In the summer of 2012, the first Champions split finals for that season were held. It would turn out to be one of the most exciting series in the infancy of League of Legends as an eSport.
The foreigners from Europe, CLG.eu, pushed to an early 2-0 lead against Korea's current kings, Azubu Frost, even forcing Frost to wave the white flag and surrender on the first map. Azubu would fight back to take the final three games to complete the reverse sweep, starting the grand legacy of Champions Summer finals.
The next year would bring us the meeting of SK Telecom T1 and KT Rolster, rivals for almost a decade in eSports, playing in their first grand finals against each other in League. A stylistically-differing final, it pitted T1's incredible mechanical prowess versus the Bullets' unrelenting constriction of objectives through teamwork. As with the CLG.eu vs. Frost final from the year before, it was another case where a team got out to an early 2-0 series lead before getting reverse swept. This time it was T1 who fought back from behind, adapting mid-series to counter KT's fast turret pushing strategy to take home the trophy.
Last year, the KT Rolster organization made it back to the finals, this time with the offense-minded KT Arrows. They faced off against Samsung Galaxy Blue in the grand finals, the reigning champions from the previous season looking to repeat.
It was a battle of the two best team-fighting squads in South Korea and possibly the world, as both went back and forth throwing punches until it came down to the final, fifth map. Unlike against T1 the previous summer, KT won this time around, with the Arrows prevailing in another series that has gone down as one of the best in the game's now five-year history.
Tonight, the fourth chapter in the history of summer Champions grand finals will be written. It'll be the return of the two organizations that have now battled for over a decade in eSports: the 2013 champions, SK Telecom T1, and the 2014 winners, KT Rolster. On the line for KT Rolster is a place at Worlds; it would mark the first time the historic organization has ever made it there, as neither the KT Bullets or Arrows advanced through the Regional Final qualifiers in 2013 or 2014.
For SK Telcom T1, who are already qualified for a shot at the Summoner's Cup, their goals for this final is to take the top seed in South Korea going into October's tournament, and — perhaps more importantly — to stop their rivals from catching up to them once more.
SKT T1 and KT Rolster have been around as eSport franchises since the early 2000's, both groups starting out as StarCraft: Brood War teams. Back then, KT Rolster were named the KTF MagicNs, their colors green and orange instead of the red you see them wear today. SKT T1 were the golden team back in the days of Brood War, with KTF trying to catch up by buying big name stars and trying to assemble the best talent possible, but T1 always one step ahead of them. The two teams met in a Proleague grand final back in the summer of 2005, with a crowd of over 50,000 people standing in attendance to watch the greatest rivalry in Korean eSports.
Tonight, SKT will attempt to what hey did one decade ago: beat KT Rolster in front of a thunderous crowd and keep one step in front of their arch-rivals, not looking back on their way to the World Championship in Europe. KT Rolster, who roared back in the late 2000's to take a few finals off of SKT T1 in StarCraft to even up the score, are looking to do the same tonight. They lost in a heartbreaking final two years ago that kept the Bullets from qualifying for Worlds, and tonight is the night where they want to correct that.
There will be a trophy. Fans will be screaming their lungs out. KT can finally attend Worlds. SKT T1 can become back-to-back champions and bring home their fourth Champions title.
Forget all of that.
A trophy will be nice to look at, but the glimmer of the metal will fade.
A trip to Worlds is great, but it only matters if you win the Summoner's Cup in the end.
SKT Telecom T1 vs. KT Rolster isn't about shiny props, trips to international events, or extravagant celebrations. This rivalry was a pillar before League, and it will continue on after League of Legends is no longer the most-watched eSport in South Korea. No matter what the next big game kids are playing and excited about in a decade, the war will never change:
SK Telecom will want to beat KT to prove they're the best.
And KT will want to beat SKT to prove they're the best.
SK Telecom T1 enter the finals tonight with nothing to lose, but the chance to gain immortality as the champions of both splits in spring and summer in Champions. When you look at their roster from top to bottom, there are little weaknesses that you can exploit.
Marin, the captain of the team, can play a variety roles for the team — utility, tank, primary engage, secondary carry, and even the lone ace in terms of damage output if the composition calls for it. He started out his career as a prized prospect, considered to be the second coming of his future teammate Faker; Marin's individual abilities were heralded as he climbed the ranks of Korean solo queue to become number one. That perception of Marin quickly changed when he made his pro-gamer debut, joining the stout and defensive SK Telecom T1 S, and mainly playing tanks like Renekton instead of being a carry.
Since moving from T1 S to the combined SKT T1 squad of 2015, he's been able to bring a bit more flair to his play. He's now a jack-of-all-trades when it comes to how he can play, his shot calling and leadership maturing as the year has gone along. With the team's two shot callers being Faker and Marin, the two most flexible players on the squad, it allows T1 to play a wide array of compositions that can take the other team off their game.
When looking at T1's dominant summer regular season, their two biggest strengths are their early-game prowess and their macro ability over the map in the late-game. Even compared to teams like KT and NaJin that pride themselves on being strong in the lane phase, SKT T1 are the best team in Korea at the 15 minute mark.
They're routinely up over a 1,000 gold and can switch into their objective game that allows them to quickly snowball their early advantages into quick wins. If you hand SKT T1 a lead early, or allow Faker to get a kill in the lane phase, the game is, for all intents and purposes, over.
SKT T1 can stretch their lead into control of the entire map before steamrolling into the enemy base to destroy their Nexus.
If you were to pick something that can beat T1, it would be their team fighting. Individually, they're a great team and can play well when it comes to making the correct, rapid decision calls, but their strong point isn't when they fight 5v5 against elite teams. They lost to EDward Gaming back at the Mid-Season Invitational, and the team that gave them the most trouble in Korea this year was CJ Entus, a team that relies heavily on their experience and cohesion.
Not that T1 is necessarily bad at team fighting per se, but when you look at a team that is almost perfect at every facet of the game, it's the best chance for teams to beat them. CJ Entus, a team that was wildly inconsistent all year and got blown out in the playoffs 3-0 by the KOO Tigers, were the only team to beat SKT in the summer regular season, and they almost beat them last split in the spring semifinals.
Other than that, SKT T1 are nearly flawless when it comes to making the right calls, winning their lanes with individual talent, and knowing their win conditions depending on the situation. Faker, as he was back in 2013, is atop of his game and the best mid lane in all of South Korea, but has improved mightily when it comes to making calls along with Marin and being one of the voices on the team.
SK Telecom T1 from two years ago was a group of five players who were technical marvels. The SKT T1 now have the same level of mechanical talent that team had, but the addition of a smarter, older Faker at the helm, and a much better macro game that lets them come from behind if they don't outright destroy the team in the first 15 minutes.
If the current T1 team is a souped up version of their 2013 squad, then the same can be said about the KT Rolster team heading into the finals compared to the champion Arrows of last year.
I know — the first thing you will point out that KaKAO and Rookie, the two star players of the Arrows that left for China in the off-season, are much better individually than their new counterparts Score and Nagne. And I agree, yes, on a purely technical level, KaKAO was a better jungler than Score, and Rookie, even as a green, inexperienced player, was still better at the end of 2014 than Nagne's current form.
But, while the jungle and mid talent-wise might have been better back in 2014 individually, the team is a vast improvement from the Arrows of last year. The same early-game pressure and aggression is still there from the current KT squad, coming in only behind SKT T1 when it comes to being ahead at the 15 minute mark, but they're much more now than just a team that can knock someone out in the lane phase.
Back in 2014, the Arrows were a boom or bust team. If KaKAO could get a successful gank off or one of the players could grab an early kill, the game was sealed for the Arrows. There was no team better back in 2014 than the Arrows at getting the first kill, snowballing that into even more deaths for the opposing team, and breaking down the doors of an opponent's base by the 20 minute mark.
The problem was, if the Arrows didn't get that initial first kill or failed on their blitzkrieg style, their shot calling and play from behind was abysmal. Instead of being the team breaking down the opposing base at 20 minutes, they were on the other end of the one-sided blowout, not knowing what to do if their one punch knockout strategy didn't come to fruition.
The Arrows' style led them to being able to beat Samsung Galaxy Blue in a fantastic Champions final last summer, but it also hurt them in the Regional Finals to make Worlds. They weren't able to get out to fast starts against NaJin White Shield, and the defending champions got blown out of qualifying for the Summoner's Cup in embarrassing fashion.
That has changed ever since KT Rolster brought in former T1 support Piccaboo to take over the starting support role at the start of the second-half of the split. He's stepped in and given this new Rolster squad the belief that even if they fall down 5k gold at the 20 minute mark, that if they can play smart, stall out the game, and set-up a team fight in the late-game, that they can win any game the team plays. Piccaboo's taken KT Rolster from a team that had difficulties making decisive calls to a team that can make miracles happen, routinely coming back from difficult situations to pull out victories that they would have lost in 20 minutes last year.
Score and Piccaboo have been the main shot callers for the team since the switch in the support role, the two players linking up to make one of the most formidable duos in the league. Arrow, accustom to playing in the lane alone while Piccaboo roams around the map from their Xenics Storm days, gives KT Rolster the advantage to be proactive on the map from the get-go. Couple that with the evolution of Ssumday from a bench player in the 2013 summer finals to the MVP of the 2015 summer split, KT Rolster are a team that has matured throughout the past two years.
In 2013, the Bullets were a team with an immense defense and ability to work their surroundings into a weapon.
In 2014, the Arrows were a squad with an unbelievable offense that had enough firepower to beat any team in the world on any given day.
KT Rolster of 2015 is a team that combine bits and pieces of both of those summer finalist teams. While they are a lot more comparable to the Arrows of last year; even with two of those players on the current roster, they've improved their all-around game to be able to play at a top level in every facet of the game.
After three years of waiting, the dream could finally be over. A chance to battle for the Summoner's Cup is only three victories away, and KT can make it to their first Worlds in the best way possible: defeating SKT T1, and proving that KT, not SKT, are the best Telecom in all of South Korean eSports.
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.