Going into the League of Legends World Championship finals, it's very easy to call SK Telecom T1 the overwhelming favorite. The people who do will cite any and all of SKT’s numerous advantages. They are older and more experienced. They have the best player in the world in mid laner Sang-hyeok “Faker” Lee and one of the best AD Carries, in Jun-sik “Bang” Bae. Their shotcalling is some of the best in the world and their coach is the smartest and most successful in the game's history.
And what makes this series interesting is that all of those things are completely true. The only problem is, whatever those add up to, we have no idea if it's greater or less than Samsung.
Samsung is the greatest unknown quantity in World Championship history. They are young, untested, unproven and thus far at Worlds, completely unchallenged by any of the talented teams they have come up against. Coming into the tournament, their primary story line was a question of whether or not they deserved their spot at the tournament.
For many they have answered that question, but I don’t think the question itself is quite right. To question their presence at the tournament is to deny the incredible progress the team has made and the fantastic performance they put on against a strong KT Rolster in the LCK regional qualifier.
Samsung have been underestimated at every stage in the tournament so far. In groups, some predicted they wouldn't make it out. In quarters and semis, people expected Cloud9 and H2K to at least compete and maybe take a game off their Korean opponents. But no one has come close.
Even their one loss against Team SoloMid has proven to be a fluke more than anything else. In that game, the last one of the tournament that Samsung started Ji-min “Wraith” Kwon at support over Yong-in “CoreJJ” Jo, TSM took over early and seemed to the control flow. Since then, they have beaten a TSM team that attempted the same strategy again and an H2K team built exclusively for the early game. And neither were close. We even saw H2K with the incredibly rare Phantom Early Game, wherein they racked up kill after kill but could still never take the gold lead away from Samsung. It was mesmerizing.
In the past, we have seen teams challenged in the Knockout Stage of the tournament. And teams have legitimately tried to challenge Samsung. H2K for everything that happened in those semifinal losses was a good team that was playing very well. But they were still completely outmatched. The last time we saw Samsung tested was against KT Rolster, and I'm not sure any of the strategies that team used to take their series to 3-2 are still going to work. That Samsung Galaxy team was good, this one is better.
Leading up to the game there will be a lot of talk about coaches. But not the right talk. The conversation will be about Jung-gyun “kkOma” Kim and how amazing he has been for this team over the last three years. And that’s true, but it isn't the big story here. The real story here is Samsung coach Woobum "Edgar" Choi. Why? Because Edgar has secretly driven this tournament, and has a team behind him that seems able to play almost anything.
The exact origins of the Miss Fortune support are hard to pin down, but what we do know is that ROX Tigers and Samsung Galaxy scrimmaged together before ROX series against SK Telecom. We also know that back in week 2, Samsung was the first team to have Zyra banned against them.
It isn’t easy to say whether or not these picks could have originated with Samsung Galaxy, but given their ability to play them, and every other champion effectively before any given series, it is at least easy to say they come prepared. Put this alongside Crown’s presence as one of the most frightening player in the world on a champion (Viktor) with a 36% presence at the tournament, and you can see how Edgar may have the advantage going into picks and bans.
And that advantage is going to be important. After all, through the 12 games they have played at Worlds so far, it’s difficult to criticize any of Samsung Galaxy’s Pick and Ban phases. SK Telecom on the other hand had glaring issues in their series against ROX Tigers. The issues against Miss Fortune have been talked about to death, but the real issue is with the Nidalee in the final game, a pick that Kkoma allegedly forgot to ban, forcing Bengi onto a champion he had never played in a competitive setting.
I know it sounds like a strange criticism considering that Seong-ung “Bengi” Bae played so well on the champion, but at the end of the day, a mistake is a mistake and throwing your jungler onto a champion they have never played in a competitive game and haven’t really practiced is most certainly a mistake. It could certainly be that there isn’t a team in the tournament that could punish an error like that, but based on what we have seen so far, Samsung should be more than capable of pouncing on the slightest mistake by kkOma.
Truth be told, the roles match ups in the game appear as even as any at Worlds. Before the Semi-Finals it would have been easy to think that Seong-jin “CuVee” Lee would have a huge advantage over Ho-Seong “Duke” Lee, but after watching Duke beat ROX Tiger’s toplaner Kyung-ho “Smeb” Song in four out of five games, that’s a little more complicated. That being said, both laners are unlikely to get a lot of help from their junglers in this lane and in a straight 1v1, I still think the match up leans slightly towards CuVee.
Unsurprisingly the jungle is going to be the biggest difference between the two teams. Against ROX Tigers, it was experience that beat out youth in the jungle match up with SK Telecom’s Bengi coming out on top of ROX’s 18-year-old jungler Wang-ho “Peanut” Yoon. Against Samsung Galaxy, however, that matchup is not likely to be so clear cut. Ambition has been fantastic this tournament, a culmination of a career that dates all the way back to 2011.
The other notable factor about this match up is that it is starting to seem like a liability to have two separate junglers — Bengi and Sun-gu “Blank” Kang — on SK Telecom. The line between giving one enough time to warm up and not sacrificing two games to a jungler who is doing poorly is incredibly fine, and in the finals it could be enough to throw the match out of balance for SK Telecom.
Mid lane is going to be written off before the series starts with the idea that Faker will simply roll over Min-Ho “Crown” Lee with no issues. Part of the reason for this is that Crown has not received nearly the credit he deserves for his hand in Samsung’s success. He has been fantastic thus far, and even has a slight edge over Faker in terms of champion pool — the Viktor pick has been flawless for him while Faker hasn’t quite found a way to make it work quite as well at Worlds.
With all that being said, it’s likely that this is going to be handled mostly by the junglers. If jungle doesn’t factor into the match at all, it’s likely to involve Faker pushing the wave but having his roams shut down by Ambition, while Crown keeps up a strong and constant farm game on his own tower.
The lane that will likely be the most exciting early on is the bottom lane. The early game here is going to determine which team is able to move into the mid game with a lead. SK Telecom’s bottom lane of Bang and Jae-wan “Wolf” Lee have already proven that they are more than a little susceptible to early game pressure, as well as standard 2v2 aggression, something Samsung’s bottom lane — along with Ambition — should be more than happy to deliver. But Bengi and Blank will be well aware of this possibility, so expect lots of counter ganks and big fights in the bottom lane in a quest for both First blood on towers, as well as dragon control.
The lane match ups may not look like much based on those descriptions above, and that’s partially because there isn’t much to them. Both of these teams have been fantastic at this tournament so far, and they have done it in fairly similar ways. That means this is going to come down to tactics and execution. If the series is going to be close, it should be apparent within the first 25 minutes of game one. Both teams will have strong game plans with counter movements in mind, and a focus on map control. If, however, the series is going to be one sided, however, it will be because one team came in with a significantly better game plan.
SK Telecom is going to come into this game prepared and ready to win. It’s impossible to ignore the team’s history of winning tournaments. But Samsung Galaxy has spent an entire tournament being counted out and underestimated. Their creativity of picks and strategies as well as their crystal clean execution are likely to be a bigger challenge for SKT than most people think, and maybe even enough to beat the two time World Champions.