The annual KeSPA Cup is the first tournament of the 2020 season in Korea. This is where newly formed rosters debut their lineups as a sneak peek for the LCK Spring Split. Since the tournament barely has any incentive for most pro teams to expose their strategies, this is where a lot of them build synergy and finalize their Spring rosters.
Furthermore, plenty of amateur teams rose to popularity thanks to wonderful wins against LCK mainstays. In the inaugural tournament in 2015, ESC Ever shocked newly-crowned World Champions SKT T1 in the semis. Shortly after, they swept Kang “Ambition” Chan-yong’s CJ Entus in the finals.
This year, fans are mostly hyped about the reworked lineups of the top teams, especially after Korea failed to win Worlds yet again. With that said, long-time LCK fans know that the tournament doesn’t really translate directly to LCK performance. A lot of teams will be fielding rookies this year, notably DragonX’s Hong “Pyosik” Chang-hyeon and Ryu “Keria” Min-seok. The highly-touted youngsters will likely revitalize Korea’s stagnant meta-game similar to Griffin, Damwon and Sandbox’s entry into the league.
The tournament invited a total of 20 teams, with the top four of Summer 2019 (T1, Griffin, Damwon Gaming and Sandbox Gaming) getting a bye to the playoffs. This year, no CK/amateur team made it to the knockout stage. Of the 6 remaining LCK teams, KT Rolster and Jin Air missed the top eight.
The quarterfinals began with Sandbox Gaming stomping Griffin in a 2-0 series. Despite speculation that the entire Griffin organization will disband, they managed to keep Lee “Tarzan” Seung-yong and Park “Viper” Do-hyeon. However, with the loss of their touted chemistry, as well as superstar mid laner Jeong “Chovy” Ji-hoon, they struggled to challenge Sandbox Gaming. Sandbox retained their roster save for their bot lane duo. Former LCK Champion Kang “Gorilla” Beom-hyun now leads the team in place of Cho “Joker” Jae-eup, who is now a substitute. On top of that, they replaced Jang “Ghost” Yong-jun with Han “Leo” Gyeo-re, formerly of SKT and Moon “Route” Geom-su, formerly of Jin Air.
In the second series, T1 (formerly SKT T1) won a hard-fought series against Gen.G’s rebuilt roster. This marked the first tournament that Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok played without the mentorship of long-time coach Kim “kkOma” Jeong-gyun. Moreover, the team lost stars Kim “Khan” Dong-ha and Kim “Clid” Tae-min to other teams. Also, arguably the greatest support to have ever played the game, Cho “Mata” Se-hyeong, now coaches Royal Never Give Up. Meanwhile, Gen.G rebuilt their roster around star ADC Park “Ruler” Jae-hyuk and Clid.
On the other side of the bracket, Hanwha Life suprisingly took Afreeca Freecs to their limits, the only game Afreeca dropped the entire tournament. Hanwha built their new roster around former Samsung/Gen.G World Champions Lee “CuVee” Seong-jin and Kang “Haru” Min-seung. They also added former Griffin support Son “Lehends” Si-woo. On the other hand, Afreeca’s rebuild centered around young superstar top laner Kim “Kiin” Gi-in. While Kiin definitely blasted his opponents in lane, the returning Jin “Mystic” Seong-jun stole the show for the Freecs.
Lastly, DragonX debuted their new roster with a clean 2-0 against Damwon Gaming. Despite Damwon retaining their entire 2019 roster, they could not stop Chovy and Kim “Deft” Hyuk-kyu’s one-two punch. Along with Chovy, Kim “cvMax” Dae-ho brought along Choi “Doran” Hyeon-joon with him, bringing stability to the top lane. As a result, the aggressive bottom half of the map need not worry about their flanks too much.
In the first semifinal, Sandbox Gaming dominated T1’s new roster in a 3-1 victory. In particular, Sandbox’s jungler Kim “OnFleek” Jang-gyeom outclassed T1’s Cuzz. He even managed to get a pentakill on Olaf in the final game. Granted, T1’s new roster might not have built their synergy yet. However, it’s a worrying trend when Faker is unable to do anything in lane against his counterpart. On the bright side, Park “Teddy” Jin-seong and Lee “Effort” Sang-ho are still a formidable duo in the bot lane capable of carrying T1 on their own.
In the other semifinal, Afreeca Freecs flexed their muscles in a sweep against DragonX. One of the brightest spots on the team has to be Mystic, who completely dominated Deft and Keria in the 2v2. Also, Deft’s former Samsung Blue jungler Lee “Spirit” Da-yoon is still a trusty leader in-game. His pathing and tracking allowed Kiin and Deft to play aggressively in lane. As a result, DragonX’s laners struggled to stay relevant in experience and gold all throughout the series. Dragon control is extremely important in this meta and the Freecs leveraged that into an easy 3-0.
The story of the tournament was synergy and team chemistry. No other team could overcome Afreeca’s macro because of this. In a meta that rewards scaling compositions immensely thanks to the new Dragon Soul mechanic, teams with early dragon priority can easily snowball out of control. That is exactly what Afreeca planned in their drafts and they executed it to perfection. In all three games of the series, the Freecs prioritized bot lane control and in return, secured dragon after dragon. It also helped that Mystic simply outclassed every other ADC they faced.
This will surely be a huge boost for them coming into the Spring split. Even if the League of Legends KeSPA Cup doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things, the way Afreeca won the tournament should affect the way teams draft in the first few weeks of the season. GG.