The crowd roars.
Before Rivington “RivingtonThe3rd” Bisland III finishes introducing the ROX Tigers, Song “Smeb” Kyung-ho and Han “Peanut” Wang-ho wave emphatically to the sold-out crowd at Madison Square Garden. After a Game 2 win that tied their best-of-five Worlds semifinal series against SK Telecom T1 at 1-1, Peanut jumps up and hugs Smeb, almost knocking the star top laner out of his chair. Peanut’s jaunty walk offstage is immortalized in photographs, spreading like wildfire throughout both Korean and international online communities.
A few hours and three games later, a distraught Peanut gets up from his chair and gives his former NaJin e-mFire teammate, SKT top laner Lee "Duke" Ho-seong, a hug before burying his head in his hands. After shaking their opponents' hands, the Tigers started the long walk back to their computers and slowly unhooked their keyboards before putting on their jackets. As SKT bows to the cheering crowd, Kang "GorillA" Beom-hyeon wraps his arm around a teary-eyed Peanut. They likely know that this 3-2 loss will mark their last international competition together.
Charismatic and humorous, the ROX Tigers rolled through the 2016 League of Legends World Championship, gathering fans and followers at each stop on a whirlwind tour through the United States. On Nov. 25, almost exactly a month following their Worlds defeat, members of the Tigers posted heartfelt goodbyes on various social media platforms. Their time together had officially come to an end.
As the news made waves across social media, mid laner Lee “KurO” Seo-haeng’s Twitter feed became a nonstop stream of Tigers photos from the past two years. When they finally won their first LoL Champions Korea title this past summer, KurO was the first to break down in the booth, howling, crying, and collapsing onto the floor while his coach, Jeong “NoFe” No-chul rubbed his back. Now, his sadness is palpable, leaking out of every social media interaction. His goodbye message is the shortest, and simplest of all of the Tigers players:
“I want to thank my teammates, coaches, and managers. I think I'm here and work hard because of you fans. I'm not too sure where I'll be headed next but I will continue to be a pro and I hope you keep cheering me on. Haha I love you all.”
The Tigers were an unexpected byproduct of a tumultuous and uncertain time in Korean League of Legends history. No sooner had Samsung Galaxy White put down the Summoner’s Cup and walked offstage at the Seoul World Cup Stadium in 2014 than the offers started pouring in from Chinese organizations. The 2014-15 offseason was defined by the massive amount of talent that left Korea for Chinese shores and the abolition of the two-team system that had defined Korean LoL since the days of Maximum Impact Gaming.
While major organizations like SKT, Jin Air, CJ Entus, and NaJin e-mFire scrambled to assemble the best possible rosters that they could find, the Tigers sprouted from the scorched earth, a unique, player-driven experiment.
“I think we won because it was a confusing time when almost every teams’ players were replaced,” Tigers AD carry Kim “PraY” Jong-in said. “Also because we were the most unified compared to other teams."
GorillA was the only player widely regarded as one of the best in his position — a standout support on a NaJin White Shield team that ran out of steam during the 2014 World Championship. Smeb was talented but lost, expected to become yet another solo queue climber with little to no competitive success. KurO was the bare minimum of what was expected of a Korean mid laner. Jungler Lee “Hojin” Ho-jin had failed to impress during his time on NaJin Black Sword. PraY, a legacy AD carry in the Korean scene, was all but retired.
“Eventually, after trying other games I got bored and starting playing LoL again,” PraY says. “My solo ranking got very high, and at just that time GorillA, who had left the team, proposed forming a team together.”
According to PraY, the Tigers were awkward at first, but quickly bonded due to their easygoing personalities. “It’s like the atmosphere itself is different. Playing with the Tigers feels like playing and having fun with friends my age,” he said.
The Tigers’ infectious atmosphere took over the inaugural LCK season in the spring of 2015. They showed up to the booths every week with a different schoolboy outfits — cardigans, sweater vests, buttoned-down shirts, all with the Tigers’ logo hastily sewn, pinned, or ironed onto each outfit. Audiences went wild over Valentine’s Day cat ears and tracking the Tigers’ attire from week-to-week became part of the Korean fan experience.
Accompanying their shifting outfits was a struggle to find a steady primary sponsor. Douwan Inc.’s YY streaming platform headlined the Tigers through their initial HUYA and GE days before they were rebranded under KOO.TV. KOO was a short-lived streaming platform that folded just prior to the Tigers’ appearance at the 2015 World Championship. KeSPA’s continued relationship with Azubu makes it difficult for new streaming platforms to garner widespread success in Korea, and KOO’s name on the Tigers' polo shirts came to represent another one of the team's failed title sponsor.
Although the Tigers continued to have smaller sponsorships, including YY, their final rebranding was under ROX, a name they came up with themselves prior to the 2016 season. They overcame adversity like a pile of rocks, and while the Tigers requested to simply be called “the Tigers” due to their lack of a titular sponsor, the prefix ROX stuck with them throughout the year.
Major sponsorship continues to be a problem in Korea. Korean teams dominate international competitions and their domestic league is the most competitive in the world but this has yet to translate into increased involvement from non-endemic esport sponsors. Last year, Najin pulled out of LoL entirely, leaving behind the shell of “e-mFire.” After a few twists, turns, relegation and requalification, the ghost of NaJin is now known better as Kongdoo Monster, a homegrown esports organization started by Starcraft’s Hong "YellOw" Jin-ho. En route to their requalification into the LCK, Kongdoo Monster swept CJ Entus. Now, the CJ media conglomerate no longer has a team in Korea’s highest league — another large, non-endemic sponsorship gone without any others to take its place.
Since the 2014-15 mass exodus, other offseasons have followed suit with foreign organizations bidding over top-tier Korean talent. Yet this most recent offseason has seen many of the well-known names who vacated Korea en masse heading back home after two years away. At the same time, the Tigers are all but disbanded completely, posting their goodbyes as offers presumably pour in.
It’s a bittersweet end. The Tigers never fulfilled their goal of taking down SKT, falling to them 3-2 in the LoL World Championship’s most exhilarating series. In Korea, they promised to meet me at the World Championship finals. They never made it. This was their year.
“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 said after their quarterfinals victory over Edward Gaming. “But this year we have very high expectations, so there’s definitely a difference.”
Their separation was all but inevitable. As soon as Smeb took over the top lane in 2015, or Peanut broke onto the scene in 2016 as one of the world’s best junglers, and PraY proved to still have the top-tier talent ascribed to him since Season 2, offers were bound to pour in. If anything, it’s a small miracle that the team stuck together this long, with money promised from a myriad of other organizations and their continued struggle to find a strong support network outside of their fierce dedication to each other and their dream.
You always knew when the ROX Tigers walked into the room, into the booth, onto the stage. They exuded a comfortable, friendly atmosphere infectious to all those around them. They had fun. They were fun. They were one of the best teams in the world. There will never be another team like the Tigers.
Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.