Money brings the opportunity to create something great. In a growing esports scene that hasn't played around with words like salary cap just yet, seemingly unlimited funding gives you a massive advantage over your peers.
Incredible Miracle was given a chance to change its fate this offseason when its Chinese sponsor, Longzhu, took full control of the team and re-branded it as Longzhu Gaming. The owners and staff around the organization didn't hide their intentions in the offseason -- they wanted to build a team that could win the world championship Summoner's Cup, and they had the funds to do it. They were rumored to be in discussions with the likes of world champion Cho "Mata" Se-hyeong and former player turned superstar Song "Smeb" Kyung-ho, but failed to sign either.
In the end, the new "Manchester City of League" put together an all-star lineup that lived up to its offseason proclamations: Shin "CoCo" Jin-yeong at the middle lane position, arguably the second best player at his role in all of South Korea, behind only Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok. Lee "Chaser" Sang-hyun, the ace of the Jin Air Green Wings in 2015, at the jungler position. Lee "Flame" Ho-jong, one of the all-time greats in the top lane, coming back to his homeland after spending a turbulent year in China. And Lee "Fury" Jin-yong, an overlooked star AD carry from the rebuilding Samsung Galaxy who might be the team's best pickup.
Expectations had never been higher for the franchise, which had lingered in the bottom rungs of the Korean standings for almost four years before the re-branding. Every time there was a tiny glimmer of hope that things were going to change for the organization, something would go terribly wrong and ruin the momentum. Incredible Miracle wasn't strong enough to compete with the best teams in South Korea, but also wasn't weak enough to fall out of the top leagues, forcing a blowup. It was a looping nightmare that began and ended with the squad's loyal fans patiently waiting for the day they could see their beloved team succeed.
So, one match past the halfway mark of the regular season, what would you expect Longzhu Gaming's record to be? 7-3? Maybe even 8-2 if things came together quickly? Nope, an even 5-5 record and sixth place in the LCK standings.
If the playoffs started today, all the resources that were given to the team in the offseason would be for naught, and the organization would have to look forward to the summer split.
The only thing consistent about LZ's play this campaign has been the inconsistency. It would be easier to figure out if Longzhu were simply a bad team -- but it's not. When Longzhu has played its best games of the season, it has appeared to be a world-class team: highly talented, coordinated and well-prepared for opponents. It hasn't been uncommon for LZ to steamroll through its opponents on occasion, picking up a small advantage in the early-game and snowballing that into to a 20-minute victory through a mix of superior raw talent and glimpses of synergy.
But miscommunication can sink Longzhu, especially in the early minutes. A player gets caught trying to invade the enemy jungle, the other team collapses and LZ isn't fast enough on the trigger to help. A dive occurs in the bottom lane seconds after Longzhu's top laner just teleported back to lane to farm, causing LZ to get outnumbered and picked apart in the bottom. Even if LZ gets into the late-game in one of its low-kill, grinder-type games, the players have shown tiny lapses of judgment at crucial times, dropping winnable sets.
A middling team usually lacks talent at one or more positions. In the case of Longzhu Gaming, it might be the opposite. LZ might just possess too much talent.
The 10 Dragons of Longzhu
Having substitutes is almost a necessity now for teams in the major regions of League of Legends. Last year, world champion SK Telecom T1 even routinely switched out Faker, its best player, in favor of the more defensive-oriented Lee "Easyhoon" Ji-hoon.
Longzhu plays with a 10-man roster. Through the first 10 matches of the season, LZ has utilized nine, with only support substitute Jang "Zzus" Joon-soo sitting. The player with the least amount of games after Zzus (and the suspended Fury) is Kim "Frozen" Tae-il in the mid lane, who has the highest KDA on the team, while also having one of the highest win rates.
온게임넷 LCK 출범식! 롱주의 스프링 시즌 공식 로스터입니다.
Official full roster of Longzhu on OGN! pic.twitter.com/RffBBToGHw
- Longzhu Gaming (@Longzhu_) January 6, 2016
Saying the 10 players on Longzhu are skilled would be an understatement. The team has a diverse collection of veterans, players in their prime and up-and-coming talent transitioning from the amateur scene. Nine of Longzhu's 10 dragons are in the top 100 of Korea's cutthroat Challenger ladder. The only player not to crack the ranks, AD carry Kang "Cpt Jack" Hyung-woo, is also the most experienced member.
The main issue with Longzhu for the first half of the season was the lack of stability. Although LZ treated the first nine matches of the split as a training period, the players were never able to find a starting five that clicked. Fury didn't help matters by being suspended then -- over a contract tampering issue -- and only returning in the match against the league-leading ROX Tigers that ended in a swift 0-2 loss.
Whenever one lineup had gotten the hang of playing together, LZ would switch things up. And rather than one of the starting fives pulling ahead of the others (or completely blowing up), they all seemed to do well enough to deserve another shot down the line.
Pillars of the top lane
If there is one role that Longzhu can feel comfortable with, it's the top lane.
It's been a battle between two of South Korea's all-time greatest at the role. Flame was the undisputed best during 2013 and early 2014, but has struggled with trying to find that peak form again, bouncing from Korea to China and now back to his home country. Gu "Expession" Bon-taek also was at the top of his game in 2013, playing on the NaJin Black Sword team that almost upset SK Telecom T1 in the championship semifinals.
Both longtime stars have had resurgent seasons, and they've repeatedly been the backbone of LZ's wins. Expession has performed better in the laning phase and shown a slightly deeper champion pool. Flame can take over games if he gets a small advantage early and can lean on his Gangplank, Fiora and Ryze performances.
Expession has been stoic and stable in his efforts. Flame has been explosive and consistently improving.
The same cannot be said for LZ's jungle.
Looking into a mirror
Lee "Chaser" Sang-hyun was known as the LCK's best carry jungler in 2015. His maverick style was supposed to be one of the cornerstones to LZ's success, but Chaser's play has been chaotic.
One game he looks like the ace player we expected, making smooth, decisive ganks in the early-game and getting a massive lead for his team. And in the very next game he can look like a deer in the headlights, trapped in the enemy jungle in the first two minutes, giving up first blood.
Just like his club, Chaser is gifted but erratic. He either plays like the best in the world or a solo queue jungler who doesn't work alongside his team.
And here's the issue: Unlike other positions where the players complement each other, LZ's junglers are like father and son. Lee "Crash" Dong-woo, the other jungler on the roster, should be called Chaser Jr. He's one of the best jungler prospects to come down the Korean pipeline in quite some time, and his raw talent is up there with the best players at the. He can take over games with his aggressive style of invading.
But exactly like Chaser, Crash sometimes put his brawn in front of his brain. He'll pick up a triple kill with a phenomenal converge in the top lane and then needlessly die 30 seconds later trying to grab the enemy's red buff. Crash is the epitome of a player that tries to do too much. Instead of picking up a few kills, recalling and surveying the situation before making his next strike on the map, he'll dive headfirst into the enemy side of the map without any vision and only sheer brash confidence on his side.
Given Crash's overzealous tendencies, Chaser should be the player that LZ sticks with as the starter for at least the spring season -- but Crash is a rookie in the LCK. His mistakes are expected of an amateur player getting his first taste in the pro ranks. If Chaser doesn't fix his issues, his younger self might fly right past him come the summer season.
Offense and defense
Longzhu's mid lane and AD carry positions are a classic example of offense vs. defense.
LZ has Coco at mid and Fury at AD carry, two players who can single-handedly win games with attacking prowess. Then there's Frozen and CptJack, who run the defensive, safe play you need until the teamfighting phase.
With the suspension, Fury hasn't had the chance to play much this split. He's been constantly playing online in Korea's solo queue, hovering around the top three spots for the past month. The lone bright spot on a rebuilding Samsung team last year, Fury is the type of player who could become one of the biggest stars in the league with the right team around him.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, CptJack is everything Fury isn't. His laning phase isn't great, but he makes up for it with his shot calling, leadership and teamfighting. Jack's knack for keeping cool under pressure and knowing how to convert chances has made him a starter on CJ Entus, Jin Air and now Longzhu. On a team with the likes of Flame, Chaser and Coco, Jack's utility-style and safe laning might be what's best for the team in the long run. The mid lane rivalry is one of the few positions about which LZ has some certainty. Frozen has played only six games and Coco was considered by many to be the second best mid laner behind Faker in 2015.
The starters conundrum
Now, the big question: Who should play in Longzhu's starting five?
LZ played the combination of Expession, Chaser, Coco, Fury and Pure in its first second-round match against the ROX Tigers, but put up one of its worst team performances of the season. Maybe Longzhu shouldn't be too hasty and shake things up since the Tigers are undefeated and likely the best team in the world.
We've seen lineups with almost every player on the roster look absolutely dominant in one game and then clueless in the next. For all the mixing and matching LZ Gaming has done, it seems like the organization is getting further away from a solution. The addition of Fury only adds another element to this ongoing mystery.
ROX Tigers is an action movie, always getting into fights and playing in fast-paced contests. Defending champ SK Telecom T1 is a drama, attempting to regain its former glory following the departure of captain in the offseason. CJ Entus is a thriller, with a 17-year-old amateur prodigy (Gwak "Bdd" Bo-seong) trying to help the former kings of Korea make the postseason.
Longzhu, well, Longzhu is a mystery -- a woeful, re-branded organization infused with foreign money and big signings trying to make the club a world championship contender. But even after all that, LZ is still struggling to make the playoffs.
Ten players. Five starting spots. If Longzhu Gaming want to get its money's worth, it's up to the organization to solve the riddle of which players are best suited to lead LZ into the future.