League of Legends

Thorin's Top 10 MSI Upsets of Korean Teams

by Duncan "Thorin" Shields

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The Mid Season Invitational (MSI) will begin the Main Event of its fifth installment, including its predecessor the All-Star Invitational from 2014's All-Star Paris, on Friday. South Korea's SK Telecom enter as representatives of the most successful region in the history of the competition. Of the five tournaments previously held, Korea has played in the final all five times and won three titles. Yet this tournament has also seen Korea's representatives upset on many occasions.

Korea's representative has a collective historical record of 55 games won and 20 lost (73.33% win-rate) and is 8:2 in series play. KingZone DragonX's disappointing lone appearance last year accounts for over 10% of those individual game losses. The only year in which Korea did not drop at least one game was 2014, the very first edition of the competition. Putting that year aside, the least games lost by Korea's team has been three in 2017.

Clearly, Korea has had some rough moments at MSI, for all of its success as a region and even at this annual tournament. This year marks the first time that for many experts South Korea does not arrive with the favourite for the title. As such, what better time to look back at the occasions on which the would-be-kings of MSI were slain, even if just for a single game?

Here are my top 10 upsets of Korean teams at MSI.



10. RNG > SKT (MSI 2016)

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2016's MSI was the group stage that saw Korea in their most trouble of any year. SKT finished fourth overall, grabbing the final play-off berth, but were not in danger of missing the bracket phase due to G2's infamous vacation from competitive play leaving Europe's best with four games less won than Faker and company. In the play-offs, SKT turned it all around to stomp the competition, but prior to that they had looked significantly more mortal than any other international tournament in history.

SKT had been the best team in Korea only by the play-offs had arrived, again repeating their feat from the previous year of coming in as the second seed but overcoming first seed ROX Tigers in the final to take a third straight LCK crown. The main change since that year had been the recruitment of Duke to replace the outgoing MaRin, who had left after winning S5 Worlds, and Blank being brought in to become the starting Jungler over the now unreliable bengi.

China still had the debacle of S5 Worlds in mind, seemingly coming with their strongest set of teams ever to have only a single one make the play-offs and that team then be immediately eliminated by a European squad, as EDG fell to FNATIC in the quarter-finals.

RNG were China's best team, but they did not arrive at MSI looking like favourites or the team that would take the title. With former world champion and former world's best Support Mata captaining RNG, the rest of their botlane was the question mark for the team. Late in the Spring split that year they had made the switch from wuxx to NaMei, China's best ADC two year's prior. With such a history of excellence in the botlane they had been cruising through the play-offs, only for some notable losses to rattle the team.

After falling from 2:0 up against WE in the semi-final of LPL to be pushed to a fifth and deciding game, NaMei was yanked from the starting line-up and would not see play again. Instead, it was wuxx who would be the ADC for the rest of their successful run, winning that semi-final 3:2 and then beating EDG 3:1 in the final. With the exceptions of Mata and Looper, famed team-mates from a successful Worlds run in 2014, none of the RNG players had ever been to an MSI or Worlds.

The game itself, the opening match of the tournament for both teams, saw RNG immediately put fear into SKT. From a minute or two into the eventual one hour game until the end it was the RNG show. Jungler mlxg's Graves was all over the map making everything happen, along with the fire-power of Mid laner xiaohu's LeBlanc, and RNG reached nine kills before SKT could respond. SKT did manage to hang around in the game and scrape just enough from team-fights to prevent the game ending on a few occasions, but ultimately fell to start the tournament 0:1.

This performance from RNG, which had Mata looking like the best Support in LoL, would be the first step on a path which saw China's representatives finishing with the top seed for the play-offs and a legitimate chance at the crown. Alas, they would end up playing SKT in the semi-final and by then Bang and the boys had more than just woken up to their expected level of form. SKT finished up champions anyway.


9. WE > SKT (MSI 2017)

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The SKT of Season 7 is best known as the weakest of the championship-winning line-ups SKT has housed, but that was still not entirely known at the point they flew to Brazil for 2017's MSI. SKT's core of Faker, Bang and Wolf had won the previous two World Championships and the last MSI, but had seen Duke depart for China and a big salary after their Worlds run, mimicking MaRin - the very player he had replaced.

Replacing Duke was Huni, the famous Top laner of FNATIC during their two EU LCS title runs and top four finishes at both MSI and Worlds in S5. For S6, Huni had found impressive regular season success in IMT in the NA LCS, but had failed to ride top seeds to a single final that year. Many looked at Huni as a serious challenge for kkoma, SKT's strategic coach, as the Top laner was infamous for refusing to play tanks and wanting to push his lane aggressively, sometimes with off-meta carry picks.

With Blank having been the starter over bengi for most of the previous year but neither seemingly like reliable starting Junglers for 2017, the team had been able to secure the services of Peanut. The former ROX Tigers player had at times been considered the best Jungler in the world the previous year and had helped his Tigers squad to an LCK title, an LCK runners-up finish and a top four at Worlds. Putting Peanut with Faker seemed like a potential dream combination for many fans of the LCK, with one of the most aggressive and mechanically strong Junglers paired with the best solo carry League of Legends has ever seen.

Successfully navigating the challenges presented by bringing in two such different replacements, SKT had managed to finish in first place in the regular split of LCK, going 16:2 in series, and swept KT's super-team 3:0 in the final to win the fourth LCK title in five splits for this core. History would know this SKT as one destined for tough times right after this MSI, but until this point they were the defacto number one team in the world and favourite for the tournament.

China's WE, on the other hand, were a surprise to even represent their region at the tournament. WE had not been a relevant top international team since 2013 and the days of WeiXiao and Misaya, both long gone as active LPL players. This new look WE was based around Mid laner xiye and ADC Mystic's carry potential, with an honourable nod going to Jungler Condi. After establishing themselves as one of the top Chinese teams, WE had seen little resistance en route to the LPL title. Favourites RNG, who had super-star ADC Uzi in the botlane, fell in a sweep to Mystic's men in the final.

When the two first met at MSI, WE were already able to give SKT a challenge, fighting them all over the map and consistently getting momentary leads or keeping abreast in terms of kills. What they could not do, though, was win the key fights and prevent SKT from taking towers and exerting map pressure on them.

SKT took the first meeting and ran their score up to 8:1 in the group stage by the time the two met for their final round robin match. SKT's only loss had been to FW. WE were at 6:3, but had bled games to TSM and Gigabyte Marines as well as SKT.

WE again showed they were horny to fight early and the game looked back-and-forth with an ominous tone, as practically every kill had gone over to xiye's Lucian. With the strongest champion on the map on their side, WE were able to take control of the game and run up more kills and, crucially, this time be the ones in control of the minions and tower pressure.

SKT showed their mental strength to stall the game for a respectable amount of time, but could not stop WE getting the better of key picks and fights to put kills across the board and storm to a win at the end of the round robin phase. xiye's Lucian finished 8/1/4, but seven of those kills had come well before the game had been decided.

Despite their upset win and general solid form against SKT, WE would not be able to get past SKT and reach the final of MSI. SKT beat out G2 to take the title.


8. FW > SKT (MSI 2017)

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As previously mentioned, SKT's lone round robin loss prior to falling to WE in 2017 had been against the Flash Wolves. The Taiwanese squad were famous for their upsets of the top Koreans, including SKT specifically. The previous MSI had seen Maple's boys beat SKT in both games in the round robin and then at Worlds they had stolen one game. SKT would be champions of both tournaments, but their wounds suffered by the LMS representatives were notable moments of weakness.

Flash Wolves came into MSI 2017 again dominant champions of the LMS, boasting their third straight domestic championship. FW had won only two of six games prior to meeting SKT a second time in the tournament. That game had been low-scoring and saw SKT gradually build up small edges and then break the game open and end it when the right opportunity presented itself.

In their second meeting, it was a close affair until the mid game was taken over by Flash Wolves. They would not look back and kept finding picks on SKT players and taking over the map. The game ended up star Mid laner Maple 6/0/6 on Syndra and Jungler Karsa boasting 3/0/8 on Lee Sin. SKT managed two kills only, being shared by their botlane, as Faker's legendary Orianna proved unable to effect the game significantly.

Flash Wolves would split their last four games to finish 4:6 and thus be forced to rematch SKT in the semi-finals. That semi-final series was a 3:0 sweep by the Koreans and SKT again marched an MSI title.


7. FW > KZ (MSI 2018)

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KingZone came to MSI as the default number one team in League of Legends. Their core, now bolstered with the upgrade of Cuzz to star Jungler Peanut, had come off their second straight LCK title and this one had seen them even more dominant. In the regular portion of the split, KZ had lost only two series and both had extenuating circumstances surrounding them.

The first, to world champions KSV (formerly SSG), was with KZ's Top lane star Khan sitting out due to suspension. The second, against the lowly bbq Olivers, had Khan leave the series following the first game, where he has hyperventilating and considered unfit to play. In the play-offs, the team would be challenged by Afreeca Freecs in the final, but still overcame that test to win in four games.

Despite looking on course to become one of the best teams in LoL history, with contenders for the best player at every position, KingZone struggled even in the round robin phase of MSI 2018, managing to win only six out of 10 games played. By the Koreans first met Flash Wolves, KZ's only loss had been to FNATIC and they had won the other three games.

Flash Wolves came to MSI in weaker overall condition than some past years. While they had been even dominant domestically, their last international tournament had been Worlds and they had been unable to win more than a single game in their group there. With Jungle star Karsa accepting an offer to play in the LPL for RNG, Flash Wolves were not the same strong Jungle-Mid team they had been with Karsa and Maple's legendary partnership. An upgrade had occurred in the Top lane, though, with the famously weak MMD being replaced by carry Top Hanabi.

As ever, Flash Wolves' form against Korea's best proved an alternate world with its own rules and expectations. The game was a slow affair, with no kills at all for the first 22 minutes of play, and little meaningful action until Flash Wolves won a key team-fight near the dragon, going 4:0 in kills - three for Hanabi's Yasuo alone - and parlayed that outcome into an infernal dragon and the baron. From there on, Flash Wolves were the ones in control of the game and a nice team-fight hold at an inhibitor from KingZone and a couple of well executed barons were able to delay the inevitable but Flash Wolves did complete their upset.

The game looked to be a strong performance across the board, with new Jungler Moojin going 3/2/9 on Kha'Zix, Maple show-casing a supportive Galio game and the kills being piled onto Hanabi's 4/1/4 Yasuo and Betty's 6/1/8 Kog'Maw. The only KZ player to even reach two kills was Khan on Gnar. The best botlane in the world, as many called KZ's, had fallen to one from the LMS.

Flash Wolves were not merely Korean slayers at this MSI, running up a solid 7:3 overall record to finish tied for first place in the group. After losing the tie-breaker with RNG, Flash Wolves were drawn against the same Korean team they had been able to upset and this time KZ reset expectations and beat them in four games to reach the final. KZ would be upset by RNG in said final and mark only the second time in history Korea had failed to win the competition.


6. FNC > KZ (MSI 2018)

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While they would finish the round robin phase only 6:4 overall, poor for a Korean representative, KingZone's trouble began against Europe's FNATIC, not Taiwan's Flash Wolves. They played Rekkles and company in their third game, having won the previous two.

While FNATIC had been lacklustre in 2017, failing to win a split and narrowly even making it to the play-offs of Worlds, 2018 saw them upgrading the Support position with Hylissang, formerly of Unicorns of Love, replacing Jesiz. Another change had been the addition of Bwipo as substitute Top laner, eventually promoted to the starting line-up due to sOAZ's hand injury around the spring play-offs.

A year of competitive play for Caps and Broxah had made all the difference too. S7 FNATIC had been about Rekkles' hard carry performances and sOAZ's control of the game as a low econ Top. In S8, Caps was emerging as the best player in the West and Broxah looked much more potent as a Jungle force, not the same player who farmed behind winning lanes and then shied away from invades.

Bwipo had stunned many by replacing sOAZ, due to injury, late in the split only to show solid performances and allow FNATIC to win the European title even without the most decorated player in the region's history. Now the EU LCS rookie would make his international debut at a tournament of champions.

FNATIC had lost their first two games at MSI, to RNG and Flash Wolves, and knew that a loss to KingZone in their third would make qualifying for the play-offs highly tricky, with little-to-no room for error.

The game looked good for FNATIC early on, as they were able to win out in skirmishes with KingZone and show aggression around the map. The key moment came around 19 minutes, when a bit skirmish in the Jungle, featuring most of FNATIC, saw Europe's finest clean up and from that lead the game was going nowhere but their pocket. Caps finished 6/1/8 on Corki, Bwipo 5/2/8 on Orrn and Rekkles 4/1/5 on Tristana to make for a comprehensive victory. KingZone's Bdd, two time reigning LCK MVP, had been unable to do much on Sion in the Mid lane.

FNATIC managed to turn their form around, eventually finishing 4:6 and earning a tie-breaker against Team Liquid. After winning the tie-breaker, they fell to China's RNG, eventual champions of the tournament, in a 3:0 sweep in the semi-finals.


5. FW > SKT I (MSI 2016)

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The 2016 Flash Wolves came to MSI at the peak of their powers. The previous year, they had announced themselves as a quality international side by defeating KOO Tigers and topping their Worlds group, all en route to a close quarter-finals defeat at the hands of xPeke and sOAZ's OG. Winning LMS allowed FW to step out of the shadow of ahq and qualify for their first MSI.

The tournament began with FW upsetting G2 only to lose to CLG right after. Beating Supermassive meant little and so FW came to SKT up 2:1 in games. SKT themselves had just lost their first game, to Mata's RNG - referenced earlier.

Flash Wolves looked nothing like the underdogs against the tournament favourites in this meeting. They managed to keep ahead repeatedly early, created picks and catches when they wanted to around the Mid game and were not just leading in kills and gold, but exerted significant objective control over their Korean foes. The game finished with SKT having taken a single tower and seeing FW with six dragons and a multiple barons. Maple's 5/1/6 Ryze and NL's 4/1/4 Ezreal were the heroes.


4. FW > SKT II (MSI 2016)

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While Flash Wolves' first win over SKT at MSI was a spectacular steam-rolling, their second arguably carries even more weight. When SKT line-ups did lose they were famed for their ability to rebound and beat the very same opponent. To beat SKT a second time and two days later, giving them time to reflect upon their initial loss, is the stuff of legend.

Since their win over SKT, FW had lost to RNG, but still sat a solid 3:2 overall. Now they would again face off against the best team in the world.

This time around, SKT seemed to be driving the game, down in kills but with three dragons and some towers already taken. A key moment was a baron around 28 minutes which was stolen by Karsa, legitimately just walking up and smiting it without even his team's support in any kind of full fight.

From there all the fights went in the favour of FW. The biggest difference was in the jungle, where Karsa's 5/1/6 Elise heavily outperformed Blank's 1/5/2 Graves. Faker was conspicuously quiet on Ekko, in contrast to Maple's 4/0/7 Azir showing. SKT finished the game with only three kills.

FW had completed their round robin sweep of SKT and would go to the play-offs as the third seed seed. They lost there to CLG in a competitive four game series.


3. CLG > SKT (MSI 2016)

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While SKT were losing all of their games to Maple and the rest of the LMS's finest, there were more losses and upsets suffered at the 2016 edition of the MSI. Perhaps the most shocking, both specifically and contextually, was their loss to North America's CLG. Not only had North American teams very rarely ever beaten Korean teams, with TSM famously having a streak of many years without a win, but CLG been surprise representatives at MSI and looked far from powerful on an individual basis.

S6 Spring of the NA LCS had been all about Huni and ReignOver's IMT dominating the regular split and whether they could be stopped or not. TSM's super-team of Bjergsen, Doublelift and YellOwStaR would be the squad who took care of IMT, only to lose themselves in a tight five game series to underdogs CLG in the final. CLG were the reigning LCS champions from the past year, but had lost star ADC Doublelift and solid Mid laner Pobelter. Beating a TL squad that featured a number of rookies 3:2 and then stealing the LCS crown from a dysfunctional TSM super-team also 3:2 did not inspire sentiments that CLG would be strong in China for MSI.

Unlike IMT and TSM, CLG also lacked for world class level individual players. Aphromoo was one of the strongest Western Supports and shot-callers, but elsewhere on the map the team had made their name from macro understanding and map play, not power individual LoL. Darshan was one of the better Western Top laners but no international star. Huhi was considered a potential liability in Mid lane, but had pioneered a bizarre style of Support-Mid play, where he seemed to serve as a distraction for CLG's ADC and play off calls from Aprohomoo. At ADC, previously the best position on the map for the team, they were fielding rookie Stixxay, who did not bring with him the same individual skill level of the outgoing Doublelift.

How was this team of individual players who wouldn't even be in contention for the best in their region, collectively, beat out some of the best players in the entire world on SKT?

At around the 30 minute mark of the game, no such answer had been proffered by the CLG side. SKT were fully in charge of the match and Faker's legendary LeBlanc sat at 5/1/2 on the scoreboard. With CLG having been good domestically at splitting the map and being the smart team now they would have to fight their way out via team-fights against the best team in League of Legends. Amazingly, the NA side would do just that.

Going head-to-head with SKT in full 5v5 fights, CLG were again and again able to turn unlikely fights to their favour. From this, they were able to take the barons needed to tip the balance of the game back over to their side. As SKT saw their nexus blown up and Faker's 10/3/5 LeBlanc performance wasted, one can only imagine how puzzled the Korean side must have been at how the last 13 minutes of the game had played out.

The hero for CLG was Stixxy, who posted a 10/4/4 scoreline on Lucian and was a key carry in the many team-fights and skirmishes which decided the game. North America had scored one of its best ever upset wins over a Korean team thanks to a rookie ADC.

SKT went on to beat CLG in their second meeting, but both teams would make the final. In said final, CLG had moments where they looked to have chances, but SKT were able to win three straight games and the title nonetheless.


2. EDG 3:2 SKT (MSI 2015)

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SKT entered the first MSI final with expectations of glory. Not only had South Korea been the dominant force in LoL for well over the last two years, winning both Worlds and All-Star 2014 Paris, but SKT had reformulated their squad to put their slump of 2014 far behind them. Only Faker and bengi remained from that line-up and the team had even been willing to experiment with substitutions of those players, bringing in Easyhoon and T0M respectively. The T0M experiment had ended back in Korea, with bengi being utilised as the starter for all of MSI, but Faker continued to share his playing time with Easyhoon.

At this time, Azir had been released and was considered one of the strongest champions in the game. While Faker would later become a strong player on the champion, it was former SKT S Mid laner Easyhoon who earned a starting spot thanks to his strength on this champion and his general aptitude for the Mid lane meta at the time, including Cassiopeia, Xerath and Lulu.

When SKT had reached the LCK final, they chose not to start Faker at all, as Easyhoon was able to perform in all three games against GE Tigers and help SKT to the crown. Faker had showcased a monster LeBlanc game against CJ Entus in the previous round, but if a team could not beat Easyhoon then they didn't get to face "the final boss" of SKT in Faker.

SKT were dominant in the group stage of the tournament. Whether it was Faker or Easyhoon playing, they lost zero games. The semi-finals were another matter entirely, as SKT were shocked to find themselves played to five games by Europe's FNATIC. This was the first split for Huni and Febiven in this new look FNATIC and they had barely won the EU LCS, after trailing SK Gaming for most of the split.

Even as unexpected as being pushed to a fifth game was, SKT delivered such a dominant fifth game that faith in their form at the tournament was immediately reinstated. FNATIC Mid laner Febiven had found some success and notable highlight moments against Faker, though, so SKT came to the conclusion that Easyhoon, who had not played against FNATIC, should start against EDG in the final. After all, his Vlad had gone 5/0/5 in their lone round robin meeting.

EDG were a team the likes of which nobody had seen before. While inSec and Zero had played as Koreans on a top Chinese team and helped them to the finals of S4 Worlds, those two players were not considered top names at the point of recruitment to that team and had largely made such an epic run off the back of miracle form, particularly from monster ADC Uzi. This was famously illustrated by the language difficulties of the team, with them legitimately utilising pings on the map to setup coordinated movements.

Now, in 2015, the Korean exodus had taken place and EDG, China's best team prior to Worlds, had upgraded by buying Deft from Samsung Blue and PawN from Samsung White. With Deft being a scarily similar player to NaMei, the MVP level Chinese ADC he had replaced, EDG had very much built their newest iteration around their Korean imports, who were considered some of the best players in the world.

EDG had narrowly won the LPL Spring final against LGD, a near super-team of talents, and came to MSI as a Chinese squad but powered by strong Korean individual stars.

The final looked to be going to plan as SKT opened with a strong performance and Easyhoon's 9/0/8 Cassio seemed more than up to the task of battling PawN, famously still remembered narratively as Kryptonite for Faker. The next two games had strike back hard and with the aforementioned PawN going off big time. On the reverse match-up of G1's Orianna vs. Cassio, PawN posted 9/5/13. On Azir against Lulu, the ex-Samsung man went 10/0/8 and Easyhoon did not manage a single kill in that game.

Easyhoon was substituted out of the final, with SKT facing elimination and needing to win out the potential remaining two games of the series. Faker's game four is often forgotten, due to being overshadowed by the events and outcome of the last game, but his Kassadin went 6/0/12 and SKT stormed to a deciding game. Against FNATIC, the decider had been a powerhouse display of strength. This time around, the deciding game would betray SKT in memorable fashion.

Faker was to that point undefeated on the champion LeBlanc and it sat as one of this signature champions. Despite EDG baiting it out, Faker elected to put his faith in the champion he had always been money in the bank on for the decisive game of the series. Locking it in second rotation, Faker has made his statement and EDG would come back with their own. They drafted Morgana for PawN, a highly unusual Mid lane pick and one focused on neutralising Faker. With EDG taking Evelynn for ClearLove in the Jungle and having Alistar for Meiko at Support, their composition would be a tightrope Faker would need to daintily navigate.

Despite dominating the game early as an individual, Faker found himself the lone carry threat on his team and EDG with kills feed across the board. The nightmare anti-Faker-LeBlanc comp was online and even the game's greatest ever player could not overcome it on this occasion. EDG took the fifth game and the MSI crown, taking a notable international title from not just Korea but Faker and SK Telecom, the most successful player and organisation in history to that point.


1. RNG 3:1 KZ (MSI 2018)

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Earlier events of this MSI have been outlined and the stories of the teams told, so we can focus solely upon the final of MSI 2018 now. KZ had already stumbled on a few occasions prior to the final, notably losing to FNATIC; RNG and three times to Flash Wolves, and thus were perhaps no longer the favourites by the final arrived. RNG had gone 7:3 in round robin and swept FNATIC 3:0 in the semi-finals. All the same, Korean teams in the past had overcome early losses at international competition to still look at their peaks by the play-offs rolled around.

KingZone were a team with strength everywhere on the map. Bdd had been the MVP of the LCK twice in a row and was arguably the best Mid laner in the world. Peanut was back to his best, playing around winning lanes and dominating on mechanical champions. Khan was one of the hottest players in the world, given resources unlike any other Top laner and using them to snowball many a game and smash many Top lane opponents. In the botlane, PraY and GorillA, formerly of ROX Tigers, again ensured their Top lane star could carry games by virtue of seeming impossible to seriously put behind in lane and then playing out the map and team-fights beautifully once the laning phase had ended.

None of that would matter, though, as little did the world know but RNG was the best team in the server and the world. Khan was a non-factor entirely across the series, effectively handled by LetMe's pressure-absorb style and RNG's focus upon him. Xiaohu kept apace with the LCK MVP and that left the PraYrilla botlane to battle Uzi. The best player never to win Worlds had a series to remember as he went a combined 24/5/10 over the four games, powering RNG to a 3:1 series win and China its second MSI title in four years. In RNG's three wins, Uzi secured seven kills each time out, while PraY could put up only five kills total over those three games.

It may not have been as much of an upset or surprise as many of the other performances on this list, but to beat the number one Korean team, typically considered the defacto world's best at this point in the LoL circuit, and in only four games of an international final and straight up, with no Korean players on RNG or substitutions of the opponents' best player - as was notable in 2015 - this victory stands as China's finest moment in League of Legends history and effectively killed the KingZone dynasty, as they would not even qualify for Worlds in the months following this loss.