The volatile nature of the rise and fall of teams was fully exposed in the third week of League of Legends Champions Korea. Only a few short months have passed since SK Telecom dominated the 2015 League of Legends World Championship. Unopposed in its run, SKT was unbeatable save by the backlash of its own confidence. Now, SKT looks strong at best, and a mess at a painfully clear worst. The ROX Tigers, on the other hand, have become the most dominant-looking team in the world following their upgrade in the jungle. Those teams met in the finals of worlds last October, but as shown in their rematch Wednesday, times have changed.
Spring: A Tiger’s Season
In 2015, The GE Tigers took Korea by storm in the first half of spring. When the meta shifted to tank junglers, the team struggled to adapt for weeks until it finally found a groove. The Tigers were a team that was easily understood: limited in the early game by Lee “Hojin” Ho-jin, it relied on excellent skirmish play and superior macro play to make comebacks.
This year, the ROX Tigers again besiege LCK, but it is almost unrecognizable from its previous iterations. New jungler, Yoon “Peanut” Wang-ho has improved its early game to match a stellar mid and late game. Constantly invading the jungle, Peanut discerns the location of the enemy jungler for the team to play around, and neutralizes them through scrapping. It backfires on occasion, as Peanut can be too bold. The Tigers, however, consistently support his play style. In an instant, the Tigers can suddenly collapse around him, due to global abilities or to players already being in position ahead of time.
The Tigers’ mettle was tested Wednesday against SK Telecom. It was the rematch between the 2015 world finalists, and another meeting in what has historically been a one-sided rivalry favoring SKT.
Immediately, the gulf between the Tigers and SKT was made evident. The Tigers anticipated a dive from SKT on their duo, and all three remaining members were in place to counter it easily. The Tigers continued to best SKT but were denied a victory in the first game thanks to an impeccable carry performance from Bae “Bang” Jun-sik. The Tigers curbed their aggression in the subsequent games and swiftly dealt with SKT.
The Tigers’ recent success has brought up an interesting conversation point among analysts. Statistics collected by Tim Sevenhuysen, founder of Oracles Elixir, suggest the Tigers’ vision control is weak. As of Tuesday, the Tigers have the lowest wards placed per minute at 3.30 and lowest wards cleared per minute at 1.49. Shoutcaster and well-known League personality Christopher “MonteCristo” Mykles posted a series of tweets expressing his thoughts on the matter (reading from bottom up):
MonteCristo’s mention of Peanut serving as a “killer ward” is an example of why it is vital to observe the games and not rely solely on statistical analysis. Because Peanut is always invading the enemy and contesting buffs, he gets the same visual confirmation of the enemy jungler’s location as a ward. This makes his teammates aware of possible plays they can make. This approach is why despite their low ward count, the Tigers are always correctly in place for counter plays. Kang “GorillA” Beom-hyeon in particular uses the information exceptionally well by roaming to counter the enemy support or jungler. The Tigers’ game sense is currently unmatched in the world.
That’s not to say that the Tigers do not need wards. Its lack of vision in the mid game can bait the team into making calls it otherwise should not make. Against Samsung on Saturday, the Tigers moved through Samsung’s red-side jungle in the first game to prepare for a dive without leaving wards behind. When the Tigers initiated the play, Lee “CuVee” Seong-jin was able to follow down and catch out the Tigers — a move otherwise impossible had the Tigers left vision before attempting the dive.
As it stands, few teams in Korea can outperform the ROX Tigers in team fights. Until one team can, the ROX Tigers will not improve vision control, and that could be the catalyst for the ROX Tigers’ next defeat.
SK Telecom and MaRin: the Unfortunate Breakup
“Well I don’t know if anyone really won that game, but in the end SKT did kill the nexus so there you go,” OGN caster Erik “Doa” Lonnquist jested at the end of the first game between SKT and E-mFire.
He wasn’t wrong. Coming off a crushing defeat against the ROX Tigers, SKT came into its set Friday with plans to give Kang “Blank” Sun-gu easy experience. Let the new guy play in the booth and wrap up a quick series. What could go wrong?
A lot, as it turned out. Game 1 was a farce. SKT, despite having a split push E-mFire could not answer, was unable to cleanly close the game. Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok, the best player of all time, even tried to cheekily end it by using Twisted Fate’s ultimate to teleport behind E-mFire’s exposed nexus to solo it, only to be promptly killed. If it weren’t for the summoner names of the venerable SKT, one would assume it was a low elo ranked match.
As the cameras captured the drama inside the booths, E-mfire’s players were giggling and smiling after having done so well. SKT was not enthused.
“They do not look happy with the way they played,”MonteCristo said as Kim “kkOma” Jung-gyun entered the booth. kkOma addressed the team so visibly distressed that Doa joked about who kkOma was going to bench. During the discussion, kkOma, coach of the two time world champions, face palmed.
SKT’s day did not improve. In Game 2, E-mFire won every lane, handing SKT a beating that was previously expected to be reversed. Suk “Hipo” Hyun-jun repeatedly solo killed Lee “Duke” Ho-seong. Lee “Wolf” Jae-wan played an abysmal Bard. Blank’s ganks were awkward and forced, and they backfired. E-mFire won in a fashion that was unsettling. SKT was far from the team that triumphed at worlds.
Bae “Bengi” Seong-woong, SKT’s starting jungler, was brought in for the final game, and while he was able to smooth over SKT’s early game, it was still close. E-mFire maintained control over Dragon and achieved Aspect of the Dragon twice through the game. The saving grace for SKT was not its own. E-mFire incorrectly tried to force a baron when it needed to group and siege. SKT were able to collapse on them, take the baron, and save itself from further embarrassment by ending the game.
One could claim Blank was the reason SKT did so poorly in the series, and it’s true to a degree. His early vision control and execution were abysmal to say the least, but that doesn’t account for all of SKT’s mistakes. These players are some of the best at their positions, and yet E-mFire’s rag-tag team was able to match — and even outperform — them. Playing Bengi didn’t change that.
SKT showed some of its weaknesses before this series. Duke’s teleport plays have been largely mediocre in all of his games. He’s overextended without farm for vision and defaults to aggressive split-pushing when SKT falls behind. Bengi’s champion pool appeared exposable when SKT played Jin Air in Week 1: with Rek’Sai and Elise taken away, he played Evelyn, a champion not seen often, and he barely managed to function on it as he was caught out and killed repeatedly. He’s been invaded at his buffs and solo killed by carry junglers like Kindred in the hands of Park “Winged” Tae-jin. Still, these were mere blips, but after Friday’s match it’s clear SKT is not at the level many expected.
Jang “MaRin” Gyeong-Hwan, SKT’s former top laner and MVP of the 2015 World Championship, left the team to play for LGD gaming. His own play has been off, surprisingly. LGD forced him onto off-meta champions (all of which he has competitive experience on), and he seems lost on the map without Bengi’s vision control.
MaRin and SKT were a dynamic duo. They fit together, each side compensating for the other’s weakness. Now, with MaRin’s shot-calling absent from SKT, and SKT having to redevelop synergy with a new top laner, both are worse off.
Cover photo courtesy of Riot Games.