2020 world champion and Korean top lane superstar Jang ‘Nuguri’ Ha-gwon is back on Summoner’s Rift after an early-season break — and he’s changed. He led DWG KIA to a 2-0 victory in his LCK Summer 2022 return, and while the star doesn’t feel any different, there’s a new air around him.
Nuguri turned heads at the end of the 2021 season by announcing his intention to take a break from competitive League of Legends.
After reaching the highs of lifting the Summoner’s Cup at Worlds 2020 with DWG KIA, a move to the LPL and 2019 champions FunPlus Phoenix did not work out for the star top laner. He fizzled out overseas, making it to Worlds but falling out in groups well below expectations.
The star was mentally exhausted after having to acclimatize to a new culture in China. He also wanted to spend some time with family after five years of pushing towards the top — and reaching that climax.
But now he’s back. Nuguri re-debuted as part of a new-look DWG KIA roster in LCK Summer 2022 against Fredit BRION on June 16, with the top laner taking over from Yoon ‘Hoya’ Yong-ho and Noh ‘Burdol’ Tae-yoon who split duties in the first half of the year.
Truth be told, it was hardly clinical. Game 1 nearly made history for the wrong reasons. It took more than 34 minutes for the game to break its stalemate with one of the latest first bloods in competitive League of Legends history. Nuguri on Sejuani helped secure the key pick onto Park ‘Hena’ Jeung-hwan at baron. The game ended a minute later.
Game 2 was much more aggressive with constant fighting. The top laner was the center of a lot of Fredit BRION’s early pressure as they tried to enable a snowball for Park ‘Morgan’ Gi-tae on Camille. It almost worked as Morgan and Hena’s Kai’Sa tore through DWG KIA in the mid-game, but the veterans stabilized and brought it back off the back of clean performances from Heo ‘ShowMaker’ Su’s Aatrox and Seo ‘deokdam’ Dae-gil’s Ezreal.
When the game was all said and done, Nuguri couldn’t help but feel relieved at the result.
“I’m relieved that we won,” he said in the post-game press conference according to a translation by Inven. “It sucks to say that I’m relieved, but that’s the first thought that came to mind. I feel good about it. It was a nostalgic feeling.”
The star had butterflies in his stomach on the day, feeling the same nerves that he did back in his competitive debut five years ago: “When I hopped into the bus to head to LoL Park, I felt the same way as I did when I first debuted in Challengers Korea.
“I know it hasn’t been a long break, but I was very excited and nervous. Playing on stage did calm my nerves, but I misplayed a lot.”
Having him back seemingly sparked something anew in the DWG KIA side that came so close to glory in 2021, losing both MSI and Worlds in tight five-game finals. The pressure might have been piled on by fans, but jungler Kim ‘Canyon’ Geon-bu didn’t feel it on stage.
“I’m just focused on improving ourselves and playing better,” he said post-game. “Having Nuguri back on our roster doesn’t add more pressure or make us nervous. We just have to focus on our performance as a team.”
However for Nuguri it was quite a different system to have to integrate himself into. ShowMaker said it wasn’t “too surprising or shocking” to have the top laner back, but the same couldn’t be said for Jang.
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“There’s been a lot of change in the gameplay,” Nuguri explained. “Ghost and BeryL were in charge of being the sturdy anchor for the team [down bot], while deokdam and Kellin were the carries even on their last team.
“Overall, I can really tell the difference in the champion picks and gameplay. The stylistic change is something that we’re working on through practice.”
There’s been some talk about the 22-year-old maturing since his time on FunPlus Phoenix. After being the hyper-aggressive limit testing top laner that pushed League’s mechanics to the limit in his early days, he’s mellowed out a bit according to backroom staff.
He doesn’t feel that personally, but the sentiment hasn’t been lost on him.
“I just continue to live my life the way I do. I might’ve changed, but I don’t notice anything different. I keep hearing about this, and it’s cool to hear that something’s changed with me. I’m not doing anything different, so I don’t know about any big changes,” he admitted.
What has returned for Nuguri after his 2021 burnout is a drive to get back to the big stage where it all matters — Worlds. There’s still a long path in LCK Summer 2022 to go, especially with a drastic meta shift throwing the aggressive star off his game a bit.
“My playstyle before the durability patch was the complete opposite of how I currently play,” he said. “It does feel like my previous playstyle doesn’t fit the current meta, but I feel that it’s on me. I’ve yet to become more flexible.
However, he won’t be satisfied until he can cement his place back on top.
“I’m truly grateful for everything, especially all the support. Now that I have returned, I’ll make sure to perform well.”