“I want you to create a hypothetical team. Working only with rookies and inactive players, construct an entire roster, the full complement of five roles.”
“No, tell you what, you can include pros who are on the substitute roster. That’ll give you some experienced ones.”
The ones the other teams couldn’t work with. Some really were losers, but some were the opposite.
“Fine. I can promise you, it’ll be a hell of a team. We’ll kick ass. The reason this team can be so good is that your system’s been promoting a lot of the wrong players. About half the best players in this scene are rookies or subs, because they’re the ones who haven’t already been beaten into submission by the idiots you put in charge of the teams. These misfits and rookies are the ones who can win.”
Shortly after the conclusion of Season 4, Chinese streaming giant YY quietly picked up a Korean team. Composed of former members of NaJin Shield and NaJin Sword who were unable to secure a spot on the consolidated roster as well as a pair of currently teamless veterans, the HUYA Tigers attracted very little hype. This team was explicitly set up to promote the new HUYA.com platform, hoping to establish a Korean presence with some legacy Korean names. In the cruel and ultra-competitive world of Korean esports, there is simply no room for second-raters and washed-up has-beens, and this team looked to be simply another frivolous venture that exists only at the whim of capricious Chinese businessmen.
GE Tigers, said the team name. There was no GE Tigers.
"I've never heard of GE Tigers," Lee said.
"That's because there hasn't been a GE Tigers in the history of OGN."
In January 2015, the team was renamed to the GE Tigers, after the parent company’s Korean subsidiary GE Entertainment. The name-change was solely in relation to the brand name and the logo, with no shifts in either the player roster or the management team. This further corroborates the idea that the team’s focus is on better advertisement and promotion in Korea. While still under the HUYA name, the Tigers managed to put up a respectable third place finish in the Champions Spring Preseason, tying KT Rolster and behind SK Telecom T1 and NaJin e-mFire. Even so, observers were generally more focused on speculating on the might of the consolidated SKT and NaJin rosters and ruminating on potential KT and CJ resurgences. The general consensus was that a preseason tournament with fresh rosters all-around means little in the grand scheme of things, and though the Tigers attracted some interest with the reemergence of some OGN veterans, most were happy to relegate them to somewhere in the bottom half of the rankings once Champions proper started.
These observers were very right, at least on the first part – a preseason tournament with fresh rosters is not at all indicative of the placement in the Champions, though few realized exactly how that dynamic would play out.
NoFe's welcome speech sounded bored and over-rehearsed. Only at the end did he begin to sound interested in his own words. "We're doing something unusual with the GE Tigers. I hope you don't mind. We've assembled a new team by advancing some substitute players and delaying the retirement of quite a few older players. I think you'll be pleased with the quality of your players."
The GE Tigers shocked the world, and anyone who says they expected this performance is either lying or should be putting his prophetic powers to better use. 2-0 victories over the decrepit Incredible Miracle organization and the now unrecognizable Samsung Galaxy were nice but far from noteworthy. Only with a 2-1 victory over Jin Air Greenwings, pegged early as darkhorse contender, did the Tigers manage to draw more interested glances. GET cemented themselves as a serious competitor with more triumphs over favorite NaJin and an ambitious KT, and drove the point home by 2-0ing second place CJ. In the last series of the first half, the now familiar sight of a GET victory was repeated yet again as SKT fell.
At the end of the first half GE Tigers had played seven series in six weeks. The score stood 7 wins and 0 losses. It was no longer possible for the other teams to ignore them. There were many who hated them. Hated them for being excellent, for having made their victories look paltry and weak.
Select a player above.
I've lived too long with pain. I won't know who I am without it.
Smeb: the long-suffering cornerstone of Incredible Miracle, the proud holder of one of the worst KDAs of any Champions veteran to date. Who would have guessed that in 2015, he would come into his own as one of Korea's greatest top laners? While his tank play has always been passable, a tank is only as good as the backline behind him. Smeb has spent years refining his frontline play, and though it never really delivered results on the struggling IM, it is clear that he has been improving behind the scenes.
Smeb is more than a wall of health, however. His champion pool seems to be infinitely wide, ranging from meatshields like Dr. Mundo to teamfight mages like Rumble. Toss in a few wildcard picks like Lulu and Kassadin, and you have a veritable Swiss army knife of a top laner. Smeb's versatility is his greatest weapon: he has taken on rival top laners and enemy bot lanes (with and without GorillA at his side) alike, and has dispatched of them all with relative ease. It's unclear just how much more he has to show us, but Smeb has to win the award for breakout player of Champions Spring 2015.
I've watched through his eyes, I've listened through his ears, and I tell you he's the one.
If Smeb is the breakout player of Champions Spring 2015, then Lee has to be the most improved player. Unlike with the top lane, a jungler's skill level is often easily discernible, a team-wide failure notwithstanding. Upon his debut on NaJin Black Sword, Lee fell into the all-too-common stereotype of a mechanically skilled jungler with a less-than-impressive knack for decision making. With the coaching of NoFe (one of the world's most cerebral jungle players), however, he has been able to translate his quick fingers into results for the Tigers.
There's a reason why footage of the GE Tigers is used so much in modern League of Legends coaching, and Lee is at the center of it – the synergy he has with his team is unparalleled in the entire world. Lee is no bold carry jungler, nor is he a cerebral support jungler – he is whatever his team needs him to be. There have been very few instances in Champions where it could be said that Lee was out of position, and with every passing game, Lee looks more and more like the perfect teammate.
Previous (Smeb) | Next (KurO)
The enemy's gate is down.
Unlike Smeb and Lee, KurO never had anything to prove with the GE Tigers. He was already respected as one of Korea's best for his stellar performance on Incredible Miracle #2 and NaJin Black Sword, especially on Kassadin and LeBlanc. It comes as no surprise that the two AP assassins are his two most preferred picks in the current season of Champions, though he has proven capable on just about any mid lane champion with a total KDA of 5.94. KurO's status as the Tigers' 'toolbox' marks a shift away from the mid-centric playstyle of Korea's recent champions such as SK Telecom T1 or Samsung Blue, but does not detract from his value as a player at all.
KurO is essentially Lee's mid lane equivalent – a responsive, highly-skilled teammate who has been molded into a top-tier player with some very intelligent coaching. Though he has a lot more experience compared to his jungle compatriot, he is no less flexible for it. KurO represents the essence of a GE Tiger: humble, hardworking, and hungry for victory.
Previous (Lee) | Next (PraY)
The essence of training is to allow error without consequence.
They had good reason to do so, at least. After leaving the sinking ship that was NaJin Black Sword, PraY was virtually nowhere to be seen. It might be a romantic idea to pretend that the NaJin veteran was training in solitude, desperate to come back and show the doubters what he was made of, but the truth was quite the opposite. PraY spent his sabbatical playing games outside of League of Legends, hopping in for a game of solo queue every once in a while. It's often said that there are some skills that one cannot really lose, such as driving. For PraY, it's League of Legends.
PraY has a natural athleticism about him when it comes to League of Legends. Playing AD carry is just second nature – if there was anything he would have to brush up on for the Tigers, it would be his teamplay and synergy with his support. Neither of those things have been obstacles for PraY. Motherfuckers act like they forgot about PraY – what a terrible mistake to make.
Previous (KurO) | Next (GorillA)
We're going to make him the best military commander in history. And then put the fate of the world on his shoulders.
Very few teams have ever been built around a support player. It's understandable why that is the case: support players often opt for passive picks, and no support champion is capable of wiping a team fight or ruining the enemy base single-handedly. Yet, the Tigers found a way around it. Rather than structuring their play around GorillA's champion pick, they would structure their entire playstyle and mentality around GorillA's. GorillA has a killer instinct – no Thresh looked better than him at Worlds, and no Thresh has looked better since.
His ability to see how a fight will play out before it happens means that the Tigers rarely choose an engagement they are not confident in winning. Contrary to popular belief, the terms 'aggressive' and 'conservative' are not opposites – they are both desirable characteristics to have in a shotcaller, support player, and team. The GE Tigers are GorillA's dream team, and it isn't for their individual play. It is for their unwavering dedication to his vision as a player, and their faith has been well-rewarded.
“A spot in Champions immediately after the team forms. A series every week. Sometimes two. I’ve pulled up the old statistics. No one has ever destroyed so many enemies and kept so many of his own players whole in the history of the game.
It was no accident that I got the players I got. Rookies, rejects from other teams, almost-retired pros, but put them together and my worst player could be a star carry in another team.”
GorillA, KurO, and Lee have been with the NaJin organization for most of 2014, but were cast to the wayside following the consolidation of Black Sword and White Shield. To be fair to NaJin, their roster was generally considered to be among the best in class at every position at the start of the season. GorillA made a strong showing at the S4 World Championship, but then-substitute Pure was granted a spot on the final squad thanks to his synergy with Zefa, and Ohq has Cain by his side. KurO and Lee, as promising but ultimately unaccomplished newcomers during their time on Black Sword, were unable to compete with what NaJin felt veterans Ggoong and watch brought to the team.
In yet another NaJin connection, PraY had played with Black Sword since 2012, and is positively ancient by esports standards. He left NaJin in May 2014, and was absent for an entire season of Champions as he was either unwilling or unable to find another team. Written off as a relic from days long gone in the minds of most spectators, it is easy to forget that PraY was once described as the best AD Carry in Korea by many pros, and represented Korea at the S2 World Championship before taking home the Champions Winter 2012–2013 victory. However, past history has shown long absences tend to be career ending in the world of esports, and thus PraY’s return wasn’t expected to be particularly impactful no matter his former potential.
Smeb rounds out the GET roster, and is yet another familiar face. With a lengthy but completely undistinguished career on the perennially disappointing Incredible Miracle, Smeb’s presence did little to instill faith in the Tigers roster.
In short, the Tigers roster was comprised of rookies, borderline retirees, and washed-up has-beens who've peaked eons ago. The only thing that one could say about the team was that they’ve played the game.
But now, you can add to that and say: They dominated.
Either the management had been kind to him after all, or he was a better captain than he thought. His ragged little group of veterans, utterly without honor in their previous teams, were blossoming into capable players.
How much of this did the management plan? Did they know they were giving him obscure but excellent boys? Did they give him four subs, many of them about to retire, because they knew they were quick learners, quick thinkers? Or was this what any similar group could become under a captain who knew what he wanted his team to do, and knew how to teach them to do it?
GorillA has the answer. "I don't think there's anything better than forming a team with like-minded friends."
There's much to be said about the power of friendship. The importance of friendship between team members tends to be overstated by most fans, as they see teams like Cloud 9 succeed with no intra-team drama whatsoever. On the other hand, some decry the importance of friendship for a competitive League of Legends team, arguing that the best players should be flexible enough to work with anyone.
The reality lies somewhere in between, and the GE Tigers are evidence of the positive impact that friendship can bring to a team. Although it may make confrontation difficult, there isn't much confrontation to be had when everyone is on the same page and playing on top of their game. Yet, a merry band of bros is not enough to conquer the most competitive region in the world. GorillA struck gold when he gathered the Tigers together.
“There’s a limit to how many clever new strategies I can come up with every week. Somebody’s going to come up with something to throw at me that I haven’t thought of before, and I won’t be ready.”
“What’s the worst that could happen? You lose one series.”
“Yes. That’s the worst that could happen. I can’t lose ANY series. Because if I lose ANY…”
When the second half of the season begins, the Tigers will find themselves in a starkly different situation. They will no longer be the underdogs striking from the dark, but instead the titans inviting challengers. If there's anything Korean League of Legends taught us, it's that no king reigns forever. The competition will only get tougher, and the 7-0 record paints a giant target on your back. The GE Tigers will be scrutinized, they will be studied, and they will be countered. Can they thrive and rise above the determined competition and stay on their throne long enough to take home the Champions trophy?
"You can't grind us down."
"Oh, can't we?"
"Because we're stronger than you."
"We'll see about that, GE."