Samsung Galaxy were not the first casualty of the Korean Exodus, but they were certainly the most notorious. No Korean League of Legends organization lost as many players as Samsung during the 2014-15 offseason — a stunning turn of events following their two teams’ dominion over much of the 2014 competitive year.
Following SK Telecom T1 K’s undefeated run through OnGameNet’s Champions Winter 2013-14, Samsung Coach Choi Yoon-sang pushed for one of the most famous LoL roster swaps in history, bringing Samsung Galaxy White’s Bae “dade” Eo-jin to their sister team Blue for Heo “PawN” Won-seok. This ushered in the era of Samsung.
Both teams were chock full of top-tier talent, including one of the greatest junglers of all time in Choi “DanDy” In-kyu, AD carries Gu “Imp” Seung-bin and Kim “Deft” Hyuk-kyu and one of the greatest supports of all time in Cho “Mata” Se-hyeong. By the end of 2014, the organization had two Champions Finals appearances, one Champions title courtesy of Samsung Blue, and were reigning world champions courtesy of Samsung White. They were known as an organization that could bring out the best in some of LoL unrivaled talents.
This year’s Samsung team is decidedly not that.
In the past two years, since losing their most famous playmakers, Samsung have come nowhere close to regaining their prior dominance. Unlike the two previous Samsung representatives at League of Legends' largest international event, 2016 Samsung Galaxy are an anomaly — the team was not expected to even qualify. It took well over a year after losing both 2015 starting rosters for Samsung to assemble a roster that could contend for playoffs.
Lucrative contract offers from China combined with the dissolution of sister teams resulted in all players from both Samsung White and Blue leaving Samsung for various Chinese organizations in the 2014-15 offseason. On Dec. 2, 2014, Samsung cobbled together a roster with well-known solo queue Fizz player Park “BlisS” Jong-won (formerly known as “Bell Park” on the ladder), jungler Seo “Eve” Jun-cheol, and top laner Lee “CuVee” Seong-jin. These three solo queue pickups were joined by former Prime Optimus AD carry Lee “Fury” Jin-yong (then known as “ZetNjin”), and former ahq Korea support and SK Telecom T1 K substitute Kwon “Wraith” Ji-min (formerly known as “Loray,” “IcebearB” and “Casper”).
Perhaps more significant than the loss of all ten of their players, was the departure of key Samsung staff members who had helped bring home the Summoner’s Cup, including Coach Choi. Lacking any semblance of cohesion on the Rift, this new Samsung team performed so poorly that their title as reigning world champions — a badge of honor that SK Telecom T1 had carried into early 2014 with an undefeated season — was quickly forgotten.
BlisS looked lost in lane and was regularly -7.1 CS behind his laning opponents, last of all mid laners in LCK Spring 2015. Eve had trouble coordinating with his side lanes, especially given the lack of mid lane pressure, while top and bot also struggled to synergize with the rest of their team. Samsung won only two series in total during LoL Champions Korea Spring 2015, finishing in last place. The team fared slightly better in LCK Summer 2015. Acquiring mid laner Lee “Crown” Min-ho, Samsung often took opponents to three games throughout the summer split, even in a loss, showing a bit of improvement that placed the reigning world champions in seventh this time around.
Seventh place certainly wasn’t good enough for the reigning world champions. After SK Telecom T1 became successors to Samsung Galaxy White’s crown in late October 2015, the majority of Samsung’s roster left the team, leaving the once-illustrious organization again picking up the pieces in the offseason.
Samsung’s most high-profile signing in the 2015-16 offseason was that of legacy CJ Entus player Kang “Ambition” Chan-yong, who had just completed his first season as a jungler after an already distinguished mid lane career. Despite his experience and dedication to the game, he was still a fledgling jungler.
While jungling for CJ in 2015, Ambition was taught two things: how to farm as a jungler, and how to gank the mid lane for their star carry, Shin “CoCo” Jin-yeong. Of all starting junglers in LCK Summer 2015, Ambition had the highest CS differential at ten minutes (3.3) and tied for the second-highest CS per minute (3.4), but showed a distinct lack of creativity and variety needed to keep opponents guessing for long. His arrival on Samsung at the start of LCK Spring 2016 was accompanied by little fanfare. Ambition wasn’t the worst, but he certainly wasn’t near the best in his position. He wasn’t even the best role-swapped jungler to come out of the rocky restructuring year, with KT Rolster’s Go “Score” Dong-bin finding his footing alongside support Lee “Piccaboo” Jong-beom in late LCK Summer 2015 and KT’s 2015 World Championship run.
Fortunately for Ambition, what Samsung did have was a strong support that was willing to partner with the new jungler to cover the map early — be it through roaming ganks or coordinating vision to secure safer jungle routes. Unlike Hong “Madlife” Min-gi, who was more content to match the pace of his laning partner, the presence of Samsung’s Wraith visibly improved Ambition’s early pathing, even if his end goals — farming until the mid or late game — remained similar. Tied for first of all LCK Spring 2016 starting junglers, Ambition averaged a whopping 4.9 CS per minute and became a key DPS carry in Samsung’s teamfights. Ambition had already functioned as a fifth laner while jungling for CJ, and the former mid only grew throughout the LCK Spring 2016 season. His early blind invades, and subsequent early deaths, were curbed as Samsung molded to Ambition’s pace, becoming a late-game 5v5 teamfighting squad that relied on Crown’s stable of wave-clear champions and Ambition.
Throughout this past spring, Samsung were considered good enough for playoffs, but not good enough for a deep run. They were expected to qualify as the fifth seed in the spring gauntlet, and would have had it not been for those meddling Afreeca Freecs, who finished their second round robin 7-2 to Samsung’s 4-5. Despite an impressive win over the ROX Tigers in Week 9 that showcased just how much Ambition had learned as a jungler up until that point, Samsung was thoroughly lackluster through the back half of the spring season, helping the Freecs earn their first playoff spot in the organization’s short history.
Summer 2016 saw a different Samsung, an aggressive teamfighting team built around rookie AD carry Park “Ruler” Jae-hyuk — previously known as “Bung” from Korean challenger team Stardust. Ambition transitioned again, becoming more of a teamfight facilitator rather than DPS carry. Crown began to make his case as one of the top mid laners in Korea. Even CuVee, cited as the weakest member of their team, had his standout performances.
Samsung jumped out to an early undefeated streak in the LCK Summer 2016 before falling to SK Telecom T1 in Week 3. New AD carry Ruler was a hot rookie in Korea along with MVP jungler Kim “Beyond” Kyu-seok, but questions regarding his champion pool and flexibility rose throughout the split.
Ruler played only six different champions total this past regular season, which in and of itself wasn't a problem due to a relatively stagnant AD carry meta. However, he overly relied on both Sivir and Ashe — the two combined made up 70 percent of his regular season games — with Ezreal as his third pick, and was far less comfortable outside of these three picks. Where his Korean counterparts had pocket off-meta champions, picked up Jhin quickly or simply looked better on a wider range of champions, Ruler's pool became increasingly suspect as the season wore on.
Top laner CuVee continued to have difficulty standing up to Korea’s best, and Samsung still struggled to find a modicum of consistency when it came to choosing teamfights. Their coordination also decreased significantly during AD-carry-turned-support Jo “CoreJJ” Yong-in’s few starting stints over Wraith as the team clumsily attempted to implement him into their gameplan before inevitably returning to Wraith seeing how Ambition’s pathing and the general team dynamic was far better with their starting support in the game.
Prior to the playoff gauntlet, CoreJJ was winless in his three total games as Samsung’s support in LCK Summer 2016. Yet CoreJJ was the support that Samsung chose to face both Afreeca and KT Rolster in the qualifying gauntlet, and the winning support when all was said and done.
The Korea Regional Finals were expected to play out similar to the LCK Summer 2016 playoffs — Afreeca would lose to Samsung, Samsung would lose to KT Rolster. Samsung Galaxy had not won a single game against KT since 2014 coming into the gauntlet and had not shown any higher level of play in recent playoffs that could indicate a successful run. CuVee’s inconsistency was still there, Ruler’s champion pool issues were still there, and Samsung as a team had yet to figure out when to fight their opponents and when to back off. The sight of CoreJJ in the booth for Game 1 over Wraith was considered confusing at best — despite his appearance in the Afreeca series, KT was a vastly superior opponent — and a half-hearted white flag at worst.
After an exhausting five games with CoreJJ starting all five, Samsung not only ended their winless streak against KT Rolster, but claimed the Korean third seed for the 2016 World Championship in a 3-2 series victory. They showed a significantly stronger understanding of the current patch, obviously using their time between their crushing playoff loss to KT and the qualifier to improve.
Unlike their 2014 predecessors White and Blue, Samsung isn’t heavily-favored. They’re not a team of superstars. Of all members on the current roster only Crown and Wraith can compete with the best in their position in Korea and the latter may not even start. Despite White’s 2014 success, Samsung Galaxy have had a tumultuous relationship with the League of Legends World Championship since 2013, when Samsung Galaxy Ozone had just been freshly minted under the Samsung banner and failed to make it out of groups. As a team that defied the odds to even qualify, the current Samsung squad is vastly different. They may not impress on paper, but they’ll make up for it with careful preparation and diligence.
Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.