“Hello, we are the ROX Tigers!”
All six members of Korea’s ROX Tigers raise their hands and cheer in unison. It took them three tries to coordinate, with the delicious smell of pork wafting in the air from multiple grills on the large dinner table an understandable distraction.
The premier Korean League of Legends team shuffle in only a few minutes prior to filming. Bleary-eyed from practice, they mumble their hellos, bowing indiscriminately in our collective direction with each “Annyeonghaseyo!” before walking immediately to the table of food. Jungler Han “Peanut” Wang-ho and support Kang “GorillA” Beom-hyeon kick off their sandals and sit cross-legged in their chairs, immediately comfortable while Song “Smeb” Kyung-ho and Lee “KurO” Seo-haeng sit up straight, their eyes scanning our camera crew and staff. AD carry Kim “PraY” Jong-in and mid laner Hae “Cry” Sung-min look longingly at the many side dishes that are already on the table. After a long day of practice, they’re ready to eat.
When it’s time to begin the interview, GorillA places his hand on Smeb’s back, silently indicating the Tigers top laner as the team’s initial spokesperson.
“[We’re eating] Korean barbecue… samgyeopsal,” Smeb dutifully announces. GorillA and KurO nod in agreement, while PraY snickers as Smeb says “Korean barbecue” in English.
Several times throughout the hour-long video interview, GorillA silently designates who from the team will speak and when with a nuanced air of authority and the slightest of gestures. His teammates instinctively respond, following his lead.
GorillA also earnestly praises various members of the Tigers when given the opportunity. “We have Smeb in the top lane,” GorillA reiterates when asked why their team is so strong. He's quick to shoot Smeb down when the top laner brags about himself, but there’s a quiet confidence in GorillA's voice that doubles as reassurance for Smeb from his team captain.
They have the best player in the world right now. The Tigers will succeed.
Today, the Tigers are the reigning Korean champions and favorites to win the 2016 World Championship. Their road to this moment — shoveling barbecued pork belly into their mouths while answering questions from a foreign media outlet about being the team to beat at League of Legends’ largest international competition — has been a long and arduous one.
Nearly two years ago, the familiar chords from Dragonland’s “Starfall” fades into the background as the packed Busan crowd quiets. English play-by-play caster Erik “DoA” Lonnquist starts his introduction not by hyping up the promotional matches of the evening, but with a laundry list of all-star Korean pros who have left the scene for other regions.
“KaKAO, RooKie, Piglet, Deft, Mata, so many more all past tense names in the Korean scene,” he says. “How appropriate was it that Imagine Dragons played ‘Radioactive’ as their last song at Worlds because welcome to the new age indeed guys, this is Korea 2.0.”
With a laugh, fellow English caster Christopher “MonteCristo” Mykles turns viewers’ attention to the games at hand and the new format, which in many ways is a more significant change than the mass exodus of top-tier talent. Sister teams are abolished. Teams pare down ten-man rosters to a set group of five, often leaving another set of another five, comparably talented players, languishing on the bench.
Previously, OnGameNet’s Champions was a tournament with 16 teams in total organized into four groups before a best-of-five bracket stage. All of the top-tier organizations had two sister teams, both rosters often packed with Korea’s best — Samsung Galaxy White’s recent 2014 World Championship victory looming as the pinnacle of what the sister team system could accomplish. Now, the new LoL Champions Korea kicks off with eight total teams. This seeding challenge will decide the final two teams that will join SK Telecom T1, KT Rolster, Samsung Galaxy, Jin Air Green Wings, NaJin e-mFire, and CJ Entus, all of which have already secured spots.
Competing this night are the HUYA Tigers, who take a backseat in the broadcast introduction to Xenics Modslook. Xenics are an up-and-coming team of young talent whose scrims against Cloud9 had been leaked prior to Worlds. With a pedigree of scouting the best and brightest from Korea’s solo queue ladder, Xenics are a shoo-in for the upcoming LoL Champions Korea Spring 2015.
The Tigers are not.
Monte and DoA speak of the Tigers with trepidation, especially former NaJin Black Sword AD carry PraY who is returning to professional play after an eight-month hiatus. “Exciting, but a lot of questions about that guy,” DoA says. “Will he be able to perform? He did not look very good over most of 2014.” They mention KurO as a consistent player, and GorillA as one of the best supports in the world, but admittedly have little information to discern the Tigers’ strength.
Clad in heather grey striped sweaters with no sponsorship logos visible, the Tigers take their seats in the booth for their first match against Prime INTENJOY. Forty-three minutes later, the Tigers are on Prime’s nexus, their first victory as a team under their belts.
The Tigers immediately sprint ahead of all other Korean teams in the LCK’s inaugural season. With Samsung Galaxy losing all of their star players and teams like Jin Air and SK Telecom T1 trying out various roster combinations, the Tigers are the most unified team on the Rift, beating all of their adversaries with superior coordination and communication. Every week, the Tigers enter the OGN booths with various schoolboy outfit combinations, leading audiences to guess what the Tigers will wear in their next match. No one expects the pink cat ears and vests that appear for Valentine’s Day, and no one initially expects the Tigers to raze through the LCK Spring 2015 regular season. Until Week 10, the Tigers stand undefeated in best-of-three series. They finish the split with a 12-2 series record, and a 25-6 overall game record earning them first place and an automatic bid to the finals.
Accompanying the Tigers’ first-place spot atop Korea is the rise of Smeb. On Incredible Miracle, Smeb had been cited as a weak top laner, ruled by his emotions and allowing the burden of carrying his team to get the best of him. This led to reckless attempts at trading with opponents that often led to early deaths and insurmountable deficits. Little was expected of Smeb going into the LCK Spring 2015 season.
He ends his first split on the Tigers with the highest KDA of any top laner — 5.2, almost a full point ahead of CJ Entus’ Park “Shy” Sang-myeon — and takes third in the overall MVP standings. His Gnar play is unparalleled by any other top that season. He rises from being one of Korea’s worst in his position to one of the best top laners in Korea. The Tigers are a team for formerly discarded players, like the aforementioned PraY and now Smeb, finding new homes on a team that is Korea’s first glimmer of hope after a shaky offseason.
Yet, the Tigers’ dominion over the new Korean landscape is not seamless, nor does it last. Their fall at the hands of China’s Team WE at the IEM World Championship is their first and most obvious embarrassment — a lack of preparation that the Tigers repeatedly apologize for in interviews for the next several months. As they later prepare for the 2015 World Championship after qualifying as Korea’s second seed following the LCK Summer 2015 season, they vow publicly that this mistake will not happen again. Their team will never be caught unaware by their opponents on an international stage.
Perhaps this is why PraY is quick to admonish Peanut for a joke about slacking off a bit in his individual practice. Younger than his Tigers teammates, Peanut is shy throughout most of the dinner, but adopts a cockier air when he speaks, dragging his words out a bit.
PraY repeatedly assures us that his jungler is joking while glancing sternly in Peanut’s direction before the team continues chattering at their usual pace, unfazed. There’s a sense that this happens frequently. Peanut immediately falls in line, looking down for a moment before continuing to pick at his food.
Later, Peanut says with an arrogant smirk that he’s not looking forward to playing against any specific junglers at the tournament, but that all other junglers are looking forward to facing him. The entire room, including the camera crew, host, and translator all burst out laughing at the jungler’s braggadocio. His teammates follow suit after the slightest of pauses, reassured by our laughter that his words are taken as a joke.
Peanut has every right to feel confident. Since joining the Tigers, his stifling jungle pressure and stellar mechanics pushed the Tigers forward from the 2015 team that relied on coordination to overcome a few individual weaknesses — namely Lee “Hojin” Ho-jin in the jungle — to their commanding reign as Korea’s best team. Peanut opens up a myriad of options previously impossible for the Tigers. His arrival on the Tigers is tied to the rise of KurO in the mid lane, and Smeb's ascent as the current best player in the world.
Yet, despite their LCK Summer 2016 Finals victory and regular season success across both 2016 splits, this title comes with one small caveat: the Tigers’ record against SK Telecom T1.
Earlier this year, the Tigers enter the booth with signs that read, “We Are No. 2 So We Try Harder,” acknowledging SKT as Korea’s undisputed number one team. The Tigers are LCK champions, but there’s a slight tinge of doubt that lingers. In the last playoff series before this year's Summer Finals, KT Rolster knocks off SKT before they could face the Tigers again in yet another Finals match. The Tigers don't have to go through SKT to become champions of Korea.
Even throughout the Tigers inaugural split, SK Telecom T1 remains doggedly at the Tigers’ heels, rising in the standings as the season wears on. SKT Coach Kim “kkOma” Jung-gyun’s continuous swapping between mid laners Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok and Lee “Easyhoon” Ji-hoon is regarded as extraneous at best, and unintelligible at worst. When SKT stomps the Tigers in the LCK Spring 2015 Final, few people are surprised. The Tigers had stagnated while SKT had continued to improve. They don't even start Faker, easily the best player in the world at the time — and the greatest player in LoL history — or veteran jungler Bae “bengi” Seong-woong against the Tigers in the Finals. SKT still wins easily without dropping a single game.
Comparing the Tigers’ overall LCK record since their inception and their record against SKT reveals a staggering difference in performance. The Tigers have won 133 of their 184 total LCK games, a 72 percent winrate. Their winrate against SKT is a dismal 28 percent — 7-18 in total games with two LCK Finals losses. At the 2015 World Championship, it again comes down to the Tigers taking on SKT. They manage to take one game — the one game that SKT loses all tournament — but are still outclassed at nearly every turn. This isn't a lack of preparation. This isn't underestimating their opponent. This isn't IEM. It's a continuation of their growing, one-sided rivalry, now bleeding out of domestic finals and onto the international stage.
A seriousness settles over the team when they begin to discuss SK Telecom T1. In far more deliberate voice, Smeb speaks of preparing for all teams but that they are readying themselves for SKT. The Tigers have no trouble assuring us that they’ll make Worlds Finals, but address SKT with understandable weight.
Up until this point, various members of the Tigers chat to each other softly in the background, pausing to eat or laugh at an answer given by another teammate in the interview. At the mention of SKT, they all focus — an accidental yet perfectly framed snapshot of their determination. They’re goofy and close with an infectious energy that envelops the room, but the Tigers are not a team to ever be taken lightly, evidenced by their almost grim faces while thinking of SKT.
At the beginning of their interview, while most of the members are enthusiastically stuffing their faces with food, Smeb and GorillA try to explain what winning the recent LCK title means to them. They cannot find the words in English or their native Korean — still emotionally overwhelmed.
The moment the Tigers win LCK Summer 2016 3-2 against KT Rolster, they burst out of their chairs, enveloping each other while jumping up and down, screaming. Weight visibly lifts from their shoulders as they cross winning a domestic title off their list of team goals. Howling, KurO collapses on the ground in the booth, sobbing in joy as his coach Jeong “NoFe” No-chul rubs his back. Still crying and nearly too overcome to speak, KurO is later reassured by Smeb while PraY laughs in the background and caster Jun Jeong-yun asks if KurO is able to continue the team interview. KurO speaks of how badly he felt when they couldn’t win in their previous finals appearances while tears continue to stream down his cheeks.
Now, when Smeb and GorillA are unable put into words what winning the finals meant to them as the rest of the team digs into their food, KurO simply nods in agreement.
As the sun sets outside, the glow from the orange paper lanterns above the Tigers’ table takes over the room, reflecting the warmth radiating from the happy team. People typically become quiet and sleepy with their hunger satiated, but the members of the Tigers are more energetic than when they entered the room. On a tight schedule, they file out after waving goodbye to the cameras in unison, with the answer to their last question still lingering in the air.
“See you at the finals, right?”
Every member answers yes without hesitation.
Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore esports. Her favorite Tiger is PraY. You can follow her on Twitter.