Game, set, rematch: What to look for when SKT and Samsung Galaxy meet again in the Worlds final
This 2017 Worlds story is brought to you by Predator.
League of Legends season seven has been incredible.
We've seen everything from super teams to fairy tales and stadium-rocking excitement. And now, we are somehow back where it all started: At the end of last year's World Championship, when SK Telecom T1 raised the Summoner's Cup after defeating Samsung Galaxy in five grueling games. Many wanted a rematch then. We're getting it now.
Everything that's happened this year has led to this rematch between these two storied franchises. One team on the climb to immortality, the other looking for redemption. Through ups and downs, and those moments when they were doubted most, these two teams kept the faith and showed us all that they deserve this one last shot at each other. One last series with esports history on the line.
Who has the edge when these two juggernauts throw down at the Bird's Nest stadium in Beijing on Nov. 4?
Never been done
Three straight World titles is totally unprecedented in esports. The closest thing that we've seen to the opportunity that stands before SKT was when StarCraft legend Lee "Flash" Young-ho went into his third straight OSL final in 2010. But after going up 2-0, Flash lost to Kim "EffOrt" Jung Woo in a stunning reverse sweep that shocked the esports world.
Three straight World titles is totally unprecedented in esports.
Like Flash, SKT will go into this weekend's match as big favorites. Samsung have shown tremendous improvement not only throughout the year, but over the last couple weeks. But still, this is SKT. Victory should be assured, right?
Expect coach Kim "kkOma" Jung-gyun to have them prepared and not overconfident. SKT have improved this summer as well. They went through an unprecedented four-game losing streak, survived a rough group stage mostly unscathed, and then made it through increasingly harder challenges to make the final. They've innovated and proven they can win multiple ways, a must at this stage of play.
Another shot at the crown
Lee "Crown" Min-ho, Samsung's mid laner, has a lot on his mind after last year's Worlds defeat. It was his lane against Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok that many thought would define the series. Crown was a fine mid in the LCK, but the Worlds meta unlocked his top level and he went on a rampage through lesser teams. Crown acquitted himself well against Faker, but in the deciding fifth game, it was Faker who came through, ironically on Viktor, the champion that had made Crown so dangerous.
This rematch is personal for Crown. It always is for the team's best player, the one that everyone looks at to carry games. Maybe that pressure got to Crown last year. Maybe it never left: Crown's been inconsistent for much of the year, unable to quite find that magical form he discovered last October.
Thankfully for Samsung, others have stepped up. Lee "CuVee" Seong-jin and Park "Ruler" Jae-hyuk have stepped up big time. CuVee has been one of the most underappreciated stars in the top lane, and his laning prowess helped keep Longzhu Gaming and Team WE down in the last two rounds. Both teams found it tough sledding to split push against both him and Samsung's superior macro play.
The biggest question mark: Jungle
The biggest question mark in the rematch, however, is not Crown vs. Faker. It is not whether CuVee can continue to dominate split pushers and put down Heo "Huni" Seung-hoon, who's had his moments after revitalizing his season in the LCK Final. Nor is it which teamfight-oriented bot lane will survive lane phase and make a greater impact on the game.
The biggest question is in the jungle position. Jungle has been an area of concern for Samsung ever since Choi "DanDy" In-kyu and Lee "Spirit" Da-yoon left in the great Korean exodus following the 2014 season. Eventually they picked up a converted mid laner, Kang "Ambition" Chan-yong.
Ambition is known as a steady, farm-til-late jungler, someone who doesn't like to get involved until the victory is sure. In a large way, his style has dictated how Samsung like to play: Drafting for fights, getting engage from multiple sources, including the ADC, and playing around late-game objectives. No matter what goes wrong for them, their superior late macro can often secure them a victory.
But over the last two weeks, Ambition has turned into a totally different player. He's started to play around river vision early, and has even taken some forays into the enemy jungle. After his team got stomped in the first game last week against Team WE, he set the tone for the rest of the series by invading and killing WE jungler Xiang "Condi" Ren-jie at his own wolves.
But over the last two weeks, Ambition has turned into a totally different player.
Samsung's ability to play around mid pressure with Ambition supporting and use that to force in the bot lane was something WE couldn't handle. In actuality, it's what WE like to do. Samsung just did it better. They took all of WE's global pressure away and cut the legs out from the Chinese squad.
And when it came to those late objectives, Ambition still shone. Team WE were able to find good fights—nothing less would be expected from an LPL team. But those fights never turned into major objectives, like Baron, or even lesser ones like turrets. For the second straight series, Samsung's surprising wave pressure, combined with superior macro, made for easy objectives.
SKT can match any style
SKT also have faced a jungler dilemma. Han "Peanut" Wan-ho, the supposed starter, has taken a while to acclimate to SKT's steady style that requires him to play around his lanes. Last year, with ROX Tigers, Peanut was best when aggressively invading pressure around the top side. He loved to live in the enemy jungle and play mind games with his opponent.
That's not SKT's style. They've played with top pressure in the past, but it's usually to help the laner, not the jungler. Season seven jungle changes, namely with catchup experience, have also made winning the jungle less important. The Peanut that Samsung saw in the LCK summer playoffs was the reserved one, who controlled for vision and objectives and helped SKT slowly wear down their opponents. It looked like ROX Peanut was gone, transformed into a more careful player.
In the deciding fifth game against Royal last week, SKT unleashed ROX Peanut once again to astounding effect. He ran straight from red buff to the bot lane, bypassing all sorts of camps on the way to get his bot lane a kill. That has to be weighing on Samsung. While struggling through the summer split, SKT relied more on Kang "Blank" Sun-gu, the steady veteran, the yin to Peanut's yang. Blank performed, but he was also predictable. Peanut gives SKT another level, one that Ambition, despite his improvements, may not be able to reach.
Ambition will have to be prepared for all sorts of paths and jungle styles. KkOma has no issue with mid-series subs, and the players seem to respond positively to lineup changes. SKT entered the tournament wondering if jungle would be a weakness and whether one jungler could finally prove himself. Turns out, both have been useful and proven that jungle is a source of diversity and strength.
Who gets the call?
The last thing to note is, despite some of the questions that have been raised about Samsung's level of play (some of which are unfounded), this team is built to win. They were the best team for much of the LCK summer—only a late surge from Longzhu kept them from first place. Their subsequent 0-3 loss to SKT in the playoffs kept them off the radar of fans and pundits heading into Worlds. Some indifferent group stage games kept them there.
But this team is good. Of all the Worlds teams, they match up best with SKT. With Ambition's newfound aggression, they can play around any lane. They can play for late game and control objectives. They have the motivation, the experience, and the talent—everything you need to take down the defending champions.
Of all the Worlds teams, they [Samsung] match up best with SKT.
But SKT are the defending champions for a reason. They, too, have been doubted, despite all their accomplishments through the years. And they've overcome everything, especially when the stakes are highest. Now, they have a chance to accomplish something truly special, an achievement that would put them above any other team in the history of esports.
This series should go five games. Any less would be a disappointment. In a match that close, anything can happen. But at the end of the day, it's hard not to see SKT rising above and capturing the trophy. It's what they do—who they are, even.
Our call is for another SKT win, and with it, history.