The Top 4 : Europe and Korea's Reborn Rivalry
Before Worlds began, what many thought was a certainty regarding the semifinals was that they would include at least two Chinese teams and obviously Korean titan SK Telecom still vying for the organisation's second World title. At this point, most of us know that China didn't live up to the hype at all.
Instead, we are seeing KOO Tigers still keeping their World title hopes alive as the second Korean representative in the top four, showing that the great exodus of Korean superstars such as Deft, Imp and PawN hasn't phased in the slightest the country's performance on League of Legends's grandest stage of them all. Also, especially fitting since the tournament is taking place in their backyard, both European representatives are making a stand for the West as Origen and Fnatic are still in the race. Here we are down to the top four teams at this year's League of Legends World Championship with one side of the bracket featuring Europe's Fnatic taking on Korea's KOO Tigers while the other bracket features Europe's Origen clashing tournament favorites SK Telecom, making two Europe versus Korea confrontations.
Fnatic and their wide array of fans honestly renewed a rivalry that seemed to be long dead since 2012. Indeed, since they pushed SKT to five matches at the Mid-Season Invitational, although they were ultimately sent packing by the Korean squad, Fnatic has spawned a new glimmer of hope for the Western Hemisphere.
To be fair, SKT didn't have much time, mere days to be more specific, to prepare for the event since they won the LCK Spring Split later than any other region. Still, as of today, Fnatic has the argument that they changed their AD carry and they improved in leaps and bounds since then. Hence, scores still need to be settled. This whole Europe versus Korea rivalry sounds so new but, when we look at the past, the truth is that these two regions were already rivals.
At the time when Riot Games made waves about how their first legit World Championship, barring the Season 1 tournament, would award the winners a $1,000,000 prize back in Season 2, you could definitely count on Azubu Frost and Moscow Five to have their eyes on the prize. They were the kings of Season 2. Even after faltering against Counter Logic Gaming EU many times, Moscow Five were still considered the kings of Europe and, quite frankly, the overall favorites of that year while Azubu Frost were the kings of Korea. Worlds was supposed to be their fated Game of Thrones.
After winning titles such as the Intel Masters Extreme Season IV - Global Challenge Kiev, the Intel Masters Extreme Season IV - World Championship and a convincing performance at the Season 2 European regional qualifiers, Alex Ich and his crew built their legacy and forever carved their names in stone as legends of League of Legends. On the other side of the globe, Azubu Frost often waged war with sister team Azubu Blaze more than anything. Thus, unaccustomed to migratory behavior, the Azubu teams usually stayed within their borders. Nonetheless, nobody could belittle their stellar gameplay. Even though the rest of the globe couldn't experience it themselves as often as they wanted, one could argue that it might have been for the best to shy away from humiliation.
In the end, it wasn't meant to be. First, it was Moscow Five that couldn't keep the end of the bargain, upset by the Taiwanese team Taipei Assassin. In turn, Azubu Frost did hold their end of the bargain but let the 1 million dollar prize slip through their hands when they failed to grace the Summoner's Cup in a 3-1 loss to TPA. Both M5 and Frost had their chance against TPA. They both failed. With the special mention of Toyz's performance being out of this world, the Taiwanese team first truly shocked the esports universe after their 2-0 victory over Najin Black Sword in the quarterfinals, then their 2-1 victory against Moscow Five in the semifinals proved that they weren't flukes and a 3-1 triumph against Azubu Frost in the grand finals stapled their mark in history as the biggest surprise to ever be considered the world's best team.
This year, there are no Taiwanese upstarts as both AHQ and the Flash Wolves fell victim to SK Telecom and Origen respectively, in their quarterfinal matches. We can now have very fitting and somewhat theatrical scenarios in each semifinal.
Fnatic have been very eager and very vocal about winning this year's World Championship and, thus far, their road has been full of trials. They started with a difficult group composed of Invictus Gaming, AHQ and Cloud 9. They then had to face Mid-Season Invitational champions EDward Gaming in the quarterfinals. Although they've indeed had bumps in the road, especially after their 1-2 start in Week 1, they are now on a 6-game winning streak after a 3-0 Week 2 in the group stages and a decisive 3-0 in their best of 5 series against EDG. This team has shown that when they're in the right mindset, unlike in their first week of this year's Worlds, they look unstoppable.
Aiming their crosshairs on this European squad are the KOO Tigers, a team that was packed in the "Group of Life" yet failed to snatch the first seed, yielding it to the Flash Wolves. That might very well be what misled most predictions heading into their quarterfinal match against regional rival KT Rolster. KT Rolster performed impressively in the group stage, dropping only one game to the surging Origen squad in a very close match. Nonetheless, KOO found their way to success after a 3-1 victory over KT, proving once again that arbitrary logic such as "KOO couldn't beat FW once in the group stage how could they beat KT in a best of 5" is rarely valid in the esports context of League of Legends. A logic that Nagne desired its viability.
In fact, staying true to their team centric mentality, this crew of friends are notably a very good team when they prepare for a specific team. Their preparation and the gameplans that result from it are second to none. We can only assume that they particularly prepared for CLG in the group stage, somewhat underestimating the Flash Wolves. Consequently, they crushed CLG in both of their encounters and they beat KT in 4 games. The question remains whether they've put in as much time and meticulousness regarding their matchup with Fnatic.
On the other side of the bracket remains a team that has beaten the aforementioned KOO Tigers many times already back in Korea's LCK, tournament favorites SK Telecom. SK Telecom. What more needs to be said? The team that won 17 best of 3's in the regular season of the LCK's summer split, dropping only one to a very capable CJ Entus. In the playoffs, the breezed past KT Rolster with a 3-0 mark in the finals. At Worlds, they have dominated everybody in their path with a 6-0 record in a group that included had bitter rival EDward Gaming. After that, they decisively beat AHQ 3-0. Facing them is Origen and here's the tale of the tape :
If there is anything that OG can do against SKT, it's to drag out the game and create chaos. Although, chaos was notably AHQ's specialty and AHQ have a better early game than OG, they still faltered. Again, such arbitrary logic isn't reliable and this is a new matchup. Their somewhat newly entitled coach Hermit has been an intriguing figure thus far through Worlds and for good reasons, as he has clearly been a big reason why Europe's third seed has come this far. Thanks to his knowledge, Origen may bring something new to the table and turn this face off into a different story. Who knows? What's certain is that they absolutely have to bring their A-game against the Korean giants.
- Fnatic versus KOO Tigers
In terms of talent, the X-Factor for this confrontation is definitely Febiven :
The statistics speak for themselves. Febiven has a great tournament so far. The fact that KurO has been quite consistent yet somewhat lackluster in the mid lane spells the clearest advantage that Fnatic have in terms of how the players match up. From that advantage, Fnatic could transition the pressure as they always do to their trustworthy top laner : Huni.
As for strategy, both teams are no slouches. Nonetheless, it can be said that KOO has been more consistent with their usually stellar late game shotcalling that orchestrates so many of their comebacks.
As for innovation, which is an important trait for both teams, that will be quite interesting. Whether we see what these teams have kept up their sleeves in this semifinal is still a mystery but they've already innovated sufficiently to rattle the picks and bans. GorillA is the one that single-handedly brought nerfs to Veigar, as he played him as a support. He was even the pioneer of Kennen support also. Speaking of Kennen, Rekkles plays him as an AD carry while Smeb also played the Heart of the Tempest in the top lane during the group stage. Both supports are proficient Tahm Kench users, which will probably prompt a ban from either side. In summary, these are two teams that aren't afraid to experiment and I'm sure we're in for a treat as, not only will their skills go head-to-head, their ideas will too.
- SK Telecom versus Origen
Again, in this semifinal match, we do see an important gap of skill but this time in the top lane with SKT's own, MaRin :
Nobody has been able to even shake quite possibly this year's favorite for the MVP award. It's been said many times that we are currently in a top centric meta and the Korean teams, to little surprise, were the ones that adapted optimally with star top laners such as Ssumday, Smeb and MaRin. Especially in this semifinal context, it's hard to make a case that sOAZ will find significant success against his opposing laner.
Another X-Factor : Mistakes. A big argument as to why SK Telecom is such a successful team is the fact that they hardly make any mistakes and what's worse is that they're the best at punishing their opponent's mistakes. They get their leads by capitalizing on mistakes and they know how to push their lead to furthest extents possible. To add to Origen's detriment, they make mistakes and somewhat more than their first week of Worlds. By watching their series against Flash Wolves of the quarterfinals, one can notice that they don't play as smooth as they did before. That can be attributed to the fact that the other teams have now assessed how they play and adapted accordingly. They were, technically, Europe's third seed after all. Underestimating them at the beginning and, thus, not paying special attention to this European squad can't be blamed that much. However, now is now. They've definitely turned heads already, ensuring at least a very respectable 3rd/4th place finish if not better by shocking SKT.
As we have dwindled down to the top four of Worlds with two European teams and two Korean teams, some may wonder if Europe has caught up with Korea this time around. In a recent interview with the Daily Dot, montecristo firmly argues that no, Europe has not caught up and that it has always been a question of infrastructure. In one of my first articles, I cover some of those aspects and it's true that, from an infrastructural perspective, Korea has much more experience since it's in the core of their culture. A great example of how they succeed through infrastructure is that even after many of the best Korean players left for China, a team like KOO Tigers, a team that is arguably composed of semi-retired or rejected players from other teams clumped together but yet they've still managed to reach the semifinals of the World Championship thus far. Their infrastructure is able to transform these so-called misfits into a championship caliber unit. However, in the same order of ideas, Origen is a team that was in the European Challenger Series in the 2015 spring split. Look at how far they've come. Also, on Fnatic's side, Febiven is already a star but he played his first LCS game in the 2015 spring split. Europe has proven that they too can foster with tremendous success their local talent.
All debates aside, there are a lot of upsides to Worlds so far and even more are most likely on the horizon. One thing I'm truly happy about is that it feels different. We could possibly bear witness to the first ever all-Korean finals. We could also see the first all-European finals since Season 1's finals. Furthermore, we could see two teams channel their inner Azubu Frost and Moscow Five but this time setting up the apex to the Korea versus Europe rivalry in a final that never came into fruition at the World Championship. Plus, let's not forget that, this year, it's in Europe!
My name is Christopher "Wave" Phakjarung and, as always, I sincerely thank you for reading.