze -- are mechanically so far ahead of their competition that it took a very strong counter-strategy to pull out a win.
Are the Koreans ahead of Western gamers? I would say yes, but that comes with caveats. I think that top Western teams have what it takes to beat them. We did not see a good showing from the European scene this tournament (Black had two substitute players and not enough preparation time), and European teams have had better showings lately than the American ones. Will a Western team have a chance to take home The Champions' trophy? We'll see!
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