The Korean amateur scene is downright abysmal, regularly failing to produce notable teams from the secondary leagues into the Champions professional league. These failings to produce potent professional teams out of amateur teams extends as far back to when NLB was created in 2012. Lack of endemic sponsors and the stranglehold Champions organizations – and now foreign organizations – have on obtaining rising talent stifle the amateur scene that many people believe to be a gold mine of future stars. Korean Challenger this year has been the punchline to many jokes due to the lack of organizational success rising from it.
The number one team in the Korean Challenger league this past split, Dark Wolves, was thoroughly abused by a Najin e-mFire B squad that fielded third string marksman Seo “Sol” Jin-sol in the top lane and the 100 year-old bot lane of Lee “Zefa” Jae-min and Jang “Cain” Nu-ri. Korean Challenger was – for lack of a better term – a complete joke.
ESC Ever recently bucked the trend of failure that teams such as the aforementioned Dark Wolves, along with other staples like MKZ, Prime Clan, and Xenics helped create by winning the 2015 LoL KeSPA Cup, an offseason offline tournament that was attended by every Champions roster. This ESC Ever roster came out of nowhere due to the lack of attention zoned in on the Korean Challenger scene and they ran through Samsung Galaxy, Rebels Anarchy, SK Telecom T1, and CJ Entus – only dropping a single match to Rebels Anarchy – en route to a first place finish.
Now, ESC Ever – via the KeSPA Cup victory – reserved their spot at an international event for the first time in their very short history. Attending IEM Cologne alongside European powerhouses Fnatic and H2K Gaming, Chinese team fighting gods Qiao Gu, and North American sides Team Dignitas and Cloud 9, most fans have one large question coming into this event.
Who the hell is ESC Ever?
Ever started as little more than a pick up challenger team with zero success and a large rotation of players through the year. Finishing in fifth-eighth place in the first Spring series of Korean Challenger and placing ninth-16th in the second Spring series, Ever wasn’t even on the radar entering the Summer season of Korean Challenger. Taking home second place in Summer, they obtained the chance to promote into Champions. Initially having some hopes due to drawing SBENU Sonicboom – Champions Summer basement-dweller – for that chance, their hopes would be dashed by the revealing of up and coming star jungler Sung “Flawless” Yeon-jun.
Due to that 3-1 result to SBENU, this team will not be competing in Champions Spring 2016. Just prior to the 2015 LoL KeSPA Cup they found a title sponsor in ESC, otherwise known as esportsconnected. Through ESC the middling challenger side gained a source of money, a gaming house, and a live-in coach. They bootcamped for the event and committed to a starting five that they felt would bring them success.
Athena: After we were knocked out of the Promotions Tournament, we were all spending some free time. When we heard that the KeSPA Cup was being held, we lived together for 2 weeks. I think that it started going well for us since then.
The team’s first opponent at the tournament, Samsung Galaxy, had struggled to find its place in Champions. In this first set, ESC Ever displayed multiple attributes rarely seen from challenger league teams. Swift, but patient, team-wide decision making, coordinated dives, and smart side lane manipulation were all present in the first two matches against Samsung. Typically on the challenger level you see impatience and muddied decision making born from inexperience, but that was not the case here. This was an obviously practiced team.
Samsung Galaxy was made to look like a pickup challenger lineup rather than the Champions league veteran they were. ESC Ever forced disorganization out of Samsung and then unmercifully punished it. Off the back of phenomenal Bard play from support Kim “Key” Han-gi – of which he has become known for – ESC Ever rolled through to the next round with relative ease.
While Rebels Anarchy posed much stronger resistance in the second round – even taking the first match of the set in a close contest – the same attributes ESC Ever displayed in the first round rang true. Organized play on their end with exceptional engages from Key forced Anarchy, a squad that routinely struggled through the season in team wide aspects, to make mistakes.
Against SK Telecom T1, ESC Ever was fortunate enough to play against rookie mid laner Lee “Scout” Ye-chan in the first game rather than usual starter Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok. Faker entered into the second match and SK Telecom T1 did something they rarely ever do: fail to close out a lead. The composition from the world champs crumbled late due to an oversight where they lacked tower pushing potential and subsequently gave away the second, and final, match of the set. ESC Ever committed one of the strangest upsets in the history of the game by taking down the recent world champions 2-0 and moving into the finals.
In the finals, ESC Ever would be matched up against a roster riding their own miracle juice – CJ Entus. Here top laner Kim “Crazy” Jae-hee put on a clinic, outclassing the once unmatched CJ Entus top laner Park “Shy” Sang-myeon. While each individual game was fairly competitive, the difference in each win for ESC Ever stemmed from the match up in the top lane.
Head Coach Kim Ga-ram: When we first started, our goal was to win just one game. As we played through the matches, we started to develop a greed for something more. The players put in a lot of effort as well. At the Quarterfinals and Semifinals, we thought that we could really do something. I am very happy.
Where Crazy handily won lane in both favorable and losing match ups – and individually created plays across the map via Teleport – Shy recorded an abysmal 3-17-5 KDA and was murdered in lane against the hyper aggressive up and comer across three matches. We very well may have seen the birth of the next great top laner to come out of Korea in Crazy. He performed phenomenally on tanks, traditional carries, and mages all throughout the tournament. While he has lapses in judgment similar to what former SK Telecom T1 top laner Jang “Marin” Gyeong-Hwan displayed early on in his career, his individual talent is undeniable.
The team dynamic on ESC Ever is reminiscent of Worlds finalist Tigers. Mid laner Kang “Athena” Ha-woon garners little pressure in lane, preferring to scale, making plays around the map and in team fights rather than focus the lane. Top laner Crazy shows overzealousness which at times hindered ESC Ever’s performance during the tournament, but his distinct style draws an immense amount of pressure to wherever he’s at on the map and he brings a hard carry aspect a la Tigers top laner Smeb. The bottom lane of Lee “Loken” Dong-wook and Key contributes strong laning and brings an engage element to their champ picks that is somewhat ignored elsewhere on the team – Bard, Alistar, and Kalista being notable consistent picks for the duo.
ESC Ever may not be the next great Korean roster – more likely to be just a flash in the pan – however they bucked the trend set by past amateur Korean participants and shocked the world with the KeSPA Cup win. The amateur Korean team displayed organization foreign to most amateur teams while still retaining special individual talents. They defeated some of the best that Korea had to offer and rightfully earned their place at IEM Cologne. How ESC Ever performs at IEM Cologne is anyone’s guess, but at the very least, this team is one of the best stories of the year and are extremely exciting to watch.