Prelude to a Final: SK Telecom T1 vs. ROX Tigers

by theScore Staff Apr 22 2016
Thumbnail image courtesy of KeSPA / LCK Spring 2016

Long before they were the ROX Tigers, the Tigers were a team that formed from the ashes of a 2014-15 offseason that saw organizations cut their redundancies as sister teams forcibly went the way of the dinosaurs.

Casting a long shadow over the many accomplishments that the Tigers garnered in 2015, SK Telecom T1 have proven to be the one hurdle that the Tigers have yet to clear. Not only did the reigning world champions trounce the Tigers in the Spring 2015 Final, but they toyed with them before firmly nailing their coffin closed at the 2015 World Championship Grand Finals. Until this past spring split, the Tigers were a miserable 3-13 against SKT with only their first regular season series going in the Tigers favor.

Now, after a significantly stronger performance in LoL Champions Korea Spring 2016, the Tigers face off against SK Telecom T1 this Saturday, determined to finally best the one team that has always been able to stymie the Tigers regardless of season or meta.

Theirs is the story of post-2014 Korea, and the many challenges the region has undergone since Season 4.

The Birth of the Tigers

No sooner had the confetti touched the stage floor at the Seoul World Cup Stadium celebrating Samsung Galaxy White’s 2014 World Championship victory than whispers and rumors of players vacating the region began. Rising to prominence during what is now seen as Korea’s strongest year, Samsung were the story of 2014. Then, before Season 5 could get underway, Samsung lost all 10 of the players on their White and Blue squads and, to this day, serve as the most prominent example of the mass exodus that saw Korea's top-tier talent leave for China.

Even if Korean teams had matched Chinese prices, there was a significantly reduced amount of space on domestic starting rosters, leading to the weakest split in Korean LoL history. Yet, one team immediately rose above the rest, sweeping through LCK Spring 2015 with an 11-0 undefeated series record until their Week 10 fall to KT Rolster.

With their schoolboy prep chic, Valentine’s Day cat ears, and naturally charming attitudes, the then-GE Tigers were fun, quirky, and irreverent. In spite of a perceived lack of talent — they were led by star support Kang "GorillA" Beom-hyeon but Song “Smeb” Kyung-ho had struggled on Incredible Miracle, Kim “PraY” Jong-in was past his prime, Lee “Hojin” Ho-jin hadn’t amounted to much, and Lee “KurO” Seo-haeng had yet to achieve anything of note — the Tigers clicked before any other roster in LCK Spring 2015. Shoo-ins for the Season IX IEM World Championship title, the Tigers shockingly fell to Chinese bottom-feeder Team WE.

Vowing to never allow their hubris to overwhelm them again, the Tigers returned to Korea humbled prior to the second half of the season. Their renewed determination did little to improve their outlook as Spring Final approached. Meta shifts hurt the Tigers, particularly the arrival of Cinderhulk which stymied many junglers across the world, and the team noticeably faltered in the latter half of the Spring 2015 Split before an embarrassing sweep at the hands of SK Telecom T1 in the Spring Final. The Tigers looked lost and confused while SK Telecom T1, without their star mid laner Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok and starting jungler Bae “bengi” Seong-woong dismantled what had easily been Korea’s best team throughout the regular season in far more humiliating fashion than the Tigers’ IEM defeat.

After a rocky summer split, the rebranded KOO Tigers closed out their season with an unexpected gauntlet run. While they missed the Summer Final, the Tigers earned their World Championship berth thanks to the summer gauntlet, combined with their championship points from the spring season. In spite of being the second seed out of Korea, murmurs and mutterings arose that the Tigers could potentially fail to make it out of groups, as they appeared to be the least impressive of the three Korean teams at the 2015 World Championship. The Tigers were slotted into the narrative of a team that rose above the rest while the region was struggling, but now that other teams had found their stride, couldn’t possibly hope to compete at the same level, especially with the likes of KurO and Hojin weighing the team down.

In an attempt to eschew this storyline, the Tigers became the only team that came close to making a dent in the SKT juggernaut, handing the soon-to-be-crowned 2015 World Champions their only loss in the tournament.

Still, there was never a doubt that SKT would win.

Hanging tough, staying hungry

Unlike the Tigers, SKT got off to a relatively shaky start while exploring the potential of a 10-man roster. They spent the majority of LCK Spring 2015 flexing between their two mid laners — Faker and Lee “Easyhoon” Ji-hoon. It’s natural for a team that gelled quickly, like the Tigers, to rise above the rest immediately. However, come Spring 2015 Finals, SKT had left them in the dust. Come Summer, it wasn’t even a competition.

Following their defeat at the 2015 Mid-Season Invitational at the hands of China’s EDward Gaming, SKT settled on Faker as their primary mid laner, showcasing just how much the best player in the world had grown even in a season’s time.

Prior iterations of SK Telecom T1 K had seen a Faker-centric identity with supportive jungling from bengi and Chae “Piglet” Gwang-jin terrorizing opponents as the team’s secondary carry. This fell apart in 2014 with the advent of double-jungling and side-lane fast-pushes, which rendered bengi’s vision-heavy style ineffective. Faker attempted to pick up the slack, consistently dazzling audiences with flashy outplays, but SK Telecom T1 K did not make it to the 2014 World Championship — one of the organization’s only failures. They suffered no such defeats in 2015, eclipsing the Tigers’ initial start and owning the year both domestically and internationally.

What’s most impressive about Faker is that he has yet to rest on his laurels. Every year, he consistently improves upon what was already a prodigious natural talent. After gritting his teeth on the bench in the spring, Faker became the most self-sufficient mid laner at the 2015 World Championship — receiving the lowest percentage of his team’s gold of any mid laner at the tournament — while bengi turned his attention to Jang “MaRin” Gyeong-hwan in the top lane and AD carry Bae “Bang” Jun-sik cleaned up teamfights.

This year, Faker has firmly conquered yet another obstacle in his path, thoroughly silencing critics who rated Easyhoon’s Azir above his own. Where Easyhoon provided peerless zone and mid lane control with the Emperor of the Sands, presumably earning his starting spot for half of the spring split, Faker’s Azir was found lacking in comparison. Faker’s more recent performances in LCK Spring 2016 will put all thoughts of Easyhoon’s Azir out of mind.

In addition to his continued mastery of various champions that were once thought to be some of the weaker options in his arsenal, Faker has been essential to SKT’s teamfighting this past split. After struggling with bengi for the first half of the season, SKT committed to Kang “Blank” Sun-gu with mixed results. It’s easy to see why bengi would struggle in a meta that favors DPS carry junglers whose pathing is better used for power-farming than placing deep vision. Blank has been alternatively mediocre and good, aided by Faker’s mid lane genius. Due to Faker’s exceptional control of the lane, the map is often more open for Blank than it is for his opponents, allowing him to farm the opposing jungle. Faker also has taken over the crowd-control and utility role in teamfights — once occupied by bengi on the likes of Elise — with his signature Lulu along with Lissandra and Azir among others.

There’s an interesting comparison to be drawn between Faker and ROX Tigers top laner Smeb. This year specifically, both have shown their adaptability to be on par with each other. Smeb’s ability to flip the switch between a carry mindset and tank mindset in the top lane is one of the most impressive displays of in-game intelligence that LoL has ever seen. While other top laners have yet to master one or the other, Smeb is able to adjust his target prioritization, positioning, and laning style immediately to reflect what the team needs of him. This is particularly vital considering that other players on the Tigers are considerably more set in their roles on the team.

Just as Faker adapted his playstyle to a more late-game teamfight facilitator to suit Blank and Bang, Smeb has shown similar flexibility on tanks like Poppy and Nautilus, or more carry-oriented picks of Fiora and Quinn — earlier this spring — alongside his more recent tank Ekko and Ryze.

Jungle/mid synergy

The Tigers' latest attempt to finally beat SKT is also accompanied by a new jungler, Yoon “Peanut” Wang-ho. Where SKT waffled a bit before deciding on Blank come the Season X IEM World Championship and LCK Spring 2016 second round robin, Peanut instantly gave the Tigers’ previously-maligned early game a much-needed boost. Peanut is fearless and the current jungle meta suits him perfectly as he can carry on Kindred, Nidalee, and Graves. His dominion over the opposing jungle is unmatched — the ROX Tigers have the highest jungle control of any LCK team this season at 53 percent — and the one fault to be found in his play is a lack of vision, which is often made up for by intelligent pathing to stalk and murder opponents in their own territory.

By contrast, Blank lacks Peanut’s bloodthirsty nature, innate understanding of where to be on the map, and individual mechanics. Blank is significantly aided by Faker’s mid lane control and target prioritization in teamfights, but Peanut dictates the pace of ROX’s games from the get-go and his jungle control has led to a successful year for mid laner KurO. Once cited as a glaring weakness of the Tigers along with former jungler Hojin, KurO is having a banner season with the highest KDA of any mid laner (7.2) thanks to Peanut's oppressive control of his opponents' jungle. Where Peanut aids KurO from the jungle, Faker aids his jungler Blank from the mid lane. Both pairings explore the new dynamic of mid and jungle in a meta that favors the damage carry from the jungle and a mid that offers waveclear, zone control, and dominion over the creep waves. Peanut unlocks KurO, while Faker is somewhat tied down, tasked with opening up the map for Blank to farm comfortably.

If there was ever a time for the Tigers to finally defeat their nemesis of the past year, this particular meta and a Peanut-led Tigers team is it.

As always, it’s difficult to bet against SKT. They have a peerless infrastructure, decorated coach in Kim “kkOma” Jung-gyun, and the best player League of Legends has ever seen. While the Tigers see SKT as the constant thorn in their side, SKT likely sees the Tigers as another imminent victory. Yet, the Tigers didn’t stumble as significantly this year, come the end of the season. Their coordination remains unparalleled, and their understanding of the metagame has not only seen domestic success, but inspired and molded meta discussions worldwide.

This is the Tigers’ final to lose.

Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore eSports. You can follow her on Twitter.