A Note from the Editor
Spring has been a period of change for Korea, with many S-tier players choosing to live the high life in China, many abandoning any hope of Worlds victory. Still, Korea trudged on without much of its star talent. We saw a Samsung team filled with potential in the preseason that was quickly outclassed by its more experienced competition. We saw one of the strongest rosters of all time on paper in NaJin e-mFire crippled by some strange coaching decisions. We saw the rise and fall of Jin Air, and the fall and rise of CJ Entus. Incredible Miracle struggled as usual, and SK Telecom T1 performed strongly as expected.
We even had the privilege of witnessing a new competitor in the form of the GE Tigers. Their winning streak was one of the greatest in Korean LoL history, and it was put to an end by the least likely suspects in the form of China's Team WE. Three months of competition are finally winding down, and we have Korea's two best teams – perhaps the world's two best teams – fighting for domestic glory, and a shot at international glory.
It's been nearly two years since I recall working on a piece like this. Since I started levelling up my freelancing game, I haven't had the opportunity to sit down with Team Liquid's LoL staff and really produce the quality OGN previews we used to be known for. It seems only fitting, therefore, that my last article for Team Liquid is a preview of the Champions Spring 2015 grand final. I'm not sure exactly how much I've developed as a writer since being saved from the wasteland of reddit by NeoIllusions and GTR back in 2013, but one thing is for sure – my love for Korean League of Legends has only grown stronger.
It might sound trite at this point, but at Liquid Legends, we really hope you can share our passion for League of Legends through our articles. Please continue to support our newer writers as they continue to carry out our vision on this site! And as always, feel free to discuss the match in our live report thread.
Choose a Tab Above
GE Tigers: The Rise of the Overshadowed
SK Telecom T1: A Dynasty Left Hungry
Versus: The Head to Head Lane Showdown
Kaiser and Speed: A Year of Trial
SK Telecom T1’s success in League of Legends needs no introduction. Flagship team K made their debut appearance two years ago in Champions Spring 2013, and finished third in one of the most stacked seasons to date. Their next appearance ended with a championship after the famous final against the KT Bullets, the greatest series to have been played in League of Legends. Following this, they rocked the rest of the world after dominating the Season 3 World Championships. In the next season, the team did the impossible, winning the entire season without dropping a single game, going 15–0, and the rest of 2014 would be a downward slope as ManDu’s health issues began to take a toll on the whole team.
T1 S, on the other hand, suffered under the cruel hand of chance as they were repeatedly drawn into groups against their sister team in Champions, forcing early exits every time. The team peaked in Champions Summer 2014, clutching a tie against Samsung White to push them ahead of CJ Entus Frost. Claiming a tight win against NaJin Black Sword, S went on to lose against the KT Arrows, and then Samsung White to finish fourth. The team may have gotten a bracket finish in Champions, but they certainly didn’t look good doing it, gated by their uninspiring and passive playstyle.
One Roster to Rule Them All
With the abolishment of sister teams in Korea, the scramble for reorganization was chaotic. SKT, despite losing three members of K and H0R0 from S, retained what was on paper the strongest roster in Korea. MaRin, Bang, and Wolf entered the starting lineup, while Easyhoon and former Xenics player Piccaboo rounded out the rest of the team. The team started off with a phenomenal preseason, looking like the best team in the world after going 4–1–0. MaRin, after looking so lackluster for an entire year on S, looked as if he had finally become the carry that he needed to be for the team. Bengi, who had fallen off so hard, looked as if he was finally back in the form that helped the team win the World Championships in Season 3. Bang and Wolf were as stable as always, and Faker was Faker.
SKT’s first shock occured against their match against CJ Entus, as they fell to the preseason’s weakest team in a surprising 2–0. Their early season struggles continued as they were stomped 2–0 by Jin Air, and while they were able to claim wins off weaker teams, something was clearly wrong with SKT. Their drafting phase was bizarre, with a strange focus on blind picking Xerath (for Faker, and strangely not Easyhoon), which never worked out. kkOma played substitute shenanigans with Easyhoon and Faker, leading to neither player receiving much meaningful experience in the booth.
MaRin’s dominating performance in the preseason completely disappeared, as other top laners such as Smeb, Duke, Shy and TrAce made superior contributions to their teams. Bengi regressed to his 2014 form, being unable to pressure lanes and frequently getting punished while warding. Bang chose bizarre builds on his champions (such as no-Sheen Ezreal), effectively throwing away any early advantages he managed to accrue. Wolf had similar problems to Bengi, dying in his greed for deep wards and making puzzling mechanical errors. The strongest performers on SKT were Faker and Piccaboo, both of whom only spent half as much time in the booth as they could have.
SKT’s 2–1 loss to the undefeated GE Tigers seemed to wake something in them. From that point onwards, SKT were a new team. Their drafting issues were fixed, MaRin returned to being a dominating top laner, and while Bengi wasn’t back to championship form, he wasn’t singlehandedly losing games for SKT anymore. Patch 5.5 hit, and Cinderhulk brought tanky junglers back into the fold, allowing for a serious level-up in Bengi’s effectiveness. Another bright spot came in the addition of substitute jungler T0M, who brought a fresh breath of air to SKT’s early game strategies with his aggressive bruiser play. In the second half of Champions Spring, SKT dominated all of their opponents, going 7–0 and only dropping two games, much like the first half the GE Tigers played.
The semifinal came, and SKT faced a blazing hot CJ Entus lineup. Seemingly reverting to their Round 1 form, SKT was pushed to the very limit. With a spot in the finals on the line, CJ dominated SKT in the first two games as SKT swapped in Easyhoon and T0M instead of Bengi and Faker. T0M played lackluster and all looked lost for SKT, with their backs against the wall. Bengi would absolutely dominate Ambition once he was subbed in during game 3, and game 4 saw SKT and CJ locked in a tight struggle. Getting massively outscaled against a Ziggs, Sivir and Gnar, Bang played a phenomenal Lucian game supported by Faker’s Lulu to take the teams into blind pick.
And as anyone familiar with Korean League of Legends knows, SKT cannot lose blind pick by virtue of the availability of Faker’s normally permabanned LeBlanc. It was business as usual for SKT as Faker’s LeBlanc and Bang’s Kalista ran circles around CJ, putting them in the ground for a third consecutive game.
The Birthright of Champions
SKT enter the grand final as favorites, but they also enter against a GE side that has had weeks to prepare for one Best of 5. They are at an informational disadvantage, but do have the advantage of coming in hot off a blood-pumping win. Still, the impact of this cannot compare to the influence of the players’ motivations. Faker and Bengi are looking to surpass Dade and the rest of their K teammates by becoming the first players to win three seasons of Champions, while the old S gang are seeking their first title.
A win here would send a message to the rest of Korea - that an indie team such as the GE Tigers are still a while away from reaching the greatest organization in esports history. A win here would also be a warning to the rest of the world, especially Korea’s competition at the upcoming Mid-Season Invitational. Faker is looking to reclaim his throne and SKT are looking to reclaim their birthright. It will take a truly great team to stop them - but can the GE Tigers be that team?
A team without history, but with fire in their play and a drive to succeed, the GE Tigers looked unconquerable when they debuted. Now, post-IEM Katowice, they look shaken. They dropped a match to Team WE's freshly substituted roster – the laughing stock of the LPL. They fell to the struggling KT Rolster and a spirited SK Telecom T1 in Round 2 of Champions Spring 2015. Is this the end of the Tigers' spring story?
The GE Tigers quietly announced their formation on Twitter in the lead-up to the Champions Spring 2015 qualifiers under the name HUYA Tigers. Gradually hyped up by frontman and support GorillA, the Tigers were the favorites to win the qualifiers from the beginning, as they boasted established talent in Kuro and PraY, a young hotshot in Lee, and an almost-there veteran in Smeb. They breezed through the Challenger tournament, quickly establishing themselves as a mid-tier team in the pre-season - not too shabby considering their short time together.
Round 1 of Champions would be a completely different story. GE's early dominance was simply unparalleled. Prior to IEM Katowice, they dropped only two games, remaining undefeated in matches. GE's carry threats seemed endless, with each player stepping up to the plate when called upon. Smeb, the prototypical top lane carry showcased an impressive Jayce, KurO unearthed the terror of Viktor, and tenured veteran PraY demanded attention with monstrous performances on Lucian and Kog'Maw. Frightful, stylish, and dominant — how could the GE Tigers be answered?
Their line-up, a mixture of experience and rookie talent, was something that raised the brow of many — and it certainly delivered. The bot lane of PraY and GorillA brought years of experience and endless confidence, and undeniable talent. The mysterious combination of Kuro and Lee, despite not being able to deliver on the Black Sword roster, gelled extremely well as the mid lane veteran guided the jungle rookie immaculately. Dark horse Smeb finally unlocked his potential on GE, and his individual play often allowed him to overcome titans of the top lane.
Their preseason and early season runs hearkened to the dominance of SKT T1 K in their prime. Thought to be the possible successors to Samsung White, the GE Tigers certainly set themselves up for an impressive overtaking. Critically, with IEM Katowice offering viewers and teams alike an insight into inter-regional strength, Korea was once again expected to sweep through the event unscathed. With Europe and North America far behind, and China not even able to send their best team, surely nothing could stand in the way of the mighty Tigers.
An Empire Exposed
As history now suggests, the Tigers' grand scheme of world dominance went terribly amiss. It started well enough — in their opening match, Cloud 9 looked like a bunch of amateurs in comparison to the new Korean side. While no one expected a C9 victory, it looked spectacularly easy for the Korean powerhouse to roll through — moreso than usual, even. European darlings SK Gaming were completely outclassed as well, as the Tigers treated them like any other aggressive Korean team: with disrespectful skirmishing and asphyxiating macro play.
Commentators predicted yet another easy victory for GE against the unlikeliest of opponents in Team WE, but it was not to be. Crumbled and falling from grace, the GE Tigers would go on to lose their semifinal match against WE, dropping from the tournament altogether. Tastes of shock and confusion pervaded the air as the Koreans headed home empty-handed. Like most defeats, this loss would surely serve as a wake up call for the young squad, giving them a reason to fight for their future. With a shot at MSI up in the air, their focus could surely not be keener and their desire to win had to be completely renewed.
Or so it seemed. Instead of inspiring new and more intelligent play, the shock loss at Katowice only served to harm their domestic performance. GE's perfect record was torn to shreds by KT Rolster and SK Telecom T1, but their dominant Round 1 performance coupled with important wins in Round 2 was still enough to secure them the first seed in playoffs, and therefore an automatic shot at redemption in the grand final. Against weaker teams, all of the strengths GE had shown in the first round of Champions were on display. They were still tenacious under pressure, their macro play was still masterful, but their early-game weaknesses were exposed by more explosive teams.
The Tigers' individual flaws began to show. Critics of Smeb and Lee turned out to be correct as the two were simply unable to replicate their early season dominance, even in wins against weak teams. Kuro could not sustain the wave of inspiration that saw him dominate in the first round, and PraY and GorillA's inconsistency betrayed them against their more disciplined opponents. Still, while the Tigers were brought down a notch, it was only a notch. It is important to note where exactly they fell from: nothing less than the top of the world.
It would be far too easy to disregard GE and hand SKT a win before the Tigers even have a chance to play their second Best of 5 in history. Truth is, even with all these weaknesses exposed, the Tigers are still a strong team in a strong region. Though their variance may be less than that of SKT or even CJ Entus, they have a fighting spirit that cannot be ruled out. Many have declared GE's games 'over' in the past, and many were wrong. This grand final will not be over until GE's Nexus falls three times.
Song 'Smeb' Kyung Ho
"I've lived too long with pain. I won't know who I am without it."
Jang 'MaRin' Gyeong Hwan
"Once you've accepted your flaws, no one can use them against you."
In the wake of the great Korean exodus, Korea's top lane has probably been the position least-affected by the siren call of foreign salaries and less intense lifestyles. While it is true that losing three OGN champions and the League of Legends equivalent of Kevin Durant was initially a significant blow to Korea's top lane talent pool, the holes left by the departure of Looper, Acorn, Impact and Flame have been filled in just fine. In fact, the world's best top laner Duke is currently waiting for Champions Summer to arrive, having been knocked out of playoffs contention.
Smeb and MaRin have had, perhaps for the first time in their careers, truly successful seasons. While Smeb found himself the unfortunate scapegoat of previous weak Incredible Miracle rosters, MaRin ended up being just another role player on the uninspiring (if persistent) SK Telecom T1 S. Now, given the opportunity to flex their strengths on strong teams, both players have finally shown signs of life in their otherwise lethargic careers.
Stylistically, Smeb and MaRin are fairly similar. Both top laners fall into the 'carry top' mold, often given the responsible of piloting gold-hungry champions like Rumble and Hecarim to shoulder their teams' win conditions. MaRin in particular has consistently performed on Hecarim throughout the season, often looking like SKT T1's only foothold into a losing game when given the Shadow of War. Smeb, on the other hand, has the honour of being one of the world's best Gnar players (next to Edward Gaming's Koro1), displaying unparalleled control over the Missing Link's unique Rage resource.
In an extended Best of 5 series, the decisive factor in the top lane matchup will be the players' ability to adapt to different lane configurations. As both GE and SKT T1 are proficient in lane swap scenarios, both Smeb and MaRin have had to learn the ins and outs of 1v1, 1v2, 2v2 and double jungle throughout the season. Watch out for how they react to unfavorable early games and bad lane matchups – the ability of a top laner to rebound has never been more important.
Lee 'Lee' Ho Jin
"I've watched through his eyes, I've listened through his ears, and I tell you he's the one."
Bae 'Bengi' Seong Ung
"A true man does what he will, not what he must."
Im 'T0M' Jae Hyeon
"Every flight begins with a fall."
It's hard to argue that the jungle matchup in this grand final is a particularly dazzling one, but nonetheless, the jungle movements of the early game will be crucial given both teams' strength in closing out leads. We can't help but feel that the burden falls on SKT T1 to make an impression in the jungle, however. GE has proved to be a more tenacious team ingame, clutching victory against all odds – even in one of Lee's horrific off games.
Question marks surround Lee's play at IEM Katowice – although he massacred the Western junglers with relative ease, he struggled against top-tier competition in the form of fellow Korean jungler Spirit. Bengi played like a top-tier jungler against CJ Entus, but is certainly more of a 'solved problem' compared to Spirit, and a Best of 5 is perhaps the best opportunity Lee will have to redeem himself and justify his placement among Korea's top junglers.
That being said, SKT T1 has the element of surprise coming into the final. The Cinderhulk metagame has been more or less figured out, but GE still lack data on possible curveball strategies from Bengi's few appearances. Additionally, the possibility of a T0M appearance in the grand final (however unlikely) should serve to throw another wrench in the works for GE.
The jungle has changed significantly since the days of Champions Spring 2013, where junglers could easily be identified as having distinct playstyles and champion pools. Now, rather than being best-in-class at their particular crafts, junglers now prove their worth by their mastery of the fundamentals. For Lee, Bengi and T0M, the Champions grand final is the perfect arena to lead a resurgence in the barren Korean jungle.
Lee 'Kuro' Seo Haeng
"The enemy's gate is down."
Lee 'Faker' Sang Hyeok
"I swear to you, sitting a throne is a thousand times harder than winning one."
Lee 'Easyhoon' Ji Hoon
"A lord must learn that sometimes words can accomplish what swords cannot."
In Champions Spring 2015, the mid lane has always been the most difficult position to assess and make predictions on. A position filled with innovators and monstrously powerful (if a little one-dimensional) carries, Korea's mid lane gave birth to champions like Azir, Viktor, Vladimir, Ziggs, and even Sion this season. Given the wacky solo queue habits of Kuro, Faker and Easyhoon, there might still be some more surprises to come.
As attractive as it is to think about, the mid lane will not be decided by which team has better pocket picks in store. Kuro and Faker are notoriously flexible players, able to fill all sorts of roles on their teams (although Kuro excels on mid-range mages, while Faker is most at home on playmaking champions). Meanwhile, Easyhoon is SKT T1's artillery - the long-range maestro brought out whenever coach kkOma forsees a war of attrition.
Jungle-mid synergy will be an important factor in the performance of the mid laners tonight, as both GE and SKT T1 tend to rely on their mid laners to set up early objectives. Depending on the champion matchup, we could see the mid laners mirroring each others' actions, either resulting in drawn-out laning phases or fast-paced early rotations.
And while it is tempting to just turn in our cat ears and sweaters for Church of Faker rosaries and prayer books, Korea's mid laners have demonstrated this season that Faker is not the indomitable force he was in years past. Kuro has one of the highest ceilings of any mid laner in the world if this season has been anything to go by. Tonight may be his opportunity to move just a little bit closer to that peak.
Kim 'PraY' Jong In
"The essence of training is to allow error without consequence."
Kang 'GorillA' Beom Hyeon
"We're going to make him the best military commander in history. And then put the fate of the world on his shoulders."
Bae 'Bang' Jun Sik
"What do we say to the Lord of Death? Not today."
Lee 'Wolf' Jae Wan
"The heart lies and the head plays tricks with us, but the eyes see true."
Lee 'Piccaboo' Jong Beom
"If a man paints a target on his chest, he should expect that sooner or later someone will loose an arrow on him."
Though GE boast Korea's strongest bot lane in two of the greatest players to have ever graced the southern end of Summoner's Rift, the biggest story coming into the grand final is whether SKT T1 will need to awaken Bang's inner beast. His Lucian performance against CJ Entus was arguably the best game anyone has ever been able to pull out on the Purifier. Faker entrusted him with the main carry position, humbling himself – even to a Lulu pick – to bring out Bang's killer instinct.
PraY will be out of his depth if Bang is able to replicate that performance, but it's unlikely that GE will allow Bang the space for such wild AD carry play (especially considering GE were the ones who innovated the guns-blazing Juggermaw). Core to this constricting playstyle is GorillA, who remains one of the world's best playmakers and another massive obstacle for SKT T1 to overcome after temporarily putting MadLife in his place.
SKT T1's choice of support may indeed end up influencing their strategy more than their choice of jungler or mid laner. Wolf was largely a no-brainer choice for SKT T1 against CJ Entus due to his superior early-game play and established partnership with Bang, but Piccaboo may still be a viable option if SKT T1 expect to play a low-economy roaming game – not completely impossible given Lee's tendency to forsake farm and start fights.
Looking towards the Mid-Season Invitational, the bot lane will be somewhat of a Korean reunion as the victors of tonight's match will face Deft and Lustboy. PraY and Bang are both top-tier AD carries who have matured in the absence of Samsung's twin champions, while GorillA, Wolf and Piccaboo represent a uniquely Korean philosophy towards the support position in their clearly defined roles. There will be a lot to prove for the Korean Koreans, and that quest starts tonight.
AdsMoFro: SKT 3–2 GE
"I find GE Tigers to be more of an unknown than underdog in this situation. It's been a long time since they've played a match that actually matters. SKT on the other hand are a known quantity and while GE might be better there's very little current information available on them. Therefore, simply as a logical conclusion having watched SKT essentially 3–0 CJ with their full strength roster, SKT should win."
Carnivorous Sheep: GE 3–1 SKT
"Please note that I have money on it. Money where my mouth is unlike all these other frauds."
Manisier: SKT 3–2 GE
"GE won't survive five games. If they win, it'll be 3–0 (or less likely, 3–1). GE should have had the time to prepare enough strategies such that SKT won't be able to adapt in time. However, it's much more likely that SKT can win one game just off a disastrous GE laning phase. And if they get one, they'll have the time to plan and get three."
JonGalt: SKT 3–2 GE.
"Faker flounces, Hoon handles it."
keithasante: SKT 3–2 GE
GE goes up 2–0 before SKT wins 3 straight for the reverse sweep. I've watched enough Bo5 series in the past month to know there is a strong chance a reverse sweep will happen. Though, it's entirely possible I'm wrong about which team will accomplish it. I'm okay with that.
thejuju: SKT 3–1 GE
"SKT have been the best team in Korea ever since Cinderhulk and the meta changed, and while they certainly aren't invincible, it will be difficult for GE to overcome the overwhelming presence that is Faker. SKT is notoriously tenacious, and this is their third final. SKT will be on their best form on Saturday."
Zess: SKT 3–1 GE
"SKT have had their ups and downs this season, while GE have been the more consistently strong team. However, SKT have a history of strength and resiliency in best-of series, while GE's inexperience has caused them to falter. For GE to win, they need to control Faker, keep Smeb ahead of MaRin, and constantly collect marginal advantages starting with their stronger bot lane. SKT can simply leverage a revitalized Cinderhulk Bengi and the explosive superstar carry potential in their lineup."