A mid-tier Korean League of Legends team swept through the Intel Extreme Masters Championship in Katowice.
No, it’s not 2014.
Last weekend, SK Telecom, reigning world champions, swept through the tournament just in time to make its early dinner reservation despite being sixth in the standings in League Champions Korea with a 5-4 record. This is the second time a mid-tier Korean team swept through an IEM Championship, the first being KT Rolster Bullets in IEM Season VIII (2014).
This result is not a shock: in fact, it was expected by most. While that has much to do with the disparity of competition facing the Korean representatives at the tournaments, it is also reflective of the established culture and understanding of regional power in League of Legends. The Korean Dynasty is real: it has been for the past three years.
The telecom takeovers
The similarities between IEM Season VIII and X’s results are numerous and rich with coincidental irony. The single professional Korean team in attendance swept the tournaments, both of which were sponsored by a telecom company. In each case, said Korean teams used to be the best in their region until usurped (SK Telecom happened to be the team which defeated KT Rolster Bullets for the Summer 2013 Champions title, the highest Bullets ever placed within Korean tournaments), and had Lee Ho-seong as top laner, playing with the IGN “Leopard” with KT, and “Duke” on SKT.
All this culminates to a single conclusion that has been evident for quite some time: Korea is the best.
That said, the contexts of the tournaments couldn’t be more different. KT Rolster Bullets’ run was a surprise to many: this team didn’t even attend the 2013 World Championship, yet handedly beat the likes of Invictus Gaming, Gambit, and Fnatic, all of which were among the best in their regions at the time. IG was a team that could upset Team WE, which consistently placed in the top-three of LoL Pro League the prior year. Gambit’s players still possessed the legendary talent of the Moscow 5 days, were top-three in the European League Championship Series and placed in seventh at worlds in 2013.
The classic Fnatic lineup, now featuring Rekkles, was leading Europe and had a semifinal finish at worlds. These were the noteworthy teams that Bullets defeated, though other competitors like Cloud9 and aforementioned Team WE were also leaders in their region.
This year’s field doesn’t come close. China’s Qiao Gu Reapers and Royal Never Give Up, despite being the best from their region, were both beaten by Fnatic in best-of-three series in sloppy fashion unbefitting teams that represent a region’s strongest. Fnatic itself was only the fifth seed in Europe, a result of losing most of its roster from last year and struggles to integrate the new one. Origen was Europe’s sixth, with an offseason mid lane change not benefitting it as most anticipated.
Counter Logic Gaming and Team SoloMid represented North America. CLG’s one dimensional strategy was exposed in the group stage, resulting in its elimination when some predicted it to make the semifinals. TSM, on the other hand, advanced to the semis only to be hammered by SKT. Lastly, there was EVER Esc, the Korean challenger squad who won IEM Cologne 2015 and KeSPA Cup to make it to Katowice, where TSM properly dispatched them in loser’s bracket.
SKT’s dominating run was expected; Bullets’ was not. But that difference is also a product of the context in which we find ourselves regarding competitive League of Legends.
The return of the kings
A Korean team has been the world champion for the past three years. When such a team fails to secure the championship at an international event, it is an exception to the rule. In 2014, the notion of Korean dominance was in its formative stages after SKT first won the World Championship for Korea. When the Bullets swept IEM, it was the declaration of Korea’s takeover, with Samsung White’s crowning in 2014 making it de-facto. When the Korean Exodus occurred, speculation of the end — or at least suspension — of Korea’s rule followed. This was supported by GE Tiger’s failure at IEM Katowice 2015 and EDward Gaming’s victory over SKT at the Mid Seasonal Invitational.
Then all Korean teams in the 2015 World Championship were only eliminated by their countrymen in the bracket stages, and the first all-Korean final took place. Korea reclaimed its throne.
This passing IEM is a punctuation in the story of Korean rule: a rhyme indicating the return to the status quo. Korea plays the best League of Legends on the planet. No amount of money, importation if talent, or infantile infrastructure will change that.
Cover photo by Helena Kristiansson/ESL, eslgaming.com