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Crown: The Korean king of North America (for now)

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Expert
12th June, 2019
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Since winning Worlds with Samsung Galaxy in 2017, Lee ‘Crown’ Min-ho has been on a bit of a rollercoaster ride. But if the first two weeks of LCS are anything to go by, the Optic mid-laner may have rediscovered his mojo.

I’ve had a soft spot for Crown since I started researching him for an article I wrote before Worlds last year. The fact that his mental health issues became so well-known after his team won the tournament a year earlier spoke to me and I’ve followed his career closely ever since.

For those of you who don’t know, Crown had quite the existential crisis after Worlds 2017. He famously sought help from Starcraft Legend Jaedong during a stream, asking if he had found meaning in his life after so much success.

Crown then took to the sub’s bench for the majority of 2018, playing just a handful of games. A mediocre start to the year was followed by a second rebranding in just six months. Samsung had pulled out of esports after Worlds 2017, forcing the world champions to find a new organisation.

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The team played as KSV for a mediocre Spring Split, but fared far better under the Gen G banner in summer, winning the Korean Regional Final and qualifying for Worlds.

Crown returned in the Playoffs of that split, subbing in after game one against SK Telecom and crushing their hopes for the second time in 12 months.

Once at Worlds, though, they were abysmal, winning just one game from six in the group stage – the worst showing from a Korean team in the tournament’s history. The core of the team decided that was enough, with Ambition even going so far as to retire altogether.

Like many before him, Crown took a plane to America and joined the newly-franchised Optic Gaming.

But Korean players, especially former world champions, have a chequered history when moving to North America. Bae ‘Bang’ Jun-sik made the move this year, joining 100Thieves and doing nothing to stop them being the worst team in the region. Fellow SKT alum Jung ‘Impact’ Eon-yeong, on the other hand, recently made it to the finals of MSI with Team Liquid.

In the Spring Split of this year, it looked like two members of Gen G’s World Champion team would follow similarly disparate paths. On one hand, Jo ‘CoreJJ’ Yong-in helped guide Team Liquid to a second LCS title and a runners-up medal at MSI.

On the other, Crown and the rest of the Optic Gaming roster struggled through the Spring Split, picking up just seven wins from 18 games.

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Two weeks into the Summer Split, though, things seem to be looking up for Crown and the boys. Optic are undefeated after four games and Crown is playing a central role in that success. In the previous year, we usually saw Crown as a safe pair of hands when he was brought off the bench. Often on safe champions like Malzahar, his job was mostly to keep his tower alive and stymy any attempts by the opposition to get snowball their mid-laner.

In the Korean regionals last year he played a lot of Lissandra, and in the grand-final of Worlds in 2017 he played three straight games of Malzahar. These are not champions known for their high levels of skill expression, but it worked.

And yet, part of the reason I referred to this split as the one in which Crown is rediscovering his mojo is because he is back playing the likes of Twisted Fate and Sylas. In four games he has died just three times and actually sits second in KDA for the entire league, behind his own jungler, a fact which also helps to explain Crown’s resurgence.

Still, these are early days. It’s great to see Crown back on form, but we shouldn’t get too carried away. Yes, a 4-0 start is fantastic, but Flyquest is the only really good team Optic has faced so far. Clutch and CLG are far from the best the LCS has to offer, and 100Thieves are practically a walking bye at this point.

Luckily for us, this coming weekend will show us what Optic is really made of. Will Crown turn out to be gold and rubies or one of those cardboard hats you get with a kid’s meal at Burger King? Cloud 9 and Team Liquid are waiting to find out and will sorely test the credentials of the only undefeated team in the LCS.

Not that losing to the two best teams in the league means Optic are suddenly bad, but if they lose, as they are expected to do, the manner of their defeat will say a lot. An 0-2 weekend would look bad on paper, but even putting up a fight against these teams will say a lot about where Crown and Optic really belong.

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