When two-time League of Legends World Champion SK Telecom T1 walk into a room, the atmosphere changes. They’re genial in interviews, bypassing required cordiality with genuine friendliness, but are practiced in their answers. These players are not new to the press routine. Even newcomer to the World Championship stage, SKT top laner Lee “Duke” Ho-seong, is measured and well-trained. When the ROX Tigers walk in, they immediately brighten the mood of the room. The players joke and razz each other constantly, half-paying attention to the current match on a nearby television screen, half-horsing around in between interviews.
When Samsung Galaxy walk into a room, they’re quietly confident. Jungler Kang “Ambition” Chan-yong trades in his stony in-game expression for a slight smile, his eyes scanning everything and everyone. Top laner Lee “CuVee” Seong-jin wears his usual good-natured grin while mid laner Lee “Crown” Min-ho looks tired but happy, shyly leaning against a wall. Support Jo “CoreJJ” Yong-in and rookie AD carry Park “Ruler” Jae-hyuk joke with each other as China’s Royal Never Give Up and North America’s Team SoloMid load up into the final match of the day to decide who will advance to the quarterfinals.
Following their 3-0 performance on Saturday, Samsung have already secured their spot in the 2016 League of Legends World Championship quarterfinals. They watch the game with interest, but not fear.
Sorted into Group D with NA hopefuls TSM and China’s second seed, RNG, Samsung found themselves in the toughest group they could have drawn for this year’s World Championship. TSM appeared to be NA’s best shot at making the semifinals. RNG had impressed at the 2016 Mid-Season Invitational and, while their recent performances had been sloppy and unimpressive, possessed an incredibly talented roster on paper. Even the worst team of the group, Europe’s third seed Splyce, were thought of as one of the more formidable third seeds in the tournament — the unique and fascinating story of Albus NoX Luna aside. Of all the groups, Group D was the toughest to call prior to the tournament’s start. Samsung flew under the radar for most of it, aside from those who faced them in practice.
“The team I’ve been watching is Samsung,” Counter Logic Gaming AD carry Trevor “Stixxay” Hayes says after CLG’s win over the ROX Tigers. “We scrimmed them in Korea a lot and when they got stomped by TSM I was kind of surprised but then they came back and beat RNG so things are kind of crazy right now."
"Samsung is one of the better teams as well, so I have my eye on them.”
The game in question, Samsung’s first match against the NA favorite, is decided early by a risky four-minute invade from Ambition on the top side of TSM’s jungle. He looks for a gank in the top lane before going after TSM’s jungler Denis “Svenskeren” Johnsen at gromp. CuVee’s Rumble skirmishes with Kevin “Hauntzer” Yarnell’s Kennen. As the two top laners move down the map, trading damage, the two junglers move up into the top side blue side tri-bush. Realizing that they’re out of their depth, Ambition and CuVee flash over a nearby wall into the river. A Søren “Bjergsen” Bjerg roam on Syndra secures the double kill for TSM and Ambition pays for his avarice. He continues to pay for it with a loss to TSM twenty-nine-and-a half minutes later.
Ambition gives only a slight nod towards the loss, mentioning their composition, not their execution.
"In terms of preparation, we’ve had some shaky components with that poke composition, but we went through with it, because we wanted to see how it went,” he says. “I think that’s one of the reasons why we lost."
Korea’s third seed has an interesting history, reserved for teams riding a wave of momentum through the Regional Qualifier gauntlet. In 2013, eventual champions SK Telecom T1 qualified by beating both CJ Entus Blaze and Frost before taking on the KT Rolster Bullets in a rematch of the Champions Summer 2013 Finals — a match that SKT won. NaJin White Shield ran the gauntlet in similar fashion, taking out both KT teams before besting SKT in the finals. White Shield made it out of groups, but were swept by China’s Oh My God in the quarterfinals. In 2015, KT Rolster qualified through the regional gauntlet and looked strong in groups but met their Korean brethren, the KOO Tigers, early in quarterfinals and lost to them in 3-1.
Samsung didn’t enter Worlds riding a hot streak like SKT or White Shield. In LoL Champions Korea Spring 2016, they were pushed out of the Top 5 thanks to a late losing streak and an upstart Afreeca Freecs squad who went 7-2 in the second round robin to Samsung’s 4-5. Having picked up Ruler from Challenger team Stardust, Samsung looked improved throughout summer, but still hovered outside of the Top 3 that included KT, SKT and the ROX Tigers. Samsung were firmly the fourth-best team in Korea, with recent history from the LCK Summer 2016 playoffs to mint their new fourth-place status. During the summer regular season, Samsung finished in fourth place with a 12-6 series record, just behind KT’s 13-5. In the playoffs, they were swept by KT, once again finishing in fourth place to SKT’s third, KT’s second, and the Tigers’ first.
Since the sister-team merger and creation of the LCK in 2015, KT had yet to drop a single game to Samsung Galaxy. The Regional Qualifier Gauntlet looked nearly identical to the recent playoff gauntlet on paper. Samsung would beat the Afreeca Freecs and then lose to KT, qualifying KT for their second world championship spot in two years.
Samsung disagreed with this plan. Against KT, they showed a much stronger understanding of the current meta, securing winning lanes with then-unforeseen pocket picks. When Gragas, Nidalee, and Rek’sai were banned — and KT took away the last commonly-seen jungler, Elise — Ambition brought out Skarner. Ruler picked up Jhin specifically for the gauntlet, denying it from KT’s No “Arrow” Dong-hyeon. On the same day that Samsung picked up their first win against KT since Champions Spring 2014, they beat KT in a series to qualify for the World Championship over the team generally acknowledged as Korea’s third, and possibly second-best team. Placed in a group with NA’s best, a dangerously talented RNG roster, and Europe’s young upstart Splyce, Samsung had a tough task ahead of them and passed it with flying colors, going undefeated on their last day of games.
“I’m really happy that we finally got here. I think it’s pretty dramatic that we got this spot,” CuVee says after Samsung claims the first seed in Group D at the World Championship.
Unlike prior Samsung teams, this group of six players is cobbled together from unwanted pieces of other organizations or talent with very obvious and exploitable weaknesses. CuVee is thought of as a middling to lackluster top laner in Korea, outshone by the likes of KT’s Kim “Ssumday” Chan-ho, SKT’s Duke, the Tigers’ Song “Smeb” Kyung-ho, and even the Freecs' Jeon “ikssu” Ik-soo. It took Ambition quite a while to ingratiate himself with the jungle, having role-swapped from mid. Ruler is a promising rookie, but had a few champion pool issues throughout the summer split. Crown’s first professional stint was for Team 58ers in Brazil, and is thought of as a zoning mage player only, with Viktor, Azir, and Varus his most-played champions. CoreJJ, the support Samsung appears to have settled on over Kwon “Wraith” Ji-min, is a former AD carry for BigFile Miracle and Team Dignitas who hadn’t won a game with the team until the Korea Regional Qualifier.
They win with slightly off-meta comfort champions — Ambition’s Skarner made a Worlds appearance, as has Crown’s Viktor and CoreJJ’s Zyra — and strong late-game teamfighting. Drafting against Samsung is difficult simply due to the sheer number of pocket picks that they have, and the multitude of varying compositions they can construct from them.
“While playing against the other teams, we were able to better evaluate our own performance,” CuVee says. “We then thought that we could win based on picking comfort champions instead of considering counterpicks.”
Samsung also aren’t without their mistakes. Ambition’s pathing can be predictable, and his decision-making, like in their first game against TSM, oddly suspect. They occasionally lose cross-map focus, tunneling on a specific objective, or fail to group properly. Yet of all teams in the latter days of the group stages, Samsung are the cleanest team in execution, outclassing their fellow Group D opponents as well as teams in Groups A and C.
“I think that whoever came, either Samsung or KT, whoever came to this Worlds would have performed really well,” CuVee says. “We need to make it to the semis at least to make [the fans] proud.”
In the interview room, the players of Samsung watch RNG and TSM intently. Talking softly, their instinctive cheers and emotive responses to the plays on the screen echo those of the NA and Chinese media around them. Now safely out of the group stage, Samsung will begin preparation for their quarterfinals opponent to be drawn on Sunday. In this moment, they watch their former adversaries earnestly.
They’re not KT Rolster. They’re not SK Telecom T1. They’re not the ROX Tigers. They’re not even reminiscent of past Samsung sisters Blue and White, whose 2014 iterations have been immortalized in the sepia-tinged nostalgia of every Korean League of Legends fan. Instead, they’re the new Samsung Galaxy, a team all their own.
Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.