SK Telecom T1 reclaimed their place as the top team in Korea after a year of strife and roster changes, beating the rookie GE Tigers in a one-sided sweep to hoist the Champions trophy for the third time in the organization's illustrious history. Now back in their role as the kings of Korea, SKT will be in an even more difficult position: staving off the competition to remain atop of the region. In the history of Champions, only one champion has gone on to defend their title, that being SK Telecom T1 K back in 2013 during the Summer and Winter seasons.
While SKT T1 were able to triumph in Korea, they still have something to prove following their heartbreaking loss to China's EDward Gaming at the Mid-Season Invitational. As good and as SKT's roster is — they still have the best player in the history of the game — they aren't unbeatable. They went through the second half of the season unscathed for large parts, only truly challenged in their semifinal match against CJ Entus.
With the new season upon us, teams have adapted to the new trend that is overtaking Korea: the art of substitutes. Every team brings at least one substitute to their roster in Round 1 of the summer season, looking to find the same success that SKT had with their revolving roster in the mid and jungle positions. The days of a single roster rolling through Champions seem to be over, making the head coach's job even more important in the coming months. Instead of tirelessly relying on one play or one strategy to make it to the Grand Finals — I'm looking at you 2013 CJ Entus Blaze — coaches and management now need to put out the right roster and team composition for each and every single map.
The rosters have been announced. The schedule is set. SKT T1 are eying a potential rematch with Chinese champions EDward Gaming at the World Champions in October, but the road back to the title won't be that simple. Nine teams are taking aim at the one true Emperor of Korea, and the battle for domestic supremacy is about to begin once more.
The Emperor - SK Telecom T1
Starting at the top, SK Telecom T1 come into the season with minimal changes from their Spring championship run. The biggest change is the fact that back-up support Piccaboo's contract is running out and he's decided to sit out the season due to a wrist injuries that plagued him for the first half of 2015. Although Wolf was one of the leading supports in the spring season and has a long history built up with Bang, Piccaboo was a player who, when at his best, was able to change games through his creative roams and play-making potential. With Wolf now being the sole support on the roster (for at least Round 1), he will need to be the consistent rock in the bot-lane that have made Bang and Wolf one of the most reliable duos in the world.
As it has been since the start of the new year, SK Telecom T1's hot potato in the mid lane will be a talking point all season long. Easyhoon led SKT to the championship only a few short weeks ago, playing in all three games in the Spring Grand Finals. Faker came back at MSI, picking up for Easyhoon after SKT fell down 1-2 against EDG, and fought back to take the series to a climactic Game 5 match before losing his first professional game on LeBlanc against a composition that was crafted to beat his signature champion.
People can harp on Faker losing at MSI and not being head and shoulders above everyone else like he was during his peak, but that doesn't mean he isn't the best player in the world. In this meta, right now, players like Easyhoon and Pawn can be considered more optimal than Faker. The thing about Faker is, whatever shifts in strategies or compositions come his way this Summer season, he will always be relevant. Easyhoon, Pawn, and most of the great players in the world at any position will have highs and lows depending on the meta, but Faker will always be relevant. Even in a world where the likes of Garen and Nami are the go-to champions, the two-time Champions MVP will continue his elite level of play in the middle lane, spinning and winning on whatever champion Riot throws at him that week.
If every professional team's roster disbanded today and a new international league was started in its place, Faker would be the first pick for any team in the world. He's nineteen, still maturing as a player and a person, and has the ability to be flexible in his champion pool and the way he plays the game. The beauty of Faker and his influence on the game is that he doesn't need to be the best player on any given day. Even in his worst slumps and poor outings, the fact remains the same: every team must prepare, adapt, and follow Faker in-game. If you don't and leave him to his own devices (even on champions he isn't particularly dominant on) Faker will win the game before it even leaves the laning phase.
The Prince - KOO Tigers
Coming off of a remarkable rookie debut, the runners-up of Champions Spring enter their sophomore campaign with a new name and sponsor. They will henceforth be known as the KOO Tigers.
The Tigers were the antithesis of the new style of managing teams last season. While SK Telecom T1 were mixing things up with Easyhoon and Faker or with Bengi and Tom, the Tigers were steadfast in their roster. They stuck with the same starting roster throughout the season, the core five beginning with a streak of 11 straight victories before falling to a surging KT Rolster in their 12th match. With the change in the game moving away from bruising junglers and going towards a more tank-favored meta with the addition of the Cinderhulk enhancement, Hojin (Lee) fell off in the latter half of the season. His aggressive moves and highlight plays vanished, making way for clunky, uninspired performances.
KOO's troubles could have been fixed if they had a sixth or seventh man on the roster, waiting in the wings to replace Hojin like SKT had with Easyhoon or Tom. Their five-man roster did well in the regular season but couldn't get it done in the Grand Finals, the style of having depth in your roster beating out a team that relied on the same five players to take them through the entire season.
If you can't beat them, join them, and that's what the Tigers did in the offseason. While they didn't go crazy like a few others teams, they did add a new dimension to their play with the signing of former Incredible Miracle jungler Wisdom. One of the few bright spots on IM before leaving the team in the second half of the season, Wisdom gives KOO a chance to rest Hojin or change the lineup if things aren't clicking. The prevailing problem with the jungle pick-up and hoping to shake up a stagnant team to have a shot at dethroning SKT is that Wisdom and Lee have similar styles. Wisdom is a bruiser-heavy player who loves to skirmish and fight early, mirroring Hojin.
Still, even if it's only one move, and one that might not even change the entire dynamic of the squad, Wisdom is a player to keep your eye on this season. He was already one of the better junglers last season on a weak IM team, and now he has the opportunity to spread his wings even more with the likes of Smeb and Gorilla, two of the best players at their position.
The Unbroken Ancient - CJ Entus
When you talk about CJ Entus, one word encapsulates their organization and roster: family. We can talk about sweeping roster changes and maneuvering to make Worlds, but at their core, CJ Entus are one big family that rely on each other more as brothers than teammates. After a rocky spring preseason, this belief in their veteran roster looked to be a mistake. Madlife looked to be past his prime, Shy was a shell of his former self, and the idea of moving Ambition to the jungle appeared to be one of the worst roster decisions in the history of professional League.
But they didn't waver. The team started to gain confidence at the end of the preseason, and they found solace at the start of the regular season with an 2-0 win over SKT T1. That match victory against SKT gave them momentum and helped them believe in themselves and march through the rest of the season. Sure, they had slumps at times, but they were always able to pull themselves out of a hole before they fell out of the playoffs. When the season started, CJ Entus had a lot of substitutes, but by Round 2, after the old-timers proved they still had a lot in the tank, those subs vanished back into being practice partners.
That belief got them all the way to the Champions semifinals for the first time in over a year. Their experience, knowledge, and teamwork got them one step away from making the Grand Finals, falling just short of their ultimate goal and losing to SKT in a riveting five-game series. It was the same old story with CJ Entus in the final game of the series against the eventual champions, playing in a Blind Pick ace match. CJ have never been the best team when it comes to adapting on the fly or coming up with compositions in Blind Pick games, and this one was no different as SKT jumped out to an early lead and never looked back.
CJ return to for the summer season with a similar roster, only one new sub added: Max, the support that backed up Madlife in Round 1 of Spring, now back on the roster sheet and hoping to make a name for himself. Ambition and Shy, the two other old-time players who looked lost in the 2015 preseason, have found their way with the current tank meta in the top and jungle positions. Shy is one of the best tank and utility players in the top lane, and Ambition excels on champions like Nunu and Rek'sai.
CJ Entus will have to turn the page at some point and reload their roster as their old stars fade, but Summer isn't that time — The Family is back to have one more run at the title.
Knights of the Round Table - KT Rolster, NaJin e-mFire, the Jin Air Green Wings & Longzhu IM
Following the Top 3 teams from last season, we now move to the middle of the pack. These four teams all have the potential and talent to make the step into one of the top three spots, making it to the 2015 World Championships, but time will only tell if they'll fill the issues to make that dream a reality.
KT Rolster is the squad outside of the Top 3 teams with the best chance at making some noise. Their first half of the Spring season was a disaster, falling behind in the standings early and looking like a potential relegation zone causality. The reigning champions from the season before Spring with the KT Arrows, their team was decimated with the departures of their two star players: Rookie and KaKAO. Their free-flowing style didn't work without their stars ans they no longer had the luxury of deploying two of the best disruptive and mechanically gifted players in the world.
Their fortunes turned when Hachani, KT's often caught out and face-checking support, left the team. He was replaced by Fixer, an amateur support who gave KT a new energetic player without the consequences of dying every other minute due to face-checking an unchecked bush. His Thresh play gave new life to KT and the team rallied behind their new play-making support, ending the season on a high note by finishing only one spot outside of the playoffs. A team that sorely lacked a spark without KaKAO and Rookie, Fixer is the new lighting rod of KT. The team that ended Spring made no sweeping changes in the break period, their only sub player being Prime in the jungle position.
Score has made the jungle his own and is a legitimate threat at his role. Nagne, the former rookie on the rise in 2013, is getting his career back on track and improved mightily in the second half of the season. Ssumday is what Sssumday always is and will be: a rock in the top lane. And their bottom lane of Arrow and Fixer is the carrying launching pad that KT was missing through their aimless Round 1 in Spring. If Nagne can grow even more in the Summer and Arrow sticks to his polished farming in the laning phase, KT Rolster are a contender to knock out arch-rivals SKT T1 from their perch atop of Korea.
The next team, NaJin e-mFire, is a team filled with an arsenal of talent. Duke, Peanut, Ohq, Ggoong, and Pure are all players that, when they are at their best level, can beat anyone in the world at their position when it comes to making plays. Peanut, the least experienced of those players, is the marquee player for NaJin this season. If he gets time and wins the starting job from long-time mainstay Watch, Peanut has all the tools to become the best jungler in South Korea. He's smart, is mechanically proficient, and is on a team with two players who have the ability to call themselves aces: Duke and Ohq.
If Peanut is the long, dexterous arm of NaJin that can get an ace carry going, then Duke and Ohq are the team's two star players. Duke won the regular season MVP award in the Spring, practically winning the accolade almost every single time NaJin won a game. In the bottom lane, Ohq possesses the innate gift to simply outplay people, using his micro and mechanical prowess to stomp on opponents. His biggest issue will be his maturity, at times reverting back to a solo queue player and giving up stupid, preventable deaths that could have helped his team win a game ten minutes faster than they did.
NaJin, from top to bottom, can stand toe-to-toe with any team in the world, SKT T1 and EDG included, and say, "Give me your best shot." They're skilled and have the talent necessary to crush through this season of Champions. The only thing standing in their way is better coaching, roster management and the maturity of their young, reckless stars.
Going from one team with endless potential to another, the Jin Air Green Wings are the scrappy underdogs who always look like they're ready to breakthrough and then fall back into being cannon fodder. As with NaJin, the talent, young and old, is there, but the execution is off. They got to the playoffs last season, but their stay didn't last long, getting steamrolled by the veterans CJ Entus in the quarterfinals and exiting the tournament with an endless string of losses to finish the campaign. Jin Air couldn't adapt to the changes in the meta and champion compositions, leaving them in the dust of the likes of CJ and SKT who became even stronger with the addition of the Cinderhulk enhancement shaking the game up.
If there was one player to keep your eye on for Jin Air this season, I'd say keep a close eye on Chaser in the jungle position. An enigmatic player, he can one game look like the best jungler in Korea, and the next he'll be giving up nine kills on Lee Sin and looking like he doesn't even deserve to be a professional player. While new junglers like Peanut are making their way up the ladder, Chaser still has possibly the best shot of taking the crown as the best jungler in South Korea with the exit of Dandy, KaKAO, Spirit, and Swift. Now he needs to convert that chance while he still has it and play a more consistent, experienced version of his past self.
The Gatekeepers of Korea, Longzhu IM are the final knight of this round table of middling, hopefully rising teams. They come in with an entirely different roster from the last, putting former support Tusin at the jungle position, hoping that his in-your-face roaming fighting style can become even more of a factor in a less utility position. Along with Tusin, they also brought in Roar and IgNar as their new bottom lane. Roar is considered an effortless talent, being able to slide into any champion or meta without little trouble and perform well; he was Space's understudy on CJ Entus last season before the often criticized starting AD won the starting spot from Roar and moved him off the roster.
While Roar is an apparent upgrade from now sub Sonstar at AD, the real godsend in the offseason was the signing of IgNar — the player considered to be "The Next Coming of Madlife." He is a support that fits right in with IM's style of having their support roam and make plays across the map. He's a known Thresh and Blitzcrank player, but he played an excellent Alistar in the qualifiers, wrecking Winners and Anarchy in Longzhu's two commanding 2-0 victories.
Longzhu IM are the perfect wild card. They play a flashy, fast-paced style, and have made big changes to a team that already housed Frozen, a mid-laner who has the potential to be one of the Top 3 players at his position with a decent team around him. This has been said many times before, but this could finally, finally be the truth: Incredible Miracle are done being the Gatekeepers of Korea, and they're ready to walk inside the palace to challenge the Emperor for their throne.
The Wounded King - Samsung Galaxy
Unlike their relegation partners Longzhu IM, Samsung Galaxy didn't have as an impressive of a performance in the Champions Summer Qualifiers. They did 4-0 their group and beat SBENU along with Xenics, but they weren't one-sided stomps like the new IM dished out. The games at times got too close for comfort, the world champion organization eventually pulling out the victories to say in Champions.
World champions in name only, Samsung have brought in new amateur talent to try and up their standing from last, but they are still lagging behind everyone else but the two new teams in Champions. Fury and Wraith are the only players on the starting roster who you can outright say are good enough to play on a successful team in Champions, the bot-lane duo being one of the only positives to a forgettable Spring season. Cuvee, Eve, Bliss, and Ace all had their tiny moments of success, but they were few and far between, each solid play followed up with five plays where they didn't look ready to be playing in the Champions booth.
Hoping to rectify their last place finish in Spring, they've brought in two new players: Crown, now their third mid-laner on the roster, and Luna, one of the most promising signings in the offseason, a Challenger amateur support who will need to fight with the experienced Wraith to win the starting job. While Luna could be a boon and have a similar effect to IgNar on Samsung, they still have a gigantic hole in the middle lane. With the addition of Crown, Samsung have essentially thrown their hands in the air and given up on believing either Bliss or Ace are ready to be a full-time starter at the role.
Wounded but not dead, Samsung Galaxy have a lot, and I mean a lot, of work to do if they have any inkling of a fantasy that they could make it back to Worlds to defend their world title. Thankfully if Crown doesn't work out at the mid lane position, they can add a fourth or fifth mid-laner to their roster in Round 2.
The Peasants - SBENU & Anarchy
To clarify how big of a disadvantage SBENU and Anarchy have coming into this season: both teams lost 0-2 to Samsung and Longzhu respectively in the Champions Summer Qualifiers. While IM is improved coming into this season and could challenge for a postseason birth, Anarchy's losses to Longzhu were embarrassing. They showed no fight against the superior team, getting beat down in both teams and looking like they couldn't beat Longzhu even if they had 100 chances at playing them.
For these two teams, barring a miraculous Cinderella story from either that gets made into a future Hollywood film franchise, it's less looking at their win/loss record and more at their rookies to see who can still show promise in a likely dark, loss-filled season.
On Anarchy's side, those players would be lira in the jungle and Mickey in the middle lane. Lira is a former CJ and KT player who is returning from China's secondary league to play again in Champions. Mickey, while a rookie to Champions, also played on a Chinese farm team, playing with WE Academy and now making his way back to his home country to make his professional Korean debut. Mickey, win or lose (most likely lose), is Anarchy's best shot of grabbing wins or making a run this season. He's been one of the most watched rookies on Challenger ladder for the past few years before getting signed by WE and moving to China. There is a chance Anarchy loses 95 percent of their games this season, but Mickey is a player who could make a name for himself at the mid-laner position.
SBENU, who have eight players on their roster, will live or die by their bottom lane. Nuclear and Secret played well in the qualifiers, even giving Samsung's Fury and Wraith trouble in the laning phase. They are both Challenger on the Korean ladder, and Nuclear was the player that carried SBENU to their place in Champions this season. As with Mickey, Nuclear might lost almost every single game he plays this season if SBENU doesn't drastically improve at a rapid rate, but he's an intriguing rookie to keep tabs on throughout the season.
No matter how big or small the competition this Summer season, it will be nine vs. one for SK Telecom T1 when they step onto the Rift to start their championship defense. Every single game against SKT T1, be it long-time nemesis and champion hopeful KT Rolster or an inexperienced minnow in Anarchy, their opponents will do whatever it takes to make their mark on the second. CJ Entus' run from preseason failure to top three finisher all started when they beat SKT T1 in one of the first matches of the Spring season, and that one win against the Emperor could be what it takes to turn a hopeful into a legit threat to the crown.
Tyler "Fionn" Erzberger is a staff writer for The Score eSports who covers the North American LCS and Korea's Champions.