It has been two years since a Samsung League of Legends team has set foot on the international stage. Samsung White lifted the Summoner’s Cup at the 2014 World Championship under the evening sky in Sangam Stadium in its home country as its sister team, Samsung Blue, which White had eliminated in the semifinal, celebrated from the sidelines. No artist could have so perfectly illustrated the peninsula nation’s dominance over the esport as that moment. No writer could have conceived the tragic twist about to befall 2014’s most successful League of Legends organization.
Like a star too perfect to last, the brilliant light of Samsung vanished in an instant. Offers from Chinese team owners to Korea’s best talent came pouring in with paychecks too lucrative to pass up. More than 30 players left, including all 10 of Samsung’s that scattered across the Chinese league. This was the Korean Exodus of 2014.
Soon after, changes to the rules of OnGameNet’s circuit banned sister teams, thus restricting organizations to only a single team. This was a crucial change, as the sister team format gave teams a secretive scrim partner that was one of the factors as to how Korea caught up to and then surpassed Western teams despite entering the game later. OGN’s changes also resulted in a league akin to the League Championship Series in the West. It was a sudden transformation of the Korean scene and Samsung was left as a husk of its former self.
The pride of the region was now the ruins of a bygone era. Samsung was gutted, losing nearly everything it had built over the past few years. While other organizations meshed their sister teams together, Samsung was left to pick up discarded scraps or find new talent. Left to the monumental task was head coach Choi Woo-Beom.
“Rather than pressure, the lack of time was more difficult,” Woo-Beom told Fomos in September, 2015. “When you want to sign a player, you need at least a month to see how he plays, but I had to interview and test in a very short time frame. I was very stressed during the entire ordeal. Thankfully my experience watching solo queue helped me a lot.”
Woo-Beom assembled Lee “CuVee” Lee Seong-jin, Seo “Eve” Jun-cheol, Park “BlisS” Jong-won, Lee “Fury” Jin-yong (then known as ZetNjin) and Kwon “Wraith” Ji-min (then known as Casper). It was CuVee, Eve, and BlisS’ first team, while Fury had experience on Prime Optimus, and Wraith was a pro since Season 2, featured on teams like Jin Air Green Wings Stealth and SK Telecom T1 K. A far cry from the previous rosters of titans, Samsung entered 2015 with little hope.
Samsung finished last that spring with a 2-12 record but survived relegation by virtue of experience, and the organization moved to ensure that situation would never happen again. BlisS and his substitute, Kim “Ace” Ji-hoon, became familiar with the bench when Samsung made the first crucial roster change of its new age.
Lee “Crown” Min-ho is somewhat of an anomaly of Korean esports. Most Koreans who leave their home country for esports opportunities abroad go to another major region, either for opportunity or money, but Crown went to Brazil to play for Team 58ers and later KaBuM! Black through 2014. Homesick, he returned to Korea and was acquired by Samsung.
Crown was a breath of life into Samsung, which improved during the 2015 summer split but still finished seventh of 10 teams. Woo-Beom had a bright outlook, though.
“I’m very satisfied with…Crown,” he told osen. “Crown brings the competition out in other laners by heavily focusing on his own gameplay.”
Crown became one of the focal points for the team, both on the rift and in practice.
“I prioritized dedication,” Woo-Beom told Fomos in September 2015.” Luckily I’ve been in the pro gaming business for a long time, so I can quickly figure that out. I looked at whether a player had the right mindset, and can give their all. Without such a mindset, it’s difficult to grow. For example, Crown grew a lot during 4 months. When he started out, he just got into Challenger, and his mental strength was also not good. But maybe because he was a practice player for Starcraft 1, he knew what he needed to do. When I first interviewed him and asked why he wanted to be a pro gamer, he replied that gaming was the only thing he knew. I decided to pick him up in that moment. That is the mindset you need to succeed. You need to be proactive, and a fair amount of ambition as a player. Even when I look back at Starcraft 1, only the players with those traits went far. You can’t just be comfortable or enjoy the experience. You need ambition.”
With Crown motivating the team and Fury developing, Samsung looked to make a playoff bid the following year.
But in November, something unexpected occurred. In the KeSPA cup, Samsung was swept by eventual tournament winner ESC Ever, an amateur team that experienced remarkable success before joining LCK the following summer. Samsung looked like a disheveled mess, and Fury was looking to leave.
“We usually let the most well-fed teammate (shot-call). For example, if the ADC is the most fed, he makes the shot calls,” CuVee told xportsnews at the time. To Woo-Beom, that system did hold Samsung back, but it was a necessity at the time. “I feel that we would have done much better if we had a proper shot caller. I think it’s a little too greedy to want to change a team’s play style and strategy all in one season. So we didn’t rush anything. They’ve only been together for 10 months. I can’t expect the world from these players. I do give them feedback on what they need to do, and some players have a better time addressing those than others.”
His mind on other things, Fury’s last performance with Samsung was a mess. Hindsight paints the moment even sadder, as Fury’s return to competitive play with Longzhu following his competitive ban for tampering has left him a ghost of the AD Carry that starred for Samsung. Crown lost his partner in crime, and Fury’s replacements, the mediocre Jo “Core JJ” Yong-in from Dignitas and talented but aloof rookie Lee “Stitch” Seung-ju, didn’t match Fury’s mechanical ceiling.
But Woo-Beom was more concerned with finding a leader for the team. “We missed out on a lot of games that we could have won (due to poor shot calling.) Games that the coaching staff thought we would win, we threw. We lost while being too greedy, and being indecisive whether or not to go for dragon. If we had a reliable player to be the shot caller it would be fine, but the players are all similar in experience and no one can really step up. The standard is that the Jungle-Support are the shot callers, but we can’t do that well. Shot calling also necessitates a certain personality. For example, Mata was very good and made definitive calls. This year we lacked a player like him. We know that this is a problem, but it’s just not something we can fix that easily. When you’re ahead you need to balance offense with defense, but the players would make bad fight calls, and when they lose they become quiet.”
Woo-Beom found just the man to fill the vacant leadership: Kang “Ambition” Chan-yong.
Ambition’s career has been a long one, spanning two roles and four years. Sticking with the Blaze entity through its existence under Azubu and CJ Entus, Ambition’s departure from the organization carried a similar weight to what it would be like if Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok were to ever leave SK Telecom.
“At first because we had a lot of new players, we didn’t have a strong sense of focus,” Woo-Beom told osen in January. “After Ambition joined, we gained that focus and the atmosphere in the team got better.” Ironically, Woo-Beom stated he needed ambition from his players; it turned out he needed Ambition, the player.
“I’m extremely firm about what I think are obvious calls,” Ambition said recently “But when things aren’t that cut and dried, everyone gets a say.”
When asked about Ambition, Crown could only answer, “He’s just amazing.”
The impact was visible on the rift: Ambition’s presence gave Samsung more mental fortitude to remain competitive through series, and the progress was noted through this year’s spring split. Still, it wasn’t quite enough to make the postseason. The lack of a strong AD Carry, and Samsung’s struggles to finish games caused them to just miss the spring playoffs by losing a tiebreaker to Afreeca Freecs.
Samsung once more pursued changes and found what would be the final piece of the puzzle: Park “Ruler” Jae-hyuk. He was a rookie, but Samsung finally had an AD Carry with the consistency of Fury’s halcyon days, though it manifested in a cerebral rather than mechanical matter.
Samsung finally made playoffs and avenged its loss to Afreeca in spring by sweeping a playoff match. Samsung ran into an old enemy: KT Rolster.
Unlike the dominant SKT or the ferocious Tigers, KT Rolster was the only top three Korean team Samsung had never defeated since the exodus. That remained true in their first playoff meeting: despite CuVee’s impressive laning against the declining Kim “ssumday” Chan-ho, Samsung could not match KT Rolster’s impressive team fighting or contain Go “Score” Dong-bin in the early game. Samsung lost 3-0, as KT Rolster extended its dominance over Samsung to 19 games in a row.
With the regional final — and an outside chance at a worlds berth — looming, Crown, in frustration, sacrificed his vacation time in order to practice more. He had always been critical of himself, admitting to feeling down on himself whenever he didn’t perform well.
At the same time, an unexpected decision was made within the Samsung camp: CoreJJ would be playing over Wraith throughout the gauntlet. Wraith has been a solid support player for years, while CoreJJ only swapped to the role this summer and produced few good results. But CoreJJ communicated a lot more with the team than Wraith, and that gives Ambition important information to make decisions with. With the last shot for worlds in sight, do you trust Wraith or gamble on CoreJJ?
Choi Woo-Beom sided with CoreJJ.
“I have the principle of choosing the player who has better form during practice to play in competitive play, so I chose CoreJJ to follow through it,” he told Fomos.
The regional final came. Samsung advanced over Afreeca once again, dropping the first game with Helper but then sweeping them with CuVee in the lineup.
The final boss appeared: KT Rolster. Samsung’s shot at worlds would have to coincide with it defeating KT Rolster for the first time in years. The coach placed his faith in CoreJJ; in a back and forth five-games series, Samsung pulled off the miracle. CoreJJ and Ambition trapped Score’s elusive Nidalee, CuVee overwhelmed ssumday, and the team coordinated their globals masterfully to strike from the fog of war. CoreJJ’s performance still leaves us wondering if he has suddenly evolved into decent support player, or unbelievably peaked for a single week. Though Samsung’s record against KT now sits at 3-21, those three wins are far more valuable than all of KT’s against them.
Samsung was the face of Korean dominance. It became a shadow of that glory when it was faced with a total rebuild. Though slow, arduous, and sometimes embarrassing, Samsung continued to rebuild, like restoring a destroyed monument in a thunderstorm. Now, Samsung returns to worlds. Far from the favorites and humble with its goals, Samsung can look to make this yet another step on a path to reclaim the world championship at another time.
But there is fire within this squad. After all the hardships, what better way to justify them then by coming out of nowhere to take it all?
“I know how precious a chance at Worlds is,” Ambition said. “I won’t waste mine.”
Photos courtesy of Riot Games