The most prized and sought for amateur player in League of Legends history.
An ascendant campaign as a rookie, leading his newly constructed team all the way to the semi-finals. A Champions title in his second season, coming back in the Grand Finals from an 0-2 deficit to win three straight against their organization's arch rivals. The third season was pure perfection — undefeated in the regular season and playoffs, capping off the flawless season with a 3-0 sweep of their nemesis Samsung White (then Ozone) in the Grand Finals.
Throw in a 2013 World Championship, two Champions MVP awards, and being the face of the biggest eSport organization in South Korea, Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok's first year as a pro was arguably the greatest start to a player's career in competitive gaming history.
The nine or so months following his third domestic season in Champions was a hard decline for Faker. Not entirely as a player, still seen and hailed as the cream of the crop of mid-laners around the world, but his team stagnated. The newer generation of teams and players passed SK Telecom T1 by, their long-time rivals Samsung White in the Spring and Summer seasons of Champions in 2014.
By the start of the new year and the next regular season, three of his former comrades were gone, only his jungler Bengi still with him from his first day as a pro.
Now, following a regular season with his new SKT T1 that tested his patience, belief in the system, and teammates, the best in the world has returned to the final hurdle: the Champions Grand Finals. He's three wins away from securing his third title, putting himself along with Bengi in a class of their own.
In Faker's six Champions Korea seasons, he's been stopped three times before raising the trophy at the end — all three times at the hands of Mata and Dandy's Samsung White.
In the other corner of the Grand Final won't be Samsung White, but the GE Tigers, a gifted rookie team vying for an accolade not even Faker was able to claim: win a Champions Korea title in the squad's first season. From the Champions qualifiers with teams like Prime and Xenics to start the season, the upstart Tigers took the Champions regular season by storm, winning their first eleven matches of the season and locking up the first seed in the postseason before teams even qualified for the playoffs.
At their core, the Tigers are misfits. You have players like Pray who were all-stars at the peak of their careers, but he fell of near the end of his run on NaJin Sword, discarded into a long list of first generation players heading towards retirement. All five Tigers were unwanted — with maybe the exception of their support Gorilla — from their former teams, pushing them into forming the Tigers squad that has brought their careers back from the brink of irrelevance.
Faker, though, does not care about a happy ending or five incomplete pieces coming together to make a stronger unit with the power of friendship. The Champions Grand Finals are his domain, and he's returned to sit on the throne that was destined for him even before he played his first professional game.
The Crown Prince has returned for his crown, South Korea.
Top Lane: Smeb (GE) vs. Marin (SKT)
The first positional match-up might be the most important in the entire series, even surpassing Faker's face-off with Kur0 in the middle lane. These two players, while sharing a similarity in keeping up with in-meta champions, are radically different players when it comes to their history.
Marin was supposed to be the Faker of the top lane position. SKT tried the same blueprint for building a championship team they used with Faker on Marin, hoping that he would grow into the second coming of the next big thing in Korea. That never came to fruition, Marin transforming himself from a roaming killer in his solo queue amateur days to being a polished, indestructible shield for Faker, the player he was presumed to resemble.
Smeb, as I wrote in a long article about his career, started out as a constant loser. He was good in solo queue, not to the heights of Marin, but was still in the top fifty for the most part of the end to his Incredible Miracle tenure. It wasn't until he joined the GE Tigers did he really transform into the player he is today.
Saddled with tanks almost exclusively for his stay on IM, he's been able to have more freedom on GE and play to his strengths: being a diverse, free flowing top-laner who might not be the best at any particular role, but has shown to be elite in any meta this season.
The question is if Marin can stop Smeb. While SKT might mix it up for the Grand Finals, they're primarily a team that have two main carries: Bang and Faker. If Faker is playing a more utility type champion like Lulu, Bang becomes the primary threat and gets the majority of the gold. Marin has been primarily the daunting tank and engaging tool for SKT, and while that was enough for him and SKT to beat a solid, but predictable, Shy in the semifinals, Smeb won't be so easy to scout and keep locked down.
Jungle: Lee (GE) vs. T0M/Bengi (SKT)
If it's Bengi who gets the start over T0M — and why wouldn't he after he came into a 0-2 hole versus CJ and spurred three straight victories? — it'll be another match-up where the styles differ.
Lee likes to tussle and be a bruiser. As his name suggests, he liked to play a lot of Lee Sin when bruisers were more in the meta than the world of tanks we currently live in. Bengi is the exact opposite, valuing vision, smart, drawn-out play over being spontaneous and going for the home run without almost certainty that a gank will succeed.
This match-up would shift in the favor of Lee if there was more of a focus on carry junglers, but we're currently sitting in a spot where the Cinderhulk enchantment is incredibly strong and has brought forth a ton of less micro-intensive tanks to the table. This has allowed Bengi to get a foothold back into the professional scene, being able to use his brain and less-than-perfect mechanics to succeed with champions like Nunu and Rek'sai.
The lasting impact of this positional bout is that it could truly be Bengi's last hooray, if he's played, as SKT's starting jungler. T0M didn't have the best semifinals, but this is a meta that Bengi was made for, and the chemistry between T0M and Faker will need at least another few months of playing together to get anywhere near the trust Faker and Bengi have between each other on Summoner's Rift.
If this is Bengi's last moment in the sun before being replaced by a more mechanically gifted jungler, a victory would put his list of accolades as one of the greatest junglers, results-wise, in League of Legends history.
Mid Lane: Kur0 (GE) vs. Faker/Easyhoon (SKT)
The Pillar of GE vs. the Crown Prince of SK Telecom...and Easyhoon, if they play him. This most likely will be Kur0 vs. Faker, and if it is, it's another clash of styles. Both players have shown they can play variation in the mid lane, with Kur0 being forwardly aggressive in some games and Faker opting to play the likes of Lulu to support Bang.
Kur0's best at being the calming center of GE and Faker is best at being the lighting rod for SKT.
Although Kur0 has been extremely successful on LeBlanc this season (his best assassin at a 6-0 record) there is almost no way we'll see the champion unless it goes to a fifth game Blind Pick. Faker is 12-0 on the champion, and the GE Tigers cockily tried to end his perfect record earlier in the season by not banning it and were given a demonstration on why you always ban the Illusionist if Faker's in the game.
Faker, well, he can play anything and everything. The one real drawback to his champion pool, possibly the only one in his entire career, is his Xerath play. He is a terrible Xerath player — at least when compared to Faker's other champions — holding a 2-5 record with the champion.
Unlike other champions that Faker doesn't do well on and throws into a pile to not play again, he's tirelessly attempted to make Xerath work for him and it hasn't. Easyhoon is the Xerath specialist on the team, 3-1 on the champion in his career with a ridiculous KDA of 14.
When it comes to Kur0, he's a player that can slip into various slots for GE. At times he's been placed in that sole ace role as the main carry, but I'd say he excels more in the secondary carry position or even a less gold-focused role by playing utility or support-like champions. He's great at zoning players out, one of the few players to still pick Azir, and is good at fighting at a distance and setting up holes in the other team's defense for Smeb and, most importantly, Pray to exploit.
If Kur0 can get out of the laning phase at a somewhat decent position, GE Tigers usually win the game. He is their middle link in the chain between Smeb and Lee and the bottom lane duo. The Tigers are a team that aren't the strongest starters; a lot of the times they will keep even or stick a a little bit behind the enemy team before flipping a switch around the 20 minute mark, winning a team fight around an objective, and rolling to a win. SKT are the opposite; if Faker or Bang can get some gold early in the first ten minutes, they open leads up from their laning phase and take the win from there.
Outside of our two expected players, there is always Easyhoon. He pops up at random times when SKT wants to throw a curve ball to start off a series. I wouldn't necessarily expect him to be used in the Grand Final, also considering he started the semifinals and lost his first and only game against CJ, yet it wouldn't surprise me if we somehow see the brainy, painstakingly diligent tactician make an appearance in the Grand Finals.
Bottom Lane: Pray & Gorilla (GE) vs. Bang & Wolf/Piccaboo
If I had to liken the AD carries to athletes, I'd peg Bang as a fleet-footed boxer. He's quick, agile, and moves side to side like no one else in the business. He puts the onus on himself to dodge a thousand skill-shots to win a game and that's exactly what he did in the CJ Entus series, putting it all on himself in an elimination game in the fourth map of the series. Faker played a support champion with Lulu, making Bang the be-all and end-all ace of the game. The game ended at seventy minutes, Bang dipping and swerving out of every Ziggs bomb and set of land mines thrown his way.
Facing off with Bang goes something like this: "Hey! We're trading, cool, I have more life than him.
Alright, we're firing off skill-shots and attacks at each other...Wait, why isn't he losing health?
He's deceptively strong, his rapid movements being able to shrug and dodge damage as he is able to dish the maximum amount onto you. This leads to situations where it appears like two players are jabbing and trading with each other, but it's actually just Bang slowly putting down his opponent.
Pray...Pray is a bowling ball. When he picks up speed, it's over. As we've seen with the success of the Jugger'maw composition where he's the center piece, he will run through walls and power through any obstacle put in front of him. That doesn't mean he's not mechanically strong or not a cerebral player, he can be, but while Bang is a more side-to-side type player, Pray is full forward. When someone says go and it's time for Pray to kill someone, he goes out and kills someone with one destructive punch to the face.
Moving down to the supports, Gorilla is one player on the GE Tigers whose career was on an upswing before he joined. He was one of the best supports at the 2014 World Championship, pushing NaJin White Shield into the quarterfinals before being blown out by China's OMG. His exit from NaJin was a surprising one, but he's now found himself on an even stronger team from last year, linking up with Pray, a player that fits his playmaking style better than the safe, less forward Zefa on White Shield.
Wolf's bounced around a few teams in his professional career but has found a longstanding home at the SK Telecom T1 house. Unlike Pray and Gorilla, Bang and Wolf have been partners on three different teams in their careers: NaJin Shield, SKT T1 S, and now the united SK Telecom T1. Although most would give the laning phase to the aggressive-minded Tigers bottom lane, you can't overlook the experience and trust that Wolf and Bang have built up in the same way Faker and Bengi have through the years.
The Returning Empire vs. The Bow-Tied Rebels
SK Telecom T1 do come into this series as favorites on paper. They beat the Tigers the last two times the two played, and GE's mystique of being unbeatable was torn apart when they lost to Team WE at the IEM World Championships and then lost to KT Rolster in the Champions regular season.
SKT T1 were perfect in the second half of the season, clearing through the seven teams in their path, and they've now taken out CJ Entus in the semifinals, perhaps the team best suited for the current meta we're in.
This is a battle of a returning, vengeful empire against a group of misfit rebels in bow-ties that weren't expected to be here when the season started. The Crimson Empire have the best player in the world, the best resources when it comes to money in Korean eSports, and has a coaching staff that is second to none in the region.
The Tigers got off to a quick start to the season and surprised a lot of people, and there is a strong chance they do make the World Championships at the end of the year, but this is Faker's first final in over a year.
Kneel down, rebels. Your Prince has arrived.
Tyler "Fionn" Erzberger is a staff writer for The Score eSports. Where will you be when the Crimson Empire looks to retake their Korean throne against the Bow-Tied Tiger Rebels?