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The Road to Worlds: an in-depth look at the KOO Tigers

by theScore Staff Sep 22 2015
Thumbnail image courtesy of KeSPA

Beautiful, intelligent victories.

Ugly, incompetent defeats.

When you watch the KOO Tigers play, you either get one or the other. Korea's second seeded Worlds team is one that prides itself on meticulous preparation and the ability to innovate new strategies that spread throughout the regions. They'll arrive in Europe with the world wondering which squad they’ll see in the opening group stages.

Will it be the team that struggled mightily in the middle of the year and collapsed during IEM Katowice, falling to the LPL’s last placed Team WE in a tournament they were heavily favored to win?

Or will we see the resiliency of the organization that formed at the beginning of the year and took the world by storm, bouncing back at the end of the summer split to secure their spot in the World Championships?

The Road So Far

Six months ago, the then branded GE Tigers were looked at as one of the heavy favorites coming into the World Championships. The Korean region was ransacked during the offseason, as over 20 of their best players moved to various regions (mostly China) by the allure of big money contracts. The Tigers were the first team in the reconstructed league to get their act together. Made up of various players from the NaJin e-mFire and Incredible Miracle organization, the extravagantly dressed team waltzed through the qualifiers to make Korea’s Champions with their team’s individual experience outweighing the younger teams they faced in the competition.

At the helm of the newly created franchise was their coach, Jeong "NoFe" No-chul, a former player who retired after two years of playing the game professionally before returning to coach the Tigers. Although he's not considered one of the region's elite junglers compared to the players like Choi "DanDy" In-kyu and Lee "KaKAO" Byung-kwon, his steely resolve and leadership skills on a youthful NaJin White Shield allowed his final season to end on a high note as they made the Top 8 of the Champions tournament.

Under NoFe, the rest of the team was made up of seemingly rejected players that couldn’t make the cut under the new rule that only allowed each organization to field one team. The biggest misfit of the bunch was their top laner, Song "Smeb" Kyung-ho, a player that slogged through his first few years as a pro-gamer on a consistently losing Incredible Miracle team that never made the playoffs. Smeb performed admirably in his final season on IM, showcasing his carrying talents in the top lane, but it was all swept away by his team’s lackluster performance and loser aura that followed him over to the Tigers.

Even with a team that didn’t have the same talent on paper as some of the region's other squads at the beginning of the 2015 spring split, the Tigers were able to catch fire out of the gates by quickly finding team chemistry. SK Telecom T1 lagged behind for the first half of the spring season while the Tigers pounced on the disjointed teams and tore them apart with their superior preparation and team fighting.

The Tigers didn’t often strike early in the laning phase, routinely falling behind a few hundred or even a thousand gold in a few cases. Everything appeared to be against the Tigers until it got into the 15 to 20 minute mark as the mid-game squad flipped on the switch during the game's first contested dragon and rolled through their opponents with superior team fighting and communication. From there, it was academic — the Tigers would break down the enemy team, destroy the Nexus, and pick up another win in their long-standing streak.

Combat. Communication. Control. Like clockwork, the small lead their opponents grabbed in the first few minutes were instantly negated, and the Tigers knew how to turn those mid-game team fights into clean victories through top notch coaching and preparation.

Everything was going according to plan for Korea’s felines before heading off to Katowice in March to compete in the IEM World Championships. In a weakened field without China’s top team, Edward Gaming, the Tigers were expected to steamroll through the shallow field, claiming and solidifying their spot as the best team in the world through the first quarter of the year. The group stage went as planned for them, first taking down Cloud9 in a one-sided romp and then following it up with another impressive win against SK Gaming.

After winning the first semifinal game against Team WE, the Tigers opted to go with a strategy they hadn’t shown before — putting the usually safe and defensive Lee "KurO" Seo-haeng on Yasuo in the mid lane to be the team’s main carry instead of the team’s ace at the time, Kim "PraY" Jong-in at the AD carry position. The Tigers' free flowing game turned out to be the wrong time to experiment, as the Yasuo pick fell flat in a game where Team WE tied the series up to take the predicted sweep to a deciding third set.

In a game that has defined the Tigers’ international strength up to this point, Team WE rolled over the tournament favorites and knocked the Korean leaders our of the tournament. The Tigers folded under the pressure of a decisive set, tilting from their unexpected loss and reverting from a world-class squad to a team that had no idea what they were doing in the final game. Their usual excellent communication and coordination were nowhere to be found in their last map against Team WE, the team funneling into the top lane to try and grab kills while Team WE did whatever they wanted on the map. By the time the Tigers were finally taken out, the mystique and beauty of their innovation was gone — only an ugly, humiliating defeat left to be remembered from Poland.

The Tigers returned to Korea and still finished atop the regular season standings, but all the fear they had instilled was gone. SK Telecom T1 finally put together the puzzle pieces of their new roster and ended the season as the region’s strongest team, beating the Tigers at the end of the season to set the tone for the playoffs. The two teams would meet once again in the finals of the spring split, and the story was the same as their last meeting: SKT T1’s synergy as a unit finally caught up to their brains and skill, sweeping the Tigers in a match where T1 used substitutes Im "Tom" Jae-hyeon and Lee "Easyhoon" Ji-hoon.

The Current State of the Team

Champions' summer season was one of rediscovery for the Tigers. They rebranded from GE to KOO, switched up their flashy uniforms, and began the season as challengers instead of the front-runners they were after the first two weeks of spring. Summer didn’t go as smoothly for the Tigers as it was another series of successes and failures. KOO started the season slowly, but came alive in the middle to rack up a long winning streak before ending the split on another low note — they barely made the playoffs due to Jin Air’s struggles at the end of the regular season.

Champions’ playoff showcased the revolutionary side of the Tigers. Already down 1-0 in a best-of-three wildcard series against NaJin e-mFire, the Tigers revealed another one of their new compositions that would quickly seep into the arsenal of other regions. Smeb, the team’s star in the summer split, picked up Malphite in the second game of the series which took NaJin by surprise and the hard engaging mountain shaped the series from that point forward. The Tigers picked Malphite on the second and third maps in the match, and they were able to advance to the next round against CJ Entus, completing a sweep in that series.

KT Rolster beat KOO 3-2 in a blind pick match in the semifinals to eliminate the Tigers from the tournament, but KOO got the last laugh by advancing directly to Worlds through circuit points when T1 swept KT in the summer finals. From an island of misfit toys, to being called the best team in the world, to falling on their faces as flukes, and then finally making Worlds, the Tigers’ existence has seen more twist and turns than most teams see in five years.

The Tigers are at their best when they have time to prepare for their opponents. No tournament will be better for the innovators of Korea than the World Championships. Not only do they have three weeks time to prep for every team in their group, they're gifted a new meta to create whatever new strategies they can come up with. NoFe is a master when it comes to pick/ban, winning countless games this year through countering the opposition and/or exploiting weaknesses in the enemy, and an entirely new slate to play on will be his playground to tinker like the crazy mastermind he is to create new strategies to terrorize the teams in Europe.

Smeb has emerged as one of the best top laners in the world and the team's premiere ace, and he'll be the main benefactor of having a strong coach behind him in and a meta that will give him the tools of juggernauts, powerful split pushing tools that will put him in the forefront of the Tigers' methodical, team fighting-centric attack.

Remember, this is the team that brought the 'Juggermaw' composition into power that is still being used frequently today. They were one of the first teams to bring Riven back into professional play. Smeb's Malphite play inspired a variety of different regions picking the towering mountain in their final games of the season.

Win or lose, be prepared to see the Tigers revolutionize the game with the rest of Group A as their potential guinea pigs.

Outlook for Worlds

If the Tigers don't experience a similar blowup like they did in Katowice, Group A should be a clear advancement for KOO. CLG is without their starting jungler, the Flash Wolves are extremely outmatched in the top lane when it comes to Steak vs. Smeb, and paiN, while a team capable of pulling off an upset, are one of the weaker Top 16 teams. KOO is a team that live and die by their strategies and preparation. As long as they don't completely fall to pieces from a single loss, they should get out of the group as the top team with a record of 5-1.

After the groups, it will then become a psychological warfare where KOO will need to most likely need to outwit teams with better offensive talent. Lee "Hojin" Ho-jin and Kim "Wisdom" Tae-wan are a respectful jungle tandem, but neither can be currently considered elite players at their position. With PraY's inconsistent play in the second half of the season and Kuro's steady but not spectacular middle lane play, the only two world-class players you can pick out on the team are Smeb in the top lane and Kang "GorillA" Beom-hyeon, the team's playmaking support that was one of the stars of last year's Worlds on NaJin White Shield.

KOO's mad scientist style of playing different compositions and strategies lead them to exhilarating, meta solving victories or laughably sad, one-sided defeats — don’t expect these tigers to change their stripes on the world stage.

Tyler "Fionn" Erzberger is a staff writer for theScore eSports. You can follow him on Twitter.