With the third week of the Champions Korea summer season officially in the books, a clear line is starting to separate the playoff contenders from the pretenders who'll most likely spend the rest of their season doing their best to avoid relegation.
Korea's "Big 3" held strong this week, as SK Telecom T1, CJ Entus, and KT Rolster all won their matches. Jin Air continues to poke around wanting to make the contender number grow from three to four, as they bounced back from their loss to KT Rolster last week to breeze through Week 3 with two more victories.
Here's how the Champions hierarchy breaks down after the third week of play.
The Champions Hierarchy
1. SK Telecom T1: 4-0 (8-1)
SKT's hopes of going through the entirety of the Summer tournament without a map loss came to an end this week, as they dropped a map to the improving Samsung Galaxy in the defending champs' second match of the week. They started off the third week of play with a complete and utter dissecting of thier Grand Finals opponents, the KOO Tigers, in a 2-0 sweep. Their series against Samsung was surprisingly closer, as the underdogs took the second map of their series with the help of an early lead that not even the champions could recover from. After playing Easyhoon for the first two games of that series, Faker came in and put on an all-time classic Champions performance on Viktor, extending his streak to eight games on a different champion.
2. CJ Entus: 4-0 (8-3)
The only other undefeated team left in Korea, CJ Entus, are continuing to turn heads by pushing their veteran-fueled lineup closer and closer to a spot in the World Championships. A team built on reliability between the players and world-class team fighting, CJ are turning even their most fervent critics into forced believers of their chance at making the international major this fall in Europe. This week saw more solid play from the old men of Champions. Their only game of the week was against the the KOO Tigers, and CJ did their routine: lose the first game in embarrassing fashion, come back with an adapted style in the second, and then run roughshod over the team in the final game. While it would be nice to see some clean sweeps from CJ and not see them sleepwalk through first games of a series, it's hard to argue against their perfect 4-0 match record.
3. KT Rolster: 3-1 (7-3)
As their name suggest, KT Roller Coaster (Rolster) are on an up and down ride that has seen them atop the Korean hierarchy during their heydays and at the bottom of it when things go wrong. Last season was a downturn for KT before the properly named support Fixer came off the bench to turn their team into a playoff contender. While their slow start to the Spring season stopped them from making the postseason, KT have rolled into the Summer season with the confidence of a team that believes they can win it all.
Aside from Fixer's obvious influence to the team, the biggest change has been Nagne in the mid lane. Once a prodigy in his own right when he broke into the pro scene in 2013, he played in the Worlds semifinal and was one game away from taking out Faker to send his NaJin Black Sword team to the World Finals against Royal Club. That didn't work out, Nagne's signature Gragas getting banned out and the series falling in the favor of the eventual world champions SKT. That loss to Faker and his over reliance on Gragas held Nagne back for the next year-and-a-half, doing well in solo queue but never living up to the heights he set for himself early in his career as a rookie. He's experienced a resurgence this season, winning two MVP of the game awards this week in KT's 2-1 winning effort against Longzhu IM.
If Nagne can keep up his stellar play in the mid lane along with the impressive parts KT already possess, the former Worlds semifinalist might find himself back on the world stage sooner rather than later.
4. Jin Air Green Wings: 4-1 (8-3)
It's too soon to put Jin Air in a 'Big 4' club with the Top 3 teams, especially after getting pummelled by KT last week, but Jin Air are keeping themselves above the middle of the pack to be a favorite to make the playoffs. Last season, the Green Wings were nicknamed the 'Robin Hoods of Korea,' taking games off the league's top teams before giving those victories back to the teams at the bottom of the table. For every strong game Jin Air would have against SKT or CJ, they would follow it up by falling face first against a Samsung or Incredible Miracle squad.
Jin Air's schedule hasn't been the toughest on paper, their two wins this week being against Samsung and SBENU. Still, last season these were the matches that Jin Air would drop in disastrous fashion and hurt any momentum they picked up against the league's elite. An upcoming victory against a CJ or SKT might not move Jin Air directly into the Top 3, but it'll be time to start talking about them alongside SKT, CJ, and KT as clear cut favorites to win the title this season.
5. NaJin e-mFire: 2-2 (5-5)
Why even talk about NaJin anymore? They're an enigma. I don't know how good they are. No one knows how good they are. NaJin themselves probably go from thinking they can win Worlds one day and the next wondering if it's possible they'll get relegated to the Challenger scene. We can go over how amazing their lineup is on paper, filled with experience, good substitutes, and aces in both the top lane and AD Carry positions. It's still a roll of the dice whenever they play: they could either play to their potential and look like a team ready to fight for a domestic title, or they get steamrolled by SKT and appear to be at the level of SBENU Sonicboom.
We'll check back next week when NaJin do something amazing, then do something incredibly stupid, and then reel you back in by following it up with another impressive performance.
6. KOO Tigers: 1-3 (3-7)
The Tigers' placement here is more through reputation than results. Although they looked good and competitive in their losses this season against a tough early schedule, the Cinderhulk meta has taken KOO from the consensus best team in the world to appearing like a squad that will need to scrap with the middle of the pack to even make the playoffs this season. Wisdom was brought in to give the Tigers a secondary option in the jungle, their starting jungler Hojin not being able to keep up with the shift away from bruiser champions. This hasn't helped at all, as Wisdom struggled in his few starts for the team, and not a surprising result when you take into consideration that Wisdom is another player who thrives with playmaking, bruising champions like Hojin.
It's likely that the Tigers will rack up some much needed wins in the coming weeks against teams at the bottom of the standings, but their goal wasn't to barely make it into the playoffs. KOO's once almost assured dream of participating at Worlds is becoming more of a fantasy by the day, and they'll need to turn it around quick if they don't want to see their amazing first half of the year forgotten by their severe nosedive in the second half.
7. Samsung Galaxy: 1-4 (5-8)
Alright, it's time to start giving some much needed respect to Samsung. They were given a murderer's row lineup to start the season, getting thrown against SKT, Jin Air, and KT in three of their first five matches. Samsung's match record looks weak at the moment, but that could turn around quite soon if they can pick up wins against the likes of Anarchy and Longzhu. The addition of Crown to their stable of mid laners has paid off for the spring split's last placed team, as their new lineup is able to hang with the top teams in Champions (they even took the first game of the season off of SKT). If the spring season was the first step of Samsung's rebuilding process, the first half of this campaign is the new Galaxy lineup starting to learn how to stick and be competitive with the best teams in Korea.
The last step of any rebuilding squad is to go from cannon fodder to competitive with the top teams, and then attempt to achieve the final step of getting to a level where the new kids have learned how to run and win matches against the top dogs. Samsung are improving each time they play under the lights, and they soon might go from being a laughing stock a few months ago from a team that could knock out an inconsistent KOO or NaJin to make the postseason.
8. Longzhu IM: 1-3 (3-7)
When talking about Longzhu, I'd say their most apt description is that they're a junior version of NaJin. They're inconsistent, have a strong team on paper, and at times can look good, but just at a much smaller scale than NaJin. While NaJin have the potential to win the world title if everything aligns and they play up to their potential, Longzhu's ceiling with their current line-up is probably a Top 3 spot in Champions if everything works out. Longzhu are competitive and have upgraded from last season, but that doesn't mean much when teams like Samsung, KT, and NaJin have all gotten better. The only team that has really fallen off compared to last, KOO, are still looking better than the current IM iteration.
Frozen is a bright talent and has the capability to become a world-class mid laner, but you have to wonder if he'll ever get the opportunity to really show his entire array of skills in the Longzhu organization.
9. Anarchy: 1-3 (4-7)
Anarchy didn't play any games this week, following a difficult first two weeks where they had to play their first two matches on the opening two days of the season. The only news from their camp is that apparently Hachani, the former KT Rolster support, is their newly appointed coach, the Champions Korea rules stating that the team needed a head coach to participate. Hachani had a brilliant mind for the game and made electrifying plays as a support with KT, but Anarchy will need to make sure they don't take any tips from him when it comes to running into unchecked bushes in the jungle.
10. SBENU Sonicboom: 0-4 (0-8)
Still without a win. The losses are becoming blowouts after showing promise in the first couple of matches. The rest of the season does not look fun for Sonicboom, their fans, or their sponsor. This is a season where they'll take their lumps, gain valuable experience, and hopefully fall to relegation where they'll show the things they learned by getting beat up by the best teams in the world by destroying hapless amateur teams like Longzhu and Samsung during the most recent qualifiers. There are not going to be a lot of bright spots for Sonicboom this season, but Samsung are proving what can happen if you stick with the plan, take the blowouts as they come, and build on the experience you pick up through being a rookie team.
The All-Champions Team (Week 3)
Top: Duke (NaJin e-mFire)
The regular season MVP from last season, Duke is still one of the topflight players at his position in Korea and one of the most influential players in the region. His play this week gave him his first MVP points of the season, and he helped NaJin pick up a crucial 2-0 win over a middle of the pack rival, Longzhu.
Jungle: Chaser (Jin Air Green Wings)
Chaser wants the title of 'Best Jungler in Korea' and he's doing his fair share to earn that crown, racking up MVP points this past week and pushing Jin Air to a 4-1 record after their first five games of the season.
Mid: Nagne (KT Rolster)
Once a Gragas one-trick pony, Nagne is maturing into a mid laner who can be a main carry on a title contending team. He had a fast rise in his career, making Worlds as a rookie, but then found himself looking for an identity for almost two years before finally returning back to top form with the current KT Rolster team. Faker put on the best single game performance of any mid laner this week, but Nagne was a key reason why KT Rolster were able to escape their series against Longzhu with the win.
AD Carry: CptJack (Jin Air Green Wings)
When it looked like Jin Air were moving away from Jack and giving full-time starting duties to Pilot, the team decided to throw out the veteran in the series against the lower tier rookies from SBENU. It wasn't the highest pressure match or super competitive games, but Jack lifted his team to two quick victories and is making his team know that if Pilot slips at all, the ole' captain is waiting in the wings to lead.
Support: Wolf (SK Telecom T1)
Wolf was criticized heavily for his play at MSI, falling apart against EDward Gaming in the Grand Finals and getting beat out by a rookie support on the opposite side. With Piccaboo not renewing his contract with SKT, Wolf is now the only support in town and is playing like he doesn't need anyone else on the roster to back him up. He played a variety of champions this week: Alistar, Janna, Thresh, and even a game on the scarcely played Braum.
Match of the Week
SK Telecom T1 vs. Samsung Galaxy
A match that would have been a laugh last season turned out to be one of the most fun matches in the early season. Instead of a game that you would have skimmed over the results last season to see SKT crush Samsung, the Spring's last placing team have rebuilt themselves into a pesky, competitive team this time around. The series saw all aspects of SKT's game, using their subs and different position players in all three games, the final piece being Faker in the climactic game with his dominating performance on Viktor.
Samsung weren't able to pull out the victory this time around, but this is a series that you could watch three months from now and see it as the turning point in the Neo Samsung Galaxy. After being the whipping boy of Korea for the first half of 2015, they are now a team that enter each match thinking that they can hang with the best teams and take games off them. Now all they have to do is start taking wins from the top teams in the league and they might be a threat for a top five spot by season's end.
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.