His work has only begun.
Genial mid laner Lee “KurO” Seo-haeng still smiles at the thought of making it to the semifinals, but his eyes are clear and determined, already looking ahead. The past year has been good to KurO and his team, the ROX Tigers, and the mid laner has made massive improvements in his play that have hushed even his staunchest doubters.
Once seen as a weak link on a team of five friends who enjoy playing League of Legends together, KurO has dazzled 2016 audiences domestically and now abroad. But now, with what is perhaps their most daunting obstacle at Worlds ahead of them, KurO will need to step up to defeat a mid-lane opponent he has never bested, in SKT's Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok.
One of the Tigers' strengths in that matchup may be the newest addition to their team in jungler Han “Peanut” Wang-ho
“We always try to concentrate on objectives first, and then on finding out where the other jungler is by looking at their jungle routes,” KurO says of his coordination with Peanut. “It’s a bottom dive meta with mid and jungle going bot so it’s basically that we’re always looking for opportunities to dive, keeping our own objective control in mind, or opening up [the map] for counterjungling. It’s really important to have a strong bot lane for us to have the choice to dive the bot lane.”
A different atmosphere settles over the Tigers under the warm lights and 1920s decor in the balcony of the historic Chicago Theatre. Although they are as accommodating and cheerful as always, they have a quiet poise and calm about them as they’re shuttled from media outlet to media outlet after their 3-1 quarterfinals victory over China’s Edward Gaming.
“Last year, even though we made it to the semis, we didn’t think that we were going to do that good last year,” KurO says. “But this year we have very high expectations, so there’s definitely a difference.”
The Tigers entered the 2016 League of Legends World Championship as heavy favorites, but unexpectedly dropped games to Counter Logic Gaming and Albus NoX Luna in the group stages. Discussion of their strengths and weaknesses followed the Tigers’ Group A performances with Samsung Galaxy replacing them as tournament favorites due to their impressive group stage and blanking of Cloud9 in the quarterfinals. “We didn’t do that well during the group stages,” KurO says. “We’re aware of it, we admitted it, and we’re not surprised that audiences also thought that way.”
By contrast, EDG had appeared just as shaky, if not more so, than the Tigers. The two meeting as early as the quarterfinals shocked many, including the Tigers themselves, as they had generally picked EDG as a possible Finals opponent.
“EDG was, and is, a really good team, that’s why we picked them to face us in the finals,” KurO says. “When I faced PawN in the mid lane I had a really hard time, but against Scout it was not as hard as PawN. Since PawN’s back health is not as good, I think that’s why Scout came out in the mid lane so I think it was a bit easier than we had thought before. They were still tough and I’m glad we defeated them in the quarterfinals.”
KurO and the Tigers are now at a critical juncture, one that they can only cross with continued confidence and fearlessness. Standing in their way is none other than domestic adversary SK Telecom T1, the organization that consistently beats the Tigers. In their two-year LoL Champions Korea history, the Tigers have a remarkable 72 percent winrate. Against SKT, they have a discouraging 28 percent winrate that includes two LCK Spring Finals losses. The brunt of community criticism often falls on KurO specifically, the mid laner who can best anyone in the region but Faker.
“As far as SKT, we’ve just got to beat them,” KurO says. He takes a deep breath and sighs before laughing and shaking his head.
“I don’t have good memories of Faker,” KurO says, laughing again. “In all other tournaments, my memories of Faker are usually bad memories. We also have won against him a few times, so there are a couple of good memories. I think Faker just uses the jungle very well with the mid lane and they have very good jungle/mid synergy. So, I think this time around, it’s time to make some good memories and finally beat them.”
Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.