Victory is an island: the only refuge in the vast sea of defeat. Some never see it and drown in defeat, eventually becoming lost to history. Some make it to the island but never leave more than a footprint on the beach. Some inhabit it and build an empire among the peaks of its mountains.
Only one has fought his way from the depths of the sea to reach those mountains.
Everything was on the line for the ROX Tigers. For the first time in League Champions Korea’s two year history, SK Telecom T1, the reigning king of League of Legends, was not in the grand final. KT Rolster had usurped SKT, poetically avenging a defeat three years ago with a reverse sweep. One could call that a favor to ROX Tigers: SKT had taken first from them in the spring of 2015 and 2016, and SKT defeated the Tigers in last year’s world final. KT, then, had removed the Tigers’ greatest adversary, but in doing so put them under the greatest pressure.
If the Tigers lost, their legacy would have twisted from the team unfortunate enough to exist in the era of SKT to the team that could never win the big game. ROX had the historical record against KT; then again, so did SKT. KT’s revenge against the Tigers for its quarterfinal exit at worlds would have decimated the future memory of the ROX Tigers. Perhaps beyond repair.
This weighed on the Tigers’ minds as they fought KT. They made unusual mistakes: their flawless crowd control chaining malfunctioned at times; desperation took hold of them as they forced awkward engages that were not rewarded; Han “Peanut” Wang-ho again looked frightened with everything on the line for his team.
Fortunately for Peanut, he was surrounded by friends who did not collapse under the familiar pressure. Lee “KurO” Seo-haeng, Kim “PraY” Jong-in, Kang “GorillA” Beom-hyeon, and Song “Smeb” Kyung-ho had been a four man unit for the past year with more than their fair share of tasting of defeat.
And Smeb had enough of that.
Ever since his days on Incredible Miracle, Smeb had been a castaway. He started as a horrible player on a bad team, and lost deservedly. When he joined the Tigers, he had become a good player chasing the greatness that always eluded him. IEM Katowice, two LCK finals, worlds: all slipped through his fingers. But this time, he grabbed the chance and refused to let go. He opened Game 1 with a solo kill on Kim “ssumday” Chan-ho. He ended the match by stealing a 2 HP Baron when Go “Score” Dong-bin missed a career-defining smite.
The entire identity of ROX Tigers was on display: loudly cheering in their booths, they persevered together. Each fulfilled his role, whether it was KurO roaming on Taliyah, PraY engaging with Enchanted Crystal Arrow, GorillA flanking the fight that broke the game wide open, Peanut erring on the side of aggression, or Smeb clutching when it was absolutely necessary.
When they destroyed the nexus in game five, they all embraced each other in a cacophony of cheers and crying. For the first time, they were released from the booth to go that trophy they longed for. They held it, hoisted it into the air, took their turns blessing it with their tears and lips. After years of hard work and bitter defeats, they finally had a title to share with each other.
This band of misfits has done what should have been impossible. They were rejects from other teams and sponsors casted out when sister teams were removed from the Korean circuit. They came together with little expectations. At first, their success was explained by their veterancy in an otherwise fresh proving ground, yet that no longer applied as they continued to hold as one of the best teams in Korea. They struggled to secure a sponsor, and have been without one since last summer. They had no money, little coaching staff, and no fancy gaming house. Yet, in the land of infrastructure and the most competitive region in the entire world, these misfits defeated the very sponsors and teams that disregarded them without that assistance. Friendship beat the business. It’s a modern day fairy tale.
With this victory, Smeb and GorillA escape a haunting list: best of their positions to never win a championship. Their careers are no longer shackled to the dungeon where names like Score and Lee “Flame” Ho-jong are still imprisoned. For Smeb in particular, he is one step closer to the apex of his rise from worst to best top laner.
Earlier this year, Smeb conducted an interview with OSEN. In it, he said: “Last year, SK Telecom won the LCK Spring, LCK Summer, and World championship… It was completely SK Telecom’s year. I want to make 2016 the Tigers’ year.”
The Tigers didn’t claim this spring, but they did summer. Now, they turn their eyes to worlds as Korea’s first seed. SKT, their old nemesis, awaits. Off historical precedence alone, one can imagine SKT showing up to worlds in a form fit to take it all again and defend its championship. If Smeb wants to make 2016 the Tigers’ year and write his name on the list of the greatest top laners of all time, then he, KurO, Peanut, PraY, and GorillA will have to rip SKT’s crown out of its hands.
Until then, enjoy the view of the sea from the mountainside, Tigers.