Despite rocky first season in LCS, River hopes to stay in North America

by Nick Geracie

Kim “River” Dong-woo’s first competitive season in a major region has come to a close. After competing in the Japanese and Southeast Asian scenes of the League of Legends esports ecosystem for over three years, River decided to try his luck across the Pacific Ocean and joined Dignitas as the organization’s starting jungler for the 2022 League Championship Series season. In comparison to the average first LCS season in a professional player’s career, River’s was relatively tumultuous for, more often than not, reasons out of his control.

An exemplary initiator

River ended his 2021 season on a relative high note. In his second season as the jungler for PSG Talon, River had qualified for his second consecutive League of Legends World Championship after winning three of the last four splits in the Pacific Championship Series. When his signing to Diginitas was announced, the community consensus was that River would be an integral part of any success Dig would enjoy in 2022.

Read more: The 10 best LoL esports pros to have competed in three major regions

Due to visa issues, River missed the beginning of the 2022 LCS Lock In tournament, and with Dig Academy jungler Lawrence Lin "eXyu" Xu in the LCS lineup, Dignitas began the event 1-1. River arrived in Los Angeles in time for Dig’s next two matches, but due to the jungler’s lack of synergy with the rest of the roster, the team lost both bouts.

After their lackluster performance in the group stage, Dignitas were expected to be eliminated from the knockout stage of the LCS Lock In at the hands of defending North American champion 100 Thieves in convincing fashion. Instead, DIG came alive behind an incredible performance by River on Jarvan IV and eliminated 100 Thieves 2-0.

“When I started practicing with the rest of the team for the past couple of days, my playstyle was a little different from the team's playstyle, so I was really worried,” River explained in an interview with Inven Global just after the series. “However, today, I tried to shotcall and everyone wanted to play around me. I think overall the other players followed my calls and it worked out pretty well, so I think from now on, we can just working on developing synergy between the team and myself. I think it's going to be a good season this year.”

Photo credit: Tina Jo / Riot Games via ESPAT

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Unfortunately, the development of Dig’s identity seemed to stall after their unexpected top four finish in the LCS Lock In. Jarvan IV continued to be the most important pick in Dignitas’ arsenal. Between Lock In and the spring split, Dignitas were 7-1 with River on Jarvan, but without the Exemplar of Demacia in the jungle position, Dig failed to retain the same level of execution on Summoner’s Rift.

Dignitas were successful on Jarvan IV throughout the first half of 2022, but although he had played it in the past, J4 was not exactly something River was known for throughout his career. Instead, River found himself picking Jarvan more often than not because it was what Dignitas needed to succeed.

“I didn't want to play J4, but Dignitas kind of forced me to because they needed initiation,” River admitted after his time on Dignitas. “That's why I ended up playing it a lot.”

This isn’t to say River didn’t try his best on Dignitas. The Dig jungler noticed some of his efforts as a shotcaller for the team were not translating due to his lack of comprehension in English, so he began to study the language on his own in an effort to communicate better with his teammates.

Despite River’s best efforts, Dignitas finished outside of postseason contention in seventh place in the spring split, and after the team’s results continued to decline in the summer, River would eventually don a new jersey.

A change of pace

After Week 5 of the LCS summer split, River received a message on his day off asking how he felt about joining Golden Guardians. Within the day, River found himself on a new team, and internally, things were much more to his liking.

“On Dignitas, there were some players who spoke up and shared their opinions, but the others did not speak at all,” River explained in an interview during Week 8 of the summer split. “On Golden Guardians, everyone states their opinions and makes calls.”

Before signing River, Golden Guardians had been starting Milo "Pridestalker" Wehnes, whose carry-focused style of jungling had led GG to have the lowest jungle proximity of any team in the first 15 minutes of the average game in the LCS summer split. In signing River, the team was getting a bit more team focus from the jungle position.

Photo credit: Colin Young-Wolff / Riot Games via ESPAT

“It’s been a really big change for the team,” said top laner Eric “Licorice” Ritchie in Week 8 of the summer split. “Pridestalker is a player who liked to play for himself and try to get himself ahead like a carry jungler type, and River is definitely the type of jungler that plays more for his lanes and tries to set up his team for success … our playstyle has kind of flipped on its head.”

The adjustment to River did not go smoothly for GG. After losing their first two matches with River in the lineup, Golden Guardians made another set of roster changes, this time promoting mid laner Adam "LIDER" Ilyasov and support Jacob "Prismal" Feinstein from GG Academy, but lost both matches with the new roster. Upon returning to the roster that featured mid laner Nick “Ablazeolive” Abbott and support Kim “Olleh” Joo-sung, River found it easier to communicate with the team once again, but GG still lost its next two matches to bring their roster to 0-6 with River in the jungle.

GG beat Dig in their last match of the summer split to qualify for the 2022 LCS Championship, but despite putting up a fight, they were eliminated in their first postseason match against Counter Logic Gaming 3-2. Both games GG won featured River on Jarvan.

Read more: Burn it all down: How CLG rose from the ashes to be competitive in the LCS again

Despite rough results in his first year competing in the LCS, River claims he has enjoyed living in North America and hopes to remain in the US for the future of his LoL esports career. In addition to enjoying life in the states, River attributed a large amount of career growth as a player to the increased level of competition in the LCS relative to the regions in which he had competed in past seasons.

“In other regions, only one or two teams are really strong, but in LCS, there are many strong teams compared to other regions,” River said when explaining how LCS compared to the PCS and the League of Legends Japan League.

While he won’t be attending Worlds this year like his previous two seasons, River learned a lot in his first year in the LCS in terms of lane state, jungle pathing and mid-to-late game macro. The growth he has experienced is enough for him to know where he wants the next chapter of his career to open.

“I want to stay in the USA. I hope I can continue to perform so I can stay in North America.”

Translation credit: Kim “Olleh” Joo-sung

Lead photo credit: Colin Young-Wolff / Riot Games via ESPAT

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