The League of Legends World Championship [official site finals take place later today. It’s a South Korean bust-up which will see either SK Telecom T1 or the KOO Tigers walk away with $1m, an enormous piece of silverware, and the title “Best in the world”. I’ll be popping along to the arena to watch, interview people, and explain my theories about the relevance of Were-bears to Riot’s merchandising strategy a bit later but before I do, here’s the story so far:
If you’re looking for the topline news here it’s that if SKT win they become the first organisation to hoist the Summoner’s Cup a second time. If they can score a 3-0 win in the best-of-five set then they will have done so undefeated in the entire tournament.
If KOO Tigers win it will be the story of an underdog team toppling one at the top of their game. Well, underdog in the context of this particular League of Legends tournament, with a previous international stage and domestic record that encouraged predictions against them at every stage of the knockout matches and with question marks over their funding due to a change in fortunes of their sponsor. You could probably make rather a satisfying teen movie out of a victory for KOO.
The Tigers comprise a number of pro players who didn’t end up on the starting lineup when Korean league changes meant organisations could only field one team. They’re not bad players by any stretch, but they weren’t the first choice when those teams were collapsed into single entities.
The newly formed team turned in a strong performance in early spring, but their dominant streak came to an ignominious end at IEM Katowice at the hands of Team WE. Returning to the Korean league after that competition they still managed to finish the season top but IEM had punctured that bubble of “ooh, what a long winning streak”. The season was capped by not one but two losses to SKT – one in regular season play and the other in the spring playoffs.
Summer was another mixed bag with the Tigers ultimately finishing third at the playoffs – behind KT and SKT. At this point I will note that KOO took on KT in the quarter-finals and were victorious. If nothing else, that win is a handy demonstration of the pitfalls of using previous performance to make predictions!
So they go into this final with the clear ability to learn and adapt. They have one of the best top laners in the world in Smeb, so the fight against SKT’s monster, MaRin, could be an interesting one. We also know they’re capable of switching up their strategies and, although they admitted in a press conference on media day (yes, there’s a media day for Worlds) that they had been forced to reveal more of those strategies than they would have liked thanks to facing down strong teams, there are apparently more secrets still in their arsenal.
So yes, they go into this fight as underdogs, but not toothless ones.
On the SKT side…. It’s so tempting to just go with “well, they’re SKT”. They have a formidably talented roster, not one but two fantastic mid-laners because they’ve worked out how to use the substitution system without disrupting the synergy of their team, a strong top lane, a jungler who supports the plays the team want to make, and a capable bottom lane pairing who can get on with making their carry player threatening.
I saw them fallible at the Mid-Season Invitational earlier this year, stretched by Fnatic in a five game semi-final series and eventually being forced to settle for second place after Edward Gaming won the final match-up. Thing is, they then returned to Korea for an almost-undefeated domestic season and at Worlds it’s only really felt like they broke a sweat in that first game against Origen in the semi-finals (before Origen crumpled). To give you a bit more of an understanding of how strong they’re looking, that Origen series was the first time SKT had lost any tier 2 turrets at Worlds. The point I’m making with that is that not only were other teams not winning against them, they weren’t making any significant progress towards SKT’s base.
SKT also have the legend factor, aided by this “undefeated” tag. It can make other teams nervous when facing them, distorting their play in weird ways. I think I’ve spoken about it on this site before – how Faker’s presence in-game particularly can mess with the focus of the opponents and once they start making mistakes or shift their attention away from the other lanes SKT can punish that. At the press conference SKT’s coach, kkOma pointed out that KOO are weak in their early laning phase so SKT would be trying to take advantage of that and try to snowball a lead.
[As an aside: At the same press conference there was also a question about what the teams would do as a tribute to their fans if they won. KOO’s mid laner KurO suggested a fan meet. Faker, after pointing out that the win itself would be a good gift, promised to eat a piece of broccoli if his team won to pay homage to his current fluffy hairstyle, patting his bouffant bonce as the translator delivered the line.]
SKT are not infallible and they’re not immortal but they are bloody terrifying. Whether KOO have what it takes to disrupt their winning streak is the question.
The opening ceremony starts at 12pm CET so that’s 11am GMT. You can watch it here