Fnatic's dynasty ended after the 2014 season. Following three straight EU LCS championships against three different challengers, the empire clad in orange and black fell to their rivals, Alliance, in the summer season finals. The former world champions still qualified for the World Championships as Europe's second seed, but they experienced even more strife during the group stages.
Fnatic's run at Worlds last year was a massive disappointment for the franchise, having already won the entire competition back in 2012 and making the semifinals the year prior. They had glimpses of good play, being the only team to upset one of the tournament leaders, Samsung Blue, in the first match they played together, but the group stage ended with them owning a sub-par two victories and a one-way ticket back to Europe. Their rematch loss to Blue served as the last time we would see xPeke wear his iconic jersey as he left to create an organization that would later be known as Origen.
Everyone's departure from the starting roster, besides YellOwStaR, left the former golden organization in ruins. The European region failed to deliver at Worlds on a whole, as all three of their squads failed to make it to the quarterfinals. Rekkles had left to join the team that beat them in the European finals. xPeke, the face of the franchise, took Soaz on his new journey. Left to rebuild the team, it was finally time for YellOwStaR to begin his own quest in bringing back the pride to Fnati--
Wait, wait, wait.
This story about the charismatic and flashy Korean top lane rookie started before this part.
The tale of Huni begins back when Fnatic's manager, Oliver Steer, traveled to Korea a month before the 2014 World Championships to learn more about South Korea's infrastructure and to see how eastern team houses operated. His trip to the mecca of eSports brought him to the Samsung house, which was known for housing one of the top franchises in the country. Before getting into League of Legends, Samsung found success in the StarCraft: Brood War scene, producing talents such as Jangbi and Stork, two of the best Protoss players in the game's history. Their lineage continued when League became the most watched and played game in the country, as Samsung scooped up both MVP White and Blue organizations before the 2013 Worlds.
At the Samsung house, which encompassed separate floors for their StarCraft II squad, League of Legends professional teams, and the League practice players, Oliver met with one of those trainee players: a brazen and confident mid laner that was considered to be one of the rising talents in the Korean amateur scene. His name was Heo "Huni" Seung-hoon, who at the time was playing as a practice partner alongside the likes of Dignitas' Gamsu and KT Rolster's Piccaboo. Samsung, having the consensus two strongest teams in the world, had a wealth of riches in their farm system and had players on their training squad that could have been all-stars already in other regions.
Huni, even as a practice player, showed confidence that would eventually lead him to stardom in Europe. He told Oliver that he didn't believe that the 2014 Fnatic squad had much of a chance competing at the World Championships. This led to a situation you'd only think happened in overdramatized television shows: Huni, along with four other members from the Samsung training squad, faced off against Fnatic in a series of scrimmages to see if the Korean amateur could back up his big words.
"And pretty much these random five solo queue guys, four times in a row, just took a dump on Fnatic within 20 minutes. They just annihilated us," Steer told Red Bull eSports. "And this Huni kid, in front of my eyes, I watched him play sOAZ, and he was winning!"
The cocky amateur and his band of training partners wiped the floor with one of Europe's top teams. Subsequently, that same Fnatic team would fall apart at the World Championships, and Huni would be on his way to Europe — but not on Fnatic. Samsung was allegedly putting together a team of their topflight practice players to send to the European LCS to rise through the ranks alongside xPeke's fledgling Origen. They were to be named Samsung Red, and they were going to consist of Gamsu in the top lane, Amel (now in China) at jungler, Huni as mid lane, and the pair of Skatch (Unlimited Potential) and Piccaboo in the bottom lane. Samsung's plan was to challenge the minor leagues of Europe, destroy the western from the ground up, and eventually make it to the 2015 World Championships after qualifying for the EU LCS in the summer split.
Unfortunately for Samsung, their master plan to take over Europe was thwarted even before Huni and the rest of Samsung Red could move overseas. Riot created a "region lock" of sorts that allowed teams to field only two non-residential players, making the proposed Samsung Red squad nothing more than an alternate timeline where Huni and his Korean comrades face off against the likes of Origen, YellOwStar's Fnatic, and the rest of Europe's top teams. With Riot messing up Huni's plan to rule over Europe and the Korean exodus happening only a few months later, the Korean amateur went to the only stable team in the region during the roster turnovers: SK Telecom T1.
SK Telecom T1 missed the World Championships after winning the 2013 title, and went into the offseason with a chip on their shoulder. They had already cut their bottom lane of Piglet and PoohMandu and the team wasn't done trying to sign the best possible talent before the 2015 season. T1 held tryouts to fill their starting spots and bench players, wanting a team that could adapt and be flexible regardless of the situation. If one starting player slumped, they wanted the option of having another elite player on the bench to bring in to make sure that they would make it back to the world stage.
It was a survival of the fittest tryout, leaving only a couple of players left at each position following rigorous training to see who was strong enough to play for the the most decorated organization in South Korea. Those players were allowed to come into SKT T1's gaming house to see if they could acclimate with the team, and eventually became one of their players for the 2015 season.
From all of the people who tried out, these were the players who were able to survive and make it into the house:
- Top Lane: Huni, Smeb
- Jungle: Reignover, Rush
- Mid Lane: Scout
- AD Carry: Fury
- Support: Piccaboo
After playing in the SKT T1 house for a week, the only player they decided to select to be on their opening day roster was Piccaboo. Smeb would go on to join the KOO Tigers and eventually have his own crazy story that has resulted in a semifinals berth against the player he was competing with. Scout, one of the best amateur players in Korea, stayed with T1 as a practice player and eventually started showing up to games in the summer season as a bench player.
For Huni, it was once believed that he had failed the test like the other top talent that couldn't make it through the final round of playing in T1 house. But, at MSI, he opened up about his experience and tried to set the record straight:
"People believe I failed to qualify for SKT T1," Huni said in an interview with Inven back in May. "The truth is, I made it in but I decided not to join. Even during the tryouts I thought I did better [than MaRin]."
As he was when Fnatic's manager talked to him for the first time, Huni was steady in his confidence of his own abilities. After getting to know Reignover during the T1 trials and neither having a team, Huni would find himself back with the team that he dismantled with his Samsung comrades before the Fnatic empire came crashing down only a month later. YellOwStar, needing a new team with his former comrades gone, decided to sign the Korean pair that tried out for SK Telecom T1 weeks before, bringing them over to Germany for the spring split of the EU LCS.
The new Fnatic was a gigantic question mark heading into the regular season. YellOwStaR was a known quantity, but everyone else was a mystery. Fnatic had two Korean players, one of them an amateur and the other having the nickname 'GameOver' due to his poor performance in professional games up to that point. They also had two European rookies making their premiere league debuts, Febiven, the highly sought after mid laner who helped H2k Gaming get into the LCS before leaving them, and France's Steeelback at the AD Carry role.
Although they got off to a quick start and did well in the spring season, finishing 13-5 in the regular season, it was obvious to see that Fnatic was a work in progress. They played less like a team and more like a group of individuals that could work together sometimes but would rather win through their own devices. Huni and Reignover had a chemistry due to their history together and being able to communicate in the same language, and the rest of the team merely followed them each time they decided to play aggressive and jump into a fight.
Huni connected to the fans during the spring season with his offensive abilities, becoming renowned for his Rumble and Lissandra play. Similar to his personality, Huni played like he always believed he was stronger than his opponents. Regardless if it was three-on-one or all five members coming after Huni, he would jolt in, start off an engagement, and do as much damage as humanly possible with Reignover backing him up and his new European teammates coming from behind to continue the chaotic skirmish. His wild play, endearing interviews, and joking personality made Huni one of the most popular players in the European LCS, solidifying himself as a true member of the rebuilt Fnatic.
Over the past year, Huni has gone from a relative unknown practice partner to one of the elite top lane carries in the world. When Fnatic needs a reliable carry to help them achieve victory...they call on Febiven. But, when the team needs a lighting rod to take over the game with supreme confidence, that's when Huni becomes unstoppable. It's a double-edged sword with the Korean top laner. When Reignover or the rest of his team can get him a lead in the lane phase and jump start his carrying ways, Huni is legitimately one of the best players in the world. However, when Huni falls behind or makes a mistake that hurts his team, that's when he can still show his immaturity as a pro-gamer and rely too heavily on his mechanical skill. He'll give up a kill early and then burn his teleport offensively to try and even up the score with his lane opponent in a losing matchup instead of playing safe, growing slowly, and ultimately winning through attrition.
Ironically, the player that Huni reminds me most of is the one player that SK Telecom T1 actually chose from the survival tryouts and was also slated to play alongside Huni on Samsung Red: Piccaboo. Both players, when their aggression and fiery offensive plays works, are incredible. They take over a game with their playmaking potential and push the tempo to their team's favor. Before the other team can even get a grip on the game, Huni or Piccaboo's team is already up a massive amount of gold and the opponent's base is about to be taken. The issues come when either of the two Korean players are stymied in the early-game and their overconfidence gets the best of them.
We saw Piccaboo's downfall in the semifinals against the KOO Tigers, the team led by Smeb that Huni will have to face in the semifinals. Piccaboo, even after being caught out and getting punished for his overzealous plays, never stopped trying to make the big play when all his team needed was a solid performance to win a game. Against Smeb in the semifinals, Huni will be at the forefront when it comes to ways either Fnatic can win or lose. If Huni plays like Piccaboo did against KOO and gets frustrated if Smeb beats him in-lane and kills him — which honestly isn't out of the realm of possibility seeing how well Smeb handled Ssumday in the quarterfinals — then Fnatic could be looking at a situation where Huni continually feeds to Smeb by trying to even the scoreline and ends up making it worse.
Huni is undoubtedly a star. He's transcended barriers by becoming one of Europe's biggest stars as a rookie Korean player with not-fluent English. While we've seen other Korean players move to new countries in the past year and fail miserably by not connecting with the fans or their teammates, Huni has become one of Fnatic's key players and reasons why they've made it so far in this tournament. His next test will be to see if he can keep his calm in a match where he isn't instantly stronger than his opponent in terms of mechanics. Back before the year started, Smeb and Huni were both considered strong enough mechanically to make it into the T1 house.
Now we'll see if Huni can take down the man that T1 thought was equal to him, and then possibly take down the organization that didn't think he was good enough to be their starting player.
In true Huni fashion, I'm sure he's ready for the upcoming challenges — and ready to carry, dominate, and win.
Tyler "Fionn" Erzberger is a staff writer for theScore eSports. You can follow him on Twitter.