International League of Legends always cooks up fairytales for the hopeful. Very rarely do they come true. However, Japan’s faithful were finally rewarded at Worlds 2021. Now heading into MSI 2022, LJL titans DetonatioN FocusMe are penned as a true dark horse, and they want the world to know exactly why.
On October 7, 2021, brothers Alex ‘Nymaera’ Hapgood and Sam ‘Initialise’ Hapgood witnessed history. The founders of the unofficial LJL broadcast — covering the unsung League of Legends heroes of Japan — finally got the world to see the potential of the unassuming minor region.
Japanese squad DetonatioN FocusMe, who has won 12 domestic splits since the inception of the LJL in 2014, were up against NA hopefuls Cloud9 in the final day of Worlds 2021 Play-Ins.
There was a quiet hope brewing at the Hapgood’s home in the UK, just as there was thousands of miles away in the streets of Tokyo. DFM had never been this close to glory before, just one upset win away from making Worlds Groups for the first time.
It started well for DFM, but Cloud9 quickly took the reins in the mid game. They forced an early soul point, and Blaber on Olaf was unstoppable in team fights. The unofficial broadcast was still believing.
DFM finally got their pick in the mid lane at 27 minutes to shut down Blaber, move towards the baron, and started to equalize the game.
Cloud9 did get dragon soul, putting DFM on a timer at 34 minutes. But they finally found their angle. They got the perfect Elder Dragon fight, and used the powerful buff to march into the Cloud9 base at 36 minutes. It started with a big pick on Zven under the NA veteran’s nexus, then the rest of the cards came tumbling down.
Listening to the unofficial cast, Nymaera ran into Initialise’s room and embraced his brother in shock. DFM, after eight years of trials and tribulations, finally led Japan to the big stage in League of Legends. The Japanese casters hugged and sobbed similarly.
Speechless, Awed, and SCREAMING OUR GODDAMNED MINDS OUT.
— LJL Officially Unofficial (@LJLUnofficial) October 7, 2021
Nymaera said “it was unfathomable”.
“I have a lot of favorite moments in esports over my history,” he reflected when speaking to Dexerto. “I think back to Season 6 Worlds and ROX vs SKT. G2 vs SKT 2019.
“Suddenly this moment pops up and because of the way I follow the LJL — no the LJL isn’t the highest level of play, it’s not the LCK or the LPL, but that moment means more to me than like 99% of all other moments I’ve had in esports.”
It set a new tone around Japanese League of Legends — one that continues into MSI 2022 as DetonatioN FocusMe returns to the international stage with a team many are considering a true dark horse with upset potential aplenty.
The formation of Japan’s super team
Long-term DFM Kazuta ‘Kazu’ Suzuki rushed out on stage following the historic Worlds 2021 win. He was there since the inception of Japanese League of Legends, having competed on and off since 2014 for DetonatioN FocusMe and other LJL squads.
He experienced the losses that saw Japan relegated to nothing more than an afterthought in international League of Legends. Now, he got to witness the turning point for his region.
“We fought for eight years to go the Worlds group stage,” he told Dexerto. “Wildcard regions only have one slot so we need to win our region first, and win against better teams in Play-Ins to even consider making it to Groups.
“We worked very hard to prepare for Worlds 2021 and our effort paid off so we were very happy.”
The 2021 DetonatioN FocusMe squad was widely considered the best Japanese League squad of all time. Speaking to both Nymaera and Initialise, they said it was literally “exodia”.
“DFM are the most winningest team in the LJL — whatever cutesy way you want to say it — of all time,” Initialise explained. “They have been the team in the region for the longest time, but they can never really make it work on an international stage.
“That completely changed in 2021 when you’ve got the two best and most veteran Japanese players on your team — Evi and Yutapon — who are just leagues ahead of everybody else. Steal is Korean and now got residency, who has been right up there as one of the best junglers in the region. They brought in Aria who was the undisputed best mid laner in the LJL and you had Gaeng, who by analysts’ measure was the best player in the region.
“You had a superstar mid laner, the best support in the region, the Korean speaking but fluent-in-Japanese jungler who was now a resident, plus two of the best Japanese players ever. If an LJL team was ever going to succeed internationally, it was that one and they did.”
They stomped domestically, and after having to play MSI 2021 with Kazu due to Steal waiting for residency, really found their stride at Worlds.
At Play-Ins, they showed up against Unicorns of Love in their opener, before falling to Cloud9. However, their strategy revolving around star mid laner Lee ‘Aria’ Ga-eul on carry picks like LeBlanc and Zoe was working. He was able to skill check the other mid laners in his group, and in that fateful rematch with Cloud9 got his just desserts over Luka ‘Perkz’ Perkovic.
That didn’t pan out so well in Groups, getting stomped by T1, 100 Thieves, and Edward Gaming to bow out last in Group A, 0-6 record on the books. The fall was only just beginning though.
Support Yang ‘Gaeng’ Gwang-woo left to do military service. Aria was picked up to go play LCK. All of a sudden, two core components of the team were gone, and DetonatioN FocusMe’s goals of continuing the momentum into 2022 were stunted.
“Two of arguably the best players in the region parted ways with DFM, so I thought this would be a rebuild year,” Nymaera said. “This would be DFM figuring out what to do next.
“But they brought in two new Korean players in Yaharong and Harp, and they immediately meshed with the team.”
Lee ‘Yaharong’ Chan-ju is probably more well known for his time under the IGN Grace, where he was a part of the infamous Jin Air Green Wings team that got relegated from the LCK. A serviceable mid laner, he had a bad run of teams and a share of poor luck that saw his stocks tank.
Lee ‘Harp’ Ji-yoong was a rising star in support, having been somewhat successful in LCK Challengers while on KT Rolster. But he was inexperienced and like oil and water to Gaeng in playstyle: Harp was an aggressive lane support, while Gaeng loved to roam and leave Yutapon on weak side.
Analysts quickly had to change their predictions though, because DFM weren’t just looking good — they were looking better than they did in 2021.
“We revised our predictions from the rebuild and reintegration into these are really strong players in a really strong team. This was already a team that had made groups before that, and I’d argue they’re looking at a similar level or above what they were at Worlds 2021,” Nymaera continued.
The reasons were more than just manpower though. The team was unlocked with a new playstyle, one that allowed Shunsuke ‘Evi’ Murase shine in the top lane with Mun ‘Steal’ Geon-yeong able to commit more resources to side lanes as Yaharong demanded less than Aria. Veteran AD carry Yuta ‘Yutapon’ Sugiura also benefited from this shift.
“Yutapon is having the split of his career — Jinx, Zeri, Senna, whatever — strong or weak side, high or low resource,” Initialise said. “Evi, this god of the region, has been playing the best split of his career too.
“The guy has always had this habit of defaulting to bruiser picks topside that are self-sufficient: Sett, Gnar, Renekton. He smashes everybody with them in the LJL, but we haven’t seen much of the Fiora, Camille, and Gwen even when they were broken. This year he’s been playing them all though — he’s playing Darius for crying out loud.”
All of this and more has got fans hyped that the DFM we’ll see at MSI 2022 will be a continued level up from the one that attended Worlds 2021.
“It’s been all well and good that this team has had a bunch of mechanically gifted players, but it’s another thing to hone themselves to be good enough to really compete at an international level,” Initialise mused. “By the sounds of it, they’ve had it this year. That’s the trajectory.
“You should be excited for this team, at least on paper.”
Growing the LJL: More than DFM’s stomping ground
It’s not just DetonatioN FocusMe that is getting better on paper. The entirety of the LJL has leveled up thanks to DFM’s Worlds 2021 successes.
All of a sudden, LCK and LPL teams saw the merit in scrimming them. This then trickled down to other top teams like Rascal Jester and Sengoku Gaming, two historic rivals of the Japanese titans.
“We’ve had much better practice as a region since 2020,” Kazu explained, “but the level of scrims went up another notch after Worlds 2021. Now we play against the best teams in the LCK, LPL, VCS, and PCS, and better scrims means better gameplay.
“The LJL level has increased, and a lot more people are paying more attention since last year. We have had some good games against other Japanese teams, which shows their growth too.”
There’s numerous factors to this. Big Japanese companies are investing into League of Legends esports, most notably Softbank. They sponsor a team named the Fukuoka Hawks in baseball, who started a gaming division in late 2019.
Top organizations are splashing the cash on retaining talent. There’s imports a plenty — Lee ‘HyBriD’ Woo-jin (Crest Gaming), Bae ‘Jett’ Ho-young (Sengoku Gaming), and former world champion Kang ‘Blank’ Sun-gu (SoftBank HAWKS) are some of the biggest.
It’s not something that happened overnight, but there’s a notable difference in the level of the LJL since 2021 and 2022 — and that’s not random.
“If you took away DFM last year, the other two top teams in AXIS and Rascal Jester would have been kind of okay-slash-weak compared to the other regions. They’d be a Pool 4 team, but they’d be snatching wins,” Nymaera said.
“This year, you have DFM on this pedestal, but you also have a team like Sengoku who takes them to five games in the finals, and they went to five games in their lower bracket run against Rascal Jester. The top teams in the LJL are pushing each other.
【LJL 2022 Spring Split Finals】
DFMが有利かと思われた集団戦を SG Once ( @Once_lol ) が変えてゆく！💥
— LJL（League of Legends Japan League） (@Official_LJL) April 10, 2022
“DFM are a level beyond, but that doesn’t mean the rest of the region is weak.”
There’s also a turn in sentiment, Initialise added, that has pushed the LJL higher up in the casual fan’s mind.
“If you look at Turkey, Brazil, or the LLA, Japan is starting to edge ahead a little bit but we’ve been helped out by the fact we have enough connections now to Korea — most of the coaches are Korean, they’ve got contacts back there, so there’s some decent scrim partners.
“After last year too, players are now like ‘maybe the LJL isn’t the worst place to end up playing for a split to prove my worth’ so some of the imports have been okay as well. We’re definitely not PCS or VCS level, but our top teams are much more formidable, DFM in particular.”
Retaining their legacy and cementing a new future
All of this success rests on DFM’s legacy at Worlds 2021 and previous international events, but the region still has plenty of room to grow.
There’s a renewed sense of hope at MSI 2022 that they’ll be able to make the Rumble Stage — out of Group A which contains T1, Saigon Buffalo, and Team Aze. The draw, in the eyes of the Hapwood brothers, is favorable.
“It’ll depend a little bit on how the team comes in prepped — Saigon Buffalo are a good team, but they’re unfortunately in a region with GAM who are just better again. I’d give it 65% to DFM on paper,” Initialise said.
“They’re going in pretty excited and very well prepped. Yaharong and Harp have been in Korea this entire time [due to strict Japanese health rules denying them entry], so there was this funny tweet with Evi was like ‘I’m finally going to meet Yaharong’ and he was like ‘wait you’re real?’”
yaharongが「きみたち、ほんとうに じつざい したのか…」って言ってる
— えびンモ/DFM Evi (@ebihuryahurya) April 27, 2022
There’s even hope of an upset against T1, something that has been penned by fans. Nymaera put that at a much more constrained 15%, mostly due to “how damn strong” the Korean juggernaut’s lanes are.
However, the result itself doesn’t really matter in essence. Coach Kazu said, ultimately, “our goal for MSI 2022 is to win every game.” That won’t dictate a success or failure for the LJL though.
What will is putting up a fight and making Japanese League of Legends worth respecting.
“We have precious few events as minor regions to really be relevant, noticed, and to take pride in what we are as a region,” Nymaera explained. “Any result on that level means the extra amount because they have to be hard-earned.
“You get so few games, you’re up against tough opposition. Being able to develop, grow, and have those relevant performances against top teams; it gives them this moment to take a stand and show the worth and the work that they put in.
“This time, to be able to string together international performances and change community sentiment around the LJL would mean so much for the region and the pride we can take in it.”
If more than 2000 words couldn’t convince you to keep your eyes on DetonatioN FocusMe and Japanese League of Legends though, maybe a visual aid will help.
“Google ‘Evi thumbs up’,” Initialise urged fans looking to get invested in DFM.
“Look at that thumbs up, witness its power, understand the wholesome steel core that is Evi at the heart of DFM, and why couldn’t you support that? You won’t want to say no to that thumbs up.”
— LoL Esports (@lolesports) October 5, 2021