In the moments immediately before the teams took the stage for their introductions on the first day of the 2016 League of Legends World Championships, the theatre was electric. Any time Cloud9 was mentioned in passing, the room sparked to life, sporadically cheering every time a player from North America’s only remaining team appeared on screen. At first these died down quickly, but each grew stronger and more sustained than the last. The pressure in the room built with these muttered chants, and whispered cheers until the moment Phreak mentioned North America, and suddenly the room erupted into a kaleidoscope of excited screams, and full voiced chants of “Cloud9” and “USA.”
For Samsung, it’s almost impossible to talk about this series without the weight of expectations behind it. Since the organization won Worlds back in 2014, it has gained an almost mythic status. In that World Championships two years ago, SamsungWhite flew through every opponent with some of the best team play in the history of competitive League of Legends. Then they won Worlds and were suddenly gone. The team that had been lightyears ahead of the rest of the game just stopped existing, retiring – or splitting up more specifically – at the absolute apex of their strength.
As Samsung Galaxy took the stage for their first playoffs series as an organization since that Championship, it was clear that the weight of that previous team would fall – however unfairly – onto the shoulders of this current roster. A young group that has grown together, much like that Samsung White roster, and shaped into the team we saw dominate during Group Stages.
But while Samsung had the weight of a legacy, it was clear that Cloud9 had the weight of a country. The earliest chants were sporadic and uncoordinated, a cacophony of sound thrown in every direction at once. But as it built it also began to unify, finally falling into its place as a long and seemingly unanimous call of “USA, USA, USA.”
This wasn’t surprising, these kinds of chants could be heard throughout the group stages, and were a staple of North American games. The surprising thing however, were the boos directed at Samsung Galaxy when they took the stage.
It isn’t that these boos themselves were necessarily bad. In fact, they come as an almost natural evolution to the game, as cheering becomes more prevalent in League of Legends as a whole. It’s a part of a competitive culture that often villainizes the opposition. But it was also the first time that booing had come out in force at such a large Riot event. It was a jarring moment that underlined the deeply competitive side of the World Championships that is often forgotten, amid its power as an exciting and unifying event for the League of Legends community.
While these opening moments were marked with huge reactions from the crowd of the sold out Chicago Theatre, these were also where most of their energy lived and died. As the games started, and Samsung pulled out to a quick and decisive lead – with Crown turning around a 3 man gank and getting a kill out of it – the crowd began to die down. As the first game came to an end, the crowd seemed to rest themselves into an almost simmering silence that threatened to boil over when C9 took an early lead in the second game. But after a fight at Baron in which Smoothie was the only member of Cloud9 to escape alive, it became clear that the embers of their excitement were not likely to catch fire. And that their team was not likely to win.
Cloud9 spent much of the week leading up to these games downplaying their role as North America’s saviors. But, no matter how much they may say they don’t feel that way, or they may praise the play of other NA teams, the truth is that Cloud9 was North America’s last remaining team in the tournament and Samsung were the barrier preventing C9 from advancing, and the fans knew it. And if there is one thing you can count on at this worlds, it’s that if the fans feel something the players are damn sure going to hear it.
And Samsung did hear it in those opening few minutes during their introduction. In an interview after the series we asked CoreJJ what the fan reactions, the boos in particular, meant to him and his team. He explained, that he was surprised by them, but that they provided them with extra motivation, and made them excited to play well. But there was another moment that seemed to stand out more to him that came just after the series.
After their win, Samsung came out onto the second floor of the lobby and waved to the North American fans as they left the building. As the fans looked up and saw the victorious team – that knocked out North America’s last chance at the 2016 World Championships – they were greeted with unanimous cheers. In that moment, after all the competition and boos, Worlds stopped being about the competition and turned back into a celebration of League of Legends, and in this case a team that has played the game so well during this tournament so far.
During the group stage of the tournament, Samsung Galaxy players were asked what it meant to them that some fans, both Korean and foreign, had said KT Rolster – the team they beat out in the final of the Korean Qualifier - deserved to be at worlds more than them. The team replied that it meant they owed a debt to the KT Rolster fans to at least make the semi-finals. As a sort of proof that they deserved to be here and that they are a team worthy of KT fan’s admiration.
On Thursday night, with the final few stragglers of the North American fans being ushered out the now almost empty lobby, we asked CoreJJ what it felt like to be greeted with cheers after the series, from the same fans that booed them only a few hours earlier. His reply echoed that of the KT Rolster question, with him saying that knocking out NA’s last team carried with it a responsibility of not disappointing the North American fans, fulfilling their expectations and carrying their disappointment. And that they would repay the fans by playing their best in the rounds to come.
When the 2014 Samsung Galaxy White roster disbanded and a new fresh faced group of players were brought in to take over the Samsung Galaxy mantle it seemed almost impossible that anyone could replace the sheer talent of that Championship team. But it’s clear that 2016’s Samsung Galaxy thrives on that challenge. When they got to the Korean Qualifiers it was only their organization’s legacy that they were burdened by. Before Group Stages they vowed to make up for the disappointment of KT Rolster fans everywhere. And now, headed into the Semi-Finals they carry the hopes and dreams of North America with them. If they reach the finals they’ll end up shouldering the weight of all three major league continents.
But that’s what Worlds is about for Samsung Galaxy. The burden of expectations for them isn’t an albatross around their neck, it’s motivation. It’s inspiration they readily accept. And now, three weeks into the tournament it’s become easy for the rest of the world to see why they invite these expectations on themselves: because they are more than strong enough to live up to them.