A New Galaxy: Samsung and Korea in 2016

by theScore Staff Jun 8 2016
Thumbnail image courtesy of KeSPA / LCK Spring 2016

Following their final match of LoL Champions Korea Spring 2016, the members of Samsung Galaxy shuffle awkwardly in their stools. They answer OnGameNet interviewer Cho Eun-jun’s questions as usual, but sit stony-faced when not called upon to give responses.

A few weeks prior, Samsung had all but wrapped up the final spring playoff spot, before dropping both of their Week 12 sets to Longzhu Gaming and SK Telecom T1. This 2-1 victory over Kongdoo Monster signals the end of Samsung’s season, with their Spring 2016 playoff destiny no longer in their hands. “We have to leave it to the heavens now,” jungler Kang “Ambition” Chan-yong tells caster Cho.

The heavens did not smile on Samsung Galaxy, favoring upstart Afreeca Freecs instead, who tore through the second round robin of LCK Spring 2016 with a 7-2 series record, knocking Samsung out of playoff contention with their final victory over CJ Entus, finishing in fifth place.

Sixth place may have been stronger than what most people expected from Samsung prior to the season’s start, yet it’s certainly nowhere near what the team had hoped for. This Kongdoo series came just days before Ambition’s four-year anniversary as a LoL professional. “To be honest, my first thought was, ‘Wow, I really didn’t accomplish a lot over a period of 4 years.’” Ambition said when prodded by caster Cho. “I hope things get better from now on and, yeah, I hope I can accomplish more.”

Now in LoL Champions Summer 2016, Samsung Galaxy have started strong, setting out to restore the Samsung name — once synonymous with victory — to prominence. Samsung are currently undefeated in LCK Summer, kicking their season off with a 2-0 sweep of the ROX Tigers before sweeping their LCK Spring 2016 adversary Afreeca and MVP.

“I think we should be able to beat everyone, at least, judging from the way I feel right now,” new Samsung AD carry Park “Ruler” Jae-hyuk said in a post match interview with SpoTV. “And I think we might even get to the World Championship if we’re good.”

The World Championship is undoubtedly something on the minds of Samsung’s players and coaches alike. Once one of the most feared organizations in the world, Samsung’s stock fell considerably after both of their sister teams White and Blue were gutted following Samsung Galaxy White’s 2014 World Championship victory. Rumors had White support Cho “Mata” Se-hyeong and Blue AD carry Kim “Deft” Hyuk-kyu signed to Chinese organizations before White’s players lifted the Summoner’s Cup onstage after their 3-1 win over Star Horn Royal Club. All ten starting players from both Samsung teams left Korea for Chinese teams, and the organization struggled throughout 2015 with the departure of their players and majority of their coaching staff. This past spring marked a turning point for Samsung, even with their sixth-place finish, and their current team looks to build upon this with their undefeated start, en route to what will hopefully end in a spot at the 2016 World Championship.

“Samsung’s momentum is extremely good,” SK Telecom T1 AD carry Bae “Bang” Jun-sik told Inven recently. “But I’m still confident. I think we’re slightly better. And I’m also just as excited because it’s a battle against a team in really good form.”

A joke among Western fans is that only a Samsung team can stop an SK Telecom T1 team. Among their countless domestic and international achievements, SK Telecom T1 #2 — “Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok’s team” — stamped the world championship as Korea’s to lose with their 3-0 sweep of China’s Royal Club in the Season 3 Worlds Final. The Season 3 League of Legends World Championship was Korea’s official coming out party to the worldwide fandom — something that would have happened a year prior had it not been for those meddling Taipei Assassins.

It’s no surprise that what followed was the year of Korea. SKT’s championship victory firmly established the region as the most competitive, resulting in an influx of western viewership and increased discussion of Korean LoL within English-speaking fan circles. When now-veteran fans of Korean LoL look back on their favorite region’s storied history, it’s 2014 that is most revered — the last year of sister teams and the rise of the Samsungs. SKT has had utter dominion over LoL Champions Korea and the region’s post-sister team world since LCK’s inception in Spring 2015, causing 2014 to become a sepia-tinged fan retreat of better, more competitive, times.

Samsung Galaxy as the teams’ primary sponsor suffered a rather inauspicious debut. At the same Season 3 World Championship that crowned SKT for the first time, Samsung Galaxy’s Ozone team, a favorite to make a deep run, shockingly bombed out in the group stages. Superstar mid laner Bae “dade” Eo-jin had a particularly bad showing, leaving his tenuous status as one of the best mid laners to play the game a hotly-debated subject to this day.

On Sept. 7, 2013, Samsung Electronics bought Ozone, and their sister team Blue, from the MVP organization, days before Ozone was to compete at the Season 3 World Championship. Ozone expressed a fair amount of arrogance going into the tournament, exemplified by jungler Choi “DanDy” In-kyu’s assertion that no Korean team would lose to a foreign team. They subsequently paid for this hubris.

Placed in a group with Europe’s Fnatic and Gambit Gaming, International Wildcard representative Mineski and North America’s Team Vulcun, Ozone appeared shaky throughout the group stages. Dade was their most noticeable underachiever and bore the brunt of the criticism, but the entire team appeared out of sync. Only new top laner Jang “Looper” Hyeong-seok performed well — a somewhat ironic occurrence considering that he stepped in for their veteran leader, top laner Yoon “Homme” Sung-young. They dropped both games to Fnatic and split 1-1 with Gambit, resulting in a one-game tiebreaker where Gambit shut the door on Ozone’s World Championship hopes.

Samsung Ozone returned to Korea disgraced while SK Telecom T1 K minted their dominance with an undefeated season in Champions Winter 2013-14. SKT T1 K’s opponents in the Winter 2013-14 Finals? None other than Ozone, who the reigning world champions promptly swept 3-0, winning back-to-back OGN titles.

What followed for Samsung Galaxy remains the most astute roster move in League of Legends history. Samsung coach Choi Yoon-sang swapped dade from Ozone (later called White) to Blue, moving Blue’s Heo “PawN” Won-seok to Ozone prior to Champions Spring 2014. PawN was exactly what White needed — another steady hand alongside Looper at the center of a team of strong egos that included DanDy, Mata and AD carry Gu “imp” Seung-bin.

An intricate dance between the two sister teams began, spanning both Champions Spring and Summer 2014, overtaking the region. White and Blue developed unique identities, a result of their continuous scrimming and forced separation. Encouraged to seek out their own strategies, the Samsung sisters had different staff for each team.

“If two teams have the same style, their strengths and weaknesses would be the same too, in that case there would be no point of having sister teams,” Samsung coach Choi told Ironforum in an interview. “For example one team’s strength is in vision control, macro game, and the other team’s strength is using the ban and picks to take care of fights, in this way the two teams would actually have a good reason to scrim against each other.” Ozone/White and Blue met in the 2014 Spring and Summer semifinals, with Blue besting Ozone/White 3-1 both times.

As Samsung rose, SKT fell. SK Telecom T1 K lost 3-1 to Ozone in the Champions Spring 2014 quarterfinals. The two teams met again in the Summer 2014 semifinals with identical results. Meanwhile, the organization’s lesser sister, SK Telecom T1 S, surprisingly outperformed Faker’s K come Summer 2014 by making it to the semifinals before falling in a close 3-2 to the eventual champions, the KT Rolster Arrows.

Running concurrently to Champions Spring and Summer was 2014 LoL Masters — a tournament that pitted organization against organization with both sister teams playing one game each, followed by a third “masters” game where any assembly of that organization’s players could be chosen. Unsurprisingly, SKT and Samsung faced each other in the finals, with Samsung taking home the trophy. By the end of Korea’s domestic year, Samsung claimed both of Korea’s automatic qualifications to the 2014 World Championship while SKT failed to get K through the regional qualifier. The end result was a Summoner's Cup to Samsung White.

Due to what is now dubbed “The Korean Exodus” — a mass relocation of the majority of the region’s top-tier talent to China and other regions in the 2014-15 offseason — it’s difficult to remember that Samsung Galaxy were technically the reigning world champions throughout 2015. Their initial roster for the rebranded LoL Champions Korea league — previously the OGN Champions tournament — consisted of top laner Lee “CuVee” Seong-jin, Seo “Eve” Jun-cheol, mid laner Park “BlisS” Jong-won, AD carry Lee “Fury” Jin-yong and support Kwon “Wraith” Ji-min.

On paper, this was a group with a fair amount of rising talent. BlisS had previously been known as the solo queue phenom “Bell Park.” Wraith had spent time substituting for SKT T1 K support Lee “PoohManDu” Jeong-hyeon in Champions Spring 2014 as “Casper,” and looked strong, albeit not the veteran voice that PoohManDu brought to K. Formerly called “ZetNjin,” Fury was cited as one of the region’s strongest, up-and-coming AD carry talents.

On the Rift, Samsung flopped. Their talent had no direction in-game, and were never able to coordinate their efforts, despite the occasional herculean carry performance from bot lane duo Fury and Wraith. With a 2-12 series record, Samsung finished in last place in LCK Spring 2015, their only wins coming against second-to-last place Incredible Miracle and a disappointing NaJin e-mFire.

Samsung fared better in LCK Summer 2015, with the arrival of mid laner Li “Crown” Min-ho, who provided much-needed stability to the mid lane that BlisS and his eventual spring substitute Kim “Ace” Jin-hoon had failed to provide. Where BlisS had not seen success on anything but his signature Fizz, Crown’s preferred champion pool consisted of more zoning and waveclear mages that held the lane better, even in their losses. Samsung still struggled to put together victories and finished 6-12, a distant seventh place from the sixth-place 10-8 Jin Air Green Wings.

Enter Ambition: the legacy Korean mid laner who had role-swapped to the jungle position in 2015. Despite the loss of AD carry Fury in the 2015-16 offseason, the acquisition of Ambition brought much-needed direction to Samsung. “I definitely feel the difference,” top laner CuVee told Inven of Ambition’s arrival. “We were lacking in shot calling and macro play, not individual skill. Ambition solved this problem when he joined the team.”

Nearly all of Samsung’s team statistics improved from Summer 2015 to Spring 2016, especially in their warding and jungle control. Ambition became one of the region’s strongest powerfarming junglers with the second-highest CS differential at 10 minutes (4.0) and highest CS per minute (4.9) of all junglers in LCK Spring 2016. Yet, the team was occasionally trapped in longer battles during their wins, dragging out the game until they recognized a win condition, even if they hadn’t seen it earlier in the match. The most critical player of their performance was Ambition himself, even after their wins. “I honestly don’t know why we keep getting these long, drawn-out games myself,” the Samsung jungler said in a broadcast interview. “But I don’t think I was particularly impressed with our macro play.”

Driven to facilitate his team’s improvement, it’s no wonder that Ambition and his teammates looked a bit downtrodden after that win over Kongdoo. “We don’t have a clear idea of whether or not we will be a part of the playoffs right now,” AD carry Jo “CoreJJ” Yong-in said. The next day, Afreeca swept CJ Entus, completing their second round robin Cinderella run to the Spring 2015 playoffs and leaving Samsung behind.

Samsung Galaxy Blue rose to prominence as a phenomenal late-game teamfighting team. Samsung Galaxy White bludgeoned opponents with their strong lanes, coordinated by jungler DanDy and support Mata. After struggling to find their footing, the current Samsung Galaxy is now a team that prioritizes map objectives above all else and have jumped out to an undefeated start in LCK Summer 2016 thanks to their dedication in securing objectives. Samsung has the second-highest first Dragon rate at 67 percent, and the third-best dragon control rate in Korea, showing a strong priority on the new elemental dragons that help their late game.

The other factor in Samsung’s summer 2016 rise has been their new AD carry, Ruler. Formerly of Challengers Korea’s Stardust, Ruler has displayed impressive mechanics that he hadn’t shown in Challengers, propelling Samsung’s teamfighting to greater heights. By his side is Wraith, who has had a few stunning Nami and Braum performances this season, continuing to make his case as one of the best supports in Korea. “He seems to think that he has a bigger responsibility than compared to the Spring season,” Ambition said in a post-match OGN interview. “He tries to do more, and you can’t help but improve when you’re like that.” The final piece to the Samsung puzzle is Crown, whose champion pool is currently in meta, allowing him to dazzle audiences on Varus and Viktor.

Now Samsung prepares to face SKT who, if initial impressions are correct, are currently looking at an unhindered path to another domestic title. The current Korean landscape has road paved by the strongest coaching staff in the region, unchanged since the days of K and S. It's just a regular season match, but it has further-reaching implications and no small amount of pride on the line. Prior to the sister team merger, Samsung (including their time as MVP) were a collective 19-19 against the SKT organization; however, take out Blue's 3-7 record and Ozone/White stands as the only team to have a winning record against SKT at 13-11 (the remaining wins and loss coming as a team in Masters). Since the sister team merger and change to a league format in 2015, Samsung have yet to win an SKT series with an abysmal 2-12 overall game record.

Following their victory over the Jin Air Green Wings on Wednesday, Crown admitted in his post-match interview that he doesn't have a lot of hope that they'll win. This came after a close 2-0 sweep of Jin Air, where an ill-timed early baron call nearly cost Samsung the game. Samsung had to play their composition nearly perfectly and teamfight their way back from a large gold deficit — an unlikely scenario aided by Samsung's own precision and Jin Air AD carry Na "Pilot" Woo-hyung's poor positioning.

Samsung Galaxy aren't perfect. They will make mistakes that then require them to play flawlessly for stretches of time in order to win, but they have yet to lose. It's these pockets of brilliance that SKT will have to defend themselves against. After all, if anyone can unseat an SK Telecom T1 team from the throne, it's a Samsung team.

Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore esports. She too misses the Samsung sister teams (and sister teams in general). You can follow her on Twitter.