European side Fnatic, a team featuring four rookies who topped Europe during a period of supposed relative weakness for the region, entered the tourney an underdog. But the team shined, taking Korean titans SK Telecom T1 to a fifth game before falling in the end.
Those two wins are the closest a Western team has come to beating a Korean squad in a best-of-five since 2012, and they did it thanks to solid play.
Fnatic and their rookie solo lane carries, Fabian “Febiven” Diepstraten and Heo “Huni” Seung-hoon, were fearless, backed by aggressive play from jungler Kim “Reignover” Yeu-jin and support Bora “YellOwStaR” Kim. They entered the series prepared to play their aggressive early game style in every game, with multiple compositions designed to support it, and caught the Korean team off guard.
The two teams swapped victories through the series as they edited their strategies in a complex set of picks and bans lead by two top notch coaches, SK Telecom T1’s Kim “Kk0ma” Jeong-gyun and Fnatic Luis “Deilor” Sevilla.
In the first two games, Fnatic baited SK Telecom by leaving Leblanc open in both games. Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok has never lost a match with that champion, but SK Telecom T1 prioritized jungler Rek’Sai over the mid lane pick, leaving it up for Febiven. While it didn’t work in game one despite Fnatic scoring an early lead, the Dutch mid laner was dominant in game two, a 10/0/5 KDA line with the assassin while completely shutting down Faker’s Ahri with a little help from YellOwStaR’s perfect stuns with Annie.
In game three, SK Telecom T1 switched up their pick and ban. Instead of removing Cassiopeia they left the powerful late game mage open in favor of banning out YellOwStaR, leaving the medusa open as a flex pick in the hands of Huni and Febiven. But Huni was ineffective with it in the top lane, missing multiple ultimates. While Febiven scored two impressive solo kills on Faker’s Azir with Zed, the team couldn’t build a big enough lead to survive the SK late game.
Game four, though, was the Reignover show. The Fnatic jungler, imported from Korea after he failed a tryout for SK Telecom T1 itself, showcased his talents as Fnatic first picked Rek’sai. Instead of the typical cinderhulk build, Reignover favored the warrior enchant and wrecked SK in the early game, building a massive lead for Fnatic.
That led to questions of whether Bae “Bengi” Seong-ung, a player known for his cerebral style and not his mechanics, was perhaps out of his element in the series, one step behind in the mechanics-filled skirmishes favored by Fnatic. SK Telecom T1 opted to bring Lee “Easyhoon” Ji-hoon to the MSI instead of their jungle substitute Im “T0M” Jae-hyeon, who plays a more instinctive style. Would that decision come back to hurt?
Not if the 2013 World Champion Bengi had anything to say about.
SK Telecom T1 picked Nunu in the jungle and Bengi use the yeti to control Fnatic’s jungle and shut down Reignover. Fnatic secured just two of their own jungle buffs and failed to gain an early lead with skirmishes for the first time in the series. That set up Faker’s Cassiopeia to obliterate Fnatic in the late game, ending the series.
Huni stood and clapped as his team surrendered, happy that Fnatic gave the crowd a show, something they had not seen since 2012—a Western team taking a Korean powerhouse to the wire.
“They were a lot better than I expected,” Faker said while addressing the crowd after winning one of the most exciting series of League of Legends ever.
SK Telecom will now advanced to the MSI final where they seek to prove Korea is still the pinnacle of League of Legends, but they’ll face another stiff foe: likely Chinese powerhouse EDward Gaming, whose early game is just as dangerous as Fnatic’s but backs it up with even better team fighting.
For now, though, we can sit back and enjoy an exciting series that’s ensured this tournament is one to remember.
It was a spectacular display in all regards, a treat for the sellout crowd of ten thousand plus. A battle between the best of two regions, an SK Telecom titan and the world’s best player against a group of young upstarts from Europe. The cat and mouse game between two coaches adjusting their lineups from game to game. The potential for SK Telecom to bring in a different weapon in the mid lane, but their resolve to stay with Faker. The clash of Fnatic’s all-out offense and SK Telecom’s more measured approach.
That’s what the Mid-Season Invitational, and League of Legends, is all about.