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Korean LoL talent drain to China continues

2020 World Champion Jang “Nuguri” Ha-gwon recently joined FunPlus Phoenix. (FunPlus Phoenix Twitter)
2020 World Champion Jang “Nuguri” Ha-gwon recently joined FunPlus Phoenix. (FunPlus Phoenix Twitter)

When South Korea’s Damwon Gaming lifted the Summoner’s Cup in Shanghai in October, fans of League of Legends Champions Korea were filled with joy. For two years, LCK teams had failed to reach the finals, instead looking on as Chinese teams from the LoL Pro League won.

As Damwon fulfilled the long-held wish of LCK fans for a win, fans also feared another exodus of Korean players to the LPL. After LCK team Samsung White won the World Championships in 2014, all the starting members of the team signed with Chinese teams in the offseason, in what came to be called the “Great Korean Exodus.”

At the time, Chinese teams offered salaries beyond what any LCK team could afford. In the years to follow, whenever a superstar appeared on the LCK scene it was expected that he would join the LPL once the contract ended. The two Chinese teams that won Worlds in 2018 and 2019 had two Koreans in arguably the most important roles in the starting lineups. Things were so bad that Koreans heralded and celebrated top-tier players like Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok for staying in LCK.

Even though the LPL has outperformed LCK in recent years, attracting more local players, and the top LCK players’ salaries have increased drastically, the talent drain continued this offseason. For the players, the LPL means more money and competing with the best teams in the best environment, as the Chinese government pours in astronomical sums to assist the development of esports in China.

Jang “Nuguri” Ha-gwon, previously the star player for Damwon, signed with FunPlus Phoenix after his contract with Damwon ended. Also, 20-year-old Kim “Aiming” Ha-ram, the star marksman of KT Rolster last year, went on to the LPL’s Bilibili Gaming along with celebrated coach Kim Jeong-soo and 18-year-old Kim “Zeka” Geon-woo from KT Academy.

Other talents who headed to China include former Griffin player Lee “Tarzan” Seung-yong and Park “Viper” Do-hyeon. Jin “Mystic” Seong-jun also returned to the LPL after playing in Korea for one year. Among the biggest sighs of relief for the Korean league is that star players like Jeong “Chovy” Ji-hoon and Cho “BeryL” Gun-hee remain in LCK.

The first week of the LPL spring season, which kicked off Saturday, clearly demonstrated why Korean talent is coveted by the LPL teams.

Viper of Edward Gaming shone in Saturday’s match, leading the team to victory, while Zeka and Aiming played pivotal roles in winning their first match. Nuguri showed why he is considered one of the best -- if not the best -- top laners in the world as he stomped his opponent in his debut in the LPL on Tuesday.

As LCK enters the franchise system, coaches are looking forward to the introduction of rookies in the second division and to increased investment from companies to make LCK competitive and fill the void left by players headed to the LPL.

“As the franchise system comes into place, I think the league will develop and new star players will emerge because lots of young players can be used. For the players, player welfare has improved so they can focus more on playing the games,” said Dae Ji-hun, head coach of Nongshim RedForce, during the spring season online press conference.

“With interest in the second division rising in LCK and investment increasing, I think the franchise system will be beneficial for the development of LCK,” said coach Yang Dae-in of T1.

By Lim Jang-won (ljw@heraldcorp.com)
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