Welcome to the Champions Crusade, where each week we'll breakdown the hierarchy of Korea's premier league, which players to keep an eye on and the developing narratives between the nine teams striving to knock off the defending champions, SK Telecom T1.
Week 1 saw all 10 squads compete in their first matches of the season, with the spring season finalists SKT T1 and the newly renamed Koo Tigers having to wait until the final day of the week to open their summer campaigns. While there were surprises that broke up the old landscape of Champions, namely Anarchy and their flippant, entertaining style, the reigning kings took care of business in their first series back against the rookies SBENU Sonicboom. After a commanding second map win to take the sweep against Sonicboom, SKT announced in their after-game interview that their goal was to go undefeated throughout the entire season, matching their Champions Winter 2013-14 achievement.
With one week and two games down, SKT only have 34 regular season and three Grand Final victories to go. Although the perfect map and/or match record might be too difficult to obtain in the current league format of Champions, SK Telecom T1 are aiming to not only win the Summer season, but make history heading into Worlds.
The Champions Hierarchy
1. SK Telecom T1: 1-0 (2-0)
In their first games since their gut-punch loss to EDward Gaming in the Mid-Season Invitational Grand Finals, SKT T1 were able to shake off the disappointment and take a 2-0 victory against SBENU Sonicboom. The initial map wasn't SKT's best effort, as they struggled to take control of the game until the climactic moments, but they pulled through in the end. Easyhoon and Tom were replaced following the slog in Game 1 for Faker and Bengi, providing a quicker impact in the second map. During the first game, SKT and SBENU were trading back and forth in a competitive manner at the 10 minute mark. Faker didn't show the same remorse on the second map, winning the game, for all intents and purposes, by the same ten minute mark on his signature mid Ezreal.
2. KT Rolster: 1-0 (2-0)
Surprising to some, KT Rolster have carved their way into the upper echelon of Korean teams since the second half of last season. KT were left in an incoherent state after their two star players, KaKAO and Rookie, decided to leave for China's Invictus Gaming before the start of the 2015 season. The team was aimless for the first eight or so matches of the season, seemingly giving up games by showing no fightback or trying to actively win games. That all changed when they brought their new support, Fixer, into the lineup. Simply put, the playmaking support player brought a new edge and identity to the Champions Summer 2014 winners.
Their first game, while against an expected bottom of the table Samsung squad, saw an overwhelming, clean style of play that helped them almost sneak into the playoffs last season. With the shakiness of the KOO Tigers and other topflight teams following the end of last season, KT have an opportunity to challenge their old rivals SKT one more time in the Summer season.
3. CJ Entus: 1-0 (2-1)
The team with the most experience in Korea's professional scene and possibly the world, CJ Entus are back this season with their same starting five players. They were only one game away from beating SKT T1 last season, losing in a comeback effort by SKT in the fourth game and then getting eliminated in a one-sided Blind Pick fifth map.
Currently, the meta suits CJ's core to a T, as it allows Ambition to play less micro-intensive junglers and focus more on front-line tanks like Rek'sai and Nunu. It also puts Shy in his best role of being both a utility and tank as well, with Hecarim being an option if they want to shake things up. CJ's first week back was a solid but not outstanding one, winning against rookies Anarchy 2-1. They toyed with Anarchy in the first game of the series, losing with Space's mind-boggling Vayne play. Of course they were able to fight back in the next two games and dispatch the pesky the amateur squad, but it wasn't the opening statement they would have liked to make following a strong end to last split.
Next week's CJ Entus vs. KT Rolster match to kickoff Week 2 is a meeting that could very well clarify who SKT's ultimate opponent will be by season's end.
4. Jin Air Green Wings: 1-0 (2-0)
This is an extremely weary fourth-placed ranking for the Jin Air Green Wings. While the three teams above the Wings on the ranking all had strong ends to last season, Jin Air suffered a nosedive after the Cinderhulk enchantment was introduced into the game, losing every regular season game in the final weeks and then getting eliminated in an embarrassing sweep by CJ Entus in the playoffs. They started off Champions Summer with their first map win in months, beating Longzhu IM in their opening campaign match. The first game featured a lot of good signs for Jin Air fans, as the team played a crisp style with purpose. However, they devolved in the second game and looked a lot less like the calculated team that was considered a title contender during the first half of Champions Spring.
On paper, Jin Air should make the Top 5 this season, and even have a chance to make Top 3 in the playoffs, yet it will all come down once again to how well they can adapt. Even if they've caught their bearings and are ready to play the topflight teams with the current favored champions and compositions, what happens if another patch comes out and turns the game on its head again? Will the Wings show flexibility and pick up the new champions and strategies quicker this time around, or will they go on another long losing streak like they did when Cinderhulk destroyed their Spring season?
5. NaJin e-mFire: 1-1 (3-3)
Now we get to the middle of the pack with the teams who dropped matches in Week 1. NaJin, who have strong players at every position, started their season by losing against Anarchy, an amateur team with no team house, sponsor, or coaching staff. The rookie squad defeated NaJin 2-1 and started their professional careers off with a huge victory. While Anarchy laughed and celebrated, NaJin were left not knowing to respond, going from a preseason Champions favorite along with SKT T1 before the Spring Season to now being the team who lost to an amateur squad that got destroyed by Longzhu in the qualifiers.
NaJin's solace came in the form of their series against the KOO Tigers. Watch continued his strong showing from the first match against Anarchy, as the veteran jungler lead his team to a 2-1 win and helped get their record back to .500 before squaring off against SKT T1 next week. As always with NaJin, their games came down to their reckless ace and AD Carry, Ohq. If Ohq plays smart and can rein in his over-aggressive tendencies, he'll finish games looking like the best AD Carry in the world. When he shows his immature side, taunts in inopportune situations, and goes head first into his death, NaJin suffers greatly and Ohq looks like a solo queue player who will never make anything of himself.
One week down and Ohq showed off both his reckless and genius sides. With Pure's improve play in the bottom lane and growing a better relationship with NaJin's wild gunman, NaJin could finally live up to their preseason potential.
Or Ohq will flash into five players, taunt, dance, and then die.
That's the way of Ohq.
6. KOO Tigers: 0-1 (1-2)
The Tigers were last season's runners-up, demolishing the league in the first half of regular season before falling off at the end. The exclamation point to their demise was a crushing loss to their perceived-rivals SKT Telecom T1 in the Spring Grand Finals as they were beat in three straight games. Similar to Jin Air, KOO could not adapt to the new Cinderhulk meta that took over the professional scene, Hojin looking lost in the jungle without his assertive bruising champions.
Summer started out as the Spring ended, with the newly christened KOO Tigers losing a close but demoralizing series to NaJin, a team who dropped their first series of the season to an amateur squad. The team tried both Hojin and newly signed former IM jungler Wisdom at the starting jungle position, the former losing the first game and Wisdom going 1-1 in the next two. Neither Tiger played well in their Summer debut, Watch the best jungler of the night in the series between the two teams.
KOO are probably better than sixth and still have the potential; if they fix their obvious and glaring jungler problem, to shoot back up into the rankings right next to SKT T1. But for right now, they are a team that have been on a gigantic fall since their loss to Team WE in the IEM Katowice semifinals.
7. Anarchy: 1-1 (3-3)
Credit needs to go to Anarchy, as they had an absolutely amazing week by beating NaJin and taking a game off of CJ. Unfortunately, those matches were still marred by the fact NaJin and CJ fought Anarchy with their kiddie gloves on for most of the series. They did win the respect of NaJin and CJ by the time they finished both of their matches, but Anarchy is still a team that could go either way as the season goes along. If they can move into a team house full-time, maybe pick up a sponsor and a coach, they could turn into a real threat and possibly make an unlikely run at the playoffs. On the other hand, if they keep up with their amateur status and remain stagnant, the professional teams will lock on to Anarchy's tendencies, breakdown their weaknesses, and crush them like they're nothing but a small annoyance.
Mickey is an excellent player and a near shoe-in for rookie of the season if he can keep up his play — not to mention that Anarchy will need a lot more of Mickey's heroics if they hope to stay afloat in an extremely competitive league. One more solid week like this and they'll find themselves in the upper half of the hierarchy.
8. Longzhu IM: 0-1 (0-2)
Longzhu came into the season with incredible hype, changing their middling roster into a squad that appeared to be ready to challenge for a Top 4 spot in the summer split. They crushed Anarchy in their two qualifier games, with new support IgNar and support-turned-jungler Tusin forming a dynamic duo that dissected the two amateur teams in their group.
Then they come into Champions with all these expectations and lose their first series to Jin Air without taking a map. Tusin didn't play as well as he did in the qualifiers, and Apple's Gnar was taken away from him after he smashed everyone he met with the champion in the qualifiers to get into the league. Longzhu shouldn't be counted out over one loss and are still a team that have a lot of talent, especially with often overlooked Frozen in the middle.
Still, even with a new sponsor and uniforms, they're still Incredible Miracle at the end of the day, and they'll need to change their losing habits into winning ones to be a top team in Champions.
9. Samsung Galaxy: 1-1 (2-2)
Good news for Samsung fans: you started the season off with a win! Sure, it was against SBENU Sonicboom, an entirely new team to Champions that played like chickens with their heads cut off, but who cares!? You 2-0'ed them! And those NaJin guys lost 1-2 to Anarchy. Losers!
Bad news for Samsung fans: the wins against bottom of the table Sonicboom were followed with an 0-2 loss to KT Rolster in walkover fashion. KT Rolster did what they wanted for two games, bringing back all the memories of last season where Samsung were the punching back for every team in Champions to try new things on.
Samsung Galaxy have improved. Crown looks like a major upgrade in the middle lane over Bliss or Ace, Luna played well in the victory over SBENU, but is it enough for the reigning world champions — in name only, really — to bring honor back to their organization? While they are no longer the worst team in Champions and improved over their Spring season, it'll take a match win over a non-amateur team to start taking them seriously as anywhere near a playoff threat.
10. SBENU Sonicboom: 0-2 (0-4)
SBENU and Anarchy are the new kids in school who know no one but each other. They promise that they'll stick together as friends, knowing that the bigger and more popular kids will pick on them. SBENU sees the writing on the wall that they're not going to have a fun time at this new school and have trouble running from the bullies. At least Sonicboom still has Anarchy by his side to have someone to talk to about the pain and discomfort.
Nope. Anarchy leaves SBENU on the first day of school, punches NaJin in the nose, and is now gaining respect from everyone else in school. Sonicboom is now in the sole role of being the team picked on in Champions, even by Samsung Galaxy, the picked on team of last season, SSG beating them in a sweep. They showed a lot of promise in their 0-2 loss to SKT T1, and Nuclear is an AD Carry to keep your eye on for the rest of the season, yet wins will mostly likely be few and far between for the new kids on the block.
The All-Champions Team (Week 1)
Top: Ssumday (KT Rolster)
Is this finally the season Ssumday matures into the best top-laner in Korea? Even when he hasn't been at his best, KT Rolster have stuck with Ssumday, always keeping him on the roster one way or another to keep him in the organization. His first two games set a tone for the rest of the season: 10/3/17 and the first two of KT's MVP awards for the season.
Jungle: Watch (NaJin e-mFire)
This was supposed to be the end of the line for Watch. His performance at Worlds couldn't keep up with players like Loveling, Spirit or Dandy. His potential replacement, Peanut, finally became old enough to play in Champions. Faced with a younger and more mechanically gifted jungler, Watch's days seemed numbered, especially after a weak Spring season. His response to start the Summer? Win two of his team's three MVP awards and put his Gragas into contention as an instant ban against him in future weeks.
Mid: Mickey (Anarchy)
10/0/10 on Zed to beat Ggoong, an assassin specialist, who was playing LeBlanc in the climactic third game of their series against NaJin. A rookie to the Korean professional scene, Mickey made his return from Team WE Academy in China a glorious one, putting on a Zed show for the ages, and then giving CJ Entus for a run for their money in their second match of opening week. He currently leads with the MVP race with 300 points, and with how Anarchy plays around him, he'll need to put up a lot more MVP performances to give Anarchy a chance at the postseason.
AD Carry: Pilot (Jin Air Green Wings)
Pilot split time with CptJack for most of last season, and his first series against Longzhu IM has made it clear that he shouldn't be splitting time with anyone. He leads all players in KDA after the first week, finishing the series against IM with an 11/1/20 scoreline and helping his team win both games. Ohq is getting a lot of well deserved attention for possibly being the next best AD in Korea, but Pilot is right there next to NaJin's AD wanting the same respect.
Support: Madlife (CJ Entus)
There are only three certain things in life: Death, taxes, and Madlife being able to hook people in League of Legends. With the debut of IgNar, dubbed "The Next Madlife", the original outdid his apprentice on Incredible Miracle in the first week of play. With CJ Entus having a strong roster and proving they have the tools to beat SK Telecom T1, Madlife's eying a return to have another shot at the Summoner's Cup that eluded him at the World Grand Finals during the 2012 season.
Until next week, Champions!
Tyler "Fionn" Erzberger is a staff writer for The Score eSports who covers the North American LCS and Korea's Champions.