No matter who wins the H2k-Samsung match and makes it to the final from the other half of the bracket, they will have overachieved.
That semi-final is as much about which of the two contenders will furthest exceed expectations, and for either team a victory would mean a huge accomplishment before they even play their final match.
The battle between SK Telecom and the ROX Tigers could not be more different.
This is a semi-final that no-one can bear to lose. It’s a clash between arguably the two greatest teams of the last two years, between superstars vying for the title of best in the world. It’s a showdown for a crown: SK Telecom fight to retain their throne, the Tigers to usurp them.
Both teams are lead by superstars. Gods of their positions, each team’s champion is a candidate for the best player in the world. As similar as they are however, they are separated by the gaping chasm between the paths they each took to get here.
Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok was a textbook prodigy. Scouted from solo queue by SK Telecom, he marked his professional debut by solo killing Kang “Ambition” Chan-yong, then considered the best mid-laner in Korea. Though he didn’t pick up his first OGN title until the following season, his individual play quickly proved that first match was no fluke – Faker was a legitimate star from the start.
In his rookie year Faker earned a reputation as the best player in the world and won both a domestic title and the Season 3 World Championship. Even in spite of a lacklustre year for Faker’s SKT T1 K in 2014, he maintained that individual stature. Since the merger of T1 K and T1 S, Faker has won three more domestic championships and lifted the Summoner’s Cup for a second time.
From the moment he stepped into professional League of Legends, Faker has been best. He’s never met an opponent he couldn’t beat in the mid lane, nor a team he couldn’t overcome. Amongst the kings of the game Faker is a god, standing apart even from other superstars. The most successful and talented player League of Legends has ever seen, Faker has been described as not only the greatest player of all time, but perhaps even the greatest there could ever possibly be.
Looking for his third World Championship, this time Faker isn’t the clear-cut best player in the world. This year he has a challenger, but of all the players to potentially throw down the gauntlet to the greatest of all time, Song “Smeb” Kyung-ho was once perhaps as unlikely a candidate as could be.
Smeb was never a prodigy. He wasn’t an instant superstar, or even a star. In fact, Smeb’s early career was about as different from Faker’s as possible, to the extent that during his time on Incredible Miracle he was actually mocked for how bad he was.
That’s right – this year Faker is being challenged by a player who was once known as the worst professional top laner in Korea.
Smeb’s road to success was a long and arduous one. His time on Incredible Miracle never yielded results, with the team consistently eliminated in group stages. His personal performance was never quite up to scratch either, and Smeb even spent time on the bench, losing his starting position for his underwhelming play.
It was with the Tigers that Smeb began his transformation into the superstar he is today, having won the MVP award in consecutive splits this season. No other player has ever made a transition like it, yet for all that he’s hailed as the best player in the world this season, there’s still one obstacle to overcome. For him to truly complete his rise, to claim that crown as his own, Smeb has to defeat Faker.
The stories of each star are in many ways mirrored in the teams they play for.
SK Telecom are the most decorated team in League of Legends. They’ve won almost every event possible and won them more times than anyone else. They have four OGN (now LCK) titles, an All-Star and Mid-Season Invitational trophy, they’ve won the IEM World Championship and they’re the only team to have lifted the Summoner’s Cup twice.
In contrast, the ROX Tigers struggled for two years before finally picking up a championship, never quite able to go all the way until LCK Summer this year. While SK Telecom are one of the most successful organisations in esports, the Tigers don’t even have a title sponsor any more. SKT have all the resources they could possibly need to build a world-beating team, but the Tigers are little more than a group of players and a coach, lacking that infamous infrastructure that many attribute Korean esports success to.
As Smeb has been the challenger to Faker’s title as the best in the world, so the Tigers have challenged SK Telecom. It was they, as then the Koo Tigers, that fought them in the final of the Season 5 World Championship, and the Tigers who stood against SKT in two of the three LCK finals Faker’s team have competed in over the last two years.
Though while the ROX Tigers might be said to have succeeded in dethroning SK Telecom this year, just as Smeb has in the eyes of many surpassed Faker, they’ve done so indirectly. They were the number one team in the regular season of both Spring and Summer, and they finally picked up a championship title in the latter along with the number one World’s seed from Korea. For all of this though, they’ve still never beaten SK Telecom in a head-to-head play-off series.
They may have won series in the regular seasons, but when it comes to elimination games it’s always been SK Telecom coming out on top. The Tigers lost to them in the 2015 LCK Spring finals and again in the World Championship final. Despite a better regular season they lost out yet again in the finals of the 2016 Spring split to Faker’s team and were denied the opportunity to go to the Mid Season Invitational.
When finally they won a trophy in LCK Summer this year, it was not the Tigers but KT Rolster that eliminated SK Telecom from contention.
Whoever wins here will be the favourite to take the final. There may be another series yet to play, but both teams will see this as the key match on their road to the Summoner’s cup, the one that will ultimately prove which of them is the best in the world. This match isn’t just about moving on, it’s about legacy.
SK Telecom look to remind the world who the true kings are, and make history yet again by taking another step towards winning the World Championship in consecutive years. For the Tigers, it’s about finally defeating their nemesis, the one team in the world they’ve never beaten, to truly earn their title as the best team of Season 6.