In Summer 2014, Samsung Galaxy White jungler Choi “DanDy” In-kyu struggles to open his capsule claimed from the lottery ball bowl. Samsung Galaxy Blue top laner Choi “Acorn” Cheon-ju giggles in the background when DanDy drops part of the capsule on the ground. As DanDy unfurls the small piece of paper determining his Round of 8 opponent, he briefly tosses his head in disgust, rolling his eyes before showing the cameras and the audience the name: SKT T1 K. Acorn laughs and claps his hands.
Lee “KaKAO” Byung-kwon stole the show in 2014 Spring with when he said he wanted to “obliterate the SK Telecom organization” before brashly holding SK Telecom T1 S’ name upside down, parading it in front of the remaining Champions faithful. Yet, it’s DanDy’s exasperated sigh that sticks with the viewer.
Oh, SK Telecom T1 K. Again.
When Samsung Galaxy face off against SKT in the 2016 League of Legends World Championship Finals, they won’t be thinking of DanDy. The joke that only a Samsung team can stop an SKT team is lost on this group, who remain focused on their own shortcomings rather than the overwhelming strength of their opponents. No one expected this Samsung team to come this far. Whether or not they're concerned with it, the history between these organizations is rich.
SK Telecom T1 are poised to win their third League of Legends World Championship crown. After winning the Season X IEM World Championship, and the 2016 Mid-Season Invitational, another Worlds victory for SKT would give them a clean sweep of international titles available to a professional LoL team. It would also place half of the existing Worlds titles in the hands of LoL’s most illustrious esports organization, who would possess three of the last four.
Since their initial foray into League of Legends in late 2012, SKT has only missed taking the crown at Worlds once, in 2014, when they failed to qualify for the event. That year belonged to Samsung Galaxy and their two sister teams White and Blue.
Now, only Samsung stands in SKT’s way of a third Worlds title.
Fresh from their first World Championship title at the Season 3 tournament, SKT T1 K stormed through Champions Winter 2013-14 undefeated. Their final adversary was none other than Samsung Galaxy Ozone. At the time, Ozone was trying to cleanse themselves of the rotten residual stench left by their Season 3 Worlds performance. Once favored as a potential World Champion, Ozone underwent staff changes due to their Samsung sponsorship and entered the tournament arrogant and unprepared. After finishing 5-3 in Group B, Samsung failed to exit the group stages, losing a crucial one-game tiebreaker against Gambit Gaming.
Returning to Korea humbled, Samsung Ozone topped Group C in Champions Winter 2013-14 and stormed through the playoffs, dropping only one game to NaJin White Shield in the semifinals. Yet facing them in the Finals were SKT T1 K, who had swept through the season undefeated. They swept through Samsung Ozone as well.
The defeat precipitated a roster change between Samsung teams that sent Blue’s mid laner Heo “PawN” Won-seok to Ozone and Ozone’s mid laner Bae “dade” Eo-jin to Blue. The advent of double-jungling and brief absence of veteran support Lee “PoohManDu” Jeong-hyeon stymied SKT T1 K and the rise of the two Samsungs began. Yet, in both Champions Spring and Summer 2014, Ozone (later renamed White) drew SKT T1 K in the quarterfinals, as if unseen forces insisted on placing the premier SKT team in Samsung White’s path. For Samsung White, SKT T1 K — regardless of their perceived strength at that time — were the team to beat, arguably even more important to them than their own sister team Blue, who offed White in the Spring and Summer semifinals. Despite DanDy’s exasperated sigh, his team bested SKT 3-1 in both quarterfinals, keeping SKT T1 K from reaching another Champions final that year. When Samsung Galaxy White lifted up the Summoner’s Cup on home soil that year, SKT watched from the sidelines. Neither SKT team advanced to the Worlds stage.
After the sister team merger at the end of 2014, the tables turned dramatically. Samsung lost all of their players and cobbled together a roster that only won two series throughout all of LoL Champions Korea Spring 2015. Fighting their way back from relegation, they managed a more respectable 6-12 that summer, but remained a middling team at best, while SKT dominated the season.
Samsung went from being the one organization that could stand in SKT’s way to winless against the Korean dynasty in a post-sister team world. In all four LCK seasons that have followed, including this past LCK Summer 2016, Samsung are an abysmal 2-12 against SKT with no series wins. This includes seasons where they’ve had a winning record, like Summer 2016 when Samsung finished 12-6 in a respectable fourth place. The team has improved steadily over the past year. It still hasn’t been enough to beat SKT.
The first major roster move that propelled Samsung to greater heights was the acquisition of Kang “Ambition” Chan-yong, former CJ Entus legacy mid-laner-turned-jungler. Ambition spent the majority of 2015 as a fifth laner for CJ, ganking mid when necessary to snowball Shin “CoCo” Jin-yeong. On Samsung, he became a jungler, thanks in large part to his partnership with support Kwon “Wraith” Ji-min. The second series of roster moves that brought Samsung to their surprising World Championship strength was the pickup of Ruler from challenger team Stardust and AD carry Jo “CoreJJ” Yong-in swapping from ADC to support. CoreJJ struggled in his few games during the regular season, but found a new home in the bot lane next to Ruler during Samsung’s unlikely run through the Korea Regional Qualifier post-Patch 6.15.
Samsung were no slouches at lane swapping throughout the summer. Alongside KT Rolster, they came up with some of the more creative laneswap packages in Korea, and swapped 45 percent of their games prior to Patch 6.15. During these times, Wraith was the far better choice as a support, often roaming to supplement Ambition’s jungle pathing. Post-6.15 with standard lanes enforced, CoreJJ shone on lane-dominant supports like Zyra, Karma, and most recently Miss Fortune, along with his signature Tahm Kench pick that allowed him to apply global pressure. Since swapping CoreJJ in, Samsung have been undefeated at the World Championship, razing Cloud9 and H2k-Gaming.
This will be the first time that SKT faces this new and improved Samsung on a competitive stage, and SKT have already taken down tougher opponents Royal Never Give Up and the ROX Tigers to make it to the finals. Yet it’s impossible to ignore just how synchronized Samsung have looked, showing stronger performances the deeper they’ve advanced in the tournament.
When the Samsung's various members are asked what has made this specific group so successful at this year’s Worlds, they give a bevy of predictable answers — hard work and practice firmly at the top of the list. Yet beneath that, there is simmering anger, and an overwhelming desire to prove they are one of the world’s best League of Legends teams when nearly everyone said that they wouldn’t even make the tournament, nevermind reach the finals. The end result is only one game lost through their run to the finals: a group stage best-of-one against North America’s Team SoloMid.
"After the loss to to TSM, the feeling that I felt the most was anger," Ambition said in an interview during groups. "I realized that it’s not as easy or smooth sailing at Worlds. We overcame our anger by practicing."
They’ll have to draw on that anger to take on SKT, who once again stand in their way.
Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.