We Are No. 2, So We Try Harder: the Tigers and SK Telecom T1

by Emily Rand Aug 7 2016
Thumbnail image courtesy of KeSPA / LCK Summer 2016

130 wins, 49 losses.

This impressive 73 percent win rate belongs to the ROX Tigers and spans four seasons — since LoL Champions Korea was established in Spring 2015.

Remove one team from the equation, and the Tiger’s win rate improves to an oppressive 80 percent — a 123-31 total game record across four domestic seasons against every team outside of SK Telecom T1.

Against SKT, the Tigers are 7-18, with two LCK Finals losses and a meager 28 percent win rate.

Friday, July 5, 2016 marked another regular season title for the Tigers. With a 2-0 victory over the Afreeca Freecs, the Tigers clinched the first-place spot and an automatic playoff bye to the LCK Summer 2016 Finals. The LCK have had a total of three finals series and after the upcoming LCK Summer 2016 Finals, the Tigers will have been to three out of four.

They’ve lost twice in the LCK finals, both times to SKT. The imminent summer 2016 finals seem almost reserved for the Tigers and SKT — SKT has made it to all three LCK Finals prior and won every single one.

After their sweep of Afreeca, closing out their season, Tigers mid laner Lee “KurO” Seo-haeng joked that he’d love to see Afreeca in the finals before saying that he wanted to “fight SKT one more time and take first place in the LCK,” on broadcast.

“We had set our top priority as winning the World Championship rather than the finals,” Tigers AD carry Kim “PraY” Jong-in told inven after their win. “I’m extremely delighted that we got to qualify for both. I don’t know who’s coming up to the finals, but I want to win the LCK before going to the World Championship so that we can get some good energy.”

In their storied but comparatively short history, the Tigers have been many things. When they initially burst onto the scene in their inaugural split, they were a surprisingly well-oiled machine whose innate team chemistry earned them a near-perfect season. They’re a team so loud during scrims that it drew remarks from their real-life neighbors. In a region known for player stoicism and seriousness, the Tigers goof around in the both, razzing each other even after losses. They were a shoo-in for the IEM World Championship title before falling apart in the semifinals against China’s Team WE. They were the 2015 World Championship runners-up.

But they have never beat SKT in a meaningful series, winless against Korea’s LoL dynasty in two LCK Finals and the 2016 World Championship. Every time, the Tigers have watched from the sidelines as SKT have risen the trophy above their heads.

The Tigers’ story begins in the 2015 preseason, where the recently-formed HUYA Tigers went 2-1 in the LCK Spring 2016 Qualifer against Xenics Modslook, Prime and Incredible Miracle — they only dropped their one game against IM — earning a spot in LCK Spring 2016. There, they were expected to be a middling to good team. Cobbled together from bits and pieces of Champions teams that hadn’t worked out, the Tigers were seen as a merry band of washed-up rejects, save star former NaJin White Shield support Kang “GorillA” Beom-hyeon.

Top laner Song “Smeb” Kyung-ho had been fairly atrocious on Incredible Miracle #1, in the running for the infamous “Longpanda Award” which was jokingly given to the worst Korean top by English language OGN casters Christopher “Montecristo” Mykles and Erik “DoA” Lonnquist. PraY had been replaced by the young upstart AD carry Oh “Ohq” Gyu-min on Najin Black Sword and left the team in May 2014. Many had thought that he would simply retire, never quite having reached the full potential ascribed to him by the LoL community on his 2012 debut. Joining NaJin Black Sword as PraY was leaving were jungler Lee “Hojin” Ho-jin and mid laner KurO, both of whom went on to join HUYA in the 2014-15 offseason.

NaJin Black Sword in the latter part of 2014 was a team in rebuilding mode, trying out a younger and relatively untested lineup that never quite came together. The depths of KurO and Hojin’s talent remained unknown going into 2015, although they were fairly unremarkable players in the eyes of the LoL community. Rounding out their team was former NaJin White Shield jungler Jeong “NoFe” No-chul as the Tigers’ head coach. This led to jokes of a friendly rivalry between NaJin e-mFire and the almost entirely ex-NaJin roster of the Tigers, but another, far more significant rivalry was brewing — that of the Tigers and SKT.

The Tigers performed slightly above expectations in the LCK Spring 2015 preseason, finishing in the middle of the standings with only one set loss — a 2-0 victory for SKT. “I was really disappointed,” Hojin told inven after the loss. “During the match, I felt really helpless against the opponent’s strength, but after reviewing the VODs I realized that the match was much closer than I thought it was. I think us being a relatively freshly formed team had to do with the disappointing result.”

Hojin’s words end on a somewhat hopeful note, but this was the first of many Tigers defeats at the hands of SKT.

Entering the LCK spring 2015 regular season, the Tigers were thought of as a middle-of-the-pack team — perhaps they would earn a low playoff spot, but it would be difficult against the likes of SKT, KT Rolster and the new NaJin e-mFire lineup that had performed well in the preseason, finishing second to SKT.

HUYA, then renamed to GE, kicked off the LCK spring 2015 season with a 2-0 victory over IM and never looked back. They razed the first round robin, going undefeated in all of their series. The only two teams able to take a game from the Tigers were the Jin Air Green Wings, and SKT.

“Both the members and the team made it clear that our goal was to get first place when we founded the team. I think our hard work so far has led to a good result,” Hojin told inven. “Our teamwork didn’t immediately fall together. As time passed our teamwork improved and our practice time increased a lot. I think that’s why our teamwork continues to shine as more time passes. Maybe it’s also because we don’t have one designated shot caller, but we all step up to give orders depending on the situation.”

At the forefront of every Tigers match were the Tigers’ goofy individual personalities, gregarious nature, whimsical dress code, and obvious affection for each other. This drove the narrative that the Tigers were a friendship team — greater than the sum of their parts. While that is the case to some extent — especially in 2015, prior to the arrival of jungler Han “Peanut” Wang-ho — the Tigers are also a team of formidable individual players. Smeb was the breakout Korean star of 2015, making a name for himself as one of the best top laners and players in the world. GorillA was already known as a top-tier Korean support, and PraY reinvented his career. Now PraY is widely regarded as one of the best Korean AD carries in LoL history, something that was highly contentious prior to his 2015 and 2016 performances.

The visible sore spots on the Tigers were Hojin and KurO. The latter struggled mightily in the jungle through various patch changes, and found himself overwhelmed by the likes of SKT’s Bae “bengi” Seong-woong and KT Rolster’s Go “Score” Dong-bin come LCK summer 2015. Despite having the highest KDA at 7.4 due to his lack of deaths, Hojin languished behind his opponents early with the lowest CS differential at 10 minutes (-3.6) and the lowest percentage of his team’s total damage (11.6 percent) of any starting LCK jungler that season. At times, Hojin’s presence in the jungle was non-existent.

After the Tigers returned to Korea, humbled by their untimely IEM World Championship exit, they proceeded to win the regular season title in LCK Spring 2015, earning an automatic bye to the LCK Spring 2015 Finals. There, the Tigers were unceremoniously swept 3-0 by SKT. None of the games were remotely close. LCK summer 2015 was a rocky split for the renamed KOO Tigers — compared to their previous, near-undefeated run — finishing fourth in the regular season. Ramping up in the playoffs, the Tigers nearly made it to the finals once more, narrowly losing 3-2 to KT Rolster in the third round of the playoff gauntlet. This was enough to earn a spot representing Korea at the 2016 World Championship. A few days later, SKT punched their ticket with a breezy 3-0 sweep of KT Rolster in the LCK Summer 2015 Finals that made the Tigers’ Spring Finals matches against the Korean powerhouse look close.

The Tigers clashed against SKT once more in the 2015 World Championship Finals. They managed to bruise and bloody SKT a bit, but their nemesis always seemed a step or two ahead, even in the game that they lost, as if they were playing with the Tigers like a predator plays with its food. The Tigers had never been a problem for SKT — the onus was on the Tigers to prove that they could best their rival. Once again they fell short.

Hojin retired in the 2015-16 offseason and Peanut took over the Tigers’ jungle. Acquiring the former NaJin em-Fire jungler was the best move the Tigers could have made. Peanut had been known for his overly-aggressive play on the Rift, and rumored aggressive remarks towards teammates in the booth. There was no question of his talent, and the only question accompanying Peanut’s arrival was that of how he would fit on such a tight-knit squad.

The answer was perfectly. He fit the Tigers perfectly, adding a much-needed punch to the team that allowed for aggressive dives and hard engage compositions. Where the Tigers had previously stuck to late-game teamfighting compositions — and suffered early thanks to Hojin's lack of pressure — the 2016 ROX Tigers have played a myriad of styles and compositions, flexing their creative muscles and showing off the depth of their individual champion pools.

Peanut immediately got along well with his new teammates, and took over the Korean jungle with his quick, aggressive invades. He stalked opponents in their own jungles, providing stifling pressure that allowed the Tigers’ lanes all the time in the world and earned the strongest jungle control of any LCK team in Spring 2016 with 53 percent. Peanut’s glaring weakness was his warding, which he has since taken massive steps towards improving in the LCK Summer 2016 split.

With their jungle problems on the mend thanks to Peanut’s early aggression and proactive style, the only glaring issue on the Tigers was that of KurO.

KurO presents a far more complex problem for the Tigers than Hojin whose issues were easy to identify, a lack of pressure and small champion pool. Rooted in a mental block when it comes to one specific player — the best player in LoL history, SKT’s Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok — KurO’s deficiencies are far more difficult to pinpoint. Here lies the root of the Tigers’ problems against SKT through all seasons. KurO is everything the Tigers have needed from their mid since their inception aside from his inability to play against Faker. Against any other mid laner, KurO is serviceable at worst, fantastic at best, and provides valuable mid lane control. His improvement thanks to Peanut’s jungle pressure was staggering in LCK Spring 2016, and he has since returned the favor, providing cover for Peanut’s invades and more aggressive paths.

Yet, against Faker, he is abysmal and the Tigers follow suit with oddball drafts and experimental compositions that usually don’t work. In the LCK Spring 2016 Finals, Peanut’s early proactivity was conspicuously absent, and SKT’s Kang “Blank” Sun-gu overwhelmed the Tigers jungler in all but one of their games in a 3-1 SKT victory. In LCK Summer 2016, the Tigers have a 30-6 record against all other Korean teams. Against SKT they are 0-4, without a single win.

Following their 2-0 sweep of the Freecs, the Tigers claimed yet another LCK regular season title along with an automatic bid to the 2016 World Championship — the first team from this season to qualify from Korea. SKT will likely follow suit, and meet up with the Tigers in yet another LCK Final.

“The World Championship is one thing, but I’m very happy we got to go to the finals again,” PraY told inven after their recent win against Afreeca. “This time, I’ll work hard so that it’s a really entertaining finals that we end up winning.”

Unspoken but evidenced by PraY and KurO’s words after their requalification for both the the LCK Finals and the World Championship is the Tigers’ desire to beat SKT once and for all, to finally topple the team that has been their nemesis since the Tigers donned heather gray toggle sweaters and stepped into the booth as HUYA. In their first match against SKT this year, Week 3 of LCK Spring 2016, KurO came to the booth with a sign that read, “We are No. 2, so we try harder.”

Even finishing in first place again, they’re still number two in the eyes of many, including themselves, so they’ll try harder.

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