KOO d'État : The First All-Korean Finals
In the semifinals of the League of Legends World Championship, after North America went 0-10 in Week 2 of the group stages, it was Europe's turn to turn in a winless week when both of their representatives fell 0-3 to their respective opponents for an 0-6 week. Even so, Fnatic and Origen shouldn't be ashamed of their 3rd/4th place finishes as they have defied the odds already. After all, their opponents were Korean teams : KOO Tigers and SK Telecom. With that, we finally have our two finalists.
To no surprise, SK Telecom is the heavy favorite going into this one. They've been absolutely dominant thus far in the tournament. Yet, this display of supremacy was already notorious before the start of Worlds as they had stellar spring and summer splits in the LCK where they captured both crowns. In the course of their reign of terror back in Korea, the misfits that are the KOO Tigers have had their fair share of nightmares as the last time they beat SKT in a best-of series goes back to last Valentine's Day in a 2-1 victory. Since that fulfilling date, KOO have exclusively been oppressed by the Korean overlords that are SK Telecom. Withal, behind SKT's back, the Tigers have been plotting to overthrow them as Korea's, or even the World's, top team when it counts most. Their opportunity has finally come to exact their long awaited revenge, fittingly on the grandest stage of them all. All this time, they were plotting their coup d'État...or their KOO d'État rather.
Rise To Power
SK Telecom are back in the finals where they can once again grace the Summoner's Cup. It's been two years since Season 3 champions Faker and Bengi lifted that very trophy. In Season 4, staying true to a curse that still lives to this day which implies that when a team wins Worlds they don't even show up to the tournament the following year. Instead, Korea was dominated by both Samsung teams, Blue and White. They transitioned that sovereignty to the international stage when Samsung White captured the title of "best team in the world". Meanwhile, Faker was left in the dust. He was in Korea where Worlds were held, yes. Yet, arguably the best player of all time was a mere spectator.
Anxious to take back his throne and see the world from above once again, Season 5 is Faker and SKT's homecoming so far. With OGN limiting the amount of teams per organisation to one coming into this new season, the Korean powerhouse revamped their roster, fusing both SKT 1K and SKT 1S. The merger has proven to be fruitful as they added much needed leadership with MaRin in the top lane and a very consistent bottom lane composed of Wolf & Bang. Also, SKT has been the most successful team to manage substitutes with another star waiting on the bench in the form of Easyhoon. This year, this rejuvenated squad won both LCK splits, including an incredible 17-1 record in the summer split that launched them back to where they can truly restore their former glory, an unlikely turnaround especially in esports to say the least.
Along the road that they set ablaze, there's a roadblock that's still on fire but not completely vaporized just yet. That roadblock is the group of misfits named the KOO Tigers. A newly formed team this year with 2 former members of bottom of the standings team Incredible Miracle, 2 former members of Najin Black Sword including PraY that was in fact retired at the time and finally, to prevent us from rating them lower than the aforementioned Incredible Miracle, they signed the very established support player GorillA. Although at first this team didn't inspire much optimism when we looked at it on paper, with a 8-0 start to their LCK debut together and consequently an invitation to Intel Extreme Masters - Katowice, early on in the year they were coded as the best team in the world, not SKT. However, winning a title at their first international event together was not meant to be as they were upset by China's 12th place team.
Thus, that definitely proved to be a dent in this new team's armor and more cracks ensued. Despite finishing the LCK Spring split with an impressive 12-2 record, ultimately, SK Telecom seemed to have solved their puzzle when they took that split's title in their clash with KOO in the finals. They did so in beating them 3-0 without notably even using both of their former World champions as Easyhoon and T0M were the starters for all 3 games. The Tigers came back in the summer split with lingering struggles as their crippling early game failed, and still does, to improve. Nonetheless, especially considering that this band of brothers was formed this year, the fact that their 2nd place in the spring split and their 3rd place in the summer split gathered enough circuit points to secure their World Championship berth is nothing short of spectacular.
Breaking It Down
There are many reasons as to why SK Telecom are the favorites in this upcoming final. They're simply unwavering. This is a team that's 12-0 in the most important tournament of the year and they have a chance to make it 15-0. That win streak is even more impressive when you take into account their dominance in Korea before coming to Europe. This is a team that hasn't even lost an inhibitor in 12 matches. It is to be noted that AHQ still gave them some troubles in the third game of their head-to-head and, also, Origen gave them a run for their money in the first game of their series. Nonetheless, in both cases, SKT would have had room to work with. Yet, in the end, that flexibility wasn't necessary as SKT still closed out both of those games, as they always do.
The Korean overlords have been flawless at closing games. They smell blood, they visit the wound and they tear it wide open. When an opening arises, they practically always take the most optimal decision to follow up on that opening. If an opponent overextends in their field of vision, they catch him. What happens next? Ordinary teams would usually respond by attempting a siege in the mid lane for example. Instead, SK Telecom would start dragon. Then, the enemy team makes its way to contest it. Meanwhile, MaRin continues his split push in the top lane. His squad runs away with dragon while he takes down a turret. Thus, the gap just widened in the blink of an eye. SKT know the limits of their champions, their players and even the enemy team's components. Their style is calculated, meticulous and as close as perfect as you can get.
An important statistic in how they force mistakes from their opponents is that MaRin and his team are ranked 1st among 16 in the World Championship for Average percentage of enemy wards cleared. They deny vision to force a facecheck, to enable MaRin to split push practically two lanes simultaneously (see his game 2 against Origen where MaRin puts on a clinic on how to split push) or to control neutral objectives by instilling a feeling of powerlessness. However, they are ranked 11th in terms of Wards per minute. Interestingly enough, KOO Tigers are ranked 2nd in that regard. Contrasting even more the approach of both teams, KOO are ranked 14th in the aforementioned category that SKT sits atop.
|Vision control||SK Telecom||KOO Tigers|
|Average enemy wards cleared (%)||34,1 (1)||27,9 (14)|
|Wards per minute||3,27 (11)||3,76 (2)|
Basically, for the band of brothers, through their brotherly communication, their vision control sets up really well their plays and whatever plan they have in mind but they don't consider as much what can the enemy see. Their approach could be better but it has undoubtedly paid them dividends thus far. They stifled so many proactive attempts from Fnatic in their semifinal clash. Usually the Tigers, especially in the early game, ward defensively. When the enemy team is willing to dive the bottom duo of GorillA and PraY, expect a double teleport from Smeb and KurO because they will surely be ready to react cohesively with their defensive warding.
To elaborate on proactiveness, if the band of brothers really want to find a way to win, they can't simply wait on SK Telecom's errors because, especially these days, they'll have a better chance finding a needle in a haystack. I think that they need to surprise SK Telecom, in terms of pocket picks as much as aggressiveness. Easyhoon has claimed that he preferred facing KOO because there's less of a mystery factor. Why play as the KOO that SKT knows then? I'm aware that it's easier said than done but thinking outside the box is never a bad thing. If you want to achieve something we've never seen, you have to do things we've never seen.
In terms of talent, to many readers's dismay, personally I think the gap isn't as wide as the general opinion may claim, especially after the players of KOO surged in the Korean solo queue ladder after failing at Katowice (Also, after a month or so, PraY is 3rd in the European solo queue ladder right now). Both teams just use their talent differently because they play differently. Bang & Wolf against GorillA & PraY? I think it can as duos they can both contribute somewhat equally when you break down a whole game. Hojin against Bengi? Bengi definitely ganks more often but Hojin protects his laners more than anything with his underrated vision control. The biggest mismatch is definitely the mid lane and as I've pointed out in my previous article, I predicted that Febiven would have his way against KurO and, to many regards, he did in terms of the 1 versus 1. Faker can probably push the advantage further. However, it's hard to tell who it advantages most but both of these Korean mid laners know each other so well as they have clashed all season long in the LCK. The most crucial question is whether or not KurO can stay relevant even after losing the laning phase as he so often does. It simply goes along with his style. He hardly plays for his lane. Staying true to his team's playstyle, KurO shines when his team shines : during team fights. He displayed his proficiency outside of the laning phase with a massive performance on Kassadin against Fnatic in the first game of that series. After a painful laning phase against Febiven, he waited for the power spikes of his champion and displayed how Kassadin counters Leblanc, even clinching a quadra kill. Despite these 3 matchups, the one to watch is definitely Smeb against MaRin.
- Matchup to watch : the race to the MVP award
Leading up to the World Championship, many speculated that the meta was definitely favoring top lane carries. Hailing out of Korea, Smeb and MaRin defined what top lane carries are. They lived up to the expectations as they have performed incredibly until now. Quite frankly, these are the two favorites for the MVP award this year. They have both been the main catalysts of their respective team's victories and their paths finally meet again. This matchup is indeed mouthwatering. Yet, they have battled many times already this year and MaRin has largely outclassed his opposing top laner. Here are the statistics for when SKT and the Tigers clashed this season :
MaRin, as always, shows that he is a different animal. The important thing to note is that his team enables him to. He is able to turn in these stellar performances because SKT attributes an astronomical amount of gold into their star top laner and with good reason. Korean teams have always been knowledgeable and these circumstances are no different to showcase their ability to adapt. It's a top lane meta, where does investing my gold bring the highest return rate? It's an even easier decision when your top lane player is an absolute star.
As far as Worlds are concerned, Smeb has been on a tear. He's had an imposing string of opponents so far in the tournament going against the likes of Zionspartan, Steak, the Ace Ssumday and, most recently, Huni. Through these trials and tribulations, Smeb has persevered and caught the attention of every viewer. Indeed, he managed to maintain the highest KDA among top laners with 5,3 and he has the highest number of kills among any player at Worlds with 74 kills in 13 games. While MaRin has honestly performed at the level that I expected of him, Smeb seems to scratch a new surface. If he truly hopes to lead his team to victory, claim the Summoner's Cup and, almost systematically, claim the MVP award, Smeb undeniably needs to keep up his mean streak or even go beyond what has been a monumental performance already.
For the upcoming finals of the League of Legends World Championship, I wanted to point out three storylines.
First, SK Telecom has the opportunity to claim the organisation's second world title and, for Bengi and Faker, they will be the first players to ever win Worlds twice. They could possibly add to those credentials an undefeated run to the Summoner's Cup. They are currently 12-0 after sweeping Group C 6-0, after sweeping AHQ 3-0 and after sweeping Origen 3-0. That's a lot of sweeping, as if they were janitors. Now it's time to take out the trash if they want to staple their mark in history with a 3-0 sweep against KOO Tigers on Saturday and secure their trophy with a 15-0 record throughout the tournament. With that, we could assume that they are the greatest team of all time.
Second, KOO Tigers have the opportunity to play spoilers and crash the party. Practically nobody believes they can win against SK Telecom. Not only did practically nobody, except one faithful Pick'Em, foresee these finals but he too has KOO losing. They haven't beaten them since Valentine's Day and that was a 2-1 victory in a best of 3. Who knows if it were a best of 5 if SKT would have won 3-2 in the end? Despite the skepticism, the band of brothers can already be proud of themselves as they've made it to the finals and that's an accomplishment already. Yet, if the Tigers do pull out a jaw-dropping upset, I believe it would actually be good for the community as heartwarming as it could be. It would be one of those tales where the quote would probably be along the lines of "Impossible is nothing". They grouped up this year, they have deep friendship bonds, they're full of energy, they have personality, they have sponsorship issues, they're the underdogs but they're having fun the whole way. That's what video games are about after all.
Finally, Korea versus Korea? Wait, are we really in Season 5? The season that was supposed to leave Korea crippled from losing around 20 members of their talent pool. The year that China was supposed to place their best bet at a world title. Yet here we are, we have the first ever all-Korean finals. The embattled country persevered and proved that their infrastructure is second to none as they have successfully fostered yet again their talent by sending 3 world class teams to Europe in the wake of this tournament. Many critics claimed that the only reason KOO Tigers were able to succeed in the LCK this year was because the best players of Korea left the country. Again, I need to point out that they're in the finals and, as far as results are concerned, they've done better than any other team. Except one. SK Telecom. This is SKT's second appearance in a world final and they have definitely pioneered thus far Korea's supremacy in the League of Legends scene. Most notably, as the best player in the world, Faker was offered to play outside of Korea too but he cared about his country's success and, at this point, I doubt he regrets at all to have stayed since he is so close to materialize his resolve.
Can the KOO Tigers fulfill their coup? Can the power of friendship overthrow the almost robotic force of SKT? Many may say no but, fundamentally, nobody knows. To their defense, I believe that KOO have had the most difficult road leading up to the finals. Withal, they still flourished against whatever obstacle was put in front of them and those trials certainly made them a better team. Yet, SK Telecom are as perfect a team can be. It may seem like a predictable final just like the last two but I still think this is more than worth your while to tune in. KOO can definitely pull out a comeback that can stun us all or, even if SKT does stomp the Tigers, it's still a phenomenal accomplishment to win Worlds undefeated. It might be sad for Western fans that the finals don't feature any of their teams but we're talking about a Korean team going toe-to-toe with a Korean team. If you're looking for top-notch League of Legends, where the stakes have never been higher, this is the finals to watch. Find out who graces the Summoner's Cup this year. Do it for the game we all love and play.
My name is Christopher "Wave" Phakjarung and, as always, I sincerely thank you for reading.