Gen.G's slow start not a cause for worry ... yet

Gen.G may have started slow in defense of the League of Legends World Championship, but fans shouldn't panic as this is characteristic of the team all season long. Courtesy of Riot Games

When Samsung Galaxy raised the Summoner's Cup in front of a roaring crowd at the Bird's Nest in Beijing after winning the League of Legends World Championship last year, the crowd chanted "RNG" for the Chinese team Royal Never Give Up, which was not on the stage.

The camera panned to greatest League of Legends player of all time, SK Telecom T1's Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok, sobbing with his head in his hands. Next to him, SKT bot laner Bae "Bang" Jun-sik stood in silence, watching as confetti rained down on Samsung jungler Kang "Ambition" Chan-yong.

Samsung's victory was seen as SKT's defeat -- a potential win for RNG, the Chinese squad that had topped Samsung in the group stage, but fell to SKT in the semifinals.

When Samsung Galaxy won last year's world championship, the spotlight shone on SKT and RNG. Samsung Galaxy, now Gen.G, was known as methodical, plodding, and even boring. Samsung had won worlds, but still couldn't claim the stage as its own.

On a sunny October afternoon in Gangnam -- an upscale neighborhood in Seoul -- a week after the Chuseok holiday and a week before Gen.G's 2018 worlds debut, Gen.G general manager Lee Ji-hun sat near the head of the table in one of the team conference rooms and laughed aloud. He tapped his hand on the table and began speaking rapidly in Korean, nearly too quickly for his translator, who wrote furiously in Hangul and English to keep up. Lee shook his head in a quick, short movement as he spoke, still chuckling a bit to himself.

"Samsung and Gen.G, meanwhile, do not have aggressive playstyle; we tend to approach the game through macro and teamfights. In the eyes of the fans, we lack impact," Lee said. "The public opinion is that we are 'the boring team.' ... However, in esports as it would be in any sports, winning is the primary focus. Our playstyle is based on maximizing our performance."

He added that the League Champions Korea teams most popular with both South Korean and western audiences -- SK Telecom T1, Kingzone DragonX, his former organization KT Rolster and the first-year team of Griffin, which nearly won it all -- had aggressive playstyles that allowed players to stand out and showcase individual skills to capture audience's attention.

"Gen.G's playing style is 'safe and moderate,'" Ambition said. "Which is not the kind of playstyle that can be defined as an 'unpredictable pick.'"

"The founding members of Samsung Galaxy did not have any superstars," Lee said. "They are players that [coach Choi "Edgar" Woo-beom] has raised from grounds up, since they were 'babies.' If I were give you a honest reason on why Samsung Galaxy wasn't popular -- they never had superstars like [Han 'Peanut' Wang-ho] and Faker. They are capable but they are not 'born geniuses.' [Our players] rather have always been hard workers."

In the time since their crowning at the Bird's Nest, the former Samsung lineup has quietly slipped under the radar for much of this season. Gen.G are the reigning world champions, but other headlines dominated LoL Champions Korea.

First, the rise of Kingzone DragonX in spring, and then their defeat to RNG at the Mid-Season Invitational. The fall of SKT. And then the rise of Griffin -- six rookie players (five if you count Choi "Sword" Sung-won's short stint on Team Turquality) who took the summer split by storm. All while defending world champions went relatively unnoticed.

If there's one storyline that follows Gen.G, pushing them into the spotlight in late September, it was their regional qualifier performance. Each of the past three years, this lineup has run the qualifier gauntlet, emerging as South Korea's third seed in the world championship. Even the players of Gen.G were at a loss as to why their team levels up just in time to make a strong gauntlet run.

"I'm also surprised," bot laner Park "Ruler" Jae-hyuk said. "But we have a strong team and are happy that this is our third year in a row to advance to the finals."

Mid laner Lee "Crown" Min-ho simply said that he didn't know how they did it every year either.

"Our players are slower, if I'm to be honest," general manager Lee said. "They are slower on familiarizing with a new meta, learning new things or increasing performance. Everything seems to [come] together by the time the autumn comes [every year]. That's how I see it."

This slow style is Gen.G's greatest strength, and also their greatest weakness. Throughout the summer split, Gen.G stubbornly stuck to traditional AD carries in the bottom lane, even while other rosters were experimenting with gold funnel compositions toward their mid laner or jungler, and bruisers or mages bot. For a while, this style propelled Gen.G to the top of the standings. There's a lot to like about a lineup that knows their strengths and weaknesses, especially when it comes to champion pools or meta shifts.

Yet, Gen.G still had trouble when the meta shifted slightly back and teams started banning more specifically against the team.

Now at the 2018 World Championship, Gen.G has once again started off slow. On Day 1, Vitality shocked the world with a single-game upset against the reigning world champions, honing their aggressive style shown in Europe into a sharper mid game with more scaling champions and a pocket Ekko pick for mid laner Daniele "Jiizuke" di Mauro. This took advantage of Gen.G's slower, scaling style.

The next RNG matchup was always going to be a close one, with RNG having the advantage over Gen.G since last year, when they were also placed in the same group. With Jian "Uzi" Zi-Hao in the bottom lane, RNG was able to scale alongside Gen.G and then out-teamfight them. Even then, it was a close match that was eventually decided by Ruler's Xayah caught out in the mid lane. Down 0-2 going into Day 3 against Cloud9 was not where Gen.G expected to be.

Even with these losses, this wouldn't be cause for too much alarm if Group A's Afreeca Freecs hadn't seemingly had a complete mental collapse. By the end of Day 2, the LCK had the worst overall record of any region for the first time in world championship history. Calamity was predicted by furious Inven message board commenters, and the LCK community was left to wonder what had happened to South Korea, the powerhouse region of League of Legends. Once again, Gen.G was sharing the spotlight, this time in a much worse way, lumped in with Afreeca's downfall.

However, Gen.G's losses should be evaluated separately from the other two South Korean teams' performances. The RNG defeat was close and not surprising, and the Vitality defeat exploited known weaknesses in Gen.G's natural playstyle.

"The team itself is very solid; 'rock-like' I describe," Lee said. "When a team feels frustrated, they stumble or make a mistake. Gen.G is a team that is good at making the opponent team feel frustrated. In that way, I believe that Gen.G's playstyle has its own merits."

For Gen.G, moving forward involves sticking to what they know best and continuing to refine it, even if it isn't the most exciting playstyle. If the team becomes a two-time world champion and raises the Summoner's Cup next month, how they got there won't matter at all.