ROX Tigers - The Curse of Second
“I’d rather fail than get second.” - soO, SC2 player and 4-time runner up of the GSL
This was the moment. This was the time. This was the place. On April 23rd, the ROX Tigers faced off against SK Telecom T1 for a third time in the League of Legends Korean Championship finals. But this time they weren’t the underdogs. This time they had everything they could want. When SKT had struggled through the season, ROX Tigers had dominated with a 16 - 2 set record, the best in the league. Rewarded with a first place playoff seed, they could carefully study the tournament meta as SKT pushed their way past Jin Air and kT Rolster. And the meta in question was perfect for their team, which was focused around their super aggressive jungler Han "Peanut" Wang-ho and their top lane carry Song "Smeb" Kyung-ho. This was ROX Tiger’s best chance yet in a finals against SKT, and they were arguably the favorites.
But at the very end, the wheels came off the wagon. At the moment when the Tigers were supposed to take it all, they faltered. In the final Game 4 baron fight, Faker once again crushed their dreams, scoring a triple kill on Cassiopeia and the game. The ROX Tigers lost the series 1-3. For a third time in a row the ROX Tigers lost to SKT in the finals of a major tournament. For the average player and spectator, two second places in the LCK and a second at the 2015 World Championship is a series of amazing accomplishment. But to the ROX Tigers, it was anathema - a reminder that at the highest peak of their careers, in the most important match of their lives, they had failed. Not once, not twice, but three times.
Some pros are shattered by their failures and never rise again. Others continue on, a shadow of their former selves. But in some rare instances, there are teams and players who pick themselves back up. Those who dare to again challenge those heights, knowing that they taking the chance of reliving the worst day of their lives to fulfill their dreams.
The ROX Tigers are the latter. They are fighters and have been since their inception. Back in 2014, Riot and Kespa officially implemented their policy of only allowing each Korean organization to have one team. This forced NaJin’s hands as they could no longer have two teams in the league. The organization had to cut personnel, prompting Lee ‘Kuro’ Seo-haeng, Lee ‘Ho-jin’ Ho-Jin and Kang ‘GorillA’ Beom-hyeon to leave. With no recourse left, the rejects decided to form their own team. They needed to find two more players, a sponsor and a coach.
When playing solo queue, Kuro reunited with top laner Smeb. Both were ex-teammates from their days on team Incredible Miracle (IM) and were colloquially known as the Incredible Failures. But neither the failure nor the ridicule stopped Smeb. He continued to grind diligently, waiting for his chance to try once again. Kuro gave Smeb that chance.
The final player to join this line-up of misfits and rejects was Kim ‘Pray’ Jong-in. It had been months since Pray held a spot on a team, and many believed the final chapter of the storied ad carry’s career had been written. But GorillA thought otherwise. In PraY, he would look to bring life to the dead.
All that was left was to get the coach. GorillA immediately went to former NaJin White Shield jungler Jeong "NoFe" No-chul. “For me, I received a lot of coaching offers regardless of Korean or international teams.” Nofe explained in an interview. “But I refused them all because I wanted to fully concentrate on my caster career at the time. The first place that contacted me within the team was GorillA. Of course, I turned him down. Then the team’s representative (*sponsor) personally called me to talk about a lot of things. I was interested in the team’s members, and I ended up joining because I felt like I could achieve the goal I always dreamed of.”
Together they qualified for the LCK.
On paper the roster seemed horrendous. The only star player on the team was GorillA. Everyone else was seen by the world as either has-beens or failures. But they had a dream, a mission, a plan, and with that they came to take on the world by storm. In their debut appearance in the Spring Split of 2015, the HUYA Tigers had a monstrous 9-0 run. Just as the Tigers were about to take flight, they crashed into the ground and fell apart at IEM WC reaching fourth place. The fall continued once they returned to Korea as they loss their first encounter with SKT 0:3 in the Spring Playoffs.
But as a rookie team, this first run was still amazing. They were quickly bought by KOOtv, a large Chinese streaming service. It should have been a feel good rags-to-riches story. Except the riches never came. Instead the sponsor pulled out and the Tigers were forced by the broadcasters to pretend everything was well. With no money, they were packed together in one room with no air condition in the summer. In spite of that they finished their Summer Split playoff run in 3rd and qualified for the Season 5 World Championships. Yet after the summer comes the cold and without money they couldn’t afford heating. This made GorillA have bad sleeping posture to keep himself warm which resulted in his wrists getting in bad condition. None of that mattered as they were fulfilling their dreams of playing on the world stage to the adulation of fans. Or so they thought.
Everyone always says how people love the underdogs, but this wasn’t the case with the Tigers. Domestically they could never outshine the much more storied Kespa teams. Their only path to love was victory, but in quest SKT was the only contestant. Abroad at Worlds, crowds refused to give them support on stage. In an interview Kuro admitted that, “I would like them to cheer for us like they did for Fnatic.” The Tigers were the great enemy, receiving scorn rather than praise for daring to defeat fan favorites Fnatic in the semifinals. The GorillA led squad would go to to lose in finals 1-3 to SK Telecom T1. Soon after Ho-jin retired from professional gaming, leaving the team to find a new jungler.
So we have the paradox of a man shamed to death because he is only the second pugilist or the second oarsman in the world. That he is able to beat the whole population of the globe minus one is nothing; he has “pitted” himself to beat that one; and as long as he doesn't do that nothing else counts.
- William James
Going into 2016, the Tigers could have split up again. While they may not have found the support from fans they hoped for, their second place finish at worlds earned many of them gigantic offers to join other teams. Lee ‘Easyhoon’ Ji-Hoon, a comparable player in terms of skill got a $860,000 salary for signing to a Chinese team. Instead the Tigers to a man refused. They had a dream that together they were more than the sum of their parts. They could best team in the world. So they stuck together and tried to find a new 5th man. That 5th was Peanut, a player who had spent his first year of play as a sub on Najin e-mFire. However he was an incredibly aggressive jungler that fit both the team and the meta. With this addition the Tigers were ready to try for the gold one more time.
And the formula worked. The Tigers destroyed the competition. They had hit everything they needed. They had the right time, right place and right people. SKT had fallen and were struggling to integrate Kang ‘Blank’ Sun-gu as their new jungler. This was a meta that perfectly suited their playstyle and players. As a result, the Tigers had a dominant Spring Split earning the first seed. But it was not meant to be as they were again denied the trophy, again denied the title by SKT in a 1-3 series. To be so close and to fumble at the very last second is devastating. For any other team, this could spell the end.
Yet what is failure to players like these? Both Smeb and Kuro spent the early part of their careers mocked as The Incredible Failures. Pray’s career seemed already dead before GorillA picked him up. Peanut was only a sub player before coming to ROX Tigers. Apart they had failed to do anything. Together they have survived through it all: the lack of sponsors, the bitter disappointments, the hot summers, the freezing winters and the multiple failed finals. Many of them could have cashed out, but for them this is about more than the money. This is an ambition. Together they are more than the sum of their parts and no amount of hardships seem to stop them.
Darrel Royal, coach of the Texas Longhords and three time national champion, once wrote, “Every player tastes defeat. However the best players, as a tribute to all their efforts, will give everything they’ve got to stand up again.” In this one aspect and one aspect alone, the ROX Tigers are the best in the world. They failed for a third time in the last split, but they will get back up. Of course they will. They always have.