Here we are at last, friends. It's been three months of play, and we're finally at the final few days of the regular season before we start the playoffs to see who gets the honor of facing SK Telecom T1 in the Champions Grand Finals. The top five are already decided heading into our trio of remaining games, with the Jin Air Green Wings bowing out of contention after a turbulent end to the season that saw them lose to bottom of the league teams. All that is left to be decided is how the playoff seeds will shake out, with each of the postseason squads needing the best spot possible in Korea's gauntlet-like playoff structure.
Above them all is SKT T1, the undisputed, defending, and reigning champions of the region, awaiting whomever is strong enough to make it past the tireless battle royal that is the Champions postseason. A direct trip to the World Championships is there for any team that can beat T1 in the finals, but it won't be easy against titans who've already claimed three domestic titles in the past two years.
From nine against one before the split, we are now down to four. In the quartet of challengers for the crown, is there one that can stand toe to toe with the kings and forcefully take their throne? The playoffs are upon us, and it's time to see who will get the chance to slay T1 in three weeks time.
The Champions Hierarchy
1. SK Telecom T1: 16-1 (33-5)
We've run out of adjectives to describe SK Telecom T1's dominance this past year. They rebounded from a disappointing 2014 by keeping their core players during the chaotic off-season, and T1 came into 2015 looking to make a statement. After the Tigers' hot start to the year, the former champions came together with their new roster before winning the spring season in commanding fashion. Summer has been no different, T1 are only getting better as the meta shifted into the favor of their star player Faker in the mid lane, the former Worlds MVP is having one of the best seasons of his career.
Make no mistake, T1 are the heavy favorites to repeat as champions. The league leaders locked up their first place spot two weeks ago and are currently playing more lax, even losing to CJ Entus in their first loss of the season, but don't let that fool you. Whichever team is lucky enough to fight their way to SK Telecom T1 in the Champions Grand Final will have the fight of their lives in front of them.
2. KT Rolster: 13-5 (28-16)
The team with the easiest path to match swords with SKT T1 in the finals are KT Rolster, with the non-playoff squad last season locking up second place this past week. It wasn't easy, KT Rolster experienced an unexpected fright from the relegation-bound Longzhu IM. But, as they've done many times since picking up Piccaboo as their new starting support and one of the team's main shot-callers, KT Rolster fought back from an incredible deficit to turn a lost series into a momentum swinging victory.
KT Rolster are looking better than their championship winning KT Rolster Arrows team of last year, the former having the early-game success of the Arrows, and also possessing the fortitude to comeback from falling behind. Instead of throwing all their eggs into the first ten minutes of the game, KT are now a team that know how to stay calm under pressure, assess a difficult situation, and coordinate getting back into a game where they are facing a large disadvantage.
As second seed in the postseason, KT Rolster are automatically seeded into the semifinals and only need one series victory to make the finals against heated long-time rivals SK Telecom.
3. NaJin e-mFire: 11-6 (25-17)
Ever so quietly, NaJin are nearing their way to a fourth straight trip to Worlds. e-mFire's season couldn't have gotten off to a worse start, the title hopefuls losing in an embarrassing 1-2 series to Rebels Anarchy, an amateur team that lacked a coach, a gaming house, and any sponsors at the beginning of the split. They've come together as the campaign went along, tightening the ranks and fixing the problems that plagued them in a disappointing spring season. Now with only one match remaining against the defending champions T1 to close out the regular season, NaJin still have a chance to snag the 3rd seed if CJ falter in the final week.
No matter if they get the higher seed or are forced to play the KOO Tigers in the opening round of the gauntlet, NaJin are a team to be feared. When they can harness their firepower and put some brains behind their brawn, NaJin are a steamroller that won't be stopped. It can be anyone facing e-mFire in the first round — it really doesn't matter. If they play to their skill level ceiling — something we haven't witnessed fully this past year — no team, maybe not even SKT, can stop them.
KOO or CJ, whichever team they face in their opening playoff match, will need to hope that NaJin don't find the coordination and synergy needed to take their offensive arsenal to the next level.
4. CJ Entus: 12-5 (26-17)
CJ Entus are in a precarious position with only one match remaining. Although they should beat Samsung Galaxy, a team that has nothing to play for, nothing has come easy for CJ this year. They're a team that seemingly enjoys giving their fans heart palpitations, a majority of their victories this season coming in the way of going into the final set against some of the league's weakest teams. Right when you think CJ Entus are turning the corner and on the road to becoming a Summoner's Cup contender after being the first team to beat SKT T1 on the season, they follow it up with lackluster performances against teams like Longzhu IM.
The biggest issue with CJ Entus, besides their constant struggle with being a good team and a bad team, is the jungle position. Ambition is one of the organization's pillars, the last remnant of the CJ Entus Blaze franchise that were the first winners of Champions over three years ago. He's a serviceable jungler, fluctuating between good and looking like he is out of his depth against the league's premiere talent at the position. CJ have Trick in a substitute role that gives them a better presence on the map, but it remains to be seen if CJ, a team known for sticking and believing in their veterans, would discard Ambition in favor of an inexperienced rookie for the playoffs.
5. KOO Tigers: 10-7 (24-16)
Our final playoff team, the KOO Tigers already know their upcoming schedule: a date with SBENU Sonicboom to close out the Champions regular season, and then a match with either CJ Entus or NaJin e-mFire to kickoff the playoffs.
On one hand, the Tigers should be happy, as their late season slide correlated with Jin Air's, the latter's sinking them from playoff contention before the Tigers could fall out of the top five. The bad news for the Tigers is that they'll be entering the first round of the playoffs needing to beat either CJ or NaJin, two teams that if they play their best, have all the weapons to beat KOO in a Best of 5. Not only that, but KOO have routinely shown weakness in pressure matches, first tilting and falling to Team WE at the IEM World Championships, and then getting swept by SK Telecom T1 in the previous split's finals.
KOO are a solid team that have a shot against every team in the league, except for maybe SK Telecom T1. As other teams have grown and matured through the year, the Tigers' potential has plateaued to a point where the current roster might not be able to breakthrough. They'll need to rely on their two world-class players, Smeb and Gorilla, to lead the rest of the team through the perilous gauntlet and secure a rematch with T1 in the finals.
6. Jin Air Green Wings: 10-8 (22-20)
A compilation of errors brought Jin Air down from a top three spot to end the first half of the split to only see them outside of the playoffs with still a few games remaining in the season. As per usual, the Green Wings got off to a hot start, with their rapid roster changes and defensive way of playing stifling the competition. Then, as always, teams started to figure out how to breakdown and punish their lackluster early-game and overthinking style that saw them overplay their hand in the final stretches of the game.
Jin Air are the archetypical team that play too smart for their own good. Numerous times this season, they were in games where they had advantages and only needed to push leisurely into the base to win. Alternatively, Jin Air always took the hardest possible way to the path of winning. They took their glimpses of brilliance and turned them into stupidity in a matter of seconds, falling back into their defensive shell instead of going for the win when their opponent was already down and bleeding.
With Jin Air's season done with no playoffs, relegation rounds, or a chance to qualify for Worlds in the Regional Finals, we can only sit here and wonder if there will ever be a day where the Green Wings fly high instead of crashing violently into the late season ground.
7. Rebels Anarchy: 5-13 (17-29)
8. Samsung Galaxy: 5-12 (14-26)
9. Longzhu IM: 4-14 (12-30)
10. SBENU Sonicboom: 1-16 (8-33)
We ultimately get down to the four teams who've, for all intents and purposes, been out of playoff contention the past two months. Samsung Galaxy technically held onto a slim hope up until two weeks ago, but even an epic slide by the Tigers and Jin Air couldn't save their lukewarm chances. We'll delve more into each team over the next few weeks individually on what went wrong, but for now let's say our final goodbyes to the bottom four that haven't stopped fighting till their last games.
To Samsung, our reigning and now non-defending world champions, we commend you on your season pick up of rookie Crown in the mid lane. He could be one of the better mids given time and a stronger supporting cast. Fury, as he has been since the preseason, is still a great talent that is currently being wasted on a middling squad.
To Rebels Anarchy, the fiery amateur team, thanks for being one of the only teams who aren't afraid to surrender. You play a fast and loose style with a lot of kills, and you aren't afraid to gracefully wave the white flag if you're being murdered. Also, congratulations on avoiding relegation as an amateur team with no sponsors or infrastructure.
To Longzhu IM, the gatekeepers of Korea, I wish you luck in your umpteenth Champions qualifier. You will succeed to make it back into the premiere league by beating up weak Challenger squads before returning to the basement next spring.
To SBENU Sonicboom, Champions' punching bag, remember one thing: you still beat Jin Air and ruined their entire season.
The All-Champions Team (Week 12)
Top: Ssumday (KT Rolster) 17/14/38 in 6 games
Jungle: Winged (Jin Air Green Wings) 1/1/18 in 3 games
Mid: Coco (CJ Entus) 9/2/15 in 3 games
AD Carry: Arrow (KT Rolster) 25/5/37 in 6 games
Support: Wolf (SK Telecom T1) 1/6/27 in 2 games
Tyler "Fionn" Erzberger is a staff writer for theScore eSports who covers the North American LCS and Korea's Champions. You can follow him on Twitter.