Somewhat of a silent, joking figure in the OnGameNet booth, Lee “Duke” Ho-seong holds a presence in Korean league that very few top laners ever have. From the start of Champions Summer 2014 and to the end of Champions Spring 2015, he was arguably the most dominant top laner in the region filled with exceptional talents. Yet still he flies under the radar. Typically lacking in flash and his teams performing in disappointing fashion, Duke has been one of the most quiet top performers in the world over the past year. With the departure of team captain Jang “Marin” Gyeong-Hwan, SK Telecom T1 needed a replacement to the fan favorite top laner. Who they’ve found is the man who kicks ass and chews gum in the booth. Someone who will be an upgrade to the now-famous former captain.
A former Protoss player for the SK Telecom T1 Starcraft 2 team under the name “Klaus”, Duke – then known as “Leopard” – got his first break in professional League of Legends with the KT Rolster Bullets. Joining up with the roster in late 2013, he found his first competitive experience against Najin White Shield in the third place match of PANDORA.TV Champions Winter 2013 subbing in for Choi “inSec” In-seok. There he showcased well rounded tank play while going toe to toe with Shield’s star top laner Baek “Save” Young-jin. With Lee “Kakao” Byung-kwan’s transfer to the KT Arrows and Insec moving back to the jungle, Leopard would fill the shoes as the starting top laner from that tournament onward.
As was the meta during early-mid 2014, Leopard was a prominent Shyvana and Renekton player. At the IEM Season VIII World Championship, where the KT Bullets went undefeated, he displayed standout performances all throughout the tournament on a host of champions and built a bit of a name for himself in the international community. Returning back to Korea for HOT6IX Champions Spring 2014, he would find himself yet again matched up against Save and Najin White Shield during the quarterfinals. This time, off the heels of an abnormally poor game four from Leopard, Shield would reverse sweep the Bullets on their way to a finals appearance.
After the season, Leopard would be the centerpiece of the most lopsided trade in League history. KT Rolster agreed to send Leopard to Najin e-mFire in exchange for mid laner Kim “Nagne” Sang-moon and top laner Ju “Limit” Min-Gyu. Nagne never panned out as expected, and Limit was on a LSPL roster within seven months.
Duke – changing his name from Leopard – became one of the main strengths on a revamped Najin Black Sword roster and had arguably the most impressive split of any top laner in Korea. As the meta in Summer shifted away from Shyvana and Renekton only in Spring, this allowed Duke to pick up champs such as Lulu, Jax, and Gragas proving he had more depth. Through Najin Black Sword’s run in both HOT6IX Champions Summer 2014 and ITENJOY NLB Summer 2014, he would outperform such names as Kim “Rock” Hui-chan, Limit, Lee “Flame” Ho-jong, Save, and Marin on their way to an NLB finals appearance. Unfortunately, this was the most successful team he ever performed on and it was short lived as the exodus, sister team dissolution, and the introduction of the HUYA Tigers that would break apart the budding Sword roster.
Sticking with Najin e-mFire through the exodus, he continued his mean streak well into 2015. Despite Najin under-performing as a team, only winning 14 matches in total during the Spring season of Champions, Duke was the best performing top laner in the region yet again.
Duke was the MVP in 10 of those 14 victories, laying claim to the regular season league MVP award. He had some of the best Gnar play in the world, picking that champion up with ease once it became available in competitive play, and shown bright on Rumble, Maokai, and Lissandra, again showing more and more depth to his play.
Of the “Big Four” top laners in Korea, he received the lowest gold share and received the least allied attention in game. Despite being perceived as a carry top laner, and having the performances to back the perception up, he worked fairly independently from the rest of the team while resources were funneled more to the mid and marksman roles. This in combination with jungler Cho “watch” Jae-geol and his inability to properly pressure the top half of the map, instead attempting to keep the mid lane from being too shaky, led to more than a few uneven performances from the star top.
Transitioning into Summer, Najin continued to wallow in the middle of the pack, never breaking into the top three of Korea. While Duke’s play was still quite strong until the very end of the season, he didn’t develop as a player in the Summer. With global teleport play out of the top lane growing steadily in importance as the season wore on both Smeb and Marin – primary shot callers on their respective teams – saw a boon in their individual performances. The flaw of Duke, not being a particularly vocal player and surely not a primary shot caller, was one obvious pain of his during Summer. Distinct faults in teamwork – not uncommon with Najin in general – led to disjointed team fighting throughout the season. His one versus one laning was left almost unquestioned, yet it wasn’t enough to keep up with how the meta shaped through Summer.
Now, with the absence of Marin, this does pose a fair concern. Who will be stepping up as a primary shot caller on SK Telecom T1? With what the public knows via in game mic listen-ins, Lee “Wolf” Jae-wan and Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok were fairly vocal players on SK Telecom T1 during the past year. Assumptions would point to Wolf taking up the mantle as a primary voice in game as the support or jungle typically employ that role. We shall see how SK Telecom T1 develops with another starter picking up the role, but I would wager that Marin’s loss will not have a severe impact.
How Duke compares to Marin is another fair question that many people have. Marin’s performances during the year truly only improved whenever SK Telecom T1 identified his strengths – converting leads into wins – and weaknesses – map awareness gaffes and playing with a deficit. This happened about midway through Spring and SK Telecom T1 took off on their way to winning the season of Champions. Duke is a stronger top laner in one versus one laning and he is more versatile in being able to play both a more reserved, supportive role or being able to take a game over and hard carry when given the resources.
During the Summer 2015 regular season Marin was placed in 9 losing lane match ups while Duke faced 18 losing lane match ups. Despite that large difference, Duke was still one of only four starting top laners with a positive CS differential at 10 minutes. He faced a losing match up in nearly half of Najin’s games by way of their pick and ban priority, yet statistically you’d think otherwise. Throughout the year both Duke and Marin traded blows over 11 matches. While Najin only won three matches – SK Telecom T1 being the superior team by a wide margin – Duke fared well against Marin individually in a variety of match ups, both top laners taking favorable, neutral, and losing match ups across the board. His champion pool is without a doubt larger than Marin’s which is a nice plus as it gives more options in champ select.
Whereas Marin’s play was improved upon by SK Telecom T1 working on getting him ahead – identifying team strengths and weaknesses – Duke was noticeably hampered by Najin’s ineptitude when it came to preparation and in game strategy. Much as I stated Duke’s individual play was disjointed, this is very true for Najin as a whole. They never found out where they needed to focus both in champ select and in game so that they could consistently succeed.
People should have full confidence in Duke being an upgrade over Marin. He is a more well rounded player – with higher peaks and not as steep valleys – and SK Telecom T1 will properly work with the him so that they play to his strengths. The poor play Duke displayed at the end of Summer will not happen on a team that knows how to utilize him and has successful players in the proper positions, another knock against Najin. Unlike the now-defunct Najin, SK Telecom T1 will draw the best out of Duke and the best out of Duke is the unquestioned king of top lane. The world champions only got stronger with this move and the results will speak for it come next Spring.