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Jeong “Chovy” Ji-hoon, deep in enemy territory, was setting up a last-ditch flank in Hanwha Life Esports’ first game of the League of Legends Champions Korea 2021 summer split. On Volibear and down 9,000 gold as a team, he ran past the first enemy mid lane tower to catch T1 off guard. But, Chovy’s team was defeated before his lighting bear could even get there to try and make a difference. Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok and his squad had picked off Hanwha’s immobile champions one by one before they could attempt to run away.

This was a costly error that led to a T1 victory, and the game encapsulated the split HLE was about to embark on. The familiar tropes — losing top side, difficult win conditions and interesting mid-game decision making — were all there in full force.

The team would go on to, more or less, fumble their way through the summer split and miss out on the LCK summer playoffs. However, Hanwha Life managed to secure enough points in the league, based off of their spring placement, to slot into the LCK Regional Gauntlet. And in that final tournament, Chovy and his team managed to secure the final LCK slot for the 2021 League of Legends World Championship.

Hanwha Life found success despite finishing eighth in the LCK summer split regular season with a losing record and not much promise. Their fall can be attributed to the rise of other LCK squads, according to LCK caster Maurits “Chronicler” Jan Meeusen, and just a general drop off in coordination and performance from their key players

“Chovy played way worse than I think he usually has,” Chronicler said. “Some people always talk — especially in this iteration of Hanwha Life — about how Chovy doesn’t have a team. He was just worse than he usually was this summer split.”

The team was able to dispense of the LCK’s bottom two team, Fredit BRION and DRX, but Hanwha Life only managed to split their double round robin matchups against Nongshim, T1 and KT Rolster. While some of those series showcased the best of Hanwha, Chovy’s lane dominance and the synergy between Kim “Deft” Hyuk-kyu and Oh “Vsta” Hyo-seong, their spring success was nowhere to be found.

But the team did perform well in the spring — finishing third — and the history of its two stars, in terms of in-game skill and domestic accolades, made some hold onto their Hanhwa stock. According to LCK caster Max “Atlus” Anderson, the team showed flashes of their spring coordination in the summer, and the problems plaguing their individual and team play were not unsolvable.

“For me, having seen those games, and having seen those moments, I was like, ‘You know with this team, they can’t be this bad.’” Atlus said. “With these players They just can’t be this bad.”

But the problem during summer was they were that bad. While in the spring they could go through the motions of a top team, rotating to objectives and transitioning lane leads to map leads, that same lackadaisical approach to mid-game macro and rotations was not up to par with the rest of the league in the summer.

Losses piling up

Hanhwa Life Esports pose after qualifying for 2021 Worlds. Hanwha Life Esports Worlds
Hanhwa Life Esports pose after qualifying for 2021 Worlds. | Provided by Riot Korea

As the losses racked up toward the middle of the split, some fans started comparing the LCK team to the organization’s baseball franchise, the Hanwha Eagles. The Eagles have finished last, or close to it, in the Korean Baseball Organization for the past three seasons.

“When they started losing, all the fans were like, ‘wow, even Deft and Chovy can’t save the stigma or the meme that is the Hanwha Life organization when it comes to sports,’” Atlus said. “Whether it be regular sport or esports.”

The team had some interesting drafting decisions (with Ornn mid up there as their most questionable one), and their inexperienced top side became a black hole at times. Both positions were filled with young players participating in their first full LCK season, and it showed. During the summer split, Hanwha subbed in and out younger players in both roles but decided to stick with Park “Morgan” Gi-tae and recent call up Kim “Willer” Jeong-hyeon toward the end and in the gauntlet.

While not actively inting, neither player produced any standout moments and are not counted on to gain leads on their own. Both have carried teamfights or won a skirmish — mechanics are not the issue — but they are lacking in laning prowess and pathing depth.

“When you then get towards the top side, they have a bit of a disaster on their hands,” Atlus said

But Hanwha Life seemed to heed Atlas’ words and managed to “turn on” the previous form of Chovy and Deft, similar to previous G2 lineups, when it mattered the most.

“It feels like Hanhwa got their s*** together at exactly the right time,” Atlus said.

They started off against Liiv SANDBOX with a swift 3-1, with Deft and Chovy already back to their usual reliability. Their drafts also looked more cohesive and targeted toward broader win conditions. Their odd champion flexes between mid and top lane, which usually failed because of narrow win conditions or a losing top side, worked more in their favor.

“I think the drafting actually was a large part, why Hanhwa managed to actually get themselves through the original gauntlet the way that they did,” Atlas said.

After that win, Hanwha Life only needed one more series win to qualify for the 2021 League of Legends World Championship.

Winning late

Hanwha Life Esports gear up to face NSR. Hanwha Life Esports Worlds
The LCK Regional Gauntlet match for the final Worlds spot. | Provided by Riot Korea

Hanwha Life Esports’ mid laner Jeong “Chovy” Ji-hoon teleported down to the bottom lane early in his team’s third game against Nongshim RedForce in the LCK Regional Gauntlet. Along with his jungler and bot lane teammates, he dove the enemy under their tower in an early aggressive move commonplace in this year’s meta.

Chovy charged up Galio’s taunt to keep his enemies under the tower while Nonshim’s top laner used his own teleport to join the fray. But Chovy and his team whittled down the enemy Ezreal with auto attacks before the spell could fully channel. The 20 year-old player then ran away from the scene along with the rest of his team as they reset and returned to their lanes, securing an early lead.

The execution of the play, and the draft that made it possible, was closer to the summer version of Hanwha. With a roaming mid laner, Deft on the engage trigger with Ashe and Morgan focused solely on split pushing with Camile, the daft worked well around the team’s strengths — and flaws.

“Kazman has been getting a lot of flack,” Atlas said. “There are a lot of people that like to blame Kazman for a lot — especially — the drafting mistakes that Hanhwa has made, because they’ve had some doozies.”

Once the series concluded, Kezmen was the first to join his players on stage. He went through and embraced each player individually as the line of players got up from their chairs. Kezman lingered near Deft, wanting to make sure he congratulated everyone.

The bot laner had just qualified for his sixth World Championship on his fifth different team. Kezman, in contrast, was going for his second time after coaching for almost a decade. Kezman gave one last hug to Deft, a lingering embrace, before the team went on to thank the crowd and participate in the post-match media and interviews.

“First off, during the regular split I just hoped we could perform well at gauntlet and maybe we can make it to Worlds,” Deft said in a post-game interview. “That was my imagination and I can’t believe it actually came true.”