Two geniuses appeared in South Korea's LoL Champions in the spring of 2013. From their rookie seasons together, their careers have been tied together. From the two forging their own dynasties in their homeland, to the present where one has stayed loyal to the only team he's ever known and the other has become a leader in Korea's rival region of China.
In the chilly spring of 2016 in Poland, their paths have crossed again.
Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok
Faker is a once-in-a-generation talent. He only started playing the game seriously due to queue times forcing him to play against higher-caliber players. His skill became well-known across the online servers during his time as an amateur, and his first professional game was (and still is) the most anticipated debut in the game's history.
From the beginning, everyone expected greatness from the teenager known as Faker.
In April it will be three years since his pro-gaming debut, and he did not disappoint on those expectations -- he's the undisputed greatest to ever touch League of Legends. Faker has four domestic titles, two Summoner's Cups and a Worlds MVP -- the last of which came just a few short months after he entered the scene.
Every game has at least one prodigy who entered the professional ranks with all of the expectations in the world and then exceeded them. Basketball has LeBron James. Baseball has Mike Trout. For League of Legends, it's Lee Sang-hyeok.
Cho "Mata" Se-hyeong
If there was anyone deserving of the title 'maestro' in League, it would be Mata. While Faker's reputation casts him as a natural, almost instinctive genius, Mata is an intellectual technician. The two began their careers at the same time, in the spring of 2013, and it was a rookie with the ID "Mata" who walked away as a champion in his first season -- not Faker.
Cho Se-hyeong's genius can be found in his mastery of in-game leadership. As the leader of the "Samsung Dynasty" in 2013 and 2014, he never failed to finish below third place in Korea's Champions league. When it comes to conducting a field of soldiers on the battlefield and achieving total victory, there might not be anyone better than the 2014 world champion and Worlds MVP.
As his current teammate Cheng "Wuxx" Wang summarized him best in a recent interview, "It feels as though Mata created this game."
Since their constant battles of 2013 and 2014, Faker and Mata have gone down two divergent paths. After beating Faker's SK Telecom T1 and winning a Summoner's Cup of his own with Samsung White in 2014, Mata and the rest of his Samsung teammates (including their sister team) decided to move to China's LPL for better wages. It was widely known that Samsung couldn't pay the top team in the world enough money to stick around in South Korea, and Mata decided to embark on a new journey in 2015 -- to the region he conquered months earlier at the World Championships.
Faker, who also received various offers from Chinese teams, stayed with the better-paying SK Telecom T1 as the face of the franchise. Failing to make the 2014 Worlds drove the prodigious mid laner to train even harder during the offseason -- making him put everything he had into getting back to the throne he wasn't able to defend.
While 2014 was a struggle for Faker, the same and worse could be said for Mata in 2015. While Faker returned to the forefront of the international scene with his revamped, macro-intensive SK Telecom T1, Mata had to adjust to life in China. Due to the rules of domestic teams needing to field at least three players from that region, Mata was only able to play with one of his former Samsung teammates, Choi "DanDy" In-kyu, on Vici Gaming.
VG was a far cry from Mata's starting five on Samsung White, and he was forced to take on a mentor role for a team that was trying to incorporate newer talent with veterans like Dandy and Li "Vasilii" Wei-Jun. The end result was a precarious situation in which a frustrated Mata lashed out at his teammates, and he was even fined following a tournament game in which he was cited for his non-professional behavior in-game.
For Mata, his frustration boiled down to simply not having a good team. It was the fact that regardless of how hard he tried, the culture in China was radically different from the one he'd known in South Korea. There, he would wake up at a specific time, get on his computer with the rest of his teammates, and get to work diligently through scrimmages, structured practice and solo queue. The Chinese scene was more lax -- waking up late for practice, taking things less seriously and failing to have the meticulous work ethic that the Koreans prided themselves on.
While Mata was left on the sideline at the end of the 2015 season, with VG failing to make World Championships, Faker was on his way to his second world championship in three seasons with SK Telecom T1. The homegrown wunderkind stayed loyal to his original team and led a reconstructed T1 squad to a one-sided Summoner's Cup victory. Mata, like Faker the year before, had to watch from home as his rival lifted the grandest prize in League up into the air, crystalizing his reputation as the one true genius of the game.
Three years into their careers, and as veterans of the game, one thing hasn't changed between the two Korean legends since their rookie debuts in the spring of 2013. It doesn't matter if they play in different leagues, and it wouldn't make a difference even if they played on different continents.
When one of them pulls ahead of the other, it isn't long before the front-runner feels the eyes of his rival right behind him.
The IEM World Championships in Katowice have brought Faker and Mata back together, after they failed to meet last year. Faker, amid rumors wondering if he'd re-sign with T1 following their second world title, quickly signaled his return to the team for another year -- to continue his legacy as the crown jewel of SK Telecom. Mata took longer to decide where he wanted to play in 2016, with some of the speculation pointing towards a possible return to South Korea, where he might sign with the money-infused Longzhu Gaming. In the end, to the surprise of some, he stayed in the country where he had difficulties the previous season, electing to sign with Royal Never Give Up.
SK Telecom T1 has had a middling regular season leading into the IEM World Championships, with a 5-4 record in the difficult LCK. The clean execution they were known for in 2015 has gone by the wayside, with a starting roster change in the top lane. Faker is still the best player in the league, outputting the most damage out of all players in the competition. South Korea has become a tougher and deeper collection of teams over the offseason, and T1 isn't having the same leisurely stroll they enjoyed last summer split.
Mata, as their back-and-forth rivalry would dictate, has had a renaissance since joining RNG. He's partnered up with his former top laner from Samsung White, Jang "Looper" Hyeong-seok, and helped Looper return to being one of the best players at his position in the LPL. Under Mata's clear shot-calling, Looper's teleport plays and all-around utility have been on point through the first half of the regular season. RNG also have a good mixture of players who are both on the rise and have the experience of playing in the LPL from the previous year.
The former maestro of the Samsung White empire has taken up a new conducting role with the organization he defeated to win the Summoner's Cup in 2014. The team's bold Baron calls and early-game dominance have led them to one of the top spots in the league. They were even able to sweep their main rivals, the Qiao Gu Reapers, recently -- a team that joined them in Katowice in their own attempt to hoist international hardware.
RNG's success continued in their opening round match at IEM. They began their run with a win over a struggling Origen, the European squad, before turning their sights on the upstart ESC EVER -- a minor league team from Korea. Although their macro play left a lot to be desired in the opening minutes, in terms of tower objective control and reacting to a Western-style lane swap, the team's overall talent and Mata's midgame shot-calling were enough to strong-arm their way to a 2-0 record.
Right now Royal Never Give Up is what could be considered the "traditional" Chinese team. They are fantastic mechanically and know how to win in a breakneck pace, and yet they are lagging behind when it comes to the bigger picture of playing the map. With Mata now at the helm, they've been slowly improving every week, and the team has noted their practice sessions have become more beneficial since the former Worlds MVP support joined the team.
With the likes of jungler Liu "MLXG" Shi-yu also in the fold, the 10-man RNG roster has multiple weapons which, if used correctly, can create a beautiful -- and deadly -- symphony in the hands of Mata.
Faker didn't have to face the prospect of an entirely new team this split, but he's been playing in a different role. Sure, he still plays assassins and attack-heavy champions, but his position this spring has been a lot more about him trying to get his AD carry teammate, Bae "Bang" Jun-sik, ahead on champions like Lulu. We saw both sides of Faker in SKT's sweep of their tournament bracket, as he played a superb Lulu game in their set against Counter Logic Gaming, and then played his signature assassin LeBlanc in a flashy performance against the QG Reapers.
The new SK Telecom T1 is equally as talented as their 2015 version, and might be even better mechanically if their rookie jungler Kang "Blank" Sun-gu can transition properly into the world of professionals from the amateur scene. Even when SKT T1 might not have been the clear pound-for-pound favorite in firepower last season, they still won games through their beautiful shot-calling -- a style that somewhat mirrored Mata's own work with Samsung White in 2014.
The SKT T1 of 2015 was smooth, and punished every little mistake their enemy made. If the opponent was up in the late-game and made one wrong teleport play or overextension, the game was over -- T1 would capitalize on the blunder, secure Baron Nashor (if was up) and push to a rapid come-from-behind victory.
Currently, SKT T1 is still trying to find its bearings. The team's former captain, Jang "MaRin" Gyeong-Hwan, left for China in the offseason and signed with LGD Gaming. He was replaced by spring 2015 regular season MVP Lee "Duke" Ho-Seong in the top lane. The move was considered a possible upgrade in the raw skill department, but MaRin was a key part of T1's shot-calling and masterful map movement -- and Duke is notorious for being a stoic-type during games.
The good news for T1 is that they still have six months to go until Worlds qualification becomes an issue, and they've been steadily improving on their teamfighting and communication -- just like RNG. They might not be the same team they were last year, when it comes to macro play and map movement, but that's okay.
2016 doesn't need to be exactly like the 2015 version, just like the 2015 team didn't have to play the same style as the 2013 Summoner's Cup winning team.
Lifting the Cup in October is all Faker cares about -- but he's not alone in that ambition.