A new rivalry in League of Legends came to life last year when the Tigers and SK Telecom clashed in the spring and World Championship final. Despite the Tigers’ periods of dominance, they never peaked at the right time, always lagging behind SKT as the final battle approached.
This time it’s different.
The two powerhouses will meet again Saturday in the spring finals of League Champions Korea. With the addition of Yoon “Peanut” Wang-ho, the Tigers weak link disappeared. With a carry jungler metagame, Peanut dominated the map with the rest of his teammates. There is no repeat of the Cinderhulk situation from last year: the jungle remains the same as to what Peanut has been prowling for the entire split. Kang “GorillA” Beom-hyeon has shined as the best support in Korea, with magnificent team fight play and an accurate sense of where the enemy team is going to be. In the low vision style that ROX Tigers have, that awareness is vital.
ROX Tigers have been groomed for this meeting. They had more than their fill of defeat last year. At the time it was damaging, as their confidence waxed and waned with their rise and fall in the standings. But tumultuous times teaches the strong how to maintain composure. The Tigers dropped some games this split, but did not go on large losing streaks as in the past. Learning how to take defeat in stride, the Tigers are no longer ones to cower to adversity.
SKT also underwent roster swaps. The departure of Jang “MaRin” Gyeong-Hwan cost SKT its primary shot caller, a void not filled by replacement Lee “Duke” Ho-seong. Two time world champion Bae “Bengi” Seong-woong was out of place in a jungle that called for aggression and not vision control. It wasn’t until rookie Kang “Blank” Sun-gu got much needed experience at IEM that SKT finally adapted to the jungle. Through it all, Bae “Bang” Jun-sik remained the living face of consistency and Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok could turn a game on its head regardless how many mistakes he made. It took time for SKT to refine Duke’s teleports and to develop shotcalling, but coach Kim “kkOma” Jung-gyun guided SKT through the turmoil to its third consecutive League Champions Korea final.
For SKT, this final is the platform to send a message to Korea and the world: no matter what, SKT is the king. It may have its slumps and players may leave, but kkOma can groom anyone into a champion. With Faker at the core, SKT can outlast everyone.
For ROX Tigers, this is redemption–a second chance at glory by tearing it from SKT’s own hands.
“I’ve been saying I don’t care who makes it up (to the final) in all the interviews so far, but I hate SK Telecom the most,” Song “Smeb” Kyung-ho said in an interview with Osen (translated here). “I still remember how much we lost to them last season…everyone struggled a lot whenever we played them this season. I want to be under the least amount of pressure and feel comfortable to show the highest level of performance in the finals.”
Unfortunately for Smeb’s wish, the Tigers will have to overcome those haunting memories. On the stage facing the rival that took everything from them last year, now is the time for ROX Tigers to wash away the regrets of 2015. Smeb might have wanted less pressure to show his best, but it will take exactly that for this match. The Tigers must defeat not only the SKT in the server, but the mythical giant in their heads.
Although they play in different positions, Smeb and Faker are locked in one of the oldest breeds of rivalry. Faker debuted as the best natural talent League of Legends had ever seen, and he immortalized himself in the mythos of the esport through his highlights, accomplishments, and undeniable greatness. Ever faithful to SKT, Faker refused exuberant offers from other teams, some in other regions, to stay true to his original brand. He never needed to worry about his wellbeing or career.
Smeb, on the other hand, was forgettable. Outclassed in his first years of play, he was one of the worst Korean players, deplored during his time on Incredible Miracle. But he never gave up: he trained diligently until he was given a new chance when approached by the Tigers at the end of 2014. Slowly, he chipped away at his old reputation, showing time and time again how much he improved. His champion pool is unlimited, his versatility rivaling Faker’s, and his sense of when he can assault the backline for a crushing team fight victory is predatory. In conversations about who the best top laner in the world is, he was overlooked throughout 2015 by some in favor of the more successful Marin. But now no one competes with him for that title. The only thing missing is a championship.
The underdog vs. the reigning champion, the low class warrior against the born-elite, the hard-worker fighting the talented. It’s a storyline explored any form of media a story can be shared through come alive on the stage of esports.
On Saturday, Faker, the best player of all time, will defend his LCK title. Smeb, the loser who became a god, reaches for the pinnacle of success, and the strongest once again stands in his way. SKT has a reputation to upkeep as the greatest. The Tigers want to shred their own apart and show the world that anyone who puts in the work can become a champion.
Photos courtesy of Riot Games. Cover photo remix by Slingshot.