Future of South Korean League of Legends, Damwon Gaming, makes mark on play-ins

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Flamengo Esports' Goku reflects on their loss to Damwon Gaming (0:57)

Flamengo Esports' Goku talks to ESPN's Emily Rand (0:57)

BERLIN -- Damwon Gaming might just be the strongest play-in team in the history of the League of Legends World Championship.

The first South Korean team to ever have to play through the rigorous qualifier comprised of domestic champions from smaller, emerging regions, Damwon entered the studio for their opening games with almost impossible expectations. They were expected to crush Brazil's Flamengo eSports and Turkey's Royal Youth, the two teams that drew the short straw in group selections by having to play the No. 3 seed from a South Korean region that has won more than half of the previous world championship tournaments.

If Damwon took care of the frisky pair in a businesslike fashion, they'd be criticized for not being flashy enough. If they attempted to win too quickly, they'd be called out for being too sloppy, when they could have taken things at a slower, more methodical pace. And if by some chance they lost a game, the South Korean side would be ridiculed, another sign that the once-unflappable nation might be on the downswing.

Luckily for Damwon, it was not the latter in the organization's debut at worlds, the team taking care of Flamengo and Royal Youth to put itself in the driver's seat heading into the second half of the double round-robin.

"It does put pressure on my shoulders [to be rated so highly], but at the same time it does feel really good to hear all of those [positive] things," Damwon's Jang "Nuguri" Ha-gwon said following his team's second victory of the day over Flamengo. "I saw on ESPN's [worlds player] power ranking that I was No. 9, and that made me really happy. It kinda feels rewarding. It feels like all the hard work I put in has paid off."

On a team filled to the brim with blue-chip talent, Nuguri, along with his solo lane partner, Heo "ShowMaker" Su, are even a class above their teammates. Nuguri is the excitable, confident half of DWG's one-two punch, carrying himself with the air of an extrovert. When playing, he spends more time under his opponent's tower than his own, always forcing the enemy team to either invest resources in stopping him or watch him run away with the game as an unstoppable juggernaut.

ShowMaker, the quieter of the two, follows suit in-game. While brash in his own right at times, he's the steadier of the duo, almost always playing at least at an above-average level. During the games where Nuguri's hotheaded play and overaggressiveness takes the better of him, it usually falls on ShowMaker to be the reliable standby. Both only 19, with Nuguri being the senior of the duo by only five days, they make up not only the future of the fledgling Damwon organization, but South Korean esports as a whole.

Right now, the two could be argued as two of the top 10 best League of Legends players in the entire world.

In the future, they could be trading back and forth the title of being called the game's greatest.

"I just think they're f---ing beasts," Royal Youth's top laner İrfan "Armut" Berk Tükek said to ESPN in a postmatch interview. "They're just really f---ing good, especially Showmaker. I also think Nuguri is so good, too. He's probably the best top laner in the world."

It wasn't a perfect day for Damwon, a team led by four teenage rookies showing their inexperience at times. Kim "Canyon" Geon-bu, Damwon's star jungler, showed his best and worst face in his worlds debut. The LCK MVP of the summer split, Canyon proved why he was awarded that honor in DWG's second game of the day, putting on a clinic with Taliyah. He got ShowMaker so far ahead on Renekton in the top lane that there was no coming back for the Brazilian champion. On the other side of the coin, though, in Canyon's first game of the day, he was sloppy, getting caught out at the wrong times and needing to rely on his strong solo laners to drag Damwon over the finish line.

Everything about Damwon is an unfinished product, hence why a team with so much high-end talent is competing in the play-ins to make the group stages in the first place. Their bottom side is exploitable in-lane, Canyon is the real-life incarnate of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and though all intelligent individuals, their ineptitude at times resembles more of a college team of friends than a professional team on the cusp of a world title.

However, the potential is too bright to ignore, possibilities of the finished product outweighing some of their current weaknesses.

In the United States, there is a slew of graduating high schoolers who put off going to college for a year to go backpacking around Europe, hoping to learn about themselves before deciding what the next step is in this new stage of life. In some ways, this worlds debut is that backpacking trip for the youngsters of Damwon, who turned away from a life of university and schooling to focus on becoming professional gamers. This is the tournament that will open them up to new avenues and places they've never seen before, preparing them for the next step in their careers when they return to South Korea after the tournament.

Over the course of the month-long journey, the venues will shift from Berlin to Madrid to the ultimate destination in Paris, where the grand final will be held and a world champion will be crowned.

If Damwon's backpacking trip takes them all the way to Paris come early November, this could be a coming-of-age story of legend.