It’s said that finishing second makes you the first loser. After almost two years of being almost-but-not-quite champions, the ROX Tigers are a pretty good example of that phrase.
Since the Tigers came together to play in the 2015 spring season, they’ve produced a long string of nearly-there results:
- Second in the LoL Champions Korea (LCK) spring 2015 playoffs.
- Third in the LCK summer 2015 playoffs.
- Second at the 2015 world championships.
- Second in the LCK spring 2016 playoffs.
Most teams would be thrilled with those finishes, but when it’s the same story over and over again, the runner-up awards tend not to feel especially satisfying.
The Tigers have attempted a series of adjustments to their formula along the way, from roster tweaks to forced shifts in their play style, constantly searching for that one change that could push them over the top and add a championship to their résumé. Some changes have produced more potential for success than others, but each time, the end result has remained the same: not quite good enough.
The Tigers’ ability to maintain their second-place standing without taking steps backwards is a testament to just how close they are to overcoming the final obstacle, but an unexceptional start to the 2016 summer season invites a big question:
Have the Tigers hit their peak?
The Tigers were formed ahead of the 2015 spring season, and have evolved through a variety of sponsorships, being known, in sequence, as the Huya Tigers, then the GE Tigers, then the KOO Tigers and finally the self-titled ROX Tigers. Their initial roster was widely seen as an assortment of has-beens and castoffs. Song “Smeb” Kyung-ho manned the top lane, Lee “Hojin” Ho-jin (originally known as “Lee”) joined in the jungle, Lee “Kuro” Seo-haeng played mid lane, Kim “PraY” Jong-in returned from retirement as their AD carry and Kang “GorillA” Beom-hyeon rounded out the roster at support, providing, at the time, the team’s only source of initial star power.
Expectations for the team were not high initially, especially since 2015 marked the start of a new era for the LCK, with sister teams no longer allowed and an impending expansion to 10 teams for the summer threatening to upset the balance of power. But the Tigers came into this unsettled landscape and dominated, winning their first 11 best-of-three series in the LCK.
A large part of the Tigers’ 2015 success came from their world-class reactive play and late-game shot calling. They usually went even or fell behind in the early game, but came alive in the mid to late game and pulled away or produced comebacks through exceptional strategic decision-making, map play, and teamfighting. After all, this was the team that pioneered and perfected the infamous “Juggermaw” composition, built around a hyper-scaling AD carry Kog’Maw surrounded by four supportive champions, creating an unstoppable late-game force.
For a good portion of the Tigers’ impressive start, many people were calling them the best team in the world. But it wasn’t all smooth sailing: in the midst of their domestic win streak, the Tigers attended the IEM world championship in Katowice and embarrassingly lost to China’s Team WE in one of the biggest upsets in LoL history. The Tigers came out of the event humbled, and though they went on to finish first in the LCK regular season, they stumbled again in the playoffs, swept 3-0 by SK Telecom T1 in the LCK finals.
Those losses prompted some introspection: were the Tigers really good enough, in their current form, to take home an LCK championship?
The First Adjustment
Unsatisfied with the answer to that question, the Tigers picked up a new substitute jungler, Kim “Wisdom” Tae-wan, to join them in the 2015 summer split. (Wisdom has most recently been seen as a late-season addition to the spring 2016 Giants of the EU LCS, and is now playing with Misfits in the EU Challenger Series.)
Wisdom didn’t prove to be the right piece to push the team over the top. During the 2015 summer regular season, the Tigers gave Wisdom plenty of time to find his rhythm, playing him in 24 games and Hojin in 17. But Wisdom wasn’t able to build good synergy with his new teammates, and couldn’t produce the results the Tigers needed: his 54 percent win rate was much weaker than Hojin’s 76 percent, and he produced worse individual statistics in almost every relevant category. Beyond the wins and losses, Wisdom wasn’t able to help the Tigers meaningfully evolve their playstyle as a team, so by the time the playoffs arrived, the Tigers had again settled into playing Hojin exclusively and relying on their low-mistake, reactive, late-game-oriented style. The Tigers had finished fourth in the summer regular season, a step back from their spring results, and battled their way through Najin e-mFire and CJ Entus before falling to KT Rolster 3-2 in the semifinals and settling for a third-place finish, the worst domestic result in the team’s history to this day (aside from the much less prestigious 2015 KeSPA Cup tournament).
Wisdom’s addition was the Tigers’ first attempt to evolve themselves, and it proved to be a swing and a miss. The problem the Tigers were trying to solve was a limitation in their play style: their conservative, counterpunching approach relied on their opponents making errors, while the Tigers rarely proactively created their own opportunities. The Tigers consistently failed to display the versatility of teams like their chief rivals, SKT, who were equally effective at both throwing their own punches and counterpunching to punish mistakes.
Despite the end result, though, the Tigers had been right to target the jungle with their first change. Hojin was a perfectly acceptable jungler, and would have been an upgrade on some other teams, but Hojin was having difficulty adapting to the new Cinderhulk jungle item meta, and on top of that, playmaking wasn’t Hojin’s forte: Hojin had the lowest death share of all junglers in the LCK in summer 2015, dying even less often than his AD carry. Playmaking always involves some risk, and Hojin didn’t embrace those risks enough to be the playmaking catalyst his team needed to help them diversify.
Self-Improvement Attempt #2
The Tigers’ year didn’t end with the LCK Summer Finals, though: the World Championships were next up, and while a roster change had failed to produce change in the Tigers’ play style, a big shift in the meta and an international stage provided another opportunity. The Tigers were placed in a group with North America’s Counter Logic Gaming, the LMS’s Flash Wolves, and Brazil’s paiN Gaming, and they seemed to view those opponents as perfect test dummies to get some live practice on a new, proactive version of themselves.
The Tigers hit the Rift intent on shedding their reactive play, and they went all out, throwing punch after punch.
They got burned.
The Tigers lost twice to the Flash Wolves in the group stage and looked awkward in some of their wins, fumbling teamfight initiations and making “I-think-I-can” mistakes that gave away free deaths. The Tigers had done enough to earn a quarterfinals date with KT Rolster — a summer playoffs rematch — but they definitely had not proven that they could forcefully reinvent themselves as a proactive team.
The Tigers went on to defeat KT Rolster in the quarterfinals and Fnatic in the semifinals, winning both series by relying on their season-long strengths of coordination, reactive play and a low mistake count. In the finals, though, the Tigers once again fell to SKT, unable to produce enough effective aggression to reach out and take the series.
One Quick Trick For Your Complete Makeover
An attempted roster change hadn’t solved the Tigers’ play style and versatility issues. A new meta and a forced identity change hadn’t done it, either. But going into the 2016 spring season, the Tigers thought they’d found the answer: his name was Yoon “Peanut” Wang-ho.
Peanut was a young, talented, but unpolished jungler who had spent 2015 with Najin e-mFire, scraping together a few games on the stage while serving as understudy to longstanding veteran Cho “Watch” Jae-geol. After playing in only 12 LCK games in the entirety of 2015 (just one in the summer split), Peanut joined the Tigers for 2016, and this time the Tigers seemed to have found exactly the style-altering jungler they were looking for.
With Peanut, the Tigers’ identity underwent a full reversal. Gone was the team that relied on their opponents to make mistakes; these Tigers played fast and loose, embraced risk, dominated the early game, and snowballed their way to the fastest average game time in Korea.
Evolution of the Tigers’s Play Style
|Early-Game Rating||Gold Difference at 15 Minutes||First Blood Rate||Average Game Length|
|2015 Spring Regular Season||50.1||+183||48%||40:38|
|2015 Summer Regular Season||54.5||+408||59%||38:28|
|2016 Spring Regular Season||61.9||+1241||78%||33:25|
The transformation was centred around Peanut, who received the nickname “Killer Ward” because of his bloodthirstiness combined with his low vision output: Peanut averaged just 0.58 wards per minute in the 2016 spring regular season, worst among all LCK junglers.
Alongside Peanut, the rest of the lineup also reinvented or rediscovered themselves as aggressive playmakers, perhaps most noticeably GorillA, who made a fresh case for himself as one of the world’s best support players.
Another first-place regular season finish had the Tigers riding high expectations as they prepared for a finals showdown with their old nemeses, SK Telecom T1. This was a new Tigers team, one that had solved its age-old problem and that had twice beaten SKT during the regular season. This, surely, would be the moment for the Tigers to secure themselves a title.
It wasn’t to be. SKT conquered the Tigers 3-1, beating them in the early game, controlling 69 percent of the dragons and 53.5 percent of the jungle camps, and reopening all of the Tigers' old wounds. The Tigers struggled to play from behind, lacked some coordination in their teamfighting, and made imperfect shot calls in the mid/late game with suboptimal lane assignments and objective control.
The Tigers thought they had done everything right. They had solved the problem that had plagued them for an entire year. They had successfully reinvented themselves. But when it really counted, when they needed to rely on all of their original strengths — their teamfighting, shotcalling and ability to come from behind — they found that those strengths had waned, like an unused set of muscles.
The Struggle Continues
Now, after failing yet again to overcome their final hurdle, the Tigers find themselves asking a new question, and yet a very familiar one: how to improve their coordination and control, to add more versatility to their playstyle? By turning to Peanut, the Tigers found that they may have over-corrected their course and ended up staring at the same problem, but from the other side of the mirror.
The Tigers are looking for answers in a few different places in the early stages of the summer split, and in their quest to re-re-invent themselves, they have struggled to find their footing, currently holding a 3-2 series record and just a 6-6 record in individual games, with two of their series wins coming over newly-promoted challenger teams MVP and ESC Ever.
On the roster front, the Tigers are experimenting with Hae “Cry” Sung-min in the mid lane alongside Kuro. The most specific reason to bring in Cry has been Kuro’s well-documented inability to play Azir, which has hurt his team in the past and continues to do so with the Shuriman champion’s recent return to prominence. Unfortunately, Cry’s results have been nothing to write home about: both Kuro and Cry hold individual win/loss records of 3-3, and while Cry has farmed better (+0.2 CSD@10, and 8.6 CS per minute to Kuro’s -4.8 and 7.9), his damage output and combat stats have not been an improvement.
More subtly, the Tigers again seem to be trying to outright force themselves into a new style of play, turning back the clock to regain their original reactive play style and restore their versatility. Peanut, individually, has been flipping the script by boosting his ward output to a much more respectable 0.80, but he’s struggled to produce the kind of individual success he saw in spring, most notably registering just a 17 percent personal First Blood rate so far, compared to the 66 percent he achieved in the spring. A partial meta shift back in the direction of tanky junglers like Rek’Sai and Gragas has Peanut working outside of his comfort zone.
Whether because of the mid lane changes, Peanut’s ongoing adaptation, nonstandard champions picks like top lane Rumble (though the Tigers do have a history of draft creativity), or other reasons that aren’t outwardly visible, the Tigers have displayed an uncharacteristic lack of coordination in some games and they’ve made poor shot calls in others. They’ve also endured some unusually poor individual performances, such as GorillA’s abysmal Taric showing against KT Rolster, or Smeb’s poor Teleport play against SKT. As a team, the Tigers’ 78 percent spring First Blood rate has dipped to just 42 percent so far in summer, their early-game rating is back to a mediocre 53.3, and their iron-fisted control of games has become inconsistent.
There have still been games where ROX showed their prior dominance, getting an early lead and clamping down on the map. Their lane control and tower sieging has been good, and when they’ve found themselves in the lead, they have tended to close out wins cleanly, by maintaining good vision control and applying steady, low-risk pressure. Curiously, though, the free-roaming, risk-taking version of the Tigers has usually been absent, and when the Tigers have kicked themselves into gear, they’ve ended up on the wrong end of the risk/reward continuum too often.
The Ticking Clock
The jury is still out on whether the Tigers’ latest efforts to evolve will pay off by the end of 2016, but the next few months will be crucial as the Tigers decide how much tolerance they will have for short-term pain in the interests of long-term gain. If the adjustments to the Tigers’ style and roster don’t produce convincing results soon and they continue to ride the middle of the standings, will they go back to game planning around the aggression that earned them second-place in spring, the way they reverted to their reactive play style in 2015? Will they give up on Cry and stick with the more familiar Kuro? Or will they look for more drastic change?
The answers to these questions will depend on how much urgency the Tigers feel, and whether or not they think their window may be closing to produce a title with their current core lineup. It would seem foolish to press reset on a world championship finalist, a team that has never finished worse than third in the LCK playoffs, but if the Tigers can’t achieve more than just another silver medal, it means they have failed to grow, and a lack of growth means the start of decay.
The Tigers need to win. They need to find their championship glory. If they don’t, the Tigers of 2017 may be wearing a different set of stripes.
Tim "Magic" Sevenhuysen runs OraclesElixir.com, the premier source for League of Legends esports statistics. You can find him on Twitter, unless he’s busy giving one of his three sons a shoulder ride.